Pre-Trail Fails and Other Tales
I caught my bus at 11:45 Sunday night from Chicago to start the 13 hour ride to Atlanta.
Uh, yeah. That didn’t happen.
I popped some sleeping pills as soon as the bus left Chicago to try and catch some Zzzz’s. At 3 am, I heard a loud bang, alarms going off and the bus stopped on the side of the road. And it stayed there. And we waited.
“Okay, guys we’re having some problems with the bus so we’re going to wait for some roadside assistance to help us out,” the bus driver said over the intercom.
Two hours later and we were still on the side of that damn road. I was too tired to get frustrated or even care, but it would be nice if we knew what time we’d be able to get going again. The alarms and beeps were still going off. Finally, the drivers decided to keep driving to Indianapolis with a broken bus. We were only 30 minutes away.
At around 6 am we rolled into the city and waited again for another bus to come rescue us. Three hours later, our bus came and we got up and moved all our stuff.
We were almost six hours behind schedule at this point, but we kept trucking it to Louisville. Then we came to Nashville.
And then again, we had to switch buses. Apparently, there was something wrong with the bus. Again. One guy got so pissed at the drivers they called the cops on them. See, the thing is, the drivers don’t want to be caught up in this mess anymore than we do. It sucked, sure, but there’s not really much you can do. Just gotta suck it up and deal with it.
We picked up again and drove the final miles to Georgia. At 9 pm, six hours after we were supposed to get to Atlanta, we made it to the city. My cousin picked me up and took me to his place where I could sleep for the night before the big AT start the next day.
The day sucked. There was no doubt about that. But when I checked my email later that night, I got my refund from Megabus for our troubles.
That’s a free bus ride and now I have extra money to spend in town.
What seemed like a bad omen to the start of my trip didn’t seem so bad anymore. For now.
I wasn’t nervous. I wasn’t scared. I was just ready to get out on the Appalachian Trail. My cousin Charles drove us up the winding roads to the parking lot that would lead us to Springer Mountain.
“I hope you like mud,” he said. It was a muddy, misty day. We parked at the lot and I pulled out my bag. Whoa. Was my pack always this heavy? I did pack that bottle of Charles’ home-brewed apple cider before I left. But that would be so worth the weight.
“Alright, let’s do this.” We hiked up the mile of the trail that would lead us to the trail head at Springer Mountain. Okay. I gotta say. That mile was hard. I’m so glad I decided to pass on the Approach Trail – just getting up this rocky slope was difficult enough. I could already think of at least five things I was going to dump out of my pack as soon as we got back down to Charles’ car.
Twenty minutes later and we finally made it to the trail head. It was misty and foggy so there wasn’t much of a view but I didn’t care. I was at the start of my dream. After two years of thinking about this moment, I was here. And now I was ready to head back down the mountain and walk every step to Maine.
We made it down to the car and I dumped out everything I didn’t think I would need. My pack did feel a little lighter when I put it back on.
Oh, crap. One of my trekking poles – it broke. It broke already and I barely started the trail. Well this sucks. I mean, I guess I can get by with just one. Less weight right? I totally don’t even need two. That’s totally excessive anyway.
It was a crappy day outside, but I never felt better. I hugged Charles goodbye and took my next steps on the trail. I felt like I belonged here; like I was back home. Like I never left the trail two years ago on the first place.
A few strenuous climbs and four hours later I made it to camp. There were sooo many people at that shelter already, at least 30 hikers. I found a flat spot to set up my tent and I have to admit… I did feel really lonely. It seemed like everybody else was hiking in pairs or was a couple. I tried to sway that feeling. I can’t be feeling this way on my first day, but the loneliness lingered. I made dinner and did all my camp chores and as the sun set I climbed into my tent and tried to fall asleep. That didn’t really happen, but it did rain that night and it was nice to listen to the soft patter of the rain slide down my tent.
I got up at dawn and tried to dry everything out as I did my morning chores but man, it was just too misty outside again. This is my life now. I already met a few people that morning that were planning to quit. One day on the trail and they wanted to go home.
I left camp around 10am and everything was just a mud pit. And then there were the hills. Oh, sorry. I meant mountains.
They kicked my butt. I’m sooo out of shape. I was huffing and puffing and could barely accept how difficult this was. But really, it’s my fault this is so hard. I made the decision to spend the last month before my hike a Netflix-binge session. I mean, it was totally worth it to watch Kevin Spacey be an asshole to everybody on House of Cards. Totally worth watching that instead of training. I could barely hear myself lie over my heavy breathing.
Going downhill sucked too because let me tell ya, having one trekking pole is NOT ENOUGH. Navigating downhill stepping on muddy rocks with a small child on your back is just a tad difficult. I saw other hikers fly passed me with their two trekking poles and the jealousy ensued. My trekking pole would break the first mile! Whatever. This’ll just make me stronger, obviously.
The shelter was a welcome sight later that day. My feet were KILLING ME. They were swore and swollen and I just couldn’t wait to sit down on something that wasn’t wet or the muddy ground. And there was room in the shelter!
I rolled out my sleeping bag and made some food and started talking with the other hikers. It’s amazing how quickly you can feel at home with complete strangers out here.
Oh!! I forgot about my apple cider! I wanted to drink it the night before but totally forgot. I was super anxious to get rid of all that weight, too. So with a little help from my new friends we got the cork open and I enjoyed that cider.
“I think you earned yourself a trail name,” one of the older hikers, Don, said. “Apple cider.”
“Yeah, you know what, I like that.” So there we go. My trail name is Apple Cider, Cider for short.
The third day was the day that reminded me why I was hiking the Appalachian Trail. It was the first day that it wasn’t cloudy or misty or rainy and the VIEWS. I could finally see everything we have been missing! I could see the tops of mountains and the bottoms of valleys. It was beautiful.
We also got our first taste of trail magic that day and we got two doses of it. The first one was at Gooch Gap where a couple was handing out hot chocolate. The second was at Woody Gap and it was absolute heaven. He had hot dogs and donuts and pop and sweet buns and just everything. I haven’t had a hot dog in 8 months. I had two that day. It was everything that I could ever dream.
Unfortunately, my one trekking pole started to take a toll on my feet. I was limping at a mile per hour and it became incredibly difficult to make it downhill. I met a girl named Yellow Jacket and she told me the wonderful news:
“You know, they have trekking poles at Neel Gap. You should really buy some there. They will help you out a lot.”
Neel Gap was only a day away. I don’t care how much they cost – I was buying them.
After a night around a camp fire with a few of the hikers I’ve been spending the last few nights with, it was time to go to bed. I’m still having trouble sleeping at night because I’m not used to going to bed at 8:00 and my body is still adjusting to outdoor sleeping. But let me tell ya. This night was hell.
I was still awake at 2 in the morning when the wind really started to pick up. My rain fly was flapping all over the place and I could hear the trees swaying outside my tent.
Wait. Was that footsteps? I thought I heard a few branches snap on the ground. It was probably just the wind.
No. No. That was a yawn. That sounded like a really deep yawn. Almost a load moan. And it was coming from the other side of my tent where nobody was camping.
OH MY GOD. I accidentally left food in my pack that didn’t get hung with my the rest of my food bag.
Is there a MOTHERFUCKING BEAR outside my tent right now? It can’t be. Oh my god. She smelt my food.
I kept hearing footsteps and breaking twigs right outside my tent. They lingered. They circled around my tent. Oh my god. There’s a bear. There has to be a fucking bear.
My heart was pounding harder than it ever has in my life and adrenaline spiked through my body like a shot. I was wide awake now. And I was very, very scared.
Okay. I need to make loud noises. But my pans are in my pack… And my food is also in there. I was too afraid to create a waft that would carry my food scent. So I lay there. And I laid there. And I thought I heard another moan.
An hour went by but my fear did not. I didn’t know what to do. Finally, I unzipped my tent and quickly dove into my pack go grab my pans, zipped my tent back up and started banging them.
I felt the wind die down and I didn’t hear anymore noises. Having the pans in my tent made me feel a little better. Slowly, I started to fall asleep.
After the two hours of sleep I finally got, I decided it was time to get up. I lay awake in my tent for a few minutes thinking about the night I just had.
Logic and reasoning started to roll into my head. There are three dogs at this campsite. Bears hate dogs. They don’t come anywhere near them. It was so incredibly windy last night that I started to realize all that noise was just from my tent. The breaking twigs and footsteps was just my rain fly hitting the side of my tent. Over. And over. And over again. The yawns and moans could’ve been noises from other campers that the wind just carried. I began to realize there was no bear outside my tent last night. It was all in my head. A terrifying idea popped into my head and my lack of sleep and paranoia fed it until it became my reality. I was scared to death because of the wind.
Sometimes, the mind can be more dangerous than the woods.
After I assured myself that I never had anything to be afraid of, I was in a rush to get out of camp. I packed up everything as fast as I could and started the trek up our tallest mountain yet: Blood Mountain.
The day started out fine but my feet were still incredibly swollen and I was almost crawling uphill. When I reached the base of Blood Mountain, I knew I only had 5 more miles left until Neel Gap. And there I could buy some trekking poles.
Then, the sky started to fog. The wind picked up and the rain started to drizzle. I turned up some tunes and started the climb.
By the time I reached the top of the mountain, the fog was so thick I couldn’t even see 10 feet in front of me. Great. I make it up the first peak above 4,500 feet and I can’t see a damn thing. My fingers are numb, I’m wet and cold and just all-around miserable. My feet ache and can barely keep my from falling over.
There was a shelter at the top that Yellow Jacket, Ice Cream and I decided to eat our lunch in. I didn’t want to stop but I knew I had to eat something. For the past few days, my appetite has almost been non-existent. I have had to force myself to eat just because I know I need the calories. Otherwise, I wouldn’t eat at all.
We took our break but the day was just getting crappier and all I wanted was to reach Neel Gap, buy some poles and stay in the hostel. I wanted to get down this bloody mountain.
Getting down the bloody mountain was the problem. The air was thin and sharp, the rocks were steep and slick, and the slope was just one big mud slide. There were moments where I was genuinely terrified that if I took the wrong step or didn’t stable myself on a rock that I would tumble down the mountain. It was kind of scary. And you couldn’t even see where the mountain sloped because the fog was so thick.
Every step was a step closer to the gap, but all I could think of was how miserable I was. I was wet. And sore. And so tired of my one trekking pole that was helping me none down this mountain.
I began thinking about how much this truly sucked. Anybody who says hiking the Appalachian Trail is fun is a LIAR. IT IS NOT FUN. IT’S AWFUL AND I HATE IT AND THIS MOUNTAIN.
An hour later, I finally saw the road. We were almost there. And I could buy poles. And do laundry. And sleep inside. I just wanted some sort of relief.
I crossed the road and walked into the store Mountain Crossings and found someone to ask for help.
“Where do I go for the hostel?”
“I’m sorry honey – it’s all full. Usually on days like today it fills up pretty quick. You can camp out back for free though,” Baltimore Jack said.
I almost burst into tears. I couldn’t set up camp outside. I was wet and cold. I wouldn’t be dry for days. I couldn’t do it.
And then I remembered… Gumby and her boyfriend Will were planning on getting into town tonight. I at least gotta give it a try and ask if I could join.
In the meantime, I tried to pick up my mood. I bought some new trekking poles! The cheapest were $60 but they were worth every penny. I couldn’t wait to hike with them. I bought a shower and did some laundry and already felt 100% better. It’s amazing what feeling clean can do for morale.
And then I saw Gumby and Will! I ran up to them.
“Hey, what are you guys doing for tonight?”
“We’re gunna get a room at a motel – wanna come with?” asked Gumby.
I love them. They are the best.
While we waited for their friend to pick us up, we hung out at the hostel lounge to stay dry. It turned into a party real fast. It was so much fun just sitting around and talking and catching up with other hikers and stories. Then a church group came in with some trail magic – a full meal. Spaghetti and macaroni and cheese and salad and bread and a full belly.
People are so nice here. I still can’t believe how willing to help people are around here.
Gumby’s friend arrived at the hostel and we got our ride into town and checked into the motel. After 4 days of hiking, it was such an unreal sight just to see a bed. We stayed up playing Euchre (a game which I suck horribly at) and laughed the entire night we were so tired and slap happy.
It was the best night on the AT so far.
It’s funny how the AT works. One moment you’ll be at the lowest point; rock bottom. The next, you’re eating pizza, drinking beer, and laughing the night away with some new friends.
That’s the biggest thing I have learned so far out here: every feeling, every emotion, every day is temporary. No matter how tough the day is, or how miserable the weather gets, or how lonely I may be, it will never last forever.
Everything changes. And that’s what makes the AT the experience that it is – you feel everything. It’s not just good and it’s not just bad. You can’t quite get an experience like this anywhere else.
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