Tales of Trials and Magic Abound! – Part 1

Otherwise known as the “start” of my thru-hike… although it was really more of an intended 5-day turned 3-day shakedown trip (more on that later). This week ended up being a full immersion into the culture of the Appalachian Trail, including trials and trail magic.

It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.

This quote comes from one of my all-time most favorite movies in the whole word, and it kept echoing in my head for the duration of the three days I ended up being on the trail. I think it will end up being a grand theme in my thru-hike. Granted, I’d already done 80 miles of some of the hardest terrain on the trail before I set out for this hike, but this was the first time I’d gone out alone, the first time I had planned on being out for more than two nights, the first time I’d had to deal with shuttles or stay in hostels… and this time for some reason it just felt different. There is a reason 1/4 of all thru-hike attempts are ended in the first 30 miles. It’s a rare breed of special badasses that goes all the way.

Without further adieu

Let’s actually start with the day before I started hiking. Day zero if you will. As many know, I’m student teaching this semester and, with March 27th being a Friday, I was obligated to be at school. I did manage to finagle my  way into getting to leave a little early. I had a 3.5 hour drive to get to Athens, GA, where I’d be picking up some last minute supplies (like pants, you know, because that’s probably important) and staying the night at my house there. Of course, after the drive, then deliberation over running tights for the better part of two hours at Target, then getting home and having to repack my pack no less than a dozen times, then lying in bed for nearly two hours in a state of excitement/delirium/nerves before falling into a restless sleep… let’s just say I didn’t sleep much. Maybe an hour passed between the time I fell asleep and when my alarm went off at 3:30am. You see, I was going to spend a very expensive $100 for a shuttle from Unicoi Gap, where I was leaving my car, to Springer, when a friend who I met on the trail last year offered to pick me up and give me a ride. He and another acquaintance were headed to Springer to start on the Benton McKaye Trail for the weekend. They were my first true trail angels, and I can’t thank them enough (John and Rusty, if you’re reading this, thanks again!). The only catch was John wanted to pick me up at 6:30am… Unicoi is two hours from Athens, so that made for an early morning.

Rusty and John were my first official trail angels! Loved getting to spend a short time hiking with these two as our paths crossed throughout the first day of hiking.

Rusty and John were my first official trail angels! Loved getting to spend a short time hiking with these two as our paths crossed throughout the first day of hiking.

Fast forward to about 10 miles from Unicoi Gap, after John picked me up and we are headed to get Rusty…. HOLY SHIT! YOU ARE NOT GOING TO BELIEVE WHAT I FORGOT. My trekking poles were still in my truck at Unicoi. Of COURSE they were. And we all know I can’t walk without poles so back we went to get them. This was to become a theme on this trip, unfortunately.

And so, around 10:30am on Saturday, March 28th, I began the ascent from the parking lot up to the summit of Springer. Ok ok I know I’m dramatizing this a little, since technically I’ve already “started” my hike by doing sections earlier this year, and technically this was still only a section hike, but that moment was very surreal. I climbed up behind John and Rusty, with them, but not really with them. I was lost in my own thoughts and in the meaning behind this moment. I had planned and waited and anticipated this walk for the better part of 18 months and I was finally going to stand on top of Springer Mountain, at the beginning of the Appalachian Trail.

Shooter and I summited Springer mountain at around 11am Saturday morning, April 28th. It was a magical moment. Despite the bitter cold wind, we couldn't have asked for a more beautiful day to be hiking.

Shooter and I summited Springer mountain at around 11am Saturday morning, March 28th. It was a magical moment. Despite the bitter cold wind, we couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful day to be hiking.

And so begins the epic adventure! AKA walking. A lot.

I’m not going to go into super nit-picky details or write out everything I wrote in my journal, but what I am going to try to do is share the more interesting and entertaining parts. To be honest, this first day of walking seemed pretty easy. It was cold, but sunny. I passed many hikers and got passed by others. I was exhausted from a lack of sleep the night before, but was otherwise in good spirits. The first 6 miles passed quickly and seemed almost a blur. I took the side trail to Long Branch Falls and it was totally worth it. I have made a pact with myself to always take the side trails and blue blazes. Then the fatigue started to kick in and the last three miles really kicked my ass. It was flat, I don’t know why it was so hard, but it was hard. I made it to my destination for the night, Hawk Mountain Shelter, just before 3pm. WHAT? I’m exhausted and my feet ache and my legs are jelly and there’s still like 5 hours of daylight left! I literally hated myself for having to stop so prematurely, but I was really beat.

I can't stress it enough: TAKE THE BLUE BLAZES. This trail is about experiencing the natural world and living life to the fullest. Don't rob yourself of an amazing view or a tranquil waterfall because you don't want to add an extra mile.

I can’t stress it enough: TAKE THE BLUE BLAZES. This trail is about experiencing the natural world and living life to the fullest. Don’t rob yourself of an amazing view or a tranquil waterfall because you don’t want to add an extra mile.

I walked up to the shelter to be informed that it was full. At 3pm in the afternoon. I glanced in… I could see how to easily fit at least 3 more people on the bottom level. Note to silly inexperience hikers: shelters are a luxury that have to be shared, and if you’re going to sleep in them, be prepared to cram in and make room. You’re going to have to share space and bump elbows, especially in the beginning when there’s so many people. But I didn’t feel like arguing, so Shooter and I set up the hammock (LOL, he watched while I set up camp).

One thing I do want to elaborate on is my complete LACK of hunger. I thought I was supposed to be starving? I had to force myself to eat Saturday night. I made instant potatoes with summer sausage. Not a bad meal. My Jetboil stove worked great despite the rapidly dropping temperature. I saw several people struggling with their stoves and taking a really long time to cook. I had dinner cooked within 10 minutes and was eating quickly.

As much as I wanted to socialize, I was totally beat and totally freezing when I finished cooking. I curled into my sleeping bag at 5:30pm to prepare for the long night of cold ahead. Temps dropped down into the high teens that night, the coldest I’ve braved in my hammock. I’m happy to report I wasn’t shivering, but I certainly wasn’t warm. Shooter on the other hand froze and shivered all night despite being in the hammock with me. It made for a loooooooooong night.

Day 2

Obviously I didn’t get much sleep last night. I was now running a serious sleep deficit. I was starting to feel like I might actually be an actor on The Walking Dead and just not know it. Headed up out of some gap, I ran into a fella named Loon hanging out having a snack. I knew pretty much as soon as I saw him that he was going to be a bright spot in my trip. Loon had a twinkle in his eye and a mischievous grin on his face. He was “up to something” and was eager to let me in on it after a little teasing. There was trail magic at Gooch Gap. My plans instantly changed from trying to make it to Gooch Mountain Shelter to trying to make it to Gooch Gap, then on to Woody Gap to catch a shuttle to a hostel.

When I got to Horse Gap I could have kicked myself for not pushing on yesterday. I would have had ZERO trouble making Woody Gap that night if I’d pushed on to Horse Gap. But I didn’t so I let it go and began the ascent up Sassafras. Loon had passed me while I stopped for a snack at Horse Gap, but I soon caught and passed him again. We were both determined to push on past the shelter that day.

Sassafras turned out to be one of those mountains that I just wanted to get over with. It afforded no real views at the top and was hard, made even more difficult by my lack of sleep and thus, lack of energy. Up and over finally and I could smell hotdogs cooking… smells like… TRAIL MAGIC! I practically bounded down the mountain. Upon arriving at Cooper Gap, I saw the tell-tale car and set up. This was my first trail magic! And the most magical thing about it… a beautiful, pale green apple sitting on the table like a shining beacon of hope. That apple may have been the most delicious thing I’d ever tasted. It gave me an immediate mood boost and the surge of energy I needed to keep going. Let me be clear, I still wasn’t hungry, but the sugar definitely lifted my spirits. I sat talking to the angels, Courtesy and his daughter Cartwheel, along with the other hikers for longer than I should have, then headed off up Justus Mountain… but of course not before realizing I’d left my poles at the trail magic and having to go back to get them.

Fellow hiker Z had happened up to the Cooper Gap Trail Magic while I was there and I told her of mine and Loon’s plan to make Gooch Gap. She was interested in joining, so off we went with daydreams of more magic and a possible night indoors in our heads. Admittedly, making Woody Gap by 5pm was an ambitious goal to begin with, and we realized pretty quickly that it wasn’t going to happen. But we had heard that a shuttle would ALSO be at Gooch Gap and so, together, we booked it up over what I’ll call Gooch Mountain and down into the gap. Someone there had already called Wolf Pen Gap country store for a shuttle. They arrived right after we walked up and announced they had room in the hostel AND were dog friendly. JACKPOT! Z and I parted ways with Loon and joined Marietta and a couple others to head to the hostel for the night. I was exhausted and cold, but a shower (that alternated between freezing and scalding… at least it was a sensory experience?), laundry, pizza (although I STILL wasn’t hungry), and a coke (I don’t even drink soda) had me happy about the miles I’d covered that day (nearly 10) and the new friends I’d made. Plus, the hostel had kittens, so what more could I ask for??

Day 3 – Hard decisions and Mountain Highs… or is it just high mountains?

It stormed last night. Hard. I have never been so grateful to be indoors. Shooter is terrified of thunderstorms. Someone tell me WHY I didn’t think about this before? I didn’t even consider what I’d do with him in a storm. He would have torn my hammock apart if we’d camped that night like planned. Thankfully, that disaster was avoided and we started Monday morning fresh, rested, and full (STILL not hungry). It was still dreary and drizzling when we left the hostel headed to the trail. I had made the decision to skip a small section (Gooch to Woody Gap) in order to try and make it to Neel’s Gap a day early. Short elaboration: a friend who is thru-hiking was supposed to be in Franklin, NC on Thursday, when I would come off trail and meet him. However, he was moving MUCH faster than anticipated and I knew he was at least a day ahead of schedule, which meant in order to be able to meet him, I needed to be a day ahead of schedule. This would put me making a 12 mile day which I was NOT confident in my ability to do. But I was going to try.

Let me just say that I am hiking this trail to escape the constraints of modern life. The time limits, deadlines, hustle and bustle of the world. I was feeling stressed and unhappy that I was having to try and make a deadline and push myself beyond my limits in order to meet that deadline. Of course, fate intervened and when I arrived at Woody Gap and grabbed my pack and Shooter’s things out of the back of the truck… you guessed it… I had forgotten my trekking poles. This was the THIRD time this trip I’d left my poles behind. Back in the truck, I bid farewell to Marietta, Peg Leg, and Chuckles knowing I probably wouldn’t run into them again this trip. Back at the hostel, I waited for the shuttle to run again and contemplated my options. I was now seriously late starting trying to make a ridiculously big day. I made the decision to skip even more of the trail and start at Jarrard Gap. This would leave me a nice 8-ish mile day hike for later and would enable me to definitely reach Neel’s later that night.

Marietta, Chuckles, and Peg Leg stayed at the hostel with me Sunday night. Them, along with Z and Loon, were my first trail friends! (If y'all are out there, I'd love to connect with you on facebook or instagram, so leave me a comment!)

Marietta, Chuckles, and Peg Leg stayed at the hostel with me Sunday night. Them, along with Z and Loon, were my first trail friends! (If y’all are out there, I’d love to connect with you on facebook or instagram, so leave me a comment!)

I finally got to the trail and was in pretty good spirits, despite the mudslide that was the trail, the rain, and the really late start. I felt good about my decision as I headed up to the base of Blood Mountain. As I walked, I was mulling over the possibility of taking the Freeman Trail. It was a really ugly, gross day and the wind was picking up with every step. I live nearby and could come back and climb Blood anytime. Honestly, I don’t know why I was really considering skipping the mountain other than absolute laziness. Hell, I had already whittled myself down to a 5 mile day. At the intersection of the Freeman Trail and the AT I ran into a small group of folks which included our very own Erin Tate (although I didn’t recognize her at the time). She had decided to take the Freeman Trail because of not feeling well and I had all but decided to join her when something turned my feet back toward the white blazes and metaphorically pushed me in that direction.

I don’t know what it was that sent me on up that mountain, but not 15 minutes later the wind died down, the sun came out, and I found myself in a state of complete euphoria. I mean I was literally high from walking up this mountain. I slowly made my way up, stopping frequently just to look around in amazement at the natural wonder that surrounded me. THIS is why I am hiking the Appalachian Trail. I swear this whole experience was the Universe’s way of reminding me of the Jack Kerouac quote:

Because in the end you won’t remember the time you spent working at the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.

I was rewarded with incredible views from the top of Blood Mountain, and on down. I rode my mountain induced high all the way down the steep, rocky scramble that is the north side of Blood Mountain. I ran into Loon again on the way down and he immediately brightened my day as typical. Once I reached Neel’s Gap, I made the decision to cut my trip short. I had a gut feeling that Jacob, my speedy friend, was going to make Franklin even sooner than a day early and I didn’t want to miss him, nor did I want to spend the next couple of days racing against the clock. The kind folks at Neel’s Gap helped me make a few adjustments to my pack. I weighed in at 27lb which was awesome. They recommended Sam Duke as a shuttle, and I spent a nice couple of hours riding around with him, picking up and dropping off hikers between Neel’s and Unicoi.

Loon brightened my mood for two days straight and gave me the motivation I needed to push on to Gooch Gap on my 2nd day of hiking. So thankful to have met him out there!

Loon brightened my mood for two days straight and gave me the motivation I needed to push on to Gooch Gap on my 2nd day of hiking. So thankful to have met him out there!

Lessons learned:

  • Hiking with dogs is a royal pain in the ass. I thought I might want to take a dog. Nope. I’ve definitely decided against that. Having a dog on trail is like having a newborn baby: they are dependent on you for EVERYTHING including making sure they have enough food and water, making sure they have a chance to relieve themselves in an appropriate location, making sure their feet are in good shape and they aren’t uncomfortable. The difference is this newborn baby is 65lbs, covered in hair, smelly, noisy, and walks faster than I do. Shooter is a fantastic trail dog, well behaved, and everyone loved him, but I’ve made the decision to NOT bring him along on my thru-hike. It’s just entirely too much hassle. I’m going to be doing good to take care of myself out there.
  • Trail people are angels, there’s really just no other word for the individuals that surround this trail and contribute to it’s magic.
  • Hiker hunger takes a while to kick in… I lost my appetite completely and didn’t get it back for several days after I left the trail.
  • Hiking with an agenda NOT how I want to spend my hike. In case you are wondering I DID make it to Franklin in time. Jacob arrived at Winding Stair Gap around 3pm the following day… 48 hours earlier than anticipated. If I hadn’t modified my plans, I’d have missed him completely.
  • Food is heavy. Don’t take too much.
  • Always take the blue blaze.
  • Climb that goddamn mountain.
Standing on top of Blood Mountain literally felt like being on top of the world. THIS my friends is why I climb.

Standing on top of Blood Mountain literally felt like being on top of the world. THIS my friends is why I climb.

Coming up:

I’ll tell you all about how I spent the 5 days following leaving the trail, including meeting TONS of hikers in Franklin, NC and setting up lots of trail magic… also, I *might* have gotten a trail name. Stay tuned!

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Comments 3

  • Avatar
    Marietta Jones : Apr 7th

    Duuuude! This is glorious! And Loon really helped me out too in Hiawassee. It’s largely due to him and his “live to hike another day” that I succumbed and got off the trail to check out my knee. Right now I’m hoping to flip flop. And it’s extra cool reading blogs when a. You’re in them and b. You know the person! So cool.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Stacia Bennett : Apr 7th

      It was so great to meet you out there! It’s truly the people that make the trip. How’s that knee? Did you decide to stick with Cecelia for a trail name? Hopefully you can get back out there soon! Are you planning to go to trail days?

      Reply
      • Avatar
        Marietta Jones : Apr 7th

        Indeed! My knee is just really tight and uncomfortable now. I’m seeing an Ortho tomorrow, so hopefully that’ll be more informative. Looking at a flip flop option! And yes, I’ve been using Cecelia! Old Scout started singing it when he saw me at Mountain Crossings and I decided I was stuck with it. I’m not sure on Trail Days. Depends on where I am and if I can find a ride.

        Reply

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