The Days Rock; the Nights … Not
Day 1: Springer to Hawk Mtn (8+1 miles)
We rode up the tooth-rattling, 9-mile dirt-and-gravel road to the AT parking lot. The morning had already been emotional; while we ate breakfast at the lodge I spent time looking out the window over the greening mountains until I realized I wanted to look instead at Inti, whom I wouldn’t be able to look at for a month. He smiled at me–he’s been nothing but supportive and encouraging. My stomach was a mess of butterflies and I put down my fork. Tears were never far from spilling out of my eyes.
In the parking lot at the trail a woman was sitting with her pack and came over to chat with us. She was waiting on a shuttle to take her back to Amicalola. Her chatting distracted me from figuring out what to take up to the terminus and I felt edgy, like she was preventing Inti and me from having the start be momentous. In the midst of what felt like confusion and chaos, we set off. Again I felt tears rise but I held them back.
Mostly I couldn’t fathom being away from Inti for so long. I wasn’t reconsidering the hike, just grieving what and whom I was about to leave behind.
But we went on. The day was chilly–breezy and sunny, with few leaves on the trees. The incline to the terminus was gentle and it was an easy mile. We mostly didn’t speak, although I felt like we should be saying some kind of meaningful goodbye.
When the summit came in sight I again got ready but there was a ridge runner there, so again I felt I was unable to express my true emotion. But he showed me where the register was stored and I signed it. Then he took Inti’s and my picture and showed us the first white blaze. Then we turned around and hiked back down. My simultaneous dread and eagerness for the moment I would leave Inti and finally be actually doing this thing, for real, by myself, were a jumble in my heart and head.
We reached the car and I got in the passenger seat; we had some whole wheat crackers and peanut butter, and then I loaded up the pack and Inti walked with me to the trail head. We hugged and I cried.
“Go make some friends,” Inti said.
I nodded. “I feel like it’s my first day of kindergarten,” I said, and laughed through tears.
“Yeah,” he said.
“Will you watch me walk away so I don’t have to watch you drive away?”
I took a deep breath and wiped my nose on my sleeve.
“Okay,” I said. I started walking, turning every five yards to wave, my pole dangling from my arm as I did. He stood there waving back until I went around a corner and looked back again and he was out of sight. I cried then, hard, all the tears I’d been holding in for the morning.
But I kept on and the way was beautiful and I began to look around and to feel the strength of my legs and to love the rhythm of my walking–the poles alternating with my feet, my arm muscles propelling me forward. I saw huge rhododendron bushes (not in bloom) and mountain laurel, and I stopped at the first shelter, Stover Creek, to see if it would be a good place to journal.
A massive American flag and a sleeping bag and pad were flying in the breeze, hanging from the bear cables, and a cast iron skillet, and espresso pot, and several other kitchen utensils were lined up along a stone wall next to a smoky fire, and a man with camouflage Crocs, dirt-lined fingernails, and bright eyes was sitting in the shelter reading the log book.
I walked over and set down my pack, held out my hand. He smiled but shook his head and made a fist, knuckles out, toward me. “First thing you’ll learn on the AT,” he said. “Fist bump.” Norovirus is a problem, and hikers shouldn’t be touching each other too much.
“Right,” I said. “Thanks.”
“I’m Chuck Wagon. You got a trail name yet?”
“Nope. I’m Matti.”
“You’ll get one. If you don’t, at Neel’s Gap they’ll name you.”
“Well, I have one in mind for a backup if I don’t get anything good.”
Chuck Wagon went on to tell me how he earned some trail karma by carrying a 71-year-old woman’s pack for her. He told me some other assorted and unsolicited details about his life, including a possible joke about being on the trail to avert encounters with his ex-wives. I saw that this was not the place to journal. So when another hiker approached and he turned to greet her I hoisted my pack back up and bid him goodbye.
A few hundred yards down the trail I stopped to check my Guthook’s Guide (an amazing map app that tells you where you are, what the elevation profile is like, and where the water, tentsites, roads, and shelters are), and a solo woman day hiker caught up with me.
Her name was Cindy and she was local. She had a lot of questions about thru-hiking, which I felt proud and happy to be able to answer. We passed a mile together walking and it really cheered me up. I love hiking alone–a LOT–but I loved hiking with a companion, too. When we arrived at Three Forks, she crossed the river to drive home and I saw a miraculous flat area covered in pine needles–the perfect place to stop for lunch.
I took off my pack (ahhhh) and sat right on the needles with my back against a tree, took out my Jetboil, and cooked my first ramen noodles since before college. They were terrible! But I knew it didn’t matter much and I would figure out better alternatives eventually, and I was happy to be eating hot food I had cooked IN THE WOODS. It seemed like a kind of miracle.
After I ate I decided to do some yoga, so I pulled on gloves to protect my hands, walked a little ways out of sight of a couple that had come along and parked on the other side of the river for their lunch. I faced the river and did some sun salutations. I lay for a while in child’s pose, reveling in having my forehead pressed into pine needles, inhaling the earth. When I did an extended side angle pose and looked up, the rays of sun coming through pine branches at the very top of a very tall tree trunk, and the blue sky beyond, took my breath away.
Hiking along up away from the river bed I saw a sign for some falls and remembered Cindy mentioning them. There was a side trail to get there and someone had scratched “150 ft” into the wood, which I appreciated. That was such a doable distance I had to go. The falls did not disappoint.
However, they did make me miss Inti because they reminded me of times we had seen falls on our road trip last summer. I took them in, snapped a picture, then turned and walked away, starting to sob again, feeling devastated at just how deep the ache was, the ache of missing him, the fear of being away for so long, the grief of leaving everything behind.
The rest of the day was physically tough. Although I’d hiked with the pack in preparation, I hadn’t hiked with a lot of water and food. That day my pack probably weighed 35 pounds, and I felt every one in my right shoulder. My left hip also started to feel sore. And, while the first half of the day had mostly been flat or a gentle decline, the second half was mostly incline.
Note to future thru-hikers: packs are much heavier on inclines.
Just before reaching Hawk Mtn shelter, I came across a big guy in his mid-fifties filling up at a stream and pumping his water. He introduced himself as Top. I asked if this was the best place to get water before the shelter and he said it was. So I set down my pack and took my bottle down. (More on my water filtration system in a future blog entry.)
He started telling me about his time in the service and how he got his throat taken out recently because of cancer and how he got his name (he was the top enlisted rank) and how medicine had made him gain 40 pounds and how he was carrying a bear canister because what he did when he was about to hike was call the forest service to ask them what to take and how it made his pack weight really high, etc. He also said he estimated there’d be 14 people in the shelter based on how many people had passed him. I thanked him for the information and hiked ahead.
I was glad to see there were plenty of flat tent pads available, and I snagged one and started setting up. It was exhilarating. My first time setting up the tent for real, because I was going to sleep in it! It went up easily, and then I took out my air mattress to blow it up and slid it into the sleeve on the back of my sleeping bag. I unloaded almost everything from my pack and just threw it into the tent, then I zipped up the tent and went over to meet the few folks who were sitting at the shelter picnic table.
When I got there I noticed some cables with food bags hanging from the–bear food theft deterrence. The cable system looked complicated though, so after meeting Ben, Alex, Mike, and Melissa at the picnic table and Square Peg in the shelter I asked if someone could show me how it worked. Mike did, and it wasn’t so complicated after all–it was basically a pulley system.
Mike and Melissa had eaten already and Top was just arriving. I pulled a home-dehydrated meal out and grimaced: salmon alfredo. I didn’t feel especially hungry, and when I opened the bag, the dried fish smell made me grimace more. Oh, boy. They weren’t lying when they said you can’t know what you’ll want on the trail. I didn’t know what I wanted in that moment, but I knew salmon alfredo wasn’t it. Still, it was what I had, so I boiled water, poured it into the freezer bag, put the freezer bag back into the Jetboil, covered it, and waited. Meanwhile I snacked on some crackers and apple and pear slices. People were curious about the dehydrated meal–they were mostly all eating prepackaged foods.
I pulled the bag out and mashed around the ingredients from outside with my fingers, dipped in my long titanium spoon, and tasted. It was delicious! And it had vegetables! I was very happy. It was a little too much food, but I ate it all since I had read that you typically didn’t have a great appetite at first but still needed the calories.
By that time Top had set up his tent and joined us at the table with his massive bear canister, and another guy sat across from me and pulled out a cigarette. A few moments earlier, a helicopter had flown overhead. Top informed us that that was the military and was dropping off Rangers who would come through with night vision goggles later and scare the shit out of us. I mostly didn’t believe this, and mostly felt annoyed that someone was smoking at the table. I had finished eating. Top told us about his service and his throat being taken out for cancer and all the weight he had gained because of the medicine they gave him. The guy with the cigarette introduced himself as Bones, which required no supplemental explanation (he was skinny as six o’clock).
At this point I grew dismayed. Top, who I’m sure is a perfectly decent human being, was getting on my nerves because of the way he left no room for any of the other six people at the table to say anything. It just didn’t seem like tonight would be my night to make friends.
I wanted to journal, and talk to Inti, and maybe read. So I went back to my tent and took my phone off airplane mode.
I nearly cried. But, okay, I had known there was a high likelihood of that. So I opened my journal and started writing. I wrote
“I’m achy in my body and achy in my heart from missing Inti. I love him. Just want to go to sleep now and hope I sleep all night. It’s 7:30 p.m. Lord. Maybe I will read a bit. More to say but too uncomfortable sitting up. 🙁 Was this a mistake!
“No. Because I couldn’t keep that false life. I need authenticity. This is cold and uncomfortable and LONELY but it is only the first day. One expects it to be tough. Right? Right?
“Wish I could talk to Inti!!!!”
Then I closed the journal and took out my phone. Someone had said there was signal in one spot at the site, so I turned it off airplane mode again and, miracle: one bar of signal! I called Inti immediately and he picked up right away.
“Oh, haaaaaiiii,” he said, the happiness in his voice so bright that I felt the tears welling.
“Haaaai,” I said.
“So tell me! How are you? How is it?”
“I’m just so lonely,” I said, only my voice broke on “lonely.”
“Hello?” he said.
Shit. “Hello?” I said.
“What did you say?”
“I said ‘I’m just so lonely.'”
“What? Sorry, I can’t hear you.”
But I couldn’t say it louder–the woods were too quiet and other people too close and I was so embarrassed to be wailing into my phone to my boyfriend on night one.
“I’ll try again,” I said. I hung up and scrambled to put on my shoes and get out of my tent. I walked a ways away to get privacy, but the dreaded words popped up on the phone again: No signal.
I paced around desperately, but nowhere could I get signal, not even back in the tent. Still, just hearing his voice for those instants had cheered me immensely. I got out my Kindle and tried reading for a bit, but the beginning of my book, The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett, was just too sad. Also reading made me feel a little tired, so although it was not yet 9 p.m. (hiker midnight), I decided to go to sleep.
Before sleeping I had to hang my food bag on the bear cables, brush my teeth, and pee, so I went out again and after doing that saw that Top was no longer at the table, so I sat down with Ben and met a new person, Michelle, and her dog, Thunder. We all chatted and I liked them immediately. This helped cheer me, too, and then I did go to bed.
I won’t get into ALL the grim details here about how long, lonely, cold, and uncomfortable the night was, but I will give you a few. Despite feeling tired while reading, once I put in ear plugs, took a Tylenol P.M., and snuggled into the bag, I found myself feeling awake.
Eventually I fell asleep from maybe 10-2, then woke and noticed I was cold and my air mattress had deflated. I blew it back up, put on my shoes, glasses, and headlamp, and walked out to pee. I did jumping jacks to warm up before getting back into bed. Then I lay awake for hours.
The longing for Inti and home was so sharp and severe I didn’t think I would survive it, and when I did finally fall back asleep for 90 more minutes, I dreamt about Inti, that we were going to meet up down the trail, and I then I dreamt I awoke at 10:30 and everyone had already left camp.
Day 2: Hawk Mtn to Gooch Gap (7.9 miles)
Despite having such a dreadful first night–much of which dread was related to the fear of having a crappy day on so little sleep–the second day was actually marvelous. Taking a lesson from the day before, I decided to get the most hiking done before lunch, then find a nice spot to have a long lunch and do yoga or journal again, or both, since doing either of these in camp felt difficult–too hard to sit up in the tent to write and too distracting to sit at the picnic table to write and too much audience in camp generally to do yoga. I also wanted to avoid getting to camp early and having too much time before bed.
So I looked at Guthook and learned there were two steep mountains to get over and then three easy miles after that. So I planned to do lunch at the top of the second mountain.
This was bliss, AND I had signal and got to have a nice long talk with Inti (marred slightly by the fact we had to handle so many administrative items related to renting out my place). The weather was perfect, I had a nice log to lean against, and I journaled and decided to save the yoga for camp. Surely I could find a spot out of the way of eyes?
My pack hurt again toward the end of the day, but not as badly as the day before, when the pain had forced me to stop using a pole in my right hand altogether.
At one point I thought, “I’m getting tougher!” because my hip didn’t feel quite as bruised.
I came down steep steps to a stream and found Michelle, Thunder, Ben, and a few others dipping their bare feet, so I joined them. COLD! But it was refreshing, and I stayed there a while chatting with other hikers when they went on. It was definitely one of those “wow, I get to do THIS instead of write papers?” moments.
Coming into Gooch Gap was really pretty–you could see the shelter and tents across a hollow that you walked around; they were arrayed along a steep hillside.
The only spot I could find was on a slight slope, but it seemed kind of manageable, so I set up the tent. Socializing was much better; I met new people and everyone seemed truly genuine and present.
After eating I decided to look for that spot to do yoga and the most reasonable place I could find was right next to the water source. Rook, whom I’d met at the stream earlier, was filling up.
“I’m just going to do some yoga,” I said. “Don’t mind me.”
He looked up. “Mind if I join you?”
So we did some sun salutations, a little warrior 1 and 2, and some pigeon together. My first time “teaching” yoga! It was very cool.
About that “slight” slope. The night was warmer but less comfortable overall because of that slope. I tried putting my shoes under the downhill side, I tried propping up the mattress with the umbrella, with all my rain gear. These maneuvers were marginally effective, but worse, my bag still deflated despite my having blown it up and taken it all the way to a stream to submerge it, look for leaks, find one, take the bag back to the shelter, dry it off, and put the patching glue on the puncture. Very dispiriting!
I got about the same amount of broken-up sleep that night but felt a little less homesick and heartbroken because already I was feeling like I was making friends. Still, the night was long and uncomfortable.
And now I’ve been writing for hours on Day 5, my first “zero,” in a cabin I am splitting with three other hikers–a cabin with a porch that goes over a stream, a cabin with a bed with sheets and a kitchen with soap and running water.
I have to stop now to go make use of the camp store’s wi-fi and post this before my phone’s battery runs out, but I’ll end by saying that although the nights are a significant challenge, they aren’t spilling over into the days, which are more blissful even than I expected–and I expected a lot of bliss.
I got a replacement for my air mattress today at Mountain Crossings and sent the dud back to REI. I’m hopeful that most of my night struggles are simply part of the learning curve. As the miles pile on I’ll be more exhausted at night and I will find a way to sleep. I have lots of weeks and months to figure it out.
Loving and missing my friends and family lots.
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.