The First Hills Passed – Days One, Two, and Three

Day One: Saturday, 24 February 2024 — Amicalola Falls Visitor Center to Black Gap Shelter

View over my shoulder showing my hat, my sandals, and my AT registration tag, all hanging from my pack.


The sun sets over hills passed.
My mother and step-father hiked a few miles with me to see me off. All-in-all, the hike was an awful climb up Amicalola’s stairs (with my overweight pack and unshaped legs, not fun) then a lovely forest walk. Mom took my photo at the stone arch, then again in the middle of the woods before they left. Jason, my step-father, asked to pray over me before I left. I sniffled because of the cold, not crying. I’ve decided to accept all honest prayers to God and all the free food I can carry. The Lord knows I need advocacy and calories.
On the Approach Trail, I met and passed three thru-hikers: The Prospector, Jordan, and Summit. Later, three college kids up for the weekend happened to cross paths with me about five miles up, driving in their truck. They offered a bottle of gatorade as an apology for the deflation, and I downed it in thirty seconds, hurting a bit from having forgotten lunch… combination of anxiety and hasty motivation, but it was satisfying enough to hurry me on to Black Gap.
I arrived at the Black Gap Shelter, set my things down, then realized my jacket had fallen off my bag some distance back (will not happen again). Only had to walk a tenth of a mile or so, found Summit picking it up right on time. Summit said this year is her fourth A.T. thru-hike attempt, that she tends to drop out when the weather turns warmer. I wish her the best of luck, and am glad to be a warm-weather person, so the walk should get easier as I go. I haven’t seen any of these three first hikers I met since then.
There were a couple other thru-hikers staying in the shelter, who would make a longer impact on me, W. and Z., as well as less social folks in tents around the campsite. A father and his two children, just up for the night, were starting up a campfire. I enjoyed hearing the brother and sister bicker a little—felt more like home.
Another set of hikers up for the weekend, two cousins, joined our circle around the fire as the sun set. One of them, Matthew, had come from California to visit the other. Matthew got to asking W., Z., and I, why we had decided to tackle the Appalachian Trail.
Z., thirty years old, had some social-anxiety issues, among other things, to work out after an incident involving his deployment with the U.S. Army; he never would open up much about what happened (not that I dare ask), but his service had rocked his life, leaving him with 100% monthly disability checks for fear, depression, and PTSD. Hearing about the Appalachian Trail sparked a quick decision in Z.’s mind to try a new route in life—he would tell me later he had a hard time directing himself because he didn’t expect to be here these days. My heart hurts for Z. He said if the hike were to begin to feel like a job, or if he just wasn’t enjoying himself, he wouldn’t stay out, which seemed to me then like a shaky commitment to the trail. Z. gave himself an out from the start, which I haven’t let myself do.
W., in his sixties, talked a bit about his nomadic lifestyle. The Appalachian Trail had long been on his mind, and now was the time. W. lives the vanlife, basing himself out of Alabama but calling the open road home, following a caravan of friends across the country, hosting eremitic cookouts from his pop-out kitchen with its coil-up canopies and roll-out rugs.
I answered Matthew’s question with the long and complicated story mine is—dropping out of college, quitting my job, and moving all at once, in order to then seek a newer, lesser self, and find a clearer view of my guiding Light. Matthew perked up at my response, pulled a log nearer the fire, moved himself to it, and asked me to take his seat—he wanted to share his testimony with me.

Matthew follows Christ closely, having dropped out of college after realizing the depravity of the party lifestyle; though I never entered the same scene, I died to similar sins and the culture all the same. Turning to God, Matthew found himself in India, he said, spending a several months with Mother Teresa. I didn’t ask what he meant by spending time with a dead woman, knowing Catholics, and figuring it may be too long a rabbit trail to chase at the time, but assume he worked where she once did. Matthew said he saw himself a lot in the prodigal son story, not as one having gone home, but one only beginning to turn around—that he would see himself robed and wearing his Father’s ring once he established himself in a God-glorifying vocation. I think he underestimates how far the Father ran when Christ called it “a long way off.”We talked about denominational differences, the vanity, vanity of life (Ecclesiastes), God in nature (Psalm 19), and the value of working with one’s hands (1 Thessalonians 4)—not that we claim to know anything, but see an aspect of humanity we miss. We had both considered enlisting but couldn’t submit ourselves, in good conscience, to a U.S. government plan for our lives. Matthew told me he studies carpentry at Santiago Trade School in California—a Catholic two-year trade school. He invited me to show up at his door and be welcomed anytime. I’m still considering it.
Before leaving the next morning, Matthew gave me a Saint Michael pendent and spoke a benediction over me, praying God’s angel might ward off the evils of this world as I carry on my journey. I haven’t studied the praying-to-saints/angels doctrine well enough to know what I believe, but find the thought of God’s archangel at my defense comforting, nonetheless, and pray for His favor as a shield (Psalm 5). I do believe there are armies of angels at my aid, and Matthew’s token serves me well as a reminder of that.

Matthew and I at Black Gap Shelter

Day Two: Sunday, 25 February 2024 – Black Gap to Hawk Mountain Shelter

I intend to stop at churches on Sundays along the trail, but fellowship this Sunday wasn’t so much an option, so I sat on Springer Mountain in the morning and had a service of my own. Having Psalms 1, 2, and 3 memorized prior to beginning my trip, my study efforts on the trail began with Psalm 4. I read it aloud to myself and meditated on the words, sitting by the southern terminus and looking over Georgia’s woodland. This chapter soon came in handy, and verse eight in particular resonates in mind every time the sun sets over too many miles remaining.

“In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for You alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety.”
‭‭Psalm‬ ‭4‬:‭8‬

I left the shelter later that morning than most there. I’ve always been slow to gather my things and get going. The hike showed no difficulty compared to the approach trail the day before. I caught up to W. as he stopped for lunch at Long Creek Falls, the only waterfall on the A.T. in Georgia. We sat down by the plunge pool and dug into our bags. Tortillas with peanut butter and honey represent most of my diet out here. W. tossed me a mini Snickers bar, frozen from the night before—even after just a day and a half walking, the frozen chocolate presented more piquant than ever before, enough to make my resupply list.
W. shed layers in the heat of the day, revealing we wore the same green Columbia hooded shirt, which likely means we will match for the next five months. Several other groups came down trail to the falls around us. I pointed out to W. that people would assume we’re father and son; he said he was just thinking the same thing. We hiked together most the way to the Hawk Mountain Shelter that afternoon, until he stopped for a while and I headed up alone. I ran into two other college-aged guys, Eric and Will, who asked “Was that your dad you were with back there?”
Z. hiked the trip faster than any of us, showing up around noon. Two more retirees going by Huge and Long Island stayed on the lower floor, while I took the second floor loft alone. The mix of us and the new guys we met at Hawk Mountain made a great time. Long Island says he was once told copperheads smelled like cucumbers—he never knew what cucumbers smelled like until someone said they smelled a copperhead nearby, and poof, he smells cucumbers like one’s in his face. Huge says the most hardcore ultralight backpackers bring fiber supplements so they don’t have to carry as much toilet paper.
We spent the afternoon into the evening talking about food, life, why we hike and how we hike and all the little luxuries and necessities we brought with us. They gawk at whoever carries the most weight on their back like madmen and envy whoever eats the best food and sleeps most comfortably.
I can’t help but consider how good God has been to me. Only two days in, but the trail is so hopeful and lively.
These old men snore all night louder than alarm clocks, then complain because they didn’t get enough sleep. Bunch of cranky liars. I love them.

Sunrise through the woods viewed from Hawk Mountain Shelter

Day Three: Monday, 26 February 2024 — Hawk Mountain to Gooch Gap Shelter

I slept great last night, plenty warm in the shelter’s loft. With nearly twelve hours bedded down, from sunset to sunrise, the snores can’t keep me awake long. I packed far overweight at first (think 45 pounds), then dropped a good deal (sub 40), but still wanted to lose more. I gave some things away around this time, and later would leave plenty in a hiker box, settling comfortably around 35 fully supplied.
W. gladly began using the trail name Nomad after someone felt it fit him well enough the night before. Long Island told us about the cause for his hike: one cousin in his past died to ALS, and now a second has been diagnosed, so he hikes for ALS awareness while running a Youtube channel and online fundraiser and sporting dry-bags that advertise his cause. I didn’t get the links to his sites, but when I do I’ll post them here.

It seems increasingly true to me I spend relatively little time considering miles hiked or hours spent hiking, secondary aspects of my Walk, and focus more and more on the true Subject Matter of my time here. Even on day three, I began to feel heavier than ever the conviction of His invisible grace as sufficient for my feet. Peripatetic asceticism leaves me no hope but God and His provisions. The fear of Him becomes raw and palpable as His discipline becomes more observable and His blessings are valued more appropriately as necessity, rather than luxury. I hope that soon my mind will be so well-tuned, I hear the surplus-song of my life pellucid; may I come to fully realize the fact that nothing all that bad has ever happened to me, and that sin most easily inveigles our lives when we merely accept more than we are allotted. It seems to me the most base human sin to take just a bit more than allowed.

Nomad, Z., and Huge all make the Gooch Gap Shelter before me. Three new younger girls came quiet at first, but when they started talking, the four of us guys silently agreed to stall and listen, in a pure, aromantic way, as one forgets it’s nice to have women around. One of them has a beautiful old dog who sort of looks like Nomad, with a little white goatee.
Fantastic hike today. I had a couple poptarts for breakfast and memorized Psalm 4 before Horse Gap where I had oatmeal for lunch… sent some pictures out into the world. The day is hopeful, bright, and complete, though only the afternoon.
More long talks about life and God with the group. Z. has decided to go home… says he just isn’t having a good time. Long Island jokes that no one else came out here expecting to have a good time. I do my best to communicate that I did, in a Spiritual sense (the most true sense), begin my walk hoping to suffer and die. We all love the moments in the camps in the evenings, cutting up and getting to know one another, but the heavy hikes test your will to stay. Z. had not found himself nearing his goals or feeling fulfilled by the trip, so he called a shuttle to pick him up in the morning the next day and distributed his pack food to us who stayed.
Long Island and I highly encouraged him to visit a church near his home in Texas, and he decided he would—said he believed in God once, then cursed Him in his army days, but now wants to return. Such is the story of the prodigal son—just like Matthew, just like me. Z. had brought a devotional book with him, but hadn’t ever consistently attended church or sought God in his personal time.
I’d see Z. once more the next morning as I hiked on from the shelter, where he waited for his shuttle. I thanked him for the extra food and pushed him one more time to go with God, try a church, seek and find. Z. said he would, and told me I should make Old Man my trail name, because he had often forgotten my name but remembered it was “an old man name,” and that my religiosity, poetry, and birding, among other things, reinforced the idea. I’ve carried it lightly since, being called “Old Man” or “Old Man George,” in part because I like the name, also in Z.’s honor, though I remain open to a new one. Join me in praying for Z. as he goes home to seek Life.

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Comments 2

  • michael D veronesi : Mar 9th

    Excellent writing old man. God speed and hopefully see you on trail. I’m starting in Waynesboro virginia headed nobo on the 17th.

  • Phyllis G : Mar 9th

    Old Man, want to let you know that God has angels around all believers (2 as a matter of fact). Saying prayers for you, Z, and all the hikers. Be safe and keep walking!


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