The Five Stages of Starting an AT Thru-Hike

Denial: There’s No Way this is Gonna Take Five Months

My parents graciously agreed to hike a couple hours of the approach trail before leaving their fool of a son to walk the 2,200 miles to Maine. We huffed our way up the stairs and then onto the approach trail. The gravity of the journey I was embarking on made me numb to any emotion. But my parents and I talked and hiked until about halfway to Springer Mountain when they decided to call it.

The breathtaking view of Amicalola Falls from the 700 stairs that took my breath from me.

As they turned around and headed back to the car I instinctively turned back to do the same. But I dug my trekking poles in the ground to stop myself. I’m heading north not south. I’m walking to Maine, not going back home to Florida.

So there I was walking alone up the southern slope of Springer Mountain in denial. There’s no way this will take five months. Look how fast I’m walking. I’ll be in Maine by September and everything will be back to normal. The overwhelming thought of living a completely different life for five months could only be reconciled by the denial of reality. It’s only 2,200 miles, how long could it really take?

Me standing on Springer Mountain denying how long 5 months and 2,200 miles really are.

Anger: What is a Gap and why do I HATE them

Northern Georgia is a rollercoaster that never stops. The joys of summits and the despairs of gaps rule your day. The pattern catches on quick, but it is often broken.

The rocky descent of Blood Mountain smashed my knees and my mind into the anger stage.

Coming down from Blood Mountain, the home of the infamous “cocaine bear,” my legs were achy after a 16-mile day, and I expected to hike through Neil’s Gap and camp at Bull’s Gap. Which at first is what I did. I walked straight through Mountain Crossings, too tired for a pack shakedown or to remedy the many gear issues I was dealing with.

After a peaceful night, a few of the people I had been hiking with suggested that we return to Mountain Crossings for a pack shakedown. I reluctantly said yes. The mere idea of ascending and descending another gap, especially one that we would require backtracking, made my blood simmer. The fact that a pack shakedown was actually a good idea prevented an all out blood boil.

The fog at Bull’s Gap set the scene for my unwarranted exasperation at returning to Mountain Crossings.

Now having to climb from Bull’s Gap to Neil’s Gap THREE times, I was deep in the anger phase. Cursing every step and pouting my way back to Neil’s Gap, I imagined how much time I was losing by backtracking. In my mind this short 1.5 mile out and back had become this destroyer of thru-hikes, a mental blockade that lengthens 2,200-mile trails beyond completion.

Of course, this was all silly. After thirty minutes of annoyance, I arrived back into Mountain Crossings. Going back was a great decision. I updated a few pieces of gear and had a high-class feast consisting of Hot Pockets and Cosmic Brownies. Best of all we were reunited with two amazing hikers we hadn’t seen in a few nights. My anger had faded as quickly as it arose. A temporary rage that foolishly blinded the joy of the AT.

How can you be angry when you’re reunited with other hikers?

Bargaining: A 21 Mile Day is Only Seven 3-Mile Hikes Put Together

The legend of Omar the bear floats among the fog of the North Carolina mountains. AT hikers who camp between Standing Indian Mountain and Betty Creek fear his bear bag stealing ability. Him and a few of his remarkably intelligent minions have learned how to steal bear bags hung PCT style.

Understandably, I was anxious about Omar and his unfair abilities. I realized that I would either need to hike a 4-mile day or a 17-mile day to move past his kingdom and get near Franklin, NC for a resupply. Being a fool, I decided to push the 17 miles to get on the other side of Betty Creek.

The misty forest on Standing Indian Mountain, the tallest point within Omar’s kingdom.

The bargaining really began at mile 14 when I looked on Far Out and realized that the nearest campsite after Betty Creek would in fact be five miles further than expected, leading to a 21-mile day. As I swallowed this new reality, I see a beautiful view of a valley and a familiar face laying to the side of the trail.

This view was the exact spot where my super athlete guide would decide to take a midday rest before pushing me through my first day over 20 miles.

This particular face belonged to a super athlete of a man who had started in Amicalola Falls four days prior and was trying to make it to Franklin that night. He would cover close to 120 miles in four days and spoke of hiking the Smokies in two days. Knowing of his superhuman abilities and the mystical powers of the trail to provide ways to overcome challenges, I decided to hike with him as motivation to finish the last three three-mile hikes of the day.

So we blasted over Mt. Albert and cruised towards the shelter just as rain began to pour down and I bargained with the trail to show mercy upon me again. It did not listen. Just as the trail giveth it must also taketh. In that moment I realized my umbrella had fallen out of my pack some many miles before hand. Absolutely shattered at my loss I spent the last few soaking wet and bone chilling cold miles to camp nearly running.

A cold and rainy afternoon on Mt. Albert that was punctuated by a missing umbrella when I finally needed it.

Depression: I Would do Unspeakable Things for a Lasagna

Tray Mountain was one of the most beautiful parts of Georgia. The annoyance of waking up at the early morning hours to pee in darkness was a delight as I looked upon the lights of towns strewn across the hilly landscape. The red, white, and yellow lights of roads, homes, and businesses extended like spider webs into the horizon. This intense beauty was met with the intense realities of trail.

The pleasant view of Tray Mountain in front of the camera conceals a hiker hunger panic behind the camera.

For the last few days that intense reality was a craving for lasagna. Even the mere mention of the layers of pasta, meat, cheese, and tomato sauce were enough to escalate my hiker hunger into hiker panic. I dreamed about lasagna and I daydreamed about lasagna. I had nightmares about dropping lasagnas. It was all consuming and never ending.

I can’t elaborate on the details but at some point I described the horrible and immoral things I would do if they resulted in a lasagna for my consumption. Yet, during my first two resupplies the Italian delicacy has evaded me. Its delicious odor and taste still haunt me. Every night in the shelter I can taste it in my dreams and I wake up bitter at my lasagna-less reality. Soon, my need for lasagna will be satisfied. After all, the trail provides. The longer I wait the better it will taste.

Acceptance: 100 Miles Done 2,100 to go

It was a magical trail coincidence that pushed me into the trail acceptance phase. I had finished the climb onto Wayah Bald and was now walking on the pavement towards the observation tower. And like an angel floating into the trail a familiar person stepped out of the brush. I had not seen this man in a few days, but I was excited to catch up with him.

But he stopped and just smiled when I exclaimed his name. With a grin, he slyly says, “I have something of yours”. He turns around and in his pack was my precious umbrella! He had graciously carried it for two full days and over 30 miles between Muskrat Creek Shelter and Wayah Bald.

This sacrifice only happens on trail. The sacrifice of physical exertion and pain for days with the glimmer of hope that you will make a person’s day. Even if the only interaction you had with that person was a few laughs over freezer bag meals at a shelter.

This spirit of trail left me elated and ready to accept the challenges and joys of the AT. It’s these ups and downs that allow us to truly feel the deepest levels of emotions that make thru-hiking a once in a lifetime experience. Over 100 miles done less than 2,100 to go.

A photo of me sitting on Wayah Bald taken by the generous man who carried my umbrella for over 30 miles hoping he would run into me.

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Comments 5

  • Bloodthirsty Vegan : Jun 2nd

    Tip the author? What in the Hell? Blocking the Trek…..if you want to be paid for your 100% self serving experience write a book.

    • Emilio Zipf : Jun 2nd


    • CB : Jun 3rd

      Yo, bloodthirsty vegan, I’m not gonna tip the author either, but You are a douche nozzle! And I know you haven’t blocked the Trek.

  • Gayle Simper : Jun 3rd

    Well now you got more ‘fuel’ to get to the top of that next mountain!🤣 I’m loving your writing style…. can’t wait for the next update!!

    • Emilio Zipf : Jun 3rd

      Haha true! Thank you for reading!


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