Trail Beginnings

Hello, everyone! My trail name is Mola, which is short for Mountain Lady and which represents everything I am trying to accomplish in my thru-hike. I see a Mountain Lady as being strong, independent, and a minimalist, with great appreciation for the outdoors.

Me at the trailhead

Me at the trailhead

Trail preparations

The past few months have been agonizing. It seemed like every item in my pack was a mind numbing decision. Important decisions like which shoes to wear or whether to tent or hammock were hard enough, but I even struggled with basic decisions on how much cooking gear to bring, if I should carry a stove, and even which socks to bring. There are so many opinions on every little and big item in your back and it can get overwhelming at times. However, preparation only goes so far. I know I don’t have the perfect pack, but look forward to figuring it out as I go along. I was a little surprised at my initial pack weight (I was hoping to be closer to 20 pounds), but will be looking for ways to cut weight as I go along. The most challenging part of my pack weight is the need to carry so much food. Being on a gluten free and vegan diet doesn’t allow for many food options on the trail and I will be receiving mail drops about once a week. My bag is starting with six days of food, contributing to a lot of pack weight. Hopefully there will be more food options along the way so I can carry less as I go.

Here are my beginning stats… we will see how they change as I go!
Starting weight: 125 lbs
Pack weight: 29 lbs (with 6 days of food and 1 L of water)
Start date: March 29th
Anticipated end date: September 1st?

Day 1:

The first day was truly a surreal experience. It ended up being mostly about taking pictures, testing gear, setting a pace, and sharing the experience with my mom as much as possible. She drove me down from PA and has been worried about me being on the trail, so it was great being able to share the experience with her to show her that its not so bad. She met me at a few road crossings to check in and was always eagerly waiting with stories of great hikers she met while waiting. (Thanks for being awesome, everyone!) My friend Joe was also there to share the experience with me and help fine tune my pack choices and weight. Since I only had one week between my return from South America and leaving for the AT, I felt that I was barely prepared physically for the trail and not at all mentally or emotionally. I knew that this would sneak up on me sooner or later, but the weather was good, the people were friendly, and life was good for the time being.

Day 2:
The second day I started off by myself. Joe had hurt his knee previously and it was acting up again, so he decided to stay off the trail and try to heal up before joining me again. However, I was still able to meet some great people and even experienced some Trail Magic with a local commune called Twelve Tribes. It was a joyous experience to be able to sit and relax with some fellow hikers over a hot beverage and food. I was so thankful for the wonderful opportunity that they created to sit and enjoy each others company. I stayed longer than expected and was sad to go, but needed to keep going to make my end mileage goal for the night. It was another lovely day hiking and I loved the peace and solitude found in the woods. I met some great day hikers on top of the mountain that I contemplated life with and also met some other thru hikers that I was able to joke around with like we were old friends. The day passed by pleasantly and I fell asleep with fond memories of everyone I came across that day and the beautiful scenery I was able to witness in the beautiful Georgia weather.

One of many beautiful river crossings

One of many beautiful river crossings

Day 3:
This was my roughest day by far and will forever be etched in my mind as the day of many trails. It started off rocky in Neel’s Gap as I went to the outfitters to fix my pack. I have a Hyperlite Mountain Gear pack, but was between sizes and it wasn’t fitting quite right. The top of the pack kept hitting me in the head as I walked, making it really uncomfortable and unable to continue. The company has horrendous customer service and the outfitter kept saying I needed a new pack. I was pretty emotionally distraught, but finally broke down into trying on a new pack. However, it was then revealed that they didn’t even have a size that fit me. Two hours later, emotionally spent, I decided to try to make it work and hit the trail in the pouring rain. It was suppose to rain throughout the night, but I needed to be in nature and on the trail after having such a rough morning in town. As soon as I was in the woods with my umbrella, I found the much needed peace I needed. It was only about 7 miles to the next shelter which I figured I would easily make after doing 13-19 miles the first two days.

What I didn’t account for was the storm picking up. My pace slowed as I fought the impeding winds and storm. It took a few hours, but I eventually became a soaking wet mess from my head to my feet, despite rain gear and waterproof boots. The last 2 miles were brutal and never ending. I kept checking my fitbit to see how close I was to my mark, but my mileage was almost at a standstill as I trudged up a mountain and down the trails which have now become rivers themselves.

When I eventually came to the shelter, there was a sign stating that the shelter was still 1.2 miles away. My heart immediately sank. Was it worth going 1.2 miles off the trail in the hopes that there was still space left in the shelter? Should I press on to the next shelter? Try to hitch a ride at the next road crossing? I paced back and forth on the shelter trail many times in my indecision, but eventually decided to head for the shelter. I figured that my chances at finding a space in the shelter were high since not many people would probably hike that far from the trail.

At first the trail was pretty in the rain with vibrant colors of pale green moss, white flowers, and red flora. However, the trail took a turn for the worse as it headed straight down a hill and turned into a flowing river. It was a rough walk and I had to count my steps to distract my mind from the distance. As soon as I saw the shelter, I had a sigh of relief, which instantly turned to concern over who would be in the shelter. Would they be welcoming? Would they laugh at my feeble attempts of making camp? Would there even be space for me in the shelter? With these overwhelming thoughts, I entered the shelter area, umbrella in hand.

Luckily, everyone was really welcoming and kind. They had mentioned that I could set up camp in the clearing where some tents were already set-up, but there was also still one last spot in the shelter. I snagged the spot and quietly started setting up camp and changing out of my damp clothes. Before I knew it, it was 7pm and everyone in the shelter claimed they were going to bed. I had only arrived at 5:30pm, so I hadn’t had much time to relax and get ready for the night! I was caught a little off guard by the early night- I mean, the sun was still shining at this point! Either way, I was tired and decided to eat puppy chow for dinner instead of bothering with the stove. Surprisingly, it didn’t take long for me to fall asleep after I snuggled up in my big, comfy sleeping bag.

If the day wasn’t hard enough, I woke up around 2am to scratching noises. I laid awake trying to pinpoint its location and eventually sat up in bed in order to listen more carefully. Sure enough, it sounded like it was coming from my pack. A soft voice from my feet asked me what was going on and I replied that I thought something was in my pack. He encouraged me to scope it out, so I grabbed my headlamp and quietly pulled my pack down from the hooks in the shelter. When I opened my pack, I freaked out as quietly as I could. Two sets of beady eyes stared up at me in shock of being discovered. As I quickly contemplated what to do, Kyle, the kind boy sleeping at my feet, got up and saw the mice and started trying to grab them by the tails. After a few attempts, he was able to fling them from the shelter. I am not sure what I would have done without Kyle, but he was a lifesaver and I am forever thankful for him being there. (Hopefully lots of trail magic karma will come back to him!)

The mice didn’t make it to my food, but did manage to chew through some of my empty dry bags. (Not sure of the rhyme or reason, but hey, it could have been worse.) My spirits were quite low in the morning, but somehow I was able to pull through and push on through the next day.

Day 4:
After such a crappy day the day before, I wasn’t sure what to do. Joe was still in town and offered to book a hostel for the night to recoup from the many trials and tribulations from the day before. At the very least, I could get a warm shower, wash my soaked and muddy clothes, and clean my belongings from the mice damage in my bag. The day started off a little rough with needing to trek up 1.2 miles in the rain just to get back on the AT, but I managed to summon the strength to conquer it. By the time I reached the top of the mountain, the rain had stopped and I could enjoy some of the fauna and moss I had seen the day before. I felt my spirits renew with the rising sun and made good progress on the trail. Between the sunshine and time in nature, I felt my mind at ease and like myself again. I happily talked with everyone along the trail and made some traveling companions for parts of the trail. Since I was too tired to cook dinner the night before, I decided to take a long break and cook for lunch at one of the shelters where I was able to meet some fellow thru-hikers. It was a nice reprieve from the day to have a longer break midday and helped me to conquer the 17.4 miles I planned for the day. I think from now on I will cook breakfast and lunch at shelters and then have a cold, easy dinner. (There are so many tasks to set-up task that it is nice to move some of the burden to earlier in the day.) Today was one of the first days that I felt part of the community on the trail and felt more confident in the new daily routines that come with living life on the AT. By the end of the day, I was sad that I had made plans to leave the trail. I had met some great people camping at a shelter close to my end point and felt more like myself after a beautiful day on the trail. However, plans were set, Joe was waiting with hostel reservations, and a nice hot shower did sound good.

Day 5:
The night at the hostel passed quickly, but recharged my spirits. It is amazing how much a warm shower, comfy bed, and a night off the trail will do to restore you physically, emotionally, and mentally. The absence of the trail makes you miss it and provides renewed energy for tackling the trail for another few days. We had stayed at the Top of Georgia hostel and I can’t recommend them enough. They are extremely friendly, have a great facility and a great atmosphere. Most of the other hikers were further along on the trail, so I didn’t recognize any of them, but it was nice to talk with fellow hikers and enjoy the modern conveniences of home. At the hostel, I was able to have my wet clothes washed and was given comfy scrubs to use as they were laundered. The feel of cotton was magical and I wish I had the space to pack some scrubs in my pack to use on a more daily basis…..

Once morning arrived, I headed back to the trail to pack in a full day. There was a campsite 17.4 miles away that was near the road that Joe could meet me at and I promised to try to make it there so we could camp together. (There were extra promises of wine, which made it even more enticing to press on!) The day started with a hill, which was easily tackled with my good spirits. I passed some people I met the day before and stopped constantly to change my clothes as I went. It is so annoying to have to stop so often. On one side of the mountain you might be chilled to the bone and once you reach the other side you will be roasting. Then you might pass through a gap and be cold again. The stops seemed never ending and broke my stride, but I changed quickly and pressed on as much as possible.

Within a few hours I passed another hiker who told me that there was trail magic up ahead at the next gap, which was 2 miles away. It is amazing what a little encouragement will do and I felt a surge of energy to press on without a break until I reached the trail magic. Sure enough, there was a boy scout group handing out drinks and a hot lunch to any hiker willing to stop. Without having much of a break thus far, I decided to stop and enjoy the offered lunch. I love trail magic, not just for the free food, but for the opportunity to meet others and talk about your experiences. I met a few other hikers and spent some time with one of the boy scouts who one day hoped to thru-hike as well. It was a special moment to share a common passion and dream and I felt touched at the kindness, goodness, and passion in others, even in someone as young as the boy scout I met. (He was probably only 9 or 10 years old.)

The rest of the day passed in silent amusement with an occasional hiking partner or two. The mountains were starting to take there toll on me and I longed to stop at the shelter the rest of the hikers were pouring into around 4pm, but I had promised Joe to meet him at the next campsite and decided to press on. I enjoyed pressing myself to my limits and looked forward to seeing Joe to help figure out the routine on how to set-up camp. I have seen partners on the trail and have been somewhat envious at the shared task in carrying communal items, setting up camp, and breaking down camp. Life would be so much easier with a partner to share the mundane tasks with, but I also know that my journey would be much different and less fulfilling with a thru hiking partner at this point. However, I enjoyed having a crutch in having a partner for the time being, at least until I had a firmer grasp on how to do things on my own.

Once I sauntered into camp, I was exhausted. I had pushed my body to its limits and laid on the ground for a few minutes before tackling the night tasks ahead of me. I smiled to see a fire already burning and was pleased to see that another camper would be sharing the campsite with me. It was still early on in my journey and I enjoyed the opportunity to meet as many new people as possible. After a glass of wine, I finally decided to set-up camp and get ready for the night ahead. The night passed my peacefully looking at the stars, bantering about religion and life objectives with the other hiker, and enjoying the fire in the cool night. A cool summer night with a bonfire is a perfect end to a night and I slept soundly in my tent, despite the heavy winds and cool temperatures of the night.

Day 6:
After pressing myself so much the past few days, I think my body finally broke down on day 6. The morning passed slowly up and down the mountains and I spent more time stopping to talk with others and even took a long brunch near a shelter along the way. Both my feet and knee hurt going down hills and I slowly became aware that my body was at its breaking point. The night before, I had noticed that my big toes and pinky toes on both feet were all white from wearing too small sized shoes and felt them ping with pain every time I went down hill. A little further down the trail, I met another couple of hikers at a rest stop and noticed that my hips were also in pain and were actually bleeding from the friction of my pack rubbing against them day in and day out. Obviously, my body was falling apart and I knew that I needed to slow down and get off the trail for some much needed gear. Instead of the 16 miles that I planned, I decided to stop early at the next shelter and call it a night.

It was nice stopping at a shelter earlier in the day and not hiking for the entirety of the day. The earlier hour meant that I had more time to set-up camp and get ready for bed before it got dark. I still feel very clumsy and unsure of myself setting up camp, but managed to get my tent set-up (sadly, on a slant), cook dinner, take out my contacts, and filter water. I helped another hiker find a branch to bear bag from, but still managed to fail when trying to bear bag by myself. I couldn’t find the right tree, my throw was all wrong, and I quickly consented to the offers of help from others. However, Joe managed to find me at camp and I felt relief to have a familiar face at camp. He made me bear bag myself and not rely on the generosity of others, which was helpful and needed for me to grow as an adept camper.

The best part of the evening was going on a blue blaze with Cup of Tea at sunset. She loves to go on the blue blazed trails, which intersect with the AT, since they provide a scenic outlook that we would otherwise miss. This blue blaze in particular was one of the best overlooks I have seen to date. The trail went through wreckage from a plane crash and then ended on these rock bluffs that overlooked the whole valley below. The scene was breathtaking and soothed my soul. The experience made me realize that I need to stop and smell the roses more along the trail and not be so singularly focused on the end goal. I think that I forgot that along the way and was appreciative of the reminder.

View of mountain range at sunset

View of mountain range at sunset

Day 7:
With shoes too small, bad knees, and sore hips, I decided to finally take a zero day off the trail. My body was officially spent where even walking around camp without a pack was painful. Joe had his car parked 4 miles away, so we woke up early and headed out to town by lunchtime. I felt sad to leave the trail, and even guilty taking a zero day, but realized that my body needed the rest. We made our way to Franklin, NC where we stocked up on new shoes, hiking poles, water bottles, and cream for my hips. I hated spending money, but also felt good knowing that it was the first time in days that I even needed to use my credit card. Being on the trail makes me realize how little I need on a daily basis and how much contentment I can find in the things God provides free in nature than in material possessions. Franklin was a wonderful town to stop and had the most helpful staff at the outfitters. They helped me pick out the best shoes to wear and provided useful tips on how to successfully complete a thru-hike. They also lectured me on how I needed to slow down and enjoy the trail or else I would never finish. With their advice, I decided to take a day zero the next day to recharge my body and sightsee with Joe. I have never been to this area of the country before, so why not enjoy it while I was here?

Day 8:

For our day zero, Joe and I decided to hit up a free breakfast buffet for thru hikers at a church, buy some gear, and then head to Helen, Georgia. We had heard how cute of a town it was from other hikers and decided it was the perfect place to spend the day. The town was a little touristy, but was cute to walk around and take pictures. We went wine tasting and admired the European architecture of the city, despite the remote location of it in the woods. We ended the day in Hiawasse, Georgia with a movie and some much needed rest and relaxation. The day was spent well and I enjoyed it, but my heart longs to be back in the woods with the other hikers. Tonight I will be praying for a strong body and mind to tackle my next part of the AT and to be open to the lessons it has still yet to teach me.

PS- Have my pack weight down to 25 lbs, but have somehow gained weight since being on the trail. Also, I lost my iPad at the last shakedown, so my posts will probably be more infrequent than planned- my apologies for the long post!!

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Comments 10

  • Maine or Bust : Apr 6th

    Ditch that hyperlite pack and get an Exos 48 or something more suitable for heavy loads. Your hips, shoulders and back will thank you. Good luck.

    Reply
    • Shauna Sergent : Apr 16th

      I actually met with a rep for Osprey at the Trail Magic festival and he said that a lot of their packs won’t work for my frame. Luckily, I think my body is adjusting to my back and I haven’t had any issues for the last week! (I have some great calluses now!) Thanks for the advice, though!

      Reply
  • Fulcher : Apr 12th

    This is so awesome, and it sounds tough, but I now you’ll make it. Much love from Columbus!

    Reply
    • Shauna Sergent : Apr 16th

      Thanks, Fulch! I always appreciate the love! <3 Miss you all!

      Reply
  • Elaine McCollum : Apr 16th

    I live in Franklin and I’m so glad you liked our little town. We love meeting the thru – hikers that come each year. Cory and Rob at Outdoor 76 are so good at helping all of us find exactly what we need for our outdoor life style. Hope your new shoes are working out great and that you soon find a solution on your pack. Enjoy your trip north. Happy trails!

    Reply
    • Shauna Sergent : Apr 16th

      Thanks, Elaine! It was so nice to visit a town that was so supportive of us hikers. 🙂 The shoes are working great (no blisters to date!) and they even helped my pack issues. Instead of suggesting I buy a new pack, they sold me a cheap pad to add to my hip belt to keep it from rubbing my hips. Definitely helped a lot! You are blessed to live in such a great town in the mountains with such great people! 🙂

      Reply
  • Brian : Apr 16th

    This has been the best blog I have read so far, I can relate to many of your indecisions about how and what to pack. Keep up the good work. Hope to see you on the trail. Leaving Erwin and heading South in the morning.

    Reply
    • Shauna Sergent : Apr 16th

      Aww, you are too sweet! Thanks for the kind message and hope to see you out on the trails soon! I can’t wait to get back on it tomorrow!

      Reply
  • Rachel : May 2nd

    I agree about your posts. The emotional and spiritual challenges as well as observations about gear are very interesting and also make me feel like I’m hiking right there with you! Your observations also help me as I considering the western versuon of the AT. Too small shoes/boots seem to be very common. That’s very useful feedback. Also, I’m I treated in what you mean about finding your groove with nightly setting up of camp. What is involved and how are you doing with that? Keep writing!

    Reply

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