First 275 Miles on the AT

Hot Springs, NC: Beating 50%

Welp, I did fully intend to blog once a week or so, but all that pretty much went out the window after my phone stopped working in Hiawasse, GA. Then I lost my phone. Then I found my phone. Then I sent my phone home to get fixed. Now I’m phoneless. And it’s been surprisingly difficult to find a computer. I’m 273 miles into the AT, and I’m just now getting a chance to write at a library! But I’ve made it to Hot Springs, NC, which according to Sir-Packs-a-Lot from Top of Georgia Hostel is the way point where 50% of hikers have dropped out. Whoo hoo! Not for the hikers that dropped out, but that I’m not one of them!

Starting in February

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Starting the Approach Trail at Amicalola Falls State Park!

Everyone, and I do mean everyone, told me how it was such a bad idea to start in February. It’ll be too cold. There’ll be no one else out there. You’ll die alone. You name it, I heard it. Naturally, I started in February anyway. And you know what, I hiked in pristine weather those two glorious weeks! Cool and 50 in the morning, sunny and 70 in the afternoon, and slightly chilly in the 30s at night. I was blown away with the amazing weather! I’ll admit, the first few days were a little lonely. I knew there were other hikers out there, but somehow I wasn’t running into any of them. My first day on the trail, I actually ran into more Army Rangers than hikers! They have a school near Springer Mountain, so for the first week, ironically I hiked and slept to not the sounds of  wildlife, but machine guns and explosions. But hey, the Rangers have permanently scared away all the animals so I didn’t have to worry about bears or mountain lions or anything like that!

Starting with a Bang!

First White Blaze on Springer Mountain

This was taken once I started hiking. That would have been a very different expression if it’d been me wrangling my tent free from the tree!

My first say on the Trail was entirely something else. I fell asleep around 6pm and it was so beautiful outside, I considered sleeping without my rain fly on my tent. I’m glad I put it on. A word of advise: always use your rain fly. I don’t care if there’s a -200% chance of rain, just use it! I’ve never slept in such harsh wind and rain before. The wind below off my tent’s vestibule loop from its stake, so my shoes and pack got completely soaked. I woke up and it was probably in the 20s with the wind chill. The kind where your hands are so cold they feel like they’re on fire, and they’re pretty useless as far as dexterity. After mustering the will to get out of my warm sleeping bag, I left to grab my food bag which I hung on a bear pole. On my way back to my tent, I saw an orange tent that looked like mine in a tree. “That’s weird, someone’s tent is in a tree?” Yeah, it was mine. The wind blew off my tent from its stakes so as soon as I left, off it flew! Throwing everything in my tent, i.e. everything I own, in the mud. With frozen fingers and soaking wet everything, I eventually got it out of the tree. Thankfully, the tree didn’t rip any holes in my tent. But that combination of cold, wet, and wind, whew!, it’s enough to break any mortal man’s spirit! I packed up camp as fast as my frozen fingers could and hopped on the trail thinking, “What have I gotten myself into?” But it’s funny, once I got hiking, my mindset completely changed to: I’m here because I want to be here. I’m here because I chose to be here. I’m here because I need to be here. Another word of advise: Know why you’re out there. Even if it only makes sense to you, you have to have something to hold onto when the storm rolls through (literally!)

Can I get a White Blaze, please?!

Every day I have a pretty simple job: Hike north and follow the white blazes all the way to Katahdin, Maine. There are about 165,000 white blazes to mark the trail from Springer Mountain, Georgia all the way to Mount Katahdin, Maine. That should make it pretty impossible to lose the trail, but at least once a day I have one of those moments where I’m scrambling up near vertical boulders, throwing my trekking poles to the side to huddle over some obstacle, and/or praying I don’t lose my footing or I’ll literally fall off a mountain. And I find myself thinking, “There’s no way this is the trail! And there’s really no way I’m going back the way I just came!” Cue: “Can I get a white blaze?!” Usually I’m on the trail and parts of it very un-trail-like, but I’m always looking for those blazes. Every hiker has fallen into the trap of staring at their feet while hiking, not realizing the trail splits with a blue blaze (an alternative trail, usually leading to a shelter or water source) and ending up hiking on trail, but not the trail. Let me tell you, when you’re carrying over 30 lbs on your back, every step you have to retrace is the worse thing in the world, especially since if you do accidentally go off-trail, it almost always means you’ll be backtracking uphill. That’s just the way it goes.

What’s in a name?

I didn’t start with a trail name (an alternative name hikers use during the duration of their hike) and I was really hoping one would just come naturally following a funny encounter or dumb mistake on my part, like they do for most others. The problem is I usually hike by myself during the day and don’t really get to talk to anyone till I get to camp in the evening. And not a lot happens in the evening, we all eat, then we go to sleep. So no trail name for me, yet. Which is getting to be a little ridiculous since I’ve hiked almost 275 miles! I cringe every time I meet someone who asks me what my name is and I have to answer “Sara.” All I hear in my head is: “Boo! Boo! Rubbish! Filth! Slime! Muck! Boo! Boo! Boo!” (in the lady from the Princess Bride‘s voice, you know the one!) It’s become everyone’s goal to name me. My favorite attempt was a hiker named Joe, who I hiked with for about 100 miles. Here’s how that conversation went:

“Hey, we should call you OB!” -Joe

“OB?” -Me

“Ya know, because you want to be an OB/GYN!” -Joe

“You know o.b. is a tampon brand, right?” -Me

“No, like the letters O and B” -Joe

“Yeah, tampon brand.” -Me

*long pause*

“Well, how the heck am I supposed to know that?!” -Joe, storms off

Trail Magic

Trail Magic refers to the amazing things that work out in a hiker’s favor on the trail. There’s been no shortage of that thus far! I started the trail with pretty limited funds and a rough plan that I haven’t followed even remotely. With that being said, it’s pretty often that things don’t work out the way I hoped they would and I end up kinda standing there not sure what’s going to happen next. Normally, this is where I start to panic, but that’s the one thing the trail has taught me thus far, its the same thing it reaffirms every day: don’t panic. 

Back around mile 185, I was at my end between the cold, wet nights and chigger bites (I know, in February) that had swelled up to giant purple welts on my thighs that were so painful I hadn’t slept in 3 days. So I pushed through a long 18-mi day to Newfound Gap just before the sun went down.  Gatlinburg, TN is a more touristy town than the other trail towns I’d experienced, so I wasn’t having any luck hitching 15 mi into Gatlinburg. I didn’t have a ride lined up, I didn’t even have a place to stay lined up. All I knew was I was too uncomfortable to stay another night in a shelter. After a few minutes of futile hitchhiking, a girl comes up to me and asks if I need a ride to Gatlinburg. She was part of an college organization, Helping His Hands, that was in town for their Spring Break rebuilding homes that were lost in the fire a few months ago. These wonderful people not only take me to Gatlinburg, they treat me to dinner, they give me a place to sleep, to shower, clothes to change into, breakfast the next morning, and then drive me back into town. If that’s not trail magic, I don’t know what is!

Taking a Hint, and Also a Rest

There’s a lot I’ve had to learn the hard way because I’m stubborn like that. Back in Gatlinburg, I went to a church service with the group that took me in and the pastor’s message was essentially, if you don’t rest, God will make you rest, from Psalm 23:2. I think rolling my ankle back at mi 25 was my first hint, but it was pretty minor so I figured it was fine to continue hiking on. Then the awful chigger bites at mi 100 that turned into monstrous welts all over my thighs was probably my next hint, but I got some meds from Urgent Care to treat that and kept hiking. Then three days ago, I was lost in my head, hiking somewhere around mi 250 along a ridge when I sprained my ankle, badly. And not like the kind where you catch yourself on your trekking poles and keep going, the kind where I yelped and came close to falling off the ridge. Before I could even get my shoe off, it’d swelled up to a big ole goose egg over my ankle.  Luckily, it was only 2 miles to the shelter, but I’m pretty sure it took me over 2 hours to get there. Every step was agonizing, and I sounded like Moaning Myrtle to anyone within earshot. I was in rough shape. And I was also 25 miles from the nearest town. But very slowly and carefully, I hiked on. Taylor threw some KT tape on that night, which I don’t know what that stuff does, but it helped. Penguin carried my tent for me the next day to take some weight off my pack, which made all the difference. Thankfully, the next day, I could bear weight without as much pain and made it to Hot Springs yesterday! I wish I had pictures, because it’s pretty hilarious to have a uni-cankle. Needless to day, I got the message. I need to take a break. So I’ll be in town for the weekend, icing my ankle instead of crushing miles on the trail. If anyone’s in Hot Springs, feel free to come say hi to this smelly, dirty, cripple!

 

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Comments 22

  • Avatar
    Zach : Mar 11th

    Gorgeous sunset shot! Don’t sweat the lack of trail name, it’ll come. Keep living the dream!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Hoot Al : Mar 12th

    Sara, you got this girl! Love your blogs. Happy trails

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Jim McNelis : Mar 12th

    Loved everything about this update!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Amy Kinser : Mar 12th

    Good morning. My family and I met you in Gatlinburg while you had stopped to take a break on a big rock and go through some of your food supplies. I believe you had just received a package. I remember seeing a beautiful young lady with long dark hair and a lovely smile. I also remember seeing someone who looked strong and determined. As we talked to you, I saw a young lady who was doing what a lot of people say they wish they could do, but who was actually doing it. I asked you how your hair looked so pretty (yes, I notice things like that) and you said you had just taken a shower in a shelter the night before but usually wear braids. You seem to be living a dream. You have to be brave. I don’t know you, but I am proud of you. I heard a preacer say one time to “keep on keeping on”. That’s what I say to you, “keep on keeping on, one day, one step at a time”. Be safe. I suggest “Joy” as your trail name. Not only was it a joy to meet you along the trail, but I believe the “joy of the Lord will be (is) your strength”. I also believe your beautiful smile will provide joy to those you meet on your journey. I vote NO on the name OB. lol (Donnie, Amy, Keith, Beth, Faith Kinser, Tullahoma, TN)

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Sirwalkingtree : Mar 12th

    Cheers from the sidelines! Glad you are well and will be looking forward to more from you!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Raggs : Mar 12th

    I began in February 1998, and I had similar weather as you encounterdo. Sunny days in the 70’s and got sunburned due to no foliage on the trees yet.

    Didn’t see snow until March. Thenot a blizzard in the Smokies.

    Take your time and enjoy the adventure.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Gary Stell : Mar 12th

    Sara, so sorry for your misfortunes! I guess sometimes all a person can do is offer those over used cliches like, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, or it’s just the trail toughening you up. I guess there’s some truth in those but not much consolation. I am happy that you’ve gotten to experience the genuineness of some good people. That truly can console your heart and bolster your spirits. Like we used to say in the 60’s, “Keep the faith baby” or one of my very favorites, a poster of a cat dangling from a high place and the caption read, “Hang in there”! Anyway, good on ya for the miles you’ve trekked and the lessons you’ve learned about yourself and others! Happy Trails!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Leanne : Mar 12th

    Awesome! I’ve always wanted to hike the AT, but working, raising kids…never got to. Keep it up. You got this!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    LD-Tennessee : Mar 12th

    Strong, determined, your sights set on med school. You will complete the AT, I have no doubt. Please continue to write when you can, the sharing is good for you, it enlightens and inspires us as we read it, and we in turn support you. Happy to mail you a resupply or gear, or support any way you need.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Sara Chico : Mar 24th

      Hi! Thanks so much for your support! I’m doing my best to write as often as I can. I love sharing with people near and far what’s going on in those crazy mountains. I’m a few days from Virginia and I’m sure I’ll be desperate for a resupply then, if you’d like to send one out in a few weeks. Ibuprofen, baked goods, dried fruit, candy bars, and whatever other yummies are always welcome!

      Cheers!
      Sara

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Brenda Lynch : Mar 12th

    Loved your post–I will happily follow you as you experience this wonderful adventure!! I will offer you encouragement along the way. What a wonderful example you are to the women of today!! Thank you for your bravery and sharing your adventure!! Happy Trails and maybe this is the week for the trail name–we shall see!!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Niki : Mar 12th

    What they said! I so enjoyed your post! Please take care of your body cuz its what going to get you to Katahdin! I know about that rolled ankle thing–been there done that! More times than I can count so my heart goes out to you. Your trail name will come. I, too am cheering you on on the sidelines. Looking forward to your next post. Thank you for taking the time to share.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Jimmy the juiceman : Mar 13th

    Sara de Appalachia, keep on trekking over the hills and beyond to Khataydin. Blessings from our section hikers http://www.dhutupandhike.org

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Rob : Mar 15th

    You are a champion. Even if you’re a wee bit of messed up lol. I would love to be Maine bound one day. Keep trucking.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Barb : Mar 15th

    Sara, loved how you told your story about the tent! (Maybe Airborne might be a Trail name!) I love reading thru hiking stories (a happy day hiker myself) and being able to laugh at yourself and handle things with humor seems to be a common thread. Looking forward to hearing more of your adventures as you get nearer and nearer to Katahdin!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Tikibloke : Mar 15th

    Great blog! Good luck the rest of the way!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Jason Thweatt : Mar 15th

    Thank you for sharing Sara, good to always be reminded that stuff Is going to happen on the trail. I have been told it’s your attitude and how you handle the problems that arise ,which you have beautifully!! I start my NOBO March 27 ,very excited but nervous . Trying to let go and give God my worries and apprehensions. People like you give me strength and hope God bless you Sara!!!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Splendid Monkey King : Mar 15th

    Heh. Solid work. Warning that you’re going to find that most computers at hostels are windows XP, 15+ years old, and barely function.

    Hold out for the right trail name! We found that people were trying at Mile 1 to give trail names and that really took away from it. Wait until after the Smokeys unless there’s a really good story/reason.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Doug Abell : Mar 15th

    Give it all you got Sara!! I’m living my dream from your posts. Trail name how about “dreamcatcher”? I hope to be thru hiking in 2020.
    HIKE ON!!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Eddy G : Mar 16th

    Great entry, well said, Sara. Best of luck. Might you be “Boo Boo”?

    Reply
  • Avatar
    TarHeel : Mar 19th

    What is life on the AT without a nom de trail ? Well, that ‘s where your joie de vivre or perhaps alegria de vivir to reflect your name will lead you along the long and winding path. I reflected on the OB trail name and thought perhaps there was some karma in the exchange ( and remember you don ‘t always get to chose your fate ) and
    you might consider OB1 in a metaphorical Star Trek sense ( add the CanOB ? ). That being said, I truly have you enjoyed the humor in your writing so far. My youngest
    daughter ( Dangerpants……not she did not get a choice ) thru-hiked in 2013 and I did the same in 1979 walking 1400 miles on TarHeel Blisters. Two of my other daughters will be SOBOs in June and you may meet them along the way. If you stop at the AT Museum in Pine Grove Furnace SP, you can see copies of the original 1979 AT thru-hikers guide to “things along the way” which is the progenitor of the guides that exist today. Good luck, enjoy and keep on writing to wrest my wife and I from the long term effects of working in healthcare. I only wrote a one sentence describing my trip in ’79…..and it was easy to smile !

    Reply
  • Avatar
    TarHeel : Mar 19th

    What is life on the AT without a nom de trail ? Well, that ‘s where your joie de vivre or perhaps alegria de vivir to reflect your name will lead you along the long and winding path. I reflected on the OB trail name and thought perhaps there was some karma in the exchange ( and remember you don ‘t always get to chose your fate ) and
    you might consider OB1 in a metaphorical Star Trek sense ( add the CanOB ? ). That being said, I truly have you enjoyed the humor in your writing so far. My youngest
    daughter ( Dangerpants……no, she did not get a choice ) thru-hiked in 2013 and I did the same in 1979 walking 1400 miles on TarHeel Blisters. Two of my other daughters will be SOBOs in June and you may meet them along the way. If you stop at the AT Museum in Pine Grove Furnace SP, you can see copies of the original 1979 AT thru-hikers guide to “things along the way” which is the progenitor of the guides that exist today. Good luck, enjoy and keep on writing to wrest my wife and I from the long term effects of working in healthcare. I only wrote a one sentence describing my trip in ’79…..and it was easy to smile !

    Reply

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