The Trail is Darwinism in Action

But not in the sense of “survival of the fittest”. You survive by being able to adapt.

We were forced to be adaptable from the start of our thru-hike. Our planned start date was March 7th but a series of thunderstorms made us push it back to the 8th. We started out from Amicalola Falls and spent the next few days getting comfortable with our gear and letting our bodies adjust to climbing mountains every day. 

Things went smoothly for the next few days. We averaged a little over 10 miles a day, we stayed dry during our first overnight thunderstorm, and we got into a good routine when setting up and breaking down our camp.

We had good luck with the weather and even though we ran into a little snow we both felt good and stuck to the plans we made every night as we poured over our trail guide. 

We planned to take our first zero day in Hiawassee, Georgia when we reached Dick’s Creek Gap at mile 69 on the trail. Based on our plan we would hit it on Wednesday or Thursday. The fact that I’m writing this post on Wednesday, which is now our second zero day in a row, will tell you things did not go as planned.

We expected to run into snow in the first couple of weeks. We were prepared for nights that were below freezing. What we weren’t prepared for was a winter storm warning that lasted 3 days and included windchill temperatures around 0 degrees.

After waking up to an ice covered tent and an intimidating weather forecast on Monday morning, we realized we needed to adapt. We decided to hike the (more than planned) 16 miles to Unicoi Gap and come into Hiawassee a few days early and wait out the weather.

Taking two zero days within our first week was not an easy decision. Mentally it felt like we were being weak and it definitely wasn’t in the budget to sit around in town for two and a half days this early into our trip. After talking with each other and rechecking the weather forecast we realized that getting off the trail for a few days was the only thing that would keep us ON the trail in the long run.

We weren’t being weak, we were acknowledging our limits and the limits of our gear. Staying out in dangerous conditions wouldn’t prove anything to anyone and would only put our well being and our thru-hike at risk. 

The only way we’re going to make it all the way to Maine is by adapting to the unforseen challenges that we’ll face along the way.

– Zach 

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Comments 10

  • Mike Buckhanan : Mar 15th

    Hi Ashley & Zach; as you can see from the email address I’m at Zach’s old work place. My son thru-hiked the AT in 2008 & he still states it was the best experience of his life. I joined up with him for three 2-week sections at the start, middle & end. We left March 22nd and hit snow 4-5 days, so what you are seeing can be common early in the year. If someone is mailing your supply boxes at the designated post offices & towns, keep the calorie count up high for what they mail. My son lost 35 lbs on the hike and looked like a totally different person at the end. When the miles seem long & your bodies are aching, look around at what you are experiencing in the backcountry and all the stories you can tell for the rest of your life! The AT trail angels come out right when you need them & the bonds you build with other thru-hikers will last a lifetime. Keep up the positive attitudes & keep the end goal in mind, then I know you can make it all the way. 30%-40% of people not prepared bailout on the first 4-5 days & you could usually pick them out as you passed them by. Neels Gap in Northern Georgia is the perfect place to pick up supplies and mail items home you don’t see as necessary anymore. The trail passes right through Mountain Crossings at Neels Gap. Good luck & I plan to check on your progress. Don’t let it get into your head about quitting, just keep taking one more step ahead & take in the scenery….

  • Ashley George : Mar 15th

    Mike! That is so cool! Thank you for your kind words and advice – especially about not even thinking about quitting, we know that’s so important. Thanks for following along with us!

  • Sandy : Mar 16th

    So proud of you both hope the bottles are working for you take care and be safe

    • Sandy : Mar 16th

      Be careful

  • Ruth morley : Mar 16th

    It sounds like you made a really good decision about waiting out the harsh conditions. I’m also from Cincinnati and will start Part 1 of my flip flop SOBO hike from Harpers Ferry in July. When I heard about the snow storm hitting the east, I immediately was concerned about all the folks on the AT. Little did I know that there were some fellow citizens of the Queen City dealing with the situation. A lot of people can walk long distances, but to succeed in an endeavor as big as a thru-hike, it’s even more important to successfully deal with issues that present themselves. I’d say you’re doing that well.

  • Ashley Lanigan : Mar 18th

    Hi Zach & Ashley! Great decision waiting it out! 🙂 I know nothing about hiking other than a family trip to Red River Gorge-nothing comparable to what you 2 are doing! Enjoy the scenery & just think of the memories you will have to tell people about when you are finished with the hike! I told Zach I wish I could be that adventurous & just do what you guys are doing! I think it is awesome! Can’t wait to see more updates!

  • Michael Driver : Mar 22nd

    Keep it up, listen to Mike B. he is 100% correct. You guys are smart and sound like you are making the best decisions you can. You will finish as I know you have the mental toughness to do it. Thank you for sharing your experience with us all. I know I can speak for others that we are rooting for you guys!

  • Bo Zwolski : Mar 22nd

    Keep up the good progress and your not missing anything to crazy here, just chamber 5 is down and waiting on Michael to fix it. You will probably be finished with your journey before we figure it out.

  • Warner's Student Leadership Class : Mar 27th

    Keep it up guys! Adapting is a great skill to practice, and we shared your post with our class!

    Mr. Shirley and Mrs. Nolen

  • Roben Smith : Mar 31st

    Hey Ashley & Zach,
    You guys are doing a great job. We were in Asheville, NC on March 19 through the 23. We went up to Max Patch where Keith & the Boy Scouts camped when they were hiking the trail. Keith talked to a couple of through hikers and one guy said they actually closed the trail for a few days because of the storm that went through. They said it was too icy for hikers to travel safely so it sounds like you made the right decision. Keep up the good work and hike on!
    Roben & Keith Smith


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