When I was about 15, my family went on a camping trip to the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. Our campsite was near where the Appalachian Trail climbed a mountain called The Priest. We had some time, so my brothers and I attempted to climb it. They were younger and became tired, but I managed to get to the top, where I was rewarded with a spectacular view.
While admiring the vista, I glimpsed a tall figure moving slowly along the path behind me. It was a lanky man with a full beard, ponytail, and a huge pack on his back. An Appalachian Trail distance hiker. I watched him disappear from view as he slowly started to descend the mountain.
I never forgot the sight of him, and I swore that I would one day return to the AT to hike it myself. It took 40 years, but a few weeks ago I finally did it.
The Appalachian Trail is a 2,100-mile footpath through the rugged Appalachian Mountains of the eastern U.S., stretching from Georgia to Maine. It was conceived in the 1920s by a bookish forest official named Benton MacKaye, who envisioned a series of hostels and wilderness workshops connected by a path. A young Washington lawyer named Myron H. Avery, more pragmatic than MacKaye, advanced MacKaye’s idea without the hostels and workshops. Today the trail is a monument to public activism and wilderness protection. Though the route is continually changing, the terminus points now remain fixed at Mt. Katahdin in northern Maine, and Springer Mountain in northern Georgia.
There are different types of AT hikers: day hikers, overnighters, section and thru-hikers. Thru-hikers are a breed apart. They attempt to do the full 2,100 miles at once, which takes a lot of planning and about 4-6 months actual hiking. Supposedly less than one-fourth of thru-hikers who start ever finish.
A thru-hike was not for me. I decided to do a northbound (NOBO) section hike of Georgia. Though most thru-hikers are NOBO, some begin in Maine and hike south (SOBO). I would be hiking in early September, so it was possible I’d encounter at least one of these intrepid SOBOs.
After a nervous goodbye to my wife, I hopped a Greyhound from Cincinnati to Dalton, Georgia, where I met up with my shuttle driver, Ron Brown. Ron’s an ex-park ranger and native of New Hampshire who now lives in Ellijay, Georgia, near the Springer Mtn. trailhead. He makes his living shuttling people like me to and from various points on the trail.
I loaded my backpack in the back of Ron’s Toyota Rav4, and we set off in early morning darkness. During the drive, he told me about some interesting people he’s shuttled, such as the guy who insisted on carrying his heavy, cast iron skillet. Also, the obese man who managed only one or two miles per day at the start, but made it all the way to Mt. Katahdin.
“I know he finished because he sent me a photo. I barely recognized him, he’d lost so much weight. But it was him. He was holding up the pants he had when he started, and you could’ve fit three of him inside.”
Ron had all sorts of helpful gadgets in his car, including a charger for my cell phone, and a GPS voice that groaned “Things are getting very strange” as we plunged deeper into the forest.
Ron dropped me off at a forest service road parking lot, 0.9 miles north of the trailhead. I unloaded my pack, he filled my canister with camping fuel, and we shook hands goodbye.
On the hike south, I found a slightly bowed, chest-high tree branch. I adopted it as my walking stick, and christened it after a childhood camping buddy. I also passed a few hikers, the first being a blonde woman who said she was doing a short section to Neels Gap (wherever that was). I arrived shortly at a large rocky clearing shrouded in fog: the top of Springer Mountain.
This was it. I’d dreamed about this place. Sure enough, to the right was the 1933 bronze plaque showing a hiker with a hat and backpack. On the left was a large boulder with a more recent plaque. Inside the boulder was a metal drawer, which I opened. I found a slightly damp notebook that contained brief entries of those who’d reached this spot. I wrote a short blurb about my hiking inspiration and signed it with a trail alias. Trail aliases are colorful names that hikers make up, or which are bestowed upon them. I really liked the name that followed the entry directly above mine: “Rainbow Slug.”
Unfortunately, Springer Mountain was so foggy that I couldn’t take a photo of the view. But at least it wasn’t raining… yet.
Man, it felt good to start hiking. Just one foot in front of the other, get into a good rhythm, take in the mountain scenery. I had nine days to reach my destination of Franklin, North Carolina, where I was to meet my wife and daughter, and I calculated I needed to do about 13 miles per day. Easy. Heck, my marathon training runs are longer and only last a few hours. Of course – as I soon found out – hiking on rocks and roots for ten hours, up and down mountains, with 35 pounds on your back is a lot different than running a couple hours on a flat, paved bicycle path with nothing at your back except breeze.
I crossed the gravel parking lot where Ron had dropped me off, and saw a few other hikers unloading their gear. After a couple hours, feeling pretty good, I started singing an old Neil Young tune. I’d only done a few verses when (as always happens) I noticed someone close behind me, and felt slightly embarrassed. Should I let him catch up, or keep walking? What the heck, might as well be sociable. I walked a little slower, then turned around. It was a young guy with long hair.
“Thought I heard someone behind me,” I said. “How far you headed?”
“I’m hiking to Neels Gap.” (Must be a popular spot, I thought).
“My name’s Pete.”
“Hey, I like that name!”
Dustin was a 24-year-old from Augusta, Georgia. Like me, hiking the AT was a dream of his. His parents had dropped him off at Amicalola Falls, a park 8.8 miles south of Springer. I later found out that Dustin enjoyed hunting, flounder fishing, and he made the best cherry-blackberry wine this side of Napa Valley. He also had a girl back home who was pressuring him to get married!
We hit it off, hiked at about the same pace, so we ended up hiking together the next several days.