(If you missed the first update last night, you can read that here.)
Have I ever told you that I have the coolest sisters in the world? Caroline and I drove through the night last Thursday in time for a Friday breakfast with friends, then, after an unplanned off-road adventure, we reached Amicalola Falls State Park. I forget the exact number of stairs leading up the falls, but it was something like 80 gazillion. Caroline could tell I was nervous, and she was perfect: calm, reassuring, optimistic.
After goodbyes and a few pictures, I started climbing. The approach trail to the official start of the AT on Springer Mountain is 8.8 miles, and it’s notoriously strenuous. Most people are smart enough to get dropped off on the other side of Springer and backtrack about a mile to the start of the trail, but some of us have a (possibly misguided) notion that the approach has a significance of its own…something about an immediate rite of passage to get us in the right mindset before the official start.
I made it 7.3 miles to Black Gap Shelter before collapsing for the night. I’d been hiking and making small talk most of the day with a father/son duo who were out for a couple nights, and late in the day we realized that the dad and I are both named Beau…a satisfying coincidence, considering that I’ve only met two or three others in my life.
I camped near Beau and Charles that night, and in the morning they hiked the last mile and a half to take some pictures and see me off. That was the first of many instant friendships that I’ve formed this week…my theory that people are more friendly outdoors is amplified here, where we’re all attempting this crazy thing together.
The summit of Springer, especially this time of year, feels like a holy place. Friends and family gather around hikers for pictures, prayers and last-minute advice. After tightening the pack straps, the hikers turn north and take the first of five million steps.
Setting up camp that night at Hawk Mountain Shelter felt like the first day of school. There were plenty of weekenders and section hikers, but the thru-hikers were seeking each other out and making tentative small talk. I’m starting at peak thru-hiking season, so there are a ton of us…way too many to name here or even remember. I would see most of the people I met that night at frequent intervals over the next few days, but we’re all still figuring out our pace, so it’s difficult to tell which of these people I’ll be near in a couple weeks. For now, though, it’s amazing to walk up to a random group at a stream or shelter and know that I’ll recognize at least a couple people.
As some of the more ambitious hikers started to pull ahead after a couple days, a smaller group of us began to form tighter bonds–waiting for each other at resting spots, planning our days to end near each other at night. This is me with a few of those folks on Blood Mountain.
Blood Mountain, by the way, was brutal. It wasn’t the hardest climb (for me at least, that honor goes to the much too delicately named Sassafras Mountain), but the descent was long, steep and rocky…the kind of rocks that made me feel like I’d been pounding on my knees and ankles with hammers for a couple hours.
But it was so, so beautiful, with the historic shelter and the ledges with views in every direction.
That was a big milestone, followed by the equally significant Neels Gap, home of a legendary outfitter and bunkhouse. I rested on the porch there for about an hour, eating some pizza that I don’t even remember being offered.
The bunkhouse was full, so my new friend Ben and I walked down the road and rented the last spot at Blood Mountain Cabins…a beautiful little retreat that I would highly recommend for a vacation. We showered, did laundry, made soup and spaghetti, and slept in real beds. Heaven, in other words…especially considering that was the first night that it rained.
Ben took the next day off and rented the cabin for another night, but I got up early and walked 11.5 miles to Low Gap Shelter…my longest, hardest day yet. It was wet, windy and cold all day, and the last couple miles before the shelter I started going numb, wondering if leaving the cabin so soon was a good idea.
I set up the tent and chatted for a couple minutes with my neighbors, but nobody stayed out long…the temperature was dropping fast and would eventually get below 10 degrees for the night. I would have taken pictures of my frozen tent cover or the frost all around the trail the next day, except that I couldn’t feel my fingers. I’m happy to report, though, that my tent and sleeping bag kept me warm all night; Smokies, here I come.
The next day was another long hike, mostly because my knees since Blood Mountain have meant walking very, very slowly. I caught up with a father and daughter who were ending their section hike at Unicoi Gap, where I was planning to end the day. Their truck was waiting there, so they gave me a ride into Hiawassee, where I checked into a hotel, took my first bath since I was probably about 10, and just about put a buffet out of business.
I’m at the hotel all day today, watching basketball, re-supplying on food, reading emails and stretching. I’ll head back out tomorrow morning…a handful of the people in my little group took a day off back at Neels Gap, so I’m hoping we’ll be near each other again once I get back on.
I’ll post one more in a little bit with some stray observations. It won’t be as long as this one, I promise.
Thanks for reading.