Last month, I wrote about my voyage to the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. I recounted the drive to Georgia, a restless night in a hotel, and the exchanging of farewells with my family. What I haven’t yet written about is my first day on the trail.
The traditional way to reach Springer Mountain and the AT’s southernmost white blaze is to ascend the mountain via the approach trail from Amicalola Falls State Park. Since I set out to have an “iconic” thru-hike, I wasn’t about to miss the approach trail. And so, after tearfully waving goodbye to my mother and sister and dog, I stepped under the stone archway marking the start of the trail and began climbing up to the eponymous waterfall.
I cannot describe how difficult that first mile was.
People talk about the rigorous climb up 640 stairs beside the waterfall, but, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t really notice it. I’d learned to hike in New Hampshire — and had just completed a hilly half-marathon — so I was well-prepared for climbs and considered anything less dramatic than 1000ft in a mile to be, if not a cakewalk, a gift, since I’d seen how much more steep and technical the trail could be. No, it wasn’t the elevation gain that I found so problematic in that first mile; my struggle was all in my head.
Having spent one month on the trail the year before (in 2011) and spoken to many thru-hikers, I had no delusions about what I was getting myself into. I knew the next five or six months would be beautiful and inspiring, but I also knew that they would be challenging and lonely. And, I had gone to the trail to answer some big questions, big questions that were lurking in the back of my mind on the cool April day.
There are several parking lots and viewing areas along the first section of the trail. At each one, I saw families gathered together, looking at the falls and setting off on short hikes. Like a little kid heading off to summer camp, I already missed my family dearly, and I felt a knot rise in my throat as I watched the other people.
At the highest parking lot, I retreated into a bathroom with my pack — and cried for a few minutes. I held my little blue flip phone in my hand, considering how easy it would be to call Mom before she’d gotten too far down the road and just head back to Kentucky. It wasn’t one of my prouder moments. Then, resolutely, I put the phone back in my pack. The idea of walking to Maine might have been overwhelming at that point, but, I decided, I’d focus on walking that day. And the next. And the next.
I shouldered my pack, walked out of the restroom, and hit the trail, where, almost immediately, I caught up to two middle-aged women who were out on a day hike. Intrigued by my aspirations to walk to Maine, they invited me to walk with them, and I happily obliged. Sharing stories from our respective lives, we walked together for the next hour (if my memory serves), until we were joined by Wiffle Chicken, a PCT thru-hiker and AT thru-hiker hopeful. We four hiked together for a mile or so, and then the women took a side trail and parted company with us. Wiffle Chicken kept me company all the way to the summit of Springer, where we staged a picture before hiking on. While he intended to hike on to Hawk Mountain Shelter, I’d planned to end my day’s hike at the shelter atop Springer Mountain, in my quest to create an iconic thru-hike. Thus, we, too, parted ways.
Not that I was alone at Springer Mountain Shelter. In fact, there were so many aspiring thru-hikers at the shelter that night (most every one of whom I never saw again) that I tented nearby, rather than sleeping inside the shelter.
The late afternoon was warm. I set up my tent, stretched out on my mattress, and promptly fell asleep in the spring sunlight.
When I woke up, I made dinner (spaghetti and marinara sauce), fetched water, hung my bear bag, watched a beautiful sunrise through the trees, journaled, and then went to sleep for the night. At midnight, my very atypically social first day on the trail turned into something more like the rest of my thru-hike. For no apparent reason, I woke up, in the midst of what can only be described as an existential crisis. Those big questions that I’d promised myself I’d answer sometime along the trail surged to the forefront of my mind, all at once. Under the star-filled sky in that clearing atop Springer Mountain, I silently asked whatever would listen “Who am I?” and “What am I?” and “Where I am going?” and “What am I doing?”
And then, somehow, I was asleep again. And, like it always does, morning came. I gathered my belongings, bundled up in some warmer layers (as the world was shrouded in a seemingly impenetrable fog), threw on my Deuter, and hit the trail.
Minus the fact that I didn’t see another soul for the greater portion of the next day, which was surprising given the number of people who’d slept at Springer Mountain and prompted me to call home to (only partially in jest) ask my family whether I’d missed the Rapture, the next day was almost ordinary — and that sleep-filled night was ordinarily lovely. My third day on the trail was, as I wrote in my journal, “one of those days that [aspiring thru-hikers] dream of experiencing, that make their way into travel magazines, that inspire thousands of hikers to climb Amicalola Falls every spring.” Best of all, while I continued to think about the answers to some important questions, the existential crises held off for another fifty days or so.