An Auspicious Beginning, Part Two

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.Springer

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.Springer

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.

An Auspicious Beginning, Part One

In a few days, I’ll be heading south to North Carolina to walk the tiny section of the Appalachian Trail I missed during my thru-hike in 2012.  The prospect of being on the trail again, even if I’m planning to spend only one night in the woods, is so exciting and bringing back all sorts of memories.

I’ve shared some photos from the southern terminus of the trail before — and I’ve written about my voyage to the trail in 2011 — but I thought that tonight I would channel my reminiscences toward recounting the beginning of my thru-hike.

Following my 2011 foray on the trail, I returned to my family’s little hobby farm in Kentucky and got a job as a “Math Instructional Aide” at the local community college to save up funds for my thru-hike.  I continued to read about the trail and enjoyed selecting gear and dehydrating food for my hike.  I also exercised extensively and ran two half-marathons.  In early April, I quit work and focused solely on preparations for the trail.  When April 14th rolled around, I loaded my backpack and trekking poles into the car, and my mother drove my sister, our dog, and me to northern Georgia, where I would begin my five- or six-month adventure the following day.


Kelly and Ohana posed near a white blaze at one of the AT crossings we passed on our drive.

Throughout the seven-hour drive, the car seemed filled with anticipation and nervous energy.  When we left the interstate and started winding our way down smaller roads, Ohana (the dog) asked for the windows to be rolled down.  We all enjoyed the bright, spring green scenery and the fresh air.  Several times, our weaving route took us to trail crossings that I would come to in the days and weeks ahead.

When we arrived in Dahlonega, we were famished.  Mom took me out to an Italian restaurant for the designated “last supper.”  I remember looking at the food on my plate and thinking that in just a few hours I’d be leaving that sort of comfort and luxury behind.  I’d spent a month on the trail the previous year; I knew what it was like out there.  While I felt as though I was ready to burst with excitement, I was also more anxious than I’d like to admit.

In the hotel that night, I barely slept.  Ohana, our 70-pound Canine American, seemed to realize that something was amiss — and, more importantly, she recognized that that something concerned me.  She spent the entire night cuddling close to me, lying on my pillow with me.  It was odd behavior, even for her, and I couldn’t help thinking how much I’d miss her while I was gone.*

The next morning, I couldn’t decide whether I was ready to start hiking or wanting to put it off as long as possible.  But, eventually, all of my gear was double-checked and packed and we were heading to Amicalola Falls State Park.

The southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail is atop Springer Mountain.  There are several ways of getting to the start of the trail, but the time-honored rite of passage is to hike up the eight-mile approach trail, past Amicalola Falls.  And so, on April 15, 2012, I walked into the Amicalola ranger station, signed my name in the register, let my little sister buy some AT swag for me (which she took home and put in my room), and then walked to the stone archway leading to the approach trail.

I worked to blink back tears — whether they were from happiness or sadness, I’m not sure.  It felt  surreal that this dream of mine was finally happening.  I knew that every day of the next 150+ would be worth treasuring and remembering.  I knew that each day would be one I “earned,” although I would not yet have described them in quite that way.  I knew that I’d find myseDSCF0114lf lonely, exhausted, discouraged, and aching — perhaps as much as or even more than I’d find myself joyous, inspired, awed, and exhilarated.  Standing under that stone arch, halfway between walking away from all I knew so well and walking toward all that I couldn’t wait to know, it was a lot to take in.

I looked down, not wanting my tears to be caught on camera.  As my vision cleared, I noticed an anomaly in the ground cover near the path: a four-leaf clover.  I’m not a superstitious person, but I couldn’t help feeling that it was a good sign.

And so, I hugged my family, passed under the stone arch, and headed up the trail.

To be continued…

*Incidentally, every time I saw Ohana during my thru-hike, she refused to acknowledge me.  We’ve since made up.