I (Shelby) have always been “athletic”, and always thought of myself as being tough. It’s something I’ve been rather proud of myself for, which is really quite ridiculous since I have never really had to work at it. I don’t mean to say that I don’t work hard in athletics; I do. I am very competitive and want to be the best I possibly can be when I commit to something. What I’m saying is, its not like I rose from the ashes of a horribly uncoordinated childhood, being picked last by every team, never winning anything, and then worked my chubby rear off until I was a varsity track/basketball/softball star. All this to say, thanks to genes, I’ve always been athletically inclined. Surely hiking 40+ miles of the Appalachian Trail with my dad and brother would be no big deal, right? Right? Wrong Shelby. Very wrong. It was, in a word, an adventure. One definition of adventure is, an unusual and exciting, typically hazardous, experience or activity. They may as well have included a photo of the Appalachian Trail. Hiking the AT was one of the most humbling, strenuous, exciting, trying, beautiful, painful, LOTR quote inducing, majestic, and memorable experiences of my life. It all began at Amicalola…
We had arranged to be shuttled from Amicalola Falls State Park in Dawsonville, GA, up to Hog’s Pen Gap and then hike our way South back to Amicalola because Dad said, “I’m like Treebeard. I always liked going south; somehow, it feels like going downhill.” (If you don’t know that is from Lord of the Rings, you should probably stop reading this and go acquaint yourself with the best epic of all time. I won’t be mad at you. I promise.) The distance we were set to hike was approximately 46 miles. However, if I thought the adventure was going to begin when we hit the trail, I was quickly proved wrong. No, for me the adventure began when I sat down in our shuttle driver’s, let’s call her Jan, when I sat in Jan’s kennel of a vehicle. If the smell wasn’t enough, about 3 minutes into the drive I realized, (and no, I am not making this up) that I was sitting in dog poop. To say I was disgusted would be a vast understatement. I was in shock. Could this be real? I needed a second opinion. Unable to see the offending area myself, I tapped Seth’s arm and whispered, “Is there poop on my butt?” His face at that moment is difficult for me to describe. Torn between disgust and hilarity all he managed to do was nod. So here I was, in the back of Jan’s filthy car, finding myself at a loss for words or action. What was I supposed to do? “Excuse me madame, but I’m sitting in dog crap.” I really have to give my brother props for what happened next. Ever a gentleman, Seth took a tissue and wiped my butt. I didn’t think that that would be my reality until I was at least 90, but here I am, 23, and its already happened. So my day was off to a (literally) crappy start, and I sat for the next hour, vastly uncomfortable, trying not to think about the hard facts of life.
As it turned out, Jan advised us to put in one gap over at Tesnatee Gap, one hill over from Hog’s Pen Gap. It knocked a mile off our trip and she said that it was a bit easier to start from. My first reaction was to take offense, but about 5 minutes later I probably would have kissed her feet. And so it was, on March 22nd, 2015 our adventure began. That first hill was the worst. I never realized how much walking could hurt. I was gasping for air, thighs burning, cursing myself for butting in on what could have been excellent Father-Son time for my Dad and Brother, and was genuinely concerned that this trip would be the death of me. Treebeard and my Dad were definitely wrong about going South. Why was I doing this? I wasn’t on a soul journey, didn’t particularly enjoy not having a toilet, and definitely wasn’t a fan of having 30 lbs. strapped on my back. Also, I love my bed. I mean LOVE. Its the most comfortable mattress ever to have graced the earth, and I willingly gave it up in favor of sleeping on the ground for a week next to two sweaty and pungent boys. But it was too late to turn back now, and so I plodded on. And on. And on. I got passed by a herd of pretentious boy scouts, a man who was way too peppy and cheerful – obviously a lunatic – for my liking, and a woman who weighed no less than 300 lbs. Granted, they were going downhill, but still, my self-esteem took a major hit. By the time we reached the top, I had concluded that modern society has made us a bunch of weaklings… but I think the view was worth it. A never-ending haze of blue ridges stretched out before us that was simply breathtaking; and not just from the altitude change.
That first day was definitely the worst. Our bodies were adjusting to the abuse we were putting them through, and on top of that, Mother Nature decided we needed a little extra struggle, in the form of precipitation. All day, everyone we met had been telling us, “Oh man, you’re gonna love Neels Gap! Its so great. There is a store and cabins and food. Trail Magic!” and so on, and so forth. Although I hadn’t the slightest idea what ‘Trail Magic’ was (drugs? weird hippy hiker jargon?), I was genuinely excited. I imagined a picturesque stream with a little mountain store and quaint cottages. Tents pitched here and friendly folks gathered around camp fires, swapping stories and food and rinsing hands and faces in the creek. Alas, reality was not so kind. We did find a cute mountain store and a nice picnic table area by an overlook, but thats where the similarities ended. First off, it was raining and cold, which always puts a damper on things. Secondly, and I am trying to say this in the nicest way possible, but almost everyone there looked and acted like they were high on something. Dad especially, was less than enthused. The staff, to say the least, were not helpful. No one seemed to be able to tell us where we could make camp. Directly across the street was Blood Mountain, and we couldn’t camp there because in that area you were required to have a bear canister. It was already getting dark, and so with frustration mounting, we trudged a mile back uphill in the direction we came from, and made camp in the rain. As we crawled in our sleeping bags that night, Seth said to me, “This is not what I expected. When I thought about hiking the AT over my spring break, I didn’t imagine it like this.” I completely sympathized. All day I had been catching myself daydreaming about Hobbits, Highlanders, and post-apocalyptic heroes. Reality was somewhat less romantic.
The next morning, we awoke to fog which gave way (thankfully) to sunshine. So it was with much higher spirits, we started Day 2 of our journey. It began with the ascension of Blood Mountain; elevation 4,461 ft, highest point of the AT in Georgia, and very aptly named (Ok, so the name has nothing to do with the horrendous act that is climbing the thing, but hey… it works). I won’t lie, it was torture. But there was a sweet payoff at the top. The view was amazing and I finally got to sign my trail name in the book at the Blood Mountain shelter. Everyone on the AT has trail names. Dad’s was Bullet, Seth’s was Blue Child, and mine was Sassenach (from the Gaelic meaning Outlander, which I thought appropriate). After descending Blood Mountain we came to an area with the most beautiful huge trees. Passing through Jarrard Gap we began the last leg of that day’s trek, which circled us around a hill/mountain/whatever where there were constantly amazing views of those blue ridges. It would have been nice to make camp up there, but we needed water, so we pressed on to Lance Creek which was depressingly crowded. However, some of our less obnoxious acquaintances at Neel’s Gap had given us the tip off, so we scrambled up an overgrown path behind the “campsites” and actually found a really nice spot to make camp that hugged the ridge over the creek. It was beautiful. Much more along the lines of what Seth had envisioned. Oh, and did I mention it was sunny all day long? I don’t know about you guys, but its almost comical the affect the sun has on my mood. I even had enough energy to set about the task of making a campfire! It was definitely one of my favorite days.
Day three, in my opinion, was the worst as far as fatigue. Weather wise, it was absolutely amazing! We awoke to a fantastic sunrise on the ridge and it stayed sunny and warm all day long which is both a blessing and a curse when backpacking, but definitely preferable to rain. When I first slung my pack on, it felt so heavy. Theoretically it was getting lighter every day, but it certainly didn’t feel that way, no matter how many cliff bars I ate! Many of you reading this who have backpacked before will probably have realized by now we were caring a ridiculous amount of stuff with us. My bag weighed 30 lbs. starting out, and Dad and Seth’s both weighed about 50 lbs. One of the things we brought that Dad was so excited about was pancake mix. Sounds great right? Well maybe… if you like pancake soup. I’m just glad I stopped him from bringing the powdered eggs. Regardless, we packed the pancake mix back up and Seth lugged it around for another 2 days. Dad kept saying he wanted to try it again… but eventually he got so disgusted (and I think he felt betrayed) that he dumped it all in the fire in a fit of rain induced anger. But I’m getting ahead of myself. So we ate our pancake soup, packed up, and headed out, heavy packs and all. We had to stop and filter/treat water at the creek before we really got going and then we headed up the trail, and I mean UP, for a really long time. On the AT you have a lot of highs and lows (both literally and emotionally/spiritually). The climb is the worst, but when you get to the peaks its just amazing. And honestly, you can’t help but feel a little bit proud of yourself when you reach them. I kept asking myself, what is it that drives so many people to hike the AT? Is it this? The peaks? Definitely not. You can drive to scenic outlooks, no hiking required. Of course, everyone you pass on the trail is headed to Maine, and only a small portion finish, but what brings us all out here? And what drives those chosen few to complete all 2,000+ miles? Surely not just to say they did it? I remembered a quote I had heard a couple months ago by Mark Obmascik that said, “I just love all this . . . The sights, the smells, making the effort and pushing yourself and getting something that’s really hard to get. I’ll fly on a plane and people will look out the window at thirty thousand feet and say, ‘Isn’t this view good enough for you?’ And I say no, it’s not good enough. I didn’t earn it. In the mountains, I earn it.” And maybe thats it. Maybe its about earning something. Or maybe it just has to do with being in the wilderness. As Cheryl Strayed so poignantly put it, “It had nothing to do with gear or footwear or the backpacking fads or philosophies of any particular era or even with getting from point A to point B. It had to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With what it was like to walk for miles with no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets. The experience was powerful and fundamental. It seemed to me that it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel this way.”
On this particular day, early on we encountered a rather portly gentleman, who excitedly told us that a ‘Christian man’ was set up at a place called Gooch Gap feeding weary hikers. Being a big fan of food myself, I decreed that we would make it to this Gooch Gap no matter what the mileage! Fortunately for us, it was only about 8 miles. Sidenote: let me tell you, 10 miles ceases to sound so small after you’ve done any backpacking. We reached the halfway mark between Lance Creek and Gooch Gap (about 4 miles) around 2pm or so; a place called Woody Gap. There, alongside a road that passed through the gap, there was (wonder of wonders!) a bathroom! With toilet paper and everything! So then, feeling much more human, we set off on the last 4 miles to Gooch. There was one really scenic outlook we passed at some point in the day called Preachers Rock which we took a little break at, but other than that we kept a pretty good pace. When we finally did make it, it was like I had stumbled into some weird dream. I was able to take off my pack and put on my sandals. Nothing, I mean nothing, feels as good as taking your hiking boots off after backpacking all day. We finally met the ‘Christian man’ we had heard tale of earlier, and his two children who were running the operation. The man’s name was James Evans and he said that their purpose there was simply to serve in the name of Jesus. They had really created an environment in which everyone could mingle and feel refreshed and just not have to worry for a minute about what needed to be done. It was lovely. I had a salad to start with. You’ve never tasted a salad until you’ve tasted a salad on the AT. It was phenomenal. As was the taco soup and COBBLERS (yes, two cobblers! peach and cherry!) they had prepared. If anyone is interested in learning more about their ministry, its called Benchmark Adventure Ministries, and more information can be found at http://www.benchmark.org. I strongly suggest checking it out. So we went to sleep well fed, and were able to wake up the next morning feeling well rested. AND they even had breakfast for us! (Foggy rain isn’t half as bad if you can get hot chocolate under a giant tent) And you know what people were calling it? Trail Magic. So the mystery was finally solved. Trail Magic turned out not to be some strange drug after all.
Day four was pretty rough. Although the fog proved amazing for photographic purposes, after it passed, the section of the trail we hiked that day was not the most scenic. I most enjoyed the area immediately following Gooch Gap. There was a nice creek flowing there and thus, quite a bit of green, which is really nice when you’ve been seeing mostly browns and blues. Seth and I took turns cranking this infernal lantern we had bought which was supposed to charge our phones. It worked for a couple of days, but once the battery got down, I swear, no amount of cranking would have brought it back to life. I don’t care if you had the Hulk cranking on that thing. Our goal was to reach a place called Hawk Mountain Shelter where there was also water and campsites. We finally reached it, and probably could have gone farther, but there was something incredibly enticing about the idea of stopping before 6pm. So we did. At first, I thought we were going to end up camped out right next to strangers because, I kid you not, the place was swarming with people. Maybe Dad was right that hiking South allowed us more peace on the trail, but we did pass hikers going the opposite direction all the time, and no matter what direction you’re going people are going to camp where there is water. So we meandered down to the stream which was surprisingly large! And to our further surprise and delight, found a campsite right by the water, hidden from the main trail by a fairly dense patch of rhododendron. I’ll admit it, leave no trace or not, I took a creek bath. And you know what? It was fabulous. No, I did not pollute the creek with chemicals (shampoo, soap, whatever), but I did rinse off. It was freezing, but so so worth it. The best part about camping by a stream is you don’t have to worry about how much water you’re cooking with or drinking. Its amazing how much we take for granted with indoor plumbing. I have mad respect for our ancestors. It was a hard life back then. We don’t even come close to realizing how easy our lives are today. We made a campfire, and just enjoyed the evening for a bit. Cocoa in hand.
So day five arrived, and with it, rain. We awoke to a very soggy campsite, and a very grumpy Dad, who right then and there took out his aggression on the treacherous aforementioned pancakes. Apparently the rain sealed the deal, and he decided there was no hope of hot cakes on this particular trek. I’m pretty sure that improved Seth’s spirits though, because his bag happened to be carrying the breakfast supplies. We further lightened his load by eating oatmeal and drinking more cocoa. Over the course of the night, somehow Seth got it in his head that we had to finish the hike today. I’m not sure if it was the rain, or the food, or what that did it, but he was determined. The only teeny tiny insignificant detail was that it was 16 miles to the finish line. Up until then we had been hiking about 8 miles per day. It doesn’t take Einstein to do that math. Twice the distance in the same amount of time. I didn’t think we would actually go through with it. I thought after 8 miles we would all just give up and make camp for the night and finish the remaining 8 miles Friday. I thought wrong.
The day began much like the other days, made a little more gloomy by the fact that we were wet and muddy, but the rain eventually stopped and we crossed a dirt road next to a strange little cemetery. At that point the terrain began to change. All of the sudden there were conifers everywhere, moss, and just more green everywhere you looked. We came to a place where the ground sloped down ahead and beyond there was a valley of green and the sound of running water. We had only been hiking for a couple miles and didn’t really need water but we decided to get some nonetheless. I took the opportunity to get out my camera and the boys went ahead to start the filtering process. It was nice to be alone for a moment in the deep quiet of the woods. It was so different from what we had seen up until that point. I meandered down the trail and when I got through the rhododendron, was thrilled to emerge at gorgeous waterfall! Long Creek Falls to be precise, although I didn’t know its name at the time. It was stunning. A perfect creek with huge rocks and trees and everywhere you turned so much green! I wish I could build a cabin and live there. I took so many photos and even got the boys to pose for a group shot. Unfortunately, Seth didn’t have as magical an experience as I did at the falls. While chasing his water bottle lid downstream, he slipped and soaked one of his boots, forcing him to hike the next segment in Chacos. It was undoubtedly the most gorgeous segment of the trip (for me), but I was quite annoyingly rushed through it in our push to reach the end. We followed Long Creek for quite a way downhill, then eventually crossed it before we began the four mile ascent up Springer Mountain, Southern terminus of the AT. It was beautiful. As we walked through the deep shadow beneath the whispering pines, the steady babble of a stream to our left, I felt apart of the ancient stillness that only exists in the woods. I love a sweeping vista as much as the next person, but there is much to be said for the humility and enigmatic lure of the forest. It is a quiet, unpretentious beauty. I knew I would always be a part of it, along with all who sojourn the Appalachian Trail. After awhile we began to ascend out of the lush green and back into the blue ridges. From Hawk Mountain to the summit of Springer it took about six hours to hike 8 miles, so we were actually making pretty good time (at least for us). We decided to eat a bigger lunch than usual, and go for the final push to Amicalola. The end was in sight. Bed! Hot food! Running water! It was like a siren call… dangerously alluring. I signed the registry and Springer Mountain with our trail names and a quote from J.R.R. Tolkien, “Home is behind, the world ahead. And there are many paths to tread,” which seemed fitting. After taking some photos there, we began the approach trail to Amicalola Falls. I won’t go into detail, because that last 8 miles really wasn’t pleasant or entertaining, but I will say, after much toil and struggle, we eventually made it to the falls, which were amazing. Unfortunately it was night, and my feet were falling off, so I didn’t get to really enjoy it, but they were really quite something. When we got to our car, my legs were shaking, and it was all I could do not to collapse there on the pavement. Seth did. And said he thought he could just go to sleep right there. I didn’t doubt him for an instant.
And so, after 5 days and 45 miles, my time on the AT came to a close. I can’t say that I will ever attempt a thru-hike. There are so many things I want to see and do in the world that I just don’t know if sacrificing 5-6 months to hike the AT from Georgia to Maine is really a priority, but who knows? I definitely am interested in completing the whole thing via section hikes like this over the years. It definitely seems more feasible. My advice to all of you out there considering a backpacking trek of any distance is to pack light. I promise, you will only regret those extra pounds. Baby wipes are awesome, as are sandals, and good hiking clothes that are breathable and moisture wicking. Another essential, especially if hiking the AT is a good rain jacket. I had one, Seth and Dad did not. I was a happy camper (generally speaking) when the torrents came. The boys got wet. And cold. Not things you want to be on the trail. So my last piece of advice would be to get out there and try it. It really is a neat experience and I’m definitely glad (and proud) I did it. If you’ve hiked the AT or any other long distance trail, please comment and tell me your stories! I’m sorry if this post was a bit long, but I promise it could have been longer. As always, please comment with what you liked or didn’t like about the post. We are a new blog and want it to be something that people enjoy reading. Thanks for dropping by and happy trails!
– Shelby (aka Sassenach)