One of the biggest misconceptions that non-hikers have of long distance hiking is that it’s boring. That without constant technological stimulation, a day packed full of planned activities and access to the wider world, we’re all either hiking endless identical miles or sitting around camp staring at each other.
Let me tell you, that ain’t the case. There are no two moments exactly alike. Your home changes with every step you take. You never see the same sunrise or sunset twice. The mountains, the forest, the rivers, and even the trail itself are all part of one giant living organism that is never constant, always alive, breathing, and changing. New experiences mean ever-changing conversations with your trail buddies and being around the same people non-stop for days on end leads to some serious philosophizing.
A lot has happened in the not-quite-a-week I’ve been out here. Day one, I got a late, hurried start from Amicalola Falls, trying to quickly register my thru-hike while avoiding being hassled by the old men from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy trying to psych me out of my trip. “A few days on the trail is a lot different from a trip to Maine.”, “Your pack is gonna slow you down a lot. You really need to drop some of that weight. Wouldn’t want it to be the reason you get discouraged and stop.” I politely but firmly countered that I was confident in my gear choices and my ability to finish the trip. Had they not been quite so nice, it would have been “shut up, I know what I’m doing.” I found out later from another hiker that neither of them had actually completed a thru-hike. One had gone about six hundred miles and quit, the other had only done local section hikes. Just goes to show that so many times when others try to discourage you, it has little to do with you, but is often a projection of their own failures and insecurities. Just because they couldn’t do it doesn’t mean you can’t.
It ws a beautiful day for hiking, though. I couldn’t have asked for better weather. I finished the Approach and hiked on the actual Appalachian Trail for about a tenth of a mile into Springer Mountain camp. One thing that really struck me on day one was how quickly the aura of consumerism and throwaway mentality disappears out here. I have a red Nalgene bottle that I’ve had for about twelve years, and when I was getting my pack out of the car, it fell headfirst onto the asphalt and cracked. A few miles later, half of the water had leaked out. My first reaction was, “how soon can I get another one?” But then I realized that I couldn’t replace it for another 31 miles. So, I started thinking on how to repair it. At Springer, I took a Bic lighter and melted the crack around the lip back together. It’s ugly, but it holds water. I don’t really feel a need to replace it now.
Between having to carry all your worldly possessions on your back and not being able to conveniently replace anything, the trail will force you into minimalism and self-reliance.
Second day led me through Three Forks to Hawk Mountain. I finally found the Cherokee rock carving at Long Creek Falls! Most of y’all who know me know the story behind the carving, but if not, I’ll be making a mini-post just for it.
I also got my official trail name Tuesday! The vast majority of thru-hikers don’t use their actual names, and go by a pseudonym instead. I am Mountain Goat. Probably, no, definitely because of the goat skull I took off my truck and strapped to my pack. The old-school way of hiker thinking is that it’s bad luck to give yourself your own trail name, which means that it’s kind of a roll of the dice. I could have ended up with way worse. I’ve heard a breadth and depth of trail names including Buttwipe, Inconvenience, Uhaul, Crusty Tissues, No Hurry, Vaseline, etc. I’m happy with Mountain Goat. They’re good at climbing things, after all.
I love the people I’ve met so far. Other than the raw, constant presence of nature, the people out here are the best part of the trail. There’s Trek, an agnostic Jewish rabbi who was Massachusetts’ delegate to the 2012 Libertarian Party National Convention, and is hiking the Eastern Continental Trail, of which the AT is approximately one third. There’s Giant, who at 7’1″ and wearing a size 18 shoe, certainly lives up to his name. A former Army Ranger, he started a medical marijuana dispensary, sold it, moved to Maine, and became a distance hiker. This will be his third thru-hike of the AT. If you need to find him, just follow the scent of weed and look up. And then there’s Froggy Pete, who at 78 is the oldest thru-hiker I’ve met on this trip. Even though he has to stop every mile or so to rest his knees, he’s making it to Maine. I know this because he did it last year, went home, got bored, and decided to do it again. I’ve never had an easier time making friends.
Thursday I had intended to hike from Gooch Mountain to the hostel at Neels Gap, where I am right now. I called mid afternoon and found out that the hostel was full, so I stopped just shy of Blood Mountain and holed up with Giant and some of the others. Just before dark, one of our group rolled in and dropped his pack, barely coherent. He sat, glassy-eyed, eating Gatorade powder out of the packet. My initial assumption, like everyone else, was that he had pushed himself too hard on the trail and was just worn out. But then he stopped responding to direct questioning, stopped shivering, and just sat there. That’s when the warning lights went off in my head: hypothermia. “Hey!” I snapped my fingers in his face. “Get out of those wet clothes. Get them out of your pack and change. Right now. You’re hypothermic.” I was trying to get him to move and warm up. He changed clothes, dug a space blanket out of his pack, and wrapped it around himself up in it.
Once everyone else saw what was going on, they jumped in to help. One guy grabbed a sleeping bag and I had the patient get in it, another started heating water to put in a Nalgene to warm him up. I had just finished fixing dinner and gave him my pot of teriyaki rice to warm him up until we could fix some of his own food. Most of us didn’t even know each other forty-eight hours before, but were all working together as a coordinated team. I kept an eye on his vitals, and heated up some lasagna for him. After an hour, he was starting to act human again. Just goes to show how quickly a guy can go from sweating to freezing. If nothing had been done, he probably would have lasted another thirty minutes. The weather for this whole trip has been typical spring in the mountains: Some days have been perfect and sunny, others I’ve been sleeted on. The nights have been very cold, though. That’s been a constant.
Today has been easy. We woke up and did the four miles over the top of Blood Mountain and down into the Gap. So here I am. Catching up on emails and phone calls in a bunkroom with twenty other hikers. I can’t wait for tonight. Every time I’ve been at the Mountain Crossings Hostel, it’s been a party. There’s always food, drink, and someone usually brings a guitar. It reminds me of how it must have been in the old days: No tv, no radio, no easily accessible internet, just some musical instruments and the people around you and you have to make the best of it. And sometimes making the best of it is about as good as it gets.
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