Oh all the planning, researching lists of supplies, watching videos of other people making mistakes you hope to avoid, buying lightweight expensive gear, walking around local roads with a loaded pack to train while passerbys stare at you confused, none of these things will really prepare you for the difficulty and the splendor that lay ahead if you take the leap onto the AT.
Aleu and I have been dreaming of running away to the AT for a while and so we made a plan and drug along poor Jeremy on our first clumsy, lovely, slightly deluded trip to the awe inspiring path that so many people seek out every year. I wasn’t really seeking anything in particular but what I found will forever change me.
Day one was spent mostly on the road from Texas to the southern approach trail in Amicalola Falls State Park in Georgia, from here we made our first mistake. We arrived entirely too late in the afternoon to get an appropriate start, but of course we went out anyway. The approach trail is about eight miles before the AT officially begins but though research we discovered it was the safest place to leave a vehicle long term if you would like your windows to remain intact, the park also boasts the highest waterfall in the state so why not start there. Our second mistake of the day was not taking the weather report seriously, a few miles in it started to rain and rain and rain…….no problem, none of us are sweet enough to melt right? Melting was not the problem, wet heavy gear that refused to dry for the next three days was the problem. Just to keep the day interesting we pushed on until it was almost dark and pitched the tent in the muddy murky evening. While hunkered down with a wet Aleu and soggy everything else I sent out courageous Jeremy to hang our food from a tree so the bears wouldn’t indulge on our expensive freeze-dried gourmet rations. He just kept yelling that “none of these damn trees have any branches”, eventually he prevailed of course. We finally settled in for the night and fell into an exhausted slumber………until about 2:30 am when Aleu woke up to stretch and shift herself around, inadvertently putting a hole in my sleeping pad which rapidly deflated leaving me on the cold ground.
Day two we packed up our soggy mess of a tent and gear and finished our accent to the trailhead of the AT at Springer Mountain. You may notice there are no smily pictures at this point, I spent most of the trek wondering if this whole trip was ill fated but being the optimist I just kept reminding myself that the bears hadn’t eaten our food or us for that matter. We pushed on in the continuous rain to the Hawk Mountain shelter where we encountered a tattoo faced man who seemed to reside there telling stories of prison and how he was really trying to get his life in order. There were several other couples camping on the outskirts of the shelter so we decided to pitch our tent near a quiet couple who seemed to have it all together, hoping some of their confidence would rub off on us. Of course they were up and gone way before we drug ourselves up to make instant coffee and contemplate the logic of this trip in general.
Day three things start to look up, the persistent soreness in my hips and calves from carrying my pack ease and we are finally rewarded with some amazing views from Justice Mountain, I realize that this trip is going to be amazing and the freaking rain is done for a while at least. It is so beautiful here in the woods if I just open myself to its splendor. There are these lovely clear water springs every few miles that provide us with abundant hydration, we filter the water with this cool gadget that weighs mere ounces from Sawyer, just about everyone on the trail has one and for good reason. Its a long marvelous day along the trail that ends in the Gooch Mountain shelter with a funny group of people including a father son duo who have never camped before, a determined woman and her colleague getting over a divorce and a random gentleman through hiker and his humorous boxer. We slept well for the first time so far on this journey.
Day Four things are stunning all around but miss Aleu is tired! We made our way to Woody Gap shelter and were pleased to find it empty…… for a bit………..the vagabond group that we encountered the night before arrived behind us about two hours out. They were lots of fun, the kind lady even put a braid in my hair, it was tuning into dreadlocks. We enjoyed time around a campfire dreaming of shrimp cocktails and glasses of merlot while munching our foil packet meals. This trail is as much about the people you encounter as the landscape itself. Let your journey be as much anthropologic as it is geographic.
Day Five we made our way to the top of Blood Mountain, featured in backpacker magazine, the views are phenomenal but get ready for some company, the notoriety of this particular spot encourages day hikers and just about anyone else to clamor to the top of this peak for the day. Its a short hike to Neels Gap for provisions and a respite from the trail. We were lucky enough to catch a ride into Blairsville where we found a fantastic hotel that catered to hikers and dogs that needed a good nights rest with laundry and walking distance to a great restaurant for hungry hikers. This is a great little town with an outfitter store staffed by enthusiastic folks who helped us pick out an ENO hammock for the trail, I have observed lots of people enjoying them on the AT and thought we would give it a try. We stayed the night comfortably after satiating our hunger with several steaks, scallops, crab cakes, lobster and beer.
Day Six we awoke from our comfy beds and gorged on a local breakfast of omelets and french toast. We took advantage of the hiker purge box in the hotel lobby before meeting our ride back to Neels Gap to continue the adventure, you really don’t need several tactical flashlights or giant bottles of sunscreen. Our ride was a guy recommended by the outfitter and he was just what you would expect, happily loading our packs in his Jeep around his own gear and bike and dog that looked like she could easily be Aleu’s sister. We hiked the steep trail through the Raven Cliffs Wilderness to Levelland and Wild Cat Mountain summits, I can’t put into words how beautiful it was, at this point I was ready to push all the way through to Maine. We made camp outside the Whitley Gap Shelter and lounged in our new hammock. I was ready to forget most of civilization and the struggles that go along with society and fashion and f*#king politics! I shall live in this tent forever with Aleu and Jeremy in my fairy tale bubble.
Day Seven, we finally have this figured out, we are both efficient at setting up and breaking down camp and making meals with our teeny Esbit camp stove. The earthy odor we emit no longer bothers us, walking miles to a spring to filter water to drink is just part of our day. Our bodies have adapted to the steep trails, ground sleeping and heavy packs so most of the soreness in our limbs and backs has ceased………I am ready to continue on indefinitely, and this is to be our last day on the trail. The weather report is calling for more rain this evening and Aleu has a sore on her foot. We have arranged for the same happy fellow to pick us up at Hog Pen Gap and return us to Amicalola Falls. I am filled with emotion as we step off the mountain, my mind and my body have become more wild, I will bring those mountains back to Texas with me until I am able to feel them under my feet again, soon I hope.