Thru Hiking the Appalachian Trail
Brooke D. McCarley
The beginning of the Appalachian Trail is about a 4-hour drive from Birmingham to North Georgia. It then uncurls for 2181 miles through woods, mountains and mental-breaking points until it reaches Maine. Hiking the A.T. or parts of it was one of my vague goals until my friend suggested we do a section hike for our yearly vacation. Then the idea of being stranded in the woods with only my backpack became a sharp reality.
A few years before, we went to Vieques, a tropical beach near Puerto Rico. The last time we traveled together we spent some nights in New Orleans with a borrowed tent that smelled like buffalo dung surrounded by retired people in RV’s. We downgraded. Therefore hiking the A.T. seemed like a natural progression for us. Our luxurious hotel would be a two-person tent that we would roll up and stuff in our backpacks every morning. Our bathroom regimen also included a burial service for our waste, while our dogs bowed their heads in silence.
Our boyfriends didn’t think we could do it, and my parents begged me not to try it. If omens and maybe God exist then they, too, were telling us to go back home due to the thunderstorms that floated above us on our drive to the North Georgia mountains.
We were going to hike roughly 35 miles in five days and park one of our cars at our beginning spot and the other car at our final destination, Hogs Pen Gap. The first night we parked our cars at Hogs Pen and decided to sleep in her Yaris since it was already past midnight. It was too dark and lonely on the top of the mountain to set up a brand new tent. We were four hours behind schedule due to the storms and also needing one last good meal of tacos and beers before we lived on trail mix for days. However, sleeping the first night in her car left me optimistic for the rest of the trip. If my 6-foot-1-inch frame could curl up in a Yaris and sleep with a belly full of tacos and beers then I could do this hike.
We can do this hike as long as we can find the trail.
The next morning we left my truck at Hog’s Pen Gap and drove to Amicalola Falls to begin our hike. As we unloaded our packs from the car, a park ranger asked us what we had for bear protection. We had gone back and forth about the possibility of seeing a bear and the threat of a bear was on par with the threat of a serial killer. We were just going to assume we wouldn’t see one.
“You’ll need this,” The park ranger said with a smirk as he handed us his air horn.
He didn’t deter us. With the sun peeking behind some grey solemn clouds, we hauled our packs onto our backs. We leashed up our dogs. We gripped our walking sticks in both of our hands and screamed “Land ho!” The long days ahead of us were a twinkle in our eyes. We should have had a crowd of friends cheering us through a victory parade because we were on our way.
Instead, we were met with a few tourists, picnic tables and a lonely visitor’s center. I had a nagging suspicion that we missed something in our planning as we passed through the well-kept park and into the densely wooded area, but I dismissed it as anxiety. However, at some point I pulled out our guide book and a mistake that I had overlooked revealed itself. We had added an extra day’s worth of hiking to our trip due to Springer Mountain being the true beginning of the trail and 8.5 miles away from where we were.
We couldn’t add an extra day to our trip, and I wouldn’t starve to death in a day, but I would be extremely hungry and irritable. Nobody needs to see that. So we wiped the twinkle out of our eyes and hiked back to her car throwing off all the stuff we carefully piled on our backs an hour earlier. We planned on finding another spot to start to make up for the mistake and lost time.
Towards the end of the first day, we found an app called Gut’s Hook Guide to the Appalachian Trail. I recommend downloading it right now. Even if you’re not sure you will ever hike the A.T. After leaving the state park, we drove down some country roads, which led us to a dirt road, and we found a parking spot that was a mile from Springer Mountain, the true beginning of the trail. We thought. We just had to hike Benton Makaye trail, which will intersect with the Appalachian Trail at some point. We thought. By this time we were five hours behind schedule, it was midday and we haven’t even touched the Appalachian Trail.
We did finally make it to the A.T., but for the next few hours, my friend and I walked down the side of a mountain only to turn around and walk back up the mountain due to becoming completely disoriented about the right direction to go. We weren’t hiking a straight shot. We were hiking chaos.
We finally saw a female hiker that had experience with the trail, but it seemed that if she broke a nail, she would cry. We told her we were trying to go north past Springer Mountain, and she said we were going the wrong way. This led to an overexcessive lecture about the blazes, trail blazers and the Appalachian Trail blaze, which is white. She told us to follow the white blaze. My friend and I, both confused as hell, asked what a “blaze” was.
”Oh my god! Have you never hiked before?”
Her tone sounded as if we had never heard of rushing and living in a sorority house, and we honestly probably deserved that open aghast. We have hiked, but we never heard the dashes on trees called blazes before. Apparently, people that create trails and mark trees with a dash of paint are called trail blazers because, well, they are blazing the trail. They are not called trail dashers.
She said we could follow her for a way, but she was going to stop and wait out the approaching storm with some boys she met the night before, like we were all teenagers at a mall on a Saturday night. However, I tripped on a rock and muttered a cuss word out of sheer frustration, and within that same second, she turned and went the opposite direction, and never said another word. We were very thankful that she pointed our heads in the right direction, but we were even more thankful when she left us after I offended her.
We met a guy that led week-long hikes, and he told us about the smartphone app. Using the dirt roads, we drove to the spot we had originally planned to camp at, before we spent the day walking up and down the same mile section of Springer Mountain.
We hiked the number of miles that we had planned to hike that day. It just wasn’t the kind of peaceful hike that involved whistling, as we skipped down the trail. It was a stressful, bleak and chaotic hike where every wrong turn made me want to quit. We swore all this to secrecy, but here I am writing it for everyone to see. It is an important lesson. You can get so disoriented that you cannot decipher left from right, or north from south. Sometimes the whole trail will disappear altogether if you wander too far away from it.
We found the trail, but we never found the picnic.
Every night, I would go to sleep afraid of bears, mountain lions, rapists or tree-thrashing thunderstorms, but I would go to sleep, because I was exhausted. I had imagined the trail to be a wide path that inspired skipping and whistling. It was narrow, windy and composed of technical terrain, that consisted of boulders and loose rocks. We would climb one or two thousand feet over small boulders to the top of a mountain. And then we would stumble one or two thousand feet back down to the bottom.
As the sun was setting the first day, my friend saw our first bear far in the distance. We ended up seeing three. The second bear was probably 20 feet away and luckily, he was more scared of us and our two mutts. About 30 minutes later, after we saw the bear, I was resting by putting my head on a rock, and I almost used a five-foot, curled up rattle snake for a pillow. My face was no less than a foot away from that sleeping monster.
On our last day, the trail crossed an intersection with two roads, and we watched the third bear cross the road and jump into the exact area we were about to hike. We both knew our depressing choices. We could take the road and hope that it took us to my truck. We knew that if we continued hiking, that we only had a couple of miles left to our destination, but that we would have to dive into the woods right after watching the bear dive into that exact spot. We hoped that he was making better time than us. We looked at each other, and then started up the trail and followed the bear and sang loud songs about our disgusting armpits to try to keep him away.
We were unaware that hundreds of rats took over the shelters at night. If it weren’t for other hikers who warned us to sleep away from the shelters, we might have woken up in a scene that was straight out of a horror movie. The rats climbed the trees where he hung our food and nibbled through our trail mix and other snacks. Safety from bears doesn’t mean safety from rats.
We brought a portable stove, and one pot to cook our oatmeal, rice, ramen noodles, instant coffee, and black beans. However, we could have saved the money and just brought black beans because eventually, everything we cooked in the pot tasted like black beans, even our refreshing morning cup of coffee. There was nothing more satisfying after a long day of climbing mountains than a cup of coffee with a shot of whiskey and a hint of black beans.
Trail Magic, Trail Delirium and The White Wizard
We had heard of trail magic, but it became significant in our lives when we lost a substantial amount of food to the rats. We crossed paths with day hikers and they all couldn’t help but feed us apples, trail mix and energy bars. But the big payoff came on our last night on the trail. If we had been experiencing trail magic by getting a few apples, than we were about to meet The White Wizard.
The White Wizard came to us in the form of an outfitters supply store and a connecting hostel. It was located on the Appalachian Trail, below Blood Mountain and along Gainesville Highway. The guys that ran the store and hostel had hiked the trail in its entirety or most of it. They were bearded, long-haired guys that wanted nothing more than to be surrounded by the outdoors. The most important thing about the supply shop and hostel was that they had pizza. Frozen Red Baron Pizza.
“Do you want us to put one in the oven for you?”
“Damn straight I do.”
I carried the pizza outside, and dropped the entire cheesy masterpiece on the patio. The other customers gasped and said consoling comments like “aww, that’s too bad.” I couldn’t even hear them. With no shame I picked it up and saved whatever toppings I could and devoured it. The guys gave us food. They gave us wine. And just when I thought I could live happily ever after, they told us the dogs couldn’t stay in the hostel because of a flea infestation they had earlier that summer. They told us we could set up camp out back, and then they closed up the store and locked the doors for the night. As we made our way to dreary campground out back, God opened the skies, and it rained heavier than it had any other time. The White Wizard had retired.
The trip was only a taste of what a thru-hike can be, and I would love to toughen my mentality to hike the whole trail one day. I never want to do it by myself like I’ve read other female hikers have done. The nights are so lonely sometimes, and there is so much nature that you can feel like it will just swallow you up in the wee hours of the morning. For me, it is a trip worth doing with at least one other person. I understand the need for others to go on solitude journeys, but if you are lucky enough to have a friend that can handle you at your best and your worst, and you can handle her at her best and her worst, then you should take advantage of that.