The van lurches to a stop and we spill out into the parking lot near Springer Mountain. I’m queasy as hell from the long drive up the winding Georgia back roads and take deep slow breaths of the cold morning air. The ten or so of us hikers who spent the previous night at the Hiker Hostel shuffle around the gravel lot, adjusting various straps, putting on layers, taking layers off. One by one we make our way down the short trail to Springer Mountain, the official start of the Appalachcian Trail. It’s an easy mile, thankfully, because once we take our obligatory, “Hi mom, I’m on the AT!” photos and sign the register, we have to turn around and retrace our footsteps back to the parking lot and continue on the trail.
I meet Mountain Squid, an AT volunteer, and he jots my name down in a little notebook.
“That’s quite a small pack you’ve got there,” he says.
I smile. “Yeah, I guess so.”
He chuckles. “That’s gotta be the lightest pack I’ve seen since I’ve been out here.”
I blush, beam a little inside. Last year on the PCT, my pack was very average. Ultra-medium. It feels good to have shaved off all that weight.
I take off down the trail, walking through thick quiet clouds. The trees are skinny, their bare branches wavering back and forth like little fingers. I pass a few hikers, make small talk, keep walking. Fill my bottle from a stream that swims across the trail.
All day it drizzles, a proper introduction to the AT. I shed my rain jacket after a couple hours as the trail starts to climb. And climb. And climb. Already I’m astounded at how tough the trail is, and sort of wish that my training regimen had consisted of more than eating lots and lots of food.
Eight miles in, I stop at Hawk Mountain Shelter for a snack out of the rain. It’s only one p.m. but there are already seven hikers here who’ve claimed their spots for the night. I eat a bar and a handful of jerky then head back out onto the wet trail.
When I reach Justus Creek, the spot I had planned to camp for the night, it’s only three in the afternoon, so with hours of daylight left I keep hiking. I’m surprised at how few other hikers I see on the trail. This is the AT, right??
An hour later, I arrive at Gooch Mountain Shelter. More than twenty tents are set up in the area, and a crowd of hikers are gathered around a smoky campfire and inside of the shelter. They welcome me and I smile, say hi, feel sort of awkward and out of place. I can tell they’re eyeing my running shorts and short-sleeved shirt, my small pack and trail runners.
I set my pack down, fill my water bottle from a nearby spring, chit chat with some of the hikers in the shelter. Right away I like Fig, an older guy who hiked the PCT in 2012 and hikes the AT every five years. I tell him that I’m hiking on, gonna use up these last few hours of daylight.
“Put some darn clothes on!” He yells after me down the trail. “I’m gettin’ cold just lookin’ at you!”
After this, the trail gets brutal. Like, 1mph holy shit what was I even thinking straight up the side of a damn mountain brutal. The sky is dark and grey and the drizzle turns into light rain. I trudge along, stopping every so often to catch my breath and chug water and curse under my breath.
I check my phone and it’s seven p.m. I haven’t seen anyone in hours. I’ve already hiked twenty miles and it’ll be dark soon so I start looking for spots to tent up. I find a less than perfect spot off to the side of the trail, but it’s flat and I’m tired. I set my pack against a tree, take my tent out and lay it on the ground. Like clockwork, the sky opens up. Sheets of rain pour down, lightning flashes bright, thunder roars. I get my tent up as fast as I can, kick off my wet shoes, and climb inside.
Lightning pierces the sky and the thunder follows almost immediately. The storm is right above me. I think about the night before I left for the trail, of my friend opening his palm across the table from me at dinner to reveal the black outline of a lightning bolt. To commemorate the time in Glacier when he was struck, waking up on his back with the taste of burnt hair in his mouth for days.
The rain is coming down hard, and within seconds, the flat spot becomes a puddle, the puddle almost a pond. I should have known better than to set up on a patch of dried mud. I’m soaked and so is the inside of my tent. It’s supposed to rain all night. This could get bad.
I pull my phone out from inside my pack. Miraculously, it’s dry. I check my location on a map, and see that there’s a road with a privy in 3/4 of a mile. I can sleep in there! The decision is made, so I take my tent down as fast as I can in the pouring rain, strap it to the top of my pack, and run through the gushing river of a trail down to the road.