The hike up to Springer was challenging, but it felt good! It was windy and we saw the occasional snowflake mixed in with the rain, but hiking upwards kept us warm.
We had grand plans to summit Springer, sign the log, take some photos, and hike another 2.8 to the Stover Creek Shelter for the night. That wasn't to be though.
We made it to Springer, fogged in and without a view beyond the immediate area. The wind whipped us as that first white blaze came into view and tears of overwhelming emotion spilled down my face and my hands froze, stiff, clumsy and useless.
The first Appalachian Trail shelter was less than a mile, and we practically ran for it, over rocks and roots and mud! We pitched the tent efficiently for it being the first time we had done so outside of our bedroom back in DC, and we huddled inside of our double wide sleeping bag until the shivering stopped and we drifted into a mid-afternoon nap.
We woke and cooked dinner of soup mix and rice in the shelter alongside several 20-somethings and their nervous parents. I have to admit that I was more than slightly jealous as the parents walked around in the fog searching for cell signal to arrange for their shuttles off the mountain the next morning. It was more of a shock than I expected to leave the comfort of a warm dry lodge and be tossed into the cold wet wilderness less than a mile into a 2189.2 mile journey. It was all a little overwhelming, and i felt deeply doubtful and sad.
The next day was slightly warmer and not quite as wet. It was a beautiful stretch of trail too, lined with leafy rhododendrons that reminded me of North Carolina. If the rain hadn't soaked us just a mile outside of camp, and if the painmy feet hadn't slowed me to a hobble, I might have felt better. I might not have declared the thru to be through, but I did.
I spilled every doubt I had kept silent since our troubled test hike back in August, and I declared that the 12 year old girl who dreamed up this stupid idea was an idiot, and the 38 year old woman was going to end this crazy adventure right here before we got any wetter or colder or more miserable!
Muskrat listened and agreed to let me toss my long held dream away after less than 48 hours, but only after we had hiked the 31 miles to the first "town," Neels Gap. He also wisely suggested we take the sunny next day to stay right where we were at Hawk Mountain Shelter, rest our feet, dry our gear, and relax after the rough start.
That turned out to be the perfect reset button on my mood. We spent the day lounging in our hammock while our gear and clothes dried in the sun and new faces drifted in and out of the shelter area.
By the end of the day, I wanted to hike to Maine again. We planted the seeds of our first real trail friendships, and we took what we learned during our first Appalachian Trials and made plans to deal with wet weather and pain in the coming miles.
More wet weather followed us the next day, but it didn't bother me the way it had. My boots felt ever so slightly better, and we hiked our fifth morning right into our first trail magic experience at Gooch Gap! There was a huge tent with a breakfast spread that was amazing even after just a few days on the trail! Later that day at Woody Gap there was more magic in the form of homemade chili with soda, fruit, chips and cookies! The sun was shining and my enthusiasm for the trail was restored completely!
The next days we saw a lot of the same faces as we all moved north at beginner's pace. It felt good to have new friends and a shared experience.
The day we climbed Blood Mountain, we leapfrogged with two other couples we'd met, setting out from Lance Creek at dawn, watching the sunrise through the trees. The six of us ate lunch atop the highest peak on the Georgia section of the AT, and descended into Neels Gap, where the trail passes right through an outfitter and hostel called Mountain Crossings. We rented the "woodchuck cabin" at Blood Mountain Cabins for the night and enjoyed frozen pizza, sodas and the company of new friends while the proprietors did our laundry!
It seemed to take forever to travel the 31 miles from Springer to Neels, but as long as I didn't think about the remaining 200+ miles, I was proud and happy to have made this milestone, where apparently, 20% of thru-hikers quit.
Leaving the warmth of the cabin in the foggy mist the next morning was difficult and accompanied by anxiety and stress, but all of that melted away as the sun came out and the woods took us back in. I wondered if we would ever get comfortable leaving the conveniences of civilized stops.
That evening, after we filtered water for cooking, we crossed the road at Hogpen Gap and passed a group of bearded hiker dudes with coolers in the parking lot at Hogpen Gap. They told us that there wet nice tent sites just ahead and that once we were settled, we were welcome to come back down for some Busch, Bush Light, whiskey, or "Mer-LOT" or "Pee-NOT NO-r" from a box! We couldn't turn that down!
We pitched our tent and headed back to hang out with the "trail devils," Willie, Lone Wolf, and Pirate. They were kind, generous, hilarious and full of great trail advice from their multiple thru-hikes! "Watch for roots, rocks and mud. If you see something you want to look at, stop. Then look. And if you go more than a week without having any fun, go home, because if you don't, you may never come back out."
Other hiker friends gathered and joined the party, and the devils brought out a little grill, charcoal a huge package of hot dogs and some bbq chicken. The rating and drinking continued until there was no thing left and raindrops started to fall.
We raced back to the tent in the fading daylight and retreated to the dry confines, content to fall asleep with the sun. It amazes me how quickly it became our pattern to sleep and wake with the natural rhythm of the sunrises and sunsets. "Hiker Midnight" is usually about half an hour after sunset, and the shelter areas become quiet except for the soft snoring of sleeping hikers.
Our first real town stop was a few days later when we came down into Unicoi Gap on a wet, cold, windy morning and were greeted by a crowd of hikers under a tent where a church group was serving hot coffee, hot chocolate, chips, candy, granola and freshly grilled hamburgers with all of the fixins! Heck yes!! Breakfast burgers!!
We had intended to push on two more days to Dicks Creek Gap before catching a shuttle into Hiawassee, GA, but talk amongst the hikers and a check of the weather had us considering an early town stop. There was a freeze warning for towns down off the ridges, and temps were expected in the teens and single digits at higher elevations. Even with our 30 degree bag, the liner, and shared body heat, we decided indoors would be the better option. We called the Holiday Inn Express, hopped in the $5 shuttle, and headed to a luxurious two night stay in the climate controlled, king size, whirlpool tub room they gave us!
Hiawassee also meant resupply at a real grocery store, hotel laundry, watching Jeff clean his plate at a Mexican restaurant for the first time, and dinner at a place that boasted "one of the largest craft beer selections in north Georgia!" They had four. I feel sad for north Georgia, except the beers were only $5!
After hearing reports of 9 degree temps on the mountain and teens in town, we were glad we had bumped our town stop up a few days! When it came time to leave though, we were both still anxious and stressed. Our shuttle driver, Sally, was super sweet and put us at ease though!
The days after Hiawassee found us more and more comfortable in the woods. It was starting to feel more like home than indoors. We were learning strategies for keeping comfortable and dry, like having a set of hiking clothes and a set of camp clothes. Camp clothes have become sacred. They stay as clean and dry as possible, because they are the haven where we escape the wet and cold and sweat of the hike and get comfortable to relax and sleep. We got faster at our setup and takedown of camp, faster at cooking and cleanup and generally happier in the woods.
We weathered our first thunderstorm of the trail one morning at Sassafras Gap, and it was incredible!! The wind and rain lashed violently at our little tent, while lightning and thunder flashed and boomed simultaneously around us! It was thrilling!
What wasn't thrilling about this stretch was that Muskrat's feet had begun to bother him quite a bit. I had developed strategies for keeping the pain in mine at bay, at least until we could walk to Outdoor 76, an outfitter with a foot and shoe guru in Frankiln, NC at mile 110, still 32 miles north of the GA/NC border! Poor Muskrat was popping ibuprofen like candy to keep him arches from screaming with every step.
We kept plugging away at the miles slowly, working on getting our "trail legs," which they say takes about 300 miles. I tried to keep from thinking about Maine and how impossibly far it was from us, keeping my eyes instead on more tangible goals, like Plumorchard Gap Shelter. . . Our last night in Georgia!