If a ghost is a memory that will not fade, then the Appalachian Trail is my own personal phantom. It haunts me in all the good ways a significant life experience can. If it’s a good thing to be visited by a spirit of achievement, then the AT is certainly among the finest one could ever envision.
I am haunted by the approach trail at Amicalola Falls, Georgia, which felt like a rite-of-passage backpacking to the start of something superb, difficult, daunting, and mysterious.
I am haunted by Springer Mountain Shelter, where I first dropped my backpack on the first evening of many I would spend hiking the trail. I remember the rugged reliability of a wooden refuge created by so many hands, by so many trail and maintenance clubs, who literally poured out their love in sweat and effort so that I might have a place to rest my head.
I am haunted by…
the tree at Bly Gap, where one crosses the border from Georgia into North Carolina. I can still see that ancient oak through a veil of mists on a chilly and damp April day.
by the descent off so many summits, and by the sound of road traffic – far off yet seeming so near – that signaled my nearing a road crossing where I could hitch into town to rest and resupply. In some ways those asphalt markers were as significant as the blazes on the trail itself.
by the Great Smoky Mountains. I am remember how easy the ascent to the main ridge line felt, and how grand it was to walk that long, high line of footway as the earth fell away to the east and west of me. If heaven has a hiking trail, it’s like the Appalachian Trail though the Smokies.
by the Nolichucky River in Tennessee, where I first rafted whitewater above class 6. The river was above flood stage due to rain, yet the guide took us anyway. I remember the awesome adrenaline flow and sense of achievement when I finally stepped from the raft to shore.
by the blissful stop at a grassy bald in the North Carolina highlands, where a couple with a picnic shared their white wine and strawberries, Virginia ham and baguette sandwiches. I remember their gentle honesty and genteel Southern voices. I remember how in love they were. I am haunted by their commitment.
by the practical kindness of strangers offering rides to town, by the “trail angels” who left food in shelters, soft drinks in cold streams, and who handed out warm cookies.
I am haunted by…
rainy, cold, muddy, sweaty, humid days where the footway was slippery and rocks were punishing to my boots.
by the harsh downhills which tortured my knees and made me curse under my breath.
by black flies which delivered a hellish bite, mosquitoes which nearly drove me mad, and yellow jackets which sprang from the trail and whose sting felt like having a hot nail driven into my arm.
by sudden slips and fall. There was no way to arrest those tumbles, and at times I felt I had broken a bone or sustained severe injury.
by exhaustion and summer heat so intense hiking was all but impossible from late morning until late afternoon. I remember how trying to put one boot in front of the other felt like wading through thick sap.
by the disappointment of a “reliable” spring which had gone dry due to drought, and how it became necessary to strain muddy water through a bandana just to get a drinkable amount.
“Spirits” – one and all, both good and bad – are welcome in my reflections, even to this day. For it was both the easy and the blessed, the hard and anguishing, which made the Appalachian Trail worth the while.