There will be nothing to compare with it — standing at that iconic bronze plaque atop Springer Mountain in Georgia, with a journey of over 2100 miles lying before you. You will feel exhilaration and anxiety, both creating a complex stew in your stomach. You’ll snap a picture of the marker. If someone else is present you’ll have them take a photograph of you standing by the tablet. Then, hoisting your pack for the first of what will be countless times, you’ll take that first indelible step. All is in readiness. The months of reading and thinking and planning behind you. The compass of your heart points North.
As you journey, keep this in mind:
The trip is a messy, dirty slog and you won’t get a decent shower or bath too often. But you will find that a cool swim in a lake or stream, or a simple sponge bath at the end of a long hot day will restore your spirit.
Yes, you can hike in the rain. The first downpour will saturate you to the bone. Thunder will boom and shake you, lightning will spark the air. Put on your rain jacket and pack cover and keep moving. Days will arrive when you relish walking in the rain.
You can take a “zero day” off. There will be “achievement hikers” buzzing by you along the trail like Tasmanian devils. Let them go. You may question whether you are doing something wrong by not keeping their harsh pace. Rest assured you are not. Kick back and take advantage of a relaxing day; Katahdin isn’t going anywhere.
You can trust your “gut.” This is especially important when someone offers to give you a ride to town. Most offers are safe and genuine and the driver is reliable. Just in case, though, make sure your wallet is in your front pocket, and don’t jump out of a pickup truck bed when the vehicle stops leaving your gear inside. I’ve seen packs go sailing away down the highway after a hiker too eagerly disembarks. Set the pack outside the truck, then get out. Oh, and thank the driver and offer to pay for their gas.
People will amaze you with their kindness and helpfulness. “Trail angels” are quite real and always welcome. That said, there are some quirky people who come to the Appalachian Trail for various reasons. (See: https://writer77.wordpress.com/2012/09/24/thinking-about-night-hatchet-on-the-appalachian-trail/) Be alert, careful, and aware of the people in your surroundings.
I’ve said this before but it bears repeating — yes, you will be able to live with less gear than you started with. If you simply cannot send something home, mail it ahead of you in a “bounce box,” for future consideration.
When starting out, you may be surprised to find that you haven’t developed a monstrous appetite. This is normal for most backpackers. Just wait. The day will come when your inner fire engine burns and you discover you can eat just about everything in sight.
And did I say — you will fall down? Wet leaves, tricky roots and stumps, slick rock ledges — all these will give you an occasional opportunity to take a tumble. When you fall, just lie there a moment, gather your wits and do a physical inventory, then get back on your feet. Hopefully, only your pride will be hurt.
Dare I speak this heresy? It’s OK to leave the trail if you need to. And you’re not a failure if you choose to. There likely will be valid reasons. You get bored? Spend an extra day in town. You get injured? Don’t push through the pain. That is foolishness. Get well. Tired with hiking the “green tunnel?” Consider leap-frogging to a more interesting section of trail and coming back to finish the one you’re on in the future.
The Appalachian Trail will be your home for about six or seven months. Embrace living outdoors. Weather will be a fickle companion; deal with it. Be flexible and adaptable when it comes to logistical and weather conditions. Don’t hike in a lightning storm; lie low and take cover. Your head must be in the hike as well as your body — use it! Allow the emotions that will come in this “cauldron.” You’ll be elated some day, angry on some, and sad on others. That’s the Appalachian Trail stripping away the dross of life, allowing you to become clean.
Lastly, you are your own historian and this experience will provide you valuable insight into your life and yourself. Write things down. Record your experience! Photos give visual memories; but chronicle your inner journey on paper. You’ll be satisfied and surprised by what you learn when, finally, you step from the trail.
- Stepping from the Appalachian Trail “at the leaving of the day” (writer77.wordpress.com)
- The Appalachian Trail…a taste of risk (writer77.wordpress.com)