Tag Archives: North Carolina

What haunts me about the Appalachian Trail

English: Entrance to Spooky Woods in Dalbeatti...

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.

The twisted oak at Bly Gap

The twisted oak at Bly Gap (Photo credit: marklarson)

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.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Photo credit: numbphoto)

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.



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Thinking about wind, snow, sleet, rain, and cold on the Appalachian Trail (in early spring)

View from Springer Mountain

View from Springer Mountain (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s late February or early March.  You’ve been packing and planning your Appalachian Trail thru-hike for months.  Everything is ready and you’re itching to tackle the footpath.  Looking at the weather forecast, you see fair conditions and mild temperatures have enveloped the South.  Now, you think, it’s time to go.  But, before you shoulder your pack and head for Springer Mountain, consider these facts.

While the low elevations of Georgia and North Carolina bask in sunshine, the Appalachian summits are still subject to radical changes in weather and temperature.  Blasts of rain, fierce winds, paralyzing sleet and cold, and significant snow are as common as would be found in the loftier New England mountains, and it’s wise to prepare for severe weather, or delay your departure at least until mid-April.  Even then nights can be cold in the mountains and low temperatures, rain, and wind combine to create ideal hypothermia conditions.

When I set out mid-April I carried wool gloves, a wool sweater and knit cap, and a rain and windproof jacket.  I needed them all.  You will also want reliable, warm clothing for a safe journey on the trail.



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Amicalola Falls

Amicalola Falls

Amicalola Falls (Photo credit: J. Stephen Conn)

It was a wonderfully warm mid-April afternoon when I arrived, a friend having driven me to the southern end of the Appalachian Trail from North Carolina.  Months of planning and anticipation surrendered to reality as the pickup truck dropped me at the park.  April 20, the day before I was to set out for Maine.  The approach trail to the official end of the A.T. lay deeper in the forest.  Amicalola Falls State Park was a place to camp and prepare for the trip.   The weather was clear and dry and leaves were popping out on trees.  This would soon result in the “green tunnel” effect for which much of the A.T. is known.   For now it was time to set up camp, and meander until dinner.

The waterfall which gives the park its name was the main natural attraction.  The blue-blazed approach trail began nearby, a footpath which would lead about eight miles to the official first “white blaze,” one of countless hundreds which would show the way to Maine, some 2100 miles up the Appalachian range.

The night before was star filled.  After dinner, gazing into the vault of the heavens, with no ambient light from nearby towns to obscure my view, I felt myself being drawn out and away from the ordinary work-a-day world.  Something rugged and wonderful and powerful lay ahead, just over the next ridge line.

Map of Appalachian Trail

Map of Appalachian Trail (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At the time I had no idea whether I would be able to pull it off, and walk “five million steps” to Katahdin.  I just knew I planned to travel as far as I could.  Would I be a thru-hiker, finishing the entire trail in one season?   Would I even make it out of Georgia?  I didn’t not know.  I just wanted to hike and take each challenge as it came.

I believed the trip would be a monastic journey; I would be alone in solitude and isolation, making human contact only when stumbling into a town for mail or to buy groceries.   I was wrong about that…

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The Appalachian Trail is usually hiked starting from the southern terminus in Georgia.  That’s because to hike it during one season (five to six months), you need to start in springtime.  This wraps up the hike in late August, September, or early October, depending on your pace.  April 1st is the traditional “start day,” though some bold souls have ventured out as early as February.  The lessons they learn doing this quickly become obvious;  just because they are in the South doesn’t mean the weather in the lower Appalachian range cannot be downright fierce.

My trip began in mid-April, so wintry weather was not in the mix.  However, the ruggedness of the Georgia Appalachian hills certainly was.  Most hikers like their trails with switchbacks, those wonderful zigs and zag which help on ascents.  Georgia trailblazers, for some reason, seem to have mostly forgotten intentionally or otherwise to do this.  Instead, trails climb straight up and straight down for the most part.

288/365 North Georgia Mountains

288/365 North Georgia Mountains (Photo credit: The Suss-Man (Mike))This is still so, unless in the years since my hike trail maintainers and builders have altered the construction.  So expect the literally break-taking ascents and descents to come with a price.  And remember that rhododendrons will be your very best friend, especially when you need a strong handhold when going up or down.

The Georgia section of the A.T. weeds out a majority of hopeful thru-hikers.  As I mentioned earlier, physical injuries, missing the comforts of home and family, and pure exhaustion are the most common reasons for washing out.  A frequently heard complaint among hikers is that they did not set out believing the trail would be as difficult to hike as it turned out to be.  Their opinion is often  peppered with profanities.  Heat, stinging nettles which burn the exposed legs, and blisters that can cripple, end with lots of backpackers taking a bus or plane home.  The “dream” quickly becomes a nightmare.  Expectations are shattered.  The ones who press through the loamy Georgia soil to the North Carolina border have paid with dogged persistence and drive.

English: The North Georgia mountains in the ge...

English: The North Georgia mountains in the general area of Helen, Georgia. Picture taken in 2006, by myself. Roman Babylon 00:22, 30 September 2007 (UTC) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now don’t get me wrong.  The hike is not all misery, but the early days are difficult.  To start at Katahdin in Maine would be even tougher.  Attitude, intention, and perseverance all count.  It’s important to understand why you’re hiking to begin with. A dash of humility and a lowering of expectations will help open the door to the greater enjoyments the Appalachian Trail offers, such as the sheer beauty of the flora and fauna, the unique encounters with new and sometimes quirky friends, and the deep reward which comes with having achieved something few else have.  No need to rush or compete.  Simply enjoy a long-distance backpacking trip on an historic trail.  More to come…

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Glory in an August summer

Pulled pork is a form of barbecue. It is a met...

Pulled pork is a form of barbecue. It is a method of preparation in which pork is cooked using a low-heat, long-cook method. The meat becomes tender enough that its weakened connective tissue allows the meat to be “pulled”, or easily broken into individual pieces. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Southern pulled-pork barbecue.  As simple as that!  When the heat goes up here in metro Boston, I begin to crave two things – iced tea (which I make at home using a special recipe) and a pulled-pork sandwich.  The sandwich necessitates a road trip to Blue Ribbon Barbecue in Arlington, MA.  When I moved to New England from North Carolina in 1985 I despaired of leaving bluegrass music, grits and biscuits, and barbecue.  I was beyond ecstatic to discover that these delicacies could be found in the Northeast, and I could not remain here without them.  As for that iced tea?  Maybe I’ll share my recipe one day…

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