A New Beginning
Start: Northampton, March 29th
End: AT mile 1, April 1st
[Editor's note: There is no editor. This is really just my private journal, a description of the days' events and some of my thoughts, uploaded for public consumption. It should really be edited down heavily to make for a more concise and consumable narrative. If anyone wants to volunteer for the job, feel free!]
I come up with a plan and then start immediately changing it.
My friend Smatt has a job as a ridgerunner in Pennsylvania for the summer, and I need to get to Georgia to start my Appalachian Trail thru-hike. Smatt will drive me down, borrow my van for the summer, and then pick me up in Maine. My van is a converted Ford Transit Connect, and the perfect vehicle for someone without a house to go back to at the end of the day, if I say so myself, so I am excited that Smatt will be able to make good use of it.
I want to start on the ten year anniversary of my last AT hike, so we leave Massachusetts on March 29th so that I can hike the approach trail on March 31st. It's not until we've finished day one of driving, stopping at Smatt's sister's house outside of DC, that I check the weather and realize just how bad it's supposed to be the first two days of my hike. The 31st is supposed to have heavy rain with chance of thunderstorms all day, while the 1st is forecasted to have 30 mile per hour winds and overnight lows in the teens.
Smatt is flexible in his schedule, and seemingly unpreterbed by my sudden desire to delay my hike, so we take a side trip to the Shenandoahs on the 30th, hiking a portion of the AT up to Mary's Rock, before driving down to Amacolola Falls and the start of the AT on the 31st.
We get to Amecolola Falls late in the afternoon on the 31st, and the weather, forecasted to be heavy rain, is only a light drizzle. I register for my hike in the visitor's center, and we explore the approach trail, having heard that part of it has been washed out by a recent storm. Neither one of us remember the trail paralleling the road that takes us to the base of the stairs, and we wonder if things have been re-routed since we each hiked. At the base of the waterfall, we can see the wooden stairs broken apart, just a few feet of impassible steps, with plywood and yellow caution tape blocking off the area. Smatt investigates getting around it, and while I'm sure we could do it, I say that the cost of angering the park rangers isn't worth it, and we turn back.
Back outside the visitor's center, we see three young hikers cooking dinner on a picnic table. I say hello, and the woman greets me enthusiastically. She and the two guys with her are from Florida, friends who are all hiking the Appalachian Trail this year.
The woman, Kelsey, is especially exuberant, full of the initial excitement that comes from beginning a new journey. "I have a 40 degree sleeping bag, but I'm thinking my liner will take it down another 20 degrees," she says. I laugh. "You know it's supposed to get down even colder than 20 degrees tomorrow night, right?" "Yeah, it might got a little chilly! " she says, still chipper. Smatt looks skeptically at this optimism.
The rain begins to pick up a little, and Smatt and I head off to the van, while the three Florida hikers set up in the shelter near the visitor's center. Smatt decides to sleep outside under his tarp, despite the forecast, and I wonder how much of it is to give me privacy in the van. Nevertheless, I don't try to dissuade him.
Alone in the van, I stay up late, on my phone, tethered to the small drip of internet it receives if I hold the phone up just right by the window. Outside the wind howls, and I think of Smatt, under his tarp somewhere nearby. Early in the evening I hear an explosion, like an especially loud firework, and I recall that there is a military training facility nearby.
The van is warm and calm all night, and I have nothing but my own nerves and sleep habits to blame for sleeping poorly as the wind blows outside.
Smatt comes back to the van around 6:00 a.m., waking me up. "How did you sleep?" I ask him, still half asleep myself. "Not well," he says and from the looks of him it's an understatement. "I was actually plenty of warm and dry," he says. "But there was this big tree creaking nearby all night. Every time I was about to fall asleep I would hear the tree creaking loudly like it was just about to fall over, and I'd be fully awake again."
Our plan for the day is to do trail magic, with some chocolate packets and almond milk that we bought in Tennessee on the drive down. We even found a metal carafe at a Goodwill to keep the choco hot. We plan to drive somewhere on the trail, and meet the hikers, who likely had a cold night the night before. First, though, I want to check on the Florida hikers from last night, and see how they slept.
When I get to the shelter, Kelsey greets me quietly. "Good morning Portrait," she whispers. I start talking to her, and then tell from her reaction that one of her friends is still sleeping in the upper bunk. "How'd you sleep?" I ask her. "I didn't sleep one bit," she tells me. "We definitely need to go into town and buy new gear. Do you know of any outfitters nearby?" I tell her I don't know the area, but to think that there has to be something within an hour's drive. "I guess we'll have to call Paul again for a ride," Kelsey tells her friend. "It was expensive last time, but getting warmer gear will be worth it. "
Smatt comes to join us at the shelter, calling out loudly to us, and it takes us a little bit to shush him, though I wonder if the friend can still be sleeping through the racket. Smatt and I go back to the van to start some chocolate, and I tell him, "I know we were planning on taking the hot chocolate up to the trail, but I bet those three would appreciate it more than anyone." He thinks this is a fine idea, but while the hot chocolate heats my ambitions grow further. "You know," I say, "we could also offer to take them out looking for new gear." Smatt is non-committal to this suggestion.
When I start gushing enthusiastically about how appreciated it would be, he holds up his hands. "I'm sorry I have to say it," he says, "but if your interests are at all romantic, I think that you should..." And he holds up his hands in a way that indicates "leave things be". I laugh, assuring him that my interest is not at all romantic, despite any mutual giddyness Kelsey and I might have shared the night before. "This is the trail magic opportunity that the trail is giving us," I say, "even if it's not the one we were expecting to do." "Sometimes," says Smatt, "people learn their lessons better when they are forced to go through the consequences of their choices." "I think one sleepless night is enough to drive the lesson home," I tell him. "They're just going to have to pay $100 for a shuttle anyway if we don't give them a ride," I say, "and a free shuttle ride will probably be more appreciated than all of the hot chocolate we can give out."
Smatt clearly still thinks that this is a bad idea, but decides not to stand in my way. Before I can go back to offer a ride to the hikers, however, a young man in a white pickup truck pulls up and asks us if we are thru-hikers. "I thru-hiked last year," he tells us, "do you need anything? Food, a ride?" I tell him that we are all set, but point him in the direction of the cold Florida hikers looking for a ride to get new gear. He parks the truck quickly and then sprints off in the direction of the shelter, seemingly eager for an opportunity to do some trail magic for the new hikers. Smatt is visibly relieved that this has pre-empted my plan to spend the day driving the Florida hikers around. "I think a little hot chocolate will be perfect," he says.
When the hot chocolate finishes heating, we take it over to the shelter, where two of the Florida hikers have already left with the man in the truck. We give styrofoam cups to the remaining Florida hiker, and another who has shown up, and drink more than our fair share as well. We learn from the new hiker that the explosion last night was a transformer blowing up from the wind. "Yeah," Smatt says, "last night I was pretty sure the whole world was going to blow up in the wind."
Having directed the trail angel to the cold hikers and given away the hot chocolate, we drive the van up to the parking lot one mile from the top of Springer Mountain to find some more hikers. Though only eight trail miles, the drive is 20 miles and takes an hour, most of it slow going along a bumpy, narrow dirt road. As we drive, my ambitions for the day grow, and I try to figure out if we can leave the van on top, get a ride down, and then hike the approach trail today, squeezing in both trail magic and hiking, while still staying warm at night.
Passing other vehicles is difficult, and when cars pull off to the edge of the road to let us pass we think about flagging one down to see if we can arrange the hitch back down, not wanting to be stuck alone at the top. But when we reach the end of the road we see a surprisingly large parking lot with more than 20 cars.
We start another batch of hot coco going on the camp stove and when a few day hikers walk up to check out the van we mention our desire to get back down to the visitor center. We are either too subtle in our attempted yogiing or the drivers are otherwise uninterested, and they get back in their cars and drive down without us. We don't have any luck until a shuttle driver dropping off another hiker sees us making hot choco and offers, "if you stop what you're doing right now and pack up, I can take you down for $60." Smatt and I look at each other, silently conveying our mutual ambivilance, and tell him thanks, but we think we'll finish making our trail magic first.
We are able to give out a few cups of hot chocolate, but most of the visitor are day hikers, uninterested in or suspicious of offers of free drinks. Then the white pickup truck we saw at the visitor's center arrives, and the former hiker climbs out. When we tell him we're looking for a ride down, he waves us to the truck. "Hop in, I'll take you."
Smatt gets in the truck first, while I put my non-collapsible homemade trekking poles in the bed of the truck. When I get in, Smatt tells me, "He's talking price -- he was just saying $20." "Sure, that's fine," I say. "Is that $20 a-head?" asks Smatt. "No, not ahead of time," the driver says. "No," says Smatt, "is it $20 total, or per head?" "Oh, yeah," says the driver. "$20 per person. Well, it's a long way down, so $25 per person. Say $50." I chuckle at this rising price, but wave away Smatt's look of reluctance. "It's fine, I've got it," I say. It's still cheaper than our last offer, and I'd rather get down to the approach trail earlier than hang out and try to hitch. I don't bother pointing out to the driver that he has to make the long drive down anyway, having driven up here with a paying customer already.
On the ride down the driver -- trail name Rndo, he tells us -- vapes continuously, and gives us a wild, semi-coherant tale of hiking the AT last year through the pandemic and winter, without much gear. "I had a 40 degree sleeping bag but it fell out of my pack," he says, saying be hiked through December and January. His name, pronouned "Rando", starts to make a little more sense.
I ask Rndo about the Florida hikers, and he says that he's taken them to Walmart and one outfitter already, but they still don't have all the gear they need so he's dropped them at his house while he does a shuttle run and will take them to a second outfitter afterward. I feel mildly bad for having directed Rndo their way, wondering what he's charged them, but figure that if Rndo actually does know the area then they might be more likely to find success in their gear hunt than they would have with us.
When we finally reach the state park I Venmo Rndo $50 and we say goodbye. As he pulls away Smatt shakes his head. "I'm not sure if a word that came out of his mouth was true," Smatt says, in a tone that indicates he's pretty sure it wasn't. I laugh, "yeah, that was pretty hard to swallow." "Because, sure, sleeping bags falling out of hikers' packs is totally a thing that happens." "That reminds me," I say, "I should check again now to see if my quilt has fallen out yet."
I start hiking with Smatt up the approach trail. Or rather, up the alternate trail that joins back up with the approach trail, the stairs of the approach trail being washed out. Smatt takes off at at heafty clip, maybe 4 miles per hour uphill, and I keep pace with him for a few minutes, but almost immediately my achilles tendons start to complain, and my camera bag thumps into my chest with each long stride. This is not my pace, certainly not when I'm wearing my new minimalist Xero shoes. I tell him I'll see him up at the van and take a break to see the top of the water falls.
As I hike up the approach trail I stop and say hello to anyone who looks like a thru-hiker, asking to take their picture. When I reach one woman, she asks excitedly, "Are you Portrait?" She had been hiking with Smatt before letting him go up ahead so that she could take a break to catch her breath. Her name is Dee and she is in her mid-twenties, with bright red shoes and a matching red backpack. "I heard you have a van at the parking lot!" she says. "Can I see it?"
Dee has herself built out a van, a Ford E-150, but the experience was ill-fated -- after having a pre-sale inspection and buying the van, she later found out that the body was dangerously rusted out, and had to sell it at a large loss. "I just thought that the seller was being nice to pay for the pre-sale inspection," she says. "I guess now I'll know better."
We talk about vans briefly, and then everything else. She asks me if I feel the same excitement that I did last time I started an AT hike. I tell her that it hasn't really sunk in yet, maybe because, having been disappointed by my aborted thru-hike of the Arizona Trail, I have a harder time letting myself feel the excitement of anticipation. "Because you think covid might force you off trail again?" she asks. I tell her no, it's not that or any rational fear, more of a felt sense of distrust of future happiness. She nods. "I think we all have a little pandemic PTSD."
She asks me about how the trail was different ten years ago, and I tell her that last time I hiked, almost no one carried a smart phone, and many hikers, myself included, didn't even carry phones. I'm always disappointed, I tell her, when I see how many hikers have earbuds in now. I know it makes me sound like an old fogey, but the isolation from the outside world really used ro pull hikers together, I tell her.
"Phone addiction is strange," she says, "and not just for my generation. My parents used to get so mad at me for using my phone while were watching movies, and now they both do the exact same thing."
She is looking to build out another van so she can drive around and sell her art at festivals. When we pass other hikers I stop to take their picture and briefly chat with them, and Dee waits for me. We talk about homeschooling, and of watching the 2017 solar eclipse. Before I know it we are on top of Springer, taking pictures at the plaque, the official start of the AT.
We go to Springer Mountain Shelter, a tenth of a mile north up the trail, where a dozen or so other hikers are staying in tents, with a few more in the shelter. This is where I stayed last hike, and where I was planning on staying this time before checking the weather. I talk with and take photos of everyone who isn't already in their tent and Dee fills up on water. She is torn, wanting to see the van but worried about tenting away from the shelter. I tell her that I don't know what Smatt's plans are but that we will try to wait for her in the morning if she spends the night here. She starts to hike out with me but then changes her mind on the side trail out of the shelter, turning around to stay in the shelter or tent nearby, and I hike the first mile of the AT solo.
Back at the van, I tell Smatt about my day, and he tells me about hiking with Dee also, before me. When I admit to him that I might have a crush on her, he laughs sympathetically. "All that time talking and she didn't mention her boyfriend, huh?"
Smatt and I have a bet going as to how covid will change hiking this year, and how many hikers will wear masks. Smatt's prediction is a third to a half, my prediction is almost none. When he gives this prediction on the road trip down I reminde him that he's been in the northeast for a long time now. It's a whole different world down here. "Yeah, but hikers are from all over," he says, unconvinced.
I tell Smatt that I saw almost exactly as many thru-hikers wearing masks as I expected. "Do you know how many thru-hikers wearing masks I saw?" he asks, not waiting for an answer. "Fucking zero, that's how many! Well, besides you. I mean -- not even the ridgerunner!"
It took me most of the day to rationalize why I bothered wearing a mask even while I hiked, so long as other people were within sight, despite being vaccinated and absolutely no one else wearing one. I finally settled on that I was wearing one to help normalize other hikers wearing them. Does this still make sense if zero other hikers actually do? Arguably it matters even more, the social difficulty of being the first hiker to model a behavior being that much more difficult than the second, but I wonder if there's an element of contrarianism to it as well, and don't know how long I'll keep it up.
I tell Smatt that I heard during the day that Georgia is now vaccinating anyone age 18 and up, including non-residents. "Holy fucking shit!!!" he exclaims. "This is huge!!!" He jumps up out of the passenger seat of the van and runs outside, holding his phone aloft to try to get service to book an appointment.
We settle in for the night in the van, laying side by side in our sleeping bag and quilt. "I don't know if I snore," Smatt announces, though the fact that he brings it up seems to suggest that he thinks he might. "Don't worry," I assure him, "if it bothers me I'll just smother you with a pillow."
Within minutes Smatt is snoring softly beside me, a gentle, not unpleasant background murmur. I am still too wired from my day, not worn out enough from hiking and not yet shifted from my indoor sleep schedule to fall asleep.
I think about Dee, and can recall vividly the other crushes I've had on first days of my other thru-hikes. There's a particular flavor to a connection formed when the giddiness of starting a new adventure combines with the excitement of meeting someone new and the closeness of talking together for hours. I think how strange it is that I am now almost fourty, old enough for it to be creepy to have a crush on someone in their mid-twenties.
I don't feel forty, I think to myself. But did I feel twenty-nine last time? In some ways I think I felt older than I really was on my last AT hike. Was there sometime in between where I felt exactly my age? I can't remember noticing. Perhaps it was like bathwater that exactly matches your body temperature -- a strange absence of sensation. Now the bathwater of real-time has cooled while I've remained the same, and I feel the slight shiver of this growing temperature differential, feel my fingers start to slowly prune.
I lie awake in the van for hours, the wind swelling to a howl and then dying off. The stars are fuzzy and haloed through the dirty van windows, and an endless string of planes blink their way across the sky on their way to Atlanta. I wonder who I will feel like when this long journey is over.