Location: Hot Springs NC to Springer Mountain GA
My journal entry on November 7th was my last written on the Appalachia Trial. I did not record the daily events of my last 17 days on the trail. As disappointed as I am in myself for quitting my writing habit, the negligence is indicative of the final stretch of the Appalachian Trail. As a neared the finish, only one thing mattered, finishing. My mind became consumed with reaching Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the trail, and nothing else mattered except enough food and water to propel me. I averaged over 26 miles hiking each day for ten consecutive days. That’s ten marathons in ten days, back to back to back through rugged mountains. No days off to rest, just hike, hike, hike.
The winter days were short and the scenery dull and dormant. I started hiking before sunrise and finished each day well after dark. I spared no energy for writing. In the last ten days, I stopped everything outside of eating, sleeping, and hiking. My vision narrowed until I could only see Springer Mountain through the tunnel of trees when I looked up from the ground. After keeping a journal for five months, I regretfully abandoned the regular writing in the last weeks. Having finished the Appalachian Trail, I look back on blurred memories of the final weeks, and I will recount them here.
Katharine and Elaine met me just south of Hot Springs, NC. I climbed down steep cliffs to Hot Springs late in the night on November 9th, and I rented a motel room since my tired mind couldn’t discern the location of the hiker hostel in town. I can find my way well through the woods, but street navigation became a little less intuitive. I ate dinner that night at a gas station that had a sweaty glass box of pizza that had been baking all day in the front of the store. I stayed in town less than 12 hours. The next morning, I started on the trail early so that I could meet my sisters at the rendezvous. The girls would hike with me for twenty miles over two and a half days.
I slowed my pace significantly so that the girls could join me for a section of the trail. They exceeded my expectations in their ability to maintain a quick pace. They completed the planned miles hours ahead of schedule, but we chose to stay at the predetermined destinations. The girls experienced two extremes of fall weather. On our first morning, the forest was frozen. Ice hung from the trees and covered the trail. As the sun eroded the gray clouds, it melted the snow. By the afternoon, the air had warmed and the sky had cleared. We crested Max Patch, a bald mountain in NC, to find 360 degree views that stretched fifty miles into Tennessee and North Carolina. We took our time on the mountain, snacking on trail mix and resting our legs. We reached the shelter where we would stay the night hours before dark, but again we decided to stay since there was no other shelter before the road where we would meet mom the next day.
On the morning of November 12th, I begrudgingly left the girls with mom at the road crossing. The cold and wet morning depressed me as I left the warmth of mom’s car. I had a notion to quit right then. I had already accomplished more than I ever thought I would, so I thought to just stay in the car and return to Raleigh with them that afternoon, but I continued on the trail. Depressing me even more, I had left my eyeglasses in the shelter. They had been battered by branches and rocks, but I had kept up with them for months on the trail. Without a replacement pair, I climbed into the Great Smoky Mountains. Everything beyond three feet was blurry, which I think contributed to my increased speed in the last weeks. I literally could not see anything but the trail before my feet. Emotionally though I could only see the trail before me also. I had now passed the latitude of my home. For so long I found motivation by focusing on the notion that my southbound trip was simply a long walk home. Now every step towards Springer was physically a step away from home, and I had difficulty convincing myself that the closer I hiked to Springer Mountain actually brought me closer to home.
In the last two weeks, I became consumed with finishing the trail. Nothing but Springer mattered. The morning I left the girls at the road, I jumped a black bear in the trees below the first peak in the Smoky Mountains. I didn’t even consider the bear encounter to be an important matter worth recording. Every turn in the trail looked like any other. Reaching the top of one mountain became no different or exhilarating than reaching any other. Small accomplishments on a daily basis mattered very little. I blew past sweeping vistas and kept conversations short. The only thing that mattered was finishing on November 23, Thanksgiving Day, when I’d meet my family at the base of Springer Mountain and hike the last few miles to completion with them.
It snowed my first day in the Smokies, and the rime that fell from the trees gathered in the trail and made hiking especially difficult. I didn’t mind walking in the snow, but when large chunks of ice had gathered in an area, they rolled beneath my boots so I could rarely find solid footing. While the days in the Smokey Mountains were pleasant, the four nights I spent above 4000 feet were the coldest I experienced on the trail. My clothes, boots, and water bottles froze each night. One morning I woke to find my beard frozen to my sleeping bag where I had either sweated or drooled on the side of my face. Without my glasses, I couldn’t see the mountains on the horizon. I focused on the steps in front of me.
The only town I visited between Erwin, TN and Springer Mountain, GA was Fontana Dam, NC. I needed to resupply in the middle of my ten day sprint to the finish. I arrived late one evening and found Moses and Aaron there. I dried my wet clothes and sleeping bag, bought food for the next week, and slept in a bed. Mom sent my spare pair glasses by overnight delivery to the post office. I was thankful to have my vision back, but I had already missed the majestic Smokey Mountains.
The remainder of the trail paled in comparison to the Smokies. After a great night’s stay at Fontana Village, I returned to the trail with the brothers. They left me behind, hiking 35 miles to the shelter beyond the one where I had planned to spend the night. Their young legs let them abuse their bodies even worse than I abuse mine by pulling 25 mile days.
I can barely remember The Appalachian Trail south of Fontana Village, NC. I only have flashes of memories that I know to be from those miles. My eyes rarely left the ground as I pushed to reach Springer Mountain by the deadline I had established, Thanksgiving Day.
Two days before Springer, I spent a night at Neil’s Gap, an AT landmark. At Neil’s Gap, the AT passes through a building, an outfitter and hostel. Many northbounders complete the first 35 miles of the trail and then throw in the towel at Neil’s Gap, which has the first telephone on the Appalachian Trail for northbound hikers.
I arrived at the hostel late in the night, well after the outfitter had closed. A section hiker was cooking dinner when I arrived. I visited with him some, but my mind and body hung on the edge of collapse. The twelve long days prior to the gap weighed heavily on me in every way. Physically and mentally I was deteriorating, and I could see it when I looked in the mirror or tried to form coherent sentences.
While I slept in the bunkroom, Aaron and Moses barged in around 2:00 to retrieve their packs. They had slack-packed 35 miles to Springer Mountain and had met their family on top of the mountain at 11:00pm.
I left Neil’s Gap early the morning of the 22nd for a 27 mile day to the last shelter before the summit of Springer Mountain. I can’t remember making any profound conclusions about my life on my last night on the trail. I arrived at the shelter late as had become usual practice, and I ate dinner and fell asleep without much thought about the end of my long trip. In the last weeks, I had become a machine. My mind was empty and my body lean. I ate, slept, and hiked, without leaving time for any other activity.
Thanksgiving Day morning I reached the road at the base of Springer Mountain. Mom, Katharine, and Elaine had not yet arrived, so I sat on a rock on the edge of the parking lot. Though Springer Mountain had consumed every aspect of my existence in the last weeks, I stopped less than one mile short of the end of the Appalachian Trail.
I had hiked 2200 miles. To this day I am surprised that I did not sprint to the top of the last mountain, shedding what weight I could so that my feet could carry me faster up the mountain to the end of the trail. I had averaged over 26 miles per day for the last ten days to reach Springer by my deadline, and now I waited on the threshold of completing the task I had labored to accomplish for nearly six months.
When Mom and the girls arrived, we all walked up the Springer Mountain together. At the summit, we shared a bottle of cheap champagne. Emotions overcame me. I was relieved to have completed the Appalachian Trail. I felt privileged to be on top of the last mountain, sitting on the plaque that marked the end of my journey.
I somehow managed to be one of the two dozen people that finished the southbound thru-hike in 2006. Nearly 500 attempted the thru-hike this year, and I would bet that all had more hiking experience than I did when I began the trail. I had spent 12 days on an Outward Bound course in North Carolina ten years earlier, but beyond that, several day hikes composed the remainder of my backpacking and outdoors experience.
My skill didn’t allow me to succeed where others failed. Certainly my physical fitness didn’t provide me the edge. I began the trail 30 pounds overweight, having drank alcohol, smoked cigarettes, and eaten poorly for five years. I could hardly catch my breath at the top of a flight of stairs without using my asthma inhaler. I don’t owe my success to some natural ability I possess. My athleticism and talent leave many things to be desired. While these elements played little or no part in my success, I can name three that did, one especially.
A factor I cannot dismiss is luck. Throughout my journals I have reiterated how lucky I have been to escape major injury or setback. As hard as I fell, as far as I rolled down hills, as close as lightning struck, I avoided a trip ending injury. Every hiker deals with blisters, aches, and bruises. A common saying that I heard in Maine is that the pain never subsides, it just moves around the body.
All hikers endure these pains, but few are lucky enough to avoid serious injury and setback which can be caused by an infinite number of circumstances, from concussions and broken bones to spider bites and Lyme disease. Any hiker who completes the trail owes a portion of his success to luck.
Another element contributing to my success would be the intangibles, psychology and character. I’ve been told a thousand times and I’ve told a thousand people that completing the trail is more a mental feat than a physical one. One woman who has hiked the trail several times said, ‘It’s more head than heel.’ Hiking 20 miles per day through the mountains takes enormous physical effort, but hiking everyday requires psychological discipline and commitment exceeding all of the physical demands. Several times I became disgusted with the thought of rising in the morning only to hike again. The repetition quickly takes a toll on the mind, and regularly keeping spirits high can be as difficult as any physical challenge on the AT. More people drop off the trail for emotional reasons than for physical reasons, and I can see easily how a hiker can spiral into a psychological abyss of negativity which won’t permit his feet to carry his body up the next mountain.
As many do, for one reason or another, I struggled several times with feelings of despair, but they did not consume me to the point that I chose to leave the trail. I managed to shed those emotions, but I could not cast off the burden without support from family and friends, which I credit as the most important factor that allowed me to complete the Appalachian Trail.
One of the most difficult aspects of the Appalachian Trail experience for me was deciding to finally attempt a thru-hike, telling my family and friends of my choice to leave school for an extended walk in the woods. I knew little of the future that awaited me on the trail, so I could hardly convince others that the trip was in my best interest. Despite the shortcomings in my argument and the seemingly foolhardy decision, my family and friends supported me before the trip ever began.
I only chose to hike the Appalachian Trail six weeks before I planned to start. I received full support from the onset, and that support continued through the six months that I tested my abilities on the trail. Without support from home, without mail drops, visits, or phone conversations, I would likely not have lasted the length of Maine. When my morale was low, I could always depend on a boost from home each time I reached town.
I spent much of my time on the trail alone. I mention many people in my journals because generally interaction with other people creates the only news worth reporting. I spent the majority of an average day alone, considering thoughts and plans. I would conduct debates in my head until I exhausted all of my knowledge on a particular subject. I constantly considered hypothetical questions and drove myself mad with impossible solutions. I thought about everything at least once and most everything multiple times. I was constantly alone, and because I was alone I could not always motivate myself to continue on the trail. I owe my success to the family and friends who I first told about my dream in the spring of 2006, to those who unwaveringly supported me when I could not sustain myself.
If you would like to read about the entire thru-hike from Mount Katahdin, Maine, to Springer Mountain, Georgia, read Adventure Tales of Wayward.