Following is a short summary of the first part of my trip to northern Georgia to hike a section of the Appalachian Trail (hereafter referred to as the A.T.). After a nine hour drive north through Florida and Georgia, including the Atlanta metro area, I arrived in Dahlonega in time for a quick dinner at an oyster bar run by a guy from Norfolk, VA. The food was terrific; who woulda thunk that I could find delicious Chesapeake Bay-style seafood in a small college town in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains? I stayed at a Holiday Inn Express (very comfy bed) and sorted out my pack for a seven day hike. This was the view from my window. Dahlonega is a college town; the University of North Georgia, which is also the Military College of Georgia, with 750 students enrolled in ROTC. It was refreshing to meet several students working in the restaurant, all clean-cut with “Yes, suh!” Georgia drawls.
The next morning, I drove to Amicalola Falls State Park, where I met Jack Fussell, a young man (2 years younger than Your Humble Correspondent) who has run 14,380 miles across the US raising awareness of Alzheimers. Jack’s father died of that disease, and he was surprised to learn that Suzanne had written a book on the subject, The Real Alzheimers. Jack was headed out to run 65 miles that day. Yikes!!! I then checked in with the rangers and weighed my pack: 40.6 lbs. (MISTAKE #1) I had vowed to keep my pack weight down to 35 lbs., the same weight I had hiked with in Yosemite a few weeks ago, but having to carry five days worth of food and prepare for possible sub-freezing nights and rain caused my pack weight to creep up. Alas, this would slow me down and make me more tired than I had hoped, but the extra food would come in handy in an unexpected way.
After registering as an A.T. hiker and paying for a week’s worth of parking, I left the car near the state park’s elegant Lodge ($160-$350/night) and started hiking on the 8 mile Approach Trail to the actual start of the A.T. at Springer Mountain, elev. 3,782 ft. I will admit to “wussing out” of the experience of climbing 604 steps up the side of Amicalola Falls (the highest waterfall east of the Mississippi River) itself with my 40 lb. pack. I called this “Common Sense” acquired by decades of hiking and wisdom attached to my advanced age. Laziness had nothing to do with my decision. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
On the hike up to Springer Mtn., I crossed a fire road where this gentleman was waiting sadly for a tow truck. Seems he had ridden his Russian Ural motorcycle with sidecar up the fire road and hit his engine on some rocks, causing it to overheat. (I thought, but didn’t say out loud, “Dude, what did you expect with a stinking PoS Russian motorcycle???”)
The leaves were just starting to turn; they would be at their peak in 2 weeks, but I was “in the now”, so to speak, enjoying each moment for itself. I tried to remember that on the hike uphill to Springer Mountain, 1,800 feet higher than the start at Amicalola Falls. The forest is pretty thick in Georgia (and elsewhere on the A.T.), and your focus is not on the scenery, but on the next few steps, especially on the uphills and downhills. (That’s partly because the flat spots are few and far between, at least until you get to Pennsylvania and New Jersey.)
Passing the empty Black Gap shelter, I toyed with the idea of stopping for a nap, but decided to trudge on to the next shelter after the summit. The white PVC tube on the back wall is the shelter register, where thru-hikers will often write entries describing their experiences that day, or just brief notes to friends following behind them.
There weren’t many hikers on the trail that day, but one trail runner passed me on his way down the mountain. It must be nice to be young enough to not worry about a twisted ankle or blown knee. I enjoy trail running, especially on relatively flat forest paths with pine needles instead of rocks – they tend to cushion you better than granite, especially when you take a header.
Finally, after almost six hours, I arrived at the summit of Springer Mountain. This bronze plaque, and a smaller one nearby, mark the official starting point of the 2,185 mile long Appalachian National Scenic Trail. Unlike the thru-hikers who start in March or April, I didn’t have the five or six months to dedicate to hiking the trail all the way to Mt. Katahdin in Baxter State Park, Maine. I only had a week, and although the forecast for the first four days was perfect (nights in the high 30s/low 40s and daytime highs around 65, and no rain), the prognosis for the back end of the week was already looking iffy.
This smaller, older plaque was placed by the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club in 1934, and the small print reads, “A footpath for those who seek fellowship with the wilderness.” The hiker is shown carrying an axe, which back then would have been necessary to clear the path as well as to cut wood for cook fires; today, since small gas stoves have almost universally replaced cook fires, no one carries an axe… or so I thought.
I relished the moment at this historic spot, and also enjoyed the narrow view from the summit. It wasn’t as spectacular as those I had seen in the Rockies, or most recently in Yosemite, but it was very nice, with fall colors starting to show in about 10% of the trees far below.
A short way down the trail and I arrived at the Springer Mountain shelter where I met a nice family from Cartersville, GA. Matthew, his mom Mona and his girlfriend Stephanie arrived a half hour later and set up in the loft, a ladder climb up in the shelter. Matthew has been here before, and I had already set up on the ground floor. MISTAKE #2! I shoulda grabbed the loft!!! During the night, I was awakened occasionally by the pitter-patter of little footsteps. Mice or chipmunks, I couldn’t be sure, but I had hung my food up in the trees on bear-proof cables, so they weren’t a threat, other than to my beauty rest. The next morning we laughed about their decision to take the loft; mice don’t climb tall ladders!
After a breakfast of granola (I had brought three lbs. of it in 8 ounce zip-locks), I was on my way. This low-tech bridge (a log with a flat top) was the first stream crossing I would come to. Some were more sophisticated, some were merely flat rocks thrown into creeks, but all required careful crossings so as not to get my boots wet. Trekking poles were essential, both for stream crossings and to relieve the pressure of a 40 lb. backpack.
In places, the trail widened to 3 feet or so, and the occasional patch of pine needle base was like walking on air compared to the more normal rocky parts. But it didn’t last long, as the trail kept rising and falling with crest to gap sections of a mile or so.
Less than an hour into the second day’s hike, I met a delightful young German hiker, Manuel, who was heading to Virginia, about 700 miles north. He asked if I would like to hike and camp with him, and I agreed. I normally hike alone, but this would prove to be a very interesting experience, which you will learn about in the second half of my A.T. blog in a few days. “Ya’ll come back now, ya heah?”