Musings of a thru-Hiker
By Gary Shealy
It rained lightly through most of the night. In mid-April, early mornings are still cool in the Southern Appalachians. As the morning sun began to drive off the fog and dry the dew, breakfast was prepared. The cool morning air and the anticipation of a day full of hiking combined to enhance an already hearty appetite.
Breakfast was leisurely consisting of grits, oatmeal, and Carnation breakfast drink. A breakfast drink was chosen over hot chocolate in hopes that it might contain some nutritional value. The caloric value of oatmeal or grits can be readily boosted by the addition of squeeze margarine or soybean oil. Neither the margarine nor the soybean oil require refrigeration. Consuming enough calories remains an obsession with thru-hikers.
While finishing my first breakfast on the trail, I carefully hung my tent and ground cloth to catch the morning sun. It was Easter Sunday, and I was on the Appalachian Trail. The scout troop was already packing and starting out for Springer Mountain. I was the last one to break camp (this was the first and the last time that I would be the last to break camp).
The first full day on the trail would climax early on the summit of Springer Mountain. Fairly early on the way to the summit I passed the two scraggly hikers, and by the time I reached the Southern Terminus of the Appalachian Trail, I was alone. The climb had been slow, and I was sweating heavily in spite of the cool air and my excitement. Somehow, I had expected to go faster. During my weekend hikes, I almost always averaged three miles per hour; this morning I was barely able to turn out one and a half miles per hour. I worked hard to reach my first peak.
The summit of Springer Mountain is marked by a sign as the Southern Terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Nearby a small white mailbox with a red flag houses a spiral notebook for hikers to record passage and share thoughts. From the overlook near the summit the Southern Appalachians stretch out, and it seems that Atlanta, Stone Mountain, and perhaps Huntsville(Okay, maybe Rome, Ga.) are visible in the distance. As I read the register, I worked my way from the most recent entries back toward March and February. The scout troop registered as one. Ed Garvey, author of The Appalachian Hiker, books I and II, and his entourage of nearly twenty Georgia Appalachian Trail Conference members registered the day before, and all were heading toward the first shelter. It was just as well that I did not push on that first day, as I would have ended up in a tent anyway.
In the preceding entries, I counted at least six repeat thru-hikers. It is rare for a person to complete the trail even once, much less to repeat the task. Judging by the number of recent entries, it appeared that the trail would be crowded. One entry noted with distress and persistence that he had planned on starting a week earlier, but all of his gear was stolen in Atlanta. He had to gear up again before starting. I searched for an entry by Warren Doyle who was supposed to be measuring the trail. He teaches a course on hiking the trail, and then leads the class down the trail! I registered and returned the notebook to the mailbox, carefully raising the red flag as I closed the box.
I snapped several pictures, attempted my first self-portrait, and paused long enough for the excitement to really sink in before I lugged my pack up and resumed the hike. Shortly, I met several members of the Ed Garvey entourage returning to Amicalola Falls. They confirmed my suspicion that the first shelter had been full. In fact nearly twenty people were camped in and around the shelter. An advance team had set out to reserve a spot in the shelter for Ed Garvey and Chuck Logan. Chuck as it turned out was Ed's traveling companion- actually Sherpa would be more accurate. I hiked alone for the rest of the day.
Around 3:45pm I approached Hawk Mountain shelter. The hiking had not been difficult, but by now the enormous weight of my pack was making itself known. The scout troop from Alabaster had already set up camp. They arrived about thirty minutes before I did. The shelter was empty except for three backpacks. One other tent was pitched near the scout's campsite.
In the course of preparing for a long distance hike, almost everyone who thinks of hiking the trail or talks to someone about hiking the trail will eventually discuss a multitude of potentially dangerous or disastrous "what if's." A favorite of these is "what if you meet some crazy that has been living in the woods for years or generations?". The obvious implication being that such a person would not be constrained by society's typical norms of behavior.
Well, Hawk Mountain appeared to be the first instance of this sort of encounter. Just outside the perimeter of the scout's tents, an older, large, coarse, and unkempt man with a knarly beard pitched his army surplus pup tent. His gear was old, and not in line with the typical thru-hiker selection. A rag tag laundry line that was strung between two small scrub oaks displayed the mass of heavy clothing that he carried. He did not build a fire or light a stove. He ate his dinner cold and crawled into his tent well before dark. From the buzz of hushed voices of the other hikers, it was evident that his behavior was odd and was cause for some concern. By all accounts his appearance did not invite one to engage in casual conversation with him; clearly, he was one to be avoided.
Diligently, wary hikers prepared evening meals, collected water, and made camp. Each attempted to be inconspicuous as he strained to watch the misfit's actions. Three hikers returned from getting water, briefly appraised the situation, hoisted their packs up from the shelter floor, and moved on down the trail to find another campsite. How could anyone know what the intimidating misfit might do? Soon the sun would set on a very apprehensive camp.
Copyright 1991-2000, all rights reserved
This is a fictional account of an actual Thru-Hike in 1990. Any resemblance to specific individuals or events is purely coincidental.