My Walk in the Woods, Ch 1

This is the tale of A Lo Hawk’s 132 day, 2200 mile traverse of the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine in 2008.

Chapter One (April 7th-13th)

Day 0: Motel 6 in Gulfport, MS to camp two miles up Springer Mtn approach trail

Launch day begins at 5:30 am in a Motel 6 room in Gulfport, Mississippi. Everything I need for the next four months is stuffed into or strapped onto an REI backpack. Charlotte and Greg are in another room getting ready to drive me to Georgia where I will begin my northbound traverse of the Appalachian Trail.

I think back three years earlier when this same trio was on their way to the California/Mexico border in the arid hills near Campo where a monument marks the southern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail. Just like in 2005, we find a Krispy Kreme doughnut shop and I ingest gluttonous quantities of warm, sugary goodness washed down with cups of straight black coffee.

With a jittery energy rush we head towards Atlanta. Slow congested traffic increases my nervous anticipation. We stop at a McAleister’s Deli in the northern suburbs for my last supper as a civilized member of society.

We finally arrive at Amicalola Falls State Park at 4:30 pm. The ranger station contains a hiker registry for the intrepid souls who hope to follow the white trail blazes all the way to the summit of Mt Katahdin in Maine. I am the 588th person to start this year and several others have left earlier in the day. There is a large grocer’s scale hanging in the back for weighing my pack–43 lbs.

It is a beautiful afternoon, 67 degrees, and I feel strong and confident as I step through the arch after saying aloha to Charlotte and Greg. The worn trail is shady and gently climbs into the mountains of northern Georgia. I see an inviting rock so I sit and have a toke of weed I got from my botanist friend Thomas. I take a moment to reflect on the journey that brought me to this place. Remembering a promise made to Pele (goddess of fire) on Maui earlier this year, I whisper “mahalo” then yell at the top of my lungs “Haleakala!”

About a mile later, at a bend in the trail, I stop at an empty campsite, sit down and write these notes in my journal.

Day 1: (GA) 22 miles from trailside camp to Gooch Mtn Shelter

I begin a habit that will last the entire trek by rising before the sun. Technically, the Appalachian Trail begins at the top of Springer Mtn so I have six more miles of the ‘approach trail’ before I see the first strip of white paint which marks the trail for the next 2000 miles.

I stop for a moment at the summit to take a photo of a plaque then begin a descent which leads to another climb. I am trying to conserve energy, trying not to get overheated in this hilly terrain but excitement keeps me going for eleven hours until I eventually stop at Gooch Mtn Shelter.

As I will soon see, shelters come in all shapes and sizes and can be found every 8-12 miles along the trail. They are supposed to be first come/egalitarian places to spend the night and there are usually several campsites nearby. They are the hub of communal activity among the hikers and they provide a conduit for communication and information sharing.

As I expected, the shelter is already packed with boisterous, excited strangers. Luckily, this is one of the more modern structures with a loft where I find room for my sleeping bag. Although I love to tent camp, I am drawn in by the camaraderie and fellowship this early in the trip. I meet a young man who uses the trail name UPHILL. I don’t know it yet but UPHILL will be an occasional hiking companion for several hundred miles.

Day 2: (GA) 15 miles from Gooch Mtn Shelter to Neels Gap Hostel

I sleep badly. There is too much snoring in the shelter so I get up and hit the trail while most are still sleeping. It is a warm day and I spend much of it climbing up and over Blood Mtn. In the afternoon I arrive at a road crossing and Neels Gap Hostel.

Hiker hostels are an upgrade from a shelter. For a nominal fee you get electricity, shower, laundry, bunkbed and possibly meals. Neels Gap Hostel host PIRATE makes sloppy joes, has pints of Ben & Jerry’s in a giant freezer and apple cobbler in the oven. In the evening he hosts a game show and gives out prizes (I win a tent stake mallet) which all secretly get placed back in the ‘do not want to carry’ box.

There are many hikers showing up in the evening and space is scarce. I enjoy the festive atmosphere until I get tired and go to bed.

Day 3: (GA) 18 miles from Neels Gap to Blue Mtn Shelter

I wake up and PIRATE has coffee made and is stirring pancake batter and flipping slices of spam on the griddle simultaneously. We have a nice chat while I eat the first stack. Apparently my watch battery has expired and I toss the useless bracelet in the trash. I feel an additional level of freedom and lightness as I step out of the door into a beautiful morning.

Once again I give thanks, or mahalo, to Pele (goddess of fire, lightning, volcanoes) for my good fortune. SIDETRACK: In January, while on a 20th wedding anniversary trip to Maui, I hike deep into the crater of dormant Haleakala volcano. I was completely alone in this silent powerful landscape when a voice told me if I bring the island spirit of aloha to the trail I will have safe travels and an abundance of wealth. Even before starting the hike I was saying ‘Aloha’ instead of ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ to everyone I meet.

I walk along a ridge in the cool morning, signs of spring showing everywhere. I stop to look at the broad view of forested hills. A shadow catches my eye and I see a hawk calmly floating over the treetops below. Suddenly two thoughts collide in my mind creating a new identity for this humble hiker trash: aloha + a low hawk = A LO HAWK

Later UPHILL and RED catch me and I tag along with them to Blue Mtn Shelter. There is a nice spring, I pitch my tent, make a big dinner and watch a lovely sunset. Happy Tails!

Day 4: (GA) 15 miles from Blue Mtn Shelter to Deep Gap Shelter

It is a cool, overcast start to the day. The best views occur at some lookout rocks early in the morning. The weather is unsettled, something is in the air, I feel a change coming. I pitch my tent near Deep Gap Shelter where UPHILL, RED and others are staying. I question my judgment when a light rain begins to fall. Tomorrow I should cross into North Carolina.

Day 5: (NC) 20 miles from Deep Gap Shelter to Standing Indian Shelter

Today starts out with great hiking and continues into the cool afternoon. There is a small sign on the trail at the GA/NC border but too many hikers are standing around to stop. I keep trucking until I get to Standing Indian Shelter which is full of rowdy young men so I set up my tent far away. It is a very cold, windy night.

Day 6: (NC) ??? miles from Standing Indian Shelter to Rock Gap Shelter

It is a very chilly morning and does not improve. I break down camp and begin hiking asap. I am not conscious of the miles, only the need to keep moving and stay warm. I get to Rock Gap Shelter which has a large blue tarp covering the normally open fourth wall. The shelter is packed with cold hikers but they make room for me. It begins to snow and hail as we fire up our stoves.

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