A Week on the Appalachian Trail
Upon arriving to Northern Illinois University, I sought ways to further explore my interests and broaden my horizons. In my search, I stumbled upon The Outing Centre which connected students to the outdoors with activities like rock climbing, kayaking, and backpacking. I always had a keen interest in backpacking and when I saw their Thanksgiving trip to the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, I pounced at the opportunity. The $200 price tag for food, transportation, and most of the major gear wasn’t too bad either!
My adventure began months before the departure date. I spent hours researching and walking the aisles of sporting goods stores looking for the perfect cold weather gear, all for a price that a college student could afford. After meticulously putting together a set of purchased and rented gear, the date had finally arrived. Myself, and 7 of my peers bundled into two vans and began the 12 hour trek to the heart of the Smokies.
With little sleep and a fluttering stomach, we arrived at a picnic area just a few miles from Gatlinburg. It was about 5 in the morning and we all deserved some much needed rest, especially our drivers. We unrolled our sleeping bags under a small awning to escape the pouring rain outside. It had been years since I had been camping and my discomfort on the ground, and my excited nerves in the van, made for a full night with no sleep. As everyone dozed off oblivious to the world around them, my eyes remained open. Before I had time to join them in dreams, the sun was rising and it was already time for us to hike. On a few minutes sleep and an empty stomach, the 7 miles or so miles we trekked that day (mostly ascending a mountain) was one of the WORST days of my entire life. My heart was set to explode walking up the mountain with 50 lbs or more on my back. Each step was a battle against myself and the hill that sat in front of me. I’ve never wanted to give up doing something more than I did in that moment. Even when the hiking ceased, the end of our day offered no reprieve. We laid out on the cold wet earth once again, only this time, with no awning, tent, and worst of all, no fire. That night I shook violently in my sleeping bag, still able to see the lights from the city below, and I wept.
In the case of this experience, the first cut was indeed the deepest. The days following were equal in hiking distance, if not greater, but now the length was notably easier. It seemed I had earned my mountain legs and I fell in step with my more experienced colleagues. We also earned the opportunity to stay in shelters now like the one shown in the picture below. Once inside these shelters we were graced with the warmth of fire and conversation. Through these comfortable evenings I got to know my peers and strangers alike. I met many interesting locals as well as some travellers from familiar areas from my childhood, namely Georgia and Mississippi. I even even had the opportunity to meet and speak with a number of thru hikers. Thru hikers for those who don’t know, are hikers who hike the entirity of the Appalachian Trail from end to end (Maine to Georgia for a total of nearly 2,200 miles). Speaking with them was one of the most exciting experiences of the entire trip and I doubt that they’d even remember my name (but I certainly remember theirs). Columbus, Splake, The Captain, Scarecrow and, most notably, Mr. Z (shown below) bounded into our camp at the end of our 3rd day. I picked Mr. Z’s brain about his journey and asked him a cornucopia of questions! Where did you come from? How long have you been going? What was your longest day!? I was so excited to meet someone who was doing something I previously thought impossible. This man, to me, was a giant among men. I even asked the dude for a picture *facepalm*. Not much at that point separated me froma prepubescant teen meeting the Biebs (besides the fact that I didn’t scream quite as much and I kept my crying to a minimum). The most surprising fact of our brief conversation was when he mentioned his 44 mile day a month or so before! I was completely blown away.
Another man, not much older than myself, told me how he got involved in the hike to begin with. It all started as many great stories do, with one too many drinks at the bar. An older man at the establishment he visited started telling tales of a trail that stretched over 2,000 miles. Overhearing this conversation, my new friend’s interest was picqued. He bought this gentlemen drinks in exchange for conversation until the wee hours of the morning and apparently, they were the last ones there at closing time. At that point, he rushed home in a drunken stooper and devoured any information on the trail that he could get his hands on. He began purchasing gear, dropped out of his semester in college, and was on his way within 30 days of his conversation. If that’s not spontaneous, I don’t know what is.
For the better part of this trip I took part in some amazing conversations with some amazingly unique individuals. I saw breathtaking sights, marinated in scenic overlooks, and made a memory that I’ll certainly never forget. But now, the trip was coming to it’s close and I was more than ready to head home. On the last day of our journey, we hiked down off Mt. Leconte into the valley below. My legs were frail and I wanted nothing more than to be back in a car with heating . The hike was only 6 miles long but it felt like an eternity down the mountain. Rain pounded away at us and the wind whipped with a force I’d never experienced. We descended back under the cover of the clouds and were greeted by narrow ledges on lofty cliffs. This final descent was becoming quite an adrenaline inducing experience. Luckily they had wires bolted into the walls that you could hold fast to if you lost your footing. A small, but necessary, security blanket! By now, I was hurting, near exhausted, and my knees were on fire from the weight of my pack. Even through the pain, I wasn’t walking anymore. No, I was running off the mountain as it leveled out and as I took each corner on the trail I anxiously waited to see the sight of civilization. A parking lot would look like the pearly gates at this point and would be welcomed just the same. Over the rush of the trailside stream I heard one of the most welcome sounds of my entire life. It was the hydraulic hum and crash of a dump truck collecting refuse. I knew I was home. A parking lot was just at the other end of the bridge I stood on and a wave of relief fell over me. I was ready to take my place back in the civilized world.
I finished the trip with a newfound respect for the Appalachian Trail and a renewed interest in it as well. This experience could have chewed me up and spit me out but I wouldn’t let it. There are positives and negatives out there on the trail. I now understand real pain, loneliness, and cold but I also understand real accomplishment and the great potential that lie within all of us as humans. Nothing else really compares to the hardships I experienced in this trip, both mental and physical. Now things that used to cause me great stress, seem trivial in comparison. I know that even in the most trying situations, each step is another step closer to the proverbial end. As long as you’re moving forward you’re making progress and I’ve applied this new philosophy to every aspect of my life.
As stated in another blog entry, I’ve announced my plan to take on the full length of the Appalachian Trail. This week of hiking I’ve been describing was just a taste of what’s to come. I can’t wait to get back on the trail and conquer the beast that waits for me in the mountains of Eastern America and until then I’ll continue dreaming of that moment where my hands are held high on Katahdin Mountain.