Greetings friend from Franklin, North Carolina! Megan and I are shacked up in a cozy hotel room celebrating 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail completed (106 to be exact) and are taking our first zero-day of the trek. Zero days are exactly as they sound, days where you hike zero miles, and are not to be confused with nero days, where you hike near zero miles. It’s important on the trail to rest up once a week with days like this and also provides opportune time to catch up on NHL scores and standings, Reddit highlights, the newest season of Archer, and meaningful dedications like maintaining a blog. Now, before jumping into the hike thus far, I thought it might be nice to cover some basics to walking the Appalachian Trail! The AT is a 2,189.1 mile national scenic trail that extends from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. To follow the trail, all a hiker must do is follow the white blazes painted on trees (or rocks). What is a white blaze you ask?
It’s a 2-inch wide and 6-inch tall painted white rectangle. Like the North Star, it guides hikers all the way to Maine (or Georgia, if you’re going southbound, which can create problems if you sleepily start your hike and don’t pay attention to which way you’re going! Not that that’s happened or anything…). White blazes are never more than a quarter mile apart and can vary, depending on what they’re drawing attention to, for instance:
The double blaze shown above can be read like an ATTENTION sign, calling hikers to have their wits about them and be aware. Perhaps there is a side trail that intersects or a water source nearby. Like the double blaze, sometimes the top blaze is offset somewhat, indicating a sharp turn in the trail ahead in the direction of the offset top blaze, as in the photo below:
In the same manner as white blazes, blue blazes are also abundant and throughout, guiding hikers down any side trail that isn’t the AT. Often times these blue blazed trails lead to shelters or water and obey the same rules as white blazes.
Now that we know how we’re getting to where we’re going, let’s talk about who we are! Hikers on the AT start off identifying with their birth-given names but soon enough some incident will forever alter that and a trail name is born. For instance, one day while experiencing the majesty of trail magic (trail magic is when you stumble into someone giving away time and energy to help enhance the hiker experience. Sometimes it’s a random un-manned cooler along the trail filled with beer and Gatorade, other times it’s several large tents set up at a road crossing with folks grilling out for hikers to feast upon, while other times it can be the sheer magic of a friendly lift into town), a woman from a single ministry group was telling me how she grew up in Michigan but moved down south because she couldn’t stand shoveling all the snow. I laughingly snorted with both hands full of food and retorted that it’s one of my favorite chores as I shoveled grub into my mouth. Immediately this trail angel pointed at me and christened me with my trail name: Shovel. It fits too, because I’m absolutely digging trail life (ba dum tsss). Trail names aren’t always so kind though, like Sir FartsALot whom we met early on or Lumberjack, given due to sawing heavy logs in their sleep (i.e., snoring). I’ll let you guess how Megan received her trail name: Stumble.
I think that’s enough of the basics to get us on our way, so let’s go over some highlights from the first 100 miles. Stumble and I decided to hike the 8 mile approach trail to Springer Mountain, which we later found out most people don’t actually seem to do (there’s a forest road that crosses the trail one mile in, so many will get dropped off there, hike back one mile to Springer Mountain, and then begin their journey). It’s actually quite grueling for just an approach trail to starting the AT and trail talk has it that some folks quit this year even before actually starting the AT itself! They got partway up the approach, decided this wasn’t what they had in mind, and turned back. It was actually much harder than the first 20 or so miles of the trail itself, and I’m glad to have earned my start up there.
The beginning of the trail was quite cluttered with aspiring thru-hikers (a thru-hiker is one who attempts the entirety of the trail in one go, versus a section-hiker who tries to complete the trail in various sections at a time over any time frame. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) recognizes anyone who hikes all 2,189 miles of the trail regardless of how they do it or how long it takes), with some shelters (wooden structures built along the trail that usually have space for cooking/eating/socializing and space for sleeping anywhere from 4 to 20+ hikers) filling to the brim and space outside the shelters looking like music festivals with myriad tents and hammocks strewn around the surrounding forest. The increasing number of aspiring thru hikers has actually become some concern for the ATC as they try to limit the environmental strain on the area of the trail, though by this point, 100 miles in, it seems like things have thinned out quite a bit (and we’ve also heard that most hikers that attempt the trail but quit do so within the first state).
The trail has been good to us so far though, and quitting has not been on our radar. Through blistered heels, swollen soles, scraped feet, sore knees, mysterious rashes, sun burns, shaky shoulders, bruised hips, and pissed legs (see Megan’s blog) the overall mood has been appreciative, humbled, and rejoiceful. I feel in sync with the sun, rising as it does and slowing down as it retreats. The water that I retrieve straight from the earth is the epitome of refreshment, quenching the most primal thirst for self-sustenance. One of the log books in a shelter (notebooks at shelters where hikers write in anything they want, from one liners to stoned ramblings) read, “if you can’t carry it on your back or in your heart, you don’t need it” and my spirit shuddered in a smile of agreement. The trail is reminding me what is important in life right now, and I’m happy to walk along and keep trying to listen.
Stay tuned for more stories soon. Our hotel doesn’t have a computer and to be honest, I’m tired of writing this on my phone. I promise not to wait for our next zero day to post again.