Editor’s Note: Brett Elliott of Danville has set out on a five-month quest to through-hike the Appalachian Trail. Every month, he will be updating North Star readers on his adventures in this column.
Greetings to all. I’m writing this update from Helen, Georgia on the fourth night of my excursion. I’ve hiked 60 miles so far this week.
In addition to my personal goals, I’m hiking the trail to honor someone. My grandfather’s brother, my great uncle Win, aspired to hike the Appalachian Trail. Cancer took his life before he was able to do so. My grandparents took him to Springer Mountain so he could see the beginning of the trail. A college friend of mine, an outdoor fanatic, lost his life tragically weeks before my departure. I’ll be thinking of him as well.
The days leading up to my departure date had my nerves going. So many “what if” scenarios ran through my head. Logistics were my biggest concern. Probably none of them were valid. Thankfully, I was able to visit my recently-vaccinated grandparents several times before departing. Every cliff or sheer drop I encounter I will hear my grandmother’s voice in the back of my head, “Don’t get too close to that edge!” I said my goodbyes at work. Part of my reason for leaving in mid-April was so I would be around for most of sugaring season. The strange and warm weather this year meant two days before I started the trail we had our last boil! That’s Mother Nature for you.
The drive to Georgia made it all become so much more real. We drove near or crossed the trail several times. Once I laid eyes on the Shenandoah Mountains my excitement level multiplied. The drive in and of itself was quite the experience. Dad and I split the drive time evenly. It was a lot more traffic than this Vermonter was used to! Big box trucks everywhere, three to four lanes of weaving in and out and maintaining 20 mph over the speed limit. We drove through Scranton, Pa., and all I could think about was one of my favorite shows, The Office. We passed through some beautiful country. Strasburg, Virginia was the terminus of the first day on the road. The second day driving seemed to drag, though passing some interesting new country. The Blue Ridge Mountains beckoned from the west. Everything got greener as we went farther south. A farmer has even mowed his field already!
I made it a point to cue up appropriate songs on the playlist. Several bluegrass songs were played in Virginia. Take me Home Country Roads was played when we entered West Virginia. James River Blues. Tennessee Jed. And finally, the Devil Went Down to Georgia! East Ellijay, Georgia was our day two destination.
I was up early on my first day of hiking. I decided to start at Amicalola Falls State Park, as it is much easier to access than Springer Mountain itself. This meant I had eight miles to go before I hit the official A.T. We pulled in and there were big red maple leaves out. Reminded me of home. The visitor center would not open until 9 a.m. and I was not waiting around. Several other people were starting at the same time. This was it. My mind flashed to the future. Picturing myself on Katahdin. How things would be different. My little nephew Isaac would be 10 months old! I was in it for the end goal. And the goal of doing the trail itself. Just like that I said goodbye and I was off.
Uphill was the story of the approach trail. I had a pretty good pace going, fresh on the trail. I passed many hikers, making it to the top of Springer Mountain just before noon. This is it. The Southern Terminus. 2,200 miles to Maine. Though I only have faint memories of him, I thought of Uncle Win here. I had lunch there at the scrubby 3,700 foot summit and met some people from Florida. It was downhill most of the rest of the day. Saw my first two snakes. I drank lots of water but didn’t seem to get rid of much! I stayed at Hawk Mountain campsites my first night on the trail, a 15-mile journey. Not too crowded. Met some people from Savannah. I asked them about their Coastal Plain League baseball team, the Savannah Bananas. They were impressed I had heard of them.
Got a little chilly the first night. I decided I wanted my warmer sleeping bag. The second day on the trail was very hot. It reached the upper 80s. I was concerned about heat exhaustion. I took it easy. No leaves at high elevation meant sun baking right in. But I managed. I ‘stealth’ camped that night and the night after. Which means camping in a non-designated site, but somewhere where many people certainly have camped before.
It’s been hot and cold at the ends of the day. Georgia is more rugged than expected. I take it one day at a time. There’s no point in setting lofty mileage goals if it kills your body to get there. Also, I’m surprised how few miles some hikers are doing early on. I feel like 15 is very reasonable. Thirdly, people are so incredibly kind and helpful to hikers. They want you to do well. It’s contagious. The atmosphere on the trail is everything I expected so far. What it boils down to is what the trail experience is for you. I can’t wait for what is next!