Monday, March 16, 2015

Day 1: Springer Mountain

The pack weigh-in at the Visitor Center.
The official weight: 35 pounds.
March 8: I had flown into Atlanta at 11:30 PM the night before. A mere 12 hours later, at 12:30 PM, I stood at the visitor center for Amicalola Falls State Park ready to walk to Maine. I know, some of you are about to pounce saying that 11:30 PM + 12 hours does not equal 12:30 PM the next day, but lest you've forgotten, there was a time change and I lost an hour since my arrival into Atlanta and my arrival at Amicalola Falls. =)

Originally, my plan was to spend a few days in the Atlanta area and do some sightseeing with Amanda, but looking at the weather forecast, Sunday was expected to be gorgeous. Monday.... kind of iffy, but probably no rain. At least not during the day. Tuesday, rain was definitely expected, although not heavy or consistent. And after that, the weather forecast just got worse.

So I changed plans--start hiking now, then have Amanda pick me up in a couple of days so I could go into town during the bad weather. =)

I weighed my pack on a scale at the front corner of the building and was disappointed to see it sitting at 35 pounds. It was better than the last time I started the trail and it weighed 40 pounds, but I had been shooting for a 30 pound pack.

Speaking of packs, once again, I made my own. This is the fanciest pack I've ever made. The construction is solid and I used a new fabric that's shines and practically glitters in daylight. It's a heavier fabric than I've used in past packs, but I wanted this one to last for a long, long time. It's multi-colored like before--Amanda said it's my "signature" and it's required now. I believed her. *nodding* I made some minor modifications based on my complaints from previous packs as well.

When it came time to pack it up in the morning, I decided I'd take my Therm-A-Rest as a pad. I don't normally use a pad to sleep on. I bought this one specifically to sleep on snow during my hike around Crater Lake, and I used it on the Long Trail knowing that the shelter floors were hard and a little padding would be quite a luxury, but those are the only times I've used it. Since I'd be sleeping on hard, wooden shelter floors so often on this trip, I figured I'd use it again.

My shiny new pack in action. I especially
like the silver stripe at the top. I call it a
"racing stripe" because it helps me walk faster.
Except I couldn't get it to fit in my pack! This pack is smaller than my PCT pack which I deliberately made quite large for the gear and food I knew I'd have to carry at times. Bear canisters, 10 days of food, ice axe, etc--I knew there would be places on the PCT that a large-capacity pack could be useful. On the AT, not so much....

However, I might have made it a bit too small because now I couldn't even fit in my Therm-A-Rest. Eventually, I just ditched it. I didn't need it the last time I thru-hiked the AT and I certainly don't need it now. The irony wasn't lost on me, however, because I intended to start the AT with a foam pad last time and had even cut it in half to save weight but eventually ditched that when I couldn't get it to fit in my pack either. History seemed to be repeating itself!

At the visitors center, I signed the register completely failing to note what number I was. I definitely remember it was in the upper half of the 200 range. Maybe around 280-290? I noticed the number, but I didn't look at it, if you know what I mean, failing to remember that it was a good guide to how many hikers were already ahead of me.

Amanda took the obligatory start photos for me, then we parted ways with a plan for her to pick me up in two days at Woody Gap when the weather looked like it would start taking a turn for the worse.

I followed the Approach Trail at Amicalola Falls, climbing a steep series of exhausting steps (hundreds of them!) I was a bit worried that maybe I took a wrong turn.... last time I thru-hiked the AT, I didn't remember the Approach Trail going directly up the falls. I remembered it being a little off to the side with occasional glimpses of it through the bare trees. But I didn't worry too much about it--I hadn't ever seen the falls close up and personal like that so I may as well enjoy it! I was sure it would hook up with the Approach Trail at the top if somehow I had already missed a turn, but I continued seeing "Approach Trail" signage along the route. Had the trail been rerouted in the last 12 years?

The section along the falls was crowded with people. On a beautiful weekend afternoon, I'd have expected it to be seeing as this was among the tallest of waterfalls in the east. I passed a lot of day hikers, but nobody carrying a heavy pack such as mine.

And I'm off! This arch marks the start of the
Approach Trail--or A.T. for short ;o)
Once I got past the falls, I started seeing more folks with heavy packs. Usually, I'm pretty good at identifying a thru-hiker from a non-thru-hiker just at a glance, but I couldn't be sure of anyone at this point. Anyone else who might be starting would still be clean-cut, out-of-shape and looking like they just got off the couch--just like me! I couldn't even dismiss folks carrying overloaded, unsteady packs as weekend warriors because this early in the trail, some people planning to thru-hike haven't figured out how to pack lightly yet.

Once I got away from the falls, the number of people on the trail started to thin and I started talking with more of them. The first (known) thru-hiker I met was a young girl probably carrying more weight than she cared for (both on her back and on her body), and I asked how far she was headed and she told me Maine.

I gave her a high-five. "The adventure has begun!" I was happy to see her doing the Approach Trail as well. I'd estimate that only about 50% of thru-hikers do. It's not "officially" part of the Appalachian Trail so technically, it's not needed to do a thru-hike. But back when the trail was first created and the start of the AT was at Mount Oglethorpe, what is now the Approach Trail was official Appalachian Trail. And to miss the legendary Amicalola Falls? I think not! And have you ever noticed that "Approach Trail" can be abbreviated to AT? Coincidence? I think not!

So for me, I consider Amicalola Falls as the real start of the AT. That's why I started there last time, and that's why I started there now. It's a legendary trail in its own right. People have quit their thru-hikes even before reaching the Springer Mountain summit. A lot of people on the trail will be talking about it and if you haven't done it, you won't have anything to contribute to the conversation. Any future thru-hikers out there--do yourself a favor and don't skip the Approach Trail. It's a right of passage.

But I digress.... (and this won't be the first time!) I asked the girl if she had a trailname yet, and she did not. I didn't ask what her real name was--I felt a strange urge not to know people's real names on the trail. I could wait until she had a trailname, and she didn't offer a real name. I introduced myself as Green Tortuga and we chatted for all of about a minute. She complained about the difficulty of the Approach Trail, and I tried to encourage her saying that the most difficult part was just getting up those falls at the very beginning! The rest o the Approach Trail is pretty easy by comparison!
I can't fit all of Amicalola Falls into a single photo,
but this was one of my better photos. It's more of a
cascading series of falls than one long drop, but
it's still pretty!

"Yes, but I'm still huffing and puffing," she replied.

Huffing and puffing.... A little lightbulb in my head went off. "You know, that wouldn't be a bad trailname: Huff and Puff." Or maybe Huff 'n' Puff. Or maybe spelled out as one word: Huffnpuff. I didn't need to confuse her with how to spell such a name. Not yet, at least! =)

She thought about it a moment and said that yes, that would work.

"Really?!" I had just named someone! How cool was that! Barely an hour on the trail and I had already given someone a trailname! =)

I assured her that she didn't have to take it--I wouldn't feel hurt if she didn't want it. But she said no, she liked it. Maybe after she tries it on for a couple of days she might stumble onto name she liked even better, but for the time being, she was now Huff and Puff.

I waved goodbye and continued hiking ahead at a faster pace, eventually catching up with another hiker sitting on a log on the side of the trail with her leg detached and laying on the ground nearby. A one-legged hiker! I love that people with such obviously severe handicaps won't let their challenges stop them from doing something like this. I hear so often from people that they couldn't do something like a thru-hike because of some perceived difficulty, but I think about people like this and know that their main difficulty is that they just don't want to do it. That's okay--hiking isn't to everyone's taste. I don't much care for organized sports, or running, or whatever. I might say I can "never" run a mile, but the truth is I probably could. I just don't want to. =)

But a person with one leg.... I'd grant that that's a good reason why someone "can't" hike, but this woman obviously didn't think so, and good for her! She's an inspiration to anyone who sees her!

She had her leg off and was rubbing some sort of ointment into the stump that was left and told her how great it was to see her hiking the trail. She asked if I could do her a favor. Sure! She pulled out her GoPro and started a video going asking me to film her and I did that for a minute or so as she documented her hike.

Turns out, she wasn't a mere hiker or backpacker, but is going to attempt to thru-hike the entire Appalachian Trail which impressed me even more. I'm not even sure if I'd have the gumption to do that! I sure hope she makes it. The trail is plenty hard for people with two legs. I couldn't imagine the difficulties she'd have with just one. Although she certainly won't have to worry about blisters on that foot!
This part of the Approach Trail really is the most
difficult section of the entire Approach Trail!

We kept talking as she put her leg back on and I walked with her for the better part of a half hour fascinated by her story. She had thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 2006 and assured me that she knew what she was getting herself into, but during that thru-hike, she had both legs. She had lost her leg only 15 months earlier in a climbing accident after falling 40 feet. She spoke with a distinct foreign accent and when I asked her about it, she said she was from Germany. Yep, that would do it. *nodding*

She called herself the bionic woman, and when I asked her what her trail name was (I figured she probably already had one from her PCT hike), she told me: Bionic Woman. Ohhh! I thought she was calling herself  "bionic woman" as a joke or something. I hadn't realized it was her trail name. Well, one thing about that trail name--nobody has to ask how she got it! 

Eventually Huff and Puff caught up with us and they started talking, and eventually I pushed on ahead. I didn't want her to feel like I was crowding her too much, but I really hope she makes it the whole distance. She said she's done some research on it and found someone who has done the trail who was missing both legs, but not as a thru-hike. As far as she knows, she'd be the first person with a missing leg to do the entire trail as a thru-hike--if she succeeds. It's hard for me to tell how realistic the goal is. The fact that she's done a PCT thru-hike already is a great sign--she knows what she's getting into and knows it'll be more difficult than ever! She seemed young and healthy and certainly capable of a successful thru-hike baring the whole missing leg thing, but the missing leg thing is a wildcard that I can't even imagine how it might play out. We hadn't even reached the "official" start of the Appalachian Trail yet! I'm not even sure if she knows all of the difficulties having one leg will pose to her yet. She's blazing new ground and probably feels not unlike Earl Shaffer--the first person who ever thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail.

The rest of the hike up the Approach Trail was largely uneventful. I stopped to chat with some other hikers. Many were out for a few days. Others were planning to thru-hike, but none of them had any "stories." Not yet, at least!

The summit of Springer Mountain was crowded with nearly a dozen people when I arrived. Most appeared to be day hikers. Not even backpackers, but just people out for the day. A few of them were backpackers, though. I stayed at the summit for about an hour and the faces changed as some people left and others arrived, but the crowd of people stayed constant.
View from the top of Amicalola Falls.

One arrival was David who told us that he worked for Backpacker magazine and asked if we minded if he asked us a few questions. (Does that count as the first question?) He wanted to know what we all had to start fires. Almost everyone had a lighter--no surprise there. Some people had weather-proof matches. Another had some sort of material that was supposed to make starting fires easier, but he didn't seem to know what it was called. (Neither did I, for that matter.)

David kind of amused me because his pack looked like it was among the heaviest of packs that anyone had. I've certainly seen a lot worse, but it wouldn't have surprised me if his pack weighed 50 pounds which is rather heavy for a thru-hiker. I figured a guy working for Backpacker magazine would have had a much lighter pack! Maybe it was just a "bulky" 40-pound pack, though.

He might even be testing gear. The pack looked brand spanking new and probably hadn't seen daylight until today. Perhaps he'll be complaining that some of the gear he has to test is too heavy. =)

Three of the people were among a group who had thru-hiked the PCT last year, one of whom (Laugh Track) was from Seattle. Go Seattle! =) Then I saw the summit register and noticed she had signed her location as Vashon Island.

"Hey!" I said, turning around toward her. "Here is says you're from Vashon Island! That's not Seattle...."

I was just teasing her, of course. Most people out in the woods would not be familiar enough with Washington geography to know where the heck Vashon Island is located and it makes sense just to say the largest nearby city. I did that when I lived in Hillsboro but would tell people I lived in Portland because not many people outside of the Portland area are going to know where Hillsboro, Oregon, is located.

Then she asked what part of Seattle I was from--hoping to catch me "in a lie" as well. I think she was a little disappointed to learn that I really did live in the city of Seattle. "I even vote for the mayor there!" I told her. Actually, technically, I hadn't voted for our current major, but you know what I mean....

The ridge runner at the summit, Tom, welcomed everyone as they arrived and tried to make sure everyone understood the leave no trace principles. (Amanda is making me write this update: A ridge runner is essentially a ranger, and his job is to help maintain and educate people along the Appalachian Trail. The ridge runners you see inhabiting the top of Springer Mountain--and I've seen one all three times I've been at the top of Springer Mountain--keep an eye out on the first 80 miles of the AT. There are two ridge runners and the other one was a woman currently hiking south along those 80 miles. There are ridge runners on other parts of the AT as well--not just these 80 miles he's currently working.)

Anyhow.... this ridge runner--Tom--had a deep, gravely kind of voice that I swear I've heard before, but for the life of me I can't think of where. Every time he talked, though, I expected to see a face I recognized. He's got a voice double out there somewhere, but I'll be darned if I can remember from where.
Bionic Woman, rubbing some sort of ointment into the
stump of her leg.

I eventually headed another 0.2 miles to the Springer Mountain Shelter for the night. I particularly wanted to be in the shelter tonight because the weather forecast did predict rain during the night and I like the space and dryness of a shelter when it's raining. It also saves me the effort of having to set up my tarp. =) Being so late in the day, I figured the shelter would already be full but was pleasantly surprised to only see two people set up in it. I staked my claim and set up camp.

For my first night on the trail, I had the Cheesy Enchilada Hamburger Helper. Laugh Track had an onion she offered to share, so I chopped that up and added it in. (I had to borrow her knife to do it since I didn't carry one.)

The clear day from the afternoon was turning into cloudy skies that portended rain. Sunset looked like it would be a bust and I didn't go back to Springer Mountain summit like some people to watch for it.

After it got dark, several of us wandered over to a campsite where a couple of industrious hikers had started a campfire, cutely named Taco and Shell. =) If they had kids, they told us, they'd have to name them things like Cheese, or Sour Cream, or Supreme or something. The ridge runner said that there was firewood already collected at the firepit in front of the shelter, so I grabbed a bunch of it on my way up to the campsite to contribute to their fire. Sort of a peace offering. "Hey, I came for your campfire, but I brought firewood! Can I stay?" kind of thing. =)

I got to recite The Ballad of Blasphamous Bill and Paul Revere's Ride which seemed popular. I stumbled in a few places since it had been so long since I had last told them, but I eventually made it all the way through.

Then we all scattered to our separate camps. One of the hikers asked for help on how to use the bear cables to hang her food bag, so I detoured to show her how those worked. It's not a particularly difficult contraption, but there are hooks and multiple cables hooked up to the same line which can make them look intimidating if you'd never seen one before. So I explained how it worked and she got her food safely hung from the bear cables.

Then I headed back to the shelter where I read for a bit from my Kindle before falling off to sleep.

* 21,530 steps for the day
* 8.8 miles up the Approach Trail
* 0.2 miles up the Appalachian Trail

In other news.... as you can guess, it's difficult to blog live from directly on the trail. The lack of computers and Internet tends to be problematic for me, so here's the schedule I intend to follow. For the month of March, I'll post each Monday (starting today, of course). By April, I hope to have written enough blog posts that I can post every Monday, Wednesday and Friday and each day I'm on the trail will be one blog post. So there won't be a lot of activity this month, but it should pick up in April and the blog will probably go on for the better part of a year! Assuming, of course, I actually make it to Maine. ;o)

Bionic Woman, all put back together again. =)

Huff and Puff (for now, at least!), acting goofy. =)

Blue blazes mark the Approach Trail.

I pose with the plaque marking the start of the Appalachian Trail
and the first white blaze.
The summit of Springer Mountain was crowded with people. The three here, from left to right, are Goosebumps (a PCT hiker from last year), Ridge Runner Tom, and David--who's writing down notes for articles he'll be writing for Backpacker magazine. That's my shiny new pack in the foreground. =)

Springer Mountain Shelter--my home for the night!

Bags hanging from the bear cables.

The campfire started by Taco and Shell. =)


Eidolon said...

Yes, since you last hiked the AT the Approach Trail has been rerouted. It used to go up the right side through the woods, bypassing the ~600 steps at the waterfall. Technically, it was officially on the stairs when you finished the Pinhoti but we went the old route anyway.

westmetromommy said...

Good luck on your latest hike! I shall be living vicariously though you!

dianesteelequilts said...

The last time you hiked the AT, our kids were living at home and we used to read your blog posts at the dinner table. They're now 29 and 33, in W. Hollywood and Sudbury ON Canada respectively. So it's just DoubleSaj and Old Blue reading, with RELISH, looking forward to every post!

Ed Tennyson said...

It sounds like your new adventure is off to a good start.
We will be following along with you. I wish I was with you (Ellie does not ;).

JerseyTrailblazers said...

My feet hurt already just thinking about it! I look forward to reading all your posts. Best of luck and enjoy!


Okie Dog said...

I always enjoy reading your story of your hike, so I will be following along, too. Take care, and sure footed blessings be upon on your walk.
Okie Dog

Karolina said...

Yey! Ryan's new blog is out! I cannot wait to be reading about your new adventures on the AT! =)

Buen Camino! =)

Anonymous said...

And the entertaining reading begins..... Always enjoy your hikes and posts.


Unknown said...

I've been waiting for the new blog =) I was excited to see your on the AT again. I've always wanted to attempt it. (I've only stepped foot on it once at Blood Mountain) .. I look forward to reading more!
Safe travels!

Only Dreaming*

SuzySquirrel said...

Glad to hear you are starting a new hike. I will be "hiking" along with you (I wish). Good luck and have fun.

Honey Bear Clan said...

Hey Ryan, we met at the Live & Breathe event and did a little night boxing. I'm really enjoying the first post of your blog. It had always been a dream of mine to do the AT, but will probably never happen, so I'm glad I can live vicariously. And thanks to Amanda for having you explain what a ridge runner is. Thought maybe it was a trail name. Oh, and I found a fun way to read these posts: I looked at the images first, which didn't always make sense, then went back and read the text.

StarSAELS said...

Ridge Runner sounds like a pretty cool job!