After spending a couple of days in Indiana with family before heading out on my journey, my college friend Katie was kind enough to retrieve me from the Atlanta airport on Friday. She treated me to my “last meal” and provided lodging in her father’s home south of the city – a converted cotton warehouse from the late 1800s.
I had chosen the forest service road running adjacent to the trail to begin my hike. From the parking lot at the trailhead, Springer is a .9 mile hike, which then requires backtracking and continuing the AT from the lot. I invited Katie to hike the initial .9 mile with me and have her picture taken on top of Springer. This suggestion was met with a hearty laugh, and a “You want me to what? We don’t do things like that around here.” To her credit, she is very pregnant. It just struck me as funny that so few people take advantage of this storied trail.
Katie has a friend who lives a mile from the access point, and had no idea the trail was nearby. It draws to mind how shocked I was upon moving to Colorado and realizing that most who’ve grown up there have never skied or otherwise enjoyed the mountains. Unless we have a deep passion for or have purposely placed ourselves in the line of beauty, we tend to neglect the goodness in our own backyards. I guess this is true no matter where one starts out or eventually lands.
I began my hike around 12:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 23. From the onset, my goal was to get as far as I could as fast as I could, without hurting myself or otherwise keeling over. I spent very little time on the summit of Springer; enough to snap a few pictures to prove I was there.
On the way down, I ran into a pleasant couple who had been hitchhiking for days from elsewhere in Georgia. They indicated that they too held Maine as their goal, which intrigued me. We chatted briefly before the gal began offering advice: “You’re pack is way too heavy. That there’s a big mistake.”
She then proceeded to tell me that she and her companion were averaging three to five miles a day, were pack-a-day smokers, and were stopping four miles down the trail at the river and taking the next day off to rest. Something tells me I might not see them in Maine.
A couple miles from the trailhead, I happened upon a curious creature: This spritely, bespectacled, spindly-legged fellow identified himself as Jonathan, a “Ridge Runner” and caretaker of Springer Mountain. In truth, I’m not so sure he wasn’t my 7th grade science lab partner. He excitedly announced that he was attempting to meet hikers from every state. Sadly, I was of little use to him, as he had already collected a specimen of the Colorado variety.
I called it a day at 8.7 miles, camping at Hawk Mountain Shelter. There was room in the shelter, but I desired some solitude. I ended up tenting next to another thru-hiker hopeful, a 60 year-old woman from Florida. We had the same Big Agnes tent, and it needed to be a long conversation. Twenty minutes later, she clued me in on her trail name: Talksalot. As it turns out, her trail name might have just as appropriately been Snoresalot. It was a long night.
The curious thing about trail names is that they often are appropriate in ways other than the original intent of the hiker. Take Smiley for instance, a hiker who joined the crew yesterday. He smiles a lot. Mostly at inappropriate times. It’s sort of obnoxious. Or, Lavender, a biologist from Estes Park with purple hair. Or, Razor. He could have used one. Then there’s my trail name: Groceries. I chose it for the dorky but fitting “Eat, Pray, Love” reference. As it turns out, I may well be called Groceries because I packed too many of them
I also hiked a great deal with Bandana Ben and Love Guru. (Ben did wear a bandana. I cannot, however, attest to the appropriateness of Love Guru’s trail name.) They were an awesome newlywed couple from Florida. Ben thru-hiked in 2007, and now they are section-hiking as a couple – the first section being Springer to Neel Gap. The day ended yesterday at about 13.5 miles, with the four of us (me, BB, LG and Smiley), camping atop Big Cedar Mountain.
We’d planned the past couple of days carefully due to parts of the trail being closed to camping because of bears. The spot we chose to camp was not a part of the closure. Funny thing, bears can go wherever they want. After an awesome sunset, we’d retired for the evening when visitors came to test our bear proof food hanging methods. I was just dozing off when I heard the first rustling. Then, from the next tent, Bandana Ben saying, “Um, hey Groceries…that wasn’t us.” The bears plodded (yes, there were at least two) plodded, sniffed, and thrashed through the woods around us for the next half hour or so. They were close, but seemed careful to avoid our tents. Sunrise brought proof that we had passed the bear-proofing test.
The end of the story is that I finally made it to Neels Gap, 30.7 miles from Springer in a little over 48 hours with two nights’ sleep. (Not as terrible as I’d feared for just starting out.)
Neels is a veritable heaven with a gear shop, actual Diet Coke, and a hostel where I’ll be staying tonight along with Smiley and a bunch of other people as smelly as me. BB and LG are gone.
I’ll end for now with this quip: The guy at the gear shop who shook down my pack mentioned the Ridge Runner at Springer: “I saved that guy’s life in Arizona once. He didn’t have a compass or anything, but it wouldn’t have mattered. That dude couldn’t find groceries in a grocery store.”