“I can’t believe these miles don’t even count”, I was reiterating to my friend that I had set out with on the Appalachian Trail. A few hours earlier we had completed the transportation juggle of driving to Atlanta from New York, taking MARTA (Atlanta public transportation) to the Greyhound station, then Greyhound, and finally a taxi to arrive at Amicalola Falls State Park. The Appalachian Trail doesn’t actually start at Amicalola Falls but many people start their hike there on the 8.8 mile approach trail.
Now we were grinding away on what seemed like a never-ending climb. It was only two hours into our planned six-month thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail and it was already feeling like hell. We were still 5 miles from Mile 0 on top of Springer Mountain, the southern terminus, when we needed out first break. The climb was relentless, the heat was oppressive, and my fifty seven pound backpack was a painful burden. It felt great to drop it off my back and plop beneath a shady tree.
A couple of hours later, after another bout of persistent pain, we took another rest. Progress was slow and we were still about two miles from the actual start of the AT. The leaves and backcountry were beautiful but under the burden of the load and undue stress of not being in “trail shape”, I was having trouble enjoying myself. At the next rest, we snacked on trail mix. We were moving slower than we predicted and had to change our plans. Our feet hurt in our heavy, leather, hiking boots. We hoped that the downhill, if we ever had one, would be easier and decided to try to push 4 more miles to the shelter a few miles after Springer Mountain, and a couple of miles into the actual AT. We made it there a little before dark. We were both hungry and tired, but satisfied with Day 1. All the miles from here on out were progress. There were a few other people at the shelter. We all talked over dinner and hoped the miles would come easier as we got into shape. The hot topic of conversation was the approach trail. Unanimously it seemed like the hardest hike we had all ever done.
It was the winter of 2002 and I was graduating college in the spring. I saw a flyer on a billboard about an extension program offering college credit for a semester long wilderness education program. I had enough credits to graduate already so I figured I would apply. That sounded like a great way to finish up school. A few months later I was headed to the canyon country of Southern Utah to meet with eight other people that had also been accepted to the program. We all got along really well and had a great time exploring the canyon country around Muddy Creek, the Dirty Devil, and Escalante areas. After three months, the program was over and we headed our separate ways. Since I had grown up on the East Coast the Appalachian Trail had been calling to me on this trip. Before the end, I mentioned to one of the people, trail name Windsong, that I wanted to try it out the following spring. He was also interested.
Windsong and I were a little sore the next day. Our hips and shoulders were slightly bruised but we were still eager to get going. We set out knowing this was all part of breaking in. On the second day we stopped after five miles. Windsong’s feet were getting torn up. His feet looked like raw hamburger meat. We hoped his feet would get better from a short day and some preventative foot care. After three miles the next day, nothing had changed. It took us seven grueling days to get to the first major road crossing 30 miles up the trail. We stayed there a night and took a rest day to try to help heal his feet.
Hanging around the Mountain Crossings store at Neel’s Gap was a great change of pace and an even more important educational experience that changed my outlook forever. I can’t say that things got proportionally easier at that exact moment; but I can say that it is less because of lack of learning and more because I am too cheap that it took another 400 miles for the full metamorphosis. While we were lounging on the old, stone patio, eating Little Debbie’s and soaking up the sun, we started talking. This was the first time we openly acknowledged that we had come to the AT with the wrong strategy. We thought we were well prepared. In fact, we were more prepared than most people starting the AT because we had at least been on an overnight backpacking trip. But, we thought that thru-hiking was going to be like our prior experience. Thru-hiking was a completely different animal. In Utah, we had hiked for a day and then set up base camp for two or three days to explore the surrounding area. The next time you shouldered your backpack it was four to six pounds lighter, just from the food that you ate. We had planned the AT with the same intention, of being out in the wilderness as much as possible and minimizing the town stops and resupplies. We had set out from the Amicalola Falls with twelve days of food. Each resupply thereafter was planned to be between 10-15 days. However, between each resupply, we would be crossing paved roads, sometimes as many as 10 or fifteen paved roads in that same time period. There was no need to crumple under the weight of 15 days of food when you passed stores, roads, or towns every two to four days. If we had to carry five days of food then that would still be twenty pounds off of our back (at an average of two pounds of food per day).
We had also been noticing that a lot of the people had been carrying a lot of extra equipment. We didn’t have the hatchets, machetes, and snake bite kits that were common, but we had our share of extraneous equipment and upgrade options. Over the next four hundred miles, we shed extra fuel bottles and a multifuel stove for an alcohol stove. We ditched out heavy blue Walmart tarpaulin (yes, the one used for storing firewood) for an actual sil nylon tarp. We thought when people referred to a tarp shelter, they meant the blue tarps. It took four hundred miles for this process because we are low budget hikers. We would glean one thing out of the free hiker box that might have been a bit lighter, then leave ours in return. By the time we had reached Damascus, we had cut down our foamy pads to a half-length, using our pack as the lower half of the sleeping pad (which also helped Windsong’s feet because they were elevated at night), mailed home extra clothes, and changed from hiking boots to trail runners. By the time we reached Trail Days, in Damascus, we had swapped out enough gear and were changing out to summer sleeping bags, that it was time to lighten up our actual backpacks. We were feeling good and carrying no more than 25 pounds at a time. I no longer needed my 4500 cubic inch, six-pound backpack that was now at most half full. Climbs became easier and the miles came and went. Under the lighter loads we were enjoying ourselves and able to experience and see the beauty of the trail. Months later, and time after time, we would recollect with other hikers about how hard Georgia was and how Georgia and New Hampshire are probably the most difficult states on the trail.
About three years later, and a lot more miles under my belt, I was headed southbound down the Appalachian Trail. I was hiking the AT in the winter and was heading through the home stretch. It had snowed a few feet the previous day and I was slogging through the southern few miles of North Carolina. The sun came out and lit up the forest. The snow disappeared as I descended rapidly to the stately oak tree at Bly Gap, crossing into Georgia. I felt good and the miles were flying by. For the next two days fog rolled in and blanketed the forest in a coating of freezing rain. It was beautiful. I was happy and excited when I strolled towards Mountain Crossings. Right before I got to the door, I slipped on the icy stone patio and flew backwards landing on my backpack. Maybe that was the one time that I wish I had a bigger backpack to cushion my fall, but that’s it. The next day, early in the afternoon, I charged up Springer Mountain, completing the AT for the second time. This time Georgia seemed like one of the easiest states on the trail.
About Justin “Trauma” Lichter
I grew up about an hour north of New York City and have since lived in Santa Barbara, CA, southern VT, Dillon, CO, and I am currently living in Truckee, CA. When not hiking, I am a ski patroller. I enjoy backcountry skiing, nordic skiing, snowshoeing, mountain biking, surfing and anything else active. Since 2002, I have hiked over 30,000 miles. In 2002 doing a cross-country map and compass trip through the canyon country of southern utah, in 2003 hiking from Georgia to Cap Gaspe, Quebec following the Appalachian Trail and International AT, 2004 hiking the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada and then the Pacific Northwest Trail to the Washington coast, 2005 the Continental Divide Trail from Mexico to Canada then continuing on the Great Divide Trail from the Canadian border up into northern Alberta, 11/1/05 to 10/23/06 completing the Eastern Continental Trail (Cap Gaspe, QC to Key West, Florida, incorporating the AT), Pacific Crest Trail, and Continental Divide Trail in under a year, a total of over 10,000 miles, and in 2007 a traverse of the Southern Alps and the South Island of New Zealand. The list keeps going including in 2009 hiking 1800 miles unsupported through Africa and in 2011 hiking about 2,000 miles across the Himalaya Range.
Editor’s Note: Be sute to check out Justin’s book, Trail Tested: A Thru-hikers Insights into Hiking and Backpacking.