We returned from our backpacking trip last Thursday after an all night drive, and I dove back into life here, which included a birthday party on Saturday. Ok, there was a long nap on Friday morning, but after that it was business as usual. The trip did not go as planned, and I returned a bit early. No one was injured, but my pride took a bit of a beating. Now, after I’ve had time to digest and really think about it, I’m proud of what I accomplished. I’ll be that much more prepared for the next trip.
The Appalachian Trail is a 2, 000-plus mile footpath that runs from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mount Katahdin, Maine. Throngs of thru-hiking hopefuls depart Springer Mountain each season, hoping to hike the entire length of the trail in one shot. This takes approximately 5-6 months. I wish I’d thought of it when I was younger. Now that I am older, with much more responsibility in my life, I hike when I can. I hope to section hike the trail, which means knocking off sections until I have completed the entire thing. For some, it takes years. I expect I will be in that group.
After driving until dark on the first day, we stayed the night at a hotel. The front desk clerk was very nice and so interested in the dog. Everyone greeted him so sweetly and fawned over him every time they saw him. He is normally a very clingy dog and he was more so on this trip, in strange surroundings. We had dinner and afterward I worked on trying to get my pack weight down. I hadn’t weighed it, but it just felt way too heavy. I removed a lot of stuff, and realizing it was getting late, sprawled out on the king-sized bed and eventually fell asleep. I was excited and it was difficult to calm my mind.
The following morning while packing the dog pack, I realized I’d left the tick collar that I’d specifically purchased for this trip back in Florida. I called a nearby vet office, and soon we were back in business. After arriving at the park later than I’d wanted and signing the trail log at the Visitor Center, I decided to skip the first mile (metal stairs numbering around 600 that climb to the top of Amicalola Falls) of the approach trail. There’s no way I wanted to do that to the poor dog. Since these miles are traditional but don’t count toward actual AT miles, I was ok with skipping over that part. I was told to drive to the top of the Falls and that the lodge, as well as a patrolled parking lot was up there. There is a shorter trail to the summit of Springer Mountain (.9 miles), but the parking lot is off of a forest service road and I’d heard stories of car break-ins there when they were left overnight.
Even though I skipped the first mile of the approach trail, I still wanted to photograph the arch. It’s kind of a big deal. The winding road that leads up to the lodge definitely made me realize how rough that first mile must be. I parked in the parking lot at the lodge and began final preparations to leave the vehicle. The Visitor Center had given me 2 papers to put in my windows, so that Security would know that I would be returning on a certain date to retrieve it. They had also given me the card for a shuttle service, and I gave him a call as I took some last minute preparations to a whole new level of crazy as I tried to lighten my pack even more. He informed me that I would need cash to pay for the shuttle. No biggie, I would run into the lodge and surely there was an ATM there.
I was informed that not only did they not have an ATM or any debit/cash back option there at the lodge, but that the entire state park had no way of getting any cash. Not in the gift shops, lodge or Visitor Center. Nowhere. I honestly had no idea. Apparently I live in the land of ATMs, where you can find one anywhere, and it would appear that I was now in the land of no ATMs at all. I was informed that I would have to leave the park to find one.
I got into my car, drove back down the mountain and exited the park. It was a good 25-30 minute drive to any kind of civilization. I found an ATM and proceeded back to the park. Back up the mountain I went. After fidgeting with our packs again, I proceeded to the trail. As we made our way down the road I’d just driven up (we were literally walking downward), I felt the immense weight of my pack. It was ridiculously heavy and despite my adjustments, and didn’t seem to fit quite right. I was confused, as I’d tried it on the previous night and it seemed ok then. I stopped to play with the straps, and then we were on our way again. I looked down just in time to see that Chewy’s pack wasn’t fitting him well, and one of the saddlebags had completely flopped over to the other side.
After all the prep and double-checking, I realized how much of a shit job I did, as the pack I’d chosen for Chewy had been custom made for another dog, that was actually not that much bigger than he was, but big enough to make a difference. I fiddled with his pack. I rearranged the weight. Onward.
I found the trail, and we began to steadily climb. Chewy’s pack kept flopping over. I cursed. It was so frustrating. I was sweating so much and we’d barely started. It was 55 degrees out–heavenly–and I was sweating. It hit me rather quickly that this was an “Oh shit” moment. What the hell had I committed to doing? We were very obviously climbing higher and higher with every step. The next sign that we came to informed us that the average hike time to reach the summit was seven hours. A group of older ladies coming down the mountain said that that was pretty accurate.
Seven hours? Good grief, I wondered how I was supposed to do seven hours of what we were currently traversing. I was shocked at how quickly I tired and how difficult the climb was for me. Chewy acted as if he were out for a Sunday stroll. He wasn’t even panting. I’d been on my workout regimen for about eight weeks and had lost approximately 15 pounds, but I still felt very out of shape out there.
We pushed on. I had to stop frequently to adjust my pack or his, and to just breathe. There was a lot of fog and it was almost suffocating. While we were stopped I took advantage of not looking directly at my feet and looked at the surrounding forest. It was beautiful. Aside from a hiker here and there, it was so silent. There had been a flash flood warning a few days prior so the trail was muddy and wet, so I really had to take care where and how I was stepping. Some of the rocks were slippery. There were parts that were flat, and I felt I gained a bit of time in those areas as I moved pretty slow on the inclines.
I had my GoPro on a selfie stick, and was carrying it as well as my trekking poles. After a while I was getting sick of the sound it was making as it clanked against my poles. I’d not brought the dog harness for it since Chewy was already wearing a pack, nor had I brought the chest (human) harness. It just seemed like too much extra crap. I stopped at one point and wrapped the stick around the rubbery chords on top of Chewy’s pack, lying it flush against his back. His pack looked heavy but he wasn’t carrying much weight-wise. His puffy jacket made it look like his pack was stuffed to the brim. I felt comfortable strapping the camera to him. I looked down periodically to make sure it was still there. A few miles up the mountain I reached for it, so that I could get a sweeping circular view of the foggy forest around us.
It was gone.
My heart sank. Oh. My. God. I cursed myself for not fastening it better, for strapping it to him in the first place, for not just dealing with the noise of it clanking against my trekking poles. It was then that I had to calculate how long it had taken us to get that far, and whether or not I would make it to the summit by dark if I went back for it. I decided to take off my pack so I could move faster, and walk back down the path in hopes that maybe it had just fallen off. No dice. After going back probably a mile, I went back for my pack and made the decision to go back down the mountain after the camera. I knew I’d not make it to the top before dark. I felt awful. I felt that the mountain had defeated me, and I was woefully unprepared for how difficult it really was.
We found the camera, lying in the middle of the trail almost all the way back down the mountain. I learned later that there were quite a few GoPros on that mountain. I felt a combination of shame, anger, defeat and sadness as I made the decision to try again the next morning. I didn’t want to get caught in the dark. I sheepishly walked back to the van and drove back to the hotel. There had been too many obstacles that day it seemed, and I just felt that a fresh start would be better. If I’d been thinking straight I could have just stayed at the campground there, but I was so upset I just set the GPS and drove back to where I’d started that morning.
Not the way I thought I would spend the first night.
Stay tuned for what happened the next day…