My Appalachian Trail Story

Daniel Boone’s legacy will remain forever intact – the ill-fated Swinehart brothers’ expedition into the Georgia mountains in hopes of conquering the Appalachian Trail proved to be more than the out-of-shape middle-aged trio had bargained for, as the elements once again won out over the weaker human spirit.

The Appalachian Trail, for those of you who have been hiding in your man caves too long, is a 2,100-mile footpath some really crazy people spent years fighting to acquire. Then, they cut a path through 14 states so many could get an understanding of how long a mile can really be. Benton MacKaye, the father of the trail, had the vision for the footpath in the 1920s. The onset of the Great Depression took many people’s minds off the trail, until Potomac Appalachian Trail Club President Myron Avery became chairman of the AT Club. Then, for more than two decades, with MacKaye carrying the torch, Avery helped make the trail a reality.

 The first person to actually walk the whole distance at once – called “thru-hiking” – was Earl Shaffer of York Springs, Pa., who did it in 1948.  Communication and information must have been scarce about the trail when Cordele resident Eugene Espy walked the length in 1951 only to find out half way through his walk that he came in second. The total number of thru-hikers remained minuscule until the 1970s when the get-back-to-earth generation came into full bloom. Now hundreds make the entire hike yearly and thousands more enjoy shorter sectional jaunts.

The brilliant idea to hike the trail was mutually agreed upon last winter, accompanied by much exuberance. It was agreed if we were to become real AT sectional hikers, knocking out the southern end and much or all of the state of Georgia potion was a must-do.

Then, with an excitement akin to planning a wedding, my older brothers, Steve and John, both of Indianapolis, and I strategized and over-thought every piece of equipment and mile of terrain we would cross in our journey. Being a man I can only guess it must be like the feeling a young bride gets as her wedding approaches. Much like the wedding day it came and when by in a blur.

Since the AT is basically in the middle of nowhere, getting to it is a hikers first obstacle. Pre-planning is needed so you can get dropped off or picked-up when you are ready to say “No más.”  Our ride to Springer Mountain and the southern trailhead fell on a pair of ladies who live an agrarian lifestyle in Hiawassee, though their spending money comes from transporting would-be hikers to points along the trail in North Georgia and North Carolina.

Joyce and Sally were quick to become our best friends; we had Sally for the ride up and Joyce for the journey home. The conversation flowing from them was almost identical, as if they were programmed. In fact, they enjoyed talking so much it made the hour and some odd minute trip to the trailhead seem like three hours. I’d have put in my earbuds except they didn’t make the cut when it came to needless items that would add weight to my pack, and since the point of the hike is to disconnect from technology, it just ended up being another one of my stupid mistakes.

The closest forest service road to Springer Mountain and the southern terminus is just about a mile, all up hill. It only took .9 miles to realize we had drastically under-estimated the theory of gravity with each of us carrying about 45 lbs. strapped to our backs.

Everything we read from different hikers’ experiences always came back to what they carried in their backpacks, or better yet what little they carried. Thirty pounds or so is what a smart hiker tries to top out at, so with all the food for six days and items we could have actually shared to lighten the load, plus a tent, sleeping bag and inflatable pad each, we were hopelessly overweight, sure signs of first-time hikers.

Thru-hikers are obsessed with weight. Espy sent his razor home to lighten his load; he also exchanged two nickels for a dime in a Virginia post office because the dime was lighter, and so you get an idea of how the mind works after toting your pack a few miles.

Did I mention we are all 52 to 62 years old?

Emma “Grandma” Gatewood made the first of her three successful thru-hikes at the spry age of 67, with a hand carved walking stick and duffle bag slung over her shoulder. Now that was one tough lady.

I know age isn’t an excuse but we didn’t cross paths with many souls on the trail that were much over 30-something. The one experienced fellow who looked to be in his 60s and claimed to have hiked the Grand Canyon and various other intimidating places was himself disappointed with the progress he was making during his AT experience.

Sally had warned us about North Georgia’s PUDs (pointless ups and downs) and like everything else out of her mouth we smiled and thought she was treating us like children.  Yet, we should have taken her more seriously when she alerted us that after she dropped us off she was picking up a young girl who was in a party of three she had just delivered to the mountain the previous day. The young lady had gotten a headache once she started her hike and it hadn’t let up, so she was quitting within hours of coming all the way from Ohio to Springer. The thought of quitting seemed absolutely absurd as we rounded another curve on Georgia Highway 76 as we inched closer to our drop-off point.

After we drove the final six miles on basically a one-lane gravel road, we came upon the gap in which we were to ascend Springer Mountain from the backside. We grabbed our packs and for the first time felt the reality of the situation we were now in. Sally pointed us in the direction we needed to go and told us several locations mainly on mountaintops that we might be able to get reception on our cell phones. I was determined to just use mine once a day to try and keep in touch with my family so I turned it off. I had no reception.

As Sally loaded up the quitter into her Subaru we took one last glace as she drove off in a cloud of dust. We were really here and really on our own now.

On Saturdays, the AT is usually full of day hikers who one, usually carry no packs, and two, know they will be sleeping in soft beds that night, so they were all smiles. The next few days may as well been six months as we trudged up Springer Mountain avoiding happy day hikers and slippery rocks and some of the largest roots you can imagine. I wasn’t out to prove anything, though my brothers quickly became offended as I pulled way ahead of them, telling me continually it wasn’t a race. Our goal the first night was to get to Hawk Mountain shelter, some eight miles from the trailhead.

 A modest goal for a more accomplished hiker, but for three guys out of the flatlands we figured we would get our hiking legs quickly as we continued along each day, maybe even doing 12 miles a day by the end of our week.

After the initiation mile to the top of Spring Mountain and the ceremonial photos next to the bronze terminus marker, we could now really begin to count the miles we would walk. Halfway down the mountain we remembered in the midst of our conquering spirits that we’d forgotten to sign in at the top of Springer, as every hiker does to leave a record that they were here.

We looked at each other a moment and said no way are we climbing those slippery rocks again and that we would go back another day and sign in.

An omen of things to come?

Seeds of doubt quickly took root as the three of us navigated the slippery rocks still wet from the rains the night before. Walking downhill is a very close second in terms difficulty to ascending a mountain, especially with slippery conditions. I fell twice during the trip and both times it was while going downhill. Luckily, my huge pack saved me – both times I fell backwards on the cushioning of my sleeping bag and tent, which could have also been when I crushed all my granola bars into dust.

The mist engulfing the mountains as we started the hike didn’t lend to any of those picture-perfect views that I’d seen in all those Internet photos. Basically it was like being in a rainforest; the lushness exploding every which way. Sally, who had brought us up to Springer Mountain and shuttles hikers most days of the week, said she could see the changes on a daily basis as the plants that hibernate in the winter came back to life. Mountain laurels, with their pinkish blooms, added color around each turn.

Our goal now was to not wander from the trail. Because it was a weekend there was a steady stream of day hikers. They’d pass us one minute, then we’d pass them right back as they rested at a good spot. The AT is marked at regular intervals with a white rectangular swatch some two-inches wide by six-inches tall painted on prominent trees, or rocks when you get further north in places without foliage. Two white blazes, one above the other, signal an obscure turn route change, incoming side trail, or other situation that requires you to be especially alert to changes in direction. In some areas, one of the two blazes will be offset in the direction of the turn and blue blazes lead you to a water source off the trail.

Following the path seemed easy, the Benton MacKaye Trail, named after the founder of the AT, runs about 280 miles through Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina. It also joins, separates and joins several times with the AT in the first few miles coming off Springer. The MacKaye Trial has diamond white blazes to differentiate it from the AT, yet there were joined sections that would make you wonder if we had wandered off the right path. Putting the blazes on the same trees seems logical but since a volunteer force maintains the trail I shouldn’t complain.

During the days leading up to the hike I struggled with a “trail name.” I wanted something meaningful that would inspire me in those moments of self-doubt. Part of being on the trail is you not only lose touch with reality from the exhaustion of carrying too much weight on your back up 45-degree angle hills for what seems like miles, but you are suppose to pick a name that describes your journey or has a special meaning. Earl Shaffer, who was the first, in 1948, to thru-hike the entire trail was then known by his trail name, “The Crazy One.” Names as strange as “Cowheads from Wisconsin,” to the most simplistic, “Acorn,” have hiked on the trail. We had started our hike without  names; I already felt like I was a failure. One hiker we crossed paths with explained you have to earn your name on the trail, like one of his buddies who had been nicknamed “Face Plant.” One look at his mug and you could understand why, as he’d had an unfortunate fall early in his trek.

As the morning wore on we crossed through several valleys and transversed some rolling steams, including one where I quickly proceeded to slip off a rock and got one shoe soaked. The inclines weren’t so bad, but all the while I kept moving ahead of my brothers – sometimes far enough that I would lose sight of them. In my mind, I was assuming the sooner we got to that night’s camp the better. One advantage of leading the pack was it gave me extra opportunity to cozy up to a good boulder and take the weight off my back. Then when my brothers would come into sight I’d get up and start walking again. They caught on to my extra break time and with words being whispered under their breath, I could tell their resentment was starting to build.

I tried to let my brother John take the lead for a while, but as I kept breathing down his back he would intentionally put his walking sticks back in a downhill slalom skiers position, taking deadly aim at my exposed frontal areas, in a not so subtle way of saying, “back off.” That lasted a quarter mile or so, then I retook my position in the lead. After several hours my trail name was found and uttered from behind, “Okay, ‘Roadrunner,’” in between several deep gasps for oxygen, “It’s not a race,” said my oldest brother Steve. “Roadrunner,” unlike “Face Plant” was something I could be proud to be called.

After a day of bringing up the rear, John and I liked the name “Katz” for Steve in honor of the character in “A Walk in the Woods,” a 1998 book by Bill Bryson and his forever pulling-up-the-rear companion on his adventures on the Appalachian Trail.

John, on the other hand, was having no part of picking a trail name for himself, so we thought something like “Bear-Bait,” or “Hey Bear,” would be appropriate since every time he heard something in the woods he’d say those words.

We found a lovely spot by a large stream where numerous other hikers were taking breaks and decided to lunch there. The thought of eating some of the weight from our bags was as thrilling as the actual act of ingestion itself. Everyone propped their legs up and my brothers even took the opportunity to air out their feet, as being obsessed with getting a blister was a close second to having a bear encounter.

John had been very worried at the thought of seeing a bear during our week in the woods, armed with bear spray, he even went to the extreme to take some practice shots at inanimate objects before we left for the trail. His constant talk of the four-legged creature even started playing tricks on my mind. At your nightly camps you’re advised to hang your all your food and even deodorants and toothpaste in a tree far from your campsite in hopes of keeping the bears away. I always thought black bears were excellent tree climbers so that always made little sense to me. Truth is bears are just as scared of us as we are of them, but when they come out of their hibernation in the spring they are very, very hungry and these two-legged creatures they see once they emerge carry some pretty good treats.

 A friend of mine who thru-hiked as a younger man, said he never hung his food, he would use it as a pillow, he felt the food was a life and death item, so if someone or something wanted it they would have to go through him. He slept with a big knife and any bear would have to earn his snack. Luckily, he only saw two bears on his travels – both at a distance and in the light of day.

A bit overwhelmed, but still excited, we made it finally to our first night’s destination, Hawk Mountain Shelter. It had permanent food hangers just outside the wooden lean-to and we camped a good 100 yards away in tents in a small clearing so we felt somewhat safe. Surely the critters would come from the opposite direction if they caught a whiff of our Cliff Bars.

We filtered water from a nearby stream and boiled it for our freeze-dried meals. Feeling a resurgence of hope we hopped into our tents, as the early evening shadows in the woods make the time seem later than it usually is.

My brothers’ identical one-man tents that they bought were maybe a pound or two lighter but made sleeping “coffin-like” as one of them explained. My brother Steve’s two-man tent he let me borrow for the trip was cramped, but cozy with some room to lean up, a virtual palace.  During the middle of our night on Hawk Mountain, I had heard rustling sounds coming from one of their tents. I was relieved to find out it wasn’t a bear, yet it still kept me awake. It seems Steve had gotten a Charlie-horse but was trapped in his tent, and unable to sit up, he had unfortunately zipped the tent at the foot of his bed making it impossible to get out of his tent with a stiff leg. The struggle and moaning could have been mistaken for a bear attack as he finally rolled out of the tent.

We all admitted in the morning that we had slept little, mostly because we all had one eye open, waiting on an imminent bear attack. We heated our water and enjoyed a Starbucks coffee pouch and some freeze dried eggs. I hadn’t gotten hungry enough yet so they didn’t taste as good as veteran hikers claimed they would. We packed up, leaving camp in the last wave of hikers, our packs still heavy as heck.

As usual, I jumped to the front of the group. Waving so-long to our fellow shelter mates I headed down the trail, but it wasn’t long before we decided I’d gotten on the trail back toward Springer Mountain. A quick check of the compass indeed confirmed my rush to get on the trail had us heading the wrong direction. One spot on the trail can look like a million other places so I quickly got over my cockiness and relied on the map and compass.

On the ride up Sally had warned us about Sassafras Mountain, saying, “Sassafras will kick your …” well, something that rhymes sassafras. From the maps we knew we were just one gap from the start of the climb and it didn’t disappoint. 

The immediate ascent was steep with many switch-backs; our search for places to rest became more frequent. We finally came upon a spot with a slight clearing, so we took the opportunity to take our packs off, which, every time I did, made me feel like I was going to lose my balance. As you take them off, you lean forward and it feels like the gravitational pull of the earth has doubled. For the first time, obvious hopelessness started to manifest itself on the faces of my brothers.

John said it was disconcerting that you couldn’t even enjoy the beauty all around us because of all the concentration needed to plant each foot on the trail. Both having had knee replacements they were not as carefree in their gait as I was. Having just had minor abdominal surgery I had come onto the trail after five weeks of the most rest and inactivity I can remember. It was a Catch-22 not trying to aggravate my surgery so I could make the trip. But, it was just walking anyway, so how hard could that be? Sassafras answered that question.

We finally reached what we assumed was the summit of the mountain. Then, we were shocked to realize it was already lunch time and we had gone a mere two-and-a-half miles during our morning hike. I wasn’t hungry and decided I’d just snack till we found our camp. When we loaded up, we thought we had a downhill walk in our immediate future, but were shocked to find out we still had a ways to go to reach Sassafras’ peak.

The photos we took along the way tells the story of our progress – the smiles on Springer had turned to looks of disbelief a mere 12 miles down the trail. We certainly weren’t the first hikers to become disenchanted with the trail; only a quarter of all thru-hikers make it. We were breaking down at a much quicker rate than even I expected.

At, Cooper Gap a man was waiting by his SUV with water in a huge jug – our first “trail angel” as they’re called. An angel is someone who offers water, food or anything a hiker might be in short supply of. A pair of young hikers who looked as though they packed little, and didn’t even bring a water purifier for their multi-day trip, were talking to Tim from Ringgold – the man who had offered them water to fill their bottles. I was just on my last drop so I took him up on the offer also. He was waiting on his wife and grandson to make it to the gap so he could take their packs on to Gooch Gap, which was about four and half miles away further down the trail.  Tim asked if we wanted him to take ours too. The thought of being able to walk without the pack was an unbelievable feeling and the thought that he might even steal our packs was an even better one, since we would have to quit the hike then. As my brothers emerged from the trail, I informed them of our good luck. Their enthusiasm wasn’t over the top, or maybe they were still light headed from the decent of Sassafras, but we all proceeded to “slack pack” with great resolve. Tim was on the up and up and for the next leg of the hike I was able to carry the bare minimum in my belly pack, my wallet, phone, raincoat and a full bottle of water.

Walking without a pack after going so long with one makes for a little disorientation with distances. I felt like I was flying down the paths and soon again was well ahead of my brothers.

At one point, while I was descending the latest slope near Justus Creek I was alone in a valley and from above heard what sounded like what could have been a bear noise. Guttural sounds were followed by leaves and branches being broken; it sounded like it was moving toward me. I now also remembered how some North Georgia rednecks also claimed to have killed a Sasquatch in these hills. I was feeling being ahead of the pack was now a bad idea, as John had the bear spray. I quickly rounded the next corner and with the rain gently falling on the trees felt the encounter was over, but I kept hoping it had been just a tree or rock moving down the hill towards me. John and Steve would soon be finding out if it was just a figment of my imagination or not.

Soon a thunderstorm formed in the area and rain fell all around. I was starting to miss my pack since it had my whole life in it; I wondered if we would all be able to make it to Gooch Gap with this onslaught of the rain. I passed a campsite in a valley that had a beautiful stream flowing through it, and again second-guessed our decision to slack pack. I also had found my hunger that was missing on Sassafras, and found it pushing me even faster toward our packs at Gooch. I had brought nary a protein bar with me.

I was moving so fast it seemed like there was no way I hadn’t gone the four miles. The numerous other hikers on the trail had dwindled to no one, so I couldn’t get an update on my whereabouts. I decided to walk backwards and find my brothers. Luckily they’d had a spring in their steps too and were only a half-mile back.

We assumed Gooch Gap Shelter and Gooch Gap Forest Service Road were together. We had made the decision to probably sleep in the shelter and not tent camp since it was suppose to rain quite a bit overnight. We heard the sounds of the pair of young hikers talking loud and laughing as we approached the shelter, but the road was another mile and half past our supposed stop.

Again we decided backtracking was not something we wanted to do, we thanked Tim for giving our backs a respite and after topping off our water bottles again

we wanted to set up camp in a hurry. The sounds of thunder rumbled in the distance, but a great spot near an old campfire looked to have been popular in the past, so we quickly set up our tents then used an extra rain tarp to cover the tents in an effort to create some extra dry space.

Just as we thought, it started to drizzle and soon settled in to series of heavy downpours which sounded like cars driving down the road as they moved through the trees tops, with lighter showers in between. Even when it seemed to have stopped, because we were under tree cover the sound of water falling off the leaves and hitting the tents didn’t cease till we broke camp in the morning.

Steve had wanted to switch tents with me and take the two-man after his struggle with cramps the night before, yet he decided to tough it out in his coffin tent.

The extra tarp did a great job of keeping some of the water off; unfortunately we were set up in a lower area and water started to immediately puddle under us. At one point with several inches of water lapping up the sides of our tents we knew it would be a rotten night and one where you certainly didn’t want to come out of the tent.

I wasn’t planning on throwing in the towel on the hike especially after only our second day. I knew it was going to become more miserable with everything wet. It didn’t take long after we all had our end-of-the-day toddy that the truth came out. There had already been much conversation during those times I was ahead of the pack – of lowering our expectations or even getting off the trail earlier than expected – the rain just hastened it. Steve had told John “this is crazy” … we need to think about cutting back to maybe five miles a day, sleep in, start off later, stop earlier, try to have some fun … John immediately answered back, “yeah, I’m all for packing it in and going to sit on the deck at the cabin and having a drink.” It was at that moment, that both Steve and I seconded the motion.

The problem was we would have to call Joyce and Sally to come get us in the morning. And, with us in the valley, I figured we would be reception-less, making our decision a moot point. But, to my surprise, I got a signal. Joyce answered and said she could be there by 9:30 in the morning. Relief and laughter ensued. We were finally having some fun on the trail.

As promised, Joyce made it to the forest service road nearby the next morning, where we gleefully loaded up our stuff and dreamed about where we would chow down once we got back to Clayton and my brother’s cabin.

Disappointment and regret followed our trip back to Clayton. We realized we weren’t up to the task, yet failing to try is much worse than trying and failing. All the money spent on state-of-the-art backpacks that my brothers bought were now about to become e-Bay material. It didn’t take long before the lessons learned in our brief trip turned to ways we reasoned we could get back on the trail. Among the ideas considered were “doing” an overnight in each state the trail runs through.

The one goal we set out to reach and actually achieved was to spend a few days together creating some lasting memories. Mission accomplished!

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