My very first backpacking trip was a disaster, but I was determined to hike the entirety of the Appalachian Trail.
I got my feet wet that first time (Both literally and figuratively), learned what the Trail was all about, and found that I still had it in me to follow through with the big trip.
But I still had one more step to take before going to Georgia with any measure of confidence:
I had to hike alone.
So I planned a trip for myself just a few months later, in September of 2000.
I’d hike for 4 days and 3 nights, re-visiting the familiar stretch of trail that we’d done the previous summer. It would be a total of 47.6 miles for a reasonable average of 12 miles per day. I’d hike from my car for the first half of the trip (Two days) to the Eagle’s Nest Shelter, turn around there, and simply retrace my steps to the car.
I started from the trailhead in Eckville along the Hawk Mountain Road, just as I’d done before with my friends. September in Pennsylvania often brings perfect weather, and this was no exception. This piece of the state (Albany Township, Kempton) remains as one of my favorite little corners of the world, picturesque on the edge of the wild and not unlike the Shire.
The views from The Pinnacle and Pulpit Rock were clear and beautiful on this first day.
I passed Windsor Furnace Shelter and went to Pocahontas Spring for the night, same as we’d done on that first trip. I had a cold dinner… probably dry cereal, if I remember correctly.
I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t at least a little spooky to be there all by myself at dusk. I imagine that the memory of being there with my friends helped quite a bit, and I also had the big tree limb that we broke on that visit to keep me company.
I was tired enough from the full day of hiking that I slept soundly, even though I was all alone. It rained that night.
The next day I hiked through Port Clinton, again along the pretty stretch of trail near the Schuylkill River, again up the steep climb on its far side. Late that afternoon I arrived at Eagles Nest Shelter, where a middle-aged man was already setting up shop for the night.
He was a local Pennsylvanian, out on a section hike. He wore a funny T-shirt – it had a giant image of a Heinz ketchup bottle on it. It was shirt I’d never seen before, and one I’d never see again.
Two southbound thru-hikers showed up. They were brothers and only a little older than me, in their early twenties. They had some inspiring stories about how their trip was going so far. The night air in September was cool and crisp in the woods, but not cold.
I opted to stay within the Eagles Nest Shelter itself that night – it was the first time I ever slept in a lean-to.
The southbound brothers were up and hiking before sunrise on the following morning, as promised. On the previous night they’d said that they set their alarm every day for 6am, and held true to it. I admired their discipline.
I’d planned to stay at the Pocahontas Spring once again on my third and final night, but chose to push on a little farther to Windsor Furnace Shelter instead. I still wasn’t 100% comfortable on my own in the woods, so it was comforting to go there and have some people around.
I stayed within the shelter again, and my company for the night included several more southbound thru-hikers. I mostly kept to myself, but it was pleasant to be in the presence of their conversation. I felt like a naive, green outsider to the thru-hikers who’d established a tight-knit camaraderie.
It must have been about 10pm when I was awakened by a pair of hikers that had just arrived at the shelter – a young couple. They strode in by the light of their headlamps, did their cooking, and set up a tent in the dark. It was apparently a full moon (Or close), as one of them said “Did you see the MOON out there???”
In that moment I was smitten.
Smitten with the Appalachian Trail. First of all it amazed me that you could hike in the dark out here and still sound so happy and unafraid. There was a joy in that voice and the way it marveled at the moon. The voice was pure and uninhibited too, secure in its intimacy with fellow thru-hikers.
In many ways it defined exactly why I wanted to be out here for myself – to be so comfortable and invigorated that I could admire the moon in such a boundless way too. In doing so, maybe I’d come close to discovering the mysteries that were out here beyond the city.
These thru-hikers had, for a time, shed the trappings of modern society and found something deeper and more real. I heard it in their voices, and I wanted it.
I slept late the next morning until everyone was gone. I’m not the most social individual, and it seemed easiest for me to wait for solitude before getting up and going through my beginner’s morning routine.
This last day was a simple walk-through, daydreaming about taking a shower and all the food I’d eat when I get home.
Before arriving at my parked car I felt a great satisfaction in successfully completing this little trip as planned.
Only two months later (In November of 2000) I would successfully run and complete a full 26.2-mile marathon through the streets of Philadelphia. I’d been the slowest kid on my high-school track and cross-country teams, so this was big deal to me.
My finishing time wasn’t anything to write home about (5 hours), but I didn’t care. The finish-line was a stone’s through from the iconic steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum. The Rocky movies that I’d grown up with (And their inspiring training montages) had come full circle.
Most importantly it confirmed that I could do things after all, do things like maybe hike the Appalachian Trail.
Less than half a year later I’d find myself standing with a loaded backpack on the summit of Springer Mountain in Georgia.