Exploration. Every time I say that word I immediately picture Lewis, Clark, and Sacagawea trekking across Western America. Covering wild landscapes, communicating with vastly different cultures, navigating by compass in uncharted territory, and eating horse meat for dinner. For me, exploring usually just means driving on paved roads, hiking for a bit, and setting up camp in sites complete with fire pits and restrooms. Anyway, the point is exploration sounds exciting whether we’re talking early 1800s or modern day.
Around the middle of 2016, I started to obsess over the idea of doing a multiple day hike somewhere relatively far away and decently cut off from society. Instinctively, probably because it just sounded pretty awesome, my first option was to hike a section of the Appalachian Trail. I just needed to convince a friend to go with me on this adventure. I picked up the phone and gave my best trying-to-play-it-cool sales pitch to longtime friend, Colby. I confidently said, “Hey man, I’m going to hike a few days on the AT at the beginning of the year. You in?” He immediately responded, “I’m in dude,” and the planning began.
I was excited about this trip because this meant I could justify purchasing a bunch of new outdoor gear and start researching bear defense maneuvers. Colby and I spent weeks reviewing equipment, comparing reviews, and coming up with scenarios that called for, you guessed it, more gear! I even made the decision to switch to an entirely new camera system just to save weight in my pack! I shoot with a Fuji XT-1 now primarily because it was better for this trip than my Canon setup. I was excited. We picked out a date, March 9, 2017, and a section of the AT, Winding Stair Gap to Nantahala Outdoor Center, which was 30 miles long and should take 3-4 days depending on our speed and weather conditions.
Lets fast forward to March 9. We drove from my hometown, Peachtree City, Georgia, to the Nantahala Outdoor Center to drop off our car where we will finish the hike and hired a wonderfully kind lady named Mary to shuttle us to Winding Stair Gap. Mary’s car came to a stop an hour later and we jumped out. We asked her to take our photo before we headed for the trail. And then we started walking.
Day one was full of fast-paced hiking and loads of nervous energy. We were so glad to finally be on the Appalachian Trail. The first few miles went by so fast and we came to our first checkpoint before we knew it. Siler Bald. We took a short break. Our legs were aching and, though we were supposed to make camp at mile four, we kept hiking. At that point, we were relying simply on excitement and wonder to get us to the next checkpoint, Wayah Shelter, before nightfall. We didn’t account for the steep incline up ahead.
Our excitement and wonder, the fuel we had been running on, soon wore off and we ended up running out of fumes. The night was approaching quickly. We decided to make camp on the side of the trail somewhere between Wayah Gap and Wine Spring. This was not ideal by any means but we were happy to stop hiking. We ended the day around seven miles or so. We made a campfire and listened to Ryan Adams and Prince.
The next morning we set out uphill for Wayah Bald. Wayah is Cherokee for Wolf. Apparently, Cherokee hunted Red Wolf there long ago. When we arrived, we met a fellow from Georgia who had hiked from Maine through the winter and was almost home. He hit the trail two weeks after getting out of the Navy. He had a scraggly beard and talked about all of the wild things he had experienced on the trail over the last few months. It was motivational. We left with our spirits renewed and managed to make it past our initial checkpoint for the day to Rocky Bald. We ate like kings, made a fire, and camped on top of the bald. The forecast called for rain but that was no big deal. No storms. It was beautiful up on the bald and we went to sleep.
I woke up in the middle of the night to roaring winds and pounding rain and what sounded like… thunder? I called out for Colby, in his hammock about ten feet away. No answer. I sat in my hammock trying to figure out if this was a dream and it was at that moment that my question was answered. The brightest light I’ve ever seen and the loudest sound. It was enough to convince me I was definitely awake and this was definitely happening. Colby finally woke up and we decided the best place to be was anywhere other than at the top of the bald. We packed up all of our gear and ran down the mountain as fast as we could, which was not fast. Battling the wind, rain, and freezing temperatures, we got a tarp up at the base of the mountain. Here we stood to plan our next move. We made a small fire to warm our hands and helped each other re-set our hammocks. Soaking wet, we went to sleep.
On the third day, we woke to find ourselves in wet clothes but relatively warm. We were pretty tired from running around last night, but we were pretty determined to knock the trip out today and finish strong. Off we went, heading for Nantahala. Because we hiked so far the second day (and ran down the mountain the second night) we had around a nine-mile hike to the end and all day to do it. About mid-afternoon, we made it to the Nantahala Outdoor Center. Three days. We did our four-day hike in three days and, though we were completely spent, we had just enough energy to drive back home that night.
Hiking this section of the AT was both more fun and more difficult than I had imagined. From planning the trip to the actual hike, it was a great learning experience. Spending a few days on the trail gives you an opportunity to re-center and find yourself.