April 20 – 26, 2017
The morning of April 20th was blanketed in a cool layer of fog. The forecast predicted a hot, muggy day, but when I stepped outside the Super 8 motel I had shared with my good friend, Markus, the sun had yet to fulfill its promise.
Our shuttle up the mountain, a white van, rolled into a spot and opened to reveal a great, hairy, smiling man with his pair of basset hounds sprawled lazily in the back.
“Don’t mind them!” he said in a burly southern accent. “We have to make one stop before I can drop y’all off.”
Filled equally with excitement and nerves, we clambered in to join the two other hikers in the van. Sitting shotgun was a young, brown haired woman, who chatted amicably with the driver as we got on the highway. With us in the back sat her companion, an equally youthful man with a mess of thick brown hair, who smiled shyly at us.
“Hi! I’m Frozen,” the woman announced, grinning back at us, “on the account I got hyperthermia during the snowstorm that hit last week.”
We learned this was her second trip up the mountain, “And hopefully my last!” She laughed blithely from the front as her companion grimaced. I smiled broadly with her, unperturbed by the fact that in just three days on trail, the mountains could have sent her home for good. I was envious of her adventure and eager for my own.
On the edge of my seat with shockwaves pulsing through my body, I watched the scenery twist around us as we weaved deftly up mountain roads. Markus sat chatting with Frozen’s would-be safety companion, but I could hardly follow the conversation because my mind was whirling with anticipation.
The reality of our undertaking was beginning to set in. This was our first backpacking trip, and my first true adventure without a more experienced family member. To say we were merely green to this was an understatement; we were ill-equipped and unconditioned for what was waiting ahead. As one British hiker we met along the way aptly put: “So when you decided to learn to swim, you swam the English channel?” I was nervous, sure, but naive, and filled with a false confidence for what was sure to be an amazing adventure.
We rose through the mountains with the sun. We dropped Frozen and her companion off at Neel Gap and we set off again to our own beginnings. As a reflection of our general lack of planning, I became aware later that it is “ideal” to begin at the base of Springer Mountain in Amicalola Falls State Park and to hike up the mountain to the Appalachian Trail’s Southern Terminus. However, when the shuttle driver asked us “Where to?” We responded with the beginning. Thus, after a year of planning and nearly two hours of bouncing over rugged forest service roads, we arrived with our gear and the sudden realization that we had begun.
The promised heat arrived as we climbed up to the peak of Springer Mountain, huffing and puffing with our laden packs. The view left much to be desired but we greedily absorbed the early spring mountain-scape and took our obligatory pictures of the Southern Terminus plack. After a brief respite and shedding a few unnecessary layers, we turned our gaze northward. We smiled despite the heat and laughed despite the exertion. Everything felt so fresh and exciting, every rock was intriguing, every tree a new sight to behold. That first day was a blur, full of sensory overload, and as the relentless sun passed overhead, our inexperience and general lack of conditioning made their presence known. Our aim was Hawk Mountain Shelter as the end point for that first day, but upon reaching the campsite preceding it, we wearily trudged down its path instead with bodies coated in sweat and limbs sore from exertion.
Our clothes were still a bit damp as we pulled them on the next morning, and were newly saturated by the time we reached Hawk Mountain Shelter. I paid close attention to the other hikers that day, all of whom seemed so much more experienced than myself. They were dressed in their fresh hiking outfits, right down to the rigid brown boots and floppy sun hats. At that point, I didn’t even have a hat, my Saloman trail runners were newly soiled, and after a day and a half of heavy sweating, my clothes were anything but fresh. Despite my hesitation, I was excited to be counted among these seemingly professional backpackers.
The weather continued to grow hotter and the air thicker over the course of our second and third day on trail. Markus had taken up the habit of chugging as much water as he could stand in an attempt to stay hydrated, but the effort seemed to be in vain. Even in the rhododendron thickets, which provided shelter from the ever present sun, the humidity was inescapable as they blocked what little wind blew through the mountains. It was in this manner we emerged at last from the thick greenery to summit the dusty and rocky peak of Blood Mountain. The crowds were plentiful: children clambering over the well-worn boulders and families posing for photographs with the Appalachian mountains as their backdrop. I felt a sense of pride as I stood among them. We had earned this view after three days and nearly 30 miles of sweat and toil. Standing amongst the day hikers, I naively felt at this early stage I had earned my stripes as a “professional” backpacker.
Markus and I followed the surge of day hikers off the peak, shuffling our way down the steep and dusty switchbacks in the stifling afternoon heat. Unlike the western face, the east side of the mountain offered little to no protection from the sun and as a result, we reached Neel Gap covered in a light layer of dust clinging to the perspiration that dripped down our faces. Mountain Crossing Outfitters held a newfound charm as we crossed the narrow highway, made even more tight with cars lining either side. We settled in at the picnic tables underneath the infamous boot tree, where supposedly 20% of thru-hikers end their journey after the trail we had just endured.
Having just been here three days prior, I took in the scenery with renewed interest, lapping up the details with a fresh mind. It felt we had reached a milestone and I easily resisted the temptation to throw my own shoes up into the tree.
The subject of conversation at the time was the weather reports, for the wind had started to pick up and we learned a storm was brewing.
“It’s supposed to hit tonight,” someone recalled.
“I’m so happy that I got a room in the cabins,” another sighed in relief.
Mr. Clean, as he was called on trail and a fellow aspiring thru-hiker, was exceptionally chipper in his bright green button down shirt likely because he was among those who were going to stay at the hostel attached to the outfitters that evening. As tempting as a shower and dry bed was, we had our mind set on finishing the day at Bull Gap and so, after purchasing a cool drink at the outfitters and saying our farewells to the group, we set off down the trail.
We spent extra time at camp ensuring my tent and Markus’s tarp and emergency shelter set-up (it was little more than a triangular tube with open ends) were well secured against the coming storm rapidly approaching from the west. At this point, we hadn’t suffered any foul weather and we both sincerely hoped our shelters would hold up. After pitching camp, we ate dinner with a group on a boy’s weekend that we had met earlier that day and watched as the storm clouds thundered in.
The storm had blown over in the night to leave behind a light drum of rain on my tent. My rainfly had kept the worst at bay, but it had developed an annoying leak directly over my face that persisted through morning. I covered my head with my sleeping bag, but the wake up call had been effective. With my bag tight around me, I peeked my head out of my tent. The entire campsite was heavily saturated and a cold mist hung in the air. I was pleasantly surprised to see Markus’s shelter was still standing after the ferocity of the night’s storm. I had been skeptical of his intent to use an emergency shelter and tarp as protection on trail — particularly since he acquired them from a discount department store — but it seemed to have held up alright. The hikers from the night before had already broken camp and were gone.
“Happy Birthday!” I called to him. “How’d your tent hold up?”
“I had to get out once to reset the lines,” came his voice, raspy and drained. “Otherwise, just my head and feet got wet.”
I climbed out of my tent and quickly lowered the food bags, depositing one near his head. As I made my breakfast, Markus started moving slowly. Concerned, I asked him how he was feeling.
“I don’t feel too good. Kind of feel sick.”
“We can hike back to Neel Gap if you don’t feel good. It’s only about a mile, and we could get a room at the hostel.”
“No, I’ll be fine.”
“Are you sure? If you don’t feel good, I’d rather go back.”
“No, it’s alright. Let’s just keep moving.”
We had barely slung on our packs when I turned to find him hunched over, violently dispensing with his breakfast of Uncle Ben’s Rice Sides.
“Let’s go back to Neel Gap,” I said, worried.
“No no, I’m fine. I feel better now, I think that food was bad. Let’s get going.“
Against my gut feeling, I agreed and we set off through the rain. The heat and humidity that had pervaded the trail the past few days was gone, replaced by a brisk rain that made my fingers numb whenever we rested for too long. I kept an eye on Markus, whose condition seemed to be rapidly deteriorating. Mr. Clean caught up with us not long into the morning and he greeted us jovially.
“Hey guys! How are you doing?”
“We’re okay. Markus isn’t feeling well… I think we’re going to stop at the next shelter.”
“Oh man, what’s wrong with him?”
I talked with him briefly, but soon slowed to keep pace with Markus. Shortly after Mr. Clean departed, Markus removed his long underwear top and rain jacket, complaining he was too hot and hiked forward bare chested. My concern mounted as his pace slowed and energy waned. Later than I should have, I called our march to a halt. I told him to put his layers back on and I set up his tarp as some protection from the rain. I examined our guidebook as he rested, convinced we were not going to make it to Low Gap Shelter as we had intended. Whitley Gap Shelter was only a few miles ahead and I thought it would be the best place for us to regroup and reassess his condition.
The confidence I had carried the past few days deserted me, and my brain was at war with best and worst case scenarios. I had never considered getting sick in the middle of the woods, miles away from any road and access to treatment. My pill bottle only had the basics: ibuprofen, acetaminophen, antihistamines… and there was a lingering question: “If he continued to worsen, what would we do?”
After he had eaten a bit and warmed up, Markus felt well enough to traverse the next few miles. The shelter was full by the time we arrived, but a couple, after hearing us detail our plight, offered to set up their tent so Markus could squeeze into the shelter. With him dry and warm, I left him to rest and went to set up my own tent.
The temperature started to drop as night approached. I spent most of the night laying awake, shivering in my sleeping bag, wondering if Markus would be better by morning and if this was how Frozen had felt when she got hypothermia.
The morning didn’t come soon enough. I stretched out stiffly and opened my eyes with some difficulty. I moved to rub the sleep out of them, but froze as my fingers touched them. Expecting to feel hard crusties and gunk, instead my eyes felt clean and smooth… too smooth. I shot upright, pulling my phone out of my bag to examine my reflection. My entire face was swollen to the point of nearly cementing my eyes shut.
Frantic, I called my mom.
“Yes…?” came her inquiring voice over the phone.
“My face is all swollen and my eyes are all puffy and I couldn’t sleep last night because it was so cold and I think I have hypothermia.”
“First off, if you had hypothermia, you would not be calling me self diagnosing yourself. It sounds like an allergic reaction.”
A wave of relief swept over my body. “From what?”
“Well… have you been wearing a hat?”
“I don’t have a hat.”
“You might have sun exposure then.”
“So what do I do?”
“I don’t know. Take a benadryl and drink a lot of water. I’ll send you a hat.”
One crisis diverted, we launched into a discussion about Markus. Checking on him, I found his condition had vastly improved from the day before. He laughed when he saw my face, alleviating some of my initial anxiety. Ruling out a few of my more outlandish diagnoses, my mom suggested he may have hyponatremia after learning about the heat and how much water he had been drinking.
“Eat a lot of salty foods and you should feel better.”
Other than my swollen face and damaged pride, we were fit enough after our misadventure to continue forward, however we took it easy. A few miles later at Low Gap Shelter, Markus yogi’d some nuun tablets off a father and son, and we napped through the afternoon in order to finish at Blue Mountain Shelter under the cover of darkness. By the following morning, the swelling in my face had receded and Markus’s former strength had returned. Though the next days were bright and cheerful as we passed through the last miles of Georgia, we had learned a valuable lesson.
Each mile on trail was earned, not given, and it demanded (at times, forcibly) respect. I had the raw ability from a childhood of camping and being outside, but those skills desperately needed honing. As we road-walked wincing with sore feet to Top of Georgia Hostel, our first respite after a week on trail, my mood sobered. I was far from giving up, but I was beginning to realize this was hardly going to be a walk in the woods.