Hiking

Let’s call this the beginning… Again

The official southern terminus for the Appalachian Trail is the peak of Springer Mountain in northern Georgia. However, my hike begins about 8 miles south at the visitor center near the base of Amicalola Falls. A volunteer manning the visitor center told me that roughly half of all north-bound “thru-hikers” start here, while the remainder get a ride up to the summit. I signed the official registry, becoming the 1567th this year. As I was wondering how shelters designed to hold as few as 6 people would accommodate more than 3000 hikers, the same volunteer answered my question before I asked it.

“Most people quit in the first few weeks,” he said. Then, “you want your picture taken under the arch?”

 

Gabe Burkhardt

So here I am at Amicalola Falls for the third time, staring up at 600 stairs and feeling the refreshing mist of the falls to my right. I pause before climbing, knowing that no one was forcing me to begin this 6 month journey. For example, strolling the beaches in Hawaii would probably be nice. But I’m determined to hike to a better version of myself. And this time I’m not going to stop until I get to Katahdin.

I can almost see myself standing up in a Hikers Anonymous meeting, “Hello, my name is Gabe and I’m a Hikophile.”

(By the way, I just looked up Hikophile on Google and there were no results, so I’m totally claiming credit for inventing a new word AND a disease and … AND I know how to treat this brand new disease. Just take a hike.)

 

Decisions

The hiker shown here isn’t me, but the thoughts are

 

Beyond Amicalola Falls, the Trail leveled out and I settled into a more leisurely pace. My mind started tugging at the leash, and I let it wander. I was soon lost in Speilberg-level fantasies. I thwarted bear attacks with choreographed trekking pole maneuvers that would make Eminem proud. I sucked venom out of a snakebite wound. I was in the middle of stabilizing the fractured pelvis of a fallen hiker with a Thermarest sleeping pad and duct tape when the summit rudely interrupted my mental rehearsals for potential Trail disasters.

The summit of Springer Mountain is anticlimactic. Several patches of low rocky outcroppings prevent what would otherwise be a densely forested peak. The surrounding trees are mostly leafless until late spring, but still dense enough to prevent an unobstructed view. Two bronze Appalachian Trail plaques are mounted in stones (the feature image is me kneeling behind on of the plaques). Springer Mountain isn’t a visually “majestic” destination. Nonetheless, the sense of being part of something much bigger than myself was palpable. I loved it.

There were several clusters of hikers lounging on the rocks, eating snacks and getting to know one another. I took out my earbuds and settled in for my own snack. Before I could even get my pack open, a pair of nearby hikers offered me some summer sausage and cheese. Within minutes, we were getting to know one another. Talking casually. No tension. No stranger-anxiety. These were my people, and I was theirs.

 

Blood Mountain: 1000’s; Hikers: 0

A few days of (mostly) northbound AT hiking brought me within reach of Blood Mountain, the highest AT peak in Georgia. Legs aren’t working right. Breathing sounds like an enthusiastic child bouncing on a rusty teeter-totter, and my 2-sizes-too-small heart is doing its darnedest to keep up. My mind, on the other hand, is working overtime again. I imagined a trail bloodied first by the Cherokee and Creek Indians that fell in some long ago battle, then bloodied again by hikers who slipped on the rocky crags near the summit.

My internal monologue became fiercely heroic: “I WILL conquer you… Oh yes… You will be mine!” Denstiny’s Child promised me that a “Bootylicious” reward awaited the victor.

Then, after the 4712th switchback (approximately), the terrain leveled out. Stubby green vegetation cropped up. Lichen draped over flat rocks, providing an extra layer of padding for my sore feet. The air became damp and cool. I think birds even started chirping, but it could just as easily have been the carotid pulse pounding in my ears.

Behind the Blood Mountain shelter (built in 1934, making it the oldest shelter on the Trail), I clambered out on the rocky ledge. While I caught my breath, I took a few minutes to congratulate myself on my victory. I just beat Blood Mountain!

Looking out over the rippling ridges as they turned from brown and green to purple and blue in the distance, I felt less like the guy slamming a victory flag into the ground, and more like a humble hiker that was just passing through. I didn’t “beat” Blood Mountain. But it didn’t beat me either. I may be just another humble hiker passing through, but right now, I am a happy humble hiker.

 

Blood mountain view

This is one of the views from Blood Mountain

A short rock-scramble down the backside of Blood Mountain led me to the Mountain Crossings Outfitter. The stone building contained a wide variety of backpacking gear and microwaveable food on one side, and a hostel on the other. The Trail actually passes under an archway that connects the two-halves of the outfitter. In order to reach my bunk for the night (and an eagerly awaited microwave burrito), I had to walk past the “quitting tree.” It’s limbs spouted hundreds of pairs of shoes left by those that were beaten by Blood Mountain (or the miles preceding it). It’s true, we don’t beat Blood Mountain (or any portion of the trail). It will be there, unchanged, long after we’re gone. But maybe, if I keep hiking, I’ll be the one that’s changed (and hopefully for the better).

I’m gonna keep my shoes.

Quitting tree

The “Quitting Tree” in front of Mountain Crossings Outfitter

6 Comments

  • Reply Scott (aka Dad) April 26, 2016 at 11:15 pm

    Congrats to you Gabe! You’re moving at a good pace and I’m enjoying the good blog stories. I almost feel like I’m hiking beside you. I look forward to more updates on your trail status and the good people that you meet along the trail.

    • Reply Gabriel April 30, 2016 at 12:39 am

      Thanks Dad! I suspect you’re deep into mountain biking season, so I’m especially grateful that you’re taking time to read along. Love u!

  • Reply Elsa April 29, 2016 at 7:19 pm

    Hi Gabe, I stumbled across your blog researching the trail. I am heading to Maine in a few weeks to see my daughter. We are going to hike a small portion of the trail. One day I will hike more of it. I just wanted to say, I will be following your journey and I really like your pictures! If you ever feel like quitting remember you can’t because I will be reading your blog at work, and if you don’t write, how else am I going to waste my time?
    Happy Trails,
    Elsa
    Winnipeg MB Canada

    • Reply Gabriel April 30, 2016 at 12:38 am

      Elsa,

      Thank you so much for the encouraging words! The hike is amazing thus far, but I’m sure there will be moments in the not too distant future that I’ll be drawn to the comforts of home. It’s inspiring to imagine that you are cheering me on. Hope you have a great section hike!

  • Reply Dawn April 30, 2016 at 8:12 pm

    HI Gabe,

    I have really enjoyed your adventures. I am here cheering you on from Colorado. I believe you can complete the trail and conquer your demons. Stay safe my friend.

    • Reply Gabriel May 5, 2016 at 2:37 pm

      Thanks Dawn and I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the adventure thus far. I suspect there will be a lot more in store for us over the next 6 months!

    Now it's your turn to play!

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