From the Start: Appalachian Trail Journals

I recently finished transcribing my third Appalachian Trail journal. I could blaze through the four remaining journals, but I’m savoring retracing my footsteps. Here are some excerpts from the early months. Enjoy!

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Starting my hike at the Amicalola Falls State Park Approach Trail, dressed like I’m heading into the Arctic Circle.
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Atop Springer Mountain, the Southern Terminus of the Appalachian Trail. That white blaze on the rock is the first of thousands I followed to Maine.

3/24/17 DAY 1!, 11.6 mi, Stover Creek Shelter

This is the coolest thing I’ve ever done. Of all the things I’ve ever done. I’m speechless right now. Where to even start? Hiker Hostel was incredible. Friendly and fully featured at a reasonable price [they picked me up from the airport in Atlanta, lodged me overnight, and dropped me off at the trail head the next morning]. Met two people there, Ashley and Mike, who I hiked with for much of today. Connected with two others on the trail, Joel [soon to be Joules; one of my most favorite people] and Ben, and we all marveled how fortunate it was to group up. Well, maybe I marveled. But we all choose to stick together. I’ll hopefully hike with at least one of them tomorrow (or leap frog them). I was not expecting to bond so quickly, but most people out here seem to be on the same wavelength.

Also, I met Larry, a 70 year old Vietnam vet. He started things off at the shelter with a homophobic joke, then defended his definitely-not-racist-views by whitesplaining that many freed slaves found life in the North worse than being enslaved in the South. So. All kinds of people.

Stover Creek Shelter is full, tons of activity. Most important for my self-esteem: other people asking questions, struggling, and feeling pain. (It hurts a lot of places right now. Hopefully a sore isn’t developing on me left toes…but a couple might be.) Nice, challenging hike. 9:30-5ish. Hopefully my appetite throughout the day picks up. I don’t like forcing myself to eat.

I feel empowered. I feel brave. I feel bold. I feel inspired. I know I can’t imagine how much pain this will cause and how tough it’s going be. But right now in this moment: I WANT TO TAKE ON THIS WHOLE FUCKING THING. I learned more today than I did in months of preparation. I made mistakes (need to stop dropping/knocking stuff over). And I’m gonna keep getting better.

***

Considering how gnarly my toes eventually became, it’s almost quaint to remember the days of worrying about small hypothetical sores. I noted elsewhere in this first entry how proud I was for feeling a hot spot (the beginnings of a blister) on my foot and promptly stopping to apply moleskin. It was my first time using moleskin! This exciting new act of self-care eventually became part of a daily war waged against foot wounds.


3/25 DAY 2, 13 mi, Gooch Mountain Shelter

Today was the furthest I’ve ever hiked with a full pack! Already setting personal records. I feel very sore, but fine considering. Hiked most of the day with Joel (love him) and some with Ashley and Michael (new). We may separate from Ashley and Mike tomorrow if they push on to Neel Gap. I need to do a shorter day. Gorgeous mountains visible through the trees 95% of the day. 

At camp, Banana Man/Russell suggested I take the trail name Spur after talking about my heel spur. I might take it! As in spur of the moment, or to spur something forward. Also I have a fucking raptor claw shooting off my foot and I’m still doing this, with orthotic inserts from step #1. Pretty badass.

Big lesson of the day: If it needs done, just do it now! (ex. taking time to filter extra water tonight so I don’t have to walk out of my way to a source tomorrow morning)

***

That big lesson is one I’m still working on, daily.

Some nights, in addition to journaling, I worked on some sort of creative writing. Maybe outlining a new script idea, writing a bit of dialog, freewriting on a theme, something like that.  Here’s a reflection I wrote the second night regarding the process of meeeting dozens and dozens of people in such a short time, without a comfort zone in sight. Hear me when I say: I would never allege to be a poet.

Hearing and seeing yourself for the first time so many times a day

The way you laugh

The questions you ask or don’t

The number of times you repeat yourself

The questions you ask just so someone will ask you back

Your catch phrases

Right on

The first time you make someone laugh

The things you want to change but are part of you period

The things you really should work on changing

The way you sum up your life

The words you choose to describe your relationships

The number of times you gripe about nothing things (see: The things you really should work on changing)

The people you bring up most

The jokes you bite your tongue on because you barely know these people (and good job)

The sound of your voice

Your vocabulary

The questions you inspire others to ask

The times you realize you’re full of shit

The times you realize you know what the fuck you’re doing after all

The way you take care of others

The ways others take care of you

The remembrance that you’re a weird fucking person and thank The Gods for that


4/9 12 mi, Cody Gap Campsite [I was no longer counting days at this point]

Inner left ankle/shin was sore at the start of the day. Slow and steady pace, lots of PUDs (pointless up and downs). Hoped for Trail Magic at Stecoah Gap, and it came! First, I encountered a bag of apples left by someone on a picnic table and ate two. Then some day hikers gave us their leftovers (tater tots, a wrap, some rice) from Nantahala. The first time in my life a stranger offered me cold leftovers and I jumped right in. Corn Chip and Washbear joined. THEN a lovely woman showed up with a little grill which Washbear helped assemble so she could make hot dogs for passing hikers. It was her first time doing Trail Magic! Her husband is thru hiking, about 20 miles ahead. Bungee. I hope to meet and thank him. Didn’t stick around for hot dogs, but enjoyed a nice cold glass of Pepsi. With ice!

About a mile later, I got into Jacob’s Ladder, a short but infamously challenging stretch. Crazy steep. Drenched in sweat. And at the top, my left ankle was screaming with pain. Some really intense shit. Not unworried. Stretched tonight, fingers crossed for tomorrow. Start with 4 Vitamin I [trail jargon for Ibuprofen]. Washbear caught up with me and slowed down to keep me company and make sure I was okay. He got me rambling about Whole Foods [a former employer for which I have zero warm feelings] which helped dull the pain.

At camp, I realized the itchy rash on my hips seems to have spread to my feet. Thank God Tall Boy, Small Step, and Washbear kept me calm, focused, and goal-oriented. I went downstream to wash the rash areas with Dr. Bronner’s. My first “cowboy shower”. Tall Boy gave me a strong antihistamine to try too. I considered calling for a shuttle ride to an Urgent Care tomorrow ($$), but I’ll wait until Gatlinburg, TN in the Smokies to see a doctor. Trying these pills and increased cleanliness (which is really hard) until then. I’m freaked out–and itchy as hell–but I’m trying to keep it together. Time to get this fucking anxiety under control. I. WON’T. GIVE. UP.

***

All hikers hear early on that only 1 in 5 will complete their thru hike (a statistic I’m guessing is actually too high as I know people who claim to have thru hiked but skipped sizable sections). During the initial weeks, I wondered who around me was going to drop out and when. I definitely had a couple surprises of people quitting within days.

The night of this entry, I remember feeling so self-conscious that my new friends were thinking I was about to throw in the towel. It was the first time I really leaned on my hiking group and I was so grateful for their support.

I made it to a doctor in Gatlinburg 5 insanely itchy days later. I wrapped my hands in tee shirts at night to prevent sleep-scratching. I hitched into town with a Trail Angel named Frankie the Sleeper (a veteran and retired anesthesiologist), dropped my pack off with friends at a Motel 6, and speed-hobbled on a busted ankle nearly two miles to the nearest urgent care. I arrived a sweaty, stinking, blotchy, ointmenty mess. Bless those physicians’ willingness to touch me. Turns out it was an allergic reaction to something I touched (could have been anything in the woods), worsened by heat rash. They asked me how I wanted to treat it and I said “Everything.” Got a shot, pills, and topical creams. Relief came in a couple days.


4/17, 13 mi, Cosby Knob Shelter

First day in over a week that my ankle felt solid throughout! 13 mile days are completely normal for me now. This is what I do. I walked the first half of day with WIP (Work In Progress). Great younger guy from Texas. We had been leapfrogging for days. Got to geek out about Stephen King and The Dark Tower! Talked about not getting so attached to others’ plans so as to distract from your goals. Washbear went for a 19 miler. I was ahead of Tall Boy and Small Step all day due to his ankle. First day since early on that I hiked without any of my original crew (still chilled at camp). Feeling more and more like part of the larger community.

Talked with WIP about people saying “I have to hike 1900 more miles” as though it’s some chore, rather than  “I get to hike 1900 more miles”. I’m finally starting to understand the envy others have expressed about my opportunity to do this. It’s crazy to think, but I’m actually feeling pretty fucking lucky. 

***

When I was preparing for my hike, I had a hard time hearing people say they were jealous of me. I struggled to separate excitement for the upcoming adventure with the recent, painful life events that enabled the hike. My mind was so consumed by my ex-husband’s laundry list of broken promises and emotional betrayals that the thought of someone being envious of my life was outright lunacy.

I left for the trail with many regrets about the commitments and sacrifices I made for my marriage. I felt strongly that given the chance to go back in time and start the whole relationship over, knowing how it wold turn out, I wouldn’t do it. This entry was written about 3 weeks in, as it was dawning on me that maybe, just maybe, I wouldn’t change any of it. Because ultimately, my divorce led me to the trail, and I already knew I wouldn’t give that up for anything in the world.


4/18, 12 mi, Campsite ~5 mi after Davenport

 Whole adventure of a day. Started out reflecting on my pre-hike wonder as to what it would be like to only have the task of the trail to focus on, not all the component worries of life in California. It’s the first time I’ve thought about this since starting, so I guess it’s going pretty damn well. 

Finally hiked with Wunderbar [a German thru hiker I met at the airport in Atlanta], we had previously only seen each other in town or at shelters. Started off feeling strong, but rolled my right ankle and came to a dead stop for a bit. My thighs burned from the strain of offsetting weight from both ankles. Later, slipped on a wet rock crossing a stream and cracked my left knee hard. Expecting that to smart tomorrow. Still, I trekked on.

Visited Standing Bear Hostel about 3 miles after exiting the Smokies. Great little pantry-style store and rest area in the middle of nowhere. Wonderfully charming. Got a chimichanga and quesadilla (microwave!) and a Pepsi. Way too much Coke out here!

 Need to spend more time thinking about untethering from unnecessary stressors and responsibilities.

5/1 Mon – 5/3 Weds, Averaging 16-17 mi/day

Fantastic camping kept me from writing the last two evenings. 

The weather on Monday was fucking insane. Rain all day (15.6 mi), hail and gigantic wind gusts pounded me while climbing over Round Bald and Jane’s Bald. By far the most severe weather I’ve ever been outside in. Thunder started clapping as I ascended Jane’s Bald and I had to sprint the resf of the over the bad, fully exposed, back into the treeline as the thunder and lightning moved closer.  I had to lean into the wind at a 45 degree angle to keep from getting blown over. Wild. A moment of shit feeling very real. I was wearing all my rain gear, but with rain blowing from every direction for hours on end, I was fully soaked. My shoes and socks couldn’t have held more water if I was fording a river.

That night I stayed at Overmountain Shelter, an old barn that’s been refurbished for hikers. The weather let up and it was cold, but as more and more people gathered inside the two story barn, it turned into a jovial communal gathering. Lots of little groups breaking off, exchanging war stories of hiking through the storm.I Met Ultra and Planner, two super cool ladies, and got some more time in with Yak and Log Jam. Seeing Planner go up to Camp Moonshine [a rowdy crew of Good Ol’ Boys] and chat was a small, inspirational moment for me. On the surface, she has no more in common with them than I do. Keep socializing out of my comfort zone. Overmountain is my favorite shelter yet.

I hike most of yesterday with Yak. Very happy to have spent time with him. He just turned 28 and was a 1st Lieutenant in the military. He’s a pacifist, on call for two more years to return to service if needed. He is feeling so freed by his open schedule. Decided to hitch into Roan, TN with Yak, Ultra, and Planner. A car was waiting at the road crossing to offer rides. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy recently recognized Roan as an official trail town and the driver gives rides to act as a “town concierge”. I ate second lunch at Bob’s Dairyland. Killer hush puppies. Still made 18 miles for the day. I like that I was able to be flexible with my schedule and quickly change my resupply plans from Hampton to Roan to spend time with my new crew. 

Had a hard time getting into hiking this morning, relied on podcasts to keep my mind busy. Met up with Washbear at lunch, decided to spend $5 to stay at Kincora Hiking Hostel tonight, owned by Trail legend Bob Peoples. What a character! Long, fluffy white hair, expressively jolly facial features almost like a Muppet. 11 cats and 3 raccoons live on property. My first backwoods hostel. Tons of personality to the place, well worth the stay. The weather might get nasty again in a few days, so the shower, bed, and laundry set me up for success. My parents sent a package to Damascus that I will pick up this weekend.


5/4 Thurs, Stealth Campsite ~15 mi before Vandeventer Shelter

Staying at Kincora last night was well worth the $5. Keep exploring off the trail when accessible and cheap! Bob drove Washbear, German couple Antique and Mud, and me into town for a Mexican dinner. I met Sluggard this morning. He arrived at the hostel while we were in town and went to sleep before we got back. He could have easily stolen our stuff. Leaving gear behind unprotected becomes part of the “letting go” experience out here. I’m not feeling anxiety about it.

On the other hand, wish I could kick these stress dreams. Talking to my ex husband, getting into fights with loved ones, etc. I’m writing this just after midnight. Rain is coming down. I can’t sleep, might as well write and read for a bit. I intended to do so after dinner but passed out in my tent. While I enjoy the communal aspect of shelters and campsites, it’s nice to have a quiet night in my tent. This reminds me of my practice solo camping trips in California, a rare CA-related memory that brings me peace.

My right hiking pole exploded into 3 pieces today. I fell hard on my twisted right ankle. Ace bandaged and Vitamin I’d. So grateful that Washbear was there with me. He helped me tend to the swelling and let me borrow his poles for the day. Thankfully, after an early peak tomorrow, the terrain looks relatively flat. I’ll only have my left pole for the next two days into Damascus and it’ll be raining. Hopefully not too rocky.

***

This was one of my worst falls on the trail. My ankle was swollen for weeks, surely not helped by, well, all the hiking. You learn to toughen up and make it work! People ask if I was ever worried about getting hurt and being stranded without help. I was lucky to have a friend keep me company on this fall, but even if was alone and needed assistance, the AT is well-trafficked and it wouldn’t have been long before another hiker came my way. While there is no guarantee you won’t wipe out and cause some real damage, I rarely felt out of help’s way.

That’s all for now! I’ll share more journal excerpts as I continue transcribing.

If by chance you’re reading this and considering a thru hike of your own (the season approaches!) and you have any questions, feel free to shoot me a message here on the blog or on Instagram @jaketreks. I’m happy to share any helpful thoughts.

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