Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Appalachian Trail 2005

When I thru-hiked in 2002, I heard about and met a few hikers who were so taken with their Appalachian Trail experience that they just keep returning. Now I am among them. I am not thru-hiking the entire trail this year. I am covering the 200 or so miles I missed in 2002. Now I see why hikers keep returning to the trail. The experience is an intoxicating one. 2002 was certainly so but returning to the trail now, I know that I was nowhere near as aware of that intoxication as I am on this second foray on to the trail.

Hiking this year is much, much easier, much more liesurely than 2002. Knowing that I am not walking to Maine has much to do with that. So do low mileage days with lengthy breaks in between. I am currently in Erwin, Tennessee, about 300 miles north of my starting point at Springer Mountain, Georgia. I hiked about 70 of those miles. The rest I did by auto with a week long break between hiking days. I walked the 30 mile section from Spinger to Neels Gap in four days. The trail was filled with 2005 thru-hikers, excited about their adventure, wondering about their ability to walk to Maine. About one in six will actually make it all the way but among my companions, ranging in age from early 20's to mid 60's, I only saw one who will definitely not make it easily, if at all. Meeting other hikers, hearing their stories and sharing the unique experience of thru-hiking is one of the most pleasant aspects of the hike.

Maggie met me at Neels Gap and we drove to Asheville, NC where our friends Shelly and Shannon graciously accommodated us as I tried to locate thru-hikers, Montreal and Kusta. I hiked much of the trail from New Jersey to Maine with them in 2002. They met on the trail that year and since married. Now they are thru-hiking together and filming as they go. Blisters, snow and bad weather slowed them down; they were 70 miles south of where we planned to meet when we arrived in Asheville but heard no more from them. I planned to hike the 70 miles from Hot Springs, NC to Erwin with them. That would complete the second ser of missed miles leftover from 2002. With no word from them, I was set to walk those miles south in hopes of at least encountering them along the way. They arrived in Hot Springs the night before I was to leave. I've been walking with them for five days. We hike at different paces but our time together at breaks and in camp has been lots of fun. It's almost as if we'd been hiking together since 2002.

I'm about two or three weeks ahead of the group I hiked with in Georgia but the feeling is much the same. The thru-hikers I am with are more seasoned. They've been tested and kept on walking. The weather has been far more severe than I experienced in 2002: snow, ice, cold and rain. Rangers evacuated hikers from Great Smokey Mountain National Park during one storm. I have no doubt that, barring some major injury, family emergency or terminal weariness of the soul, the hikers I am with now will climb Mout Katahdin in Maine and whoop with joy.

Hiking this time of year provides a wonderfull opportunity to walk between the bare, winter landscapes of the ridgelines and the spring gradually working up the slopes. Even in early April, when the forest is mostly brown and gray, I saw tiny green shoots pushing through last fall's leaves. The valleys green up first, especially those with rhododendron and hemlock thickets. These places offer welcome cool shade against the sun. Looking into the drainages sloping steeply downward, I can see foliage dissovling into green blackness way below. I walked one day in Georgia in the rain with the wind howling across the ridges like a frieght train. Even then the forest was impressive. Trees and foliage disappearing into soft grayness.

The trail north of Hot Springs is different from Georgia only in that it is now two weeks later. Sping has advanced much farther. The peaks and ridges are still bare but every fine branch is sporting buds that will soon close off the sky. On the ground, more green is spreading across the forest floor as are wildflowers. I spotted wild irises along the trail, so small and delicate compared to their more domestic cousins. Bluets, tiny four petal flowers of the palest violet are also prevalent in some sections. A five petal white flower no more than a half inch across carpet whole hillsides. It's all enchanting. The trail is good here so I can actually look around instead of watching my feet constantly like I did up north.

In my short time on the trail, I have experienced some wonderful kindnesses from strangers along the way: an unexpected hot lunch, a much needed shuttle into town from a remote road crossing, the joyful hospitality of Miss Janet's House in Erwin. Friends and family have also been very supportive. Shelly and Shannon shared their house and comapny with Maggie and me while we searched for Montreal and Kutsa. My brother, Neil, shuttled me from Atlanta to Srpinger Mountain. And Maggie has done everything. My 2002 thru-hike taught me how much I owe to so many. This hike is no different.

Rez Dog
GA=>ME 02
Just Walking 05