About the AuthorJulia Everheart is a native of Hatteras Island, North Carolina, now living near the mountains of north Georgia. She is a hiker and an equestrian, and she combines her two passions by hiking with a donkey named Rusty. She loves encouraging people to get outside, especially people who don’t consider themselves “outdoorsy,” and she is an advocate for a simple life lived close to animals and nature. She blogs about horses and hiking at www.simplesouthern.wordpress.com.

I turned 40 at the beginning of this month. All year long I wondered how I would feel about my milestone birthday. Some women lose 20 lbs or get a makeover. I didn’t feel any compulsion to do those things, mostly because with age has come a more accepting view of my body and less of a desire to conform it to some arbitrary, unrealistic standard. I wanted to mark my birthday with something more adventurous.

I decided to have four adventures over the course of my 39th year, one for each decade. I kayaked the Ichetucknee River in Florida (ended up getting stung by hornets all over my face, causing a massive allergic reaction and a trip I’ll never forget), went on my first bikepacking trip with my 9 year old son (34 miles in two days on bikes; that’s a big deal for a 9 year old), and kayak camped the Toccoa River in north Georgia (blessedly uneventful).

For my last trip, which happened the weekend before the big day, I decided to do my first solo backpacking trip, something I had never done and was a bit apprehensive about. I had never slept in the woods by myself. It wasn’t a fear of bears or wildlife; it was much more about ending up out there alone with some weirdo. I could just picture myself lying in my tent replaying in my head every scary movie I’ve ever seen and turning every twig snap and leaf crackle into a serial killer. I know how my imagination works, and I didn’t trust it. Nevertheless, I knew this was a fear I wanted to conquer and I thought it was an appropriate bucket list item to cross off on my last weekend of being 39.

I chose to hike up Blood Mountain and camp at the top. I got a late start and didn’t hit the trail until about 5:30 p.m. I had to book it up the mountain to have enough daylight to make camp and eat dinner. I also wanted to catch the sunset and have plenty of time to sit there and revel in the free show that happens every night. The hike was only a little over 2 miles, uphill obviously, and with some fun boulders to scramble over. I started out on the Byron Reece trailhead and after .7 miles hit the Appalachian Trail.

I hit several false summits, large flat outcroppings of rock with expansive views, before I made it to the real summit, where the Blood Mountain shelter lies. The AT is famous for these shelters every few miles, and this one is a real treat. It’s nestled into the trees next to a gigantic rock formation that makes a perfect spot to watch the sun go down.

Just shy of the summit, I passed a perfect campsite in a little clearing. Surrounded by a grove of trees, with two that were perfectly spaced for my hammock, the site had a view to the west of the sun going down. I set down my pack and hung my hammock to claim the spot. Turns out that would be unnecessary, since I would be completely alone up there. 

I brought my chihuahua, Bitsy, with me on this trip. She is my tiny best friend and quite an accomplished hiker for being only about 8 lbs. She can do about 4 miles at a time. She scrambled right up the trail to Blood Mountain and, after making camp, we headed up to the shelter rock to sit and watch the sun go down. 

A few day hikers watched the sunset with me, and as the sun finally dipped below the horizon they headed back down the mountain to make it to their cars before dark. I was alone!

I headed back to my little campsite as the Blue Ridge Mountains all around me glowed deep blue and the pinks and oranges in the sky slowly turned to black. Lucky for me, there was an exceptionally bright moon that night and I could see to move around camp with no headlamp.

After dinner, I climbed into my hammock with Bitsy, a headlamp, and a thin paperback to read until I fell asleep. I lay there snuggled into my sleeping bag with my dog curled up beside me, the air warm and still around me, and a bright moon overhead, and thought about how thankful I am to live easy driving distance from such a beautiful wilderness. I’m from the beach, but I have grown to deeply love the north Georgia mountains.

I had expected to be freaked out about camping alone, but with the moonlight and the company of my little dog, I felt very peaceful. If I thought about something scary, I forced myself to think about something happy instead, like funny things my kids do or happy memories of other adventures. When the sun came up, I was ready to do it again!

Bitsy and I had a quick breakfast and headed back down the mountain. On the drive home, Bitsy snored in her dog bed in the front seat and I sipped a coffee from a fine establishment called Booger Hollow Gas Station. A night in the wilderness, a good dog and a spectacular sunset seems as good a way as any to welcome the big 4-0.