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Where do I even start?? In late 2011, I had finished school and started my career. After working for a while, I was beginning to feel like I knew my way around my job responsibilities. My home life, while still busy, was not nearly so overwhelming. The idea of hiking the Appalachian Trail again resurfaced and the desire was stronger than ever. Having accomplished my goal of going back to school, I knew that dreams could be turned into reality with patience and hard work and it was time to start taking steps to make an AT hike more than just an idea.
I truly had no clue where to begin. I thought back to my early years of backpacking at Arches with my family, but realized that I had been under the age of 10 and hadn’t really paid attention to the details of gear and supply and trip planning logistics at that time, so I had no store of personal experience to draw on. I read a book or two about long-distance hiking, but it only made me feel more perplexed by the details: water filtration? Pack weight? Bear bag? What do you eat? How do you plan?
Fortunately, in the time between the genesis of my idea and actual pursuit of it, the internet had evolved from the initial, screeching dial-up modems into a useful tool. I had evolved too, and during graduate school had become much more adept at using computers to find information (this sounds quaint, I know). Consequently, I started doing quite a bit of searching and reading online and in the course of this research, I happened to stumble upon a class/trip: “Introduction to Lightweight Backpacking” that sounded amazing. It was held the following spring and fall (on the AT!!!) in Damascus, Virginia (where the heck was that?) and, oh wow, it was led by a WOMEN’S adventure travel group!! It was exactly what I needed!
Fall in the Grayson Highlands, VA
Later that evening, I excitedly told my husband about the class. He seemed confused at my level of enthusiasm. Why exactly did I want to do this? What, exactly, was the Appalachian Trail again? It was HOW long? It took HOW much time?? No way could it be safe! He already knew the answer to the most obvious question (are you crazy?), so it went unsaid. At this point, the AT was a point of discussion rather than a completely new idea, but we still did not even own a backpack and rarely car camped, so he had good reason to wonder about the nature of this idea’s hold on me and was a bit skeptical.
Though he surely had many a doubt about my safety and sanity, he does really listen and has always been amazingly supportive. Come that Christmas/birthday (the two are close together for me), I was the proud owner of a backpack and a deposit had been paid guaranteeing me a spot in the next fall’s Introduction to Lightweight Backpacking with Adventures in Good Company. I was on my way!
The intervening months kept me busy at work and home, but I also began reading books about the AT and getting ready for my upcoming trip. I pored over the packing list and carefully read all the emails that the company sent me about gear. We had much shared gear that was provided so that we could learn how to use it and see what we liked before purchasing expensive items, but were required to have our own sleeping bag and pad, hiking poles, pack, and a few other essentials. I also started walking more and climbing stairs more at work to help get my legs ready. My son and I planned a camping bike trip that summer on Prince Edward Island as well, so there was lots of cardio getting ready for that, as well as precious time hanging out with him before he too graduated high school and moved on.
Then September 2012 found me in Damascus, Virginia with a group of women each as inexperienced as myself, and a wonderful guide, Leigh, who had hiked the whole AT with her husband and knew her way around backpacking, for sure. We spent a day in town putting up our tents, practicing bear hangs, and trying out all of the unfamiliar gear, then had a pack shakedown to make sure our packs weighed in under 30lbs with food and water.
Early the next morning, we were shuttled to Dickey Gap to begin our hike. It was a cool autumn morning and the clouds were low and threatening. Leigh advised us to put our pack covers on and have our rain gear at the ready. Once we were out of the car and had taken our “before” picture, the shuttle driver took off and almost immediately it started to rain. We donned our rain gear and started in to hike. Though the rain was heavy at times, my enthusiasm was undampened; I was on the AT!!! I was hiking on the AT! It was quiet; the only sounds my footfalls and the water dripping in the trees. That day’s hike was only about 6 miles to the appropriately-named Hurricane Shelter. We were a small group and there were no other hikers, so we set up in the shelter to get out of the rain. This was my first experience with shelter sleeping, and especially with an AT privy!! The rain made nice background noise, and water resupply was easy.
Testing out the rain gear
The rest of the trip was sunny and warm during the day, cool at night. I was surprised how often the trail itself became a stream from all the runoff. I became obsessed with taking pictures of the AT blaze on various surfaces and with different backgrounds and got a few really cool shots that I still treasure. We hiked through the Grayson Highlands over rocks and ridges, did the side trail up to the top of Mt Rogers, the highest point in Virginia, and saw the wild ponies. The vistas were amazing and I marveled at the layers of blue mountains stretching away from our vantage point at Thomas Knob shelter.
Our mileage each day was fairly short; this was a skills trip to give us practice with the “jobs” of backpacking. Consequently, we rotated through the different camp chores of fetching and filtering water, cooking dinner for the group, and hanging the bear bag in addition to our own nightly tent setup routine. There was a lot to learn, but I was able to practice with different types of gear and start to think about what I would need to continue doing this on my own.
Hurricane Shelter – our first night experience
We encountered a few southbound thru hikers along the way; one in particular really made an impression on me. She was a young, outgoing woman with long blond hair traveling by herself. She breezed into the Old Orchard campsite in the early evening after we had been there a while clumsily going through our chores. I watched her expertly set up her tent and prepare her gear for the evening. She then joined us and we struck up a conversation, asking her about her experiences and answering her questions about our group. Her trail name was Sunshine, and it suited her perfectly. Chatting happily away, she started her dinner, whipping out a tiny stove, boiling water, and rehydrating her meal all without skipping a beat in conversation and with barely a glance at the apparatus. I was amazed that she was perfectly comfortable traveling alone, though she clearly enjoyed our company. I was also impressed with her comfort and familiarity with her gear and trail life: “I’m going to be like her someday”, I promised myself.
Old Orchard Shelter…with a white blaze!