About the Author, Hiking with Cat: “Hi y’all, I’m somewhere between a southern girl and a southern California girl who is completely obsessed with cats, mountains, and chocolate. When someone asks me about my love life, I think of the Sierra Nevadas, but when asked about my first love, I think of the north Georgia mountains. I can’t wait to hit the AT in February 2020 and see where the trail takes me! In true millennial style, I’ll also be tracking my hike on my Instagram @hikingwithcat.”
Editor’s Note: Cat has made the tough decision to leave the trail for now as the ATC has requested, but she still wanted to share the beginning of her journey with our community.
Alright, I was going to play by the official rules, calling Day One starting from Springer Mountain, not the approach trail even though each of those 600 stairs tried to kill me and I fought them down like the warrior queen I am. But I decided I’m counting the approach trail as day one. Even though it isn’t included in the 2190 miles of the Appalachian Trail, Springer Shelter is past the southern terminus, at mile 0.2, so technically it was still day one. Now my disclaimer is out of the way, let’s get to the good stuff.
Days Two through Seven
Day Two it rained- and not in a light, on-and-off kind of way. It was more of the sleety, sideways-y, pouring-y kind of way. But I had a secret weapon, a piece of gear my desert hiking self never even knew existed: rain pants. I prefer hiking in shorts, so I opted to not bring hiking pants, only rain pants. In fact, I almost didn’t even bring rain pants and was pretty sure I’d be dropping them in a hiker box early on. I never thought I’d be so happy to have such cheap, noisy, bulky, and uncomfortable pants, but day two was the start of my slightly inappropriate relationship with those rain pants.
Moving on, I reached Hawk Mountain Shelter around 1pm. I’d only gone 8 miles and the next shelter was a relatively easy 7.5 more, plus I was enjoying hiking in the rain; it’s pretty soothing once you embrace it. But about 20 minutes before I got to Hawk, the wind decided to join the party. I didn’t know I could hate wind so much, but there I was, thinking about ways to murder the wind (which I know isn’t feasible, but you would’ve too if you’d been there). So, I climbed into Hawk Shelter, happily greeting both those I knew and the those I didn’t yet. We commiserated and shivered in the shelter, wondering when the rain would die down when miraculously, it did. I hurriedly set up my tent and checked my gear for dryness. When I walked back to the shelter, I discovered something even more miraculous- fire. We all pulled off our sopping socks and held them over the fire, shivering in the wind. After a hasty dinner, I crawled into bed and slept like a tree (I don’t know, is there an analogy that’s the opposite of slept like a rock? This is me making one because I slept poorly).
The next morning, I heard people getting up and heading out, but I was just getting some sleep, so I slept in. I finally woke up and realized that the rain had blown into my tent. I panicked briefly and then, realizing the situation wouldn’t magically resolve itself, I hung up some wet clothes to let the wind do its thing (the wind and I had momentarily reconciled) and had coffee and breakfast. By the time I packed up and left, it was 9:45 and I knew at that moment it was going to be a rough day.
I wanted to get to Neels Gap for resupply by the next day (and by “wanted to” I mean needed to unless I wanted to eat jerky and sour gummy worms for my last 2 meals). Hawk Shelter is at mile 8.1. Neels Gap is at 31.3. I left at 9:45. I shook it off and started hiking. I took on Sassafras Mountain, something I’d been warned about the night before and felt great. My plan was to camp at Woody Gap at mile 20.5. I got to Woody Gap around 3:30, and the wind was howling. Did I mention it was windy today?
Well, I wasn’t too worried, I figured I’d push on and find a campsite within the next mile, but they were all at a vista point. This sounds nice, but like I said, it was windy, and you know what vista points are? They’re windy. Now I know what you’re thinking, “aren’t you being a little over dramatic, a little wind never hurt anyone,” and you’d be right. But it wasn’t a little windy. It was there-were-moments-I-was-worried-about-getting-blown-off-the-ridge windy (in case you were wondering, the wind and I were on the outs again). So, I kept hiking (and minorly panicking). Finally, just before 6, I reached Lance Creek Campsite at mile 23.9 which put me at about a 16 mile day. Oh boy, I’d never been so happy to see a campsite before. But as I walked past the full campsites, my heart started to sink. Would I find a spot to camp? I reached the end of the campground, and someone called my name, flooding me with relief. I would camp with some hikers I knew, and it was good company. I set up, boiled water, ate quickly, sucking down my delicious Spanish rice soup, poured some hot water into my Nalgene to cuddle with, and managed to crawl into bed by 7.
Day 4 I finally felt like I was on a good schedule. I woke up at 7 after an amazing night’s sleep despite howling winds and sub-freezing temperatures and rolled out of camp around 8. I powered through the 7.5 miles to Neels Gap, enjoying the views of Blood Mountain but not the rocky descent. I got to Neels Gap, ate a pizza, charged my phone, resupplied, and lazed on the porch in the sun. Before I knew it, I’d been there for 2 1/2 hours, so I quickly packed up and headed to camp 4 miles away. I got to camp with plenty of time to get my camp chores done and chill around the fire with some section hikers before heading to bed nice and early.
Day 5 should’ve been an easy day. The terrain was mild, the weather was beautiful, and I’d had another great night’s sleep. However, my heels and Achilles started hurting. I figured it was just soreness, vowed to stretch more, and pushed past the shelter at mile 7. Shortly after, I regretted passing up the shelter. One thing every AT hiker will hear is that the trail provides, so I adopted my sternest voice and decided to ask the trail to provide. And it did. At mile 10, I came around a bend and found an amazing campsite. It was only 3, so I set up and napped. When I woke up, I found one of my hiker friends who’d stayed at Neel’s Gap Hostel had caught up to me and was waiting to say hi. We chatted for a bit before she pushed on. Shortly after, two others from the hostel rolled up to camp with me. We had a fire and ended up having such a good time we stayed up until 8:30 (30 minutes past hiker’s midnight).
Day 6, I’d found my rhythm. I got up before the sun and was efficient, so I was hiking by 8:15. I knew it was going to be one of my hardest days yet (13 miles and 2 peaks), but I felt great. As a fun bonus, it was projected to rain that night, so it was a race to beat the rain. I’ve heard it usually takes about 2 weeks for “hiker hunger” to kick in, but I was feeling it today. There’s a song by the Wiggles where they sing about mashed bananas, cold spaghetti, and hot potatoes; this was my anthem today. I could blame this on the fact that I’d recently spent a lot of time with my one-year-old nephew, but we can probably agree my nephew is only responsible for introducing me to the song, not the broken repeat button in my brain (or the hot potatoes dancing across my brain).
I got to the base of my first peak, Rocky Mountain, feeling good. About 3/4 up Rocky, I wasn’t feeling quite as good. It was steep, my right Achilles was aching again, and I could almost taste cold spaghetti. However, at the summit of Rocky, my hiker amnesia immediately kicked in and I felt ready for Tray Mountain. I knew my shelter was just over the peak of Tray, so I rushed down Rocky and reached the base of my next climb. To say I hiked those 1400 ft up Tray would be an overestimation- I struggled. But I got to the last gap between me and the summit and felt reinvigorated. I was making much better time than I thought and was so close to the shelter! I pushed myself harder and faster. Both Achilles were aching now, but I reasoned I had the rest of the day to recover. Then I reached the second gap. Wait… the second gap? I consulted my map and discovered I’d misread it. I thought there was only one gap between me and the peak, but PLOT TWIST, there were two. The rest of the day, I felt defeated. I dragged my aching feet, banging them on rocks, slipping on the terrain, and rolling my ankles. I got to the shelter around 4 and hauled my butt up into it. It would be my first night staying in a shelter because AT shelters are infamous for their mice, and I hate rodents. But I had to repair a hole in my tent, so I was braving it tonight. I set up and stretched as much as I could bear, but I was worried I’d pushed too hard.
Pain and worry were soon pushed out of my head by the rowdy group at this shelter. We were yelling, joking, laughing, making fun, and generally having a blast. Some I hadn’t met, while some I’d camped with before, but for whatever reason, we hit it off. By the time I crawled into my sleeping bag, armed with my new trail name (Stump!) I was confident I could do 11 miles the next day, rain or shine. I woke up to some on-and-off rain and joked around as I packed up, ate breakfast and hit the trail, expecting an easy day. Within the first mile, I knew it wouldn’t be an easy day and was time for a zero. Thankfully, at 11 miles was Dicks Creek Gap, where I could head into town. 2 miles in, I was in a lot of pain, and I had 9 miles left. I won’t belabor the next 9 miles, but they were by far the hardest miles I’ve ever done and the first time I’ve cried while hiking.
About halfway to the gap, I slipped and fell on my butt. It was the first mental crack I’d felt on the trail. I burst out laughing. Obviously nothing about this was funny: I was seriously limping, I was worried about permanent injury, it was muddy and raining, my thighs were almost bleeding from chafing against my beloved rain pants, and I had just slipped and all I could think was how nice it felt to sit down. Well I finally contained myself and got up, hugging a tree for some extra fortitude. I knew there was only one way out of this situation, and I knew it was going to hurt. A lot. Each tiny, shuffling step I took forward sent a searing pain from my heel up my calf, but I just kept taking the next step until I reached the road.
Words cannot describe the moment I reached that parking lot and sat down on the bench there to wait for my shuttle. It was both extraordinary and a little surreal. I’d felt so much like I’d never make it that I began to suspect that I never actually would make it, that I’d be hiking forever in a sort of twilight zone.
As I sat there waiting for my shuttle, I experienced my first trail magic: a cold beer. There was a guy who’d been slackpacking the AT parked there and he chatted and offered a beer. I knew in that moment that I wasn’t done. I’m taking a week or 2 off to heal, but I’m not phased because I know I’ll make it to Maine. (UPDATE: I’m not returning to the trail until COVID-19 is under control. Until then, I’m participating in social distancing to minimize my impact).
So, this is just my reminder to actually hike your own hike. Don’t push yourself to get big mile days if you’re not ready. Take your time, enjoy the scenery, and breathe in the fresh air… As my friend Cheeks put it, the more you take your time, the longer you get to spend on the trail! Also stretch your Achilles. Happy hiking, y’all!