One Month On Trail! (Sort Of)

Just north of Tray Mountain Shelter

Today is my one month trailaversary! As I’ve previously written, I got off trail this past Wednesday 3/25 at Hot Springs, NC (NOBO mile 274.9) amid concerns regarding the spread of COVID-19 along the trail and its communities. I’ve since been in Oak Ridge, TN, hanging out at a TownePlace Suites (thank you #tourlife hotel points), anxiously waiting and watching the news. I say this is and not would have been my trailaversary because I see 2/29/2020 as a symbolic turning point my life – the start of a trail, for sure, but I don’t think I have to be ON the Appalachian Trail to celebrate it. And to commemorate today, I’d like to look back on my first day on the AT.

Taken the day I got to Amicalola Lodge (2/28/2020) – I went down to the top of the falls to check out the view. This was my reaction when I discovered how many steps I’d have to climb that next morning on the Approach Trail. (Also, the first day I had been freshly shaven in quite a while!)

The morning of Saturday, 2/29/2020, I woke up with my backpacked mostly packed from the night before – having checked in, unpacked onto the bed, taken a quick inventory, and then re-packed. All I had to do was throw my toiletry and electronics Ziploc bags in. I headed down the hall to meet Grant, a Aussie hiker I had met the night before at dinner, for a 7am breakfast buffet. I ate as much as I possibly could.

At breakfast, we agreed to meet in the lobby at 8:30am to head down to the Visitors Center and the famous arch. I didn’t know it at the time, but just a few minutes before Grant and I left, I saw two friends who I’d meet later that day were saying “goodbye” to the families in the lobby before leaving for the arch. I walked out of that room, with everything I’d need to live the next x number of months on my back, with a mixture of nervous anticipation and excitement.

We woke up to snow on the ground the morning of 2/29!

Grant and I headed down the East Ridge Trail (bypassing the stairs) and actually walked backwards through the arch before arriving at the Visitors Center. We dropped our packs and stepped into the ATC class demonstrating the PCT bear hang method (what is usually the 2nd half of the Leave No Trace presentation). After that, we walked inside and officially registered our hikes, getting our tags and starting numbers – I am #519! We then sat through the 1st half of the Leave No Trace presentation and were wished “good luck!” Grant and I both walked out to the arch to take a photo and get started, but he told me that he actually had one more night in the Lodge and was starting the next day, so after walking through the arch and onto the blue-blazed Approach Trail, I was solo!

Right after taking this photo, Grant walked up to me, told me to “breathe”, and sent me on my way at 10:20am.

I can vividly remember the moments leading up to and while I was taking my first steps through the arch and onto the Approach Trail. People always talk about how thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail is a transformative experience, and my stomach was in knots as two warring factions in my mind came to a head: one that was reticent, afraid even, to let go of who I was, and the other, that couldn’t contain its excitement to see what this journey might elicit in me. I didn’t have too much time to dwell upon this feeling, however, as after 1 mile of road and road-adjacent walking, I came upon the 604 steps from the bottom of Amicalola Falls to the top.

Taken from the bottom of the steps – you can see where there’s a viewing platform halfway up.

I was surprised how good I felt after powering up the 604 steps, and, hoping that this was a good omen for the rest of the day, wanted to keep powering up the Approach Trail. Not long after passing the Lodge, I came across a sign that said “Springer Mountain – 7.3 miles – Average Hiking Time: 6 hours one way” (I would end up doing the entire 8.8 miles in just under 4 hours!) While on the Approach Trail, I passed a good number of dayhikers just going to Springer and a few pairs who were going to overnight at Black Gap Shelter (right before the AT) or Springer Mountain Shelter (mile 0.2?) Nothing particularly remarkable happened on the Approach Trail, but the terrain was strenuous in some places, and I passed a gentleman at Nimblewill Gap about 6 miles in who was calling it quits. Before I knew it, I came over a crest and saw a white blaze on a rock!

At mile 0.0!

It was COLD and windy on top of Springer. While I was up there, taking in the view, multiple families hiked in from the Springer Mountain parking lot (mile 1.0) and I met Ryan “Rock Steady” (he came into it with a trail name), who was taking a break and eating a bar. We took each other’s photos with the first blaze, signed the register, and started on our journeys! We had gone maybe a quarter mile north when I was unbuckling all my straps in a hurry, throwing my pack off to the side of the trail, and helping another hiker stop a tripped-up hiker from being dragged down the hill by a heavy pack!

The summit register at Springer Mountain.

Soon after, we walked across USFS 42 & the Springer Mountain parking lot… AND GOT OUR FIRST TRAIL MAGIC! Rock and I weren’t expecting it so early in the trail! A 2019 thru-hiker who had to get off trail due to injury and her friend were handing out PBRs, wine, chips, and mini-muffins. We each took a PBR for the road and hiked onwards, catching up with a group of three: a husband and wife team and her friend. The guy ended up taking off with Rock and I, and the three of us hiked onwards at a blistering pace towards our chosen shelter for the night.

I, of course, did not take any photos of the shelter itself or its lovely surroundings by Stover Creek. Instead, I thought this sign on the inside of the privy was interesting.

We arrived at the Stover Creek Shelter, mile 2.8, around 5pm, after hiking 11.6 miles for the day. I went up to the 2nd floor of the shelter to setup, Rock setup his tent near the shelter, and two of the three setup downstairs on the 1st floor while the guy went up the ladder with us. (I clearly never got any of their names). Already setup on the 2nd floor when I got there was John “Spreadsheet” (his name came after about a week) and arriving soon after was a couple – Matt “Posh Jesus” (he was first to get a trail name, just a few days later) and Kelly “Megatron”/”Griffin” (she was the trickiest to nail down a trail name for.)

Taken the morning of day 2, I slept in the corner (no mice!)

Later, while we were all making dinner at the picnic table on the “porch” of the shelter, we were joined by Mike “Zippers”/”Seeker” (came with the trail name “Zippers” from the Long Trail, later changed) and Jacob “Valhalla” (trail name came within a few days). When we all laid down to sleep that night (and it was a cold night… brrr), I had no idea that I would spend the next 25 days with at least one of them, sometimes as a group, sometimes individually – for example, after Franklin, NC, Seeker and I got ahead of everyone else and we spent the better part of a week hiking as a duo.

It’s incredible how fast hiking, eating, and sleeping with someone bonds you together. I consider each of the people named above (Spreadsheet, Posh Jesus, Megatron/Griffin, Seeker, and Valhalla) to be some of my closest friends – and that list isn’t even CLOSE to exhaustive in naming all the people I formed tight bonds with. There’s also Mowgli, One Step, Samples, Red Bush, Dremel, John Mayer, Topo, Badmash, Andy (I think his trail name is now “Poison”?), and many more. But most of all, I miss that core group of fellow thru-hikers and the trail every. single. day.

I may have only been out on the AT for 25 days, but in that time, I believe I have walked several steps down the path of fundamental realignment and betterment. And I want to get back to walking that path SO BADLY. I remain hopelessly hopeful that we will all be able to resume our NOBO hikes this year, that I’ll get to hike with my friends again, and that everyone stays healthy during this crisis.

Most of all, I am grateful. Grateful for the opportunity to hike 274.9 miles. Grateful for the trail and the people who maintain it. Grateful for the trail community and the kindness of strangers. Grateful for those in MA and CO who supported me as I started this journey. Grateful for my road family who supported me when I first got this crazy idea. Grateful for my home family who suppressed their own fears about the trail and supported me wholeheartedly. Grateful for the fact that I can say I have a trail family, a road family, and a home family.

Just before laying down for that first night, I wrote this at the end of my journal entry:

Today has just been fucking awesome! I was smiling wide when I got onto the trail, and it’s a surreal feeling to be out here doing this. This community is awesome. I can’t wait to see what happens tomorrow. FUCK YES AT CLASS OF 2020! Love, Zach

Zach “Free Fall” Tucker (Saturday, 2/29/2020 @ Stover Creek Shelter, GA)

Author: Zach "Free Fall" Tucker

Long Distance Hiker, Traveler, Peakbagger, and AEA Stage Manager.