Spring is always a bittersweet season for me. When the AT bug bit me years ago, it bit deep. My love for the Appalachian Mountains, the Trail, the people and culture is a passion, bordering on obsession. On April 6, 1998, I set off from Springer Mountain, Georgia and began walking north. 2,168 miles and six months later, I stood on top of Mt. Katahdin in Maine, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Like all thru-hikers, I was an emotional wreck when I saw that iconic sign, touched the weathered wood and traced the faded, white-painted letters, which informed climbers, quite simply, that this was the end of the trail – or the beginning, for backpackers going south. I cried, not only because of the overwhelming realization of what I’d just completed, but because the journey I was on, the trail life I’d led and loved for six months, was over.
All of the photos in this post are from my 1998 thru-hike.
Every spring, several thousand would-be thru-hikers (backpackers whose intention it is to hike the entire AT in one season) make their way along a narrow Georgia backroad to Springer. All have high hopes, most have pre-hike jitters, and many are unbelievably ill-prepared. Those who feel they’ve taken on more than they bargained for have an early out at Neel’s Gap, 30 miles from Springer. Approximately 25% of those who begin will make it to Katahdin. The crazies will do it again (I don’t feel crazy…).
Those of us who have experienced that memorable beginning will never forget the excitement of walking into the woods the first day, the process of figuring out our routines, using our tiny stoves, setting up our tents and tarps, and learning to adjust to life on the trail.
Northbound thru-hikers usually start hiking in March and April, although some hardy souls start as early as January (and later have to get off the trail for a few weeks due to snow and ice). Every spring thereafter, most veterans of this auspicious (or perhaps, inauspicious) initiation will be afflicted with Springer Fever. We get it and we get it bad.
Hiking through Harriman State Park in New York.
Over the years, I’ve endured greater and lesser degrees of the Fever. Although I’m sure I’ve suffered worse bouts, I can’t remember a more severe case than the one I’m going through this season (I’m sure I say this every year). My good friend Betsy, who I met on my 2011 hike, is currently working as a caretaker at one of the shelters in Smoky Mountain National Park, and many of my AT friends live close to the trail. Every season I follow the journeys of current hikers on Trail Journals. These connections to the trail community help keep me current with the hiking season, but also serve to beckon me back to the trail. It wouldn’t take much.
Taking a break with friends in Kent, CT.
Most former thru-hikers agree that the Trail changes you. Even if we can wrap up our journeys and transition to the next thing, the feelings and memories of the Trail never leave. I made my first attempt in 1994, coming off after 650 miles. But the pull of the Trail was, and is, relentless, and soon I was plotting my next launch. That opportunity came in 1998 and I began again, strong and determined. It was a magical season and I knew I’d found my place. I’d spent several summers climbing the mountains of Colorado and I learned how to backpack in the San Juans of southern Colorado. I completed the Colorado Trail (475 miles) the first time in 1991 (I would do a repeat in 2000). I felt ready to spend six months in the Appalachians.
Coming up Webster Cliffs in the White Mountains.
When I was on the AT, people often commented, after learning that I was from Colorado, that the AT must be a piece of cake compared to mountains in the West. Not at all. The AT is the most difficult trail I’ve hiked. Although there are sections that are relatively “flat”, the AT is not graded like most trails in the West, which are constructed using switchbacks, trails that zigzag across mountainsides, making ascents and descents easier (not easy). The AT usually doesn’t mess around with anything as fancypants as a switchback. It’s all business: up and over. It extends for almost 2,200 miles, who has time for a switchback?
In the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
It wasn’t all sunshine and unicorns. There were plenty of bad weather days. We eventually got picked up.
I’m always thinking about how I can get back to the Trail. My thru-hike on the Long Trail in Vermont last summer helped. It was a fantastic and challenging trip. For over 100 miles of that 273-mile trail, I was on the AT, as they share the same path in southern Vermont. It was great to meet other hikers and share our thru-hike experiences for a short time. But it only made me want to be a true, AT thru-hiker again.
I’ve been incredibly fortunate to get to do this twice. Some people talk about a trip on the AT as a once-in-a-lifetime event; the thing they do after college, before settling into the rest of their life, or what they want to do after they retire. I love that people have those goals. For myself, I’d love to fashion the once-in-a-lifetime into a lifestyle.
Walking into fall.
I’ve made unconventional choices and created a life where I’ve been able to accomplish my big dreams with a couple unexpected ones tossed in the mix. It’s satisfying to fulfill a dream, but soon, I get ancy for the next challenge.
This spring I have a double fever since April would be the time I’d be flying across the Pacific to Tokyo for another semester of teaching. So, while I still feel mostly content remaining stateside in this cowboy-college town and teaching online, I’m also feeling wistful as my friends in Japan settle into another season of working, new relationships and travel.
Time will pass, projects and planning will distract me, and soon enough, the next goal will be before me.
And Springer Fever? It will abate somewhat, but not break entirely until I’m on the Trail again. It’s the only cure.
My parents met me in Baxter State Park and my dad hiked the 5.2 miles to the summit (and back) with me. He also hiked the first three miles down in Georgia. I gave him the trail name, Bookends. :)