September 24th was my anniversary, not of my marriage to the best wife in human history, but of my climb to Mount Katahdin and the completion of my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. Although that day does not hold a candle to my wedding day or the days of the birth of my four incredible children, it was a significant day, capping a physical, emotional, and spiritual journey that lasted five months. The adventure, up and over fourteen states and through some of the most beautiful land I have even seen, has made a deep and long-lasting impression on my life.
This week, I picked up my journal and began to reminisce on that incredible adventure. On April 26, 2014, I had no real idea of what was ahead of me when I woke up in my son’s home just north of Atlanta, Georgia. I had read close to two dozen books about the Appalachian Trail, including several personal journals of thru-hikers; I had attended a half dozen seminars from how to make a fuel-oil stove to how to make a successful thru-hike of the AT; I had trained physically for fourteen months, hiking 2,200 miles before setting foot on the THE trail. But head knowledge and hiking in Ohio, is a far cry from really living and experiencing, up-close-and-personal, the path from Georgia to Maine.
My wife, Cathy, and I had driven from Springboro to Atlanta on Friday, April 25. My son, Ben, his wife, Vanessa, and their two beautiful little girls greeted us with enthusiasm. They were excited about my crazy idea of hiking 2, 186 miles. I did not sleep too well with the “unknown” bouncing around in my brain. I woke up around 6:00 and before long I could smell the chicken-bacon and eggs breakfast awaiting me in the kitchen.
Three of us (Ben, Cat and I) were pulling out of the driveway and on the road to Springer Mountain by 7:30. Instead of hiking the 8.5-mile approach trail from Amicalola Falls up to Springer Mountain, I talked Ben into driving to a parking lot at Big Stamp Gap, one mile north of the summit of Springer. All three of us hiked the mile up to Springer, took lots of pictures, and made the hike back to the car.
I remember the mix of emotions that filled the moment of goodbye: feelings of gratitude for my son, driving me to the starting point; feelings of concern for Cathy’s road-trip back to Ohio by herself; feelings of sadness in my heart not knowing when I would see my wife again (I was so fortunate to be able to see her four times during my journey); feelings of excitement for a journey that I had literally dreamed about for over a year; feelings of apprehension knowing that only 25% of thru-hiker wannabes make it to the finish line; and feelings of inspiration having sensed a call to the trail and having received the support of my wife, my kids, my sister, and so many Christian friends; and finally feelings of fear, facing the unknown by myself with very little experience in the back-country.
With last minute hugs and kisses, I turned to face the trail about 9:30. I knew there were several possible hiking goals for the day. There was a shelter 2.8 miles from Springer (Stover Creek Shelter), but I was determined to go further than that. At 8.1 miles, a second shelter, Hawk Mountain Shelter, might be a possibility. Fortunately, I got there around lunch time and enjoyed my first meal sitting in my ultra-light chair at the blue blaze leading to the shelter. The next shelter was at mile marker 15.8, seven more miles down the trail, at Gooch Mountain. I was feeling good and I felt fairly confident that I could do seven more miles in three hours. At mile 10.5, I ran into my first significant mountain, Sassafras Mountain. In one mile of trail, the elevation rose 661 feet. Huffing and puffing, I slowly made it over the mountain, down over the other side and into Copper Gap, only to find Justus Mountain, another nice climb, welcoming me to the AT. The hike was tiring but I was happy when I pitched my tent along the trail about a mile past Gooch Mountain Shelter. It was 5:30 and I had hiked 17 miles (16 miles moving NOBO toward Maine and 1 mile from the parking lot to the top of Springer) – not bad for the first day.
There were more emotions at the end of the day. Arriving at camp I was nervous about setting up my tent (I had no major problems, although I got much faster as the hike progressed); concern about my appetite (I was not hungry at all, but my thirst was keen. I had two pop tarts for lunch, some GORMP along the trail, but dinner did not appeal to me); tired but content (it was a good tired – satisfied with the day’s adventure). I remember crawling into my tent so excited about actually being on the AT, feeling so good about the distance traveled; wondering what tomorrow would look like; and ready for some sleep…. it was 7:30.
My hike was filled with extraordinary events and the faithfulness of God. If you’re interested in the full story, check out my book at Amazon.com. https://www.amazon.com/Hike-Forward-Hiking-Appalachian-Strong/dp/152207824X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1506946662&sr=8-1&keywords=hike+it+forward