The Appalachian Trail holds a certain mystique. With so many people spending 6–7 months hiking from Georgia to Maine (or vise versa), it's easy to see why. It's a rite of passage for serious backpackers. Since we don't have the means to take 6 months off work, we have to opt for a short section, something we can do over a long weekend. So the plan was a 32 mile trek, walking south from North Carolina into Georgia.
We got a later start than planned, leaving town at 10pm instead of 8. Not a huge deal—a minor setback in a weekend of major setbacks. It's about a nine hour drive from home to Hiawassee, GA in the middle of the night at good speed, including much needed bathroom breaks. A few hours of sleep in the truck—not too easy when we're packed three wide in the back seat and the front. But we manage as best we can. We make it to the small town of Hiawassee by about 7am on a Thursday morning and scan the town for a little mom & pop diner. No chain restaurants for these folks. This will be our last real meal for a few days, so we want a good one. We settle on the perfect little country diner and waste much time ordering a mix of coffee, eggs, hash browns, bacon, and country ham. Pretty sure there was a steak in there too. After breakfast we make a quick stop to fill our hydration packs with fresh water, then it's off to drop off a truck at our planned stopping point in Georgia. After that we make the drive up to North Carolina to the start of our trail, quickly gear up, and head off in single file.
The air is cold at first, but we quickly warm up as we walk, soon shedding our jackets and knit caps. It's March and there's still snow on the ground—a welcome sight for a crew of Floridians. We hike for a couple miles on a side trail before finally coming to the Appalachian Trail.
We walk for a couple more miles before stopping at a fallen log to take a break for lunch. The first of many shelf-stable meals to come. Today I opt for a tortilla with tuna salad and mayonnaise, seasoned with a couple spices. Besides that it's just a couple handfuls of granola and flavored water. We pick up continue walking south toward Albert Mountain—about a two-hour walk from our lunch stop. The climb up to Albert Mountain is tough with a 30lb pack, climbing roughly 1000 feet in a third of a mile. We take a good break at the top, enjoying the views on the Appalachians and North Carolina from the top of the fire tower.
The descent south of the mountain isn't too hard, but seems like it would be pretty tough if you were headed north, as most people are. The descent again has amazing views of the surrounding countryside.
We walk a few more miles on day one, through a little snow, along rocky mountain sides, and through shaded forests. Our packs weigh heavy on us this first day, our bodies not yet accustomed to the weight and the walking. By the time we make camp at our planned stop we're tired and sore. We set up by a creek for fresh water, cook our RTE dinners (Chicken teriyaki with rice for us), and all of us are asleep before the sun goes down.
Little did we know that this first day would be our best. During the night it starts to rain, and it won't stop for the rest of our time on the trail. We wake up Friday morning, eat breakfast in our tents, then pack up in the rain. Packing up a tent in the rain is not fun. Packing a wet tent into a pack you'll be carrying all day is even less fun. It's depressing. But we all pack up and head out of camp, trying to keep our spirits up. On this our second day we hike an impressive 11 miles, making great time through the rain. Probably because there was nothing worth stopping for besides lunch. Any scenic outlooks are white from the clouds and the rain, with zero visibility.
We stop at the top of Standing Indian Mountain, making our camp in the rain. Again, not too fun. We manage to build a fire, and the rain subsides for a brief while. We enjoy our dinners and dry out by the fire as best we can. Then it's off to bed, where it will rain all night.
By Saturday morning—day three—everyone is pretty miserable. Some don't have any dry clothes, their packs getting wet from the driving rain. Still we pack up in the rain and set out. Some of us all but run down the mountain, ready to get out of this rain. We walk for a few miles through Black Bear territory, but even the bears are smarter than to venture out in this awful weather. After a few miles we come to something none of us thought we would find—a road. A way out. An early exit. One of our crew runs drops his pack and runs ahead to find two members of our group that went on ahead. He find them and brings them back to leave with us. After some discussion we decide which way is correct and start our hike out. It ends up being a five mile hike on this forest service road until we reach a highway. Five miles in the driving rain, and we're soaked to the bone. When we get to the highway the first truck stops for us and one of the guys gets a ride back to our truck while the rest of us sit and wait. We're a sad sight, seven of us balled up under rain jackets and ponchos, cold and wet, finding no respite from the rain that's coming down on us in sheets.
It's only about 30 minutes until the truck comes back for us, and it's more than a welcome site. We ditch our bags and wet shoes, pile into the truck and head back to the second vehicle, dropping off two of our northern brethren that met up with us for the trip. After that we drive a half hour or hour south to Helen, Georgia, where we'll get a couple hotel rooms, clean up, have a huge German dinner with plenty of beer, then have the best night's sleep in three days.
In all we have an incredible time, the driving rain only taking out some of the fun. We'll definitely be back to continue our journey, the Appalachian Trail adding a few more devotees to it's roster.