Three days in, 31 miles down and 2,127 to go, I've taken my first big bite of this Appalachian Adventure, and I've discovered, as have many before me, that the Appalachians bite back.
We've had three days of rain, sometimes freezing, sometimes not; trails - mostly straight up or straight down - ankle deep in mud; wet sleeping bags, and soggy notebooks.
It's easy to see why only 10 percent of the people who set out each spring to hike the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine actually make it. Most quit in Georgia. Some give up during the 8-mile approach trail from Amicalola Falls, discarding their heavy cookware as they go.
"You could start an outfitter's store with the gear people leave behind on the approach trail," Brian King, a spokesman for the Appalachian Trail Conference, told me before the hike began. "It's rough, and if it's rainy and icy and nasty, that grinds people down a lot."
Though the terrain in Maine is steeper, the weather in Georgia makes these miles the most forbidding for some hikers.
That's the bad news. The good news is, it's a blast. My friend Dennis Richardson says if I had been drafted at age 19 I'd have gotten over this compulsion to sleep on the ground, but I doubt it. Being in these mountains more than compensates for the inconvenience of being occasionally miserable. These moments from the first few days stand out:
• Standing on top of Big Cedar Mountain at sunset as the sky cleared briefly and the peaks around Jacob's Knob rose from the surging clouds like black ships in a white sea.
• Strolling past Stover Creek and Long Creek Falls, where arching rhododendron and ancient hemlocks transformed the soft pine straw path into a glowing green tunnel.
• A hot bath and a Chinese meal in Blairsville, before filing stories and photos.
Photographer Dave Tulis and I have the privilege of kicking off a journey that will be taken up by other journalists at this newspaper and at four other newspapers up the East Coast.
Learning the ropes
To inaugurate the sojourn, we all hiked together, a kind of backpacking "Boys Without a Bus." I knew I was the novice camper in the group during our first evening on the ground, as I observed the other members of the press making swift work of their Cajun shrimp, while I searched in my medical kit - actually, my daughter Molly's "My Little Pony" lunchbox - for Advil.
Though my boots failed me and began to come apart, my sleeping bag performed like a trouper. (I bought new boots at the first opportunity.) And I've learned at a furious rate. I've figured out how to find water and sleep warm.
I've also learned that reporters from different publications can actually collaborate - not just sharing notes, but sharing more valuable commodities, such as stove fuel and Fig Newtons.
The defining moment came after we made a desperate camp on a muddy hillside that first night, with no drinkable water, a steady rain and not a dry pair of socks in the group.
Together we rigged a tarp, and Tulis set a pot to catch runoff from the drooping edge. We boiled the last of our water for supper, and, during a lull in the rain, yanked out our tents and inflated our sleeping pads. The rigors of 11.5 miles in the mud briefly forgotten, we savored after-supper coffee.
Then Mike Kodas, the photographer with The Hartford (Conn.) Courant, produced a box of Dahlonega fudge. It might as well have been a box of Dahlonega gold.
Acknowledging the cheers, Kodas passed around the candy, saying, "You need things like this when it really sucks."
Along the way we met through-hiker Doug Doane, who took a leave of absence from his job coaching soccer and substitute teaching in Atlantic Beach, Fla., because he needed a change. "I decided I've been riding this bus for 35 years," said Doane, making breakfast outside his tent near Dan Gap, "and I'm going to get off this bus and see what happens."
A broadening education
The lure of slipping out of civilization for a time appeals even to the youngest hikers. James Milton, 12, of Franklin County, Va., is playing hooky from the second half of seventh grade to hike the length of the trail with his mother, Debbielyn Mills, 36. But he had to work double shifts last fall to earn the trip, going to school in the day and studying with tutors at night.
His trail journal will become his English project for the year.
"It's been rough but good," said James (trail name: Keebler), hunkered in a sleeping bag at the Hawk's Mountain shelter. His mother (trail name: Pearl Drops, for the five pearl studs in her left ear), says, "This is a time in his life when he doesn't mind being with Mom. So I got a chance to do this with my son. Yeah!"
Not everybody meets the challenge gracefully. Ben Carey, of Bethlehem, Conn., lamented that his hiking partner could only complain about the rain, the hills, and the absence of that girlfriend back home.
It's easy to understand why people quit. What's harder to understand is how they persevere.
Paul "Lucky Pierre" Coryea, a retired engineer from Rome, went the distance in 1992, despite two early setbacks: he blew out his ankle at Bly Gap, N.C., and his partners hiked off with his stove at Mount LeConte, Tenn., and never reappeared, leaving him to crunch cold, dried macaroni.
As the press gang set out Sunday from Springer, Coryea, 61, walked along for a mile or so, moving briskly with the aid of two ski poles. He seemed to enjoy the freezing precipitation.
His advice was simple. "Be careful going down the hills," he said, "and when the going gets rough, remember, that will pass. You'll get a sunny day."
For the next 164 miles, I pray he's right.
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