I walked one 1 mile on the Appalachian Trail (and why it matters, too) Part II

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29 Dec 18 – Not long ago, I met a lady that summited Lobuche in Nepal. Lobuche is a mountain on the Everest Base Camp trek. Yes, that Everest. Mount Everest… the Roof of the World. She, along with her cousin and some climbing friends made the long trip halfway around the world to take the peak of that 20,075-foot mountain. And they did. I learned after hearing her Lobuche story that prior to that, she took a trip to Africa to the 19,341-foot summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.  It was fascinating to hear her stories of how she would choose her destination, set her climbing goals, plans her trips, and then conquers whatever mountain is next on her list. Those feats are impressive, at least to me anyway.

I mention her story not because I want to do what she has done. As I said in part one of this blog, I am not that ambitious. I can live out my days not having climbed over 20,000 feet up a snowed and iced mountain of death and be perfectly content with that decision. I tell you about her because I admire the ambition she has to hit those goals. The desire to go and see and do something you might not ever get the chance to again. Those were items on her “list”. That is the type of goal-setting I’m trying to achieve for myself. The goals I want to accomplish before it’s time to punch my ticket… my bucket list.

I whetted my appetite for the Appalachian Trail in Vermont right before Christmas. Even though those initial 100 yards checked off an item, it just felt incomplete. Like my inner-Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor was grunting at me for stopping there. About four hours from where I live is the peak of Springer Mountain, standing at 3,782 feet above sea level. She’s nestled in the Chattahoochee National Forest, which is part of the Blue Ridge Mountains in northern Georgia.  Believe me when I tell you it is in the middle of the area that is formerly known as the middle of nowhere. At least it felt like it. Oh, and did I mention that it is the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail? How convenient. Now I can make a bigger check mark on this bucket-lister!

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After talking my youngest son into going on this adventure with me, we grabbed a few items for the trip and off we went. He was a little reluctant at first, not knowing what he was about to get in to, but finally relented. We got a late start that morning, leaving home about 9:30am. Sunset was at 5:02pm that day. With the distance and time zone change, we would be racing the sun to reach the peak and get back off the mountain by dark. Time was against us, but wasn’t going to stop us. Again, undaunted, our heroes plunged on!

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After a long and winding drive through the beautiful Chattahoochee National Forest, at long last we finally arrived at the trail parking area about 2:45pm Eastern time. In the six mile drive up the mountain you gain about 1,200 feet on hard-packed dirt and gravel called Forest Service Road 42-3. I will give credit where it is due… whoever maintains that road does a marvelous job. It’s somewhat daunting, being just wide enough for one vehicle the majority of the way with occasional pull-offs where you could let cars coming down the mountain go by. We met a few on the way up, and the conditions were wet and muddy. I wouldn’t call it “white-knuckle driving”, however, there were some unsettling moments. In the end, we made it to the packed parking lot and were ready to start our trek to the peak. I was excited… I was getting ready to be on the AT once again!

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From the parking lot to the peak is about one mile. One of the websites I researched this trip on gave the trail to the peak a moderately strenuous rating, however I did not find it to be that difficult other than just going steadily uphill. It was wet and muddy in parts, but that wasn’t going to stop us. The peak was our prize and wet socks were but a penance to be able to say we conquered this mountain! At the beginning of our ascent, a group of about thirty college-aged people passed us on the way down. They were talking and carrying on as we passed by, but once they got out of earshot, I noticed something that I became aware of the rest of the entire time we were on the trail… the quiet.

Whatever noises you would hear up there were the ones you brought with you. The day was cool, with temperatures in the mid-’40s, slightly overcast skies and a light breeze. That breeze is the only thing you could hear. There were no birds, no planes, no sounds of civilization, just the light breeze making its way across the hillsides and giving the trees a gentle sway. It was a deafening silence, and it was amazing.

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We passed a few other people on our way up. Small groups of two or three, and some families, all out enjoying this beautiful day just as we were. The occasional friendly greeting was the only sound we heard making our way up. After about 30 minutes of our steady uphill climb, we passed two young ladies on their descent who kindly informed us we were about 100 feet from the top, and no one else was up there right now. We stopped for a quick water break and I looked out into the horizon through the leafless trees. I introspected on how Benton Mackaye and Myron Avery determined this place to be the southern terminus of their trail. What I had first thought of as just the middle of nowhere was becoming the perfect place to end it, and there was no better place on Earth to be right then other than where I was standing. I had to imagine they thought the same thing when laying out this amazing trail. The peak was within sight, so up we went.

 

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Throughout our history, man has created some amazingly beautiful spiritual buildings. Each is unique and beautiful in its own way, and many of the older ones have long and storied histories. I’ve been blessed to see inside several different ones of all shapes and sizes, and of different denominations. One thing I have not been to, however, is the top of many mountains. If I can be so bold to make a comparison, the top of a mountain has to be nature’s most spiritual place. Though this mountain is not the highest or most difficult to climb, none of that takes away from the feeling you get in your soul to sit quietly at the top and look out onto the world.

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At the top of this particular mountain, I was experiencing another feeling. I wasn’t just checking off another item on my bucket list. I was feeling closure. I didn’t realize, nor fully appreciate, how the research work I did on this historic landmark had opened up a need to experience it. I’ve always wanted to hike it, and for weeks this trail and its stories consumed my entire work life. I would compare it to a lifetime Red Sox fan getting to go to a game at Fenway Park for the first time. You just can’t describe it… you have to feel it to understand. It’s not just pictures on a screen or words on a page. It’s a real place and I’m here, and in this moment, there is no place I’d rather be.

We had the peak to ourselves for about 20 minutes, just taking it in. Sitting on the rock at the center of the overlook, I happened to notice to my left this little trap door. Inside was a visitor log book. Not uncommon throughout the entire AT. They can be found at almost every trailhead or shelter along the way. I started looking through the pages to see what others had written. Several were just signatures and dates, where they were from. Some had encouraging or spiritual messages, birthdays, even marriage proposals as you can see below. I sat and read through some of it just to see what others had to say. Suffice it to say, there were some neat things in there. The book was full so I went back a few pages to leave our mark. Nothing prophetic or poetic. Just a little something saying we were here, and we loved it.

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The sun was sinking quickly and it was time to head home. We took a few more pictures, gathered our things, and started back the same way we came for the journey home. At about the same spot we stopped for our earlier water break, we passed three guys coming up. We conveyed the same message we had received earlier, that they only had about 100 feet to go and they would have the peak to themselves. From there on out, we only saw two other people. Now we had the trail to ourselves. It was just as tranquil on the way down as we made our way to the car.

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Now I have officially hiked 100 yards plus one mile on the Appalachian Trail.  There’s a bigger check mark on my bucket list I’m dang proud of it. My son asked me on the way home if I was planning to hike any more of the trail. I thought about it for a little bit before I answered. I’m sure the opportunity will present itself again. I told him I probably would and maybe next time we’ll bring gear and plan it as an over-nighter or maybe we can do part of it over spring break. He jokingly said if you’re going to do that, why not just plan to thru-hike it. I laughed. I like his way of thinking, but I’m not that ambitious.

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I’m not normally a selfie person, but in this case, I made an exception.

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