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AT 2017: Day 1, Springer Mtn. to Devil's Kitchen

Well the first days are the hardest days

Hike with Gravity

There's an expression thru-hikers often repeat.

No rain. No pain. No Maine.

I still had 2,189.8 miles to go to reach Maine, but as I stepped today off the summit of Springer Mountain, I already had the rain and the pain. They continued for much of the day.

Date
Weather Mid 60s, with rain and thundershowers until mid-afternoon
Trail Conditions Muddy, wet
Today's Miles 14.5 miles
Trip Miles 14.5 miles

Kim and I knew rain and possibly thunderstorms were in the forecast for today, so we got up early enough to be the first customers for breakfast in the restaurant of the Amicalola Falls State Park Lodge.

The breakfast consisted of a large buffet.

I helped myself to some of just about everything, knowing that a big breakfast would give me a good start on the hike.

Before long we were driving in foggy, rainy weather to a parking area about nine-tenths of a mile from the top of Springer Mountain.

We were greeted there by Mountain Squid, one of the most dedicated Appalachian Trail volunteers you will ever find.

Mountain Squid can often be found working on trail maintenance and improvement projects in East Tennessee, but for the last week he has been serving as a trail ambassador as hikers begin their thru-hike attempts.

Today was his last day at this post. He and I have communicated with each other by way of Twitter, so I was happy to now meet him in person.

Kim and I then made our way up the trail to the top of the mountain. She will be the first to tell you that she is not a hiker, but she trudged up the muddy, slippery trail with me, with ease and without complaint.

I signed the log book, but other than signing my name, I was unsure what else to write. After all my many years of preparation and anticipation of this moment, I had nothing pithy or profound to commemorate the moment.

So I only added, "Just point me north."

I posed for an obligatory photo by the first white blaze.

We took one last picture together.

Already by this time we had the rain. As we walked back down the trail, and I was now hiking toward Maine, came the pain.

The pain was a good pain, but it hurt nonetheless. I was beginning a journey I had wanted for years to make, but I was making it without the one person who believed in me, encouraged me, and did everything she could to make sure this day happened.

I was grateful as we reached the parking lot again that Mountain Squid was there. His presence, as well as that of a few hikers, helped me to keep my emotions mostly in check.

Kim said she wanted to take a picture of me as I started walking down the trail. I'm glad it was taken as I walked away so that she could not see tears well up in my eyes.

Soon though, that I had to switch into hiker mode, as that is what I came here to do.

No rain. No pain. No Maine.

I continued to descend from Springer Mountain. The trail was easy, though getting sloppier as the rain continued to fall.

No one seems to know why the mountain is called Springer. It's been called that since at least 1910. Local residents apparently also called it Penitentiary Mountain, though no one seems to know why that name either.

When construction of the AT was completed in the 1930s, the southern terminus was not on Springer Mountain. It was on Mount Oglethorpe, which is about 20 miles to the northeast of here.

Mount Oglethorpe is said to offer more dramatic views. The start was moved in 1958 after a gravel logging road was constructed on the mountain, leading to an encroachment of civilization. Hikers had also complained about several smelly chicken farms along the route near Mount Oglethorpe.

On my descent, I passed several intersections with the Benton MacKaye Trail, which crisscrosses the AT several times.

The total length of the Benton MacKaye is about 300 miles. It ends near Davenport Gap on the east side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Soon I had reached Stover Creek Shelter, where I wanted to get out of the rain and have a snack.

This is one of the nicer shelters you'll find on the trail. It sleeps 16 on two levels. It's a larger shelter because a lot of hikers stay here to give themselves short mileage on their first few days on the trail.

When I arrived two people were lying in their sleeping bags. It was 11:30 in the morning.

I shouldn't be too judgmental, but still.

No rain. No pain. No Maine.

After I left the shelter and continued down the trail it began to pour again. I noticed a few tents pitched on both sides of the trail. As I got closer, a boy who was walking across the trail asked me if I wished to warm up by the fire.

This was a youth group from a Baptist church in Canton, Ga. They looked pretty glum as they stood under two small tarps and huddled around the fire.

We chatted briefly and then I moved on. My plan was to see what time I reached Hawk Mountain and see how I felt, then decide if I wanted to push over some of big climbs to reach Devil's Kitchen.

When I reached the Three Forks area there was a bridge here that crosses a creek.

Just past the bridge and a parking lot I saw Froggy, a hiker I met a few minutes earlier at Stover Creek Shelter. He is from France and this is the first time he's hiked in the U.S. From his gear and his hiking manner, though, I could tell he was an experienced hiker.

Still, at this point on the trail he was confused. I couldn't blame him.

The Benton MacKaye Trail joined with the AT. The two didn't just intersect as they had often done before, but continued together for some distance.

The problem was in the way the two trails were marked. Sometimes there was a familiar white rectangle blaze for the AT. At other times a white diamond for the BMT.

I assured Froggy we were on the right route, but later I had my own moment of self-doubt when we hiked a bit without seeing a white rectangle.

It seems like it should have been easy and more helpful to put both blazes together, like on this tree.

The trail began to climb gradually toward Hawk Mountain. Also gradually, the rain began to diminish. The hiking was easier when I wasn't walking through large puddles, but my right foot began to hurt.

Just before 1:30 I began to question whether I would be able to reach Hawk Mountain by 2:00, which was a goal I'd set for determining how far I'd hike today. I also wasn't sure I'd have the energy to continue to my preferred destination, Devil's Kitchen.

A few minutes later, though, I reached signs indicating a side trail to Hawk Mountain campsites, an addition to the trail that was constructed about a year ago.

I knew from my hike here last June that the next portion of the trail to the turnoff to Hawk Mountain Shelter was easy, so I relaxed, knowing I would reach my first goal.

I found a log by a stream and ate a Snickers bar to revive me for the next few climbs.

While here, I chatted a bit with two section hikers, Josh and Levi, who I had passed earlier when they had stopped for a snack.

The trail dropped down to Hightower Gap, then made an immediate climb up Sassafras Mountain. It made me glad for the Snickers break.

I continued hiking more or less with Levi (left) and Josh until we reached Horse Gap. They had arranged for a shuttle from the gap to a hostel, where they planned to stay for the night and watch the NCAA men's basketball championship game.

I continued on, going up another difficult climb. Just past the gap I saw three army trucks drive by. That's a common sight on this part of the trail.

In fact, it's not unusual to hear gunfire or see soldiers running across the mountain.

The gunfire isn't real, but the soldiers are. They are from Camp Frank D. Merrill, which is where the U.S. Army conducts part of the training of Rangers, elite soldiers assigned to special combat operations.

While at Camp Merrill the soldiers are trained in combat techniques over difficult terrain.

In other words, the Army has decided the same mountains I'm walking over are suitably difficult to challenge and test its top soldiers.

I'm tried to not think about that too much as I continued over the mountain.

On the descent toward Cooper Gap I passed a man carrying what must have been the largest pack I had ever seen. The appearance of that size was enhanced by a large poncho draped over it.

I could tell he was struggling to make it down the mountain, but I couldn't help myself when I said to him, "It looks like you're carrying a dead body."

He didn't seem to take offense, and when we reached the gap we struck up a conversation.

He told me his trail name was Dancing Bear, because of his Grateful Dead dancing bear tattoo. That led to a discussion of Dead music and concerts, of course.

When the subject of his pack came up again he admitted he was carrying too much and vowed to fix that at the first opportunity.

I hope so, because that was certainly causing too much pain.

Dancing Bear mentioned he was almost out of water.

"You're in luck," I replied, pointing to a water buffalo, which is a large container on a trailer and placed here by the Army. "Help yourself to some government-issued water."

I got some water myself and decided to push on. I was hoping to get to Devil's Kitchen, which is on Justus Creek, by 6 p.m.

I got there at 6:05.

The rest of the evening was spent with camp chores and dinner.

I also chatted for a while with a hiker named Bodkin, who was doing a section hike with his son.

As it got dark I crawled into my tent, bone weary and still a little bit heartsick. At least by now, though, I was warm and dry.

No rain. No pain. No Maine.

Well the first days are the hardest days, don't you worry any more,
Cause when life looks like easy street, there is danger at your door.
Think this through with me, let me know your mind,
Wo, oh, what I want to know, is are you kind?

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