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by Terry Hamrick

"Isn't that where people get killed?" That's the first thing I heard, almost without exception, every time I told someone I was planing to spend a week hiking the Appalachian Trail with my associate Rodger Ling.

I have no idea what the crime statistics are for the trail -- there are occasional isolated acts of harm -- but in New York City there is a violent crime committed about every three minutes. With that figure in mind, I was glad to take my chances on the AT.

The dream of Harvard-trained forester Benton MacKaye who first proposed the concept in 1921, the AT ends (or begins, depending on your direction of travel) at Springer Mountain, Ga., and stretches over 2,100 miles to Mt. Katahdin, Maine. Every year hundreds of hikers -- known as thru-hikers -- cover the entire distance, with many others experiencing shorter sections of the trail during day and overnight hikes.

Maintained by some 4,000 volunteers and overseen by the Appalachian Trail Conference, the AT offers those of us stuck in the desk-bound lane of life a way to test our mettle. Walking the trail's narrow, protected corridor of wilderness is a much distilled experience from what the pioneers knew. But here in the late 20th century, it is about as close as you can conveniently get to discovering if you can survive a week without McDonalds, cable TV, or a shower.

A roller coaster ride
For the 78 miles it travels through Georgia, most of the AT lies within the Chattahoochee National Forest. In all the AT passes through 14 states. The National Trails System Act of 1968 gave the trail official protection. A 1978 amendment accelerated land acquisition and authorized a 1,000-foot buffer corridor to protect the trail from encroaching development.

The 8.3-mile approach to the southern terminus of the AT begins at Amicalola Falls State Park in Georgia. The approach trail starts with a steep ascent behind the park visitors center. That first climb is fair warning for what lays ahead.

Rodger Ling sings Springer notebookThe AT is anything but level. In north Georgia, it's a roller coaster ride of ascents and descents. Depending on the whim of the terrain, these climbs can be numerous but moderate switch backs or get-down-in-low-gear- straight-up-the-mountainside grinds followed by steep descents.

There are shelters the length of the AT. Some can pass for summer cabins, although without electricity and modern plumbing. Many are no more than three-sided boxes with tin roofs. Almost all the shelters, however, have their own registers. These notebooks are a vital means of communication, recording not only aches and pains, triumphs and failures, but allowing hikers to keep track of those ahead and leave messages to those behind.

It's also a tradition to use a trail name, and we flip through the register reading the exploits of the Blister Sisters, Hawk Who Walks, Chow Hound, and the Children of the Trail. Rodger signs us in collectively as the Lone Wolves (unique lone wolves, he notes, because we hike in a pack).

In the messages left by those who are beginning their hikes you find one word used often -- dream. "The dream begins" . . . "Finally starting my dream". . . "My dream" . . . .

Among the Immortals
It's our fourth day out, and we are packing to break camp in the morning when the man walks by and asks me if we have seen any caves.

"The Indians buried gold nuggets in one, and they've never been found," he explains. "In the 70s one of the caves was dynamited looking for the treasure."

I tell him we haven't seen any caves. I don't mention that we were so tired when we reached the top of Blood Mountain the evening before that we wouldn't have moved an extra inch for all the gold in the world.

Blood Mountain stands 4,461 feel tall and gets its name from a legendary battle between the Cherokees and Creeks which made the rocks "run red with blood." In Cherokee mythology the mountain itself was one of the homes of the Nunnehi, or Immortals, a race of Spirit People who lived in the highlands of the old Cherokee Country.

Sunset camp on Blood Mtn.As we pack up on the high rocky top of Blood Mountain, I can look down and see the white morning mist flowing in the valleys and curling around the toes of lesser mountains. There's an upside down blue bowl of sky overhead. It looks like you can see forever. It looks like a place where sprits would live. The night before the wind had risen and buffeted our tent, flapping a wall against my head and keeping me awake. I lay listening to the roar, and wondered: Was it the wind, or was it the Immortals whispering?

Junk food detour
After descending Blood Mountain the AT crosses U.S. 129 at Neels Gap, marches across the parking lot of an old inn, heads through the building, and out the other side.

Rodger and I don't follow the trail, we hang a right and head for the outfitters store in the far end of the Walasi-Yi Inn. The name means "place of frogs" in Cherokee. To us, after four days of hiking, it means "place of junk food."

Perched on the picnic tables outside the store, we live up to our trail name and wolf down -- in a matter of minutes -- a Coke, a carton of milk, two bottles of juice, a turkey sandwich, two egg salad sandwiches, a banana, an apple, two cheese danishes, and two imported chocolate mints. We stuff additional danishes in our packs, along with two jars of Tang and a packet of Tropical Punch Kool-Aid.

We share the tables with Scott, Wayne, and Jim who, hiking at about our pace, have become our trail buddies. We will encounter each other many times during the week.

Scott is from Atlanta. He has come to hike with his friend Wayne, who is beginning a thru-hike. Jim, from Philadelphia, is also on a thru-hike.

Eating junk food at Neels GapWayne is going through his pack, looking for weighty stuff to throw away or mail home.

"Many people," Scott tells us, "are down to carrying only 20 or 25 pounds by the time they get up north."

Wayne pulls out a pair of bright yellow rain pants and shows them to Rodger and me. They're the inexpensive, hot, way-too-heavy kind. Hefting them in his hand, he says, "I don't know whether to keep these or not." And to put an additional burden on the decision, he adds, "My family gave them to me."

He shrugs, and Rodger and I look at each other, mentally calculating the weight of the jars of Tang in our packs.

Gift from the prophet
We cross the highway at Dicks Creek Gap and plop ourselves down at one of the roadside tables. Both of us notice a woman and two small children at the other table. They seem to be dressed in robes, like some sort of pilgrims. I wonder, with a moment of concern, if they are alone, but then a man emerges from the woods. He's dressed in sweat pants and pull over shirt.

His name, he tells us, is Michael, and that's his wife and children, Ruth and Azariah. They've been homeless for over a year.

Michael is a preacher and prophet, but not a false prophet he hastens to add. He and his family travel on handouts and the generosity of strangers, spreading the gospel. They spend occasional nights, as at Dicks Creek, in their tent.

But today God has told Michael to get rid of the tent; it's a burden on his life. He wants us to take it.

We hesitate, wanting to refuse but feeling awkward about it. Ruth comes over and latches on to her daddy's legs, flashing me a shy smile. She is a beautiful child.

Rodger explains that we have a fine tent already and a ways yet to go. Michael understands. He's going to leave his tent on the table anyway, another burden left by the way.

We leave Dicks Creek Gap and Michael the prophet and the offered tent behind. As we climb toward Little Bald Knob, Ruth's smile haunts me, and I hope she has a solid roof over her head that night.

Guardians of the summit
Visions of pizza come unbidden into my head as I hike. Rodger talks about how great it would be to come across a tree full of green apples. We stop at Plumorchard shelter, but the name's a sham, there are no plums. After seven days of our own cooking, we are on the verge of food hallucinations.

The Georgia-North Carolina border is marked by a rust red pipe nailed to a tree. Rodger and I stop and pose for a self portrait. We hike a short distance into Bly Gap and make camp. By the next day, Saturday, we will have completed a hair over 90 miles when we reach our Deep Gap pick up point.

Tray Mtn. survey markerSitting in our last night's camp I think back to Tray Moutain, which we had crested earlier in the day. In my memory, as I stand on the top of Tray, the warm sun and cool breeze bring with them a sense of incredible lightness and independence. I have made it farther than I ever expected, and I am as free as the wind and as tall as these mountains. Buzzards circle the mountain top. We have seen many of them, masters of effortless gliding. They are guardians of the summits, and they keep a watchful eye on us in case we do something to offend their mountains.

But we haven't come to offend, only to gently take whatever is offered, to absorb the spirit of the wind and the soul of the trail. We can't fly, but we can hope and dream, and we can feel at peace with the living earth.

Let others imagine the dangers and be afraid to take that first step. I've walked a part of Benton MacKaye's dream, and we -- for I can speak for my friend Rodger too -- we'll take our chances on the Appalachian Trail any day.
The author on the trail