"Appalachian Odyssey is not only readable and human but cleansing and replenishing." -Los Angeles Times
"Recommended reading for through-hiker and day-tripper alike." -Down East Magazine
|Publisher:||Open Road Distribution|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.61(d)|
Read an Excerpt
Walking the Trail from Georgia to Maine
By Steve Sherman, Julia Older, Fourth edition 2016
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2009 Steve Sherman
All rights reserved.
On Springer Mountain in northern Georgia we signed the register, a rusty metal pulpit with a stubby pencil and scraps of notebook paper. Our signatures joined the scribbles of other conquerors: "Going all the way"; "End to End!"; "Georgia to Maine on the AT."
Then, hoping to give back to the Appalachian Trail some of the new life that we expected to gain by hiking it, we gouged holes in the still-hard dirt and sowed the earth with zinnia seeds. A packet of marigold seeds we kept to plant on Mt. Katahdin, the Trail's northern terminus in Baxter State Park, Maine, fourteen states and two thousand miles away.
Exuberant, we followed the two-by-six-inch white paint stripes interspersed on tree trunks along the Trail. Our first day showed us what we could expect in Georgia. Persephone and Spring had not yet risen from the underworld. With icy invitation, the wind gusted through the barren maples and oaks. Dead vines were rolled like barbed wire at the foot of skeletal trees. The scant signs of color in the wintry landscape were rhododendron leaves winnowing through the sunlight and a few chestnut-sided warblers, brave vanguard of that cold April 11, 1973.
Before long we felt like this worn landscape. Our calves were throbbing, our feet sore, our backs aching. Two hours later we arrived at Big Stamp Gap and the lean-to, a bare, three-sided enclosure with an earth-gravel floor. We could not imagine anyone wanting to sleep on the slanting ground under this rudimentary roof with the wind blowing down the valley into the open side.
Altogether, more than 230 shelters provided refuge for hikers along the entire Trail. If the shelters were all like this one, to us the better choice seemed obvious — a flat spot of Mother Earth. In minutes our man-and-woman tent provided a waterproof, windproof home behind a giant fallen oak to protect us from the cold blasts.
We followed a blue-blaze trail to fetch fresh water flowing from a slab-rock crevice on a hillside about 150 yards from camp. Then, with windbreaker hoods drawn tight around our faces, and wearing scarecrow brown gardening gloves, we gathered pieces of dry wood, built a fire, and prepared a hot chicken-and-rice dinner. Soon the Chicken Supreme, with a packet of sherry, no less, bubbled in the cooking pot. A standing rib roast and a bottle of Chateau Lafite back home in Hancock, New Hampshire, would not have tasted better.
That night, according to our pocket thermometer, the temperature dropped to eighteen degrees. We were as vulnerable as cacti in the arctic. Exhausted from the climb and the constant effort to keep warm, we got ready for bed. Most people get undressed for bed, but not us. We donned longjohns and thermal long-sleeve shirts. Over that we put on our summer sweat shirts, and over them sweaters and jeans. We put on two pairs of socks and cotton gloves. Then we crawled into our zip-together, newest-thing-on-the-market sleeping bags, and tied down the tent flap.
Whoever wrote "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" never slept on the Appalachian Trail in Georgia in early spring. We trembled with the cold, squirmed and shivered, quaked and shuddered. We curled into each other, hugged each other, tossed and turned. We spent half the night playing single sack, double sack, sack in sack, all the while taking long swigs of Southern Comfort we brought to warm our blood.
We were discovering our first major mistake — the purchase of two French sleeping bags designed on the body-heat reflection principle. The bags weighed scarcely more than 1½ pounds each, a bonanza find in our pursuit of the lightest packs possible. They were specified to provide comfort in weather down to thirty-six degrees.
Through this long, freezing, first night on the Trail we wondered why indeed we had started from the south instead of the north. Yet from research and personal experience, we did know that April was far too cold to hike comfortably from Maine. Besides, we wanted to follow the unfolding fan of spring, hoping that the blackfly season of the north would be over by the time we reached Maine.
Part of our research back home had been to find exactly where Springer Mountain, Georgia, was located. Every atlas in the library ignored this first mountain peak of our adventure. Even on the day we boarded the Southern Railroad in Washington, D.C., for Gainesville, Georgia, we still didn't know exactly where Springer Mountain was. Willie, the train porter, added to our insecurity. "No, sir. That's a long way. Makes me tired just thinking about it. I don't even like riding that long way in a car. Now you watch out for snakes, hear? May is matin' season, you know. Two thousand miles. You ain't going to make it."
At the Greyhound bus station in Gainesville, we learned that no public transportation to Amicalola Falls and Springer Mountain was available. We hired a taxi, and an hour later watched the driver pocket two ten-dollar traveler's checks when he left us at the entrance to the ranger station of the Chattahoochee National Forest.
As we headed toward the ranger's cabin, snow swirled over the valley of bare trees. This was Georgia, the Deep South? Our decision to postpone the first climb until the snow let up was only one of many such decisions about the elements that we had to make along the Trail. We were not procrastinating, but we did not want to submit our bodies to the possibility of frostbite. Later, we heard stories of an older newspaperman who set out from Georgia in early March and suffered so badly from frostbitten fingers that he had to be treated by a doctor.
Biding our time, we rented a cozy cabin with plenty of hot water and a fully-equipped kitchen at Amicalola Falls. The National Forest maintains several of these cabins for tourists and hunters. All night the wind raged and rattled the glass. When we awoke it was cold but clear. We could get under way at last.
Up the steep, seven-mile approach trail we climbed to Springer Mountain (3,782 feet), the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, grandfather of all hiking trails in the United States, the longest continuously marked trail in the world. With the first five days of food in our packs, we signed the Trail register.
That had been the day before. Now, in our freezing camp at Big Stamp Gap, we awoke shivering. Fortunately, the wind had died down. Forgetting our exalted purpose, like zombies we stared at geysers bubbling up from our breakfast grits. Then the smell of sizzling bacon alerted our senses. Sunlight fell on our camp. An azure butterfly, like a flying violet, led us to the Trail. It was going to be all right.
We struggled up and down mountainsides these early days of the hike, stopping frequently to rest, catch our breath, and look at the tips of the great Blue Ridge Mountains corrugating the land as far as the eye could see.
This sub-range of the Chattahoochee Mountains was not an easy one for the novice hiker. Springer Mountain already proved that. Every two hours we stopped by a stream to wipe our faces with cool water. What a novelty not to have to turn a faucet. Water was everywhere, miniature waterfalls over rocks, thin rivulets meandering toward the valleys, hidden springs gushing as if from nowhere to form small clear pools in the moss-covered culverts. Our toes unsocked and cooling in one of those streams, we sat side by side eating raisins and Cracker Jacks, vying for the prize of a shiny bauble ring that Julia wore in her boot strap a few hundred miles. The raisins, we found, lasted longer in our stomachs: Every raisin a calorie, every calorie a step.
Our bodies stiffened early in the hiking day. Often, only the words in the guidebook kept us going, urging us on to the next shelter where spring water, firewood, and a flat tent site — we hoped — awaited us for a comfortable night's sleep. A sleepless night was as bad as no water, two sleepless nights, disaster.
A quiet desperation set inside our psyches during these beginning days. We had not yet toned our hiking muscles or truly learned our pace and walking rhythms. We didn't know what we could do, and so the rush to move forward filled our heads with a drive to reach water before night. The thought of trapping ourselves somewhere in the unmanageable dark haunted us. Our backlog of experience was too scant to abandon ourselves to patterns not yet fully ingrained.
One day we kept seeing the distinct footprints of Vibram lug soles. We feared that the next shelter would be taken, not that we wanted the shelter, but already we had become accustomed to the silence of an unpeopled world. Fatigued, we climbed Hawk Mountain. Spurred on by yellow violets growing mysteriously every twenty feet, we reached the top and shaded our eyes from the brilliant sun, low in the afternoon sky. A hawk swooped around the summit and glided overhead, neck craned, wings splayed, to eye the intruders.
We were right. When we reached Gooch Gap shelter, smoke lazed up through the treetops. Our shoulders slumped when we saw the lean-to already inhabited. The ground around the shelter heaved and swelled, rough sailing for a tent. Since the taciturn couple didn't appreciate us any more than we did them ("Well, have they gone yet?" the man whispered to the woman) we found a site farther on in a cozy grove of white pines that whistled in the wind.
While one of us got water at a nearby spring, the other built a fire, soon to be standard procedure. Whenever apart, we kept in touch by blowing dime-store whistles. One whistle meant: Where are you? Two: Come here. Three: Help!
After a dinner of chipped beef and instant potatoes, we secured all the food in big plastic bags and pulleyed them into a tree, making sure no food was in or near the tent for marauding bear and raccoon.
Then with flute in hand Julia went off to serenade the full moon's rising and all the unseen creatures that skirred through the night.
The moon spills down the narrows
of trunks and spreads in golden rivulets
over last year's leaves,
while this year's, papery and new,
shimmer like displaced water
shot off the mainstream.
How can we sleep when these light rivers
run under our tent and glimmer
through our closed eyes?
At dawn a phoebe came by the tent singing her friendly two-note name. The brisk morning called for something special. We sat in front of the fire warming our fingers, stirring our hash browns, and deciding what to get in Suches, the first grocery-town since the start of our hike four days ago. We walked 2¼ miles off the Trail on a gravel road that rolled through small country farms.
This one-telephone-booth town was the first stop for most long-distance Trail hikers. Like a crescent, Suches lined the banks of a lake surrounded with rounded hills and lush green meadows and pastures. The sky that day was as clear as the spring water we were drinking from the Appalachians.
The original general store was equipped with everything from shovels to soda pop. An iron pot-bellied stove squatted opposite the front door. The wooden floor creaked underfoot. Cooking pots and garden hoes hung on nails high on the walls. We bought what we could get from our list, the priority being moleskin bandages for blisters. We had to settle for hamburger buns in place of French bread, and macaroni and cheese instead of Quiche Lorraine.
"We get a lot of hikers round this time," the tall slim man in coveralls said from the cashier's counter. "Where you-uns from?"
"Hiking the Trail, huh?"
"Well, anything you need, you just ask for it."
When we asked for hooch, he was startled. "Why, this a dry county." So we asked for pocket-size notebooks. He rummaged around and came up with just what we wanted — notepads advertising Bull of the Woods Chewing Tobacco and Dental Sweet Snuff. We bought a half-dozen fresh eggs, a pound of Cheddar cheese, two spoons (our experimental plastic ones broke), and four Eskimo Pies to eat on the spot.
The man couldn't find any flannel sleeping bag linings, so his wife telephoned the new general store across the lake. "You two go over yonder," she said, "and they'll fix you up with something."
We bought four yards of flannel material to make a floral mummy liner. Two local elderly women at the counter saw the material and, like blood grandmothers, unfolded the yardage and said, "Why isn't this perfect material. You could make a lovely dress with this, my dear. Is that what you're going to do?"
"Not really. It's cold at night and all we've got are summer sleeping bags. We're going to make inner linings to help keep us warm."
"A good idea. Really, it is," one grandmother said excitedly to the other. "She could sew it like this, and then tack this together here, and then make it so it's all open here at the top. It'd be perfect, wouldn't it?" Everyone agreed.
We ate lunch by the side of the lake. Julia played her flute, which she backpacked in a crush-proof box made of cardboard and cloth. The Bach sonata beckoned three water-thrush warblers chirping and fluttering beside the rapids where we sat.
Warmed, full, and feeling befriended by Suches, we hiked on and arrived at Winfield Scott State Park later in the afternoon. The park was closed. It was still winter in Georgia, and nobody with any interest in outdoor comfort vacationed in early April. The park was so placid and restrained that it alarmed us on sight, a reaction totally unexpected. The dark lake was dotted white with unmoving ducks and geese. Not a breath stirred; not a branch moved, nor a bird's wing, nor a squirrel. The stone picnicking shelters stood in muted sullenness as if the myriad voices of last summer were straining for emancipation. What lurked in the silence we didn't know, but we both — separately, then together — felt the tension mount.
The caretaker met us at the entrance. "Park's closed for restoration," the man said. "One of the cabins burned down and we have to replace it, but help yourself to the wood. Here, do you want some water?"
He was balding and paunchy. His belt was strapped below his hanging belly. He examined us a second too long, and once too many times, for us to be at ease. Nonetheless, we did need water. We filled our water jug, an ingenious spigot roll-up plastic container made in England. We thanked the caretaker and walked toward the building he indicated as a possible overnight camp.
Not a soul was in sight, and we continued to feel uneasy, though we could not place the cause. We checked out a roof shelter with fireplace, cement floor, and tables, but decided on our old stand-by, the soft ground. We separated to gather kindling. What was it about this place? We were used to the no-people scene — in fact we luxuriated in solitude. The caretaker's truck was parked on the other side of the lake. If the park was closed, what was he doing?
Suddenly, at the edge of the lake, in a clump of head-high pine trees about twenty feet in front of us, we saw a dead deer, shot recently, its body angled in a grotesque death, legs contorted into an ugly tangle, eyes staring nowhere.
"What do we do?"
"I don't know, but I don't like this place. It gives me the creeps. Creepy Lake."
We grabbed the water jug and rushed into the woods. At first we were lost, but we soon found the trail connecting to the main AT. We hiked as if being followed. For two miles we virtually ran over the mountain ridges until the approaching night caught us. We didn't know where we were or what we ran from. All we knew was that once again we were surrounded by our friends, the living deer and the sounds of a trickling freshet.
After several forays into the trees, we found a spot in a depression to block the wind and quickly set up camp in the dark and cold. The trees creaked in the wind and enveloped us with their large bony black trunks and leafless limbs, making jumping shadows in the night, keeping us alert. We renamed this site the Witchy Woods Camp. Since our Primus camp stove wouldn't ignite, we cooked macaroni and cheese over a fire in a circle of rocks. The light from the fire flickered our silhouettes as high as the oaks that encircled us. We were alone and nervously keen to the slightest sound beyond the comforting range of firelight.
Again we slept little that night, and cursed ourselves for not bringing down sleeping bags. Without fail, the cold nights and hot days forced a rhythm into our appreciation of the backwoods.
Because it was the weekend, we met twenty-one people on Blood Mountain (4,458 feet), re-named Mt. Blood, Sweat, and Tears after the climb. At the top we stuck our heads into the windowless four-walled shelter. Three hikers were rolling up their sleeping bags on the dirt floor. The remains of a fire smoldered in the central stone fireplace.
"Have a good sleep?" we asked.
"Man, last night there were rats running around here as big as cats."
Tinfoil envelopes and tins from freeze-dried dinners were scattered in a pile near the dry kindling. This Skid Row on a mountaintop made us hurry back into the light and fresh air.
By noon of this, our fifth day on the Trail we were sweating in our summer shirts. The warmth was welcome, for it was resurrecting the earth. The spotted yellow trout lilies floated among the dark green galax leaves that covered the forest floor. May apple leaves unwhorled, fiddleheads uncurled. Congregations of bluets stared up bright-eyed as we passed.
The Neels Gap forest ranger, short, heavy-bellied, and loquacious, greeted us as we entered his way station. "You're numbers 63 and 64 this year," he told us after we signed the register. "That's how many Trail hikers are heading for Maine this year so far. You two look like you're carrying the lightest packs. No, I take that back. One hiker came in here with hardly anything. He said he wasn't carrying nothing except a five-pound bag of mixed nuts. Another girl and her dog came in. She was walkin' barefoot. Her blisters were so big she couldn't put on her boots. You know what? Only about five of those passing through here will make it to Katahdin."
We performed our ablutions in the lodge lavatories and washed our dirty socks and bodies with hot water. For lunch we lopped off slices of a one-pound salami and added them to cheese sandwiches on cocktail rye. Lunches were that simple. We sampled an assortment of candy bars from the vending machine, and set off to the woods again, our socks bobbing dry on our packs.
Excerpted from Appalachian Odyssey by Steve Sherman, Julia Older, Fourth edition 2016. Copyright © 2009 Steve Sherman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPreface to the Fourth Edition,
The Appalachian Trail, and Beyond A Foreword, by Edward Abbey,