Monday, November 16, 2009

The Best Thing I've Ever Done

start: Gooch Mountain Shelter, GA
daily mileage: 15.1
total mileage: 2178.3

Waking up this morning was like no other day on the trail. The feeling of anticipation about finally finishing this thing was unreal. I felt like I was conscious of all the parts of the morning routine. This was the last time I'd be packing my sleeping bag, last time I'd be eating pop tarts, Nutty bars, and a fruit pie for breakfast. I felt like I was doing everything deliberately this morning, somehow that made it all have more gravity. Reading through the log book,the entries were all longer than usual, everyone leaving their final sentiments to the hikers behind them. After breakfast the only food I was carrying was some drink mix, 3 Jolly Ranchers and a little bit of instant potatoes. Both me and Disney marveled at how small and light our packs were, like the display pack filled with foam they have at outfitters.

Stepping out I felt like I couldn't walk fast enough to get to the end. Not that I didn't want to savor the last bit of trail but was like waking up on Christmas morning and then having to walk 15 miles to get to the presents. The mountains up to lunch were no big deal, easy rolling hills. At lunch we were again hoping No Money might catch us. Our lunch break saw the last water run, the last of the stove fuel, and the last use of and Appalachian Trail privy. Disney called his Dad, "You're still coming right?". Both our dads are coming to get us and we each got a chance to chat before we took off on the final stretch.

There were 8 miles to go after lunch. The first 5 were flat as can be, leaving a 3 mile climb to the top of Springer. Both of us were somewhat surprised at the number of tourists and day hikers we came across. Not that we aren't used to seeing other hikers but because it's Saturday and gorgeous out (oh, did I forget to mention we have marvelous weather for our summit) there are more people than average about. I think my perception was even more skewed because my frame of mind was so drastically different from all those that I passed. I was hiking along feeling epic, I was about to complete the most amazing journey of my life, and all these goofers are just out pokin' around in the woods for the afternoon. In my head I was almost thinking, "What is wrong with you people?! Don't you know what today is!?" We passed a number of trail signs informing us that the mileage to Springer was in the single digits.

.9 miles from the summit is a parking lot. This was the place our dads met us and with champagne in hand, all four of us set out to stand on top of the mountain together.

The phrase, "This cannot be happening" I think may be overused, or used in situations that might not require such dramatic phrasing. About 100 yards after the parking lot I whipped out my camera to get a shot of all of us climbing the mountain. I pushed the power button 6 times with no response; this cannot be happening. We traveled 2177 miles only to have the camera break 1 mile before the summit!? REALLY?! I had an extra battery in my pack, back in the car, and Disney's dad also had another camera back in the car. Disney and I ran back to the bottom of the mountain while our dads plugged on. The spare battery didn't help, and after scouring the entire car Disney's dad had clearly not pack his camera after all. Left with no other option we set out for the summit and hoped for the best.

The climb up Springer was no big deal and with our return trip to the car our dads easily beat us to the top. If you remember Disney's description of Mount Katahdin back in August, Springer is nothing like that. There is no rocky crag, no 360 degree view, and no sign quite so iconic as the one on Katahdin. For all the things Springer lacks, it was never the less the end of our 5 1/2 month journey and the best experience of my life. As soon as we got to the top a guy up there started to ask me a question about trail conditions or something. I hated to be rude but I had to cut him off, "I dunno dude, but I just got up here and I'm done with the APPALACHIAN TRAIL!" There were several people camping on the top and they all came around to congratulate us. The camera situation was solved by one of the guys letting us use his with my memory card. We broke open the bubbly and had a great celebration on top. After a bit we met some people who turned out to be No Money's family. We waited for a while to see if he was coming up but eventually had to head back to the car. By lucky coincidence, however, we ran into our friend at the bottom just as he was leaving the parking lot and heading up the mountain.

Driving off the mountain we needed two things, showers and food. We were headed to Cleveland, TN for a hotel and Outback Steakhouse. Unfortunately, a rock slide re-routed us way out of the way, and we settled for lodging in a town called Madison. We all wanted a nice steak dinner so we asked the lady at the desk for advice. She suggested a place just down the road. She warned us the it didn't have much for ambiance but the steaks are good. Well, we got down there and the freaking place was adjoining a gas station, oh, and also closed. From where we were it was a half hour drive in the wrong direction to get to Outback but we felt like a bit of an adventure so we went for it, woohoo!

We all got steaks which were delicious but a problem came during the drink order. Disney left his ID back at the hotel assuming he wouldn't need anything and no mater how many pleading stories we told about how we had just finished the trail, not to mention three of us are Eagle Scouts, they would not serve him. Dude, vision denied. After eating I think we all were pretty tired so we went back to the room for some well deserved sleep.

I guess this concludes the story of me and Disney's incredible adventure. Now that I'm home people ask me things like, "did you have a good time?" and I can never quite come up with an answer that demonstrated how much a question like that understates the point. Absolutely I had a great time, but there was so much. I mean the trail was not just a trip I was on, it was my life for 5 months. I lived in the woods just like anybody else lives in a town. Instead of being away at school or whatever, I moved (with admittedly few belongings) into the mountains.

Hiking the Appalachian Trail is nearly always a transformative experience for anyone who hikes it. We heard a story about a man who walked out on the trail with a .38 and the intention to kill himself and was saved by his experience in nature and with people. I certainly cannot claim to have had the course of my life altered quite so drastically, but something is different. Even together with Disney as a constant companion, I found plenty of time to be alone in the woods, alone with my thoughts. I submit that it is impossible to have that much time for introspection and not discover something about yourself. Admittedly I only got off the trail two days ago and am defiantly still misty with romantic feelings for the whole thing, but I really feel like the decisions I will make concerning the course my life will take from here are going to be altered by my experience.

The last five months have been incredible, and I think fully half of the wealth of my experience comes from the people I have met. I've met hikers, with whom I dearly hope to stay in contact (TRAIL DAYS '10!), and seen a truly beautiful side of humanity. Incredible trail people, from those who are gracious enough to open up their homes to dirty, bearded vagrants, to the people who stop on the road and let you and your gear into their car (sometimes fresh out of the rain), are what make the AT great. And lets not forget the volunteers that do the necessary trail maintenance to make the way passable for the rest of us, you guys rock! Thank everyone for taking the time to read out blog, its been laborious at times to compile and we hope everyone has enjoyed our work. I love the Appalachian Trail, and thank God for it.

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