I stand alone at the top of Springer Mountain, Georgia. I have long dreamed of this place. The whole mountain is shrouded in a thick mist. Every now and again, bits of that mist get thick enough that a fat drop of rain plops onto my wide-brimmed Gore-Tex hat. I'm told that the view is outstanding. There is a plaque at my feet, one that announces the upcoming route. " Appalachian Trail - Georgia to Maine. A Footpath for Those who seek Fellowship with the Wilderness". Hey, that's me! There is a picture on the plaque. It is a man, rugged-looking, wearing high-topped boots that make him look like a Spanish sword fighter.
"My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father. Prepare to die."He has a rucksack, stretched over his broad shoulders, probably containing some rugged-backpacker-type stuff. His face is expressionless. Did he begin his hike so stoic? Or is he trail-hardened? I hope I don't end up like him, a face like my boots and body stature of a mannequin.
Behind me I hear talking. Three other hikers have come up behind me. Two of them, they tell me, will be following me to Mt. Katahdin, Maine, 2159.1 miles north of here. The third is merely their ride. Underneath a nearby boulder is a metal drawer, an Appalachian cash register. Opening it, I find a Zip-loc baggy. In it is a trail register, where hundreds of thru-hikers have signed in for the first of over two hundred times. There are words of wisdom, words of regret, even words SafeSurf wouldn't let me put on this page. I sign my name "Waldo L. Jaquith" and my intentions "GA->ME". As I do this, three more hikers approach. They, too, will be joining us in our trip. Separated by the water, I feel alone. I am the only solo hiker on this mountain. I bend over and scoop up a handful of rocks. Bits of Springer. They will join me in my trip to Katahdin, witness to my journey. I will pair them with my Katahdin pieces to give them to prospective thru-hikers. Turning on heel, I take my first step towards Maine. It is surprisingly easy.
The hike is beautiful. The rain slows, it is now a mist. After the first half hour my eyes grow accustomed to the thick blurry air around me. Every few minutes I hit a break in the clouds, and I find myself startled by the sudden sharpness of the trees, the clarity of the rocks. I feel like a baby who is discovering his feet every few minutes. The beauty of my surroundings is unbelievable. This is why people thru-hike.
After an hour I make the 2.5 mile hike to Stover Creek Shelter. I set my pack down, a a 59 pound extension of my body, out of the rain. A small lake is forming in front of the shelter. There is a fire ring in front of the shelter. It is filled with trash. Bits of civilization, half-burnt. Bumble Bee Tuna. Giant Brand Beans. Prego. Left by people who think that it's going to go away. It won't. A few hundred feet behind the shelter, I find what can only be described as a babbling brook. I crouch over the stream for a few minutes, purifying my water for the evening. When I return to the shelter, I find that the first two people that I met have arrived. Lisa Groshong and Grant Shaffer. They both appear to be in their twenties. Grant has already obtained a trail name. Clad in a purple hat and purple shirt, he is The Purple Pirate. They tell me that they have been friends before birth, since their fathers were roommates in college. Grant is an Art major. Lisa is indecisive as to what she is. We all start to work on dinner, and soon Chuck arrives. Chuck is a 23-year-old (his birthday is tomorrow, he is quick to point out) who just got out of the army. He is a Ranger. We ask him how much he is carrying in his immense back. 71 pounds, he tells us. This is, of course, an awful lot. Chuck disagrees. "It's got a hip strap!", he says. Apparently, this is easy, compared to Ranger training. I don't think we'll be hiking with Chuck for long.We all sleep poorly. The mice seem to be working on their trapeze skills. Chuck learns what mouse feet feel like on your face. Douglas Adams was right: Mice do run the world.