Day 1: Hiker 99 (Approach Trail to Black Gap Shelter):
We woke up in the morning to the smell of pancakes and eggs, as cooked by the Hostel owners. Everyone downstairs was already buzzing with anticipation. “GI Jayne”, “Two Isles”, and “Gung-ho and Tagalong” from Cincinnati, Las Vegas and Michigan respectively were on their way up to Springer to begin the AT that day. Azalon and I, on the other hand, decided to walk the infamous steps at Amicalola Falls State Park. At 729 feet, Amicalola Falls is the tallest cascade in the southeast, according to the Georgia State Parks website (http://www.gastateparks.org/AmicalolaFalls). Along with the 500+ steps up the falls, the Approach Trail adds 8.8 miles to the front of the AT. As these miles are not technically considered part of the AT, many thru-hikers choose to skip this section.
At the Amicalola Falls visitors center, there is a scale for backpacks and a sign-in for AT thru-hikers. Amazingly, Azalon’s pack only showed 38lbs on the scale (though I’m sure he had no water). My pack weighed 39lbs (w/ 6.6lbs of water and 8.5lbs food… I immediately noted that I was carrying too much food). With this information, we walked inside to sign the thru-hiker register. The page was open to the 90’s, ending in 100. Azalon signed in as hiker #91. But, always having to make trouble, I half-jokingly asked the young ranger at the counter if I could sign in as hiker #99. Without hesitation he said, “Go right ahead.” I stopped and asked, “Are you sure?” Again, he responded, “Sure. It’s no problem.” “Cool!” I said loudly as I signed in next to #99. But, not two seconds after I finished signing in, a much older ranger came into the room and raised his voice, “You can’t do that! He’s supposed to sign in at the bottom. Now it’s all screwed up!” It seemed like a good time to take a look at the famous “Arch”, so we quickly slipped out the door to take some photos and begin our hike.
On our way up the Falls, we ran into a 71 year old man from Grants, New Mexico, named Eli Jahanovich, who was toting an external frame pack up the stairs. He said he was going to go as far as he could go on the AT, but wasn’t planning on going the whole way (no one else seems to have run into him since that day). Further down the Trail, we ran into “Momma and Papa Bear” taking a break on the side of the trail. This couple is from Wisconsin and in their early 40’s and 50’s respectively. I don’t want to sound disrespectful in any way, but Momma Bear is quite overweight (and I would later find out that she is a breast cancer survivor). Both she and Pappa Bear looked very tired already, but both were in fantastic spirits and very friendly towards Azalon and me. I was very happy to begin making some trail friends. As Azalon and I walked on, he said to me, “Man, dat takes some balls.” I agreed that it was amazing and inspiring.
After a day of hiking in beautiful 55-65 degree weather, we finally arrived at Black Gap Shelter for the night. A little while later, another 30-something hiker named Erik wandered into the shelter. It turns out that we had met each other in the “Hiker Trash 2012” group on Facebook just before I left for Asheville. He is originally from Clearwater, FL (near Tampa) and currently living in Franklin, NC. A little before dark, a final couple walked into camp. Simone and Boas were both in their early 30’s and all the way from Switzerland. As they were only issued a 6 month visa, they have a fixed time table to complete the AT, so they planned on making serious miles right away. After dinner, they offered everyone about 2 dozen heart-shaped swiss chocolates wrapped in red foil, which disappeared quickly. Just around dark, there was a headlamp just outside camp but they never came by to say hi. We could hear him chopping at trees with a hatchet or something. We joked that it was a sasquatch banging on trees. Since we never found out who it was, we decided to dub him the “headlamp sasquatch”. It was a little warm that night for my down sleeping bag, which remained unzipped the whole night.