A plaque and the first blaze of the Appalachian Trail on Springer Mountain

Well, the first days are the hardest days

Day 1, Springer Mountain to Devil's Kitchen

Monday, April 3, 2017

There's an expression hikers often repeat while they're attempting to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail.

No rain. No pain. No Maine.

As I stood at the summit of Springer Mountain this morning, I was 2,189.8 miles away from Maine. Before taking my first steps in that direction, I already had the rain and the pain needed to get there. They would stay with me for much of the day.

Weather Temperatures in the mid-60s, with rain and thundershowers until mid-afternoon
Trail Conditions Muddy and wet
Today's Miles 14.5 miles
Trip Miles 14.5 miles

Kim and I knew rain and possibly thunderstorms were in the forecast for today. We hoped to get to Springer before the rain started, and were the first customers for breakfast in the restaurant at Amicalola Falls State Park Lodge.

Buffet at Amicalola Falls State Park Lodge

The breakfast consisted of a large buffet. I helped myself to some of just about everything. A big meal would give me a boost for starting my hike, and would also be the last breakfast like this for several days.

As soon as we finished eating, we left for Springer Mountain. There was a thick fog at first, and a little rain started to fall before we arrived at a parking area near the summit.

Springer Mountain

We were greeted at the parking lot by a veteran thru-hiker named Mountain Squid. We have communicated with each other by way of Twitter, so I was happy to now meet him in person. He is one of the most dedicated Appalachian Trail volunteers you will ever find.

He can often be found working on trail maintenance and improvement projects in East Tennessee. He has been serving for the last week as a trail ambassador, greeting all of the hikers as they begin their thru-hike attempts. Today was the last day for Mountain Squid at this post.

Kim and I then began walking the nine-tenths of a mile trail to the top of the mountain. She will be the first to tell you that she is not a hiker, but she trudged up the muddy, slippery trail with ease and without complaint.

Gravity's message in the trail register

I found a hiker registry book at the summit but was unsure what else to write besides my name and the date. After all my many years of preparation and anticipation of this moment, I had nothing pithy or profound to commemorate the moment.

I wrote, "Just point me north," and to be honest, there wasn't anything more that needed to be said.

Gravity at the start of the AT

Of course, there had to be an obligatory photo of me standing at the trail's first white blaze.

Kim and Gravity

Kim and I also took one last picture together.

Leaving Springer Mountain

We had the rain. Now came the pain as we began taking the first steps toward Maine.

This was a good pain, but it hurt nonetheless. I was finally beginning a journey I wanted for years to make, but it had to be made without Kim. She was the one person who believed in me, encouraged me, and did everything she could to make sure this day happened.

I was grateful to see Mountain Squid was still at the parking lot when we returned there. Seeing him and a few hikers helped me to keep my emotions mostly in check.

Gravity leaves the parking lot

Kim said she wanted to take a picture of me as I started walking down the trail. I'm glad it was taken as I walked away. This way, she couldn't see the tears well up in my eyes.

They didn't stay for long, however. I needed to switch to hiker mode. That is what I came here to do.

No rain. No pain. No Maine.

A muddy trail descends from Springer Mountain

The trail descending from Springer Mountain was easy, though it was getting sloppy with mud as the rain continued to fall.

No one seems to know why the mountain is called Springer. It's had that name since at least 1910. Local residents apparently also called it Penitentiary Mountain, and no one seems to know the source of that name either. There was never a prison there that anyone knows.

When construction of the AT was completed in the 1930s, the trail didn't start on Springer Mountain. The southern terminus was on Mount Oglethorpe, about 20 miles to the northeast of Springer.

The mountain named after James Oglethorpe, the founder of the colony of Georgia, is said to offer more dramatic views. The terminus was moved in 1958 after a gravel logging road was constructed on the mountain. Hikers complained about several smelly chicken farms near the trail when they hiked from Mount Oglethorpe.

Trail junction with the Benton MacKaye Trail

I didn't get far down the trail before passing an intersection with the Benton MacKaye Trail. This was the second junction with that trail, and there would be more ahead.

The Benton MacKaye is almost 300 miles long. It ends near Davenport Gap on the east side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Construction of that trail was started when Georgia authorities feared the AT would become overrun by roads and housing developments.

Fortunately for the AT, funds became available to purchase more land and make the trail permanently secure from being crowded out. The BMT became a bonus project with another long trail and more protected land.

Stover  Creek Shelter

After a couple of miles, I arrived at Stover Creek Shelter. I hoped to get out of the rain and have a snack here.

This was a well-constructed shelter that sleeps 16 on two levels. It's larger than most because many hikers make this their first stay on the trail.

When I arrived there, two people were lying in their sleeping bags. This was at 11:30 in the morning.

I shouldn't have been too judgmental about the hikers who stopped here instead of hiking, but I was anyway. After all, no rain, no pain, no Maine, right?

After a quick snack, I left the shelter and continued down the trail. Heavy rain began falling as soon as I left.

I noticed a little farther some tents were pitched on both sides of the trail. A boy saw me as I approached and asked if I would like to warm up by the fire.

A youth group from a Baptist church in Canton, Ga.

He told me he was part of a youth group from a Baptist church in Canton, Ga. All of the kids looked glum as they huddled under two small tarps and around a small fire. We chatted briefly and then I moved on.

I had already made a plan to check my time when I reached Hawk Mountain. I knew this was the start of some big climbs and descents. If I felt good when I arrived there, I thought, I would continue on and not stop until I reached a campsite at Devil's Kitchen.

A footbridge over a creek at Three Forks

When I reached the Three Forks area, I crossed a small footbridge over a creek. Just beyond it, I saw Froggy. When I met him a few minutes earlier at Stover Creek Shelter he told me he was from France. This was the first time he'd hiked in the U.S., but his gear and his confident manner told me he was an experienced hiker. He wasn't afraid to leave the shelter in the rain.

We both became confused a short distance past Three Forks. The Benton MacKaye Trail joined with the AT there. This wasn't just a trail junction as before. The two trails followed the same footpath.

The problem for us was the way the two trails were marked. Sometimes we saw a familiar white rectangle blaze for the AT. At other times, we only saw a white diamond for the BMT, as if we were no longer on the AT.

I was sure we were going the right way and reassured Froggy. Moments later, I had my own moment of doubt when we walked for a long stretch without seeing a white rectangle blaze.

BMT and AT white blazes

I don't know why the trail maintainers only put some of the blazes together where both trails were the same. Always putting both on the same tree would have eliminated our confusion.

The trail began to climb gradually toward Hawk Mountain. Also gradually, the rain began to diminish. The hiking was easier when I wasn't walking through large puddles.

Then my right foot began to hurt. By 1:30 p.m., I was starting to question whether I would reach Hawk Mountain by my goal of 2:00. I decided if I didn't get there by then, I wouldn't likely be able to get to Devil's Kitchen.

I also wasn't sure I'd have the energy to get there.

Signs point to Hawk Mountain campsites

It wasn't long before I realized I was almost to Hawk Mountain. When I saw a sign pointing in the direction of Hawk Mountain campsites, I knew I didn't have far to go to reach the mountain.

The campsites were constructed about a year ago to help alleviate overcrowding at Hawk Mountain Shelter.

A wet climb up Hawk Mountain

Now I could relax because I knew I would achieve my first day's hiking goal. I found a log by a stream and sat there to eat a Snickers bar. This would give me some needed energy for the next few climbs.

While taking my break, two section hikers stopped and we chatted for a couple of minutes. They told me they were Josh and Levi.

After Hawk Mountain, the trail dropped down to Hightower Gap before immediately going up Sassafras Mountain. I was glad I stopped for a Snickers break.

Levi and Josh

I hiked more or less with Levi and Josh until we reached Horse Gap. They stopped here and told me they were getting picked up soon. A shuttle driver would be taking them to a hostel, where they planned to stay for the night and watch the NCAA men's basketball championship game between Gonzaga and North Carolina.

That sounded like a good idea, but I was still on track for my hiking goal. This was something of a pride point for me, and realizing I felt this way told me I was mentally prepared for this hike. I wasn’t tempted by an easy excuse to get off the trail.

The climbs after Horse Gap were a little easier

The climbs after Horse Gap were a little less difficult because the trail was drying out, but they could hardly be called easy.

A short distance past the gap, three army trucks drove by me on a road next to the trail. Military equipment and soldiers are a common sight on this part of the trail.

In fact, it's not unusual to hear gunfire. The soldiers are real but their bullets aren't. They are from Camp Frank D. Merrill, which is where the U.S. Army conducts some of the training for Rangers, the elite soldiers assigned to special combat operations.

Camp Merrill is used for training soldiers in combat techniques on difficult terrain. In other words, the Army has decided the same mountains I'm walking over are suitably difficult to challenge and test its top soldiers.

I tried to not think about that too much as I continued climbing the mountain.

After reaching the top, the trail descended to Cooper Gap. When I got near the bottom, I passed a man carrying the largest pack I had ever seen. A large poncho draped over it, which helped to make it look huge.

Even though I could see he was struggling to make it down the mountain, I couldn't help myself by making a wisecrack.

"It looks like you're carrying a dead body," I said.

He didn't seem to take offense, and when we reached the gap we struck up a conversation. He told me his trail name was Dancing Bear, which came from his Grateful Dead dancing bear tattoo. That led to a discussion of Dead music and concerts.

When the subject of his pack came up again, he admitted he was carrying too much. He told me he planned to lighten his gear at the first opportunity.

Then Dancing Bear mentioned he was almost out of water.

"You're in luck," I replied, pointing to a water buffalo. That was a large container on a trailer. It had been placed on the trail by the army.

"Help yourself to some government-issued water," I added.

I refilled my water bottle, then decided it was time to leave. I hoped to arrive at my chosen campsite by 6 p.m.

When I got to Justus Creek and the area called Devil's Kitchen, I missed my goal by just five minutes.


After setting up my tent and doing other camp chores, I prepared dinner. I also chatted with a hiker named Bodkin, who was section hiking with his son, and a hiker named Kirby.

I crawled into my tent at about the time the sky was turning dark. I was bone-weary and still feeling a little bit heartsick after the morning's departure. At least by now, though, I was warm and dry.

Day one was done, with an unknown number still to go.

No rain. No pain. No Maine.

Well, the first days are the hardest days
Don't you worry anymore
'Cause when life looks like easy street
There is danger at your door
Think this through with me
Let me know your mind
Wo-oh, what I want to know
Is are you kind?

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