Plan to not plan – The Trek
7 days and 69.2 miles from Springer Mountain.
I stopped last week at Above the Clouds Hostel. I would recommend the hell out of place. It was really lovely and just what I needed. The respite came sooner than expected, but you have to be honest with yourself about this stuff. One of the most enchanting aspects of the place was an old backpacker named Nimrod who cooks, entertains, and runs much of the clerical side of things there. It was $65 a night and Nimrod’s stories and advice were worth at least $40.
One piece of advice he gave us that I followed was to plan a hike daily, weekly, and monthly. He told us “do your research and buy the material. Then sit down with a pen and paper, go through the whole book, and plan how many miles you want to travel, the shelters you want to stay in, the towns you’ll go to, and how much you’ll need to restock. . each stop. Then say goodbye, go to Springer Mountain, hike to your first destination, then pull out that blueprint and use it to start a fire. Because none of that is happening. Just walk on and let your body and the trail decide.
It was good for a laugh but I desperately wanted to heed what he was saying. If not to escape the hassle of schedules, spreadsheets and deadlines, what are we doing here anyway? Isn’t that the freedom we all wanted so much when we took our holidays or quit our jobs and came here? I tried to get into this headspace but I’m having trouble.
With so many people on the trail all requiring periodic accommodations, rooms must be booked. It’s raining on Tuesday, where do I want to be? Forty miles until next restock, how many ramen noodles should I buy now? If I take the fanciful, careless approach of not planning, I’ll miss hotels, spend avoidable days soaking wet, and starve (or carry extra weight) respectively.
These are things you have to plan for. Anyone who throws caution to the wind on these things has my respect. I’m not a good enough hiker yet. What I shy away from is planning beyond what is essential. It’s hard! Everyone here has an app called Guthook that will tell you absolutely everything you need at all times. It’s super useful and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to know exactly where they are, what’s coming up and what the elevation is every minute. As I said very popular, but not for me.
I find it helpful to store my phone away from pictures and a weird text or two to my wife or mom. I have my topo that I consult before going to bed to get an idea of the terrain the next day and sleeping possibilities. I then bury it in the bottom of my bag and don’t look at it again until dinner time. I love that. It’s therapeutic to get out of the analytical thinking style that I may be prone to. Systematic thinking was needed to go out here for the hike. Changing gears is a process though. But it’s important to me.
So the balance I find now is to just schedule pit days around town and let listening to my body and listening to the track do the rest. Next Thursday I have a reservation in Franklin, North Carolina. I am currently in Hiawassee, Georgia. I bought enough food to make it to Thursday and I will do what I feel like doing at a pace that suits me or becomes necessary. I am satisfied with the simplicity of the plan. I will keep everyone posted on its success or failure. It worked well to get me to Hiawassee, and it was a fun 50 miles.
On Wednesday I started from Above the Clouds and hiked to the iconic Neel Gap and the outfitters called Mountain Crossing where everyone stops. I was rejuvenated and motivated. I even forwarded the frozen pizza they make for you there and everyone is looking forward to it. My plan was to kick ass another seven miles to the next (terribly located) shelter and ride out the impending storm. My buddy Bilbo stepped in and offered me a bed in the cabin he had rented. I took a deep breath, thought about what Alicia and mom would say, and accepted the warm bed. So while other friends’ tents filled with gallons of water and mud, I was barefoot on a balcony, drinking beer and listening to a few Irish musicians sing Pogues songs and laugh about the stories they had back then when they opened for them.
Thursday I left Neel Gap with a head full of steam and a pile of dry clothes. Neel Gap is the only place in all of AT where the trail crosses a building. Pretty cool. It’s also a metric often used to indicate where you are in the 26th percentile of hikers. A quarter quit or quit often at Neel Gap. There’s even an infamous tree (pictured) where people throw their hiking boots after deciding it’s not for them anymore. Respect to all those who had the courage to give it a try.
Friday was my biggest day yet. 15.4 miles and three or four mountains. You lose track. Friday was the day I had lunch at the Blue Mountain Shelter. It was just me and a quiet gentleman lighting a fire in the hearth. He had a cowboy hat, a small backpack and combat boots. Oh yeah, also an AR-15 with five magazines and a handgun in plain sight on its hip. I tried to make small talk but it was clear he was used to short conversations. I didn’t give a damn about the guns but the weight must have been crazy! He told me it was for hunting in North Carolina. Referring to my shirt, I reminded him not to shoot a turquoise deer and quickly moved on. We all do our own thing here.
Saturday I wake up freezing. At the top of Tray Mountain where it’s 35 degrees and windy enough to make my stove a paperweight. I slept like a trash can last night but carried on anyway. After riding 7.3 miles, I decide to call it a day at 1:00 p.m. I prepare my bed and I have breakfast. Entirely alone, I live a bit of an emotional hollow. There’s no cell service, so I resign myself to browsing my phone’s photo album in airplane mode. I have 20% battery so only a little but it helps. More people show up, including some familiar faces. We all have dinner and bullshit about books and movies. Helped a ton.
After a mouse-heavy but otherwise restful night, I get up and hit the trail around 8:00 am today. It only took walking 3.6 miles to US 76 and hitchhiking (less than a mile) to Hostel Around the Bend on the outskirts of Hiawassee. I did an 11 mile ride around town and restocked and checked out the area. Cute little spot. Feel good about things. It’s not easy but easy is not the reason I’m here.
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