AT Sobo Part 23 – Into Georgia and the great Springer finish
I was so very happy to be back on trail that I couldn’t be believe I was nearing the end. It was beginning to feel like this had become the place I felt the most comfortable in the world; the simplicity of clear goals to move towards and being surrounded by big, wild nature. Though November and early December were very cold, I was still awed daily by the beauty around me and there was a part of me that knew I just couldn’t go back to my old life as it had been.
I was still hiking through Virginia – the longest state on the AT by far at a hefty 550 miles. I was ready to tick VA off the list but first I had the delights of the town of Damascus which sat three miles before the state line. Damascus is a true hiker town, with trail angels abounding and much of the town geared towards welcoming and resupplying hikers. There is an annual festival there called ‘Trail Days’ and people from all the big trails congregate together, swap stories and have fun. I missed it this year, but will head there next May to join in! In the mean time I slept well, picked up a gift parcel of food that had been sent to me by a kind trail angel I’d met in Vermont and repacked my bag for five days in the woods. The next morning I crossed the border into Tennessee and I was absolutely overjoyed.
We hiked across the NC and TN borders many times in November, weaving back and forth as the mountain ranges led us a merry and beautiful dance. We saw fewer hikers and the low temperatures continued to stress our bodies, although I did get myself some extra gear to keep me warm which helped! A big cultural highlight for me in November was ‘Thanksgiving’ – my first experience of this holiday in the USA. For the cold hikers scattered throughout the southern part of the trail it was going to be to difficult to reunite with families, so we all decided to head to the annual ‘Hiker Thanksgiving’ put on by incredibly generous trail angels in a little town called Erwin. What a superb day!
Hikers who were scattered as far as 200 miles apart had been scooped up by kind folks wanting us all to be together, and everyone was deposited in a campground by a roaring river and massive campfire. The whole town seemed to have cooked food for us, setting trays out on trestle tables that creaked with hearty goodness. I had the chance to meet hikers who were days ahead or behind me, and we all shared stories, advice and friendship; hikers and locals alike. I know I’ve said it before but it bears repeating – the trail and hiking communities are incredibly special. After relaxing for Thanksgiving it was time to hit the trail again in earnest. I had miles to make and a deadline to meet in time to catch my flight back to the UK. To be honest I was extremely tired but had to dig deep and find energy. Almost seven months of constantly pushing forward over very challenging terrain will take its toll on your body, and mine was feeling weak, cold and more than a little sore.
At this point my hiking buddy was a girl from Iowa and we clicked really well. We hiked at a similar pace and covered similar miles so we headed towards the Smokey Mountains together. It was at this point that things went a little bit wrong. We hiked nine miles upwards into the Smokies knowing that the weather was going to close in soon and that we had to beat the snow. We’d already hiked 12 miles that day so had to stop at Cosby Knob shelter as dark close in to huddle up against the freezing temperatures. We lit a fire and fell asleep, waking in the early hours to a blanket of snow. As dawn came, the sky stayed grey and the paths thick with drifts, snow still falling. We checked the terrible forecast and listened to the advice of the rangers – come back down, no help can reach you if you continue. With tears in our eyes we backtracked the precarious nine miles down the mountain and rethought our plans. The snow storm was set to continue for days and then would turn to ice before a warmer spell came to melt it. We just didn’t have time to wait. So, with even heavier hearts we decided to take a ride past the Smokey range, and I have already booked my flight for April to return and fill in that 3-4 day section of hiking. We were extremely sad as we felt as though we had cheated, but the trail and weather had made it so, therefore we accepted the situation as best we could.
Georgia seemed to race up upon us over the next few days, and then suddenly I was sleeping in the woods for the last nigh. I couldn’t believe it – so many miles, adventures, friendships and growth reaching the mythical endpoint we’d all talked about and imagined for so long. I chose to walk silently and alone that day, reflecting on my time on trail. It was mid afternoon when I walked across some jagged rocks, around a corner and up onto the final white blaze. I cried quietly in the frigid, misty air and touched the rock beneath my feet with both my hands. What an achievement. I had done it. I think that we are all capable of great things. With the right determination and self belief, really anything is possible. If I, with my broken body and beaten spirit all that time ago, can will myself to walk 2200 miles across the mountains ranges of the USA and succeed, then you can too. Whatever it is you dream of, take a step in that direction today. Just see where that steady, stoic determination will take you. For me, it’s taken me towards another way of life.
I am in the process of writing a book and am already scheduled to give talks in London and around the UK – hopefully also here in Falmouth! I have four more epic trails that I’ve decided to hike in 2020 starting with the South West Coast Path, then jumping to the Alps in Europe and then the iconic PCT down the west coast of the USA from Canada to Mexico. Finally, starting in November, I’ll hike the length of New Zealand on the Te Araroa. I hope to take you all along with me on the way. Thanks for tuning in, and see you soon. Happy 2020 all!