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A.T. Symbol embedded in Hot Springs' sidewalk

A.T. Symbol embedded in Hot Springs’ sidewalk

Section hikers are different from thru-hikers. Relationships between A.T. hikers are affected by when and where they start and finish. For a brief period two years ago, I was part of the crowd setting out from Springer Mountain. Bonds are established in those first weeks of bulging backpacks, sore knees, blistered feet, and foul weather. Everyone shares the same dream — Katahdin in less than six months. Any break in that timing doesn’t just affect the finish date, it loosens those bonds.

Overlooking Hot Springs and the muddy Nolichucky River from Lovers Leap Ridge

Overlooking Hot Springs and the muddy French Broad River from Lovers Leap Ridge

From the start, Katahdin wasn’t my destination, but I still had a kinship with my fellow hikers in 2013. We were all baptized as beginning A.T. journeymen together…at least to Fontana. Resuming the trail in Central Virginia six weeks later, I found subtle differences kept me on the outside looking in. Over three hundred miles of trail, snow storms, bouts with the norovirus, and many new faces had come between me and the thru-hikers. Even when I chanced upon a familiar face, all that had transpired since Fontana eclipsed what we’d shared before Fontana. Plus, they had become hiking machines, leaving me in the dust.

A beautiful White Oak with the Appalachian Trail's double white blazes

A beautiful White Oak with the Appalachian Trail’s white blaze

Not only are there no familiar faces or shared experiences this year, I’m covering a section well behind the typical timing for thru-hikers. Fellow hikers encountered on the trail will probably be a different breed altogether, and I am curious to see just how different. I’m different too this year, not so tightly wound. I hope to be much more of an observer, focused outward, stuck less in my own head.

For the same reason, I can’t help but wonder…without the deep-seated internal drive that motivated me in 2013, will I step up to the challenges of weather, trail conditions, tent camping, shelters, loneliness, gear weight, etc., when a comfortable home and bed are just a phone call away? I discovered in May 2013 that I’m not thru-hiker material. Beyond a certain point, distance hiking isn’t for me. The plan this time is 23 days, walking 268.3 miles to close the gap between Hot Springs, NC, and southwest Virginia to give me 857.5 contiguous trail miles from Springer Mountain, GA, to Rockfish Gap, VA.

View south to the Great Smokies from Rich Mountain Lookout Tower

View south to the Great Smoky Mountains from Rich Mountain Lookout Tower

Since I left the trail at Rockfish Gap two years ago, I’ve only completed a two-night backpacking trip (April 2014), though this paucity is not due to a lack of interest or effort. My A.T. trail scheduling and gear/food preparations have come together without a hitch, including the all-important Oreos. My 2013 experience gave me an understanding and confidence in these matters, and in some respects I feel like a pro. As healthy and strong as I may be physically, however, I expect the first days on trail to be tough. Can I stick with it? Will I enjoy it? Let’s find out.

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