December 20, 2000
At 5:15 this morning, I heard Not Yet stirring next to me at Gooch Gap Shelter. I knew it was time. Today was the day we would summit Springer Mountain. Today we would complete our thru-hikes.
The night before, as I lay in my sleeping bag, I was a little sad. Although the past month had brought rain, snow, sleet, hail, thunder, lightning (yes, lightning!), and bitter cold, I was going to miss the AT. Cold or not (it was 18 degrees), it was my last night in a shelter. I missed my trail life already.
5:25 a.m. It was time to get up and get moving. Not Yet looked at me and grinned. "We're gonna make it!" she said softly, and I grinned back. We were going to make it—nothing could stop us now!
But it was slow going from the start. It was so cold that it took tremendous motivation for me to emerge from my sleeping bag and prepare to hike. I checked the thermometer on my pack: it was a frigid three degrees below zero in the shelter.
Not Yet and I packed as fast as we could, but it took a long time because we kept stopping to put our hands on our stomachs to thaw our fingers, which were painfully numb with cold.
One of the most unpleasant sensations a thru-hiker experiences has got to be that of putting cold feet into frozen boots. I'd tried several methods of preventing my boots from freezing at night, but nothing has seemed to work with the cold temps we've had lately. I spent several minutes working those boots on this morning; they were frozen solid, and it was like trying to put on boots that were three sizes too small.
Finally, after more than an hour, we were ready to go. The cold nearly had me in tears; I had the familiar sense of nausea that I always get when the temps drop below 20.
We first hiked 0.1 miles to Not Yet's car. Her fiance, Macon Tracks, would drive it up USFS 42 and hike the final mile with us to the summit.
The two had planned to thru-hike the AT together; however, Macon Tracks started having foot problems in Tennessee/North Carolina. Although he had to quit hiking then, he's remained a big part of Not Yet's hike by slackpacking her the rest of the way. I joined them a week ago at Nantahala Outdoor Center, primarily so I could be with other people in the cold weather. But I must admit that I welcomed the chance to hike with a light pack for a week!
We stashed our excess gear in the car and started hiking. I was miserable with cold, but I was also excited about reaching Springer, which was about 16 miles away. Not only would Springer signify the end of my thru-hike and the reaching of a major goal, but it meant that I would be sleeping INSIDE that night. . .and the next night. . .and the next night. . . .
To be honest, though, I wasn't in the best of spirits. My fingers and toes were completely numb, and it was hard to breathe through my balaclava. My eyes were the only part of me that wasn't covered, and the cold stung the skin around them. I just kept hiking. I've learned that, after an hour or so of hiking, my hands and feet warm up. I've also learned that, once my hands are warm, my attitude and mood improve tremendously.
It took awhile. Finally, around mid-morning, my feet and hands began to thaw at the same time. I winced at the familiar burning, aching sensation in my fingers and toes that signals the thawing. I don't know why it has to be so painful, but it is. In what first became a daily routine for me in the Smokies, I stopped, threw my hiking poles down, clutched my hands together, and groaned in pain for several minutes.
Did someone say I don't deal well with cold weather?
Not Yet was very nice."I know how painful that is," she sympathized. "Just keep hiking!"
"I just hope this is the last time today that they have to thaw out," I winced, and we hiked on.
But it only the first of several times that day. Whenever we stopped after that—especially if I had to take off my mittens for a few seconds—my fingers became painfully numb and had to thaw again. I just hiked on and tried to ignore the pain.
During our lunch break at Tray Mountain Shelter several days ago, my boots froze as I was wearing them. Today, they were already frozen. Everything else froze, though—my water, my zippers, my candy bars, even my pigtails! The condensation from my breath even froze the bottom part of my balaclava. At one point this afternoon, my water bottle, which I had re-filled only minutes before, leaked onto my rainpants and left a thick line of ice running down them. But on we hiked.
The day was beautiful. The perfectly clear sky was a deep blue, and the bright sun reflected on the snow, making everything glisten and shine like a lovely white sequined dress. It was so bright that I found myself wishing for sunglasses.
The trail itself looked pristine. It was covered in snowdrift—much of it one to three feet deep. Not Yet and I had planned to run the final 16 miles to Springer, but we had to settle for a slow trudge through the snow, which often came up to our knees and sometimes to our thighs. The up-and-down terrain, which would have been a workout in itself, was especially hard when it was under several feet of snow.
We stopped at the side trail to Hawk Mountain Shelter for lunch. It was about eight miles from Springer—a good spot for a break. We were too tired to walk to the shelter, so we sat on a snow-covered log for about 15 minutes—just long enough to wolf down a few granola bars, a Snickers, a few spoonfuls of peanut butter, and a Power Bar.
It's said that your whole life flashes before your eyes when you're about to die. Well, my whole thru-hike seemed to flash before my eyes as I walked the final eight miles to Springer. I fondly remembered June 20, 2000—the day I had summitted Katahdin. I thought of how much I enjoyed staying at Pine-Ellis B&B; in Andover, Maine. I thought of Isis and Jackrabbit, and how much their friendship enhanced my hike through the White Mountains.
I also thought of the magical day in Vermont when I met up with Swamp Eagle, Nimblewill Nomad, and Belcher. I thought about the Purcells in Falls Village, and of the kindness they had shown me. I smiled as I remembered the morning I woke up at Fingerboard Shelter in New York; Yossi, a section hiker offered to let me use his cell phone, so I was able call my mom from the AT to wish her a happy birthday!
I thought of how I'd survived the Pennsylvania rocks, and I remembered my happy, peaceful days of hiking through Virginia. I thought about the cold and snow in Tennessee, and how thankful I was for trail angels like Dave at MRO in Damascus and Bob and Pat at Kincora, who had helped me to get through difficult times on the trail.
I also thought of my deceased grandfather, Leo Baxley, whose presence I have felt so many times on my thru-hike. I first felt that he was with me in Maine as I climbed Katahdin. After that, I would often get an intense feeling that he was nearby, especially in the mountains. I could sense that he was walking these final miles with me, watching over me, making sure, as always, that I safely reached my destination.
I smiled a lot and cried a lot during those final miles. The hike wasn't quite the "victory lap" I'd imagined, since we were moving so slowly and I never did stop feeling miserably cold. But then again, nothing on this hike has turned out the way I imagined. And that's good.
We reached USFS 42, 0.9 miles from the summit, at approximately 2:45 this afternoon.
"Is this where everyone was supposed to meet us?" I asked.
"I think so," replied Not Yet.
The parking lot was deserted, save for a blue truck, covered in snow, that belonged to two section hikers we'd met the day before.
We found a note on the information board from Matt, who'd spent the previous night at Hawk Mountain Shelter. Reading it, we learned that USFS 42 was open but barely passable. As a result, the people we'd expected to see—Macon Tracks, my mom, my dad, my sister, and my friends Jim and Maggie—were nowhere to be seen. So Not Yet and I started up the final 0.9 miles to the summit.
Not Yet raced ahead, but I was so exhausted by the day's hike that it took every ounce of energy I had to keep moving. Finally, I could see the plaque that marks the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Not Yet was standing there with Matt. We all hugged, laughed, congratulated each other, and took pictures.
My Springer summit was similar to my Katahdin summit in that I was too tired to jump up and down, yell, and otherwise express my jubilation at reaching the big goal. We were happy but subdued. The last month of hiking had been tough, and we were all glad to end this long, arduous trek through the cold and snow.
It was a fitting way to end our thru-hikes. Not Yet and I had talked about how Mt. Katahdin is sort of an exclamation point for northbounders ending their thru-hikes, and how Springer is more like a period at the end of a sentence. We'd all had incredible journeys, we were tired, and now it was time to go home.
On the way back to the parking lot, we saw Macon Tracks. He'd been able to get Not Yet's car a mile up USFS 42, but no further. This meant that we would need to hike five additional miles to his car. We were all exhausted, and my legs and feet were numb with both fatigue and cold, but we had no choice other than to keep walking. So we kept walking.
After several hours, we finally arrived at Amicalola Falls Lodge, where my parents and sister had reservations. Macon Tracks, Not Yet, Matt, and I spilled out of Not Yet's tiny blue car and went into the lodge for a very happy reunion—Matt with his mom, and I with my mom, dad, and sister.
And so "normal life" began tonight. No more sleeping outside, no more hiking all day long, no more following white blazes. I'm too tired now to think about the significance of all that, or even how I feel about it. I'm planning to post one more update in which I write about those things.
But for now, it's time for bed. Six months ago today, I summitted Mt. Katahdin, and today I finished my 2,167.1-mile trek south on the Appalachian Trail. I'm tired, but it's a "good tired." And now it's time for me to get some rest.