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My Appalachian Trail –The Approach to Neel’s Gap

–Shakedown #4

The first 40 miles of the Appalachian Trail are notorious for convincing potential “thru-hikers” (people who set out to hike the entire 2,192-mile length at one time), that this isn’t for them.

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My Appalachian Trail – The “Shakedown” Video

Between 4k and 5k of them set out from Amicalola Falls, Georgia every Spring with the intention of walking all the way to Maine. Hundreds of them quit when they get to Mountain Crossings at Neel Gap, only 40 miles into the Trail.

They all have their reasons, whether it’s injury, bad weather, family emergency, finances, not what they were expecting, or just too difficult.  All of these reasons concern me so I thought it might be prudent to come tackle those first 40 miles now, so I can at least rule out a few of these concerns.

I’m not in bad shape for someone my age, but am I in mountain climbing/hiking shape? Can I deal with the weather? Am I prone to injury such as plantar fasciitis which is very common here?  Is it what I expected it would be?

Wednesday…

I drove 510 miles to get here this morning, climbed the dreaded 700+ step staircase with a 28 lb pack to get to the top of the Falls on the Approach Trail, and have hiked about 2 1/2 miles in. Exhausted, found a quiet spot off the trail (note: it’s always quiet until the sun goes down), set up camp, cooked my dinner, hung my food in a tree, and I am ready to sleep. But the sun doesn’t go down for another hour. I didn’t care, Newsome out.

Thursday…

I woke up to absolutely beautiful weather on Thursday morning. I’d had plans to go about nine miles that day but knowing that rain was predicted on Fri, Sat, and Sun, decided to take advantage of the good weather I was experiencing and hiked 12 miles that day. I camped alone at Hawk Mountain campsite. I’d only seen an occasional hiker going southbound, but all were “day hikers,” most just out with nothing more than a water source.

The only noise you hear in the evenings is usually rustling leaves and wind in the trees. Except when you wake up to what you assume to be a gang fight between Howler Monkeys and Velociraptors and you just know they’re fighting over who is going to get to eat you. Was probably nothing.

Friday…

It was foggy when I got started at 9 am and began raining about noon. I took my time, only going eight miles on Friday, the last four in the rain. I’d met up with three other northbound hikers whose destination was the same as mine (Neel’s Gap), but they were younger and moving much faster and intended to get there a day earlier than I. We all camped at Gooch Gap Shelter that evening with four other hikers, two guys from Alabama, and two women (retired nurses), but didn’t catch where they were from. The seven of them slept in the wooden shelter, I chose to get my money’s worth out of my tent. The day was largely uneventful.

Saturday…

The rain from Friday increased overnight and by morning it was evident that we were in for a blustery rainstorm. Never heard thunder, but the winds were unruly and constant at about 30-35 mph, with gusts of at least 50 mph. I know this for two reasons… I’ve lived in Florida for five decades and I’ve seen my share of hurricanes, and also because I’m friends with the world’s greatest meteorologist, Josh Linker (Bay News 9). Just knowing him is street cred enough. See the video for my best Lt Dan impersonation….

Shockingly, I kept running across day hikers just out for a stroll… in the rain… and the wind… like it was just another day at the park.

And although there were young folks (high school groups, UGA sororities, etc.), there were OLD people out there too! When I say “old,” I mean older than ME! Sometimes in couples, sometimes in groups of five or six – no backpack, no water, no trekking poles, barely a rain jacket, and climbing mountains like they were walking down the sidewalk! I kind of felt silly thinking I was braving the elements when they appeared to simply be out to buy a newspaper.

The rain and the wind never let up. It wasn’t like I’d typically see in Florida, where the worst part of a storm lasts about 20-30 minutes. This went on from very early Saturday morning until 3 am Sunday morning. It was so loud (like standing under a 727 jetliner) that I needed an earplug to get any sleep, and even that wasn’t enough (yes, I said “earplug,” as in singular – the other ear needs no help in that regard).

I had only planned about a seven or eight-mile hike that day but when I hit that mark, it was only 2 pm so I kept going. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I’d hiked straight through the lunch hour and never stopped to eat. I wasn’t hungry, just determined. I went 12.3 miles and finally reached Wood’s Hole Shelter, about a third of the way up Blood Mountain where I chose to stay in the shelter for the first and only time on this hike. I needed to get out of the elements! I shared the shelter with a very experienced southbound hiker (trail name: “Bearcord”).

Sunday…

When I got up Sunday morning, the storm had finally passed and the skies were blue. Bearcord and I went in opposite directions, and all I had left was to summit Blood Mountain, the highest mountain (4,442 ft) that the Appalachian Trail crosses in Georgia. I was at the top by 11 am and had a “second breakfast,” then descended into Neel’s Gap (at 3,100 feet) a few hours later. I finished the trail a half a day earlier than anticipated.

There is an outfitter’s store called “Mountain Crossings” at Neel’s Gap and they offer a “shakedown” of your gear for free. Essentially, you pull all your gear out and lay it on the floor and they go through and evaluate what you’re carrying and make suggestions on how to lighten your load or increase your efficiency. The two people who gave me a shakedown were both very young, but very experienced. The young girl (24) had just completed the entire AT a month ago, and the young man (25) had done the same last year.

They loved my gear selections and could only offer suggestions on food and clothing for me. We pack our fears, and I was obviously in fear of hunger and the cold. They identified 3.2 pounds of clothing that I could do without, and I wound up my planned four-day hike with a full day and a half’s worth of food I didn’t eat. Together, that would’ve lighted my load by about 5.5 lbs, which when hiking, is like carrying a few needless bricks on your back.

That afternoon, I hired a trail driver (Ron Brown) to shuttle me back to my car at Amicalola Falls. From there I drove to my sister’s in Atlanta to shower, eat a home-cooked meal, and SLEEP IN A BED!

  • Total Distance Traveled: 39.4 miles
  • Total Time on Trail: 94.5 hours (four days)
  • Total Ascent: 9,558 feet
  • Total Descent: 8,373 feet
  • Total Grade: 454.6 ft/mi

This hike really proved only one thing to me… I can hike this 40.

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Kevin Newsome
Kevin Newsomehttp://www.newsomesstudio.com/
KEVIN is a past president of three professional photography organizations, and earned the designation of Certified Master Photographer with the Professional Photographers of America. He is a published author, and an accomplished speaker/instructor at state and national professional photography conventions and schools throughout the US and Canada. Full-time professional photographers, Kaye and Kevin Newsome, are well known for providing high quality photography for Tampa’s families, children, high school seniors, executives, and providing corporate event and convention coverage throughout the US. Kaye earned an Associate of Science degree in photography from the Art Institute of Ft Lauderdale, and also serves as the Executive Director for the Florida Professional Photographers, Inc. She was the very first photographer in the state of Florida to be accepted into the National organization, Special Kids Photographers of America, certifying her talent and abilities in photographing children with special needs. Together, they photographed over 800 weddings before redirecting their documentary style and journalistic talents toward corporate events, award banquets, and conventions around the country. They earned enough trust and respect from their brides and grooms, that they quickly created a children and family portrait business. In time, that evolved into a very successful high school senior portrait business. The digital age brought a huge demand for their talents in the executive headshot business. And since the very beginning, they’ve met the demand for foreign passport photos (measured in millimeters) and copy and restoration of old photos. Over time, their talents were honed in each of these genres, and today, their studio is capable and qualified to provide photographic services in a host of areas for both the consumer and corporate markets.

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11 CONVERSATIONS

  1. Have been on various parts of the AT, but have never hiked it. A high school classmate of mine, a now retired high school guidance counselor, would always hike one section of it over a couple of weeks every summer. He recently reported to me that he thinks he is now too old (early 60’s) and that the AT is too tough. I am amazed that people can do the entire length in one attempt. The sections that I have seen are truly difficult and it’s hard for me to imagine the level of exhaustion that one has to deal with by trekking the entire 2,180 miles or whatever your number is for the entire distance from Georgia to Maine. I love the sense of adventure and perseverance required to complete an undertaking of this magnitude. Kudos to you and all who take this on, it has to be incomparable feeling of accomplishment, however far you go, to know that you can do it. Thanks for sharing your journey, loved all of the descriptions and your detailing it for those of us who will never take something like this on. I cannot comprehend how that first shower felt afterward, and how good the bed felt once you crawled in. The hike proved possibly more than you know, and next time, I suspect, you’ll pack more respect and a tad less fear.

    • “pack more respect and a tad less fear…” Well said, Tom.
      Being a total greenhorn to hiking, this entire journey has been an education. I’ve now had four “shakedown” hikes totaling 135 miles, 70 of which was on the AT. Each one has taught me something and each hike has lightened my pack. This hike was the absolute best because I no longer fear hiking in severe weather. I endured a 36 hour storm and walked 12 miles in it. After the first five or six miles, it was like riding a roller coaster for the fifth time, you’re ready to let go of the bar and enjoy the rush!

  2. Best line ever: “We pack our fears,” and I can tell you it’s true. I used to head up to Canada’s Quetico Provincial Park every summer after my teaching days ended for the year, and we undoubtedly carried more than necessary. But you never know, right? It’s not like you can run back to the car.

    Thoroughly enjoyed your piece. You’re not too old even if you only need one ear plug.

    • My other fear is lack of water, but the storm provided more than enough water sources to draw upon when H2o was getting low. I didn’t do it, but my shelter mate was filtering water directly from a mud puddle in front of our shelter. I opted to hold out to see a moving stream, but always filtered.

  3. Kevin, I give you a tremendous amount of credit for completing this course. You obviously have a strong will. Not to mention you appear to be in better shape than many of us. I can walk a good distance without having to stop or getting tired but I pale in comparison to you. The manner that you utilized for this article was wonderfully descriptive. May you continue to enjoy good health so as to do this as often as you please.

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