I had a hard time snapping a selfie because I was crying with joy. I was on the Appalachian Trail, standing next to a sign nailed to a walnut tree on the border of Georgia and North Carolina. My 78-mile northbound walk—section by section, from Springer Mountain to that tree—had taken six months. I began as a scared and inexperienced hiker; I ended as a confident solo backpacker. I’ve since hiked and backpacked 200 more AT miles—as far north as Massachusetts—but the Georgia AT remains my first love, the place of my fondest memories and biggest lessons.
This love affair did not begin well. Though I had never backpacked and was far from athletic, I was an occasional hiker. I decided during lockdown—fueled by desperation and social-distancing directives—that I was going to hike the entire AT, the world’s longest hiking-only footpath. I figured I’d start with my home state of Georgia.
My first foray was with a public defender from Illinois named Stephanie, whom I’d met on a Facebook group for AT hikers. I didn’t realize until later she’s a marathon runner. I was so panicked about being in the woods alone, even for a moment, that I foolishly tried to keep up with her. The low point of what was supposed to be a two-night backpack from Springer Mountain to Neels Gap (31 miles) was me lying in the fetal position on the climb up Sassafras Mountain, sobbing, my hiking companion out of sight. We were 11 miles in. I shouted for her help, and we agreed to bail at mile 12. There’s a reason hikers say Sassafras will kick your ass. More than 3,000 feet, it’s the first major uphill climb of the Georgia AT.
What I learned from our state’s portion of the trail, which passes through five federally designated wilderness areas, is you’re never alone. Whatever you’re going through, someone else has gone through it, too.
I was convinced Stephanie would never talk to me again. Instead, she told me my exhaustion and fear reminded her of her first trek. Since then, she and I have hiked the AT together in Tennessee and North Carolina. Our friendship sparked my realization that the folks I’ve shared the trail with are a community, where hikers look out for fellow hikers—like the Florida dads and sons who shared water with me after I forgot my filter on a trek to Blue Mountain. A nurse from Baton Rouge taught me to slow my pace down when I’m winded instead of stopping altogether. Nimrod, who runs a hostel in Suches, taught me how to lighten my daypack. (I’d brought too many changes of clothes and too many snacks.) I’m sure jerks hike the Georgia AT, but I haven’t met one yet.
The AT has its own culture, tradition, and seasonal rhythms. Section hikers and thru-hikers—the folks who start at Springer Mountain and hike more than 2,100 miles to Mount Katahdin in Maine—have trail names. You can choose your own whenever you like, but it’s more fun when another hiker names you. I earned mine, Quill, last August, after I returned to finish that aborted first backpack with an overnight at Lance Creek restoration area. I shared a campfire with other backpackers; in the morning, we gave one another trail names.
Michelle Cofer (aka Beck), who owns and operates a shuttle service, personifies the AT’s vibe. She not only drove me to various trailheads—I’d park my car at the section’s end and she’d take me to the start—but she also served as an ad hoc backpacking coach during our rides in her Jeep. Before dropping me off on my first trip, she repacked my backpack. Once, when I thought I could endure an October night on the trail with just a sleeping bag liner, she loaned me a quilt.
Michelle offered to hike that last leg into North Carolina with me, to help me celebrate the end of my Georgia AT journey. But she told me when she picked me up before dawn that she couldn’t come after all: Her daughter had a Christmas concert. When I reached the sign nailed to that tree at the state line on that late December day, I was alone. But I could feel the presence of Michelle and dozens of others who had helped me make it there.
This article appears in our April 2023 issue.