You know, I never did take a zero day in a shelter on-trail. I guess there’s no time like the present?
Hurricane in the Forecast
I left Neel’s Gap on November 10 with the intension of hiking about 15 miles. The next day, November 11, I planned on hiking 13 miles. For my final day, November 12, I planned on 3 miles to the summit and then about 8 miles down the approach trail, for a total of 11 miles.
After averaging between 20-25 miles in recent weeks, this plan was expected to be a nice, easy, relaxing finish to the trail.
But we all know that plans are made to be changed.
Cue Hurricane Nicole.
Growing up on the Atlantic Coast in Canada, I’m familiar with the impact of hurricanes. Hurricane Juan struck my hometown when I was 5 years old and I still remember it clearly. Besides the wind and rain, knocking trees down, and other damage, I remember a lot of fear. Adults were scared. Which made me scared. Until I found a washed up basketball in the ditch in my front yard, score!
This year, I watched the news of Hurricane Fiona causing damage back home, and experienced Hurricane Ian on-trail from an AT shelter. That’s why when the news of another hurricane was in the forecast, I decided to change my hiking plans.
Gratitude for Trail Legs
With the luxury of trail legs, I decided to hike 23.3 miles instead of 15 miles on November 10.
The day passed by so quickly. I was in my element. I got the trail name, Ducky, for a pair of bright yellow rubber rain pants that I wore in the 100-mile wilderness. However, the name is also suiting because I love hiking in the rain.
I put my rain jacket’s hood up, put in both headphones, and cranked Lord Huron’s album Strange Tails, followed by a playlist of all my favourite songs.
It didn’t end up raining very much, but a heavy mist covered me with tiny droplets for the whole day. The weather kept me cool. The music kept my spirits high. Perfection.
At Hawk Mountain Shelter, I settled in for the night after chatting with a few section hikers, Boomer, Legs, and Rocket, who were on Day 1 of their AT section hike journey. Best of luck to them!
A Rest Day
Did I really need a rest day this close to the end? Absolutely not. I’ve been lucky to avoid major injury for the whole trail and was feeling totally great. In fact, I didn’t even mind the idea of hiking in the tropical storm. However, with a pre-set plan to finish on the 12th, I held tight and hung out at the shelter until 3:30pm.
I left then with No Kiddin’ and Gravy for a whooping 5 miles to the Stover Creek Shelter. Rhododendrons, one of my favourite trail plants, lined the creeks and waterfalls in the area. For just a 5-mile hike, it was a particularly lovely section of the trail.
Towards the end of the milage, I noticed that I was walking at a slight incline and realized that I was hiking up Springer Mountain. The final mountain of the Appalachian Trail. Thankfully, I didn’t have to confront those emotions quite yet, since I was stopping at the shelter for the night.
My brain raced through a series of “lasts” as I ate my last supper on trail, blew up my inflatable mattress for the last time…
Lying down to try to sleep before my summit day, I thought about how surreal everything felt. I didn’t feel anxious or nervous like I did before starting at Mount Katahdin, but I did have butterflies in my stomach and a sense that something big was about to happen. I felt restless and it took me a while to fall asleep, lying in the shelter, listening to the nighttime sounds of the Appalachian Trail for one last time.
I Finish Hiking the Appalachian Trail
I woke up the next morning on November 12 before my alarm. I opened my eyes and glanced around, noticing a dull red light on the other side of the shelter. Through my blurry vision, I deduced that No Kiddin’ seemed to be handling a mouse that was trying to get into his things.
Snuggling deeper into my Enlightened Equipment quilt, and pulling my Cocoon silk liner up to my cheeks, I closed my eyes, and breathed in the cool morning air. I didn’t fall back asleep, but I relished in the simple enjoyment of the morning.
Eventually, the three of us all started to become restless, turning on our inflatable mattresses, groping for eyeglasses, and turning our headlamps on.
Usually, No Kiddin’, Gravy, and I will immediately launch into a morning conversation, but on summit day, we were all silent for a while. We quietly went about our independent morning routines. It was as if no one wanted to speak about what was happening later that morning, for a sheer lack of words. After diving into my morning oatmeal, we did eventually started chatting, pretending there was nothing abnormal about the morning.
3 Miles to Go
Leaving the shelter, I hit play on the tramily’s playlist. It felt appropriate.
With my headlamp turned to maximum brightness, I started navigating the trail that I had become to know so well. Over the rocks, roots, and up the mountain I went.
The first 2 miles flew by. I didn’t look at my watch once. After hopping over a couple of small stream crossings, my headlamp began to reflect on car lights. But, all the lights were off. I approached the parking lot located about 1 mile from the summit of Springer Mountain.
With the first 2 miles having gone by so quickly, I willed the last mile of a 2194.3 mile journey to go slowly. But, I also knew, from photos, what the summit of Springer Mountain looked like. So, at every rocky outcrop along the way, I felt my heart rate quicken, wondering if that was the end, if that was the summit.
Eventually, I noticed a view, with clouds engulfing the base of mountains, making it look like an ocean with icebergs emerging from its depths. It’s one of my favourite types of views on the trail, when you’re above the clouds and can’t see the ground below.
That’s when I noticed the plaque and the last white blaze of the Appalachian Trail.
The last white blaze.
Of the Appalachian Trail.
I was speechless at the sight of it. I snapped a blurry picture from the light of my headlamp. I looked out to the East and saw the colours of the sun rising. Bright pinks and reds and oranges. I love a great sunrise.
I’m still speechless when I think about the emotions surrounding finishing the Appalachian Trail. It is hard to explain the emotions. There’s so much happiness surrounding the pride in finishing the trail. There is sadness that the journey has come to a close. There is fear for the future, excitement for the future. There is love for trail culture, but excitement to wear jeans again. Overwhelm. All of this mingles together into some emotion that I firmly believe has no English word for it at all.
I do, however, have words for the many people along the way who have made hiking the Appalachian Trail possible. From kind people who have picked me up on the side of the road to drive me to town to my parents and sister cheering me on from home, it would be impossible to name all of the people involved. The trail angels, hostel owners, citizens of trail towns, trail committee volunteers, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, other hikers on the trail, friends and family of other hikers on the trail, The Trek for allowing me to blog this experience, post offices for holding my goody boxes, donors to the ATC…there are just so many people to thank.
And I thank you all. 100 times. And more. Keep doing what you are doing. It means the world to the hikers. It means the world to me.