Sitting here at my computer, more than two years after I started my adventure, I think to myself, “What was I thinking?” I move slightly sideways to grab my coffee and feel the creaking joints accommodating me reluctantly. This realization of my physical deterioration makes me smile. I think back to March 2014.
I was at the top of Springer Mountain, in Georgia, a 61-year-old man who really should know better. I had left my wife Diane at the bottom of the Approach Trail about four hours before. Yes, an adventure that carries the hiker more than 2,000 miles feels the need to give him or her a seven mile uphill slog to think about it before attempting the real thing.
I was overweight—clinically obese is the more accurate, though devastatingly unpleasant term—at 245lbs, I had never hiked in my life, and I had never spent a single night in a tent. My brother viewed this ludicrous prospect in the same light as somebody taking up boxing and challenging Mike Tyson for his first fight.
My spanking new kit had all been purchased with absolutely no idea what or why I was buying it. I knew that I needed a tent, some sleeping gear and a few extra clothes. Yet I was prepared for nothing that happened in the following months. Had I any idea of what I was going to face, I may well have quit right there. Nothing, simply nothing, can prepare you for a stint of such feral living. While you can buy stuff that seems to be important, and read accounts of the hikes of others, it is only by standing at the top of that mountain and putting one foot in front of the other that you start to learn just what it is that is both propelling you forward and what you are leaving behind. My intention was never to reveal myself to myself, though that is exactly what happened.
The “putting one foot in front of the other” is something of an understatement, by the way. The 2185.3 mile length of the Appalachian Trail was estimated to take about 5,000,000 steps. Unfortunately for me, the number one step out of those 5,000,000 nearly brought the whole thing to an untimely end. I’d taken a few selfies by the Southern Terminus plaque, signed the register to announce my lofty intention, then turned to start my journey. I only had about 300 yards to get to the Springer Mountain Shelter to spend my first night.
I looked around, braced myself, then walked straight into an overhanging branch that hit me like a baseball bat to my temple. I was instantly stunned, though my second thought, once I realized that I wasn’t going to die, was that I looked like a complete idiot. With 4,999,999 steps to go, I hadn’t got the whole enterprise underway in exactly the manner I would have liked. Once I’d recovered my composure, I started to move more easily. Unfortunately, I then compounded the first error by missing the entrance to the shelter, blowing past it for about a quarter of a mile before I worked out that I’d screwed up again.
That night, as I settled down to sleep, I had dark thoughts that two mistakes in the first 400 yards didn’t augur well for the upcoming 2,000 miles. In that assessment, I was not entirely incorrect.