A few weeks ago, I posted on Instagram that I wanted to hike the Pacific Crest Trail one day in the future; I had just read Wild and was inspired to challenge myself in a similar way. Christy, a friend I had made on a cruise four years ago, messaged me and asked if I wanted to try a smaller backpacking trip with her first. I agreed, and that’s how I found myself backpacking the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina last week.
This is a trip that I was initially excited for, until I realized how far out of my comfort zone it would take me. Anxiety had recently crept its way back into my life, and I had been dealing with some personal issues; suddenly, this trip was adding to my stress. But, deep down, I knew that there was no better cure than a trip into the woods and a good break from social media and life in general.
“The trails are a reminder of our insignificance. We come and go, but nature is forever. It puts us in our place, underscoring that we are not lords of the universe but components of it.”
Still, as much as I knew I needed it, I had no idea what I was in for. Before this adventure, the hardest experience I had endured was climbing New York’s Mount Marcy in the winter. However, completing a fifty-five mile hike on the Appalachian Trail over five days officially replaced that as my most difficult adventure. This hike tested my limits in so many ways, which is why I am even more proud of myself for powering through.
After a breakfast of eggs and grits at Waffle House, we drove to The Nantahala Outdoor Center, which is where we’d be leaving Christy’s car and starting our journey. There, we made our last bathroom breaks, finished our Starbucks coffee, and I picked up a small notebook for the trip. Then, we left civilized life behind and headed out on the trail.
I’ll admit, I don’t think I was properly prepared for what was ahead of me, physically or emotionally. I hadn’t stepped on a trail since September’s failed attempt to summit Mount Mansfield, unless you count the Spartan Race, which I don’t, and the weekend before the trip, I was at a bachelorette party down the shore, which only added to my exhaustion. As far as my mental state was concerned, I was dealing with some anxiety in my life, but also about what lay ahead on the trail. I had never camped out in the woods at some remote location, and I had no idea what it would entail.
About forty-five minutes in, I was struggling, not used to the pack on my back while climbing uphill. We reached our first outlook, and I was motivated by the views, but at that moment, I just didn’t see how I was going to make it the full five days.
Eventually, we got to our first water source, a small stream, and I learned how to use a leaf to get the water into my water bottle with ease. This is just one of the many things I never imagined myself doing, but it was the most ideal way to gather water. Then, we added our iodine tablets and had a small snack to help us power through the rest of the day.
But, after only 6.7 miles from where we started, we decided to call it quits when we reached the Wesser Bald Fire Tower. We didn’t get nearly as far as we wanted to, but the views were great and we found the perfect little area to set up camp. Still, we were behind on our mileage and if we wanted to get out of the woods in the five days we had planned, I was going to have to step it up on the following day.
We set up the tent, made a dinner of macaroni and cheese and tuna, and settled into our home for the night. It was the perfect spot, and we had a few good outlooks to enjoy, although we were both too scared to make it to the top of the fire tower.
After hanging up our bear bag, we got into the tent as it was getting dark. We talked and laughed for a while until we both tried to fall asleep, although it wasn’t easy with the noises around us. I was convinced there was a bear wandering around our campsite all night, though it was most likely just my imagination.
It rained most of our first night, so we woke up with a wet tent to put away. Christy ran to get us water from the source we had been at the day before, while I attempted to make breakfast. It was here, that I realized how much I disliked being alone in the woods.
I attempted to make our oatmeal, but couldn’t figure out the stove, and between that moment and the previous day, I was beginning to feel like quite the failure at braving the outdoors. Still, I tried to remind myself that I was brave for putting myself in this situation and going after what I wanted even though I was afraid of it. Christy came back, and we realized that my stove didn’t work because it was broken, then we used her’s and made ourselves some breakfast before getting out on the trail.
While, day two was relatively uneventful, it was easier than the previous day. I knew that this was something I wanted to do, and I pushed myself further into the woods. My confidence slowly began to grow.
Even though our goal was to complete at least twelve miles on this day, nature got in our way. While we had avoided much rain during the day, except for some drizzling here and there, after we were ten miles into our hike, the heavens opened up and drowned us in rain. We put on our coats and attempted to go forward, eventually stopping to wait it out, but it refused to stop.
We were soaking wet, so we decided to backtrack a bit and head to the nearby shelter. There, we were able to dry off and wait out the rain from there, but there was no end in sight. Instead, we got ourselves together to spend the night at the shelter. I was excited for this new place to sleep, figuring it was all part of the experience. I wasn’t looking forward to sleeping somewhat exposed, but I was glad to have a privy nearby and a roof over my head.
Eventually, three more people joined us that evening, and it was nice to have company. We enjoyed our dinners, Christy and I had chili mac with beef, which was exactly what we needed to warm us up after getting soaked. The rain died down, and we were able to change into dry clothes, gather water from a nearby source, hang our bear bags with a little help from one of our new friends, and settle in for the night with some tea.
It just felt good to have done better on the trail that evening and to take off my boots and backpack to relax. But, our new friends also gave me something else to fear: mice. Apparently, the shelters on the trail are infested with mice looking for some food to eat, and they come out as soon as the sun goes down. This was a challenge I was not looking forward to.
We settled into bed in the shelter and prepared for what lay ahead. I put in some ear plugs and covered by eyes with the buff I had been using as a headband. But, when dusk came, so did the mice, and our new friend decided to shine his flashlight on them to give me a better look. I buried myself further into my sleeping bag and tried my best to fall asleep.
Aside from the initial mice issues, I slept pretty well and didn’t hear them for the remainder of the night. Christy and I gathered our belongings, got our bear bag, clean water, had a breakfast of bacon and cheese mashed potatoes, and got ready to hit the trail. I was tired, but we had saved dessert for night three, which somehow motivated me right at the start of the day.
From our shelter at Wayah Bald, the beginning of our hike was mostly downhill, and we made good time. Our first stop was the Wayah Bald lookout tower, and aside from all of the flies, we were lucky to have blue skies and some views initially. But, by the time we climbed up the tower, they were covered by clouds.
After a little geography and history lesson in the tower and nearby board, we continued on our way, meeting a box turtle on our path. We also came across our first garbage bin of the trek, and it was nice to unload two days of garbage. Then, we continued on through some pretty intense brush for a while, until we made our way downhill to a road.
We crossed over the road, something we did quite often that was a bit strange to me, and continued on. For the most part on day three, I was the most positive I had been the whole trip. But, by the time we got to Siler Bald, my positive spirits were shattered. It was the hottest day on the trail, and I was struggling each step of the way that afternoon. The trip to Siler Bald was about a mile out of our way and even through we met hikers who told us the view was worth it, all I could think about was a snack.
But, up Christy trekked through the field of wildflowers, and I followed unwillingly, hoping the view would be worth it. Bees buzzed, butterflies danced, and I cursed each step of the way. But, even before I got to the top, I could see how worth it it was.
The sweeping mountain views were unlike anything we had seen on the trail, and after days of feeling trapped in the forest with no real outlooks, this was exactly what I needed. So, I continued to climb, encouraged by Christy’s cheers from above. Finally I made it, and from 5,216 feet, it really was worth the sweat and struggle to make it to the top.
Happily, I took out my snack, took a seat, and enjoyed the views. After a bit, we continued down on towards Winding Staircase motivated by the waterfall that lay ahead of us. On the trail, the sights were beginning to look the same, so anything new was welcome, especially when it involved water.
The waterfall didn’t disappoint, but after a quick picture, we continued hiking. After 12.8 miles that day, we found ourselves a perfect little camping spot near Carter’s Gap. It was a little ways off the trail, but we made it our home very quickly. Excitedly, we made our dinner of fettuccini alfredo with chicken and raspberry crumble for dessert, then we hung our bear bag (a task I discovered I was good at), and settled in for the night.
Again, the sounds of the forest after dark continued to stress me out, but knowing we only had one more night in the woods was comforting enough to help me sleep.
After surviving another night in camp, we packed up early and headed out for a long day of hiking. We knew we’d have to make up some mileage this day, and even though my hips were beginning to hurt from my backpack, I felt the best I had so far; I think my body was getting used to being on the trail.
We filled up on water as soon as we found a source and then headed to a nearby shelter to use the privy. Here, we wound up resting for a bit and writing in the shelter’s notebook.
The day was clear and warm, and the trail seemed more familiar under my feet. We stopped again around noon for a snack by a creek, where we also decided to wash out our pots from that morning’s breakfast.
This was among many of the activities I did on the trail that I had previously never imagined myself doing. But, there was something about it I liked. Then, we continued to hike and enjoy the nice weather that day.
By 2:00pm, we reached our climb to Albert Mountain; it was a steep climb, but the view on top was worth it. There was another fire tower there, but we both were satisfied with the view we had without heading up to the top.
Settling down with our snacks, we enjoyed the view and relaxed before heading back on the trail. The hike down was a rocky one, made much harder with the packs on our backs. It wasn’t a long stretch, but it was probably my least favorite part of the trail.
The rest trail was pretty much the same as what we had previously encountered. However, we planned on stopping at a spring that was on our map to make camp for the night, but we never came across it. Exhausted, we kept walking until we came upon a shelter and campground. It was later than any other night we had hiked and with 14.1 miles under our belt, we were done for the day.
Even though there was a shelter, after night two and the mice, I knew I wanted to set up camp instead. We found a spot down a bit from the shelter, set up our tent, and went through our nightly routine of improvised bathing and changing into dry clothes. Then, we made our last camp meal of spaghetti and meatballs.
We were just about ready to dig in when in the distance we could hear rainfall, we looked at each other and all of a sudden, it began to downpour on us. Grateful that dinner was done, we headed inside the tent to enjoy it as the rain drenched everything else we had left outside.
Thinking the rain would eventually let up, we waited and waited, until finally realizing that wasn’t going to happen. A large puddle began forming under the tent, and it began leaking from the sides, we knew we were going to have to go outside and face the issue, but we weren’t looking forward to it.
Once outside, we grabbed our jackets, scrambled to put away our belongings, and hung up the bear bag as the rain poured down on us. Soaking wet, we stripped off our jackets, and got back into the tent after cleaning off our filthy feet. Miserable, cold, and wet, we hopped into our sleeping bags and listened to the rain beat down outside. We were grateful it was our last night out there, and the fear of the tent leaking overshadowed the fear of animals lurking outside.
When we woke up, we were grateful to see the sun shining through the trees. Most of our belongings were soaked, but it was our last day and there was excitement in the air. We made ourselves coffee and our last breakfast of biscuits and gravy, which we purposely saved for our last morning.
We took down camp and went down to refill our water one last time. There, we met a few other people who had stayed at the shelter that night. They were all heading north and on their second day on the trail; I was glad we were heading home.
The first three miles passed by quickly, but for some reason, the next few were more difficult. When we finally reached Standing Indian Mountain, I was overjoyed. From the beginning, I knew we would be ending around this location, and there were so many times along our trip that I didn’t think I would ever see it.
There’s supposed to be a great view from here, but we went up toward the camp sites and didn’t see anything. There was another trail we could have tried, but the two of us were too tired to look around for it. So, we focused on getting off the mountain. Because we had pushed ourselves so hard on day four, we were excited to hike a bit less on our final day. Unfortunately, it didn’t exactly work out that way.
Our original plan for a ride fell through, and we arrived at Deep Gap excited to be done, but only briefly. No one was around and the road was pretty much in the middle of nowhere, so we had to walk the additional four miles to Standing Indian Campground. Suddenly, my excitement was drained, and I was dreading an additional trek that would take our total milage to fifteen on our last day.
Here, we switched to the Kimsey Creek Trail, which wound up being my least favorite of the entire trip. There was a rushing creek along with us and plenty of obstacles along the way. It was beautiful, but at this point, I couldn’t wait to get off the trail. I knew a shower, bed, beer, and good meal were ahead of me, so I kept pushing through.
Our last obstacle of the day was an overflowing creek with no way across, but we could see tents and campers in the distance, so we ran through laughing. Full of excitement of finally arriving, we must have been quite the sight to those we encountered, mostly older couples and young families with the comfort of their camper vans. It was strange to be back into society so quickly.
Continuing on, we made our way to the campground’s general store and were able to figure out a ride back to The Nantahala Outdoor Center. We arrived by 5:30pm and got into Christy’s car just as the rain poured down on us again. Then, we headed for a hotel in nearby Bryson City, took a much needed shower, and headed into town to Nantahala Brewing Company for beers, I had one appropriately named Dirty Girl, and strombolis from Anthony’s, which was next door.
We headed to bed early, thankful for simple comforts after five days of being confined to a sleeping bag. While it was nice to be back in society, it also felt very strange. That feeling continued during the rest of my time in North Carolina, and even now, a week after I getting off the trail, I am missing the moments I spent in the woods, even the hard parts.
“Sometimes you find yourself in the middle of nowhere, and sometimes in the middle of nowhere, you find yourself.”
Who I am now is not the same person who stepped into those woods, I’m stronger, more confident, and even a bit more brave. I can hardly believe some of what I did and how I persevered through some of my hardest moments, many of which were just in my mind. The trail and being outdoors has made me believe that I truly can do anything I put my mind to, no matter how challenging it is.