Travel Spotlight: Hiking the Appalachian Trail

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Day 1 – MOUNT Greylock (MA)

All journeys start with a preliminary event; mine began with a pandemic. Daily workouts commenced due to the lack of regular work and a desire to maintain a routine. A month later and 10 pounds lighter, an idea emerged with my newfound stamina. It was time to hike the Appalachian National Scenic Trail (AT) or at least partake in the highlights of the trail given the cards I was holding and the gas I had accumulated in the tank. I was not thinking about taking a trip to a particular mountain destination with a group of like-minded hikers. This would be a journey, a personal experience, between the destinations while hiking mountains in five states.

The entire AT crosses 14 states from Mount Katahdin in Maine to Springer Mountain in Georgia. I planned to drive a car between the parking lots of each trailhead in order to summit a couple of mountains per day. My six-day journey had only a definitive start and a tentative end. The exact hiking trails on and off the AT in the middle would just present themselves in due time. I have to believe M. Scott Peck would approve of this type of creative road less travelled.

After I dropped off my daughter at college and my wife at the airport in Rhode Island, I was exactly 1,138 miles from home. A direct drive back to Florida would take 19 hours. Alternatively, my high-altitude route would take almost a week while maintaining a safe social distance of course. The mountains were calling and the last time I checked, they were not very crowded. Mt. Greylock, the highest point in Massachusetts, was within striking distance on day one.

The bendy mountain roads that led to my initial destination seemed to go through the heartland of the North East. The properties were all kept up on this beautifully clean stretch of pavement. These are salt-of-the earth people I thought to myself. Reading every sign closely, I became more focused when entering Adams, Massachusetts, at the foothills of my first mountain. Founded originally by Quakers, the town was named after Samuel Adams, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. I thought it kind of ironic that the religious town’s namesake is also a popular brand of alcoholic beer.

I had to trust my online notes that described where Gould Road terminated at the trailhead next to a farm. There was no one around to confirm my research. It was a bit unnerving to be the only car in the gravel parking lot, but no time to waste, it was already 4 p.m. Mount Greylock needed to be conquered in the next three hours. The risk of being lost in the dark would be best mitigated with a fast-paced start. The mountain’s name is believed to be a tribute to a Native American Chief Gray Lock. Too bad he was not around to be my tour guide on this initial ascent. I looked diligently for a sign to indicate I was headed in the right direction.

About a quarter of a mile into the trail, I heard a sound from my childhood. It was a rumbling noise that seemed to echo from the top of the mountain through the ravines down to me. The legendary writer Washington Irving equated the sound of distant thunder in the Catskills to a game of ninepins played by elderly men. At this point in time, it only meant one thing to me, walk faster. About midway, I was thankful I brought my old rain poncho out of retirement. The loose-fitting garment fit over top of my body and small backpack. As the rain increased, I became acutely aware of each and every step. Simple stepping stones were now slick rocks and the dirt turned to slippery mud. The hike up would now be harder, but the hike down could be a disaster if I was not careful.

Being on a timetable of sorts, I discovered that my physical preparation paid off. The at-home cardio exercise program I developed in the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic consisted of jogging around the neighborhood loop followed by old fashioned circuit training in the garage. My daily workouts kept me from needing any rest breaks on this steady mountain climb.

All was going well until I got above the tree line. Most serious storms I have witnessed in recent times are from the safety of my house glancing through a window pane. Now I was in the middle of what seemed to be a hurricane-strength storm with high winds and stinging rain. The cyclone around me blew out my poncho which became a swinging dress that was only tethered around my neck. The snaps on the sides of the flimsy plastic raincoat would not stay fixed. I did all I could just to hold the poncho to my body as I scrambled towards the lonely Veterans War Memorial Tower on the summit. Surely, I could find some type of relief from the sideways, pelting rain. I walked around the unopened tower twice only to find a single patch of dry ground against the wall of the structure. All I could see through my wet eyeglasses was a panoramic sign about 10 feet away and a wall of grey in the distance. So much for that touted clear day view of 90 miles seeing five states from the 3,491-foot peak. Skip the scenic photo session; there was just enough time to snap a selfie to say I made it. My cell phone pictures would become my modern way of taking quick notes. I thought if I don’t make it back alive, someone could at least piece together that I made it to the summit and include that in my eulogy.

You forget how fast the temperature can change in the mountains. The word hypothermia came to mind as a chill ran through my body. A dry shirt I carried in my backpack could make a difference. My knees worked as a clamp to hold my wet garb as I made a quick shirt change. Somehow, I got my poncho back on despite the gusts of wind that penetrated my little refuge. Too bad I did not have a simple string to wrap around my waist to keep the poncho secure against my body. I should have learned that lesson from the first Rambo movie. Feeling dry now, the next task was to double-time it to the canopy of the tree line about 50 yards away. In the next 50 yards, my situation took a turn for the better. The sun was out, and a beautiful vista could be seen through a clearing. I took a few seconds to enjoy the moment and wondered if I should go back to the top. The unpredictable weather conditions were a reason not to attempt a second run at the peak. Besides, any extra time I had would be better spent being more cautious on the slippery slope of the return trek.

As the weather broke, more landmarks were noticeable on the way down. I saw a weathered stone with an engraving along the path. I could barely read the quote from John Ruskin which said, “Mountains seem to have been built for the human race, as at once their schools and cathedrals.” It seems this journey would be a learning experience.

Before long, I was back to the safety of the car and the warmth of dry clothes. Seeing no one on the trail, I felt a sense of freedom. There was time now to reflect on day one of my hiking adventure. My mind went right to the positive. This was definitely a sign. After surviving the worst possible summer conditions at high elevation, it could only get better. I had taken all that the mountain could throw at me and I was still smiling. The best of journeys always have a little adversity. The tone was set; the next five days would each be memorable in a different way.

Look for Part 2 in an upcoming edition of the Ponte Vedra Recorder.

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