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Then The Hail Came

Last updated 10/4/96


I woke up to the sound of freight trains. Frosty Mountain

One after another, they came bellowing up from the distant mountain range to the west, circled the woods around my tent, and churned off toward the eastern horizon. My tent was pitched in a small, grassy clearing on the summit of Frosty Mountain in the Blue Ridge Mountains of northern Georgia. The freight trains turned out to be the wind rattling through the treetops -- raging furiously across a valley, swirling around the mountain, roaring across the next valley. I lay awake for hours, listening to that lonesome, mystical sound, alone on that isolated hilltop. The end of the world. The middle of nowhere.

The middle of nowhere was where I found myself in the spring of 1983. I was a habitual loser with a lifelong history of quitting every important thing I ever tried to do, just when it became difficult. I was in the worst shape of my life: thirty pounds overweight and a two-pack-a-day smoker. I was working the graveyard shift -- hell, I was the graveyard shift -- at a gas station off of Interstate 95 in New Haven, Connecticut, earning just above minimum wage.

In the deep, dark depression which followed my flash of self-discovery, I determined I must somehow make a change. With the wild, improbable thought that perhaps a loser and a quitter could remake himself into a fighter, could he only succeed at the hardest thing he ever tried, I quit my job in late April of 1983, and headed south to make my soul's last stand. I would attempt to backpack the Appalachian Trail from its beginning at Springer Mountain in northern Georgia to its end at Baxter Peak, the summit of Mount Katahdin, in north-central Maine. To accomplish this feat, I would have to walk 2138 miles in about five months over most of the major mountain ranges in the Appalachian chain.

I spent two hectic weeks collecting the necessities: a lightweight tent, rain gear, and numerous smaller articles, all of which made a big dent in my finances. Fortunately, I already owned a good sleeping bag and backpack. The preparations were completed with a week to spare. Before I left Connecticut, a strange reaction set in; I fell into a moderate depression, with vague forebodings of doom. I was averse to talk about the upcoming adventure. This dismal mood evaporated when I left for Georgia.

At 4:20 p.m. on the afternoon of May 2, 1983 -- a very warm day for early May -- I was at the Visitor's Center in Amicalola Falls State Park in north-central Georgia. I strapped on my heavy backpack and started wheezing my way up the first steep mile of the Amicalola Falls feeder trail. The summit of Springer Mountain, where I would pick up the Appalachian Trail at its southern terminus, was 8.7 miles ahead. I had done no physical preparation for the hike; I was going to whip myself into shape right on the trail. The greatest challenge of my life had begun.

My first hike covered 4.8 miles in three hours -- nothing spectacular, but not too pitiful. I pitched my tent on the summit of Frosty Mountain next to a large concrete slab in the middle of a clearing. That slab and three others just like it were the remnants of a U.S. Forest Service fire tower which once stood there. I ate my dinner: Lipton soup thickened with Minute Rice and freeze-dried beef -- a main dish I would have at almost every dinner for the next five months. I sat on the slab as I ate, gazing up at the soft, starry sky. Warm breezes ruffled the walls of my nearby tent. A white-tailed deer paused briefly at the edge of the woods to gawk at me before crashing through the brush, fleeing down the side of the mountain.

I felt confident and contented that night. I could whip myself into shape in no time. I had brought less than half a pack of cigarettes with me, and more than one hundred miles of trail stretched out between me and the first store. I would lose weight, quit smoking, and learn to drive myself over every obstacle thrown into my way. I was going to spend my summer drifting northward over the mountains, across the rivers, and through the small towns of America. Springer Mountain was 3.9 miles away. My official thru-hike would begin the next day, but the adventure began that night.

I remember hearing freight trains . . .

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©1996 George Steffanos


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