I always get nostalgic this time of year for a hike to Springer Mountain on the Appalachian Trail (or on the A.T. as it is more affectionately called). It was 17 years ago this April that I left Amicalola Falls State Park near Dahlonega, Georgia and began a 2000+ mile thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail. Since then, the A.T. has had countless hours of volunteer work to maintain, upgrade, and re-route the footpath which has added nearly 30 miles to the route since 1994 (the year of my hike). Thru-hikers leveraging the power of the Internet are also much better prepared than in the early 90’s. Back then, eager backpackers arrived at the summit with flare guns, axes, and multiple cans of Dinky Moore beef stew. Regardless, when the weather warms up and the flowers start to bloom here in the South, my mind wanders to North Georgia where the latest crop of thru-hikers are inevitably taking their first steps on the Appalachian Trail.
It’s been a few years since I camped at Springer Mountain during the peak of thru-hiker season which runs from March through mid-April. The last time I stayed here was in March 2007, when I took a friend to Nimblewill Gap and camped with him for the first night of his thru-hike. Both of us were excited about his journey and it was a chance for me to revist that time when I saw my first white-blaze nearly twenty years ago. On that trip in 1994, I hiked with two other thru-hikers up the entire Approach Trail and was thrilled to be at the summit after an eight hour ascent. But things were different this time with plenty of sunlightfor Matt and I to set-up camp and enjoy a celebratory beverage from an outcrop on Springer Mountain as the sun dropped below the horizon. The campsite caretaker was even kind enough to leave us a firelog with a note encouraging us to enjoy our first evening on the trail. As the log died in the evening fire, the stars were out in force and Matt was off to a great start on the A.T.
The next morning, I bid Matt farewell and good luck on his thru-hike. He headed north, and I headed south with my dog close behind. As Rebel (my yellow lab) and I hiked back down to Nimblewill Gap , he walked with a slowed pace – which was uncharacteristic for Rebel on the trail. It was the first sign that his hiking days were numbered, and within a year he was officially retired from the sport. I eventually lost Rebel for good last November – only a few days before Thanksgiving. So perhaps the nostalgia for Springer Mountain is a longing for one of those final hikes with Rebel. In the end – I suppose it doesn’t really matter. What’s important is that Springer Mountain is a special place to many people and for many reasons – whether you’re an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, a day hiker out for the afternoon, or a solo backpacker on one of those final hikes with your dog.