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And So It Begins… Thru-Hiking The Appalachian Trail


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After something like three years of talking about it and months spent making plans, my good friend and hiking companion, Wayne Garland, has finally set out on his attempted thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.


In October, at the age of 70, Wayne retired from a long and distinguished career as a Paramedic, providing emergency medical services here in Oconee County, South Carolina. One of Wayne's stated goals for his retirement, was to do a lot of traveling. I think that it's safe to say that he's accomplished that goal already. In the months since his retirement, he's already traveled to the Netherlands, Germany, Luxembourg, and Guam. In January, he also traveled to Vietnam and Cambodia. As a veteran of the Vietnam War, that trip had represented the first time that he had been back to either country since the end of the war more than 40 years ago.

Wherever his travels have taken him, Wayne has made it a point to hike some of the local trails. While in Europe, one of the notable hikes that he did was to the top of the Feldberg in Germany's Black Forest region. At 4,898 feet, the Feldberg is the highest mountain in both the Black Forest and in all of Germany outside of the Alps. According to Wayne, though, the hardest hiking that he’s ever done anywhere was along the grassy trails of Guam's southern mountains, to the summit of Mt Schroeder. In addition to the terrain, which was very steep and rugged, the hiking was made more difficult by an abundance of razor-sharp Sword grass. The Sword grass is so sharp that wearing long pants, long sleeves, and gloves is a must. In places, it was more than eight feet tall and so dense that he couldn't see the trail or even the other people that he was hiking with.


Another of Wayne's goals for retirement is to thru-hike the entirety of the Appalachian Trail, from it’s southern terminus in Georgia, to it's northern end atop of Mount Katahdin in Maine, nearly 2,200 miles away. To Prepare, Wayne has been hiking or backpacking with every available moment. In 2016, although he was still working 72 hours per week, he hiked more than 1,400 miles for the year and averaged nearly 120 miles per month. Unfortunately, an Achilles injury and tendinitis sidelined Wayne for the first half of last year. Now that he's fully recovered and with the end of winter approaching, Wayne is ready to set out on his next adventure.


Two of Wayne's close friends and fellow hikers are Pam Hembree, and Jan Haney. On Tuesday, March 6th, Pam, Jan, and I, drove with Wayne from our homes in Upstate South Carolina, towards Dawsonville, Georgia and Amicalola Falls State Park. Our intentions were to accompany him as he hiked the Approach Trail that runs between the State Park and the official start of the A.T. at the summit of Springer Mountain. First however, we had to drive along Forest Service Road 42 to a gravel parking area about a mile north of the summit and leave our vehicle, then wait for the shuttle that would take us the rest of the way to Amicalola. Our shuttle driver's name was Ron. Ron is a super nice guy and is very knowledgeable, having previously served as a Park Ranger for more than eight years. Through no fault of his own, Ron was running a couple of hours behind schedule. By the time that he had picked us up, it was already about a quarter after four. We needed to be at the Park Office before 5 pm so that Wayne could register and receive his 2018 A.T. Leave No Trace hang tag. It was close, but Ron got us there with a couple of minutes to spare. Wayne was the last one to register on this particular day and is number 719 to register overall.



Next, we stopped at the famous stone archway behind the park office and had Wayne pose while we all took pictures. The oft-photographed landmark marks the beginning of the approximately 8.8 mile long Approach Trail. For today, though, we would only hike the one mile from the arch up to the Lodge at Amicalola, where we had planned to spend the night. Along the way, we climbed 604 steps, gained about 800 feet in elevation, and got up close and personal with the park’s namesake waterfall. Amicalola Falls plunge a total of 729 feet from the top down to it's base and are the tallest in the southeast.




At the lodge, we watched a beautiful sunset from the balcony, ate dinner at the Maple Restaurant, then went to our rooms. There, we took care of some last minute details before trying to get in a few hours of sleep. The moon was still high in the sky early Wednesday morning when we woke. After showering, then eating a quick breakfast, we set out on the Approach Trail. The morning air was cold, with the temperature ranging somewhere between 26 and 30 degrees. The wind blew hard on us the whole day, gusting to close to twenty miles per hour. Although it was a blustery day, within minutes of beginning to hike, we had warmed up considerably. Except for our hands and faces, it wasn't bad at all.




While not terribly difficult, the Approach Trail is certainly no pushover either. I've been told that if you can do the Approach Trail, then you can do the whole trail. I'm not so sure about that. I think that may be at least a bit of an overstatement. It will, however, definitely make you think twice about lugging a heavy backpack up and down mountain after mountain, mile after mile, day after day, for five or six months. Heck, it gave me second thoughts, and I’m not even the one doing the thru-hike.



Early in our hike, the trail had climbed steeply, then leveled as it passed through an area where there were lots of Hollies growing. Some of the Hollies were just beginning to bloom. Later, we passed through Nimblewill Gap and by a memorial there to the people that had died in a small plane crash near that site in 1968. With about a mile-and-a-half to go, we reached Black Gap Shelter, where we stopped to eat our lunches. At the shelter, we met a fellow who's trail name is Silver Bullet. At least that had been his name. That is, until a former army medic told him that “Silver Bullet” was military slang for a shiny rectal thermometer. Now his trail name is Silver, just Silver!



From the shelter, the trail climbs another 600 feet by the time that it finally reaches the top of Springer. At the summit, there is a register and two plaques. One plaque was provided by the US Forest Service and is fastened to a boulder. The other plaque was placed there by the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club in 1934 and is attached directly to the rock-face. Also at the summit is the first official white blaze. It's been estimated that there are 165,000 white blazes along the Appalachian Trail. If that's true, then Wayne only has another 164,999 more to go.



After spending a few minutes taking pictures, we hiked a mile from Springer, down to where we had left our vehicle the day before. There we said our goodbyes to Wayne, prayed for his safekeeping, and watched as he headed up the trail alone. We wondered what he must be thinking and how he was feeling. Wayne is mentally tough and has a lot of good old fashioned grit, so unless something unforeseen or beyond his control happens, I'm confident that he'll do well.


Happy trails, my friend!

Update: at the time of writing (03/21/18), Wayne has been on the trail for fifteen days and has hiked 173 miles, including the Approach Trail. He's at Fontana Dam and about to enter the Smokies. He's been given the trail name Defib, a reference to his background as a paramedic. He's had to contend with a broken tent pole, a lost down vest, strong winds, snow, and temperatures that have dipped down into the teens. Even so, he's still plugging away.

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5 hours ago, Rick1971 said:

I love this story, I will keep following, please keep posting

Thanks. I haven't heard from Wayne for a couple of days. When I do,  I'll definitely post an update. 

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Update: Per Pam, after hiking in snow (knee deep in places) for the last three days, Wayne and several others are in Gatlinburg today to dry off and get warm. Looks like Wednesday will be the earliest that they'll be coming out of the Smokies at Davenport Gap.

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Thanks for the story. I also have a friend on the AT and I'm following his nightly InReach messages. Looking forward to when I'm the one on a long trail sending messages home.

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1 hour ago, toejam said:

Thanks for the story. I also have a friend on the AT and I'm following his nightly InReach messages. Looking forward to when I'm the one on a long trail sending messages home.

I wonder if Wayne and your friend have met on the trail. Did they start anywhere near the same time? 

I'm looking forward to when I get a chance to do a long distance hike, also.

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1 hour ago, Scout said:

I wonder if Wayne and your friend have met on the trail. Did they start anywhere near the same time?

My friend is kinda nuts - he did 480 miles through New Mexico in the beginning of the month and started north from Springer Mtn Sunday. Trying to do both the AT & CDT this year. Thinks he can average over 20 miles a day on the AT.

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2 hours ago, toejam said:

he did 480 miles through New Mexico in the beginning of the month and started north from Springer Mtn Sunday. Trying to do both the AT & CDT this year

Wow! I wish him well. That would be some accomplishment. In February of 2016, Wayne, Pam, and Ron (another of our hiking companions) did the approach trail as a day hike. They met Jeff (Legend) Garmire just as he was setting out on his attempt to do all three long trails in the same calender year. 252 days and 7,636 miles later, he successfully finished. Wish I could have been there for that one.


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Update 03/30/18: Today, Pam, Jan and I drove to Hot Springs, NC. We hiked south on the AT until we ran into Wayne, then turned around and hiked back to town. In town, we ate dinner with Wayne and some of his friends from the trail. He's going to take a zero tomorrow, then get back on the trail Sunday morning. In all, he's hiked more than 280 miles already, including the approach trail.

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  • 2 weeks later...

been watching a series that Homemade Wunderlust made on her thru-hike of the PCT and AT

like it alot

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