It is 607 stairs from the base of Amicalola Falls to the top, and as I stood there at the bottom looking up at the climb to come I was keenly aware of the tug of my pack against my shoulders. It’d been years since I’d walked under any significant weight.
The date was Tuesday September 2nd and I knew the movie theatre back home would be holding a five-dollar special. People there and all over the country would be flocking in for the release of A Walk in the Woods, the Robert Redford, Nick Nolty adaptation of Bill Bryson’s famous book. Some people, I knew, had gone out and bought the book in order to read it before they saw the movie. We, I thought with nervous excitement, would be living it. For the next few weeks a friend and I would be retracing the first segment of Bryson’s walk, sleeping in the same campsites, and dining in the same outposts, and it all started here at Amicalola.
Now technically speaking Bryson and Katz began their hike from the top of Amicalola Falls, the last bit of paved road you see before wandering up into the Georgia mountains on your way to the summit of Springer, which itself marks the actual southern end of the Appalachian Trail. It’s a very good thing they did, because if they hadn’t A Walk in the Woods may never have been written, or at the very least may have ended up being a much-loved short story about a waterfall, and Katz’ heart attack. The climb is hell. I’m writing this from a motel room in Hiawassee, with more than a week and much of Georgia behind me, and for my money those stairs are the hardest bit we’ve done yet.
That’s not to say that the rest of Georgia’s easy; It includes several formidable climbs including Blood Mountain — at 4,458 feet, the tallest mountain on the trail in Georgia — and a thigh-torching ascent up an unassuming looking hill called Kelly Knob. But those stairs at Amicalola beat them all.
This is partly because, well, there are 607 stairs — who in this day and age has ever walked 607 stairs to see anything? — and partly because, since they are at the very beginning of the trail, you are inevitably carrying too much weight.
“I call these first few miles the REI trail,” a man named Survival Dave told us on the ride from Atlanta to Amicalola, “people ditch all kinds of gear in the woods, trying to cut weight.”
We’d weighed our packs at the Amicalola visitor center, and felt quite gratified to see that they were just forty pounds or so. Weight is a big deal among backpackers, and it’s understood that the lighter your pack is, the more seasoned and trail tested you are. To pack everything you need to stay alive on your back — clothes, food, water, everything — and have it all weigh less than a large bag of dog food seemed quite macho.
But in truth, you don’t understand the meaning of the word need until you begin to climb those stairs. From the moment, the moment, we started walking I began an ever expanding list of shit I was carrying but didn’t need; knife-sharpener, spare knife, a pair of jeans, a guitar, several books, and much more than I’d like to admit in writing, all of it dead weight in the face of the mountains.
This proved to be a popular conversation topic with hikers we met over the next few days, many of whom were amused by the things I’d felt compelled to lug through these hills. Luckily I wasn’t the only one who’d made bad decisions on gear; Wasn’t the worst one either.
“I met one kid out here last year,” a man named Smokes had told us one night in camp, “couldn’t have been more than a hundred pounds soaking wet. He was carrying — I shit you not — ninety pounds worth of stuff. He had thirty days worth of food on him!”
Thirty days worth of food is quite excessive, since you can easily re-supply every 3-5 days in towns and outposts along the AT.
“He was carrying a bow and arrows!” Smokes said, “He was lucky to make five miles a day.”
This of course is the principle lesson that the trail teaches, and the reason, I think, that people flock to it year after year. It forces you — through steep, rocky ascents, jarring descents, wind, rain, snow, heat, and an ungodly number of stairs — to strip away everything that’s not really important to your survival. Day by day, mile by mile, you cast off the superfluous stuff of modern life until soon even your name is gone.
Smokes, for example, was not the man’s real name but a nickname given to him by fellow hikers at some point in his travels. These “trail names” as they’re known are a time-honored tradition among long distance hikers, and getting one is a right of passage. As is optimistically carrying too much stuff out into the hills, and later dumping it — with equal optimism — into the first post office box (or trash can) you can find.
It’s through this stripped-down lifestyle, and the constant meditative work of strenuous walking, that the people out here hope to gain something that the modern world, for all its gadgets and gizmos, can’t offer them: clarity.
I can’t tell you if it works at all; Not yet. But I can tell you that these days, with only a week on the trail so far, my pack weight is down to about twenty-five pounds. My guitar is gone. I carry just one book. I do have a trail name, in case you’re wondering. But that is a story for a different time. For now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a couple more things I need to mail home.