A Walk in the Woods, the 1998 book by Bill Bryson, was a best seller that went on to become a movie starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte in 2015. I didn't see the movie, but did read the book, which I loved. Based on my romantic notion that hiking the AT would be a great adventure, at least a segment or section hike, my wife and I decided to do it following my retirement in 2002.
We started the project in the only way we knew how, and that was to read books on the subject. I still have them and there are twenty-three of them as I look up to that particular bookshelf, including Bryson's book that started it all. To be honest, at least half the books actually are detailed maps of various sections of the trail as well as instructions on preparing/cooking trail food, or "gorp," as the word was used. One title looks ominous: "Don't Die on the Mountain." Wow. That one surely must have been a picker-upper. All in all, I probably read at most ten or fifteen percent, but felt that the project was exciting. My wife always was very fit and she bought into the dream as well.
We put our money where our mouth was, literally, the day we went to the local REI store in Austin. The sales person must have felt he or she had died and gone to Heaven when I blurted out our lofty goal and asked for help getting ready, since we had not a stitch of trail gear. Two or three hours later, and with a $3,500 hit on our credit card, we left the store and filled up the entire back storage area of our Chevy Suburban. Back home, unloading the car, we spread out the haul on our living room floor. The gear that we both would carry included a pack (over 7 pounds), a sleeping bag (three-plus pounds), a camp chair (1.5 pounds), an air mattress (1 pound), and additional clothes (nearly 3 pounds). In addition, I would lug our water for the day (6 pounds), a "bear pack" and food in dry packs (8.5 pounds), and our tent (6 pounds). In addition, my pack included several high-tech water purifying filters. There was a long list of "little and other" items, all of which we seemed to need. The overall sum of all this stuff added up to 52 pounds for me and at least 35 pounds for Diana. Oh yes, did I mention the one-pound notebook to capture the joys of it all?
No doubt, we were ready! Even if we hadn't spent a single night outdoors in thirty years, and back then that was with a 1970-era VW camper with very young children in the White Mountains of Arizona. But just look at those two packs, the tent, the sleeping bags, the very cool heating units ("white" gas) and metal plates/pans/utensils, etc. We might not have much experience, but we sure as heck were well equipped! The stuff weighed about 100 pounds all together, not including packing materials, etc. It felt pretty hefty. But when we loaded our packs and tried it all on for size by strutting around our living room twice, we sure did look good in the mirror!
Were we headed immediately to the AT? Of course not. We knew that we needed to try everything out, and get some outdoor experience. We were not total rank amateurs! So we set a "get ready" plan to drive an hour and a half to a Texas state park and camp out one night in the tent. Really rough it. Yeah! That trip involved the Enchanted Rock State Park, which is 75 miles or so from here and includes a natural granite outcropping that rises a hundred feet or so above the central Texas hill country.
The weather was hot. We parked the suburban and slipped on our packs, which as I recall, were plenty full and heavy, especially with the food and water to enable us to survive for twelve whole hours. But it felt good to walk along the trails and feel envy from the "regular tourist types" who were were out for a day trip. We walked past all the usual "easy" stuff and found the camping area, which was nearly completely deserted. So we had the pick of most places to set up our tent and outside cooking area with two camp chairs. So far, so good. We felt like real campers now, fixed something for supper, settled into the tent and hit the sack early, probably nine p.m.
As I remember it, we both were asleep when it sounded like we were being invaded! There were tens of voices, young voices, and I got up and looked outside to see a tent being set up only ten feet or so from our previously deserted area. It was only one of many. The "invasion" was a boy scout troop from the Houston area, and the group had left there late and had gotten to the State Park around midnight. They were excited and tired and making a lot of noise, but all seemed safe, so we went back to sleep and woke up before the boys in the daylight of early morning.
We walked the complete trail loop around the rock outcropping, including hiking to the top, and then doubled back to the campsite and fixed a "going away" victory lunch. All this went well, and so we felt confident in declaring a victory. This camping stuff is easy! The trip back to the car was uneventful, but seemed bit long at about a mile with our packs. They were getting heavy, but no problem. This camping-out stuff seems like it's not a big deal at all. Yeah!
Now that we were proven outdoor peeps, we finalized out plans to "do the AT." I studied the section maps and gorp preparation instructions again, and decided that it would be really cool to start the trail at the southern end, on Springer Mountain and if all went right, hike to the North Carolina border. That would knock off the north Georgia section, and would be a great way to start. One especially informative and valuable little (everything seemed little and light at that time) booklet was called The Appalachian Trail Thru-Hikers' Companion, and I had the latest, the 2002 version. It was a gift from Diana's brother and sister and their spouses. That booklet has so much great information! The total mileage from Springer Mountain, at the exact start of the AT, to the Plumorchard Gap shelter, was 71.1 miles. North Carolina was nearby, and Bly Gap, where we could be picked up, was "only" another three or four miles. That seemed at the time to be reasonable. If we could do ten miles a day, that would be a week, more or less, and who couldn't do a week? Especially with all the wonderful REI gear.
There was one little problem, and that was that the trail head, on Springer Mountain was not close to any road. It was 8.8 miles from where we would actually start walking, at the Amicalola Falls State Park Visitor Center! So we would have to add nearly nine miles to those distances up to North Carolina. Perhaps that would be a bit too much. But maybe not. After all, we had all that cool new REI gear.