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the boozy oracle of the lodge

It only takes a couple of bottles of wine and an Adirondack chair facing a Georgia mountain sunset to make some people think they’re an Appalachian Trailmaster, even if they’ve never stepped foot on the archetypical footpath. At least that was my experience when my two sons and I met up with a hiking buddy from Indiana at Amicalola to hike the AT approach trail to see how far as we could get towards the North Carolina border with our one-week work reprieve over the last week of March. The vine-ripened oracle was stationed on Amicalola State Park Lodge’s westward facing deck surrounded by hikers and other nature lovers. I don’t know now how we could have proceeded without her sage advice. She had evidently read everything from Myron Avery’s scrapbook to the latest hiker blogs on The Trek, and was freely sharing her vicarious knowledge with anyone who would listen. It made for lively conversation around the dinner table at the hotel buffet that evening before we all turned in for our last night on posh mattresses before hitting the stairs to the top of the falls the next morning.

I’d stationed my ten-year-old hikertrash beater at the trailhead down the road from Top of Georgia hostel, and my oldest son, Traveller (yes, it is supposed to have two L’s) met me and my youngest son whose previous hiking experience consisted of a jaunt from Mountain Home Cabbin near Front Royal, Virginia (yes, there are supposed to be two B’s) to the top of High Knob and back. He’s a gamer boy, and hiking has been, up to this point in his life, something sweaty and exhausting that weird people do in meatspace.

I was surprised when he said yes when I asked him if he’d like to come down to Georgia to hike with me, Traveller and Storyteller. We had several conversations in the weeks leading up to the trip as I pieced together his kit, an Osprey Exos 58 stuffed with a Tarptent Protrail, a Klymit Static V pad, some cobbled together cold weather layers, my cast-off Nike trail runners that I thought still had a little bit of life in them, new trekking poles, a new bright orange puffy, and three days of food. We shared my Caldera cone to rehydrate dinners. I said that at the least, he should try to get ten miles in per day, even on the relatively flat Manassas landscape, and he did go out and walk a few times, but it was hard for him to disconnect from the nocturnal friends of his Playstation universe. That is a tough cord to cut.

I had grandiose delusions that he’d find his personal beast mode during the week and lead us triumphantly to the top of Rocky Knob, but it was not to be. More about that in a later post. For now, let me just say that the glint in his eyes when he made it to the top of the falls and gazed back down upon what he had just accomplished contained more wisdom than the entirety of the boozy oracle’s gloamy gibberings had the prior evening. He had put one foot in front of the other, dug deep, and accomplished something beautiful: he had owned that climb. I saw something in him at that moment that squeezed my heart. Perhaps it was the beginning of a lifetime of love for these mountains that have called my name since I was about his age. He had the same dreamy, million-mile stare when we stood on the scenic overlooks and marveled at the ancient beauty of the hazy blue-green mountains geologists tell us were once the highest peaks on the planet.

The eightish mile climb from the stone archway to the top of Springer Mountain is a constant topic of debate on whiteblaze and other hiker forums. To hike or not to hike? Having climbed it now, I consider it part of the larger experience. Your mileage on that sentiment may vary, but I am now of the opinion that the starting point of the AT should be at the stone arch.

Traveller and I had been joking that when we got back to my car at the end of this section hike, the gamer boy was going to ask for my carbon fiber poles, the contents of my wallet, another three days worth of food, and say “will you pick me up in Maine?” The truth is, I would have given them up, hugged him, and stuffed his food bag with the choicest dehydrated delicacies that Top of Georgia hostel had on the shelf. Hell, there was the chance that I may have joined him. I think the thought of a thru-hike crossed his mind a few times over the next couple of days, but more for the love of the company than of nature. When you’re nineteen, your heart is full of many things that meld together into a potluck stew of emotion, intellect, and hormones.

“I was wondering where all the good looking girls were hiding,” he said to us after his second night experiencing shelter life in the bubble. Imagine his surprise when he discovered that the AT has smart, funny, strong women from all over the world who can hold their own in a world of physical deprivation and surreal natural beauty that demands every day whatever you can muster, and then rewards you times ten. I can’t say that he will sell his online gamer life for trail runners and nut butter tortillas at this point, but I think these mountains have moved into his soul.

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