Morning. Western North Carolina. I followed a two-foot wide path through the woods. One end of the path leads to Maine. The other end leads to Georgia.
The Appalachian Trail is where human hamstrings go to die. You are looking at the world’s longest hiking footpath, period. The trail traverses 14 states and carries hikers through elevation gains/losses equal to climbing Mount Everest 16 times.
And I am hopelessly out of shape. Like a walking advertisement for Hostess.
Still. At least I’m not lost. It’s pretty hard to get lost on this trail. You just look for the trees painted with a white mark, and you keep following them, uphill, until you have a heart attack and die. There are approximately 165,000 marked trees throughout the entire trail.
I began my hike in the wilds of North Carolina, somewhere near the French Broad River. The River was my constant companion. It stayed with me. Like an old friend.
The French Broad is the second oldest river in America. Five times older than the mighty Colorado. Seven times older than Old Man Mississippi. Granddaddy of all rivers. Older than the North American continent itself.
Today, the river was the color of chocolate milk, charged by the recent rains. And it was loud, too. Deafeningly loud. Frothy. The currents roared in the distance like the drone of static.
As I hiked forward, ascending Hot Springs Mountain on my pale, shaky chicken thighs, I paused at an overlook to stare at the river, miles below me.
I was hungry. So I ate a chicken salad sandwich. Then I kept walking. That’s basically all you do on this trail. You walk.
But it was a good day for walking. A pristine day, with an ultramarine sky.
The underside of the forest’s leafy canopy was neon green in the sunlight. At times it felt like I was stuck inside the world’s largest green Chinese lantern. The color green was everywhere. All shades. All hues. All values. From the luminous greens of lichens. To the dark, rotting greens of a dead Mountain Dew bottle.
And the smells. Oh, Lord. The smells. Do you remember those old Herbal Essence Shampoo TV commercials? In the commercial, a lady shampoos her hair and is so overcome by botanical scents she starts moaning carnal, joyous noises no Baptist has ever made.
Then, as if the commercial couldn’t get any more immodest, Doctor Ruth comes on camera and suggestively says, “If you think that’s great, try the body wash!”
So that’s what it smelled like. It smelled like the forest was on the phone with Doctor Ruth. It smelled like I was intruding on a private moment between trees and flowers and shrubs.
There was the smell of damp moss, pine resin, decaying vegetation, rotting wood, wet rocks, moist soil, acrid bark and the overwhelming stink of the guy hiking ahead of me.
Up ahead on the trail, I met a man who was maybe mid-60s. He carried a thick backpack, and hiked with a long, knobby shillelagh. I could smell his briar pipe radiating through the trees from six miles away. He was seated upon a rock, smoking.
His hair was white. He wore a Creedence Clearwater Revival T-shirt. He wore a Dodgers ball cap, but hey, nobody is perfect.
“Morning,” he said to me.
Below us was the noisy French Broad, shouting its loud anthem.
I sat down and unzipped my backpack. I wiped the film of sweat from my face and tried to catch my breath. I removed a bottle of water from the backpack and found that I was too winded to drink. I had to wait until my heart slowed down or else I would have ralphed all over.
We sat in stillness for a full 15 minutes while a few thousand birds sang above us. Nobody said anything. He smoked. I ate. The river ran.
Finally, the old guy stood. He tapped his pipe against his thigh and left a black, sooty mark on his cargo shorts. He hoisted his pack onto his shoulders. He grasped his walking stick in his veiny hand. He took one final look at the show-stopping vista and let out a long sigh.
In a thick rural accent, he spoke. “If the Appalachian “Trall” don’t make you believe in God, nothing will,” he said.
And that is why I misspelled the title of this column.
Kristi - July 15, 2022 6:40 am
What a great story! My friend, Tami, just started the AT in Maine a couple days ago. She will be on the trail 5 months. When she completes it, she’ll have the Triple Crown (completing the thru hike of PCT, CDT and AT)! I am impressed by you hitting the trail, out of shape, even for a brief period!
Dennis Perry - July 15, 2022 6:54 am
My son, The Ridge Rambler aka Clayton Perry, thru hiked the trail in 2015. It took him five months and 2189 miles. He started in Georgia on February 23rd and finished on July 12th in Maine. He took a year off to work two jobs and earn his trail hiking money between his graduation from Georgia Tech and started Medical School at The Medical College of Georgia in Augusta, GA in August 2015.
Ed (Bear) - July 15, 2022 9:31 am
Until now, I hadn’t pictured you as much of an Appalachian Trall guy. But you kept in character brilliantly!
Nice column! Thanks for bringing back my “Trall” hiking memories!
Karen Goss - July 15, 2022 11:10 am
In Hot Springs, NC we adore our hikers, everyone out there, you were no exception, Sean! Glad you came to “our neck of the woods”. Big shout-out to all those AT thru hikers-past, present and future-mad respect for you! Happy Hiking-The Iron Horse Station, Hot Springs, NC
Timmy Burnette - July 15, 2022 11:23 am
Sean! You are in my stomping ground. Enjoy! I live just a few miles from where you were hiking. I read your blog every day. You want food recommendations holla back!
Linda Lewis - July 15, 2022 12:28 pm
This is so beautifully written. Your descriptions are majestic. I was born and raised in the Appalachians of West Virginia. This article brought me home, by God. Thank you for such a wonderful article.
Suzanne - July 15, 2022 4:33 pm
Spot on Linda. I’ve never hiked the trail but the description made me feel like I had.
David - July 15, 2022 12:41 pm
What Ed said
David - July 15, 2022 12:44 pm
(correctio… except I haven’t been reading your blogs long enough ti know whether you’re a “trail guy”) 😀
ELIZABETH M GARDINER - July 15, 2022 12:58 pm
As a walker/hiker in North Georgia, I love being outside in Nature. Sounds like an amazing hike you experienced. Hope your road trip is perfect.
Patricia Gibson - July 15, 2022 2:38 pm
Elizabeth G - July 15, 2022 5:17 pm
You are tooooo much! Hope that chicken salad sandwich gave you enough stamina to trod on to the waterfall vista…
Land Grimes - July 15, 2022 5:28 pm
So proud some people really feel the magic of all God has created. Exceions are the ” ones who throw trash in our beautiful National Parks” .Shame on you for not taking your trash with you. Thanks Sean for another great trip with you. Loved it!
Kathleen Palmer - July 15, 2022 5:30 pm
I love your description of being inside a Chinese green lantern. When a friend and I visited Asheville in 1997, the green was almost overwhelming! I set foot on the Trall in the Great Smokies, but have never hiked it. At this point in my life, I am mostly an armchair traveler and very much enjoy your writing.
DiAn - July 15, 2022 6:58 pm
Thank you, Sean. By the way, spallng is aviur radted. – diOhnne
Katie - July 15, 2022 7:06 pm
Sean, If you read this comment, this column reminded me of a great book by Bill Bryson – A Walk in the Woods. If you haven’t read it, you should. You would enjoy it. Thanks for a great column.
Ruth - July 16, 2022 3:35 am
It is a delightful book and made me laugh so much. Actually a delightful writer just like Sean.
Julie Hall - July 15, 2022 7:21 pm
Thank you Sean. This was a beautiful piece.
Shirley - July 15, 2022 7:35 pm
Makes you want to get out there soon
Suellen - July 15, 2022 7:52 pm
You got me! I kept looking at Appalachian and couldn’t figure out how it was spelled wrong. Sometimes my brain plays tricks on me.
MAM - July 15, 2022 7:58 pm
Like Suellen, you got me, too, Sean. I kept looking at Appalachian and it was spelled correctly. But Trall looked too much like Trail to my old eyes. I loved your viewable, almost smellable descriptions. Thanks, Sean!
Charla Lynn - July 15, 2022 9:23 pm
Great read! How far are you planing to hike?
Linda Moon - July 15, 2022 9:33 pm
I believe in God and you and another gingerhead young man who’s hiked the trail he loves–the A.T. And he loves God, too!
Lori - July 15, 2022 10:32 pm
…. and here I thought I was the only person still using the term “ralphing”. I’m proud to be one of your Seanies. But just for the record, the Smoky Mountains will make even a hardened atheist involuntarily recite the Our Father.
sjhl7 - July 16, 2022 1:25 am
Perfect! I could see, feel, touch and smell the glorious experiences you brought right to me as I sat at my computer. Thank you, Sean.
David Britnell - July 16, 2022 1:59 am
You are the best Sean!
Christine Swain - July 16, 2022 2:25 am
The Herbal Essence! Who can forget that scent!
Steve McCaleb - July 16, 2022 2:27 am
Don’t know if you saw it recently but The state of Alabama recently made a formal request to be included as part of the Appalachian Trail. We have long known in Alabama that the “Appies” commence in our fair state. Starting with Ford’s Mountain in rural Fayette County and going up thru Red Mountain, Ruffner Mountain, Chandler Mountain, Sand Mountain and Lookout Mountain we got the beginning peaks of the Appy Trail or the caboose depending on which direction you goin. Apparently nobody would take us seriously because of unfounded rumors of cousin-marrying,, revenooer shooting, groundhog and Polk Salet eating, and people who claim the first moon landing was filmed in Open Sore, Nevada. ( It was actually shot in Taos, New Mexico in Dennis Hopper’s back yard. True story bout the request.
Slimpicker - July 16, 2022 3:03 am
The Pcific Crest National Scenic Trail is 2,653 miles long, but it only goes through three western states.
Iron Horse - July 16, 2022 12:49 pm
You truly encapsulated the magic of our town, Sean! Hot Springs, NC is such a gem. The history, the locals, the beauty and definitely the guests make it a place that will suck you right in! I really don’t think anyone visits just once. Please come back anytime, we LOVED hosting you. Like so many others, you walked in as a guest, but left as a cherished friend! Karen & Gary/ Iron Horse Station 🙂
Laura - July 16, 2022 5:09 pm
Ummmm … misspelled? I’m a pretty good speller, so what am I missing?
Sandy Burnett - July 19, 2022 8:51 pm
Funny how we read what we expect to see! Nice work.
Norm Makoujy - July 24, 2022 3:52 pm
A wonderful observation
CHARALEEN WRIGHT - August 2, 2022 1:46 am