Your first day on the trail is always, well, pretty weird. Weird in the sense that you go from being a (somewhat) normal member of society to essentially a vagabond. One with a bit of money in the bank, sure, but a homeless, wandering, stinking-thing nonetheless.
I didn't prepare for the trail very well. I had done the first 300 miles of the trail in the Fall of 2012, and decided that was all the preparation I needed so I just threw my backpack in my trunk, stopped at Walmart for some trail food, and drove to Atlanta. The next day, April 1, 2014, I was hungover and walking towards Springer Mountain with one of my best friends, one who would leave me on that mountain as I faced a 2,185.3 mile walk through Appalachia.
On April 1, there are a lot of people on Springer Mountain. I actually had to wait in line to take my picture on the Southern Terminus' iconic rock-plaque. Once I had that done, I set off to take just over a million steps over the next four and a half months.
You're quickly reminded of why backpacking sucks. "The greatest thing you'll ever do in your life, interspersed with long periods of backpacking," as they say fondly. Your forehead breaks a light sweat, heart rate elevates, you feel good -- you're reminded of how you feel when you've just begun a run, excited to be moving, breathing, pumping. You think about that time you read Appalachian Trials and try to focus on your reasons for hiking the trail.
You stop at a stream and use your water filter for the first time. Another hiker comes upon you and decides to join, and he seems much sweatier, breathier than you. "Ah, yeah, I started at Amicalola Falls, it's another eight miles down trail past Springer."
"Why would you add eight miles to a 2,000 mile walk?" You think. You don't say anything.
"Name's Beefsteak. You got a trail name yet?"
"Uh, no, Evans. Nice to meet you... Beef, steak."
He happily throws his backpack on and takes a swig of unfiltered water, "Happy trails buddy!" You finish filtering your water, which takes another five minutes, because Giardia would really, really suck. Especially on your first day.
"I wonder how far I've gone?" You look at your watch. "Wait, what? It's only been thirty minutes? That's like, at least a mile right? Only seven more to go!"
On day one, if you start at Springer, it's only eight miles to the first shelter. The number of people who decide they're going to quit before reaching that shelter is astounding. What's even more astounding is being reminded of just how out of shape you are, and how bad your feet can hurt after only a few hours of walking. Adding a thirty pound backpack to your weight really throws your body for a loop.
That night you sit around the fire at Hawk Mountain Shelter with 35 other thru-hiker-hopefuls scattered: setting up tents late, already asleep, smoking pot, swigging whiskey.
"I wonder if 'YOLO' is just 'Carpe Diem' for dumb people." Mike from Massachusetts says as we sit in a late night fire circle. Everyone cracks up. He started the trail with three buddies. You're alone. "When will I get a trail name? When will I meet people?"
"Two thousand. One hundred. Eighty five. Point three miles." You think as you lay awake in your tent that night. "That's a lot of miles. One day at a time. You got this." You tell yourself. But do you really got this? Was this a good idea? Will you really "find yourself" or "come closer to nature?" Two thousand. One hundred. Eighty five. Point three miles. Minus eight.
You wake up the next morning and hurt in places you didn't know you could hurt. You try and stretch but the lactic acid has decided it will make a nice cozy home in your quads for the next few days no matter what. You decide that the sun rays shining through the trees, the cool April mountain air, the lack of an alarm or a job, and the daunting task of walking two-thousand-one-hundred-eighty-five-point-three-miles-minus-eight is, at the least, quite admirable in its attempt, beautiful in its theory. You decide you'll keep walking another few miles, today at least. You'll have this moment numerous other times throughout your journey but there's only one first day, one first morning, one first realization of the task at hand. Maybe this is how the guys who built the Twin Towers felt on their first day.
Today, you'll walk to the next shelter. Hopefully tomorrow your body and your mind will encourage you to do it again.