It's dark when the alarm goes off. It is cool, quiet, and calm in the bedroom. I swing my feet over the side of the bed and touch the floor.
I sip cold black coffee from a plastic cup as I drive the now-familiar route north. The sky is cloudy and it seems as though the world is taking a little longer to wake up this morning. On The Road Again rumbles over the stereo speakers and I drum on the steering wheel.
As the road gets curvier and my ears pop, I feel antsy to begin. The mountain tops that seemed so far off in the distance are now close and steep. A canopy of trees line the road as I navigate the switchbacks up, up, up.
I drive slowly down the road leading to the parking lot. It is dense with tree cover and seems almost dark on this cloudy morning.
A few minutes of fumbling with my pack and shoes and I'm off. The first mile is a familiar climb and I hike hard and fast on the incline to the 3-way intersection. A pair of couples are stopped on the rock stairs halfway up and we greet each other with good mornings. The oldest man is wearing a dark green floppy hat and says something about my speed that makes the others laugh. I cannot discern exactly what it is, but I smile back nonetheless as I continue on.
I make a right onto the Appalachian Trail and take the short, downhill path down to Neels. The rustic building on the north side of the road is nothing to write about except when shelter and civilization suddenly become a beacon in the wilderness. I trot under the covered walkway and make the easy early climb up to the highest peak of the day.
My legs feel fresh, my stomach is cooperating, and the cloudy day makes the air temperature tolerable for a late July morning in Georgia. I can discern peaks through the trees on either side of me. The views from the sections are breathtaking. Green covers the ground, the trees, and everything in between. I see a bear approximately 50 feet from the trail scamper off into the woods as we come into sight of each other. My heart races wildly, but my actions are strangely calm. I continue on with a slight uptick in speed, but without calling attention to myself.
As I come down the peak, I head the distinctive noise of metal tapping. It sounds as though a camper is hammering in tent stakes. Within a few minutes, I cross paths with a day-hiker who had been tapping his trekking poles to scare off bears. We converse for a brief moment and he takes a moment to show me a photo of a snake on his phone. He warns me that he saw it about a quarter mile from where we were standing. I warn him about the bear I saw about a mile back.
The next section features a series of lookouts at various peaks and I take out my phone for a few pictures. The day is still considerably cloudy and I feel good about my water supply. The trail is rocky in the climbing sections, but easy moving on the flats.
I crest the last peak before Tesnatee Gap and careen down trail without realizing the full brunt of its' steepness. At the Gap, a mother and son are sitting on the side of trail awaiting a ride. I stop to eat a couple Oreos and wander around looking for the white blazes. I ask the mother and son if they know where the trail continues and the point around the corner just at the top of the curve in the road. They are just finished overnight camping and warn me that the next section is incredibly steep.
I shuffle off onto the trail and soon find every muscle burning as I climb. It is step, rocky, and full of tight switchbacks. I am drenched in sweat and my lungs are working to provide every ounce of oxygen I need to keep going. My pace has slowed to over 20:00 minute miles and I feel like my heart is beating hard enough to pop out of my chest.
Fortunately, the peak is reach within a mile. My breathing returns to normal. But the sun begins to peak out from behind the clouds and filters through the trees. There are a few open sections and I feel the heat slowly rising. As I reach Hogpen Gap, I discover I have just 2 miles to go before I turnaround.
I pass two men a few years older than me who walkie talkie to a group of adolescent boys that a runner is a approaching. 5-6 boys split themselves on either side of the trail and I thank them for stepping aside to let me pass. Another short climb up and another short ride down leads me to mile 10. I make a few extra steps and then start right back up. I plan to change out my water bottles at the top, but the hikers are congregated there and I continue along until I am without of earshot of them.
I pull out my water bottles to transfer and fumble a bit with the caps. As I start to put everything away, I hear the group getting closer to me and I keep my empty bottle in my hand as I trot along the trail. The mercury is rising and I start to get a bit concerned about the fact that I've burned through a little more than half of my water.
The mental funk sets in. My legs are growing weary, the rocks underfoot seem sharper with every mile, and I am uncomfortably warm. The climbs burn my lungs, the downhills burn my quads. Every so often, I enjoy a few minutes of flat before ascending or descending.
After passing Hogpen, I decide I will just run down the road at Neels and cutoff my run by 1.5 miles. I worry about running out of water. I am tired. I might have bit off more than I chew.
The descent down to Tesnatee is rough. I am going down, but I cannot go fast. The rocky stairs and uneven footing makes the trail nearly impossible to run and I hold onto trees as I try to keep both my ankles intact.
I spend the next few miles worried about my water. I wasn't going to die. But I was going to be really thirsty by the end. I stop looking at the lush greenery and the captivating lookouts. The light mist that threatened in the early miles would be a welcome relief. I come upon a hiker who was changing her shoes on top of the tallest peak. She asks me how my run was going, I ask her how her hike was going. I tell her I wish it would rain.
As I come carefully down the hill, thunder crackles loudly. I jump as it rumbles. Within minutes, fat raindrops fall on top of the trees. I am covered briefly for a short while, but as the rain intensifies, the water begins to drench me. The dry trail can't soak up the moisture quick enough and sheets of water run down the slope like miniature waterfalls. My shoes and socks are soaked instantly. I was indeed the fool who wished for rain.
The only saving grace is that the lower temperature buys me a bit more time and I careen down the last section to Neels at the fastest speed I can maintain without falling. I aim for the covered pathway at Neels. As I spot the building, I breathe a sigh of relief.
I stand under cover for a few minutes and put my water bottle out on a picnic table to collect rainwater. A woman steps out of white SUV and walks under the cover with me. She asks if it's okay if she smokes and though I clearly would prefer she didn't, I say yes. She talks to me for a few minutes about her family driving her crazy in the car and attempts to warn me about bears, snakes, and people on the trail.
After she finishes her cigarette and walks back to her car, the rain lightens up enough that I go in search of a water fountain. I see a spigot on top of a wooden box next to the building with a few dog bowls scattered about. Good enough for dogs, good enough for humans...
With a nearly full bottle, I decide to finish the last mile and a half as planned. It is far steeper to the intersection than I remember, but once I get beyond that, I know it is all downhill. Literally and figuratively.
As I cross over the 20 mile mark, I feel the familiar pangs of happy exhaustion. It is extraordinarily satisfying and yet so challenging. And despite feeling like it is so tough every time I am out there, I cannot wait to return.