We’ve been hiking for more than three hours, and I’m still trying to figure out how to swing my poles when we arrive. I see Josh staring at the distant mountains that provide our surroundings’ backdrop. He seems to have been here a while.
I scan the area that makes up this mountaintop we’re standing on and wonder, Is this it? For some reason I thought Springer Mountain would be—I don’t know—bigger.
This is the actual start of the Appalachian Trail?
I’m not sure what I expected, maybe pyramids or statues of gods or anything but what I’m actually seeing: a large rock with a plaque, another plaque on a rock floor, and a view nearly blocked by branches. That’s it.
“OK, forget Katahdin. Springer Mountain is enough. I’m going home,” I say, drained and out of breath, as I walk toward the large boulder with a plaque secured to it.
“Don’t say that,” responds an older woman who’s leaning on a nearby tree. She’s with a gentleman around her own age, and by his side is another man who appears to be a park ranger.
“I kid. Just a little humor from an exhausted tenderfoot,” I say with a tired smile.
“Are you guys starting a thru-hike?” asks the possible park ranger. He’s short and skinny, with glasses way too big for his face. Long strands of his hair are combed over to one side, but I can’t tell if he’s going bald or if he’s just sporting a bad hairdo. That aside, he has a friendly face.
“Yeah, we are,” I reply.
“At least you’re attempting, huh?” asks the woman.
“No, I’m quite sure I’m going all the way,” I say politely.
I’m not going to fall into a mindset of maybe I’ll make it. I already have enough going against me, starting with how clueless I am about the trail. Positive thoughts are my biggest asset out here in the unknown. I could have told her all that, but I’m still collecting as much air as my lungs can muster.
“The goal is Katahdin, nothing less,” I add.
“That’s the way to think,” says her companion.
“So, what I have here are AT matches that I give to all northbound thruhikers,” the maybe-ranger chimes in. “Some keep them as souvenirs, and others take them all the way to Katahdin. For a while, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy gave out gifts to thru-hikers who presented the matches after finishing their hikes. I’m not sure how it works now, but take them with you all the way, and you may be surprised.”
“Thanks,” I say as he hands me a book of matches. “Are you a park ranger?”
“No, I’m John, the caretaker here at Springer Mountain Shelter,” he says.
“You can also grab a small rock from here and take it to Katahdin, as a token of your thru-hike,” Josh says, joining us.
“Yeah, but the thing about that is, all the rocks here were brought down from Katahdin by southbound thru-hikers. You’ll just be taking them back home,” John says with a big grin.
I have a feeling he has told that joke many times before but is just as gleeful to tell it again. I skip the rock tradition, but I keep the matches. You never know. I may need them along the way. While we’re chatting, it hits me. I’m here, at the start of the Appalachian Trail. I endured the strenuous steps, and now I’m atop Springer Mountain.
It’s all downhill from here, right?