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Springer Fever

Every year about this time, the Trail calls, and then insanity strikes.

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Some of those lucky thru-hikers have probably made North Carolina by now.

I hear they're starting earlier and earlier, trying to beat the crowds. The traditional starting date is this Friday. That leaves six months to make Maine before it starts to snow again. That's six months of walking 12 miles a day on average. But if you make Maine, and only about 10 percent do, you will have thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail.

It's one of the greatest things about America: a trail that was built for purely recreational purposes and stretches more than 2,000 miles through forests and mountains. It doesn't follow any traditional path; it was dreamed up and rammed through by a few men in the 1930s, and it's still there today, with only minor changes. It has lasted from Shirley Temple to Britney Spears.

And right about now, hundreds of eager hikers are starting north from Springer Mountain in Georgia. The vast majority will quit before they get to the Smokies. But a much greater number of people not even on the trail are consumed by Springer Fever every year in March.

It's a condition which primarily affects the memory. It makes one remember only certain parts of a walk through forested mountains: the sunrises, sunsets, campfires, stars, friendly people, and far-off vistas. Springer Fever enters the brain and roots out all images of rain, pain, and misery. You won't remember the mice scurrying around your head in a shelter or the snoring that makes you think there's a moose outside or the endless stretches of trail with nothing to see or do, just miles to click off toward some nebulous goal called Mount Katahdin.

I've got a pretty bad case this year. I vaguely recall, for example, hauling a 40-pound backpack up a 3,000-foot hill somewhere in North Carolina. I assume that wasn't pleasant, but what I really remember was getting to the old lookout tower on top and seeing a postcard view of clouds between ridges then hiking down the other side to a little town that had the best cinnamon rolls in the world. And homemade fig and peach newtons!

I also remember Trail Magic, that special force that works through hikers to take care of other hikers. One bunch of guys shared all-beef hot dogs, spicy chili, and peppermint schnapps with me. I'm not sure, but I think right before that I had hiked alone for two days through rain and fog and was down to a can of salmon and some uncooked black-eyed peas. Then a week later these same guys came and picked me up and took me to their house for a big party, with catfish and cold beers and a hot shower. I had quit hiking for some reason ... seems like maybe I had strained my Achilles tendon and practically had to crawl seven miles to the nearest road to hitch a ride. I don't remember that part as clearly though.

And the people? Well, they're all gems. I met a chaplain from Kentucky, a "renegade trail maintenance crew" from Johnson City, Tennessee, a wandering spiritual seeker from no place in particular, and a guy with his golden retriever who had hiked from Maine in June to Carolina in October and was hoping to make Springer before the snow came. I never found myself surrounded by snarling pit bulls and explaining to a toothless man with a shotgun that I hadn't seen any bears. That didn't happen to me. Nor did I spend a night in a shelter where countless mice and two skunks used my sleeping bag as a launching pad during a night of frivolity when it was raining too hard for me to sleep outside. The story is familiar to me, but all my nights on the trail were peaceful. And I never lost any sleep near a man whose trail nickname was DJ Uzi Report.

No, it's all good on the Trail. And, come to think of it, I'm about due to lace up my boots and get back to it. I never did make it through the Smokies, after all, and as I recall, in the Smokies the hills are mellow, the trails smooth, and the weather sublime.

Or maybe I'll just go day-hike a few miles up in the national park and greet some thru-hikers. They are all pleasant and happy to speak with non-hikers about their Trail experience. They especially enjoy questions like "What do you eat?" and "Do you see a lot of bears?" And after walking about 400 miles to get there, they are invariably cheerful and fragrant.

Yeah, that's it. I think I'll go bag some Trail miles. This life of being indoors and showering and eating at tables and working at desks is just not what life is about. I should be out in the woods!

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