By Dan Cook
April Fool's Day traditionally signals the start of backpackers heading north from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Maine on the Appalachian Trail.
The dream of such "thru hikers" is to go the entire 2,175 miles to Mount Katahdin before winter returns. But many this year left earlier than usual, according to outfitters who have witnessed their arrivals at points along the route.
One even hit the trail as early as New Year's Day, according to Pepper Schuette of SunDog Outfitter in Damascus, Va.
"That was Tattoo Joe," Schuette said by telephone. "He's the current record speed holder on the Pacific Crest Trail."
Many thru-hikers select alternate names for trail identity; hence the nickname.
The unusually cold, wet winter has hindered the backpackers, however -- particularly in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, through which the AT traverses.
"Joe said he had passed between 150 and 200 between here and Springer," Schuette said.
A little more than a decade ago, only a few hundred people a year attempted the full-trail challenge, but now as many as 1,500 annually set out with that goal. Only a few hundred actually make it, but that is considered remarkable in itself.
Last year, according to Laurie Potteiger of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, 686 northbound walkers who had started at Springer stopped at the ATC's trail visitor center at Harpers Ferry, W.Va., and gave Maine as their destination.
Amicalola Falls State Park near Dawsonville, Ga., is a popular starting point for the AT, since its offers modern camping, cabins and a lodge. It is several miles south of the AT southern terminus, which is accessible via an approach trail from Amicalola or, usually, by a dirt-road drive.
"But the winter affected the road this year," Amicalola manager Bill Tanner said, noting that 469 had checked in at the park as of Tuesday morning. Tanner reasoned that more had entered through the park this year than normal due to the dirt road's inaccessibility.
"Their minds are in the right spot, though sometimes they carry substantially more than what their bodies are wanting to produce," he said.
For many hikers, that evaluation often becomes painful reality in the first 30 miles. A lot of gear is sent home from the Walasi-Yi Center, where the AT crosses a major highway just south of Blairsville, Ga.
Another main resting place is Uncle Johnny's Nolichucky Hostel and Outfitters near Erwin, Tenn. Like Walasi-Yi, it offers showers and other amenities. A source at Uncle Johnny's reported that 38 thru-hikers had been counted as of Tuesday. Included was "Trek," making an AT trip for the eighth consecutive year.
Some gear leaving post offices along the route is merely a result of preparation for the journey. Hikers use the mail to exchange heavier clothes for lighter attire, or vice versa, depending upon anticipated weather conditions. The five or six months needed for the full trip requires much logistical planning.
Trail Days in Damascus is an annual highlight the week after Mother's Day for those who have made it that far. SunDog's Schuette noted that while the town has only about 900 permanent residents, it is full of tents and 20,000 or more people the week of festivities.
The events include a parade and good-natured water fights among current and previous hikers.
For serious hikers, the state of the economy generally is no big concern. Bad times may even be good for hiking, the Uncle Johnny's Nolichucky source said, because it's a "low-rent vacation."
Said Jeff Patrick, owner of Mount Rogers Outfitters in Damascus: "I don't know about the economy. I've never had a watch or a cell phone. I think it might be that a lot of people have figured out that costly vacations aren't what they used to be and that getting into the woods may offer something different."