Because Northern Georgia was experiencing a warm spell during the week I chose to begin the hike, it soon became evident that the daily itinerary would be centered around the availability of water along the trail. Water was plentiful during the first days – gurgling from springs and mountain streams at frequent intervals. Major sources (the ones that persist for more than a few days after rain) were indicated in the Data Book, and, if not obvious, were well signed. If the source was not on the trail, a wooden sign and a blue-blazed trail would lead you to it – usually a negligible distance from the AT.
The first days on the AT are like painting by numbers; the trail is so thoroughly blazed and signed that even I would have to try pretty hard to get thirsty. This can lead to a false sense of confidence. At first you pay close attention to every landmark listed in the Data Book. You pause at every spring and decide whether to collect water there or save a little time by skipping it. Several factors go into the decision: how thirsty you are, how much water you still have in your bottles, how hot it is, how far the spring is from the trail (distance and elevation), how far to the next source, and the quality of this source and the next (piped springs being preferred to open sources). For those trying to minimize the weight they carry and save time by not stopping at every water source, the story problem that materializes around the decision of whether or not to stop can become complex. Whether you just want to avoid heat exhaustion or just to maximize your water collecting efficiency, the most important information is your current location.
After a while you realize the trail pretty much just follows a bumpy ridge. When you are on top of a bump, you are on a “mountain.” When you are at a low point between bumps, you are on a “gap” usually with an old-timey name such as “Lickskillet,” “Loglick,” “Hogpen,” etc. Occasionally the low points are called “stamps” or “swags,” presumably due to their relative shallowness – but I can’t tell the difference if there is one. Well, after a few days of endless bumps and plentiful water sources, you will be tempted to throw caution to the wind. “I’m a rugged thru-hiker,” you think, as you stride past gurgling springs because you aren’t quite thirsty enough. “I will power onward.” You will be tempted to leave the Data Book in your pocket, to be consulted only at major landmarks (shelters, road crossings, etc.) rather than keeping track of every little mountain, gap, stamp, and swag.
As you stride along, pheromones produced by your arrogant attitude waft from your delusional brain. They rise on the thermals of the heating day… upward past the circling, ever-hopeful turkey vultures, until they reach a being to this point un-introduced. A hooked and warted nostril twitches. A disturbingly bushy eyebrow cocks. The being – the Wicked Witch of the AT – gazes into her crystal ball and sees the arrogant wannabe thru-hiker striding along, feeling invincible. “Oh boy!” she cackles, “Time for a little fun! Ah! Ha ha, hahaaaa!” “Let’s remove the sign from that next spring…. He’s not expecting it anyway, the twit, because he isn’t keeping track! Ah! Ha Ha Ha Haaa!”
So you unknowingly stride past the last water source for 5 miles. Because it has been several days since the last rain, and because there are no leaves yet to provide shade, and because the trail is predominantly on southern exposures when you are struggling uphill, you are in for a tortuous afternoon. After a time you become parched; a headache begins to develop. You belatedly consult your Data Book. “Let’s see…. Is this Swaim Gap, Corbin Horse Stamp, or Bags Creek Gap…. Those trail angel hamburgers I ate at Neels Gap must be kicking in; I’m really thirsty.” You continue on. Your arrogant stride has been replaced with a determined trudging now as you feel the weight of your resupply (all food from which every trace of water has been removed, of course) presses into your shoulders. After another hour of steep, sun drenched scrambling a real concern develops. Where is that next water anyway!
“Ah Ha Ha Ha Haa! It’s time for the muddy seep!”
You come upon a muddy seep. You think, “Am I desperate enough to take off my shirt, press it into the disgusting ooze, and wring out the water?” You decide not, even though you are having trouble swallowing and your head is pounding. You can still move forward after all. “There’s got to be better water soon,” you think.
“Ah Ha Ha Ha Haa! He’s moving on – Oh… He’ll regret that he will. Ah Ha Ha Ha Haaa!”
Later, when your trudge is reduced to a pathetic limp, you spy a day hiker coming the opposite way. Your parched brain amazingly produces an idea: SHE will know how far it is to the next water. As she approaches, this “angel” in clean clothes, smelling of soap, slows down as she notices the scraggly creep ogling her. You try to speak, but only a degenerate croaking emits from your parched vocal cords. You try again, “Have you pasthsed any water lately?” You realize too late that this might not have been the best choice of words. The lady scoffs, strides around you in a wide arc, and quickly disappears.
“Ah Ha Ha Ha Ha! Now let’s show him the trail angel cache. Ah Ha Ha Ha Haaaa!
You top the next mountain, barely able to walk. You see the impossible… Could it be? No, surely not… YES!!! A cooler with a sign. It says, “Hey thru-hikers, since the next water is so far away, we have left these sodas for your enjoyment.” Marveling at this act of empathy and kindness you open the lid… only to find a few empty soda cans.
“Ah Ha Ha Ha Ha! Now it’s time for another muddy seep. And let’s put a dead squirrel in it just for grins. Ah Ha Ha Ha Haa!”
Around the corner you stumble upon a disgusting patch of ooze sporting the carcass of some hapless rodent. Your tongue is beginning to swell. Beyond deliberation, you push a depression into the ooze as far away from the carcass as possible and suck up some water. It tastes unspeakable.
“That’s right…. Hope you enjoyed your little treat you arrogant wannabe. Ah Ha Ha Ha Ha!” The Wicked Witch of the AT, losing interest in you, turns her attention to another aspiring hiker. “So, you don’t think you need to filter, do you…. Ah Ha Ha Ha Haaaa!”
Around the next corner, of course, a spring burbles merrily from the rocks. You vow to always keep track of your location and never pass a water source again without due consideration.