Last weekend, we headed up to Amicalola Falls, the state park near the start of the AT on Springer Mountain, to attend an Appalachian Trail Celebration and Backpacking Clinic. Over two days, they had a dozen or so presenters and workshops, all dealing with hiking and backpacking, with an obvious emphasis on doing so on the AT. The highlight of the weekend was listening to 85-year-old Gene Espy regale an attentive crowd with tales from his 1951 thru-hike, when he became just the second person to hike the trail from Georgia to Maine. I could have sat and listened to him tell stories all day. Here’s just a snippet from his talk, when he recalls a newspaper interview given after he completed his hike:

At one point, while waiting for Mike in the park lodge lobby, Mr. Espy came up to me and asked me about my interest in the AT and offered his advice on section hiking. It was a real treat to listen to and talk with this living legend, who was a real sweet and funny man to boot.

And of course, I bought a couple of books to add to my growing AT collection, one by a middle-aged guy who up and decided to thru-hike the AT, leaving his job and his wife for several months. I’d love to thru-hike one day, but for now at least, I just have to live vicariously through folks like him. The other is Gene Espy’s book about his own historic hike.

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We did manage to get outside and do some hiking that weekend, although not on the AT itself, whose southern terminus actually begins about 8 miles north of Amicalola. But we did a loop trail which took us from the lodge down the mountain, and then up to the falls, which are reputed to be the highest falls east of the Mississippi. There are two sets of stairs which go up alongside (and in one spot, over) the falls, 604 in all. It’s quite the workout! One of the park staff told me they have a local guy, an older man, who comes up several times a month to just go up and down the stairs. His (and the park) record is 50 times in one day. Well, we just did it the once! It was an overcast day and there were storms in the forecast, and right when we started out on the second set, the wind picked up, the clouds got dark and it started to sprinkle rain. All I could think of was the fact that I was on a metal staircase on the side of a mountain and if lightning struck, I was literally toast. I sprinted up those stairs as fast as my legs could take me!

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The storm held off, but later that night it came in, with tornado watches and warnings all around us. Our room at the lodge had one wall that was a a huge window, overlooking the valley, and watching the storm roll in was quite the incredible sight. It was also a little scary to hear the rain and hail pellets beating against that window! But it passed us by without harm, thankfully, and the next day was sunny and decidedly cooler temperatures.

All in all, it was a great weekend. I learned a lot – and took copious notes – met some interesting people and enjoyed some time in the north Georgia mountains.