Before we hit the trail, let me tell you a little bit about blazes. The Appalachian Trail is marked using a system of "blazes" painted on trees, posts, and rocks. A single blaze, (like those in the image above), means you're on the A.T. There are some local variations, but generally each blaze is a white strip of paint 2 inches wide by 6 inches long painted at eye level (above the snow line). At any time during a hike on the AT, you should be able to see a blaze within 50 yards either in front of you or behind you.
Blazes are also used for additional information as shown in these images. The top left image indicates the trail turns left, the top middle means trail turns right. Rarely, you might see one blaze atop another. This isn't widely used, but it means caution, or heads up. Blue blazes lead to water or shelter.
We got a late start our first day on the trail, picking up a few last minute supplies from Bluff Mountain Outfitters in Hot Springs, North Carolina. Opportunuties to pass through towns for re-outfitting are limited on the Appalachian Trail, and we'll have to carry almost everything we need for the next five or six days until we decend to Uncle Johnny's Outfitters in the Nolichucky River Valley over 50 miles away. (With the exceptions of drought, water sources are typically plentuful with springs, and creeks every few miles along the trail.) Our route falls within the Cherokee and Pisgah National Forests. My pack weight with food and water was just under 30 pounds. My Canon 5DMKII with a 24-105 zoom lens and half a dozen CF cards added an additional 5 pounds. It began to rain almost immediately after we started.
J.R. takes a break during our 1500 foot ascent from Allen Gap to check his GPS.
Drew has hiked well over half of the Appalachian Trail. As usual the steep vertical doesn't slow him down.
The Little Laurel Shelter is pretty typical for the AT, it's open on one side, and sleeps 6. Fortunately, we arrive just a few minutes before it fills up. To keep weight down we don't hike with tents, so if there's no room in a shelter, we'll be spending the night under a plastic tarp slung over a rope between two trees. That's only happened to me once. I'm not a fan.
Another party with a dog trailing behind arrives and are visibly crest fallen that there's no room in the shelter. Luckily they had a tent which they put up quickly as the rain only got harder and temperatures dropped to the mid 30's. The dog ultimately made it into the tent as well.
People waste no time preparing a hot meal in the Shelter.