Being a kiwi on the AT you are somewhat of a novelty. Many of the Americans you meet know about New Zealand (especially since The Lord of the Rings) and are generally very friendly. However you are likely to meet such a cross section of them that you quickly realise that there is no such thing as a typical yank. There will be a few "Aliens" like yourself but about 90-95 percent of your fellow hikers are Americans with the only things in common that they are walking the trail and they are extremely proud of their country. While walking I met a billionaire who decided to do the things he had put off after almost being killed in NYC during 9/11, to a pair of students who only met a few days before the start of the trail and got married along it.
One thing that happens to people who walk the trail is that you tend to get a trailname. A trailname is usually given to you by others on the trail to celebrate your acts or something about you. Examples would be a lovely guy I hiked with who was called "re-run" (his real name is Mark). He liked to have naps in the middle of the day and often when he woke up he would head off down the trail in the wrong direction crossing all the ground that he had just sweated over an hour or two before hand. Obviously trailnames like Strider or NoBo are popular but most tend to be somewhat more original. One attractive youthful young lady was called "After School Special" by some of the guys hiking with her. She didn't like it to begin with but after a couple of months it sort of grows on you.
In fact that is what happened to me. I was cleaning myself off at Mull's Motel in Hiawassee Georgia thinking that the 5kg I had just lost in the last 3-4 days made me look rather svelte when some bright cookie said I was a "big Mongo looking mother f__ka". Well I didn't like that one little bit as I didn't want to be named after the guy who punches the horse in Blazing Saddles. But after a couple of weeks I was "Mongo" -- in fact when my girlfriend came to visit and tramp with me for 3 weeks in the middle of the trail she was called "Mrs Mongo," much to her disgust.
The start of the trail is all new to most. Your body has not adjusted to day in and day out walking and many are still not at home with their kit. But surely, before going on the AT you would have tried all your stuff out first, you say. While that may be true, it is only for limited periods of time (generally 3 days or less). After a couple of weeks solid tramping any weakness in your boots, pack, tent or clothing will be found. Also it should be remembered that gear wears out. If you wear running shoes you can expect to go through 4 pairs by the time the trail finishes. Even flash German tramping boots often are worn out easily by the end. Of course your body changes remarkably by the end of the trail. You will burn on average 6000 calories a day. To put that into perspective that is 3 full jars of peanut butter! Thus I went from my relaxed weight of 125 kg (I am a prop OK?) to silly 98kg by the end. I had not been that weight since I was 18 and training to be an army officer. While that may sound fine I found that I couldn't do up my waist belt on my pack and my fleece and rain jacket where like huge tents. . . .
The trail in Georgia is hilly and rough. The winters are harsh and in many places trail crews still haven't had a chance to clean up storm damage. Your body still isn't used to the trail and every up and down (there are lots of them) in this first 100 miles hurts. Moving through your first new state (Tennessee) and your first 100 miles on the trail happen close to each other and then you move onto The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This has as the name depicts mountains and they are lovely. But you are not allowed to tent. Due to the bear risk you must stay in the gated shelters provided. Halfway through the Park a road runs through it and if you are feeling in need of a town break you can hitch into the tourist hell hole that is Gatlinburg. Ripley's Believe it or not Museum, Dollywood . . . forget that outdoors stuff, you can find the real America. I bypassed it but I was tempted to go in because I really felt like a beer. I had recently found out about the most terrifying thing about the southern United States . . . dry counties! Still as long as there is moonshine there wasn't that much to worry about.
By this stage you have been on the trail for almost 2 weeks and have started to find a rhythm. You have met great people and would have worked out whether this is really what you want to do. Numerous people you would have met have started to drop off as realisation that they had to walk with a pack week in and week out has started to dawn on them. Coming out of the Smoky Mountains the trail passes through the first trail town of Hot Springs. Here you can take stock, socialise and reflect over the last few weeks and think of the months to come.
To be continued.