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The Last 50 Miles: Spring break on the Appalachian Trail

As I struggled up the side of Blood Mountain, wheezing, barely able to breathe under the pulsing heat of the midday sun, I began to cry.

My shoulders were numb under the weight of the backpack that now felt like an extension of my body. My feet and ankles were swollen underneath my boots and I could feel my blisters bleeding onto my wool socks. My heart was racing from the exertion of climbing the mountain. My clothes were thoroughly soaked with sweat. Every step I took burned my muscles with a deep, stabbing fire.

Tears welled up at the corner of my eyes and began spilling down my cheeks. My friends, the strongest two men of my temporary trail family, had made it up the mountain long before me and came hustling back down the side of the mountain, sliding down the steep corners.

"Angela, we'll take your pack. You're so close, you can do this," one of them said, looking at me sincerely.

I couldn't speak. The combination of my wheezing and tears left my throat dry and aching. I shook my head.

If I was going to make it up the damn mountain, I was going to do it with the damn backpack. They walked up with me at my tortoise like pace. Words of encouragement flowed from their mouths, but all I heard was the wind gently whispering against the rocks beneath my feet.

Blood Mountain was a cruel joke. There are about five steep rock formations on the way to the peak, each one a tease of "You're here, you made it to the top!" only to realize you still had half a mile ahead of you. I wanted to scream.

I dragged my feet in a forward like motion.

And then my best friend, Brittany, came down the precarious mountainside. She smiled at me.

"You're almost there, Angela. You did it."

Seeing her jolted the last bit of energy I had in me final strides up the mountain to see what awaited me.

I forced myself up the mountain. Right foot, left foot.

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The trees cleared at the peak and to the left was nothing but open air. I stared at the view and the tears came racing down my cheeks again, clearing some of the dirt off my face.

I was overcome with emotion.

Exhaustion from the trek up the mountain that sucked the air out of my lungs and the energy from my muscles.

Pride for the fact that I pushed my body and my mind to do something I never thought I could be capable of.

Awe for the breathtaking mountain range that spanned before my eyes, seemingly infinite. Awe for the view that no words can describe, no picture can capture, but that will forever live in my heart. Awe for the mountain air that was finally beginning to course through my lungs.

Blood Mountain was magical.

When I signed up for the Outdoor Pursuit Center's spring break backpacking trip, I'm not sure what I expected. It was advertised as "no experience needed" and I -- a novice outdoorswoman -- was itching for adventure -- not the kind where you hop on a plane to Cabo San Lucas and drink until you drop, but the kind that makes you see the world with new eyes and makes you look within.

I found adventure. Along the way I also found challenge, hardship, hailstorms, blisters, laughter, tears, friends, passion and a love for the places in this incredible world that you can't get to in a car.

Being disconnected from the material world for six days. Not showering for a week. Peeing and pooping in the woods. Eating oatmeal, jerky and protein bars for the first time. Hiking endlessly through mountains and wilderness. Meeting the amazing people that will spend the next seven months of their lives trekking the trail in its entirety from Georgia to Maine. Spending my spring break with people who I will never forget and grew to love. Conquering mountains. Rediscovering what it means to feel alive.

Each day was so challenging yet so simple: Wake up, watch stars fade into sunrise, lace up your boots, pack your backpack and walk. It's only been two days since I came off the trail and I've never quite missed something so much.

4,458 feet above it all, standing on top of Blood Mountain. 4,458 feet. It was in that moment that I knew I would be leaving a piece of my heart and soul on the Appalachian Trail. And it was in that moment that I knew I would return.

The Last 50: Appalachian Trail, Spring break 2017 from Angela Hatcher on Vimeo.