|Tuesday—March 10, 1998
Location—Heated Restroom at the Chapel, Cheaha State Park, Talladega National Forest
It is twenty-four degrees as I roll out this morning. There is snow on my tent and all around. Tending to my “morning duty” is very unpleasant under these circumstances. I am very cold and my fingers feel like so many sticks before I manage to break camp and shoulder my pack. As I get going again the snow also get going again, but I warm up quickly enough as the Pinhoti lets me have it. I’m definitely traversing internal packframe territory and my snug sternum strap is coming in handy! This section approaching Cheaha State Park, through the Cheaha Wilderness, is as demanding as anything I’ve previously encountered on the AT and I’ve hiked that grand old trail all the way into Pennsylvania. I immediately encounter much sideslabbing on very steep terrain that has benefited from little recent Pulaski work. This off-camber hiking quickly mushes out my ankles. Leaving the sideslab the treadway now traverses large, steep boulderfields flanked on both sides by smaller rock gardens. The boulderfields require much scrambling and slow my pace to a crawl. Upon entering the Cheaha Wilderness, blazing which had been excellent starts playing hide and seek. With no treadway to follow through the boulders and rocks and few blazes I’m off the trail more than on. Here is a whole new experience for me. The rocks and boulders present incredibly unstable treadway, what with being covered with snow, which covers last fall’s leaves. My poor doggies are really starting to bark! The ascents and descents are not the endurance tests that I’ll face further north, but they are abrupt and steep.
The mountains here in Alabama are rugged and beautiful beyond anything I had expected. I will need a few more days than planned to hike this rugged terrain! The mountainsides are forested in beautiful longleaf pine while the ridgelines are predominately hardwood, making for spectacular open vistas. There are views and lookouts all along. Oh, it is such a pleasure to be back among mountain laurel and rhododendron again, but my search continues for the elusive white pine.
I arrive at Cheaha State Park Lodge towards evening and head for the restaurant. Though a stellar example of the unfinest Hiker Trash, and entering a first class eating establishment with exquisite table settings complemented by the finest linen, I am greeted graciously by the hostess and then the waitress, each with a welcome smile. I dine in the most luxurious and eloquent atmosphere, the finest cuisine, and the view out and across the mountains, which are now being bathed in the scarlet hues of sunset, makes for a magic memory moment in this brief shutter of time. As I near the final course, more coffee and dessert being served, comes now Ranger Tim Whitehead. His wife who works in the gift shop down by the main gate had told him of my arrival. He comes to offer assistance as he explains that temperatures are predicted to drop into the teens tonight. The lodge is being renovated and no rooms are available for the evening. He kindly suggests an alternative to the frozen snow-covered ground and the cold shelter up the trail. Loading in his truck he takes me to the park chapel up the way and unlocks the clean, spacious, warm and lighted men’s room for me! I am most content, my tummy is full and I am snug as a bug…life is good! Now isn’t this roughing it!
“Give me the luxuries of life and I will
willingly do without the necessities.”
[Frank Lloyd Wright]
Wednesday—March 11, 1998
Location—Base of Waterfalls north of Morgan Lake, Talladega National Forest
Tim picks me up this morning and delivers me to a trail that leads to Blue Mountain Shelter. He had told me of another hiker who was also heading north on the Pinhoti, and here at Blue Mountain Shelter I find his tent, pack and other belongings, but he is nowhere around. I leave a note of introduction and my tentative hiking schedule, hoping that we may have an opportunity to meet and hike some together. I have been alone on the trail now for seventy days and it tends to get lonely out here at times. I could sure use some company for awhile.
The day starts clear and very cold but by afternoon, and from the constant exertion demanded by the trail, both the day and I warm up nicely. My hike is interrupted as I reach Hillabee Creek. The creek is of fair width and depth and there is no bridge…wading time, so it appears. I drop my pack and change to my off-road running shoes to make the ford. On the other side I quickly dry my feet and get my warm wool socks and boots back on. Here, as I lie back basking on a large rock that is being bathed and warmed by the sun, and as I look around, half observing, half daydreaming; presents to me a very strange and perplexing observation. We have all seen tree stumps in the woods, and I am looking at a tree stump. But after a couple of takes, shifting from the daydream mode to the observing mode, I realize that this tree stump is different than any that I have ever seen before, for this stump is not at ground level…but somewhere between ten and twelve feet up! My gaze is fixed on it now. What is this! Why did someone cut this tree off ten feet up? And as I look closer, how did someone cut this tree off ten feet up! Here is a very narrow trail. No vehicles could possibly get in here and there are no telltale spike splinters left by pole climbers, and the top of the tree is gone! I finally give up trying to figure this one out.
I pitch for the evening some distance north of Morgan Lake at the base of a beautiful twin waterfall, probably one of the tributaries to Hillabee Creek. In short order I get a very comfortable warming and cooking fire going.
“Hiking for days [and weeks and months] by
one’s self can be very lonely.”
[Jan D. Curran, The Appalachian Trail—A Journey of Discovery]
Thursday—March 12, 1998
Location—Private Hallway, Heflin Police Station
Are temperatures supposed to go below freezing in Alabama in March? Okay, well how about down to 14 degrees? That is the chilling news my little Campmor thermometer greets me with this morning! I am very reluctant to roll out, but I do stick my nose out, then tuck it right back in to go on snooze for another half-hour…But finally the moment of truth, for here I am, and here it is, so here we go! Brrrr! I tug my long johns on then it’s up and over with the sweatshirt given me down in Florida by trail angels, Paul and Doris Adams. My wool socks are already on but my boots have decided to be the wrong size. I finally manage to break camp and get chugging.
Today I meet the first backpackers on the trail since the Boy Scouts in Florida! Coleman and Tina are both really loaded down with winter gear. They are doing the Pinhoti in sections and are out giving it another go. We have a long enjoyable talk. Seems I can’t shut up! What a delight seeing someone else out here and at a time I would never have predicted. I have managed to postpone my “morning duty” until reaching Spears Store near Five Points. I really believe steaming hot coffee never felt or tasted so good!
I decide to set my sights on Heflin today and I go at it in earnest, but I no sooner get up the trail from Five Points than I get lost. I finally manage to stumble on north and down from Horseblock Mountain to US78. Here I try hitching a ride into Heflin but have no luck as the traffic is flying, so I end up walking the three miles to town. I head straight for the drugstore to restock my coated aspirin, then on to the little downtown mom-n-pop for super. To keep from getting hassled in these little villages I have found it best to go straight to the police station and introduce myself. This is to thwart the calls when they start coming in…and they will come in. It always helps to keep the local constabulary from getting all riled. The Police Chief here is Billy Hugh Lambert. After a short conversation with Chief Lambert I am invited to spend the night in the hall leading to the public bathroom. Well now, this may not sound like much, but let me tell you…this is Hiker Trash five-star! The hallway is most like a room, complete with plush carpet. There is a door separating the hall from the front area, which I am permitted to keep closed and locked, and the place is warm as toast. Oh, and right off this room (hall) I have my own private bath!
I stash my pack and head the short distance—this is the typical old southern-states downtown—to the local Piggly Wiggly. Then it’s right back to my little private room! It’s really turning cold. Chief Lambert said it would be down in the teens again tonight. But I’m warm and snug (with my own security guard) as I spread out to lounge in sheer luxury to spend the remainder of the evening catching up on my journal entries.
“Too much of a good thing can be wonderful!”
Friday—March 13, 1998
Location—Lower Shoal Shelter, Choccolocco WMA, Talladega National Forest
After writing a short thank-you note to Chief Lambert and handing it to the duty officer, I head down to Jacks for breakfast. Here I load up on two eggs, bacon, cheese biscuits and gravy and about half a gallon of coffee…for three bucks. I’m up and nearly out the door when one of the counter gals comes over to ask if I am the “Long Distance Hiker!” I’m given a phone number to call the HoJo down by I-20. She said the call came in a little while ago from another hiker. Must be the fellow that Tim had told me about and the one whose gear I’d seen at Blue Mountain Shelter. Craston Roberts, a fellow I had been chatting with in the adjacent booth overhears this conversation and invites me out to his truck to use his cell phone. He says, “Figure out which room and I’ll drive you down!” In a moment I’m talking to Keith Pskowski and he gives me his room number at HoJo’s. On the way down, I’m thinking, this guy had to hike I-20 for near four miles to reach this interchange, for he said he had walked there. I’m thinking, what sort of fellow am I going to meet here!
In moments Craston drops me off at room #34. I bang and bang on the door. Finally it opens and I am greeted by the other nutso. Keith said that he would be ready to go when I got here, but as I look, there are piles of clothing and a staggering collection of other paraphernalia strewn from the bed, cascading onto the floor, clear to the vanity counter and beyond. What am I getting into here! By the time Keith gets all his things shoved into his old rickety gargantuan pack it is time for lunch! I keep telling him, “We gotta go, Keith…we gotta go!” He’s finally ready and we head over to Taco Bell. The lunch crowd is now here and it takes forever to get served. I’m really getting antsy about this whole thing. Finally, sitting down to eat and as luck would have it, I strike up a conversation with a couple of fellows who are working on a microwave tower at the trailhead hear Cleburne. They offer us a ride which is a lifesaver, but it’s still 2:00 p.m. before we’re back on the trail.
We manage only eight miles today to pull up at Lower Shoal Shelter. This is not good. Quite often I am unsuccessful, but I make a concerted, unflagging effort to keep my daily mileage around fifteen…or better if possible. So far, for the entire seventy-two days I am averaging just slightly under sixteen, and I am most pleased with that number. I have packed enough provisions for five days, with a stretch perhaps to seven if push comes to shove. My plans are to get on through the Alabama Pinhoti, out of the Talladega National Forest, across Indian and Flagpole Mountains, through the bushwhack at the state line, and on into Georgia at Cave Spring. I know this is doable, but we gotta get rolling. I should be another seven miles up the trail tonight. Keith did reasonably well today but he is carrying entirely too much weight.
The shelter here this evening is like an old friend, for it is identical to one that I have slept in many times. And that is the old shelter that used to be located just above the spring on Springer Mountain. That shelter was long ago flown out by the Army Rangers and now resides to serve in its retiring years on the approach trail from Amicalola Falls.
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.”
Saturday—March 14, 1998
Location—Laurel Trail Shelter, Choccolocco WMA, Talladega National Forest
We are way too late getting out and going this morning. There is more traffic on the trail today than in the past many months. We meet a group of scouts and talk with one of their leaders, Mike Smith. Here we learn the origin of the unusual but most pleasing name for one of the nearby side trails. It is called the Chinabee Silent Trail, named in honor of those who constructed it, students at the nearby Talladega School for the Deaf. Bushwhacking around Sweetwater Lake we meet Jay Hudson. Jay is a Director in the Alabama Trails Association. There is much to discuss and as we talk, we also spend the next half-hour trying to keep from sliding into the lake. The lake is way above its normal level, taking the trail under and we have to bushwhack over blowdowns and through brush nearly the entire perimeter. No doubt this is good practice for what lies ahead near the Georgia line.
We manage only slightly over eight miles again today to pull up at Laurel Trail Shelter. This is a fine shelter with water nearby and plenty of firewood. Just before dark, Gray and his son, Troy, come in and the four of us enjoy the evening together roasting marshmallows. I am dismayed that this has been another short mileage day, but considering our late start, dallying and talking, and then bushwhacking around the lake, we did quite well.
“But our lakes are bordered by the forests, and
one is every day called upon to worship God in
such a temple.”
[James Fenimore Cooper, The Pathfinder]
Sunday—March 15, 1998
Location—Headwaters, Dry Creek, Dugger Mountain, Talladega National Forest
We’re out late again this morning. Keith takes off like a shot. I fall in step twenty paces behind. This is great; we’re really truckin’. In three hours we’ve covered nearly nine miles. Soon, there is this beautiful old log church at Shoal Creek and we take a break to enjoy the peace and solitude that just seems to prevail in the shadow of these serene old time capsules. There is a social pavilion in the rear and lingering here is a very simple task.
Keith has come up with a couple of flat tires by now, so I take the point. Today I blunder into the biggest covey of quail flushed so far on this entire odyssey, 16-18 birds. I’m hiking along totally contained in my little daydream cocoon, oblivious to little more than my rhythmic tramping, when World War III breaks out right at my feet. In all these years I’ve never been able to maintain even a minuscule of composure when these little minefields explode. I don’t believe there is anything man has ever devised that will accelerate any faster then these feathered fellows, save a shotgun volley. And even that won’t keep up with them, at least launched from any blunderbuss I’ve ever shouldered. I don’t know which is worse, just walking up on a covey and flushing them or waiting as you creep forward, dog frozen and locked on point, awaiting, to finally shudder when the birds erupt from the ground. Dad was a marvelous flash of motion and precision at that instant, seldom failing to get a double. I always froze, to nearly collapse in a spent puddle of adrenaline. And this harvest of nature’s bounty? There is just absolutely no better fare to grace any table…even to set before a king. An old iron skillet, a little fat and some cracker meal and you’ve got the makings of the finest that Chef Palladin could ever serve up.
We pitch camp just before the big pull up Dugger Mountain in a lovely cove with its fast-rushing stream and plenty of firewood. The evening is delightfully warm, as has been the day…the first day I’ve been able to go without thermal undies for quite awhile. Keith is totally spent. This is only his tenth day out and he is packing entirely too much. Much like a mule. Ahh! There it is, Pack Mule! Keith, from now on you will be known as Pack Mule, or just plain old Mule!
“[The Pinhoti]…trail stretches from Dugger Mountain
on the north to the hospitable community of Friendship
on the south. In between lies some of the most
beautiful, least-trodden backpacking country in the
Monday—March 16, 1998
Location—Trailside, north of CR94 near Borden Springs, Talladega National Forest
First thing this morning we have a hard pull up Dugger Mountain, the second highest point in Alabama, This is a tough climb to the rugged, rocky ridgeline. Nowhere in Alabama will you find the Appalachians rising much above 2000 feet. Cheaha is the highest at 2405. “That isn’t much of a mountain,” you say! And that may well be true, but let me tell you this. You will be hard put to find, throughout the individual mountain groups anywhere along the Appalachian chain, any to compare with these in respect to ruggedness, remoteness, flora and fauna diversity and sheer beauty, *I know because I’ve hiked the whole range. “How can that be?” Do this little exercise. Get your trail profile maps out. Go to the one that shows Clingmans Dome, the highest point on the Appalachian Trail. Now look at the contour changes encountered for a few miles in either direction. Okay, now go to most any trail contour profile for the Pinhoti Trail in the Talladega National Forest and look at a few miles of this rascal! For now will come a marvelous revelation, an enlightenment if you will! Let me ask you this. What difference does it make, as far as the hiking experience is concerned, if you are going through these gyrations at 5000 feet or at 1000 feet? Sure, you’re not going to get a nosebleed climbing up and down in the Cheaha Wilderness…but neither will you in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park!
Coming off Dugger, we pass Terrapin Watershed Lake. This lake, Choccolocco Lake, Coleman Lake and Sweetwater Lake all have high earthen reservoir embankments to impound water during periods of heavy rain, so the areas near the dams aren’t particularly attractive due to apparent low water levels. But the shorelines of these lakes undulate the rugged, picturesque mountain shoulders, creating picture-book settings, the view from the dams being totally unobstructed, panoramic. We pitch just north of CR94 near a happy little stream. The evening fire is a poor fire but I manage to get a hot meal prepared. Pack Mule’s pack has got to weigh at least fifty pounds. I have not a clue what all he’s got squirreled away in there…but it isn’t food. Mule is out of food, so I share my “porridge” with him. Rain seems to want to join us all evening and into the night, but shy an invitation, it holds off.
“Its highest peak stands a half-mile shorter than the foot
of the Colorado Rockies; its deepest gorge could be stacked
20 deep inside the Grand Canyon. Superlatives of scenery
and natural history have rarely described the state whose
name partly stems from an archaic word for brush…Alabama
is the nation’s fourth-richest kingdom of plant and animal
species; in species per square mile, only Florida can match it…
Only two years ago, a near barren patch of rock—within 50
miles of the state’s largest city—presented eight undescribed
species of flowering plants.”
Tuesday—March 17, 1998
Location—Protected Cove between Wolf Ridge and Rock Quarry Mountain past Lanie Gap
Well, looks like it’s coming today, invitation or not…the rain. And the forecast is for rain, 100%, pretty sure bet! So it is, as I break camp and head on up Augusta Mine Ridge, the rain begins. As I climb, the rain really starts pounding, the wind driving a bitter cold. At Ferguson Memorial on top of Augusta Mine I am exposed to its full rage. The gale-like wind, rain and cold become nearly unbearable. I have packed out ahead of Mule and now I’m concerned about the worsening conditions behind me, so I move to the side of the trail and crouch in the lee against the wall of a small rock overhang. Here under the ledge, I rig my poncho. Mule pulls in ten minutes later, shivering uncontrollably and soaked to the bone. We tie his tent fly to my poncho to enclose a small area beneath the ledge. The wind is now driving the rain at full gale force as it roars, howling and shuddering around and above us. Our makeshift shelter is being ripped and attacked as the storm increases in intensity. We are both soaked and the cold sets its grip as we huddle together. The sky has turned dark as night and the temperature continues to drop, turning the rain to sleet. I find some dry sticks and leaves lodged in the cracks and crannies between the rocks around us and am able to get a small fire going, aided by a chip of fire starter that I have been toting along. We remain huddled over this little bit of glimmer unable to move for more than three hours as the storm continues to tear at our makeshift shelter. By now it is three o’clock.
We can’t remain here much longer. We have got to get down off this mountain and find a place to pitch in the lee before dark. Surely this storm will show mercy and permit us to break from its grip. Finally, the wind seems to tire, and as it backs down a bit, we make a run for it. We’re able to get down into a little cove in the lee and pitch our tents. I even manage to get a pathetic little fire going again to prepare supper and to dry our bodies a little before rolling in. This day has been a wild and scary ordeal that will be remembered for a very, very long time! Thank you Lord for seeing me through this one!
“There is a line by us unseen,
That crosses every path;
The hidden boundary between
God’s patience and his wrath.”
[J. Addison Alexander]
Wednesday—March 18, 1998
Location—Lamont Motel, Piedmont
We finish the remaining two miles of the Official Alabama Pinhoti Trail at US278 by 10:30 a.m.
The forecast is for thunderstorms and continued cold wind. We‘ve got that in spades. Mule wants to hitch a ride into Piedmont, get provisions and stay overnight there. I want to head on north. I figure I’m at least a day behind already. Mule offers to treat me to supper and put me up in his room, so reluctantly I go for the deal. We try hitching for over an hour with no luck, then end up walking four miles to the nearest gas station. Here we get a ride to Piedmont with Buck Jennings, the station owner. We have a fine meal at Ranch House and Mule gets the provisions he needs to get into Cave Spring, Georgia. I thoroughly expect the next couple of weeks, from here on into Springer Mountain to be a problem weather-wise, but resolve to just take it a day at a time and hope for the best.
“There are some who can live without wild
things, and some who cannot.”
Thursday—March 19, 1998
Location—Springhead, end of new trail, Indian Mountain
We’re greeted by fog and mist as we leave Lamont Motel. There’s no luck hitching again so we’re faced with another three-plus mile roadwalk back to Spring Garden Station. We’ve hiked nearly eight miles now in the last two days, not an inch of which has been on the trail. I should be leaving Cave Spring, Georgia by now and it’s at least another day to the state line. At the station we’re in luck. The Rhinehart brothers, Robert and Jeff, give up a ride back to the trailhead parking lot on US278. It’s now late morning as we head east on the highway for a short roadwalk to continue the Pinhoti Trail north over Davis Mountain. Neither of us sees the trail junction. We climb US278 all the way to the next gap before I finally realize what has happened. So now we backtrack the half-mile as I try not to get steamed. We’ve now managed to hike almost ten miles to do a half-mile of actual trail!
The hike over Davis Mountain is very enjoyable. As we make the ford at Hurricane Creek I can hear and ORV in the distance. It comes to near where we’re crossing and stops. Mule wades right through as I pull up to change to my running shoes. Salem Church Road is right across the creek and as I come along behind Mule he’s at the road talking to two men who have just returned to their vehicle on the ORV. Here I meet Bill Burks and Mike Hinson with the Alabama Department of Conservation, State Lands Division. They’re both working on the Forever Wild program which has been successful with recent land acquisitions for the Pinhoti Trail, making it possible to continue the trail to the Georgia state line. As I’m drying my feet and putting my boots back on, I learn from Bill and Mike that in 1992, 84% of the voters in Alabama passed the Alabama Forever Wild Land Trust Program. Through a constitutional amendment this enabled funding of up to $15 million per year through the year 2000 for setting aside wildlife areas. Mule and I will be the first hikers passing through this section. Some of the trail is completed, but tomorrow we’ll be bushwhacking where the trail is not yet constructed. I’m given a copy of their department’s great magazine Outdoor Alabama, in which Mike Leonard’s fine article appears. They are excited to see us, for tomorrow, R. Michael Leonard’s dream will become a reality, for tomorrow it will happen, The Appalachian Trail Connection, as Mule and I hike on into Georgia…and into Alabama hiking history! What a remarkable coincidence meeting these gentlemen. What farsightedness and what a grand program. Thanks—people of Alabama!
We make it to the end of the newly constructed trail on Indian Mountain, and here, just below the last Pulaski cut we pitch for the evening by a clear, cold-running spring. Tomorrow we’ll be sighting over a compass and following Marty Dominy’s redlined topo maps.
“Alabama to me is the biggest biodiversity story
of North America today…This is the 20th Century
[Paul Hartfield, Endangered Species Biologist, USFS]
Friday—March 20, 1998
Location—Cave Spring, Georgia
Fortunate for us we are in a protected ravine and we’ve both pitched in old blowdown holes. For during the night one of the most intense electric storms that I have ever witnessed crashes and reverberates through the mountains, passing directly overhead. The lightning frequency is such that one can literally read by it. As to the thunder, there is no silence but a steady and continuous roll as wave after stampeding wave herds through. The wind follows, pulsing in like fashion bringing bucket brigades of rain slamming against my little shelter. The madness of it seems to continue for hours though I am sure the time is much less. We both roll out at first light. The storm has moved off to the east and across the mountain and the sky is clearing above us. Departing trail’s end, but before bushwhacking on over Indian and Flagpole Mountains I stop to leave a note for the Alabama Trails Association trail builders thanking them for their dedication and work, and for this fine trail.
The wind remains, but the weather is clear for this first bit of bushwhacking. Once on Flagpole Mountain there’s a trail coming up from a cove below and we pass an old hunt camp. Here we stop to rest for awhile and to enjoy the splendid view into Georgia. The route as marked by Marty takes us over the top and along the ridges and saddles. The area is rocky and thick with brush, but the rugged jumble at the higher vantages provides breathtaking vistas, the finest so far since the bluffs at Cheaha. This indeed will be a grand finale to a most grand trail, the Alabama Pinhoti Trail. Take her right over the top boys, that’s what Myron Avery would have done!
I track back and forth for ten minutes or better, trying to find a survey cut or some other evidence indicating where the state line crosses. But there is none, so I estimate as best I can where I believe it to be and Mule and I linger and have a grand time building a rock cairn. We spend maybe twenty minutes, but it takes us an hour and twenty minutes, for this is also the line between the Eastern and Central Time zones…so we lose an hour.
We reach Cave Spring by 2:30 p.m., get our mail and have a good hot meal. Here we find out about the storm of last night. It seems the storm continued southeast into Georgia leaving a path of destruction and fourteen fatalities along the way. In Murrayville, where the kind lady who has been transcribing my journal entries teaches computer classes, the storm did incredible damage. For, when she arrived at school this morning she found that her classroom was completely gone, the school destroyed! The fact that the storm passed in the middle of the night when no one was at school prevented an unthinkable disaster.
Mule is just not up to this bushwhacking and there is much bushwhacking ahead if I’m to stay on the planned route for the Georgia Pinhoti. Much of the trail north of here in the Armuchee Range and through the rugged Cohutta Mountains to the east is yet to be completed. We’ll work up a roadwalk so he can reach the Appalachian Trail at Springer Mountain by a better route.
“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead
where there is no path and leave a trail.”