Benton MacKaye Trail

Monday—March 30, 1998
Trail Day—89/1
Trail Mile—1355/14
Location—Home of Leroy and Kathy Rice, Cherrylog

What another wonderful day! Hiking in this kind of weather is grand. Spring is indeed my companion again. As she greets me once more, and to brighten her debut, does she add gaiety to the occasion. For now I find dainty little wildflowers in profusion, like so much garland, gracing the trail all along. Small, fragile stars are they in yellow, blue, and violet. The trees are starting to bud, so the blackberries. The white bloom of the serviceberry is lighting up the gray wood, pushing the somber monochrome of winter to the wings. Ahh, and the dogwood! The dogwood cannot be far behind. And to add sweet music, the grouse are drumming everywhere.

I’m having much difficulty adjusting to marked trail again. I’ve become accustomed to seeing no blazes, but rather to the need for being constantly tuned to compass bearings and contour changes. My map and compass were my guide, telling me where to head, which way to literally blaze the trail. Now I need no focus, no concentration…for there is the path, like the yellow brick road! What effort does it take to stay on a path so beaten down, the task presented being no more than to spot the bright white blazes painted on near every tree? If I want to know my location now, I simply take my map and compass and look back to see where I’ve been! This passive exercise requires no alertness. There is no need for skills that have been honed to proud fineness, no need for keenness of senses, no awareness required here! What has replaced this constant drama, the excitement and the unknown of it, is nothing more than a resigned reenactment of someone else’s trailblazing creativity, someone who passed this way many years ago. Here’s a whole different rhythm, for now all that needs be done is to simply fill in the dots! Have I become just a blunt-headed pencil, drawing so many lines?

Hiking now is like what I’ll be dealing with on the Appalachian Trail (AT), lots of ups and downs and sideslabbing going every direction. When I tell folks I’ve hiked over a thousand miles from the Everglades the comment is, “It isn’t that far to south Florida.” I say, “Maybe not as the crow flies or even as the highways go, but the trail drifts along more like the butterfly, in every direction and with frequent regularity.”

I am saddened to see the BMT so badly damaged by ORV (quad-trac) use. The section south of Halloway Gap looks more like a road than a trail with the buildup of berms and ruts, and I see nothing being done to stop it. Perhaps ORVs are permitted here, as there are no signs as at other gaps. That would be strange however, for motorized use to be permitted on a trail named in honor of Benton MacKaye. That would be anathema to all he professed and believed. Ask anyone in the Forest Service about Benton MacKaye and they will proudly tell you that of all his titles, of all the hats he wore, he was first, last, and foremost, a forester!

The trail through the Sisson development is delightful. A shelter, covered bridge, chapel, decks and walkways right on the trail. Someone here must be a hiker! A good friend of mine lives in Cherrylog, just down from where the trail crosses the railroad tracks. So I take a detour and head there along the old grade. Leroy Rice has worked in logging most all his life. I’ve never seen anyone handle a chainsaw with the sheer skill and finesse this man possesses. He has taught me much of this technique, not the least of which is the proper method of sharpening a chain…in the woods, on the ground, bogged in mud. Some of you folks will remember the old galvanized wash tubs. Well, Leroy has these things chock full of used up and worn out saw chains! When I saw this incredible display one day, I asked him, “Leroy, why in the world have you saved all this junk, the chains are shot, they’re wore out?” With a sigh, he lamented, “I just never could bring myself to tossing ‘em out!” So, there they are. What an incredible history book for all to read! Bad arthritis took him away from log bucking a few years ago and he now works at a lumberyard in Jasper. So here I sit on his porch this afternoon, catching up on my journal entries, waiting for him to get home from work.

Well, I s’pect you can tell that Leroy is my very good friend. And indeed he is…for today he’s good for a hot tub of water and a much-needed bath, and a few tall frosties! I am dearly looking forward to another trip to the Pink Pig BBQ but alas, Leroy says they’re closed on Mondays. Instead, he and Kathy and I load in his pickup and head for Blue Ridge for a fine steak dinner at Circle “J.” Oh yes, plenty of good old soft ice cream, too! Thanks dear friends for you kindness and hospitality. These “don’t know you’re coming” kind of friends are the very best by far!

“Pour, pour of the wine of the heart, O Nature
By cups of field and of sky,
By the brimming soul of every creature—
Joy-mad dear Mother, am I.”

[David Atwood Wasson, Joy-month]

 

Tuesday—March 31, 1998
Trail Day—90/2
Trail Mile—1373/32
Location—Ravine with small spring near Tipton Mountain

We’re up at dawn and as Leroy heads to work he drops me off at Sisson, saving me the mile hike back up the railroad grade. Thanks Leroy and Kathy, we had a grand time! I’ve got a tough pull right off the bat this morning from Weaver Creek Road to the top of Rocky Mountain, over 1,400 feet in 3.5 miles. I fully expected my legs and my wind to be in top condition by now, having hiked over 1,300 miles. But I’m just not ready for the strenuous demands of these long, rugged uphills. The fact that I’ll be 60 years old this fall is going to be my excuse.

What started out to be a nice day is quickly turning very gray. My friend in West Virginia would say, “It’s a’darkin over.” By 10:30 a.m. steady drizzle comes and it appears there’ll be more company soon. As I pass a long row of summer cabins down Stanley Creek the deluge begins. I can see the screen door ajar on the back porch of one of these little retreats across the way, so I head over to get out of it. I am fortunate to be out of this downpour. As I settle back on the porch floor with my head on my bedroll, the sound of the creek and the steady rain on the tin roof sent me away on a two hour nap. When I awake the sky is clearing and I’m able to resume my hike past many lovely summer homes and mountain cabins along Stanley Creek.

The Toccoa River is crossed the first time by passing over the old iron box-frame Shallowford Bridge. This well-maintained bridge brings back childhood memories of similar bridges that were very common at river crossings near my home in the Ozark Hills of Missouri. I can remember how all of them would shake, rattle and make a joyful sound when vehicles passed. I used to ride my bicycle down to the old Rockhouse Bridge to play around and listen to the cars and trucks go by. The bridge is gone now, replaced by a concrete slab that will never shake and rattle. So here I find myself standing, waiting around again, much as in bygone days, hoping for a vehicle to pass so I can once again listen and reminisce to that shake, rattle and the joyful sound. Oh, and I’m in luck, for here comes an old pickup now. I close my eyes as it passes. And as the old bridge shakes and rattles, there’s that unmistakable, joyful sound! For just this moment it is once again the endless days of summer and I’m a barefoot boy…playing on the old Rockhouse Bridge. As I head on up the road, another vehicle crosses and that delightful far away sound from another place and time echoes true once more. Continuing on my way and with tears in my eyes now I’m thinking; isn’t progress sometimes such a sad thing.

There’s another good pull from Dial Road, up Brawley Mountain; over a thousand feet in a little over two miles. Recent tornadoes, probably spawned by the same storm that killed all the folks in Hall County has ripped the tops out of trees and made a most incredible tangle of brush everywhere. Nature can be so quirky, making breathtakingly beautiful offerings in one spot and ghastly and dismal display in another. I have to pitch camp tonight in the latter. The ground is uprooted, brush all around, ruts, gullies and mud everywhere. Miraculously however, right in the middle of all this staggering destruction is this small, clear running spring. So here I stay for the night. No sooner do I get supper cooked and my tent up than the deluge starts again. It rains hard all night.

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread,
places to play in and places to pray in, where
nature may heal and cheer and give strength
to body and soul.”

[Muir]

 

Wednesday—April 1, 1998
Trail Day—91/3
Trail Mile—1388/47
Location—Campsite in Hemlock, Toccoa River Suspension Bridge

Mud is everywhere, what a glorious mess! Light brown camo will be the color of the day—tent, pack and me! Although I’m on the BMT, it’s bushwhacking time again. Nature has really worked the trail over with brush, blowdown and mud-choked ruts. Here the expression, “this is slick,” carries a less-modern connotation. Easy does it. With patience—and much flexibility—I manage my way through, around and over the worst of it. Fate and the Good Lord spared me this devastation as the storm passed over me on Indian Mountain last month.

Hiking seems to be getting easier on the legs. They’re coming up to the task and the uphills aren’t whipping me nearly as bad…but come early afternoon I have the thousand-foot climb from Skeenah Gap up Rhodes Mountain in less than two miles. I’ve managed to eat my way through most of the provisions lugged out of Dalton a week ago, so my pack isn’t nearly as cumbersome. As I turn from Payne Gap towards Skeenah Gap I pass the northernmost point on this leg of the journey, almost reaching North Carolina. Heading almost due south now I’m bound for Springer Mountain and home! . I’m so anxious to see the AT, Springer, and my little place in the Nimblewill again.

The second crossing of the Toccoa River is at the remarkable and picturesque hiker suspension bridge. The roaring river, stately hemlock, and this manmade structure reside in pure complement! Man and Ma Nature seldom engage to work such side-by-side harmonious repose. The BMT certainly has much to offer those who venture along its path. I pitch for the evening at the delightful campsite beneath the hemlock, near the bridge on the banks of the roaring Toccoa. There’s plenty of drift for a campfire, and as twilight withdraws, my fire creates light, which casts the most dignified glow o’er this whole scene. Quiet contentment and restful sleep are a wonderful combination!

“No outdoorsman attains freedom as completely
as the backpacker…you can walk with the wind,
stand with the trees, or pause with the silence.”

[Bill Riviere, Backcountry Camping]

 

Thursday—April 2, 1998
Trail Day—92/4
Trail Mile—1402/61
Location—Springer Mountain, Southern Terminus, Appalachian Trail

Today is another day of great excitement. As I approach Long Creek Falls where the Benton MacKaye joins the Appalachian Trail I hear voices. As I near I see hikers heading north, laden with gargantuan packs, bound for Mount Katahdin, Maine. I wait for them to pass, for I want to savor this moment alone as I stand looking at this first familiar white rectangular blaze. The fifth leg of this odyssey has ended and in a moment I will set foot on the grand old Appalachian Trail. It has taken 92 days and nearly 1,400 trail miles to arrive at this point, but I am here. Through miles of lonely, mud-filled trail, through relentless rain, through snow and cold, through the shove from the winds of countless 18-wheelers along countless miles of highway, I now stand where I can see that familiar white blaze; and I stand in humbleness and thanks as I look…the AT, I am here at last. I am tying it all together, the trail I hope will someday become known as the ECT, the Eastern Continental Trail, a continuous footpath stretching near the entire breadth of the eastern North American Continent.

As I turn south and head towards Springer Mountain the trail is no longer mine alone. Over the past 91days, I have seen three scout packs and three other backpackers, including Mule. Now there’s a steady stream heading north on the AT bound for Katahdin. In less than an hour I meet no fewer than a dozen northbounders. There is Bryan, Flatlander, Cowboy, Mt. Muz and Panhandle Patty. I meet Chris, Yertle, (and I yack and yack), Patches, Squish-Squash, and Red. I ask Mt. Muz, an old fellow about my age, to stop a minute, but looking over his shoulder as he keeps pounding on, he says, “Can’t stop now, got a long ways to go!” Ahh, yes dear friend, indeed you have!

What a wonderful, pleasant surprise, for just before arriving at Cross-Trails, who comes gliding along but none other than Dave Skookum Irving and his dog, Baxter. They’re back for another season as the ridge runners for the Georgia section of the AT. I’d met Skookum during one of my many trips up Springer Mountain last year. We linger and have much to discuss. I arrive late evening and pitch on the summit of Springer Mountain. As the shadows lengthen and evening wanes, the sky is set ablaze with one of the most colorful sunsets I’ve ever witnessed over these timeless Appalachians. What a glorious, rewarding day!

“Paradise is the here and now, the actual,
tangible, dogmatically real Earth on which
we stand. Yes, God Bless America…”

[Edward Abbey]

 

Friday—April 3, 1998
Trail Day—93/5
Trail Mile—1402
Location—Springer Mountain, Southern Terminus, Appalachian Trail

I’m up at 5:30 a.m. full of excitement, anxious to get started on the six hour cross-county bushwhack off Springer Mountain, down Lance Creek ravine to Bull Mountain (horsy-bike) Trail and home! But Mother Nature has other plans. Thunder is rumbling nearby…that ominous, hollow sound of mountain thunder, and I see almost constant lightning. The wind starts up and comes driving through. I’m crouched by my tent, feverishly stuffing my sleeping bag, trying with all effort to break camp, get my raingear on and get off the summit before this next blast hits. But with the wind comes cold driving rain and it’s all I can do to get my bag back out and roll right back in behind it before getting soaked. The full fury of the storm slams the summit. I spread-eagle in my tent to keep the wind from ripping it from the ground. The storm seems incessant and my arms and legs ache and are near spasm as I fight against the lifting force of the storm.

El Nino has followed me, dogged me all the way to Springer Mountain, and now in total glee does she keep me pinned to the ground, causing me to shudder in uncontrollable fright. Finally, the initial blast passes and as I lay here frustrated and fretting, I’m thinking, “Lets just go for it, your gonna get soaked and half froze, but it’s only six more hours and then you’re home.” In no rush to respond to this impulsive urge, and as the morning passes, more rational judgment prevails. For I realize there is no way to make it down in this weather. The bushwhack starts in the first saddle below on the blue-blaze to Amicalola Falls State Park. Bailing off there the drop is precipitous, most-near straight down through rocks and briars and brush for three-quarters of a mile. It’s a tough nut under ideal conditions, and these are far from ideal. So here I stay, so close to home…but not today.

With age comes patience, a grand virtue indeed. I am finally able to emerge again around 4:00 p.m., the wind still kicking. The break in the storm gives me a chance to get some water, prepare a hot meal, and make a much-needed dash to the privy. Unfortunately though, there is not enough time to bushwhack off the mountain before dark. So here I stay again another night as the wind and rain continue.

Time’s such a ‘plexing medium,
It’s off and then it’s on.
At times there seems so much of it,
Yet when you turn, it’s gone.

[N. Nomad]

 

Saturday—April 4, 1998
Trail Day—94/6
Trail Mile—1402
Location—My Home at Nimblewill Creek, near Springer Mountain

Somehow, even with all the anticipation and excitement I have managed to sleep the night, for I do not rise until 7:30 a.m. The rain has stopped but the wind continues. The summit is shrouded in heavy moisture-laden clouds that continue roaring through, and the temperature is 34 degrees. Of the seven-day’s provisions (stretched to nine) toted from Dalton I have a little rice and a small helping of macaroni left. I have to get off the mountain today. The wind chill for 35-degrees/30-mph wind is five degrees, and I believe it. The wind is very cold, much colder it seems than the 14-degree morning in the snow on Cheaha Mountain. My hands and fingers are ignoring my signals and I have difficulty packing my wet tent and fly.

Fortunately, the bushwhack this morning is down the lee side of the mountain away from the wind. Once into the descent, conditions improved considerably. I am soon out of the cloud-swirl and the rocks, brush and blowdowns present little difficulty. The rain threatens all morning but for some reason holds and I am able to get off the mountain to the warmth and comfort of my little place at Nimblewill Creek. Here friends and family share my joy. Ahh, a warm shower, good food and my own bed! I’ll rest here a week or so, get my affairs in order for the remainder of the year, then I’ll bushwhack Springer again to continue this odyssey as I journey on north o’er the Appalachian Trail to Baxter Peak, Maine.

“So Thou shouldst kneel at morning dawn
That God may give thy daily care,
Assured that He no load to great
Will make thee bear.”

[Anna Temple Whitney]

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