Saturday–September 2, 2000
Location–Seven Lakes Drive (second crossing), thence to Joe Mercurio’s Home, Bear Mountain, New York
I had a most restful stay at Graymoor, sleeping soundly as the rain, which began shortly after my arrival, continued into the night. Father Fred comes at seven-thirty to take me to breakfast, where we enjoy a few short moments together, and as always, as it inevitably must, that time comes. Father Fred walks to the door with me, and after a prayer for my continued safe passage, we bid farewell. Father Fred, you have been so generous and kind to me. Thank you for caring, and for your prayers. There is no way I can ever repay you, but is it not such a wonderful debt!
Today is another day full with anticipation. For today I will see my son’s friend and my very dear friend, Joe Mercurio. Joe is a retired New York City police officer. After retirement he moved to Florida, taking a job as bailiff with the Brevard County Sheriff’s Department. Here he met my older son, Jay. I first met Joe when he accompanied my son on one of his visits to Georgia, and it was then that Joe and I became good friends. Joe lives right next to the Bear Mountain Bridge now, and when he found out I’d be hiking right by his place, he invited me to give him a call, and to stay with him on my way through. So I’ve made the call, and this morning I’ll see Joe at Bear Mountain Inn. There we’ll make plans for him to pluck me from the trail this evening.
Departing Graymoor, I’m on the trail by eight, to begin the climb up South Mountain. It’s over seven miles to Bear Mountain Inn. Plans are to meet Joe there between ten and eleven, but the trail this morning is full of up-rocks and down-rocks, making progress agonizingly slow. I hasten along with much difficulty, stumbling all the while as I break in a new pair of New Balance 803s. New Balance is on of my kind sponsors, and they had sent a new pair of their great shoes to me in care of Father Fred at Graymoor. Most folks have a problem with their feet swelling, requiring larger boots as they go to new ones, but I’ve stepped down a half size. This is going to work much better, but my poor toenail-less doggies are barking as they take a pounding this morning. The treadway finally shows some mercy, and as I hasten my pace, I’m able to arrive at the Inn by ten-thirty. Joe is waiting for me with hot coffee and a buttered roll. I sneak up on him, and he must turn as I surprise him by coming around the Inn the back way. We spend a few moments together, making plans for him to come for me at Seven Lakes Drive at three.
I have several hard pops left today, over Bear Mountain, Black Mountain and Goshen Mountain, but the slower pace I’ve keyed into the schedule proves very doable, bringing me to Seven Lakes Road right on time. Joe comes to get me, and in only moments we’re at his little hideaway overlooking Bear Mountain Bridge.
Joe has just purchased the old place, and he’s smack in the middle of the labor-of-love fix-it-up phase. I estimate the project at a million bucks, but then the view down and across the Hudson to Anthony’s Nose, along with the grand sweep of the river all the way to the magnificent Bear Mountain Bridge, is worth every bit of that. The thunderstorm returns again. I am so happy to be out of it. Joe prepares a great feast. In awhile his brother John and sister-in-law Jean come by. What a grand time we have. I am not lonely this day!
Sunday–September 3, 2000
The rain came hard again last evening, much thunder and lightning, with one strike hitting very close by. The scene kept changing constantly across Anthony’s Nose and down to Bear Mountain Bridge. I watched, greatly relieved to be out of it as twilight descended and the storm moved through. Joe, you’re got such a special place here. It’s going to be a great hideaway. Thanks for sharing it with me, and thanks for your kindness and friendship!
Pavel Litvinov and I have made plans to hike together today. We had met back on Mount Moosilauke. Pavel insisted we get together, and that I permit him to entertain me while passing through New York. With plans for the day made, Joe drops me back at Seven Lakes Drive, and I head south. In an hour or so, Pavel will begin hiking north from Lakes Road, on the other side of Mombasha High Point. If the timing is right, we should meet on or near Arden Mountain.
Both Pavel and Denis, though in their sixties, are in excellent physical condition, and we move along at a brisk pace. Hiking with these well-conditioned athletes is making for a most enjoyable day. The afternoon passes quickly, and we are soon at Lakes Road and Pavel’s car.
Here I meet Pavel’s wife, Julia. In the evening she prepares a wonderful meal for Pavel, Denis and me. Umm, fried chicken and fresh corn on the cob! Thanks, folks, thanks so much for your kindness.
Monday–September 4, 2000
We’re up early, and after a fine breakfast, Pavel and I begin the long drive back to the trail. It is so good making and having new friends, but it is so difficult bidding them farewell, knowing you may never see them again. Good-bye Pavel. Your friendship will remain in my memory. Indeed, meeting you and sharing your company has been a most pleasant part of this odyssey.
I remember Cat Rock and the Pinnacles from ’98, their high-flung boulders making such a rugged and picturesque presentation. Another beautiful day, and the views are spectacular.
Yet another state passes beneath my feet as I depart New York to enter New Jersey. At the Wawayanda Shelter I find an entry in the register with a note from Dan Sheltowee Rogers. Sheltowee hiked the AT in ’99, and through correspondence and numerous visits, we have become good friends. Sheltowee lives in Jersey now, and he has invited me to spend some time with him while hiking through. I’ll give him a call later today.
I’ll be at Larry Luxenberg’s this evening. I met Larry at Trail Days a couple of years ago. More recently, he has taken me under his wing and has provided guidance and advice for my upcoming book. Larry is the author of Walking the Appalachian Trail, He has written the foreword for Ten Million Steps.
I have allowed eight hours for the hike today, more than ample time to hike the sixteen miles, for I don’t want to keep Larry waiting at Barrett Road, the planned pickup point. As the time and the miles pass, it appears I’ll arrive over an hour early, giving me time to relax and work my journal entries and correspondence. But as I near Barrett Road, the day has other plans for me as the sky darks over and the rain begins. I hasten to don my poncho as the sky opens, and as I reach Barrett Road I sit hunched under my poncho as the rain comes steady and hard. Larry arrives a little early, and I’m relieved to get out of it. Along for the ride are Larry’s sister, Deborah, and his two sons, Eli and Seth.
The trip back is another long one, over many roads and highways, to reach Larry’s home in New City, New York. But the time passes quickly as we’re all full of chatter, enjoying each other’s company. Waiting for us at Larry’s are his wife, Freida, their daughter, Adina, and Deb’s husband, Steve. I no sooner shower than the table is set. Larry has prepared burgers and steaks. Oh, am I fed well! Larry hiked the AT in 1980, and he knows all about a hiker’s appetite. What a feast they’ve prepared. In the evening, I call Sheltowee, and we make arrangements to spend time together tomorrow. What a great day this has been!
Tuesday–September 5, 2000
This will be a very long day for Larry. He’s suited up for work, but first he must drive me all the way back to Barrett Road before heading off to Gotham City on his two-hour commute. On the ride to the trail, we talk of many things. Larry has been such a help to me, my mentor if you will, giving of his time freely, guiding and directing me as I work through the throes of writing a book. His advice has been invaluable. Thanks Larry, and thanks–the Luxenberg family. You have all been so very kind to me!
Jersey is still smooth going, but as the day progresses, the ride starts getting a little bumpy–not the notorious rocks that lie ahead, but an introduction!
I had planned on going into Unionville, but Sheltowee suggested I spend the evening at Jim’s “Secret Shelter.” And what a great place this turns out to be. I arrive to find a beautiful high meadow right next to the trail, old fruit trees and lush grass all around. And a short way up, set perfectly against the mountain, two small, neat cabins, one just for hikers, with running water, hot shower, lights, and a cozy, warm loft for sleeping. I arrive a little after three, make myself at home, and retire to the shade of an old walnut to do a little reading and to work some correspondence. In just awhile comes Jim Murray, the proud owner. He is just returning from an afternoon hike. We spend enjoyable time together, talking trail and gear.
I can’t resist the loft and a late afternoon snooze, and I’m quickly in hiker’s dreamland. Shortly comes a knock on the little cabin door. It’s Sheltowee with pizza and some cold frosties. Another great friend, another great time, another great day!
Wednesday–September 6, 2000
As I’m sitting, tending to my daily duty this morning, the privy door open, and as I look to the high meadow above the little cabins, I see three fawns cavorting under the old fruit trees there. And by the far upper meadow, where the field gives back to the wood, a dozen turkey, slowly forage along. The day has dawned clear, but with a chill in the air, no better time for a hike!
Climbing to High Point, the rocks come on. This is the beginning of what a well-worn phrase describes as the “rocky road.” Get used to it, dear feet. After nearly two weeks of this brutality, hard and steady, coming at us, you’ll think you’ve been planted here!
By three I’ve done twenty-one miles. “‘Tis enough of this rocky ricochet!” my weary feet exclaim, so I head for Worthington’s Bakery. They were closed when I came through in ’98, so I’m really looking forward to finally sampling some of their fine confections. But alas, a cardboard sign taped to the door reads, “Closed Wednesday, September 6th. Open again Thursday.” I just can’t win with these folks. Looks like they’ve closed especially for me. The sign should have read, “Closed today, because Nomad’s comin’ through.” But I’ll hit ’em in the morning! Right next is Gyp’s Tavern. So I head there. Oh my, what joy, Yuengling Premium on tap. The rocks aren’t going to be all that bad!
I get a ride right away to the Forest Motel. This has been a long, hard day. My feet are sore. I am very, very tired. Sleep comes soon.
Thursday–September 7, 2000
Five bucks to the family of the motel proprietor gets me the two-mile shuttle back to Worthington’s Bakery, and the trail. The Forest Motel is not the place you want to stay–oops! Well yes, I do remember that momma said, “If you can’t say something nice, try to be quiet.” Okay, so much for Forest Motel.
I’ve yet another clear, sun-drenched hiking day, crispy cool. As I depart, I must don not only my long-sleeve capilene, but my wool shirt as well. Worthington’s Bakery is finally open–and I finally meet Carl Worthington! Carl’s grandparents opened the bakery in 1932, and his father, George, ran it from 1952 until recently, when failing health forced his retirement. Carl runs it now, and we talk as customers come and go, and as I manage to put the dwindle on his coffee, jelly rolls and cookies. I’m not back on the trail until nine-thirty.
The hike today starts off with a bumpy pull, up Rattlesnake Mountain, then levels to a smooth cruise along the ridge. As the climb and the sun both warm me, I stop in the glow of a brightly lit boulder to remove both shirts. As I sit and relax, enjoying the fresh scent of the forest, the calm quiet of the morning, and the gentle sun on my face, it finally happens again–the inspiration to compose–and I quickly get my little PocketMail out, and open it to the memo pad. In ’98, during that odyssey, I experienced countless moments of inspiration as poem after poem found birth within my heart, to flow effortlessly from pen to paper. But this year, many friends have asked why I’ve not shared new ditties with them. And I’ve had to explain that there’s hardly been any. So what a joyful moment, and what a remarkably spiritual occurrence, for as I sit, contemplating the blessings that are mine this day, and as I reach for my water bottle, I glance down at the satin-green moss-covered rock beside me. And there, in the sun’s shining whiteness and the moss’s glistening greenness, in this little cameo-like depression, is there lying this most remarkable cross, formed of simple twigs, perfectly configured and perfectly aligned. At that moment came the inspiration that took only moments to record. It’s entitled, “Spirit of the Mountains.” It will close my journal entry today.
The trail stays the ridgecrest all along for the day, over old roads where once stood dwellings, the faint remnants of driveways and cut-off utility poles–all that remain of a time long past, when this ridge most-assuredly bustled with activity.
From Catfish Fire Tower, I descend the trail to Camp Road and the AMC Mohican Outdoor Center. As I enter, I’m greeted with a smile and a cheerful “hello” from Tiffany Charleson, naturalist-turned-receptionist. Here, also this evening, are southbounders Greenjeans and Hymettus. The bunkhouse is a jam-up affair. Plenty of room, hot, shove-you-back showers, full kitchen, refrigerator, stove, microwave, the works! Hymettus and I prepare a large pot of veggie and corn-beef soup from odds and ends left in the refrigerator. Greenjeans joins us for supper, and we have a grand time of it. A shower, shampoo and a braid job by Tiffany, and I’m in for the evening. What a glad, happy heart hath I this day!
Friday–September 8, 2000
I roll out a little after six, boil water for coffee, and then try getting things together so I can be on the trail at a decent hour for a change. But it’s still seven-thirty before I shoulder my pack to go.
The trail again claims the ridge, providing many fine views to the valley below. As I near Delaware Water Gap, the ridge gradually drops to Sunfish Pond. I put another state behind me today as I pass through the Gap to enter Pennsylvania. Two provinces and seven states behind me, nine states to go to reach Key West.
The roadwalk along I-80 remains vivid in my memory from two years ago. Though made of concrete and steel, this mile-long bridge still shudders and vibrates as the army of eighteen-wheelers roars through, with each passing rig creating its own little tornado. I’m glad to get this roadwalk behind me, to enter the little village of Delaware Water Gap.
I head to the post office for my bounce box, then it’s over to Trail’s End Cafe for lunch. The tavern burned down a couple of years ago, so Yuengling Premium on tap may not be an option this evening.
The Church of the Mountain Hostel is a grand hiker’s haven, and I settle in, get a shower and work on correspondence.
Saturday–September 9, 2000
Everyone’s up and out ahead of me. I tarry, getting my pack ready. What great timing, as Pastor Karen drops by. It’s quiet, and we have a chance to spend some time together. I’d missed meeting her on my northbound hike in ’98, even stopped on my way back south, but she was away for the day. So, it’s a joy having the opportunity to finally meet and personally thank her for her long-term caring and genuine hospitality!
The trail leading south from the Gap is a special place, the climb well worth the effort, the reward being the remarkable vistas. Council Rock and Lookout Rock offer breathtaking views across and down into the Gap.
Past Mount Minsi, and on an old woods road, I see a vehicle approaching. It pulls alongside and stops. Here I meet Brian McDonnell and Gregg Tinkham, Rangers with the National Park Service. As we talk about Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, and about my odyssey, I notice that both of these kind officers are wearing Kevlar vests under their uniforms, and I’m thinking, “Here before me is the reality of it, there’s just no place that’s safe anymore, even out here in the woods and the wilds.”
Today has been a short-distance day, but by no means an easy day, as the rocks of old Blue Mountain really dish it out. Reaching Wind Gap, I turn up the road and head for Pete’s Gateway Motel. I remember Pete and his little place from ’98. I’m tired and anxious to return to such comforts. It’s a short walk, and as I arrive, Pete greets me.
This hike is turning out to be an incredible joy-filled journey, even more so than the ’98 odyssey, if that is possible. In ’98 I shared a room with Rob 100-Pound Stormcloud Peterman, a retired Navy Seal Commander. Pete ran out and brought us back some great Yuengling Premium, then later took us to Sol’s for supper. That was a memorable evening. Seems a rerun is definitely the order of the day, as tonight I split a room yet again with a retired Navy officer–John Hymettus Hutchins. Pete runs for the Yuengling longnecks again, then later takes us to Sol’s for supper! Thanks Pete for being here, and thanks for your kindness and friendship! Another grand day on the trail.
Sunday–September 10, 2000
I manage to get out and on the trail by seven-thirty. The hike today into Palmerton is long, but mostly a cruise over abandoned woods roads atop Old Blue. The hiking days recently have been nothing short of perfect, with today being no exception. As I gain the ridge, I kick up more turkey, and white tail flags seem to be bounding and flying everywhere.
I had been dreading the rocks of Pennsylvania–memories of my ’98 hike. Back then I was carrying entirely too much “stuff,” and wearing heavy boots, and I hadn’t yet perfected the technique of using trekking poles. This year things are different, much different, and even though I’m two years older, I’m handling the rocks with relative ease, even enjoying them!
In the afternoon, I enter the ridge area above Palmerton, the area devastated by decades of zinc smelting in the valley below. Zinc is a very toxic chemical, and after decades of fallout from the smelters, the trees and all other plants began thinning, and then finally disappeared entirely, leaving only barren rock and dead snags everywhere. The day is remarkably bright, but even with such glowing light, the place looks incredibly forbidding and spooky. Water is non-existent here on the ridge, and I’ve run out. My throat is parched and dry, adding to the unpleasantness. The treadway can be seen for great distances ahead as it winds around and through the barren landscape.
Looking up from plodding and dodging the rocks, I see a hiker approaching. I know that I know this man, but I’m confused to see him here, heading north. I stop, and as he passes I ask, “Jamie, is that you.” He interrupts his smooth, effortless stride to answer, “Yes, it is I.” So here I finally meet, and what a joy it is to meet, Mr. Clean! Honey and Bear, at The Cabin in Maine, had told me that I would meet Mr. Clean, but I didn’t believe what they had told me. For you see, he departed on the AT from Abol Bridge on New Year’s Day, headed for Springer Mountain. What I didn’t know was his plan, a plan to take over a year to complete his hike. So, here today, in no-man’s land above Palmerton, Pennsylvania, we finally meet, just as Honey and Bear had predicted, as Mr. Clean returns to his campsite of last to retrieve an article left behind. It’s been great seeing you, Mr. Clean. I know Honey and Bear will sure be pleased!
I distinctly remember the climb from Lehigh Gap. I had to encourage and reassure myself during that ordeal two years ago. I remember looking up at the white blazes as they ascended to the sky, and I was mortified. I recall saying to myself, “You can make it fine over all those straight-up boulders, Nomad. The trail crew got up there with a paint brush and a bucket of paint, and you’ll get up there, too!” Now I’m looking down with the same hesitancy and fear. The trail pitches near straight off through the boulders. All I see is haze and the gaping chasm that is Lehigh Gap far below. Time for more encouragement, more reassurance, another pep talk: “Easy as she goes–don’t look past the next few knee-breaking bail-offs, and you’ll get down through it just fine.” And so I do! Thank you, Lord, for the hand.
At the traffic light by the bridge, and working the traffic coming off the bridge, I get a ride right away, straight to the front door of the grand old Palmerton Hotel. In the bar, and as I adjust my eyes to the dimness, I am greeted once more by Ana Maria, “Take your pack off and have a seat. What would you like.” I sigh that contented sigh of relief as I belly-up, “How’s about a cool glass of that Yuengling draft!”
Monday–September 11, 2000
I enjoyed sharing a room again last night with Hymettus. The upstairs was hot, so we had to open the windows. A carnival was going full-tilt across the street, with all the associated commotion and racket, but just about the time I thought it was going to bother me–it’s this morning!
At the first shelter up from Palmerton, I see EZ-E. He plans on hiking to Hawk Mountain Road, twenty-five miles for the day. I look at the Data Book and the Companion, and decide to do the same, as there’s a bunkhouse just down the road with shower, toilet, lights, and a refrigerator stocked with pop, juice and ice cream. That’s what convinces me to go–the ice cream; I can pull the twenty-five easy with ice cream waiting for me!
The hike today is mostly a cruise, but in some places the ridge is shimmed up with haphazard piles of wicked, wild-angled boulders. Rock hopping is the way through these varied assortments of monuments and headstones, and I’m slowed very little. In fact, the challenge today is to just whack out the miles. No sense taking the numerous short-hop blue blazed side trails for the overlook views. There are no views today. They’ve gone to blazes, as the day settles into a mushy sort of hazy overcast.
It sure doesn’t seem two-tenths of a mile down the road to the little house and outbuildings, property of the Park Service, and managed by thru-hiker, Lazee. I’m there pronto, to shower and settle in. After, I hit the refrigerator a pretty good lick. Lazee comes from work, bringing me fried chicken, ice for my pop, and chocolate cream cups for dessert. Then Diggs stops by, looking for EZ-E, and returns later with a case of Yuengling. Take your time EZ-E! Aww, here he comes.
What a most satisfying day. I’m very pleased with myself! Thanks for boosting me along, EZ-E, and thanks, Lazee and Diggs!
Tuesday–September 12, 2000
The little outbuilding that has been converted to a shelter here at Hawk Mountain Road is most comfortable. There are bunks for six, a table, library, lights and a lounge chair. I was the only guest. EZ-E went off with Diggs. Lazee came over again last evening with this year’s album, a well-organized and quite comprehensive collection of photos. I was surprised to find the number of folks I recognized, most all “Class of 2000” northbounders.
Lazee had mentioned that showers were in the forecast, and sure enough toward morning I heard the rain, first gentle, then hard on the shelter roof. The morning dawns in a fog. Lazee is up and out to his day job, and I manage to get out and back on the trail.
It would be very easy to be very disappointed with this day, as the fog and mist hold, making for wet everything, especially the rocks. There are no views. I must admit some dismay, however, as I was looking forward to seeing the raptor migration at Hawk Mountain. It is peak season right now for southern migration of the more than 17,000 raptors along the Kittatinny Ridge, especially the broadwing, bald eagle, osprey and kestrel; but alas, it was not to be this day.
Another old familiar friend has begun gracing the trail the past few days: the lush, broad-leaved rhododendron. I know that I am making progress now in my journey south, the mountain laurel and rhododendron being the proof of it. The forests of spruce and fir provided a scenic landscape, and the trails there have certainly fulfilled all of my expectations, but the southern Appalachians are my mountains and I am encouraged now by the changing vegetation and terrain–I’m heading home.
The sky continually threatens, but the rain holds, leaving the mist, fog and mush. Progress is slowed by the accompanying treachery the wetness brings to the rocks, but I arrive safely at Port Clinton by one. The little town hasn’t changed much; the Port Clinton Hotel remaining the same, much as during my previous hike. Paul and Billie Ann are excited to see me again, and I’m welcomed with open arms. That makes for a good day, one that would otherwise have been labeled just another get-on-south day.
Wednesday–September 13, 2000
After a few Yuengling Premiums and a grand meal at the Port Clinton Hotel last evening, I headed back to my room to work my daily journal entries. I got the pillows stacked and my little PocketMail open and that was it as I fell promptly asleep. In awhile a knock came to my door. It was a young lad with a large bowl of soup, compliments of Billie Ann. Putting that away, I was quickly back in dreamland. I had fully intended to spend more time with my dear friends in Port Clinton, but the old Nomad was just too pooped! Thanks Billie Ann, Paul and Chunky. I had a great stay.
The hike today is pretty much a cruise, just a long day. I’ve got the Pennsylvania rocks pretty much knocked down now as I continue moving south. I’ve perfected a technique that works through the nearly constant jumble of smaller rocks, enabling me to stride out and maintain my three-mile per hour pace. Only the larger monuments and headstones tend to slow me. All care must be taken through these boulder fields, for they can be treacherous. I surely don’t want to bust it now.
I arrive in good order and good time at the 501 Shelter to be promptly greeted by George Shollenberger, caretaker. He has placed the phone on his front porch for me to call the local pizzeria, which I promptly do. I go for the medium Stromboli, a great quantity of food, way too much. So too, the two liter bottle of Mountain Dew. Hiking long distances every day consumes incredible amounts of energy, requiring huge volumes of food. I’m trying to maintain my body weight, but I know I’m losing.
In just a short while Jerry Kodak Brubaker from Bernville, Pennsylvania stops by. He’d hiked some with EZ-E this year before completing his AT thru-hike. He’s come to fetch EZ-E from the trail. In awhile EZ-E comes in, and he and Kodak are on their way.
I have the bunkhouse to myself, a luxury in which I indulge by spreading my stuff all over the place. The large skylight here at 501 is perfect for watching the moonrise, which illuminates the entire room to a chalky, cold brightness. If I were northbound, and in Virginia, I think I’d be suffering now from the “Ginnie Blues.” I know the Pennsylvania rocks are part of it. Certainly, being alone on the trail is part of it. The trail is my home now, but the days are setting in on me and I have such a long distance yet to go. I’m just tired. I need to sleep.
Thursday–September 14, 2000
I had intended hiking to Rausch Gap Shelter today, an eighteen-mile day, but checking my planned itinerary again, I find to my dismay that I have only two days to reach Duncannon, not three. So I must hike on for another four miles, which will leave a long, tough twenty-five mile day tomorrow.
The rocks, boulders, ascents and descents, all are less troublesome, and I make good time, arriving in good order a little past four at a most pleasant and happy brook just past Cold Spring Trail. I pitch for the evening, and get a fine warming and cooking fire going. In short order, I’m once again “home”–yet, once again, I am alone. The joyful little brook, however, proves to be the friendliest companion. I no sooner roll in than Nature’s lights and percussion show arrives, providing the evening entertainment. It is a gentle storm, bringing a rhythmic, comforting patter on the roof of my little Nomad tent. The drama continues, with only occasional interruption, right through to the conclusion of Act III. What a beautiful show! And as the lights dim and the closing curtain drops, I am lifted and winged away to the land of Nod.
Friday–September 15, 2000
The trail glides along quite well for awhile this morning. Then “Old Blue” (Blue Mountain), hackles up, slams me around pretty good again as I clamber through, as Joe Dodge would say, “the jeezly rocks.” Patience and concentration, both in short supply now, must be called on, lest I stumble and tumble, busting vital moving parts. I know my reflexes and balance aren’t what they used to be, and I no longer bounce off things very well. But I do manage, and I do get through.
I am blessed yet again with a perfect hiking day–cool, a gentle breeze, not a cloud in the sky. The views across the ridges and into the valley from Shikellimy Overlook and Table Rock bring reason for pause, offering peaceful repose, encouraging praise to a higher order.
At PA225, comes over me the most pleasant, warm feeling, for as I set foot here again I am stepping onto familiar trail. In the past, and for many years, I worked hard at piecing together what I hoped would someday become a 2000-mile AT section-hike. But the farthest I ever got was a little past the halfway point here at PA225. From this place over fifteen years ago, and for the last few miles into Duncannon, I had the pleasure of hiking with my sister, Salle Anne. We talked of many things that day. It was a happy and joyful time. Our family’s past is here, our heritage here–over ten generations. Pennsylvania was in its infancy then, the times of William Bartram and Benjamin Franklin. Coming from Philadelphia, our forefathers would have known them and would have done barter with them. What a grand and proud heritage. Generations of our family are buried in the shadow of Peters Mountain, the mountain from which I am now descending.
I can hear the grinding din of traffic and the growling rumble of the diesel locomotives as they pass the great gap cut by the Susquehanna and Juniata Rivers. I soon cross the Norfolk Southern Railway and pass under US22 and US322, reaching Clarks Ferry Bridge.
Soon, I’m in Duncannon, location of the grand old Doyle Hotel. The Doyle is such a remarkable and historic old place, a highlight in any thru-hiker’s journey. The Naces, who purchased the old darling from the Doyles in March of this year, have begun extensive renovation to the bar, known as “The Beer Hunter’s Tavern” and to both the large and small ballrooms on the second floor. This once proud and stately old place has stood as a landmark in Duncannon for the last 100 years. Anheuser Busch built it during the halcyon times of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Through luck (and the good graces of time), it has survived adoption by many different owners. And so, the Naces have it now, and what a job they’re faced with. Kirk and Shannon, it’s good to be back again. I wish you great success with the grand old Doyle!
In the evening, and as I lie resting, a knock comes on my door. Glory be, it’s Sheltowee! He has come to spend a couple of days hiking with me as I head south to Boiling Springs. Oh my, prayers do get answered! It will be such a joy having someone to hike with for awhile. “Shannon–a couple of tall Yuenglings, please, Sheltowee and me, we want to celebrate Odyssey 2000!” Great times, great friends!
Saturday–September 16, 2000
I’ve managed to survive another night at the Doyle, none the worse for wear. After a stop at the post office to get my bounce box off to Harpers Ferry, Sheltowee drives us to the AYCE breakfast buffet at the truckstop over the Juniata. What a meal! We’re stoked for the hike today. By the time we’re back to the Doyle, where Sheltowee has made arrangements to leave his truck, it’s almost noon, but not to worry, we’ve planned only an eleven-mile day into Darlington Shelter.
The climb out of Duncannon is rocky and abrupt, but we’re soon at Hawk Rock for a grand view back to the river and the little village sprawled all along. What begins as a cool, clear day for hiking soon turns rainy and cold. We stop to don our raingear, but we’re no sooner going again than the sky clears, the gentle wind warms and dries us, and the day turns blue-perfect once again. The hike goes quickly, and we’re soon at Darlington Shelter. Sheltowee goes for water and I get a cooking fire going. Citrus, Sheltowee’s friend and hiking companion from ’99 comes rolling in toward evening. This is a great surprise for Sheltowee, and we share a great time together. As nightfall descends, and the chill arrives, we crank the cooking fire on up to a warming fire. So now, is there not only the glow from the fire, but that of the evening light, softly radiating the faces of friends. Ahh, and, too, is there that glow from the light that radiates and illuminates the heart–recalling the thoughts of a perfect day.
Sunday–September 17, 2000
The day dawns clear and cold, and we all roll over for a few more winks, hoping for a warming trend in the meantime. We’re finally up by nine, but sticking tight by our sleeping bags. Sheltowee and Citrus venture out and get going around ten. Citrus heads back to his vehicle, so he can pick Sheltowee up later this evening at Boiling Springs. Sheltowee gets out and headed that way. I don’t get cranking until almost ten-thirty.
Sheltowee waits for me along, and together we descend what’s left of old Blue Mountain, to begin crossing the wide, lush valley of the Cumberland. Once a quiet pastoral setting, the valley is now buzzing with traffic and commerce. The trail tries to avoid this hustle by zigzagging through the fields, but the distracting grind is never far away. First it’s PA944, then I-81, then US11, then the Pennsy Pike, then PA641, PA74 and finally PA174. Sheltowee and I take a detour at US11 to head for the Middlesex Diner for lunch. The waitress says they have sweet tea, but it isn’t sweet tea. Oh, am I so looking for that Mason-Dixon Line! After lunch it’s on to Boiling Springs. We arrive at the ATC Regional Office to find Citrus waiting. It’s now suppertime, so off to Anile’s we go for pizza. Citrus then drives me to Mother Hen’s for the evening.
Good-byes are always so tough, but I am uplifted when my good friend, Frank, comes driving up on his way from New York to Florida. This has been a fun-filled and friend-filled day, and I’m just a little further south–sweet tea, where are you?
Monday–September 18, 2000
What a great evening last at Mother Hen’s. I had the whole lower level to myself, a comfortable couch, and plenty of light to write. Got caught up on my journal entries and much correspondence.
There is little of the valley left today, which I cross quickly. It has turned warm with a slight breeze, shaping yet another glorious hiking day. The climbs are now becoming easier and I move with great confidence through what remains of the Pennsylvania rocks. I arrive early at Pine Grove Furnace State Park and must await the caretaker’s arrival for the evening. I sit on the porch enjoying the afternoon. Heading into Pennsylvania I had much anxiety, the hangover from past memories, but as are most demons, the problems never came to be. Nevertheless, it’s a very good feeling having the Pennsylvania rocks behind me. No half-gallon challenge this year, as the little store where the ice cream eating contests take place closed for the season after Labor Day.
The old mansion is all I remember it to be–large, spacious rooms with high ceilings, all neat and tidy. Shawn, the caretaker, has an ear-to-ear grin as he recognizes me. We chat as he shows me all around. He sets me up in the back bunkroom where I have run of the place.
In the kitchen I throw together all the leftovers for one large, tasty pot of veggie soup. Shawn joins me and we enjoy the concoction together–no leftovers!
Trekking is a remarkably rewarding and worthwhile occupation. I am very satisfied with this day.
Tuesday–September 19, 2000
I am awakened early this morning by the wind and rain pelting the window by my bed. I get dressed and stumble out to the kitchen to prepare coffee. Shawn comes down, and we have a chat about our respective modes of transportation, mine–hiking, his–biking. I linger, hoping the storm will clear, but the more I wait the more it appears the day has set to steady rain.
Shawn takes my picture by the Ironmaster’s sign, and I’m out and into it. More ups and downs today, with plenty of rocks and mud mixed in. The rain stays steady, occasionally switching to hard and steady. By late afternoon, at Caledonia State Park, I decide to call it a day. I try hitching to the motel in Fayetteville, there to get cleaned up and dried off, but no luck. I can’t blame any of the hundreds of motorists that pass me by in the next forty-five minutes. I wouldn’t want a wet, smelly hiker messing up my upholstery either; so here I stand, feeling the early stages of hypothermia descending as the eighteen-wheelers blast away at me.
I finally give it up and hike the three miles on to Rocky Mountain Shelters. Here I meet south bounders Frog, Old Sam, Condemn and Little Debby. They make room for me, and I scoot in just before dusk. The rain is still pounding, but I manage to change into reasonably dry clothes, and am thankful to finally be out of it. Great upbeat conversation turns the day.
Wednesday–September 20, 2000
The miles keep clicking away, and today I put another state behind me. Pennsylvania has been a bumpy ride but much less of a challenge than I’d anticipated. I cross the Mason-Dixon Line a little after two. Maryland isn’t really the south, but I’m getting close. Sweet tea, grits, hush puppies and good ole suthn’ fried chicken here I come!
Old Blue Mountain has run its course, and we’re now on South Mountain. The Pennsylvania rocks have now become the Maryland rocks, and in the manner and tradition of old Blue, South Mountain has lots of ups and downs to dish out with plenty to spare, the day providing a steady dosage. I arrive early evening at Ensign Cowall Shelter, and quickly get a cooking fire going. Old Sam comes rolling in just as the last light leaves the mountain.
Cooking and chores all done, we’re in to relax and enjoy the last glow of the day–and of the embers. At around ten, in comes Frog, headlight on. He’s doing the “Maryland Challenge,” a hike that will take him from the PenMar line, clear across Maryland to Harpers Ferry, hopefully within twenty-four hours. Jeez, I’m out here pounding the miles, trying to stay healthy and in one piece, which to most sane individuals, seem mad enough, while these kids are concocting games of it!
Frog wants to get back out at three, but around two, comes up this incredible wind-driven storm–no lightning or thunder, just wave after wave of rain, hammering the shelter from all sides. Frog sticks tight, and we all try sleeping through it. Finally around six the wind relents, the day breaks bright, the storm goes past, and Frog is up and out to Harpers Ferry. He’ll make it in twenty-four if he doesn’t tarry. I need another hour of sleep!
Thursday–September 21, 2000
The water source for Ensign Cowall Shelter is a classic little spring just south on the AT, crystal clear, ice-cold water. But there’s also a little trickle just below the shelter, which I sought out and cleaned out last evening. I can remember momma scolding me for playing in the mud. Ahh, but momma, I always have such a mischievously delightful time playing in the mud! It’s been a great time at Ensign Cowall.
The storm of last has moved on, chased by the gusty wind. As I head toward Black Rock Cliffs, the day warms, but the unmistakable hint of fall is in the air. Far across the ridges, and with the sun playing its angular light against these ancient mountainsides, subtle beginnings of autumn can be detected, the muted shades of red and umber emerging. Fall is a magic time of year, and I am walking into it, the season of harvest and of joy. It is time to give thanks, another season of bounty, and I stop to give thanks to our maker, the creator of it all.
The I’s are passing beneath my feet, another sure sign of progress. And what are the I’s? They’re the interstate highways. I started with I-95 shortly after crossing into Maine from the Canadian border at Fort Fairfield, and now I cross I-70. I’ll eventually work my way all the way down the eastern North American continent as I continue on the AMT, and finally the remainder of the ECT, crossing many more interstate highways in the process–to finally cross I-4 at Alligator Alley in the Everglades. I’ll also see my old friends, US1 and I-95 again, where they begin their northern paths deep in southern Florida.
I stand and I chuckle again, here at the Washington Monument. It was the first erected in Washington’s honor and in his memory, by the patriots of Boonsboro, Maryland. Years ago, rumor has it, that a hiker was overheard saying–as he turned to depart the monument–“What a crock.” Folks, it’s a beautiful overlook, and a great tribute to George Washington. But danged, if it ain’t shaped kinda funny!
Crampton Gap Shelter is my destination today, requiring a good pitch off the mountain. By the time I arrive, I’m closer to the highway than the top of the ridge, what with the whirring lawnmowers, bellowing cows and the near-constant groan on the road below. The shelter has been left a mess, lots of paper and trash scattered about, which I put to immediate good use in preparing a cooking and warming fire in the pedestal-shaped fireplace. Old Sam rolls in, again with the fading shadows of evening. We spend a grand time talking and enjoying the last of this day. As I turn in for the night, and near sleep, through that crossing twilight transcending, I hearken back to childhood, to those endless summer days of childhood, when in the cool of dusk, momma would call me from the dust–or the mud, into her arms, and home.
Friday–September 22, 2000
I manage to get up and on the trail before eight, for I’m hoping to have lunch with Laurie Potteiger, Information Services Coordinator for the Appalachian Trail Conference in Harpers Ferry.
I’m making good time, so I take the blue-blaze trail to Weaverton Cliffs for the one-of-a-kind view down the Potomac. It’s remarkable how the river has cut through South Mountain over the eons. All that remain are the mountain’s backbone and a few ribs! From the cliffs I descend to the C&O Canal Towpath. This hike goes quickly, and I’m soon on the pedestrian bridge over the Potomac.
The hike has gone very well this morning, and I’m at the ATC Center well before noon. Laurie greets me and we’re off for pizza. It’s great seeing this dear friend again as we enjoy each other’s company.
In the evening, I check into the Hilltop House Hotel, have a fine supper, and then retire to my room. Ed Tric Talone has come up to hike a few days with me, and we sit and chat till late. I’m going to try getting back on the trail again tomorrow–easier said than done!
Saturday–September 23, 2000
I manage to make it to the post office just before they close at noon to send my bounce box along to Waynesboro, Virginia. Then it’s back to the ATC Center to sign the register and bid my friends farewell. I’m south bounder #65 to check in.
Tric has gone out well ahead of me, for I’m not back on the trail until twelve-thirty. West Virginia is behind me now as I cross Loudoun Heights into Virginia. Ten states and two Canadian provinces down, six states to go, four on the AT, five on the AMT, and six to finish the ECT. I’ve got my wind; I’ve got my legs; I think I’ve got this trail–but this trail, it’s sure done got me, and the wanderlust, she’s got me–by the bones.
Tric took a detour for a sandwich at Key’s Gap, and we meet up just as I’m crossing the road. I pose as he snaps my picture by the “Welcome to Virginia” sign.
My friend Mogo, who thru-hiked the AT in ’98, is one of the assistant directors at Blackburn Trail Center. I was hoping to spend some time with her again, but she is away for the day. In fact, there’s no one here, so I’ve got the place to myself. I’m settled in by the time Tric arrives in the evening. I’ve made myself at home in the bunkhouse. Tric chooses the porch. I build a warming fire in the little bunkhouse stove and enjoy the relaxing atmosphere of this peaceful, and most serene high-mountain place.
Sunday–September 24, 2000
I manage without the least difficulty to sleep in, not rolling out until after seven-thirty. Tric is up and gone; there’s no one else around.
Blackburn Center is owned and operated by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC). It’s an old cabin resting in a high cove south of Loudoun Valley. For years the job of restoring and modernizing the old place has been an ongoing PATC project. Each time I return, I’m amazed to see the additional work that’s been done. At this visit I find an entirely new porch roof. The old one’s been replaced with the most pleasing forest-green standing seam metal roofing. It covers the entire place–and the project goes on. Scaffolding surrounds one of the stone fireplaces, with new rockwork almost complete. As I look around, taking in the whole scene, a pleasant warmth and contentment comes over me, a nostalgic feeling. Here in this old cabin rests that mysterious, unexplainable ingredient that we all remember and long for, something to do with that secure, safe haven of our childhood, when we were kids without a care.
It’s a short switchback climb to the ridge and the familiar white, rectangular AT blazes, and so a little after nine I’m back on the trail headed south again. The endless jumble of boulders and rocks that have “graced” the trail for what’s seemed countless and endless miles to the north are petering out. And so, isn’t it appropriate that they should have one last grand hurrah, an encore for the big finale, if you will! So, does the trail this day pass Devils Racecourse, a place where demons surely hold their Olympics. Here is a narrow band of rocks coursing down the mountain in a manner so strange, straight as an arrow and rough as the proverbial “cob.” Suffering nightmares, what a bizarre scene!
In just awhile I’m at Bears Den Rocks and the blue-blaze trail to Bears Den Hostel. I look around for what surely must be the resident bear, but he is away. I’m not surprised, for there have been no bear on any of the Bear Mountains I have climbed, nor at any of the other places bearing the name “bear.” I’ve trekked over 6,500miles now on two separate odysseys, and have yet to see my first bear (save the one hanging at Bear’s Lair in Riley Brook, New Brunswick). I’ve even been skunked twice while passing the bear compound at Bear Mountain Zoo. But no matter, it’s a joy to return again to the old Bear Mountain Mansion. What a beautiful restoration by ATC!
Today is the day for the “rollercoaster,” an up and down section of trail south of Blackburn. I haven’t figured it up myself, but I’ve heard say that there are over 5,000 feet of elevation change through here, and I believe it. One ball-buster is no sooner over, than it’s bail off time, to begin the whole rock-slam all over again, but I make it through in good order. Averaging three miles per hour brings me early at Rod Hollow Shelter. I’m surprised to find Tric not here, for this was our planned destination for the day. Instead, I am greeted by Kathryn, a kind lady out for a section-hike in preparation for an AT thru-hike “one of these days.” She has not seen Tric–strange. In fact, other north bounders I met today had not seen Tric, so I’m thinking, “He’ll come bounding in later,” but dark descends and he never comes.
I spend the evening in enjoyable conversation with Kathryn as I prepare a fine fire and a warm supper. She’s on the right track with her preparation, but like all of us as beginners, she’s carrying entirely too much. I remember what Warren Doyle, Jr. said: “The more we carry for our comfort, the more uncomfortable we become.” At least she hasn’t brought a dog along.
With the dimming glow of the fire, and with my tummy full, I tumble in, tired and content.
Monday–September 25, 2000
The cold rain comes during the early morning darkness, a few drops off and on for proper introduction. By first light it is steady, hammering. I linger in my warm and cozy Feathered Friends bag, not wanting to venture out, but by eight it’s apparent that if I’m going to hike today, I’m going to hike in the rain. Tric must have headed back home–smart decision!
The “rollercoaster” is over and it’s a cruise down to Ashby Gap. Here is another dangerous road crossing. I recall vividly almost meeting my Maker here, during a section hike in the eighties. Today it’s another time-it-and-run proposition, but I manage both double lanes safely.
My plans had been to spend the night at the delightful Jim and Molly Denton Shelter. But the rain has slammed me in hard waves all day, never completely letting up. I am wet, cold and tired, and this little gingerbread-like shelter is not a welcome place today, dismally dark, cold and unfriendly–and I am alone. So I decide to beat it on into Front Royal to a warm room where I can get dried out.
I make the twenty-four mile day in good order, though it has not been the most pleasant hike. A kind man slows, looks, then out of pity, stops for me, as I hunch over in the pounding rain. He delivers me straight to Center City Motel, where I Yogi a good room rate. I’m in and I’m out of it for the night. What a blessing! You’ve heard me say before, “There’s no bad days on the trail,” a bit idealistic, I suppose. This day sure put a dent in that philosophy. Thank you, Lord, for seeing me through!
Tuesday–September 26, 2000
I had The Weather Channel on all last evening, watching as the storm tried moving east. It was having little success. It simply kept regenerating as it tussled with the mountains. I’m waiting it out this morning, still watching the weather radar. The forecast is for this gloom to break this afternoon, but it doesn’t look too promising–from the satellite view, or from my view. At ten-thirty I decide to go for it, managing to vacate the motel room by eleven o’clock checkout.
From the motel it’s a few blocks to US522, which leads back to the trail. Along the way I pass an ATM and decide to get a little cash–bad decision. Oh, I get the “Quick Cash” alright, but while I’m counting my money, checking the receipt, and reaching for my card, the machine decides it wants my card back. Just as I’m reaching–slurp! The machine sucks it back in and it’s gone! “Welcome to Wachovia,” reads the message again (So long to you, buster!). In a moment or two, it dawns on me what has happened. This machine has my card and it has no intention of giving it back! I go straight into a dither, spinning around, thrusting my trekking poles to the sky. In a few moments, I manage some composure. I look around and decide to appeal to the kind folks in the Allstate Insurance office right by. The lady listens patiently as I explain my dilemma, then offers to call the bank’s main office for me. The frown on her face is not what I want to see. She explains that the bank sees no urgency in the matter, that I will have to come to the main office (over a mile away), and maybe, just maybe around four-ish, I can get my card back! Well now, are these bankers ever customer oriented.
I thank the lady at Allstate. She points me in the direction of the bank and as I head out, resigned to the whole mess, I glance back over at the ATM. There’s a car parked there with nobody in it, and a big red and white sign that now blocks the entire ATM reads, “Out of Service.” So over I go again. There’s a door on the side of the machine. I hammer on the door–“Anybody in there?” No response. I hammer harder and holler louder, “This machine’s got my card; I want my card back!” Finally from within comes this muffled voice, “You’ll have to wait.” So I wait, and wait, and wait. After five minutes the door opens and a lady from the bank steps out. She explains that indeed she has my card, but in order to get it back I’ll have to go to the main office. I show her my transaction receipt and my driver’s license–no go. After another five minutes of hassle and with all the constraint I can muster, I say “Okay, then just give me a ride to the bank.” “Can’t do that,” she says, as she gets in her car and drives away! I raise my trekking poles to the sky again, gritting my teeth.
The bank is clear across town, a half-hour walk away. As I plod, I plot how I’m going to dismantle the entire bank, starting with the front door. Nearing the bank, better judgment prevails, as visions form as to how I’ll be spending the next extended while in the local clink. Entering the bank, a teller motions me right up. Clearing her throat nervously, and in the most business-like manner, she says, “I think I can help you; you want your card back, don’t you?” Oh my, folks, will you ever be proud of me! I manage to keep my mouth shut, show my ID when she asks for it, and reach for my card courteously. Then, having spoken not a single word, I turn and leave! The front door has a closer, so I can’t slam it.
In a total funk now, and plodding the sidewalk back toward US522 with my head down, I walk smack into a lamppost, cold-cocking myself good–stars’n stripes forever–and the good old liberty bell–bong, bong, bong! On top of my gloom, the gloom of this day, which is supposed to leave, is showing no sign of leaving, the wind now really starting to kick, and it’s turning downright cold. Yesterday in the cold rain my hands became chilled, and by the time I reached the road into Front Royal, my fingers had pretty much quit working. Passing now this second-hand store, I head in to find some gloves. The storekeeper is with a customer in the back, and after I stand in the doorway awhile she turns and asks what I want. I explain that my hands are cold and it would be a blessing if I could get some gloves. She sizes me up a minute, then says, “We don’t have any gloves,” and turns back to her customer. I leave the store quietly, though I am tempted to slam this door.
Up the street a half-dozen blocks now I round the corner, cutting through a gas station lot. As I pass the pumps, up pulls this minivan, down goes the window and I hear a lady’s voice, “That woman in the thrift shop was mean to you.” I turn; it’s the lady from the store. I reply, “I’m used to that, Ma’am; people think I’m a bum.” Without the least pause she says, “Get in and come with me; we’ll get you some gloves.” I manage, “Oh no Ma’am, thanks, I’ll be alright, thanks anyway.” She keeps insisting, finally getting out of her van. Relenting, I reply, “Okay Ma’am, okay, I’ll come with you.”
Isn’t it strange indeed, how circumstances weave sometimes, directing our way, as if happenstance simply overrides any plan or notion we may have had, turning our day, and perhaps our life, completely around. It takes a lot of faith to ride this rail, and I am trying with all my might to do better, especially when it comes to the virtue of patience, for with patience comes wisdom and understanding. “Go with the flow” is so very easy to say, but so very hard to do. I am trying.
And so it is that I am riding along now with this kind woman, Angela. Nearing the sporting goods store where she is taking me, I’m thinking, “The black lady who befriended me and helped me in Alabama during Odyssey ’98, her name was Angela, too!” The journeys then and now are so different, yet they’re so much alike. It’s the people, indeed it is the people that make the difference–that make them alike. Goodness and kindness abound in humankind. We need only be open to it, receptive to it, for it is there.
The store has an incredible selection of gloves and mittens. Angela’s face absolutely beams as she sees me smile. In near tears I manage, “I like this pair, but they’re terribly expensive.” In a calm and reassuring voice, she replies, “Then they’re the ones we’ll get. I want you to have them.”
Angela drives me back to the trail and we bid farewell. It’s after two when I’m finally heading south again. Somehow I manage the thirteen miles into Gravel Springs Hut. The wind has come along, driving a bitter-cold mist, but my hands stay warm and my fingers keep working. I arrive at dusk to a full shelter, but everybody scoots over just a little more–making room for one more.
What a bewildering, miraculous day. Ahh, but I will not wonder about it or question why. Surely in its making, and do I know, that I am a better person.
Wednesday–September 27, 2000
Nobody snored, and we all rolled over in unison, making for a grand night! The morning dawns clear and cold. Looks as though the blanket of mush that had the entire region in its grip has finally moved on through. Shenandoah National Park is a very special place, and I feel this will be a special day.
The trail this morning is full of Hogbacks. First comes Little Hogback Mountain, then Little Hogback Overlook, then First Peak of Hogback, then Second Peak of Hogback, and finally Third Peak of Hogback, but they’re all a cruise, for the trail through these mountains has been built in such an incredible way. Hiking through, one gets little feel for the true ruggedness of these mountains, the Shenandoahs. Oh, the trail goes up and over all right, but much of the elevation change has been tamed with switchbacks and sideslabs that literally cling to the mountainside.
The AT here is an absolutely brilliant piece of work, enduring the ravages of time and the tramping army since way back in the thirties. Each year thousands of hikers and backpackers enjoy the freedom of the backcountry and wilderness that is the Shenandoah. In 1964, the US Congress passed legislation now known as the Wilderness Act. This Act defines Wilderness as “…an area where earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Shenandoah National Park contains nearly 80,000 acres of federally designated Wilderness.
It’s hard to pass Elkwallow Gap without venturing the short distance to the Wayside, a store with all the things a hungry hiker is looking for, hamburgers, fries, shakes, and ice cream by the pint, the good local stuff, available at reasonable prices, not that overpriced brand we had to endure in New England. Oh yes, I’m in for all of the goodies listed above, plus some chips and candy bars for later.
The day is about as close to perfect as a hiking day could possibly get. The treadway is friendly and the views absolutely splendid. Sharptop mountains are the most picturesque of all, and there are plenty of sharptops here in the Shenandoahs.
My feet don’t quite know what to think, with the easy treadway, and the short day, but they and I are happy for both! I’ve been hiking off and on the past two days with Crazy Joe, Fairweather and The Kid, and tonight we share the shelter here at Pass Mountain. Great warming fire, warm conversation, fine company!
Thursday–September 28, 2000
The day is forecast to be clear and cool, but fog and low-flying clouds keep the day on the dark, cold side. No views from Marys Rock or Stony Man.
I hike the short side trail to the Skyland Camp Store for lunch and plenty of good hot coffee, which warms my hands before warming my innards.
Big Meadows is such a remarkable place, constructed/finished almost completely of pecky chestnut, milled from the dead and dying American chestnut, struck down by the Asian blight during the early part of the twentieth century. Oh, but to have seen the beauty of that old forest. But, alas, it is gone.
I had made reservations to stay at the lodge earlier in the day, so I take my time enjoying the magic of the Shenandoah, arriving late evening. I check in, and have a relaxing, hot shower. Then to finish the day, it’s prime rib and a few Big Meadows Pale Ale.
Friday–September 29, 2000
The trail weaves its way back and forth across Skyline Drive as I weave my way through the low-lying clouds. Another gloomy day, but the mush is burning off this morning. The day does warm nicely, and the views begin opening to the east and west. The valley of the Shenandoah is a very broad, rich and heavily settled region, and from the ridgeline, the expanse of it is overwhelming, reaching to the horizon both north and south. Such a patchwork, such an impressive, remarkable, man-manipulated creation–a perfect example of the riches bestowed on this land, this blessed America!
I arrive early at Hightop Hut. What a grand place. The springs in the Shenandoah are so impressive. Most are piped and running great volumes of pure, cold and crystal clear water. Perhaps my ditty, “Sweet Shenandoah,” will be appropriate to close out this day’s journal.
I get a fine cooking and warming fire going, then settle in for the evening. Fall is starting to make a show, and I think of those wonderful days ahead as I drift into calm, contented sleep.
Saturday–September 30, 2000
The day dawns cold but clear, and I’m out, feeling great, to a perfect day on the grand old AT in the spectacular Shenandoah National Park. There is no possible way the eye of the mind can absorb, let alone comprehend the heavenly glory of this presentation before me. Perhaps, just perhaps, Mr. MacKaye could have tarried–to see it. The trail continues, as it weaves and twists its part of the braid with Skyline Drive. This over and back is hardly noticeable, certainly not an intrusion to the solitude sought by the intrepid on this trail, but the hum, rumble, din, and at times the outright roar of traffic along the parkway does tend to wear on one’s nerves. I think I am about ready for some other kind of trail.
I’ve been hiking off and on the last few days with Blue Light, Fifth Wheel and Banjo Bill, and we all make it in good order into Blackrock Hut. At dusk, a bunch of weekend hikers come in to pitch in the tenting area below. We linger around the warming fire, sharing good company. This has been a divine day!
Sunday–October 1, 2000
I’m anxious to get to Rockfish Gap, so I’m out and on the trail by eight. The sun comes early to burn the local mush away, and the day turns clear and warm–what a bright, dazzling fall day.
Bear are everywhere in the Park; the trail is literally littered with bear scat. Care must be taken to avoid stepping in one of the huge piles of poop! But does the old Nomad get to see one of the poop ploppers? Oh no, no bear in his path!
There are a few more ups and downs today, and the treadway has become a little gnarlier, but I make good time for the twenty miles to arrive at the gap by two-thirty. I get a ride right away and settle into the Comfort Inn. In late afternoon, comes Blue Light, Fifth Wheel and Banjo Bill, and I move them into the room with me.
Downloading my email, I am greeted with wonderful news from Falcon, my publisher. My book, Ten Million Steps, is finished and being boxed for shipping. Looks like the book signing at the Gathering will be a reality. What a great week ahead. I’m being so blessed!
Monday–October 2, 2000
The motel offers a continental breakfast, so I head down for my fill of cold cereal, blueberry muffins, sweet rolls, apples–and coffee, lots of coffee!
I’d met Kirk Snell last evening. He offered me a ride back to Rockfish Gap this morning. “I pick up my mail at nine,” he said, “If you’re there at the post office, I’ll give you a ride up.” I don’t want to bungle this good fortune, so I’m at the post office as soon as they open at eight-thirty. I hit the jackpot. Waiting, is my bounce box. And there’s film from GORP.com, one of my faithful sponsors. The clerk also hands me a package containing my new, custom constructed Nomad G-4 pack from Glen Van Peski, GVP Gear, another kind sponsor. This great pack, made by Glen, is the secret. It’s what’s enabled me to go ultra lightweight–and he’s sent me another, just in case, not that the one he gave me to begin my southbound ECT trek in Canada wasn’t doing just fine.
Kirk is right on cue, and he waits patiently as I rifle my bounce box, load all my gear in my new pack, and then get my bounce box back in the mail to Troutville. At nine-thirty, I’m finally squared away. Banjo Bill is also here for the ride. We load and head up the mountain. Kirk knows my friend, Ross Hersey, who also lives in Waynesboro. Ross was the editor of The News-Virginian (still the local paper) over fifty years ago. He’d interviewed Earl Crazy One Shaffer, when Crazy One came through on his historic AT thru-hike in 1948. I jot a short note for Kirk to give to Ross, as he shuttles Banjo Bill and me back to the trail at Rockfish Gap. We’re heading south again a little after ten.
I was looking forward to the hike/climb up to Humpback Rocks, but the trail has been rerouted and no longer passes this scenic overlook. I absolutely do not understand why the trail is continually being routed away from these special places. It’s almost as if the thru-hiker is not worthy of enjoying them without the added effort of hiking another four, six or eight tenth’s mile. I don’t understand, I just don’t understand. I wish someone would explain it to me.
I hit the rocks coming onto Three Ridges, and my forward progress slows considerably. Getting out late puts me in late at Rusty’s Hard Time Hollow, but I arrive in plenty of time to be greeted warmly by Rusty. I get the grand tour. Oh, and getting my picture taken, is a must. Every tenth hiker (into Rusty’s) gets a free Rusty’s T-shirt, and yours truly is number ten. Thanks Rusty!
Tuesday–October 3, 2000
What a great stay at Rusty’s. This is a gentle, caring and giving man who now devotes his life to hikers, taking us in, feeding us, sheltering us and shuttling us back and forth. We spent the evening chatting, having a grand time. The little inspiration at the closing of this day pretty much sums up this man’s life–in my opinion.
Rusty is up and has the grill hot when I get down from the loft. He’s a master at making pancakes, round, like Frisbees, just as big and thick, and as fluffy as your first birthday cake. Three of these dandies and you’ve got a stack that’ll take awhile to get over. Stoked, oh yeah–this is high-octane hiker fuel! Banjo Bill came in late last evening, and he’s at the table with me this morning. I awhile, I get a picture of Rusty as Rusty gets a picture of Banjo Bill. Then we load up, and Rusty hauls us back to the trail at Reeds Gap.
It’s another perfect hiking day with views to the far off hazy blue. I’ve got a fair warm-up before the trail lets me have it, as I bail off to Tye River. The climb up Priest is one of the remaining really long and arduous ascents, a continuous pull of three thousand feet in just over four miles. This up just seems to never end. Then it’s lots of smaller pops, up and down–and up–and down, into Seeley-Woodworth Shelter, a total of over a mile of vertical ascent today.
I arrive at the shelter to find I have it to myself. A fine little cove, clean and neat. A place to rest; even a delightful piped spring. I spend little time at the fire after dinner. I’m pooped. What a day!
Wednesday–October 4, 2000
I’m out and on the trail just as the sun peeks over the ridge. It’s another glorious day in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and I’m counting my blessings as I get the old jitney up to normal operating temperature.
I have the trail to myself; no one else is about. All the overlooks and vistas are mine, all the little springs and brooks and the highland meadows and the snug little gaps with their hard apple trees–all this splendor, all this wonder, it’s mine, all mine for this day. As I stand now in Hog Camp Gap, I vividly remember this magic little place from Odyssey ’98. I pitched right there in the lush, green grass under the little apple tree. From here, in the quiet, still calm of the evening, one can hear the Pipes of Pan as they drift across the meadow. You too could come to this magic place; you too could hear them–that is, if you believe. These faint, melancholy whispers of sound are echoes from another time, echoes that lift the wanderlust within, beckoning, calling us to come, come to the edge, to the hazy blue horizon–from where they come, and from there to look and to venture beyond. I hear not the Pipes this day, only the restless wind, but should I linger, should I dream the dream of the mountain wanderers of times long past, the Pipes would surely come, and I would be caught up in their spell. In their presence time would have no meaning, no value.
The hike goes quickly today, and I arrive at US60 right at noon. There is hardly any traffic this time of day, just the logging trucks rumbling up the ridge. But in just awhile a kind man stops his pickup and offers me a lift, and I’m soon at the Budget Motel in Buena Vista. A shower, a footlong sub, a few cold frosties, then a nap and this day goes into the book as a heavenly gift!
Thursday–October 5, 2000
I walked downtown last evening to have supper at the Triangle Bar Café, to find it’s now the Midway Café, the claim being that they’re located halfway between Maine and Florida; well, by golly, I am making progress south! The whole interior of the little triangle place has been ripped out. Now it’s all fresh, clean and new, completely remodeled. That’s okay, but I really liked the seedy old place better. It was fun mingling with the locals that came in to have a cold frosty along with their bacon and eggs for breakfast. On my walk back, I picked up some ice cream at the market (the good, hiker priced local stuff), and then I hoofed it back to my room. I no sooner got the door open than the phone started ringing. It was my good friend Ed Williams, trail angel to thousands of hikers. I had called and left a message for Ed earlier in the day. He and wife, Mary Ann, live nearby in Vesuvius, Virginia, and I was hoping to see them on my way through.
I get a shuttle back to the trail by a local named William. On the way he tells me about his three-dozen-or-so grandchildren and great grandchildren, and how he loves the mountains, being born and raised here and all, and about how (one of) his grandsons and he might just go bow hunting this weekend.
Waiting at the trailhead with a grand smile, a tall thermos of hot coffee and two slices of fresh homemade (Mary Ann’s special) apple pie is, oh yes, Ed Williams! The trailside is a little wayside complete with picnic tables, and Ed, William and I spend a grand time chatting. Thanks, William, for the ride, and thank you, Ed, for coming out so early to see (and once more feed) the old Nomad!
Today will be a long, tough day, with pulls over Rice Mountain, Punchbowl Mountain, Bluff Mountain and Big and Little Rocky Row. I first pass what little is left of Brown Mountain Creek Community. “Observe as you walk, be aware that history surrounds you. Keep your eyes and mind open to explore the secrets that are held by the land.” These are the words that are cut into the sign by the little brook. Here lived freed slaves during the early part of the 20th century. The story continues, revealing the memories and insights into life on Brown Mountain Creek. According to a former resident, Taft Hughes, “The homes were small, the people hard working. The food was simple but nourishing.” Mr. Hughes remembers his mother’s ashcakes, which were cooked on an open hearth, covered with ashes and coals. “She would take them out of there and she had a special broom made from corn, broom corn. She’d sweep them off real good and then wash them. You didn’t taste any ashes on them. They were much sweeter than if you baked them in a stove, much sweeter. We’d eat them right there, and lots of times for supper we’d have that and a glass of milk. I wished I had one now. It would be impossible to match that flavor.” Dang, Taft, you’re making me hungry. I can almost taste one myself! Brown Mountain Creek Community–a few of the old summer cellar indents, smoothed and sculpted by time, some rock foundations, and the little two-track lane where the trail now passes–all that remain, along with the sweet unstinted spirit of the people who dwelt in this scornful old moldering place. Ahh, but does the spirit of those people still linger here, like the spirit of Taft Hughes, who welcomes me as I pass his door–and who comes to accompany me as I pass.
Oh, what a sad time it was in ‘98, standing where I stand now, on the very summit of Bluff Mountain. I cannot look directly at it, but finally, I do look at it–again. I’d hoped that I hadn’t rightly remembered, but I have remembered. I now gaze with much sadness upon this gray, stone-cold memorial for a dear little child. In granite are inscribed these words, “This is the exact spot little Ottie Cline Powell’s body was found April 5th, 1891 after straying from Tower Hill School House November 9, 1890, a distance of seven miles. Age four years, eleven months.” Someone has placed a little wooden red and blue toy pistol on the stone. Dear Lord, this is not a happy place, and once again, this is not a happy time.
Fall is in the air. There is snow forecast for Sunday. The mountains are ablaze with Ma Nature’s paint. The leaves crunch beneath my feet, and though the season is glad, the mood is somber as I descend Bluff Mountain.
I manage a hitch right away to Wildwood Campground where Denise Hess greets me. She shows me to a neat little camper where I’ll spend the night.
I am so excited, yet I am also very nervous about the morrow. For tomorrow, Larry Luxenberg will come to fetch me from the trail and take me to the Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association (ALDHA) Gathering at Concord College in Athens, West Virginia. In the morning, Larry will hand me a copy of my new book, Ten Million Steps. My publisher has sent boxes of books to him, to bring along for the book signing scheduled for Saturday. I have not yet seen the book. Oh, and what an amazing circumstance–for Larry to be bringing my book to me. For it was Larry Luxenberg, author of Walking The Appalachian Trail, who provided such patient guidance. It was Larry’s assistance, his wisdom that so shaped my book and made it what it is. And it was Larry Luxenberg, through his kindness to me, who penned the foreword to my book.
Yes, I am very anxious and excited about this special time. Ahh, seems no matter how hard I work on the virtue, patience, there’s never quite enough of it! I’ll sleep little this night.
Friday–October 6, 2000
A cheeseburger, a couple of frosties and some chips at the little convenience store across the way, then back for a much needed shower at the campground bathhouse and that was it for the evening. I was full with anticipation but managed to fool myself by falling into deep sleep right away.
This morning I head back to the little store for a breakfast sandwich and some coffee, then to sit by the office at the picnic table working on correspondence and journal entries until Larry Luxenberg arrives to carry me to the ALDHA Gathering.
Larry comes along around ten, and after the warmest greeting I anxiously await his comments about the book. He says nothing but simply turns to open the hatch on his little van, and there they are, all the boxes still sealed. “Larry,” I exclaim, “Haven’t you looked at the book?” “No,” he answers, “I wanted to wait, to see it with you for the first time!” And so, now the moment of truth. I hesitate, thinking of all the months that have gone into the making of this. Many people talk of writing a book someday, but few ever manage, for indeed it is an amazing undertaking, a task of the mind and of the heart. We’re both filled with excitement as I tear at one of the boxes–and there it is! Oh, what a beautiful cover, what a beautiful thing. I hand one to Larry, then clutch one to myself. This is the moment. This is the time I’ve been waiting for. What pleasure sharing it with the man who’s had such a profound influence, both on me and on this work. We both laugh and are filled with joy!
The journey to Athens takes about three hours, the time passing quickly, for we are giddy with excitement. Thanks, Larry, for sharing this special time with me.
I had hoped for a new pair of New Balance 803s to wear at the Gathering. Larry takes me by the post office, but no luck. From here it’s out to the Folk Life Center where we register, then to the bunkhouse, and that’s it for an-excitement packed day.
Saturday–October 7, 2000
I had seen many dear friends last evening and so again this morning as I head back to the Center for coffee.
Larry and I load and head for the college where all the Gathering functions will be held–and where my book signing will take place. A table has been saved for me right next the ATC folks, and friends help carry boxes of books up the stairs.
I no sooner get a few on the table than a long line forms. Sheltowee, later Long Distance Man, then Jingle help as my bookkeepers. I write note after note in book after book till my hand cramps up. I am overwhelmed by the presence of so many folks, most whom I do not even know. Coming off the trail into this intensity after 136 days is making me reel with emotional overload. There is such profound energy in this Gathering group. I receive hugs and well-wishes from everyone! Box after box of books go out the door. This is so humbling, so incredible. What a weekend this is shaping to be.
I manage somehow to make it to Henry Trickster Edward’s SIA/IAT slide presentation and in the evening, to hear Jim Walkin’ Jim Stoltz play and sing. During all the confusion I miss Sheltowee’s AT slide show, which I dearly regret.
In between I manage to gobble a bite to eat. An hour before Steve Newman, the featured speaker, is due to go on, I am informed by the Gathering organizers that he is caught in a traffic jam and probably won’t make it. I’m asked to be prepared to go on in his stead. So Larry rushes me back to the Folk Life Center to dress and prepare to speak. As we return, and just as I’m finally set to go before the packed auditorium, Steve makes it in. Oh my, what an emotional slam-jam this turns out to be, but I am so happy he has arrived and can go on as scheduled. Steve is a great storyteller. He relates his hike around the world. The show is great.
In the evening I am so glad to return to the bunkhouse at the Folk Life Center where things are quiet. My dear friends Jan Dutch Treat and Lin Hummingbird Benschop, come to the bunkhouse to toast my success and to prepare a delightful evening meal. Paw Paw comes by, and the four of us have a grand time as Dutch Treat plays and sings for us. What a day, what a day!
Sunday–October 8, 2000
Another night in the bunkhouse last. This is the first time I’ve slept in the same place two nights in a row since leaving Monson months ago–sure living up to the “Nomad” part of my trail name!
I’m up before dawn to attend sunrise service at the chapel here at the Folk Life Center. The chapel is right on the crest of the hill, which should make for a glorious sunrise. The morning dawns cold and clear, with frost over the vehicles and on the grass. I head to the Center for coffee, then on to the chapel. The service consists of testimonials to, recollection of, and blessings sent out for dearly departed intrepids. It proves to be both enjoyable and inspirational, and the sunrise is certainly one to remember.
Back to the college and the general membership meeting. Meetings such as this tend to be dry, but this group keeps it interesting. New officers are elected and other business is conducted. I’m able to get together with Dick Anderson and Will Richard from the SIA/IAT who have come down from Maine. Then it’s back to the book-signing table for another day at it. Folks file by steady all day and by evening I’ve only four books left. Earl Crazy One Shaffer comes to the table and we have a most enjoyable, uninterrupted chat. Thanks, Earl. What a joy seeing you again!
So it’s time now to get ready for real–for my presentation before the full membership body this evening. I am very tired, confused and weary after such a whirlwind weekend. I hope I can get up, keep my enthusiasm and maintain my concentration for the entire hour, for you see I use no slides, no prompt cards, relying totally on words to form the pictures. Dutch Treat has set two of my ditties to music and I am most excited about hearing him perform these musical creations tonight.
My goodness, the performance goes remarkably well! I forget and falter on a few lines as I recite a couple of my ditties, but no one seems to notice. Dutch Treat wows the audience, holding their rapt attention. To have this talented virtuoso on stage with me–a man who’s performed with Peter, Paul and Mary, and with John Denver, is a truly humbling experience. Concern was expressed earlier by a number of folks that the Gathering would be breaking up and people would be heading home, but all my dear friends are here, and we all have a great time. After my presentation, well-wishers file by, giving me more hugs and filling me with their remarkable energy. This has truly been one of the most amazing weekends in my memory, perhaps in my life, and I will cherish it and keep it to me forever.
It’s such a joy when greeting old friends and such a sad time when it is time to depart–more hugs, more good-byes, and more tears.
I get a ride back to the James River with Smith Old Ridge Runner Edwards and his wife, Jan. In all the excitement I have forgotten that I need provisions for at least two days on the trail, and I’ve only a candy bar in my pack. Jan saves the day by making me sandwiches and putting together a bag of other nourishing goodies for me to pack along. We’re soon at the James River, right next the new hiker bridge. The bridge superstructure is up and the decking is down the full 625 feet across, but the approach steps are not yet in place. “Keep Out” ribbons and signs cover the bridge, being most prominently displayed, but I had made my mind up already Friday morning after finding out that the relocated trail work has been done on the south side–I’d already made up my mind that I would cross the bridge. I had met trail maintainers from the Natural Bridge Trail Club working the trail above the north side relocation last Thursday, and they had given me directions on how to hike that section down to the new Bill Foot Memorial Bridge. So here we are, two o’clock in the morning, in the full moonlight. Old Ridge Runner boosts me up and onto the main structure. I thank him and whisper my good-byes, then turn and cross–the moon casting long and eerie shadows as the old Nomad becomes the first thru-hiker to cross the Bill Foot Memorial Bridge.
Monday–October 9, 2000
Trains pass during the night and rouse me momentarily, but otherwise, I sleep soundly. This morning I’m awakened by the sounds of workmen talking and making racket on the bridge. After breaking camp, I go over to near the southern end of the bridge where the men are preparing to move the steps structure into place and fix it to the main bridge framing. I venture to within ten yards of them on the newly constructed treadway, but they are all busy, consumed with their work, and none look around to see me standing here. I take a few pictures of the rusty red bridge, the sun setting it aglow, then I’m on my way south again. The day is cold and windy but it will be a fine hiking day nonetheless.
In just awhile, climbing near Hickory Stand, I come upon a familiar figure also climbing the mountain. It’s Mother Goose, who I have hiked on and off with over the past week or so. She also attended the Gathering and we enjoy talking and exchanging stories about our weekend. Two fellows have been hiking with Mother Goose. In short time, I find Ripshin and Rabbit resting at a sunny spot along the trail. I stop and we chat. Most likely I’ll not see these folks again, but then you never know.
I’m generating plenty of heat to combat the cold today as I climb up and over High Cock Knob, Thunder Ridge and Apple Orchard Mountain. On this last ascent it has turned very cold and I am hiking in snow showers!
Near Black Rock I chance upon Fair Weather and Crazy Joe, and we spend the evening together at Cornelius Creek Shelter. The warming fire feels very good tonight.
Tuesday–October 10, 2000
I’m out and on the trail by seven-thirty, my hands numb from the cold. Crazy Joe, with his wool hat on, peeks one-eyed from his bag, giving me a nod as I depart, immediately tucking back in. Two days in a row now I’ve probably bid farewell to newly made friends, friends I’ll likely never see again. It’s a good feeling to be making good time, but not a good feeling leaving folks like this.
I’ve a hard pull first thing up and over Fork Mountain, which also brings the old jitney up to normal operating temperature. So I stop to remove my mittens and wool shirt. The wind is whipping, but the day is warming nicely. As I move along, I’m figuring that this cold, dry front is setting me up for some really beautifully clear hiking days!
I’m nearing the end of the ridge swaps the trail has had to make with the Blue Ridge Parkway. A few more zigzag crossings up-and-over, and the ridge will be mine again. In the meantime, and at the Peaks of Otter Overlook where the Parkway takes over, forcing the stepchild AT down over the side into a pretty miserable no view, no fun sideslab, I stick with the Parkway. Yup, today I’m blue-blazing the Blue Ridge Parkway!
“How can this be?” you ask! Well folks, it’s like this. I’m a member of the Hiker Trash Fratority, a probationary member that is. For until I’ve escaped the white (and pure) AT blazes for awhile to blue-blaze (not so pure), preferably a section of the Parkway here or the Virginia Creeper near Damascus–until then, I’ll really not be considered a full-fledged member. So today I’m up here on the Parkway, enjoying incredible vistas down both sides of the ridge all along. It’s a glorious cool day with hardly any traffic; the mountains are full ablaze to the horizon. I got my official Hiker Trash painter’s hat on, and I’m truckin’. All this fun, and I’m earning my lifetime membership in the Hiker Trash Fratority to boot. Oh yeah, I’m up here, Sawman; I’m up here, Pirate (two of the officers–I’m brownin’ up)! What a deal, what a deal!
I arrive early to an empty shelter at Wilson Creek. Some previous kind sojourners have left plenty of kindling and firewood. With things drying out for a change, I’m able to get a fine warming fire going. I linger long, into the twilight, gazing into the flicker, then the embers, fixing this day to memory, and reminiscing trail days past.
Wednesday–October 11, 2000
I was sleeping soundly, when at two this morning I hear footsteps approaching. I raise up to see a light bouncing up the shelter path. Soon arrives Gollum, out for a night hike, bound for Troutville. We have a nice chat while he jots a message in the shelter register to his father, Pilgrim. Then he’s out and gone. Back to sleep again, and in just awhile, do I again hear footsteps approaching. I raise up to see a light bouncing up the shelter path. This time it’s Pilgrim. Turns out he’s in no hurry to continue his night hike, so I invite him into the shelter. It takes only minutes as he gets his sleeping pad and bag out–and he’s quickly down and out.
With no further excitement I sleep soundly till dawn, to awaken to a cool, clear day, perfect for hiking. Pilgrim is up too, and we’re soon out and on the trail to Troutville. Along the way we discuss many topics–my retirement, his law practice, our hikes. I listen and learn good things.
Have you ever noticed how time passes so quickly when you’re hiking with a friend, enjoying their good company! We’re soon at US11 where Pilgrim heads for the post office. We bid farewell and I hike on to US220 and the Coachman Inn.
It’s a little early for check-in, being only one, so the first order of business is to put Western Sizzlin into the red for the day as over I go for the AYCE buffet bar, which takes the better part of an hour. I can hardly waddle back to the motel, enduring the pain of jogging four lanes of flying semis in the process. The desk clerk checks me in early and I’m in my room by two. It’s been a good day on the trail–and nearly a day off. Not bad Nomad, not bad at all!
Thursday–October 12, 2000
Coachman Inn has a fine continental breakfast and I load up on a little (well, really a lot) of everything. Then I squirrel an apple and a blueberry muffin in my pack for later. I manage to make it back on the trail by seven-thirty. Miraculous!
I’ve got pulls today up to Hay Rock/Tinker Ridge, through Scorched Earth Gap to Tinker Cliffs and finally up to McAfee Knob. In ’98 I had the Knob to myself, but today, being the beautiful day that it is, I must share it. Just as well, for I really want a picture, standing, full pack, right on the sky-high brink of it. A young lady obliges and I get the shot.
I remember Boy Scout Shelter from my last two hikes through. The place is run down, quite unkempt. I marveled then, and still continue to marvel today, at how the old place has survived, the rusty tin roof, most sheets just thrown up helter-skelter. But there it remains, leaning precariously!
The trail and terrain are slowly changing, but they’re changing, becoming more the old familiar Blue Ridge of home, with the trail going straight up and over. Oh, there are still switchbacks, but the angle and position of the mountain spurs here in the southern Appalachians, the approach to them, make it easier for the trail builders to just head the trail right up, clear to the ridgeline or summit.
I’ve made many friends from my ’98 odyssey, and two of them, Ron Walrus and Karen Roots Welles, live nearby in Christiansburg. They long ago insisted that I contact them when passing through, so arrangements have been made for Walrus to pick me up this afternoon around three at VA311. I’ve also called my good friend, and trail angel to thousands, Jeff Southpaw Williams, and they’re both waiting at the trailhead to greet me. Walrus runs me all the way back to the Troutville post office for my bounce box, then we head for his home. I’ve been promised a grand pasta dinner, and Roots is preparing it as we arrive. Southpaw and his wife, Sue, are also here, and we spend a wonderful evening sharing many memorable trail experiences.
Thanks, dear friends, for your kindness and hospitality!
Friday–October 13, 2000
What a great evening; such wonderful friends, the Welles and Williams. Thanks, folks, for your kindness, and thanks for having me as your guest!
We’re up early. Roots give me a good-bye hug and she’s off to work. Walrus then drives me back to the trailhead, and I’m again southward bound on another glorious hiking day, filled with energy that comes not from the calories of nourishment (of which there’s been bountiful plenty) but from the power of uplifting joy, that comes from hearts plugged into hearts!
There’s some tough climbs today, but each climb leads to great overlooks, wild rock formations and grand ridgewalks. Mother Nature is making her fall show in muted shyness this year, a shroud over her normally gay apparel. The woods all about stand in subdued shades of russet and umber with only occasional bright flashes of orange, yellow and crimson. The hills have turned to rust, but in the bright noonday sun, there is a proud, silent-like mood, a celebration of greatness if you will, that brings to one who can see, a feeling of everlasting peace. These ancient temples of time that thrust their glory to the sky are the most precious example of our maker’s love and steadfastness. Fall is truly filled with magic–a spell cast over all.
I have Rawies Rest and Dragons Tooth to myself. Though I’ve an ETA at Craig Creek Valley, there’s time to tarry, time to take in these restful places, for these are special places. These are indeed the temples of the most high. If you have not made your presence in their calming shadow, you should come.
And the Audie Leon Murphy Memorial, on the high ground, such a fitting memorial to the man who fought fearlessly for the high ground, and though wounded, prevailed time after time. Our most decorated World War II hero. It’s just a simple stone placed in the woods at the end of a seldom-sought path. Audie, I don’t know about the heroes of today, but I do know this–you’re my kind of hero. You stood up and fought for what this great nation was, hopefully still is, and forevermore shall be! “Show me the man you honor, and I will know what kind of man you are.” [Thomas Carlyle]
I arrive at VA621 in good time and am soon greeted by my dear hiking friend from “Odyssey ’98,” Tulie Tulip Kaschub, and we’re off to the bustle and dazzle of Roanoke. Just as we reach the drive, here comes Scott T-Bone Walker Baldwin, and we share the magic of a joyful reunion. T-Bone became well known all up and down the trail in ’98 for his talented and polished guitar style, but I never had the fun and enjoyment of hearing him play. So after a great white pizza (yes, white pizza!) at their favorite spot, do I have the pleasure of hearing T-Bone and some members of a group he performs with rehearse later in the evening.
Folks along the sidewalk and along the way complain of the cerebral effect that Friday the 13th, combined with a full moon, is having on their hemispheres. If there’s any tug on mine, it is, and has been, nothing short of spiritually inspiring.
Saturday–October 14, 2000
Tulip and T-Bone grow basil in pots on their back porch, and along with a bag of these greens I am provided with enough goodies from their “hiker box” to keep me stoked for more than this day. They’re both training for an upcoming marathon, and this being Saturday, what better opportunity to get in a little training along the quiet mountain back roads. So we all load up for the drive up, me to my southbound trail through these eternal mountains, and they to their road training in the hills. Thanks, dear friends. The time spent with you has been very special!
Tulip had told me about a bunch of goats that live in the lofty crags of Sinking Creek Mountain. I thought she was just pulling my leg, but dang, after the long hard climb, here they are! There’s a billy and a nanny–playing in the jeezly rocks! Well now, Joe Dodge, come look at this! The old black and white billy, a quite-proud old goat, one scraggly horn bent and near busted down, climbs to the uppermost boulder above me, then turns to present his good side to the sun, his whole pitiful scrawny little body framed in greenery on both sides, the infinite cloud-free blue, his backdrop. “Stay right there little buddy,” I whisper, “I gotta get a picture, nobody’ll believe this.” He cooperates, and I get the shot. Meanwhile, his girlfriend, the fawn-colored little nanny, has come up behind me, and as I turn from taking billy’s picture she licks up my arm, clean across my face! One taste of my salt and I can’t get shed of her. She follows me everywhere. So I hasten along, whacking at her with my trekking poles. Next she tries taking a chunk out of my sweaty pack. So I move a little faster. Oh yeah, like I’m going to outrun a goat through these rocks! She finally tires of our little game and goes back to her charming boyfriend. Folks, I’m not making this stuff up. You gotta believe me; I’m not making it up! Hiking this old AT may get a little tiring, even a bit trying at times, but it’s never dull. Nosiree-bob it’s never dull!
The trail, as it sinks to Sinking Creek Valley, passes through the most lush-green high meadow, and just over a little pop in the rolling field by an old post with the familiar white AT blaze does there lie a hiker in the most contented sleep. I try passing to the far side, but the rustle of the new-mown hay wakes him. He opens one eye, then smiles the most contented smile! Here I meet fellow southbounder, Trashman.
The sun is warm on my face, and it feels so good, that I decide to rest a moment and chat. It isn’t unusual to read the entries of fellow hikers ahead, entries they’ve made perhaps for days in the shelter registers. So you get to know a lot about them long before meeting them. There’s always anticipation and excitement in that moment. Trashman is an easy-going, happy fellow, just as his register entries suggested, and it’s a pleasure finally meeting this young man. He’s headed for War Spur Shelter, same as me, so we’ll spend the evening together.
The mountains of Virginia are becoming more like the mountains that I know, that I love–the southern Blue Ridge. For they are worn in such a way, the trail more straight up and straight down, the laurel hells more the hells they can be, and the springs–ahh, the pure sweet water of the springs, right there in the gap, waiting for the weary, thirsty hiker.
War Spur Shelter is a lovely spot. Water is right-by, and there’s lots of firewood. I quickly settle in, getting a good cooking and warming fire going. Soon comes Trashman, and we enjoy the evening together. What an interesting day. Got my goat!
Sunday–October 15, 2000
This will be a long day on the trail, so I need to get out and going. The days are becoming noticeably shorter now, sunrise not coming until nearly seven-thirty. I manage to get my pack on just before sunrise.
The trail lets me have it right away. The pulls of recent days have become nearly effortless, my pulse and respiration remaining steady all the while. This old jitney requires a fair amount of warm-up, and this morning the pull comes before I can get cranking smoothly. “Slow down, slow down old man,” I tell myself. “You’re trying too hard. The blood needs to get to your legs.” Ahh, and here’s that old virtue patience again, for in just awhile I am climbing effortlessly once more! The first pull of the day takes me to over 4000 feet and the scenic Wind Rock Overlook. Folks have camped near here all night, and there is much commotion and activity about, so I hasten on.
The trail seeks out the ridge nearly the entire day with a major bail-off to Stony Creek Valley. The Companion mentions a pond near Symms Gap Meadow, but it is little more than a mudhole with much animal activity all around. I had planned to camp here for the night, for the meadow is such a beautiful spot, with views to the horizon, the sunrises and sunsets spectacular. But I have precious little water, so I must journey on to the next water source, which I find in a small gap a fair distance beyond the meadow. There’s level ground in the gap, an abundance of firewood, and so I pitch for the evening. No one has camped here since the leaves began falling. The fire ring and ground all about are filled and covered with a dense blanket of leaves. I clear the ground a fair distance, pitch my little Nomad tent and get a fine fire going. Trashman comes in just as I’m preparing my evening meal and finds a spot for his tarp.
A grand hiking day, but I am very tired after rocky treadway for such a distance, making me wonder if I’m not back in Pennsylvania again. But I am pleased with my progress, for I am set now for a short hiking day, mostly downhill into Pearisburg, where I plan to spend the morrow. Seems no matter how long one endures the trail, there’s always that uneasiness, that subconscious feeling of doubt–will I be up to the challenge tomorrow?
Monday–October 16, 2000
The night on the ridge was most pleasant, my best night’s rest in quite awhile. Sleeping in a different place every night takes some getting used to. I guess my tent seems the most familiar, though it’s seldom parked twice in the same spot.
I’m anxious to get into Pearisburg this morning, so I’m up, break camp and am on the trail before sunrise. Another glorious day is shaping. I am above the clouds that lie in the valleys, and as the sunrise sends its brilliance across the sky, the world around and below appears set totally aflame. From Rice Field, a high meadow expanse on the ridge crown, can be seen this early morning show of glory–a new dawn, a new day. I love this life!
The ridge soon breaks off, the trail with it, down to the clamor of Pearisburg. It always seems that the high-pitched whine of industrial machinery is the first to make its way up the ridge. Then it’s the grind and drumming of the eighteen-wheelers as they charge and Jake-break the winding ribbon below. I’m soon at Senator Shumate Bridge, where I must run the minefield gauntlet of broken glass from bottles and assorted junk that the highway scum have hurled from their vehicles. Across the bridge I head for Main Street and the not-so-pleasant walk to town. I’m able to check in and settle in early at the Plaza Motel.
The remainder of the day I rest with my feet up as I work correspondence and get caught up on journal entries.
Tuesday–October 17, 2000
Sunrise comes later and later with each passing day, and I’m up and out in what seems the dark of night. But it’s already seven. As I sit in the Dairy Queen finishing my biscuits and gravy (and my third cup of coffee). Looking out, the sky to the east begins turning to fire once again, as the approaching sun ignites the horizon. It’s seven-thirty, but as I walk Cross Street back to the trail, cars are still approaching with their headlights on. The forecast is for rain today, but with the sunrise comes another beautiful, cloud-free morn. I’m on the trail by eight.
There’s a tough pull right off, up Pearis Mountain to Angels Rest. Towns are seldom at the top of mountains, so almost always there’s a bail-off to get to town. So too, for the hike out–seems there’s always a long, hard pull to the ridgeline. Look for the highest point as you depart the village. Most assuredly that’s where you’re headed. Angels Rest is that point this morning, and there I’m headed–“Double-clutch, low-low, come on old jitney, let’s get it!”
It’s been a couple of days since I’ve seen any deer, but I have passed a couple of bow hunters; bow season is in now. I have seen lots of turkey and grouse, though. Every time I flush one of these fellows it scares the holy-h right out of me, especially the turkey. Up they come and crash they go, straight through whatever’s there, like low-flying bombers. Sure doesn’t take much to rattle me anymore, and the occasional explosion of a bird on the rise–which fractures my little dream capsule–will definitely do it.
Fall is in free-fall. With each breeze, drift down now bushel after bushel of leaves to cover and conceal the treadway. Their presence makes hiking the rock gardens increasingly more difficult and risky. All the little trail gremlins out to get me are in hiding now, camouflaged beneath a blanket of leaves, just waiting to trip me up, as if any more help were needed.
A couple more minor pops and I’m through the worst of it as the trail descends to Big Horse Gap, thence to ramble along through the low-lying hills. The day passes very quickly, and I’m soon at VA606, for the short roadwalk to Trent’s Store. The pizza is even better than I remember. I talk the evening with owner, Jimmy Miller, as the truck drivers come and go. Then I pitch again by the little bathhouse, through the gate and down the lane to the field past the horse pasture, just like before. It’s great to relive the memories. This time so lavished upon me is a gift. It’s sheer joy–a blessing to be granted these days.
Wednesday–October 18, 2000
Rain on my tent rousts me around six. It’s great being able to dress and ready my pack while still in my spacious Nomad tent. These tasks were impossible in the little Slumberjack bivy shelter I carried all during “Odyssey ’98.” Breaking camp in the rain was an absolute ordeal, usually resulting in soaked pack, soaked me, soaked everything. But with the roomy Nomad, which actually weighs less than the claustrophobic Slumberjack, I’m able to remain dry, switching to pit mode only at the last minute to down my tent, get my pack and poncho on and get moving.
The campground is filled with a vagabond-like array of old campers, every color (mostly double-drab)–every description (mostly sagging with flat tires). A couple of hunters came rattling in late last night, right next to my tent, and they’re up first thing, rattling around again this morning. I break camp, head to the bathhouse to do my daily duty, and then stumble down the pitch-dark narrow drive to the store. The store opens at seven, and I’m right here for coffee and more biscuits and sausage gravy. I’m in the south now, and the folks down here know how to make biscuits and sausage gravy. By-the-by, I do believe I really am getting down the trail and closer to home!
Thursday–October 19, 2000
What an enjoyable evening last, with Reverend Murray Ann AT Momma Ziegenfuss. I’d been hiking with southbounder, Rolling Stone, and he’d heard about AT Momma’s kindness while at Woodshole Hostel. So after Yogi-ing a ride from a gentleman working at the Senior Center, and once in Bland, we gave AT Momma a call; no luck, just her answerphone. But while Stoney and I sat having lunch at the downtown mom-n-pop, in came AT Momma! She had returned home, got our message, and then hastened to find us.
Her home is a rental, a spacious old farmhouse in the country. She and husband, George Ziggy Ziegenfuss, who hiked the AT ‘89, aren’t yet settled in. Boxes of stuff are stacked in the hall waiting to be uncrated. But even as unsettled as they are, the place in disarray–none of this seemed to have any effect on their desire to be caring trail angel to thru-hikers! Yesterday and this morning, the lucky ones are Rolling Stone and Nimblewill Nomad. Thanks, AT Momma and Ziggy, for being number one trail angels.
AT Momma has ended up owner-by-default of a very nice dog. It had been left on the trail and was brought to her weeks ago. After much discussion and thought last night and this morning, the decision is for Rolling Stone to take the dog back on the trail with him. And so, after an enormous breakfast of eggs and blueberry pancakes, we load in AT Momma’s car and head back to the trail. Rolling Stone and dog (Gabe) and me are back on the trail at eight-thirty. As Stoney and Gabe work at getting used to one another, I hasten on, for I have made arrangements for my friend Alex, who lives in Burke’s Garden, to come up the mountain near his home and pluck me from the trail between two and three this afternoon.
The hike today is very enjoyable. I’m drifting along, my mind drifting–in an aimless light-hearted flutter–until I reach the second trail crossing at Little Wolf Creek. Here, the memory of what happened on my last thru-hike jolts me out of it, for the memory of that day is so clear, so vivid. I stand now, looking at the stones that form the path across the creek. I can pick out the exact one that threw me, that pitched me headfirst into a total faceplant in the bottom of the creek. The result was a dislocated finger, two cracked ribs and a huge knot on my noggin. That day was a dismal, rainy day, and the creek was running in an angry fit. I’d tried jumping from one large rock to the next when it happened. My wet boot flew off and down I went. I finally emerged from the creek, mad, wet and cold–and with a deeper understanding of the word, adversity. Today, there’s very little water flowing in Little Wolf Creek, the stones dry and safely hoppable. The lump on my head is gone, my ribs healed. But my poor twisted finger still hurts! Aww, enough of this, time to move on south.
This has been another glorious day for hiking, and before I know it, I’m at VA623, the “back door” to Burke’s Garden. Alex soon arrives. What a joy seeing this great old friend again! We descend the mountain, gabbing all the way to his little home in the Garden.
Friday–October 20, 2000
Alex and I had a great time, but we also shared mixed emotions, for Alex’s wife, Carol, has passed away since we were together last. Carol was such a good friend, too. I really miss her.
It’s cold in the Garden this morning, with frost everywhere. We load up, then sit and talk, as old friends often do, while the windshield defrosts. Then it’s back up to the “back door.” By eight-thirty I’m once again on the trail. Thanks, Alex, dear friend, see you in Florida.
This is my third time past the Garden, the first two times northbound, so things look a little different this go-round, this hike being southbound. There are some remarkable overlooks along the rim of the Garden, which the AT follows all the way to Chestnut Knob, and I scamper up each rocky incline to take in the view. The day has again turned perfect, cool and clear, and the views into the Garden, affectionately known as “God’s Thumbprint,” are magnificent. The Garden is such a lush, fertile place–a limestone dome that has collapsed, forming a crater-like depression, a grand walled-up valley in the sky.
The high meadow at Chestnut Knob is so grand and peaceful. Here is an old dwelling converted to a shelter, and from this place, the best view of all, down into the Garden. I pause for one last look before turning ever south.
I am making remarkably good time today, reaching VA610 before three-thirty. This had been my planned destination, but I’m still full of energy after doing twenty miles, and it’s only ten more miles to Atkins where there’s a motel and restaurant right on the trail. So I head on up and over Big Walker, then Little Brushy, arriving at I-81 at dusk, a thirty-mile day.
Oh my, has a good hot shower ever felt so relaxing, a heaping plate of spaghetti ever tasted so scrumptious!
Saturday–October 21, 2000
The thirty mile day that got me here yesterday has set me up for a short, casual hike on into Partnership Shelter today, so I sleep in until after eight then take the most relaxed time enjoying breakfast at the Village Restaurant right next. It’s after ten before I’m back on the trail.
Later, and toward evening, three weekend warriors come limping in with sore backs and tired feet. They’re carrying enormous packs, wearing heavy boots. One of the poor chaps has a blister the size of a silver dollar on his heel. While he’s dressing his wound, the other two take off and leave him. He also leaves shortly, but soon returns in so much pain he can hardly hobble. His hike is over, but there’s a problem. His buddies have the tent they’ve all been using, but this guy’s got the tent poles! After waiting for over an hour, the others failing to return, Fanny Pack gets his maps out and figures their next road crossing. Loading up a bag of cold pop, some snacks–and the tent poles, he’s off. He’s no sooner gone than the other two show back up here at Partnership. In awhile Fanny Pack returns. The three are now together again, but their tent poles are lying out there on the trail at the next road crossing! In total frustration now, Fanny Pack exclaims, “Didn’t you guys make any plans at all in case you got separated? What a Laurel and Hardy operation this has turned out to be!”
So it’s late now, and Fanny Pack has gone again, trying to get the three fellows and their tent poles back together–then to shuttle all of them to automobiles they’ve left parked, Lord know where–while hungry hikers who’ve heard about the cookout Fanny Pack has planned come rolling in. Well, we all wait, and we wait, and we wait some more–for Fanny Pack to return–no Fanny Pack! “Hungry” and “hiker” are synonymous, and after waiting even longer, we can wait no more, so we fire up Fanny’s grill, under Fanny’s neat portable pavilion, and raid Fanny’s score of coolers, helping ourselves to all the goodies Fanny’d set to prepare for us.
In the evening now and near dusk, Fanny Pack finally returns to a happy and most joyful occasion! To help celebrate (and put away the grub) are Rocks, The Rooster, Garbage Man, Bumpy, Leap and Frog, Manno and dog Maverick, Huckleberry, Big Guy, Earlybird, Shannon, and yours truly. Later comes in Ausable Mike, with more bags and boxes full of goodies. Ausable is good friends with Fanny, having thru-hike the AT this year. What a grand affair. Thanks, Fanny Pack, for your caring and for your giving! What an interesting and memorable day.
Sunday–October 22, 2000
Well, it truly is: …the joy and the blessings that come with the miles. But the anguish and sadness of leaving dear friends, friends I may never see again, makes for a funky beginning of this day. But the day has dawned crisp and clear, and I must contemplate what *Benton MacKaye said, as I begin preparing my eyes to see and my mind to comprehend the presentation the Lord has created for me tomorrow, Grayson Highlands State Park. And I must also prepare myself to receive the glory of that very special place, so that in humility, I might give thanks for once more experiencing the spiritual beauty of it. And so, I am off, with this whirl of emotions, heading ever south.
I had first met Rocks at a small campsite just north of Atkins Thursday evening last. I immediately began shooting my mouth off about how I was wrapping up a thirty-mile day. After handing me a cool frosty, so we might celebrate such a profound accomplishment, that’s when he mentioned that the hike from Partnership Shelter to Wise Shelter, also a thirty-mile hike, was a cruise. So today I’m on that train! There are some pulls up to High Point, over Iron, Pine and Stone Mountains, then the beginning ascent to the Highlands, but these pulls are gradual and steady, the treadway very kind, allowing for long graceful strides. I maintain my goal, an average of three miles per hour, and I’m in, in good order by seven at Wise Shelter.
Here I am greeted by Leap and Frog, who had hitched back, as had Rocks, to Partnership to enjoy Fanny Pack’s hospitality yesterday evening. They’ve just completed a very enjoyable fifteen-mile day to arrive here at Wise. We get a warming fire going, then enjoy a fine evening of fellowship together. Leap and Frog are from Canada, and I just dearly love the kind, friendly folks from Canada.
*EMILE BENTON MacKAYE, 1879-1976–The father of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, a 14-state National Park Greenway extending from Maine to Georgia. “Let us tarry awhile till we see the things we look upon.”
Monday–October 23, 2000
Winter comes early to high elevations, to these high places. Wise Shelter is situated at nearly 4,500 feet, so is there any wonder my fingers turn to sticks before I can get my gear packed, and the old jitney geared up? Nearing Wilburn Ridge, and from the exertion of the climb, and with the morning sun now on my back, I’m quickly warmed, and I am comforted. Now I set my eyes and my mind to experiencing the calming solitude, and to accept the spiritual warmth present here in the heavenly ether that surrounds and is present all throughout these high temples. Oh, what a bright, sun-drenched day to be hiking through these lofty crags and pinnacles, these tabernacles of the Lord, that are the Grayson Highlands.
What has been said about the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, and in particular about Grayson Highlands–that the Lord has seen fit “To drop a little bit of Montana onto the rooftop of Virginia,” is certainly true. The Highlands are indeed a rugged, grand and majestic place, one of my favorite places along the entire Appalachian chain of mountains. As I pass, I reflect on those not so fine past days of hiking, where, with all my energy and ability, I brought to bear my resources of patience and endurance. And for that effort and that resolve, am I now greatly rewarded–to overflowing–with this fine day.
It has been said that “smart first time hikers take the Virginia Creeper Trail, and all second time hikers take the Creeper,” and I’m on my third hike through. On my northbound section hike in the 80s, I stayed on the AT out of Damascus, up and over Whitetop Mountain. During “Odyssey ’98” I took the Creeper out of Damascus to a little above Creek Junction, then back to the AT and again up and over Whitetop Mountain. When mentioning this to folks, I’m constantly told that I should have stayed on the Creeper all the way to Whitetop Station. So today is the day to hike the Creeper all the way, and at Elk Garden, VA600, I take the five-mile roadwalk to Whitetop Station, stopping, of course, at the little community of Whitetop for some orange juice and ice cream! But this is no shortcut and I must not tarry long, as my goal is to reach Damascus by evening, a distance of some thirty-two miles.
The location of the original Whitetop Station is an historic place. How fitting that a replica of the old train station is now being constructed on the exact spot. The history is interesting. I quote from a brochure prepared by the Virginia Creeper Trail Club: “The Virginia Creeper Trail began as a Native American footpath. Later, the European pioneers, as well as early explorer Daniel Boone, used the trail. Shortly after 1900, W.B. Mingea constructed the Virginia-Carolina Railroad from Abingdon to Damascus. In 1905, the Hassinger Lumber Company extended the line to Konnarock and Elkland, North Carolina. Its nickname, Virginia Creeper, came from the early steam locomotives that struggled slowly up the railroad’s steep grades.”
As I hike down the gorge, and staying the Creeper Trail, I cross Whitetop Laurel Creek countless times. There are over 100 trestles and bridges along its path to Abingdon, with most of them in the gorge. Whitetop Laurel Creek tumbles and cascades in constant tumult throughout its journey in such a glad and happy way, that to hike along brings the same gladness and happiness to he who passes. And this day do I pass this way to share in the constant revelry of this magic place!
It is dark as I complete the last mile along the Creeper, the lights and sounds of Damascus just ahead. I am tired and weary and am so thankful to reach The Place, a place for all tired and weary hikers. The little village of Damascus has opened its arms to take in those of us who trek along the AT. This kindness and generosity have they been lavishing on us for years, and oh what a joy to be here again! It’s stromboli and a few cold ones at Quincey’s, then to The Place for a much-needed night of rest. This day is not in my debt!
Tuesday–October 24, 2000
Last night while dining at Quincey’s, comes in Leap and Frog and Huckleberry’s family. They joined me at my table and we shared a grand evening. During the course of conversation, Huckleberry’s father spoke up and said, “Meredith Johnson,” I presumed to get my attention, for my first and middle names are Meredith and Johnson. I’m thinking, “This is strange; how does he know I’m Meredith Johnson?” Just then his daughter answers. Her first and middle names are also Meredith and Johnson! Folks, there’s no way I can be making this stuff up. The sweet little girl’s name is Meredith Johnson! I had recommended the calzone to Leap and Frog. Oh yes, that was the right recommendation!
It’s amazing, the renovation at the hiker/biker hostel known as “The Place.” I can’t believe how beautiful the work has turned out, from top to bottom, inside and out. It’s just remarkable. The property and the old two-story frame house belong to the Damascus United Methodist Church. Over the years they’ve opened their hearts and their facilities to hikers. It does my heart good to know that the hiking community cares and appreciates the goodness of the church and of its members, for it was hikers collectively that came together to help fund the improvements. Yes, I’m proud to have been and to be part of it all!
I have so much I must get done today. I would like to get back on the trail this afternoon, but I wonder. I’m behind on my journal entries. My bounce box is waiting at the post office, plus I want to get down to Mount Rogers Outfitters for awhile.
Well, it’s turned out about the way I figured. It’s four o’clock now, the day’s daylight nearly gone, and I’ve got very little of what I need to do done. So I’ll be here for another night at The Place. Life sure could be a lot worse.
Wednesday–October 25, 2000
I don’t know what’s turned me onto just hiking, good old heads-down, grind-it-out hiking. I got out early this morning; it’s now noon and I’ve already done over thirteen miles. Passing Uncle Nick Grindstaff’s grave puts me in a trance-like hypnotic funk. My head goes down further, I stab the ground harder, and pound the miles faster. I put another state behind me today–Virginia–this one took awhile. That’s two provinces and eleven states down, five states to go.
There’s no water at Iron Mountain Shelter, and somehow I miss the spring just the other side. The Vandeventer Shelter has no water either, so I keep on pounding. “Danged if I’ll go halfway down the mountain for water,” I grumble under my breath. I’m at thirty-three miles now; it’s seven o’clock; it’s getting dark. “I’ll find water soon, then I’ll pitch for the night,” I try reassuring myself. Out comes my little photon light and on into the dimming light of day I grind. Stumbling through the rocks another three hours in the dark, the trail and the old wizened-up Nomad finally bail off the mountain. I find water, lots of water, Watauga Lake, but who wants to drink this stuff! It’s now ten-thirty, I’ve trudged forty-two miles on less than a quart of water, and I’m bone tired, desert-dry, and dust-spittin’ thirsty–not quite your happy camper.
I’m at US321 now, and like a reflex, out pops my thumb–in the dark. Low-and-behold, the next line of flying searchlights that courses by, and like a scheduled pit stop at Daytona, this guy dives for the shoulder apron, slams on his breaks, and hauls ‘er down. I’m watching it, but I can’t believe it, what a stroke of luck! A young lad heading home from his prison guard job a ways back has stopped to pick me up, in the pitch black of night! Turns out, the fellow’s a hiker. He knows the trails all around here. With a quizzical grin on his face as we exchange pleasant informalities, he replies, “You’ve walked from where, today?”
In just minutes I’m at the Comfort Inn in Hampton, feeding dollar bills into the pop machine.
What a day, I remember Uncle Nick’s grave, the dry, unending ridge walk, and–well, that’s about it. Forty-two miles, holy cripes, I can’t believe it! Oh, do these four 20oz Mountain Dews ever taste good.
Thursday–October 26, 2000
It’s pretty amazing, but I’m able to get a hitch right away out of Hampton. It’s dark and all the approaching vehicles have their headlights on, but this old rickety pickup slides to the side and shudders to a halt. I run to close the distance as the driver looks out the rear window over his shoulder.
Folks, have you ever wondered why the innocence we see in the countenance of children always seems to disappear, not to be seen again until in the very elderly? To see this glow of peace and contentment in the faces of folks in their twenties, thirties and forties is certainly unusual, and when it does occur, it’s such a sparkling and enjoyably refreshing thing to witness! Such is my fortunate experience now as John Stonecypher welcomes me, for here is a man who has found peace in his life; one look tells the story. John’s on his way home from his work shift, from–I don’t remember where, and as we lurch along toward the trailhead he talks about his wife and children, how his life has been filled with pure joy and happiness. We’re soon at US321, where I was amazed to get a ride the evening last. John shuts the old clunker down, and we have the longest and most remarkable talk about…life! Thanks for your kindness, John. Please take time when you can to look me up <www.nimblewillnomad.com> and sign my guest book.
The hike today takes me into Laurel Fork Gorge where the beautiful, breathtaking Laurel Falls tumble. In days long past, the railroad passed here. It’s difficult to even imagine the possibility of a railroad ever having existed in this place, but the old railbed which pitches straight off into the awesome depths of the gorge, where once there were sky-high trestles, bears witness to the fact that locomotives indeed once lumbered their way through. The AT follows this old railbed where it’s been blasted from vertical walls of solid rock. What a train ride that must have been, a view of solid granite only inches away one moment, then gaping open space into the abyss, the next. Yes, it must have been quite a ride!
Laurel Falls is a natural wonder, rugged, yet beautiful beyond description. The trail leads to the very base of the falls, where I pause to gaze with childlike amazement. In my passage through the gorge in ’98, the sun then presented in perfect alignment, casting its brilliance–to illuminate each water droplet propelled by the flood hurled from the lofty brink. The sun is away today, leaving only dark, monochromatic shadows, which give forth an eerie, forbidding relief to the sheer walls of granite. But in this starkness is there another form of beauty, for now, in this subdued light do the steel-gray sentinels of rock–loom, presenting such force and boldness. Indeed, it is a most perplexing sight, offering such a different mood. We may continually question Mother Nature, yet does She ever answer with the least deliberation or in the least meaningful way? Yet, aren’t the answers always found filled with truth and purity! Standing here, gazing in awe and bewilderment, I’m reminded of the words of Ivan Turgenev, “However much you knock at nature’s door, she will never answer you in comprehensible words.”
It’s only a little past noon now, and I’m interested in getting in eight or ten more miles, but I’m also interested in spending the evening with Dennis and Mary here at Laurel Creek Lodge and Hostel. I’m thinking, “If I could hike on out, then be picked up later, that would be perfect.” Soon comes Dennis. As I remark about wanting to hike on, and that I feel bad about missing a stay at this beautiful place, Dennis offers to shuttle me to where the trail crosses at a little-known woods road a few miles south. “I’ll run you down there right now and you can hike back in, how’s that?” he replies. “Oh yes,” I exclaim, “Let’s do it!” So off we go. This is great! And I know it will be just as great to spend the evening with the kind folks here at Laurel Creek Lodge and Hostel.
Friday–October 27, 2000
Mary and Dennis were awaiting my arrival as I hiked back north to Laurel Creek. In the evening, Mary prepared an absolute feast for Dennis and me. It was a peaceful, happy time.
After a great breakfast this morning, again prepared by Mary, Dennis shuttles me back to the trail, and I’m headed south by eight-thirty. Thanks, Mary and Dennis, for your hospitality. I’ve had a great stay at Laurel Creek Lodge and Hostel!
The trail today takes me over Doll Flats to the balds of Hump and Little Hump Mountains. These are the first of the southern balds over which the trail passes. The day is clear and fair and I linger, taking in the panoramic view from each. I thought I remembered the remarkable feeling of standing on these balds, but a refresher course always seems in order.
In my book, Ten Million Steps, I talked about the Stanley A. Murray Memorial, (what was) a beautiful bronze plaque mounted on one of the large, jutting boulders near the summit of Hump Mountain. On the memorial is inscribed:
Houston Ridge, in memory of Stanley A. Murray 1923-1990. Houston Ridge has been dedicated by the USFS and the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy in the memory of Stanley A. Murray. As chair of the Trail Conference from 1961-1975 he was instrumental in bringing the Appalachian Trail to the Highlands of Roan. Because of his untiring effort as the founder and director of the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy thousands of acres in the Roan Highlands have been protected for the benefit of future generations.
I stand here before this memorial now in dismay–much as I stood in dismay at this same spot over two years ago–because, you see, some thoughtless individual, hell-bent on destruction, has smashed and bent the memorial into the most disgusting appearance, and in that state does it still remain. If-and-when my book, Ten Million Steps, is paid for and turns the first cent of profit, will funds be provided to have this plaque removed, cleaned, straightened and restored, then remounted in a more appropriate and secure location. I swear that it will be done. The memory of this man deserves proper respect.
As I hike on, the trail leads down into Bradley Gap, then up and over Little Hump. I finish the day in a funk at the Overmountain Shelter, an old barn restores and converted for hikers’ use. I manage a fine cooking fire and get my evening meal prepared just before a hard thunderstorm passes over the Overmountain.
Saturday–October 28, 2000
The morn dawns cold and cloudy, and I hasten to get out and moving. As I climb toward Roan High Knob, the wind comes up, driving a cold, gray mist, and as I continue climbing, do I realize I’m in the clouds. The trail soon turns to rocks, and the canopy above turns to boreal forest, not unlike much of the forest to the far north. The evergreen boughs are filtering the clouds, collecting the cloud-droplets, and the wind rains them down upon me. It is not raining, but I am in the rain. There are no sights to be seen on Roan Massif this day.
This hike I’m into now proves tough going, with the ol’ AT letting me have it. It’s a tough pull up and over Roan, followed by Little Rock Knob, Iron Mountain and finally Little Bald Knob. It’s late when I arrive at Cherry Gap Shelter. The cooking-turned-warming fire is both welcome and comforting. As is not unusual, I have the shelter to myself. Days like this, where one becomes encircled, engulfed, then embraced by the shroud, locked within the veil, does there seem to descend a feeling of such intimate security, womb-like, near rapture with Nature. Here one’s movement is reduced to only that space within the cloud-circle, an elusive past-the-mirror medium that binds you tightly. Yet, as you move to venture beyond the wisp of it, does it moves with you, constantly maintaining its distance and its bounds. From this ephemeral, wall-less room, there is no release, no escape. I remember the words of Robert Browning: “…of what I call God, and fools call Nature.” Ahh, these are the times I am able to find peace, to think, to truly think–and as I ponder, am I able to almost plumb that restless driving that is the gut-fired lust within us all, the lust of the wanderlust.
Sunday–October 29, 2000
Another cold morning, but this one’s clear. After bailing off and down (mostly a leaf slalom) into Low Gap, I slam into Unaka Mountain. Oh yes, the old jitney gets up to normal operating temperature in short order! Halfway up I stop and start peeling. Off come the mittens and gloves, then the wool shirt. Top down now, a slug of water for the radiator, and the old jitney’s shifts into second for the remainder of the pull.
Over by the fire ring I see cans and bottles. On closer inspection I find them to be full, cold cans and bottles–of the finest beer! Below, in the parking area, two young folks are climbing into their vehicle. I hold up one of the cans and shout to get their attention. Shouting back, then climbing the fence, they return to the summit to greet me. Here I meet Green Bean, (Maine to Georgia ’99) and his girlfriend…Aww dang, I forgot her name, that’s terrible! They’re out to dispense a little trail magic, especially for their southbound friend, Garbage Man. After finding that Garbage Man is probably two days behind me, and that I am headed for Erwin and Uncle Johnny’s, and they’re going right by Uncle Johnny’s, they decide to take the rest of the beer back to their vehicle and leave it for me at–Uncle Johnny’s! Well now, how’s that for some well-timed trail magic!
Past Indian Grave and Curley Maple Gaps, the trail turns to a whole series of side-slabbing, the kind that cuts the mountain hard, elbow-bumpin’ to port, hazy-blue nothing to starboard. Daydreaming now as I cruise, has the deep leaf carpet concealed a large off-camber root. When my right foot hits it, I heal violently to port. I slump to my left knee and when it hits the root, I’m propelled, as from a deck cannon, right over the side. Man overboard! Before I can shout “Bill Irwin” (the blind guy who hiked the AT and fell a lot), I’m blazing a new blue-blazing shortcut straight down to Erwin. Lucky for me there’s rhododendron and greenbriar clinging to the mountainside, and between the two of them, they manage to grab hold of me and get me stopped. I remain in a daze for the longest time, fearing to move. I finally begin damage control, feet straight up and head straight down–looking straight down at Erwin. This hike has been charmed, and I am charmed. The Lord’s certainly providing safe passage. The devil’s had little luck. The worst I suffer on this unscheduled detour is a skinned up knee, which still works fine!
Just this side of the Nolichucky, and on one of the many little wooden foot bridges that span the smaller creeks, sits a chap with a box in his lap. As I approach, I’m greeted with an ear-to-ear grin from Ed Not To Worry Speer. Ed had been to the Gathering, had purchased one of my books, remembered that tomorrow was my birthday, so here he is with a box of glazed donuts–to wish me “Happy Birthday!”
While attending the payphone, downloading my email, I look over by the pop machines, catching a glimpse of a fellow passing by. As I hang up, I’m thinking, “That guy sure looked familiar.” I give it no more thought until I’m around by the shower porch later in the afternoon. Then comes a voice from the little cottage across the way, “Is that you Nimblewill?” I turn, not believing my eyes, but sure as I look it’s Pat Garcia the Gray-Haired Guy Jackson, the same fellow I’d seen in the little mom-n-pop store in the middle of nowhere in Alabama during “Odyssey ’98.” “Garcia, is that you!” I exclaim. We both stand and stare at each other for the longest time, in total disbelief.
Monday–October 30, 2000
After a few more donuts for breakfast, Not To Worry loads me up and we head for coffee downtown, then to Spivey Gap where I’ll hike north, back to Uncle Johnny’s, a short eleven-mile day. Johnny wants to take me into Erwin for radio and newspaper interviews this afternoon, so I reluctantly consent to stay another day at Nolichucky–but I want to get in at least a few miles. As Not To Worry drops me off, we make plans to hike together some when I reach Florida. Thanks, Not To Worry, for your kindness and generosity. I’m glad you liked the book!
The hike is a cruise, and I’m back to Nolichucky by noon to be greeted by Johnny, who is sitting on the porch. Shortly after I arrive comes a southbounder across the highway. Well, glory be, it’s Batteries Included, a happy young lad I’d been reading shelter register entries about for the past three or four weeks.
Johnny takes me to town for lunch and the interviews. Back at the Hostel I try catching up on some journal entries, with little success. Later in the evening Batteries Included and I order in a Pizza and wash it down with the rest of Green Beans beer! Another interesting day.
Tuesday–October 31, 2000
I’m up at seven, and Batteries Included and I finish off the rest of the birthday donuts that Not To Worry gave me. Johnny drives me back to the trail, and at eight-thirty I’m headed up the mountain from Spivey Gap in dense smoke from a nearby forest fire.
As I continue climbing, the wind drives the smoke up the ridge ahead of me, making breathing difficult. I’m anxious and very relieved to reach the ridgeline, for I feared the fire was climbing behind me. Hurrying along the ridge now, I’m soon out of the dense smoke.
There is plenty of excitement every day now, things to look forward to and enjoy. Today I hasten along to keep an appointment at Rufus Sams Gap, thence down to Little Creek Restaurant. Here I’ll be having dinner with my good friends of many years, Chuck and Lenore Parham who now live nearby in Mars Hill, North Carolina. I make it in, get a hitch down, and they’re right on time. What a great afternoon we spend together.
Rufus Sams Gap is really ripped up now, the trail hard to find. The interstate is coming through, so the whole place is busted wide open. Used to, the trail came off the ridge, jumped the guardrail and passed this little old place that was slowly sliding down the mountain. Out front was an old pickup, windows busted, doors open, tires flat, the bed heaped full of beer cans and trash. Looks like that old pickup finally made one more trip. Seeing the gap now, the way it is, is a letdown, because I’d been looking forward to seeing that familiar old homestead. The place was sort of symbolic, sort of the southern Appalachians as I know them, my home.
It’s nearly dark now as I reach Hogback Ridge Shelter. I’m really exhausted. No fire tonight. I fetch a little water from the spring, then roll in for the night. It’s unusually dark and I’m alone. The mice are really scampering about, but their entertainment doesn’t keep my attention for long.
Wednesday–November 1, 2000
The smoke came in during the night, not heavy, but it set a haze over the shelter. This morning I’m out at seven-thirty. We’re off Daylight Savings time now. My body clock says I’m okay, but my watch says I’m an hour early. That doesn’t help in adjusting to the changeover. It’s important, however, to try and use these precious moments of early light, as the days are getting noticeably shorter, with dark coming now at six. I’m having my little Petzl headlamp sent back to me–gonna need it!
I’d hoped to make it to Spring Mountain Shelter this evening but the constant ups and downs really slowed me down. The smoke has given me a plugged head and a headache, and my energy level, which is usually very high, is noticeably off. So I end the day at Little Laurel Shelter, only twenty-one miles where I’d hoped to do thirty, setting me up for a short day into Hot Springs tomorrow.
I spend the evening with Denise and Belinda, northbound section hikers. They’re out for a few days from their jobs with a river-rafting outfitter on the Gauley and the New Rivers in West Virginia. Denise had a fire already going when I arrived, so hot coffee was the order right away, followed by my hot pot of gruel shortly after. We spend a relaxing evening chatting and listening to their radio.
Thursday–November 2, 2000
I slept well, am up early and anxious to get going, for today I’ll reach Hot Springs, North Carolina. Here is Sunnybank Inn and my good friend, Elmer Hall. It’s a twenty-mile day, but I plan on trying to hold my average of three mile per. I’m out at seven, so I should arrive in Hot Springs before two. The ride is bumpy, but the pulls do not exceed 3,600 feet. No sense taking the side trail to Rich Mountain Fire Tower, as the sky is full of smoke and haze. This is just one of those hammer-it-out days.
The trail drops in rock-strewn switchbacks off Lovers Leap Rock to the French Broad River, and I’m standing at Elmer’s backdoor a little before two.
It’s a great afternoon and evening in Hot Springs. Dang, Elmer, it’s good to be back!
Friday–November 3, 2000
Elmer Hall at Sunnybank Inn is such a great host. Don’t know how many times I’ve stayed, doesn’t matter as I never tire of the place, the neat old high-ceilinged rooms filled with not-so-fine antiques, the old porcelain bathtubs with the squeaky knobs that won’t quite shut off, an incredible library–and the out-of-this-world veggie meals. Oh, it is so fine, so very fine! Thanks, Elmer, for your generosity and kindness, and for another memorable stay. I always seem to come away with a little of your wisdom!
Word is coming in about the forest fires. They’re not only north of me, like the one that nearly smoked me out in Spivey Gap, but also south, clear into Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP). A stop at the United States Forest Service (USFS) office confirms the bad news. There’s a wildfire in Davenport Gap. Mountain Moma’s, the hostel at the northern end of GSMNP, was evacuated yesterday.
Saturday–November 4, 2000
It’s difficult to determine if the day has dawned cloudy or if it’s just the ubiquitous smoke-haze. I’m out at seven-thirty to be immediately greeted by the pull up Max Patch.
The Patch is such a remarkable place, a large, towering flattop mountain, cleared years ago to provide homesteads, and fields for hay and pasture for grazing. It was part of a USFS purchase made back in 1982 in order to move the trail from a three-mile roadwalk that led to Lemon Gap. From the summit of Max Patch can be seen the highest and most spectacular of all the peaks and ranges of the Appalachians–to the south, the Great Smoky Mountains with Clingmans Dome, the highest point on the AT, and to the east, Mount Mitchell, the highest mountain this side of the Mississippi. As I stand here now, a flood of emotions swell in me. I am thinking of the first time I stood here on Max Patch. That was 1985, over fifteen years ago. I was the first intrepid from Springer Mountain to stand on Max Patch with a backpack on, to gaze in spellbound wonder at the majesty that surrounded me. But alas, I see no towering, far-off mountains today. The smoke has filled the sky with a doomsday-like haze, the meadows of Max Patch bathed in a sickening brownish-orange sheen, as the sun tries burning through. I am struck with fear as I look toward Davenport Gap, the smoke lying there as if a cloud. I try to control my anguish and relax the knot in my gut as I turn to continue south.
The trail drops and bops through Brown Gap, thence to a short climb followed by a bailoff into another Deep Gap, perhaps named after Mr. Deep, but perhaps not, as this gap is indeed very deep. As I crest Snowbird Mountain and descend to Spanish Oak Gap, the smoke thickens, making breathing a conscious, laborious effort. I am elated and very relieved to meet two northbound section hikers coming up from the gap, for from them I learn that I’ll not only be able to get through to Davenport Gap, but that Mountain Moma’s, my planned destination for the evening, is open again! At the Waterville Road crossing, I am cautioned by USFS firefighters to be alert for falling snags and to watch carefully, so as to stay on trail, the treadway having been crisscrossed by their fireline.
As I enter the blackened char, I’m pleasantly surprised to find the smoke less troublesome. The compacted treadway is all that has not burned, its brown ribbon remaining, winding through the horrid chamber of black. Hotspots with their concentrated billows of smoke are everywhere. I can see and hear snags falling from the burned, smoldering overstory. Clouds have been arriving, and in awhile, the rain begins. I can’t remember ever being so overjoyed to hear the gentle patter of rain. Before I emerge from the darkened dungeon, I’m in a steady shower and I hear the sizzle as the hotspots explode with spatter and ash.
At Stateline Road, some of the fireline crew give me a ride all the way down to Mountain Moma’s. The grill is open for another hour. I check in, dry off, then head back to the store, where I indulge myself, savoring one of Mountain Moma’s huge and famous cheeseburgers.
Life is never dull on the trail. What an incredible day. Thank you, Lord, for providing such a wide, safe path!
Sunday–November 5, 2000
Mountain Moma’s is on winter hours, which means they don’t open until noon on Sunday. My good friend, Caroline Thigpen, will be taking me back to the trail as soon as she gets in, a little before twelve.
The rain of yesterday and last evening has cleared out, and it looks to be shaping into a fine hiking day. Carolyn arrives a little before noon and has me back on the trail before twelve. Thanks, John and Carolyn, for a great stay at Mountain Moma’s! The fire is out, and we are all safe. It is a blessing.
Today will be a short hiking day, so I’ve set a goal of only fifteen miles. I should reach Tri-Corner Knob well before dark. I soon realize, however, that I’ll really need to push to get there by nightfall, for this hike today is starting out very tough. I’m immediately faced with the pull up Mount Cammerer, over three thousand feet of vertical ascent in just over five miles. It seems the climb will never end. If this is any indication of what the trail has to offer up today, there’s no way I’ll reach Tri-Corner. But after Cammerer the climbs ease off, and I make good time over Cosby Knob and up Mount Guyot. I arrive at the shelter well before dark. Three section hikers have already moved in, bringing lots of firewood. They soon have a fine fire going in the indoor fireplace and we enjoy the evening together. What a joy to be out of the smoke and fire. I’ve had a much happier time of it day.
Monday–November 6, 2000
The closer I got to Tri-Corner Knob last, the more iffy the weather became, until finally the local mush took over. This morning, however, I’m greeted by a glorious, clear day, perfect for hiking through some of the most breathtaking scenery that GSMNP has to offer.
And what a day it is, as I snap picture after picture from vantage after vantage. The Sawteeth and Charlies Bunion are perhaps two of the most remarkable places along this grand old AT, with raw, ruggedly majestic beauty beyond description. I linger in quiet, contented repose under the spell of this mystifying grandeur. If you have not been here, if you have not seen these high places, there are no words that I or anyone else could write that would help you understand. You must come here; that is the only way. You must witness for yourself–behold that which our Maker has lifted up.
I’m in early at Newfound Gap. The northbound section hikers I’d met heading for Mountain Moma’s the other day had told me that Gatlinburg was quiet, not the usual hectic mass of tourists, so I decide to go down. At the end of the parking lot I stick out my thumb, and in minutes I’m rolling along to Gatlinburg. I’d read and heard about The Happy Hiker, so there I head for my first stop. Here I’m greeted by Randall, and by Howie, Manager of The Happy Hiker. Howie gets me lined up on where to stay and where to go for supper, then he snaps my picture to go on the overhead beam with all the other members of the “Class of 2000.” Thanks, Randall and Howie, for all your kindness! The Happy Hiker is a well-stocked outfitter.
I check into the Grand Prix Motel, get cleaned up, then head over to the Smoky Mountain Microbrewery for a stromboli and some of the finest (local) suds.
What a great hiking day, and what a great evening this trail-town boy is having tonight!
Tuesday–November 7, 2000
Well, the Companion mentions how easy it is to get a hitch into Gatlinburg, but doesn’t discuss the difficulty of getting back out. What an ordeal! I’m standing at light #10, the last stoplight leaving Gatlinburg. It’s seven-thirty. I’ve got eighteen rugged miles before me today, up and over Mount Collins, Mount Love, Clingmans Dome, Silers Bald and Derrick Knob. I need to get back on the trail; I need to get going. But at nine-thirty, a full two hours later, I’m still standing right here at light #10, the last stoplight out of Gatlinburg. Glory be, the only other time I’ve ever had to wait this long for a hitch was in New York, two years ago, while trying to reach the oral surgeon’s office.
The forecast is for rain today. As I stand holding my cardboard sign, which reads: “Newfound Gap,”–and with my thumb still out, the rain begins. I seldom give up, but I finally give up, to move across the corner where I retreat under the service station canopy. Just as I reach the shelter of the pumps, a kind fellow tanking up his pickup sees my sign and motions me over. Oh yes, how about that saying “darkest before the dawn!” And glory be again, I’ve finally got a ride!
By ten I’m on the trail. Seems the rain has set in for the duration. Here in Indian Gap, and as I begin my ascent to Mount Collins, the day turns increasingly dark and cold, and the swirling, cloud-churned rain creates a gloom the likes of which severely test my little glad tiding, “There are no bad days on the trail.” I’m heading now into what’s obviously going to be another long, hard, grind-it-out day.
There’s nothing to see up here in the shroud, save the morbid scene of dead and dying Fraser Fir, victims of acid rain and the little bugs that keep sawing and gnawing away at them. All that’s left of these once proud and majestic monarchs are their skeletons–cold gray snags, poking their deformed remains through the encircling gloom. Oh, does this present such a grotesque and pitiful sight. I’m on my third hike across Clingmans Dome, and this, my third time to witness such hell in this dreadful place. But should my eyes see all hereabouts in the brightest light, there would not be such clear, defining focus. At times does Mother Nature play what seems such senseless tricks? Ahh, but aided by the senseless acts of man, does she not plays for keeps!
Me, along with my funky attitude, which I’ve easily managed to nurture today, arrive at Derrick Knob Shelter in the late afternoon. Matthew, a glad and happy section hiker from Augusta, Georgia, greets us. After much effort, Matthew manages a smoking, choking fire in the dilapidated, tumbledown fireplace. The wind and swirling rain have other ideas, though, and he finally gives up the notion of having a fine evening fire. I do manage to cook some angle-ninety noodles with gravy and am cheered by Matthew’s positive attitude, glowing countenance and upbeat conversation. The warm meal and good company succeed in driving away the funk.
Wednesday–November 8, 2000
The rain came in pulsing waves during the night, accompanied by violent thunder and lightning. This morning I’m up, out and in the dark and gloom of it by seven-thirty…a “great day in the morning” this is not!
As if possible, the treadway is even more treacherous now as I contend with a blanket of wet leaves. The ice-slick combination, a colloidal-like slime of mud and leaves, makes skating the way of the trail. Downhills are wild, with no run-away ramps, the going being pretty much either up or down. It seems there’s little if ever any letup in the daily grind. I’ll be trying to bang out twenty-one miles today.
My reward for huffing out the pulls over the Thunderheads, Rockytop, Devils Tater Patch and Doe Knob is uplifting–uplifting wind-driven rain-filled clouds. Here comes the attitude again. The overlooks are here but I overlooked all of them today. Just as well, for I must keep my eyes and my concentration totally on the trail. One false step, only one, and all the millions of steps before become meaningless. This is a crapshoot of the highest order, the odds impossible to comprehend, a thought upon which I try not to dwell.
The grip of gloom, seemingly of doom, finally breaks as I make the ascent to Shuckstack, my final pull for the day. The glaze that has been brushing over this high-bound skyway finally and suddenly lifts, as if a curtain has been flung aside, and I can see the far-off kin to all the lofty temples I’ve been laboring upon today. What a jolt to my dull and weary senses, like the crashing of cymbals abruptly ending a soft and gentle rhapsody.
Fontana Lake is undergoing a periodic five-year drawdown, the reservoir way below its normal level. The dam, built in the early forties, was constructed of concrete only; no steel reinforcement was used, and the structure is now honeycombed with structure-weakening cracks. I watch from the road/trailway brink of it, clinging, white knuckles to the railing as I gape at the barge nearly two-hundred feet below, where divers prepare to plunge to the near-fathomless depths that remain, for now is the time to inspect the inner wall. The shoreline around is a scene most shocking, rock-barren and forbidding. Small islands, their uppermost sharp-tops the only visible aspect during normal water levels, now appear as bizarre, coned-shaped projectiles of earth, sporting oddly-festooned little topknots of green. What a weird and eerie place–very strange. This is definitely not the placid, inviting lake where you’d want to spend a relaxing, leisurely afternoon.
Fontana Village was originally constructed to house the workers while the dam was being built. It now serves as a resort on the west end of GSMNP. It’s a quiet, neat little trailside community, tucked away in the mountains. And the Inn? Ahh, to a weary hiker the Inn is five-star, special hiker rates, plush rooms, in-house sauna, and a grand restaurant right under roof. After a trip to the post office and the quaint little village store, I make myself presentable and head for the chow line!
This day really came around–finally. I’m clean, full, warm and dry, definitely a happy hiker!
Thursday–November 9, 2000
I’ve been telling friends for the past number of weeks that I’d be thankful and very relieved to get over the high elevations in GSMNP, this being the time of year that weather conditions can become most unpredictable. That goal now having been accomplished with relative ease, save getting past the fires near the east end of the park, here I sit this morning, looking out my room at the pouring rain, then back to The Weather Channel showing the extent of this massive storm. My natural push and drive says, “Get up and go,” while better judgment says, “Sit this one out.” I decide to listen to better judgment–smart move, as the day stays alarmingly dark, with the cold, steady rain coming in buckets. Tomorrow is another day, and the trail will still be there. I’ll let the flood run the trail today.
Having decided to sit, I call the desk and arrange my stayover, then it’s down to the restaurant for breakfast. As I relax, enjoying yet another brimming hot cup of coffee, and looking out the dining room window, I see the cloud-cloak lift momentarily, but in nearly the same instant the rain-driven shroud quickly returns, shutting down the mountains all around. I feel so fortunate not to be in it for a change.
What a great day this will be. As the storm hammers on, I’ll remain warm and dry, a much-welcome day of rest.
Friday–November 10, 2000
I slept in this morning, then spent the most casual time over breakfast at the Peppercorn Restaurant here at Fontana Inn. It’s after ten before I’m back on the trail.
The forecast today is for cold and sunny. It’s definitely cold, and ol’ Sol is trying, but the local mush is very stubborn. It’s noon before the sun finally makes it front and center. What a comfort, feeling its warmth and seeing blue sky!
This has been only a thirteen-mile day but I’m bumped and bounced completely out, a most strenuous hike. These eight ups and downs have sho put a whuppin on me!
It’s dusk before I get a decent fire going and supper finally cooked. The temperature is plummeting, and a steady breeze has come up. I hasten to finish my meal and get things in order for the night. Then to ball-up on my Thermarest Guidelite, in my cozy Feathered Friends 750-loft down bag, way back in the corner of Brown Fork Gap Shelter, all by myself. ZZZZ!
Saturday–November 11, 2000
I’m awake this morning at seven but linger in my warm little nest for another half-hour, for it’s crispy-crackin’ cold! By the time I’m packed, have faithfully performed my daily duty and am prepared to depart, my fingers have become sticks. This never fails when it turns cold. The circulation in my hands is bad, so I know this is invariably going to happen; yet it always scares and frightens me. I can stand the blue-numbing cold and the pain that accompanies it, but the inability to make my fingers work, no matter how hard I concentrate or try, is really scary. Somehow I manage to get my gloves on and my fingers crimped around my trekking poles, and I’m out and going for the day.
Upon claiming the first bump above the shelter, and from the ridge, do I see the most breathtaking and spectacular occurrence! Although the summits and ridgelines hereabout are covered in hardwood, the leaves have fallen now, the views for the most part unobstructed, and what a view is there before me now–more, I suppose, a phenomenon than a view. Everything is topsy-turvy. In the sky we call clouds, clouds. But on the ground clouds are not clouds; they’re fog. But what I gaze upon now are no ordinary clouds–or fog, for below me and to the horizon in all directions stretch thousands of square miles of the most brilliantly white glassed surface I have ever seen, perfectly flat, perfectly smooth, as if a sea. And projecting through this cloud/fog-sea are legions of islands stretching to the blue, islands that are formed by the heaven-high pinnacled sharptops that are these majestic southern Appalachians. This scene before me reminds me so much of, and do I reminisce now a similar scene from another place, another time. It was October 1998, and I was about to enter the rooftop tundra of the Chic Chocs in Quebec Province, Canada. On a cold, clear morning just as this, did I see such a scene so magnificent, a brilliant cloud-sea most like this before me now. I immediately became captive to a spell, a spell over which I had no control that transported me back in time. As I gazed in awe upon that mysterious, majestic sea, did I observe cloud-tufted masts and sails of tall ships plying their way! Ahh, and am I captive yet again to such a spell today. I search and search the sea, until the blinding brilliance washes my visual sense to a dancing gray blankness; but alas, on this sea there are no ships, only the shimmering cusp–to the horizon.
But wait, for it seems this eerie spell is not over. I am descending now to Stecoah Gap, and suddenly do I realize that I am on a long, narrow peninsula, a peninsula that ends not at Stecoah Gap, but at Stecoah Channel. For here the cloud-sea has cut the Gap, to pass beyond, thence to form an enormous gulf. And beyond that gulf, yet another brilliant, pure-white sea, dotted with countless islands, the most beautiful islands of all. As I continue descending, and reaching the very tip of the peninsula, I also descend in another sense, submitting myself to the complete and utter control of the spell, for it is now that I realize I am about to submerge in Stecoah Channel! But how can this be, I can’t just walk into the sea? But there is no other way, the trail does not veer off, but plunges directly in, and as I submerge, holding my breath, does the chilling-cold gloom engulf me–until I must finally breathe. With the spell fully upon me, so very strange is it to breathe, to be taking in huge gulps of the moist, cold sea–so very strange! An amphibian now, I follow the path to the very depths of the channel through a monochromatic frost-covered grayness of barren trees and plants.
On the far side, and climbing now, I finally emerge from the channel’s cold, dark depths and am again above the sea. The spell-bound magic of it is broken as I hear the hammer-thump of an eighteen-wheeler jake-braking the gap below, and I am once again on the grand old AT, heading ever south.
Would you believe all of this beauty and awe-inspiring mystery, and I’m out of film! Yes, there’s no film in my camera. My sponsor, GORP.com, was to supply me with film for this journey, but there never seems to be enough time to get the film to my next maildrop. If, as we are told, a picture is worth a thousand words, for this one, the thousand words will just have to do!
I arrive at Wesser by early afternoon, pick up my bounce box at NOC Outfitters, then head straight to River’s End Restaurant for their hiker-stokin’ platter of sherpa rice heaped with ladles of chili and cheese. The kind lady at registration provides me a private room in one of the bunkhouses, where I settle in for the evening. Hey, the heater works!
What a special day, a day filled with magic (not intended to be photographed) and an inspirational, spirit-filled moment on the mountain. Thank you, Lord, for keeping me, and for teaching me.
Sunday–November 12, 2000
I tend to get out late on short-mile days. I know the hike today, though only seventeen miles, is going to be tough, but I goof off anyway. It’s eight-thirty before I drop my key in the box. The cold of the morning hits me as I reach the Nantahala River pedestrian bridge. There’s frost a quarter-inch thick on the bridge planking, and kids are having a grand time running and sliding. One energetic young lad makes it nearly the whole way. I turn to see River’s End Restaurant open, so I head in. The place is packed, but I wait anyway. I know better than to order up a big breakfast before hitting the trail, I’ve paid the price for that loony mistake before, so I order only a short stack. I hadn’t looked at the menu. Apparently pancakes aren’t on the menu, for the waitress responds with a blank stare, then manages, “A short stack of what?” I reply, “Buckwheat cakes!” The stare continues. I finally break it with, “Ma’am could you just bring me a couple-a pancakes?” That seems to work as she asks me what I’d like to drink. When the pancakes finally arrive they’re cold, but they work just fine for soaking up the syrup, and the syrup is great. I manage to drain a whole thermos pitcher of coffee before I’m up and going again. It’s ten o’clock before I skate across the pedestrian bridge, and return to the trail.
In the first four miles I have nearly a half-mile vertical pull to Jump-up Lookout. I’m sure glad I stayed away from the ham and potatoes! The pull continues to Wesser Bald, then it’s a bail-off to Tellico Gap, followed by the pull to Copper Ridge Bald, one of the last of the remaining 5,000-footers. I’m pleasantly surprised to arrive at the campsite located below the final pull up Wayah before four-thirty.
The Data Book lists this spot as a campsite with water. It’ll do, but it certainly isn’t what I’d hoped for. The whole place is on a sidehill, so there’s no flat place to pitch. I can hear the water, but it’s ten minutes away through a blowdown and briar-entangled laurel hell.
The evening has turned cold, so I linger by the fire till after dark, alone, as usual. As I stare into the dying embers, I’m set to pondering the interesting and utter difference between what, at times, we might embrace as near reverie, that oft sought after thing called solitude, and what, at other times, we might look upon as no more than the hopelessly despairing pangs of loneliness. I’ve seen no thru-hikers since Erwin, and only two day hikers today. As expressed in my ditty, “Land of the Free,” wanderlust can, indeed, deal us a “…cold, lonesome track.”
Monday–November 13, 2000
The forecast is for rain today, but the day dawns cold and clear. I manage to break camp, get my gloves on and get moving before my fingers turn numb.
The final short pop to Wayah Bald takes only minutes, and I’m soon standing on the uppermost platform of the old stone fire tower. From this vantage, and to the north I see the high cathedrals of GSMNP dancing on horizon’s hazy-blue. And to the south, to where the path will onward lead, I see Albert Mountain and Standing Indian, the last of the remaining 5,000-footers. As I look these grand and majestic mountains over, I am comforted and strengthened in the knowledge that I am in the presence of the Lord.
The hike today is mostly a cruise, and I finish another short-mile day a little before one. My plans were to stay at Rainbow Springs Campground, owned and managed by Buddy and Jensine Crossman, but they have everything shut down and winterized. Their comfortable campground and the neat old bunkhouse for hikers are closed for the season. So, as I’m greeted by these kind folks, and although they’ve just returned from Franklin some fifteen miles away, they offer to shuttle me to Franklin just the same, the offer of which I quickly accept, and in just a short while I’m at the Franklin Motel. Thanks, Buddy and Jensine, for your kindness and for your time. You folks sure have a soft spot in your hearts for us hiker trash. I know that it’s been there for many, many years.
Tuesday–November 14, 2000
I had a most comfortable evening last at the Franklin Motel, managed by Edward Cagle. It’s a very modest old place, but well cared for, clean and neat; thanks, Ed!
During the ride in with Buddy and Jensine yesterday, I had inquired about who to call in the area for a shuttle back to the trail. Without a moment’s hesitation, Jensine responded, “That’s easy; just go over to Prudential Realty and ask for Rich Bankston. They’re just up the street from the motel. He’ll not only shuttle you back to the trail, but I’ll bet he also invites you out for a meal. Be sure to mention your book.” So after Ed gets me settled in, I beat it over to Prudential Realty. I’m in luck; the receptionist ushers me right to Mr. Bankston’s office. Jensine was right; Rich and me, we hit it right off! After a few minutes of the most upbeat conversation (and a mention of my book), Rich says, “Excuse me a moment,” and picks up the phone…”Shelby, come down here. There’s someone I want you to meet.” In no time at all, I’ve met not only Rich Bankston, but also his wife, Shelby. Folks, these folks like hikers! Though it was an obviously very busy office, we spent the most casual half-hour talking trail–and about my book. As I’m leaving, Rich having offered to shuttle back up this morning–Oh yes, I’m invited to be his guest for breakfast!
And so, at seven-thirty, right on cue as promised, Rich is at my door. I load my pack and we’re off to the local mom-n-pop for breakfast. Here we share more great conversation! I know I’ve mentioned before–how remarkable it is–the wonderful, lasting friendships I’ve made along the trail. Here’s another fine example.
Plans were to have me back on the trail and hiking by eight-thirty, but we’ll be a little late, as Rich has suggested a short side-trip, to which I quickly and enthusiastically agree.
We’re in Reverend A. Rufus Morgan country, and are near St. John’s Church, Cartoogechaye (Cherokee for “the town over beyond”) where Reverend Morgan conducted services for years. Rufus Morgan is a shining star in the annals of the Appalachian Trail. He was a AT Conference board member for thirty years and an avid hiker and trail maintainer. “…my principal joy has been hiking, with its associated wildflowers and wildlife interests. Mt. LeConte has been my favorite mountain.” Although both blind and deaf, on October 14, 1977, Reverend Morgan celebrated his 92nd birthday by climbing Mount LeConte, his 172nd ascent.
Thanks Rich, for bringing me here. It’s such a quiet, peaceful little church. I wish all who hike the AT could come.
Although I’ve a twenty mile hike today, up and over the last two 5,000 footers on the AT in the southern Appalachians, Rich has assured me that it will be a pleasant, easy hike. And indeed, I find it to be just that. The ascent and short blue blaze to the summit of Standing Indian is the highlight of the day, with magnificent views, definitely a spiritual place. I arrive before dark at Standing Indian Shelter and manage a fire, but decide against cooking as the wind has come up and the evening has turned bitter cold. Instead, I settle for a couple of ham and cheese sandwiches with an apple and a bag of M&M’s for dessert.
Thanks, dear trail angels all, for your kindness and generosity! The places are beautiful and awe-inspiring. But it’s the people; indeed, it’s the people.
Wednesday–November 15, 2000
It’s bitter cold this morning, so I stay buried in my sleeping bag, not wanting to face the day. The sun is up, but so is the wind as I convince myself it’s time to get going. The two water bottles left setting on the shelter floor are bricks. I’m unable to crack the ice in either one, so I just throw the frozen lumps in my pack. Time and again I pause to thrust my hands into my groin or under my armpits to keep my fingers working. I finally get everything tied, zipped and snapped, and I’m out and on the trail south. I have hastened with all diligence these past weeks in an effort to avoid the very problems I’ve been dealt this morning, but winter’s caught me anyway.
In spite of the cold, I’m able to get the old jitney up to operating temperature and humming remarkably well. The bail-off to Deep Gap goes quickly. Oh yes, another Deep Gap–named, no doubt, after the same family of Deeps from North Carolina and Tennessee! After the gap, it’s straight up again, then straight down to Wateroak Gap, then up and down again to Sassafras Gap, then up and down yet again to Bly Gap. Ahh, and here is the long awaited state line between North Carolina and Georgia, and my dear old friend, the broken-down oak. I stop, drop my pack and linger the longest time, enjoying the peace and serenity brought by the presence of this tenacious survivor. I celebrate with a rattling slug of ice water from one of my partially thawed water bottles. Two provinces, thirteen states down, three states to go!
Up and going again, the rollercoaster continues through Rich Cove Gap, Blue Ridge Gap, Plumorchard Gap, Bull Gap, Cowart Gap and finally for the day, Dicks Creek Gap.
Though this is a U.S. highway, there is little traffic–but glory be, in less than five minutes and no more than that many vehicles, I’m loaded and on my way to the Blueberry Patch! What a joy seeing Gary and Lennie again. They’re great friends, members of the clan. I had called ahead, so Gary has made preparations for my visit. He’s turned the water and the water heater back on in the washhouse and the heat back on in the bunkhouse. I’m the first southbounder to stay the Patch this year, the last northbounder having gone through months ago. Gary’s got the bunkhouse warm, and the showerhouse, ditto! I hurry to get cleaned up as I’ve been invited to be their guest for supper. What a grand time we have together. Lennie has prepared the finest pasta with sauce made from tomatoes raised and canned right here at the Patch. Aww, momma, I know it’s impolite to go back for thirds when you’re the guest in someone else’s home. You taught me that many years ago, and I remember it well. But please, momma, I just couldn’t help myself.
Oh, what a fine day. I’m clean, full, dry and warm, and with the best of friends! What more could anyone ask!
Thursday–November 16, 2000
The tradition goes on, and the joy of it. That grand occurrence being the AYCE pancakes-with-blueberry-syrup breakfast at the Blueberry Patch! I never expected everything to be so memorably special all over again–like during “Odyssey ’98,” but the fact is, “Odyssey 2000” is turning out to be absolutely pumped full of all those wonderful times, with all the great people, all over again! Thanks, Gary and Lennie, for being the special people you are to me, and thanks for your friendship, your kindness and your generosity!
Gary shuttles me back to the trailhead at Dicks Creek Gap and a little after nine I’m headed south again on a cool, drizzly morning. Today is only a seventeen-miler, so I can cruise along at my leisure. Good thing, ’cause the trail roughs me up plenty. Lots of pops and drops as I start whittling away at the remaining 4,000-footers. Two down (Tray and Rocky), two to go (Blue and Blood).
As the day comes on, on comes the rain. By the time I reach Unicoi Gap, it’s set itself into a persistent, no-nonsense steady and cold, but the rain bothers me not, for I am full of that same excitement and enthusiasm experienced and shared by all intrepids about to complete this incredible journey, a southbound thru-hike on the grand and venerable old Appalachian Trail. And although Springer Mountain is just another bump for me to get over on this longer quest, the first southbound thru-hike of the entire Appalachian Range, o’er the amalgamation of trails that form what is becoming known as the Appalachian Mountains Trail (AMT), I am taken and consumed by those same feelings and emotions. You can’t be out here, enduring for month after month, and not feel the energy, the special power, the indescribable spiritual magnetism that make a journey on the AT such a journey, the journey of a lifetime. Springer is not visible; its presence does not loom on the horizon for days, as does Katahdin for those northbound intrepids about to fulfill their grand dream–but it is there–it is there just the same.
Here at Unicoi is located a bit of AT history, for here on a large boulder at the gap trailhead is affixed one of the three original bronze memorials cast in the late thirties to honor and commemorate the Appalachian Trail in Georgia. On it is lifted a likeness of Warner Hall, a backpacker and Georgia Appalachian Trail Club member of that time, along with the inscribed words: “A pathway for those who seek fellowship with the wilderness.” Three of those plaques were made, and remarkably, each one survives to this day. What a miracle! There’s one here at Unicoi, one at busy Neels Gap and the other atop the monolith at Springer Mountain overlook.
As I stick out my thumb toward Helen, the trucks and autos whiz by, paying me not the least heed as I brace against their tag-along tornadoes. I can’t blame them. Nobody wants to stop in this mess, let alone pick up a soaked, dirty hiker. As the cold starts digging into my bones, I begin pondering the futility of it–but my goodness, just as I’m about to realize that getting a hitch is going to be impossible, pulls over this van! Down goes the window, and two smiling faces greet me, it’s Dave and Joe. Dave and Beverly Gale are the owners and operators of Wildwood Outfitters, located in both Hiawassee and Helen, and Joe is one of their employees. The two are on their way between stores. Ahh, what a stroke of good, good luck. Folks, this is how this whole hike has been going! One minute I’m standing in the dismal, cold rain, the next I’m in a warm, dry van heading for a warm, dry motel room in Helen.
In a short while I’m checked into the hiker-friendly Super 8 Motel. It’s amazing how the blessings keep coming, keep rolling in–at just the right moment in time.
Friday–November 17, 2000
Dave Gale, in his love for those of us consumed with wanderlust–and in his interest and desire to assist–me being one of those so consumed, had offered to shuttle me back to the trailhead at Unicoi Gap this morning, the offer of which I quickly accepted. And at seven-thirty, just as promised, Dave is at my door. On the way up the mountain, we talk about many things, like our one-of-these-day’s lists, and such. Dave is a general contractor, not your ordinary stick-and-brick bungalow builder contractor, but a real honest-to-gosh general contractor. He’s on the cell phone now, ordering materials to finish up the dam he’s building near Helen! Folks, certainly you can see by now what I mean when I say, “Life on the trail may prove trying and tiring at times, but never boring.” Ahh, indeed, it’s never boring. Thanks Dave, for your genuine caring and for your kindness, and thanks for ordering a bunch of my books for your stores, Wildwood Outfitters!
The forecast today is for windy and cold with a 30% chance of rain. Oh yes, the 70% not–is not! Up the mountain I go as I brace into it. I’ve a twenty-miler to bang out, with this day, so it seems, shaping to go in the journal as one of those grind-it-out days. The mountains here in Georgia are not the high, looming towers as are those to the north, but one does not need tall mountains to have rugged mountains, and the mountains here along the southern Blue Ridge, especially in Georgia, are rugged mountains indeed. My first pull this morning is in excess of 1,000 feet, steady, near straight up (another) old Blue Mountain, the next-to-last 4,000 footer. The mist is swirling and the wind is driving its sharp, bitter-cold teeth into me as I set my head and the old jitney to the task. And to make the task just the least bit more challenging; BANG, I hit the rocks, lots of rocks…big rocks! So stumble and grind, and up I go, to finally prevail, one more mountaintop behind me, one more mountaintop in the countless thousands of mountaintops. Thank you, Lord, thank you for the energy, the will and the resolve. This practice, over all these months, over all these miles, has never become ordinary, for each accomplishment remains such a humbling experience. I think of all the many miles behind me now, the agony, the joy. I’ll soon reach Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of this remarkable old Appalachian Trail. I’ve oft been asked the simple question, “Why?” I try to think about what it all means–then I try not to think…
As is quite often the case, just when it seems the trail has become impossible to endure, does it become near the likes of the Yellow Brick Road! And here this morning does the treadway cruise right onto such a path, a high old woods road. And what a marvelous work is this old roadway, for each little ravine has been filled with such handy care, each retaining wall built of rock blasted from the side of the mountain, each stone carefully placed to form true works of art, now covered with the algae-green patina that reveals all the many years it’s been since the army of Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) workers labored here. Ahh, and the treadway; the treadway weaves along this delightful old road for miles and miles–what a joy-filled hike!
The gaps leave no gap today. It’s rockin’ and boppin’ time as the trail rollercoasters along. Bop–Moreland Gap, bop–Hogpen Gap, bop–Whitley Gap, bop–Tesnatee Gap, bop–Baggs Creek Gap, bop–Bull Gap, and finally for the day, bop–Neels Gap!
Here in Neels Gap is the beautiful old stone CCC structure, Walasi-Yi, which houses the most complete outfitting establishment you’ll find in such quarters anywhere. Jeff and Dorothy Hansen have been the proud outfitters/proprietors, the hiker’s friends, helping the beginners and old pros alike with their gear and other needs, for over seventeen years. During that span of time, we have become the best of friends. I arrive to be greeted with a big smile and a grand hug from Bobby, one of the staff members, and then from Jeff. We share a great time together. Dorothy is out today, but I’ll get to see her in the morning, for I will be staying just down the gap at Goose Creek Cabins and will return here tomorrow to continue on to Springer.
Jeff calls the Cabins and soon comes Keith Bailey to fetch me. Goose Creek Cabins consists of a grand old lodge, a pond filled with ducks, and up the hill, the neatest bunch of old, well-kept cabins. At the lodge I meet Ken and Lionheart (AT Georgia to Maine 2000), and we chat while Keith checks me in and takes our orders for dinner. I then settle into a cozy, warm cabin as Keith runs to the BBQ to bring back food for all of us.
Great friends, a great day!
Saturday–November 18, 2000
Ahh yes, Sourdough Bob, my dear friend–indeed “Some of these things are hard to put into words.” But you know me, I’ll keep on trying! It was such a blessing to be in out of it last night, for it turned bitter cold. I relax while Keith gets the fires going in the lodge, then he shuttles me back to the gap. Thanks Keith for another memorable stay at Goose Creek Cabins. Say hello to your dad, Claude, for me!
Oh, it’s so good to see Dorothy Hansen again. Thru-hikers can form bonds that are strong and lasting, bonds no one else can understand. I’ve been up to the Center many times, but it’s different arriving here with a backpack on, hiking through. I linger for the longest time before heading up old Blood. Jeff, Dorothy, what a pleasure seeing you again! Don’t forget the friend that waits for you.
Just across the busy highway beside the trail is the second of the three old bronze memorials placed by the GATC many years ago. And though it’s affixed to a boulder right next the road, many pass here every day, paying it not the least of heed. In fact, I’ve been amazed at the number of hikers who are not even aware of it. To me, it’s a special spot, an historic place. I stop to get a picture and to read its words, “A trail for those who seek fellowship with the wilderness.” What a beautiful memorial.
Blood Mountain is the highest point on the Appalachian Trail in Georgia, standing at just over 4,400 feet. There are grand views from the summit near where the old CCC Blood Mountain Shelter is located. Here’s another beautiful structure built of stone. It’s more a cabin than a shelter, complete with fireplace and two separate rooms. But it isn’t so comfy, as the fireplace has been blocked off and the window shutters and entrance door have been removed. I’ve come to this mountain many, many times, the last with Larry Duffy, my good friend from Dahlonega. He’s Hiker Trash. Larry is a professional photographer, and I’d talked him into lugging thirty pounds of camera gear up the mountain to get the photos that my editor wanted for the cover of Ten Million Steps. We spent the whole afternoon here while Larry took different shots in the different light.
Today I’ve a very enjoyable section of trail, which I’ve hiked many a time. I like the ridges and gaps in the southern Appalachians, especially here in Georgia, for they’re most nearly all filled with the tall, straight old tulip poplar. Groves of these present such grand and stately families.
The plan for this evening is to meet Carole Goatskin Perry at FSR42 in Gooch Gap, just this side of Gooch Gap Shelter. Goatskin hiked the AT southbound and is a member of the Class of ’86. I met Carole and her husband, Lee, while working at the Len Foote Hike Inn, where I’ll be staying tomorrow evening. They’ve invited me to be their guest at their home in Cumming this evening. What a joy to be greeted by my dear friend, Goatskin, as I complete my hike for the day. She has food and some cold frosties for me. The warmth of the automobile heater–and the warmth of the company of a kind, dear friend: what a fine combination!
In the evening, after getting my tank stoked with pizza, the Perrys’ son, Brendan, who has thru-hiked the AT and is now into a hike on the PCT, dropped by to share some photos of his hike this past summer.
I’m clean, full, warm and dry, and with the most wonderful friends. Crisp linen on the bed, covered with a down comforter. What a day, what a day!
Sunday–November 19, 2000
From the Perry home in Cumming it’s an hour’s drive back to Gooch Gap, so we’re all up by seven. Before loading, Carole prepares a full-spread breakfast for me. The plan is for them to drop me off at Gooch Gap, then for Lee to drive Goatskin on ahead to the next road crossing so she can get in some hiking with me. But these plans start looking iffy as we begin climbing the mountain toward Suches. The rain came off and on all night, and this morning we no sooner get on the road than the rain begins again. As we continue climbing, the rain continues, slowly turning to snow. At first the snow isn’t sticking, but as we near Suches, the road turns slushy. As we continue, the flurries intensify, finally turning to steady snow showers. Carole is driving and I ask her “Please don’t take chances for me; we can hike another day.” She responds by shifting into four-wheel drive! On we go, making it in good order to Gooch Gap. Here Carole and Lee drop me off, then head for the next gap. I watch as they disappear into the wall of white.
The snow begins blanketing the trail and the woods all around as I ascend from Gooch Gap. I’m thinking, “What a fitting way to end this second segment of my odyssey, in the snow, just as I began the first nearly six months ago, some 2800+ miles to the north.” In just awhile, I see a hiker coming toward me. It’s Goatskin, sporting the happiest and broadest smile. Ahh yes, me too, two kids playing in the snow! It’s really coming down now, and it’s starting to pile up on the trail, making the slippery rocks and roots under the slippery leaves, under the slippery snow–HaHa, kinda slippery! Out of necessity, in order to remain upright, our usually smooth, gliding gaits turn to slow, cautious shuffles. But oh, are we having a grand time! We see Lee waiting patiently–and snugly–in their warm vehicle as we gain the gap. They’ve prepared sandwiches, and I am offered one before they head out again, disappearing into the ever-intensifying wall of snow.
What a grand and exciting day this is turning out to be as Goatskin soon greets me again and we glide on together through the winter wonderland to Hightower Gap. By this time the snow has piled up in my hair and on my beard, making me appear as so much a snowman. When Lee sees me, he loses it, guffawing with childish glee as he rolls down the window to get a better look. Another sandwich and a few pictures and I’m on my way again, bound for Cross Trails, just this side of Springer Mountain.
The snow slows me down considerably but I do not mind. The hike today is a different hike, different than all the hundreds before, just as a southbound hike o’er this grand old AT is so different from a northbound hike. It’s a joy to have the company of great friends today, for this hike’s become mostly a solitary affair. I have seen many dear friends from “Odyssey ’98” and have made many new friends, some who have hiked along for awhile with me, but for the most part I have been on this journey alone. So I have had much time to think, time to find out more about who I am and what I am. There have been times of struggle, both physical and mental, but just as was the case during “Odyssey ’98,” I am finding within, a deep inner peace and joy as the days click away. I am a better person, that I know. I am stronger of will, more tolerant, with greater patience, and am slowly gaining of wisdom as I learn to trust in the ways of God and not in the ways of man, and of this earth.
By the time I reach Cross Trails, the last short leg to Springer, I am plowing along in nearly a half-foot of snow. What a glorious sight, what a glorious feeling! The Perrys are here waiting and they bundle up to hike the last mile on the AT with me. We’re giddy and full of chatter as we head for the summit of Springer Mountain.
Just shy of the first white blaze, the blaze that marks the beginning–or the end of such a once-in-a-lifetime journey–begins another trail, the Benton MacKaye Trail (BMT); a trail so named in honor of the dreamer whose idea gave birth to the greatest of all trails, the trail now known as the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. Goatskin and I hike the short distance from where the BMT begins to the beautiful bronze monument that has been affixed to a wall of stone here on Springer Mountain. This is such a special place, a spiritual place, a place where I experience the most intense feeling of pride. For it is humbling to have been chosen by fate and by time and circumstance, and by the will of the Almighty, to be the person to initiate the idea and start the fund to place this beautiful tribute to Benton MacKaye. In the snow, this shrine is so pure, so peaceful. No one has been here before us today; the blanket of snow is undisturbed. I hesitate, not wanting to invade the spell cast by such a wintry scene. Goatskin nudges me forward and I finally go to have my picture taken with Mr. MacKaye. There is just no way in words I can express how very special this moment is in my life.
We finally turn, to hike the short distance to the summit where Lee is waiting to greet us. He sweeps the snow from the last of the three beautiful bronze plaques placed years ago by the GATC, and it’s picture-taking time again. I cannot see the last white blaze just beside the plaque, for it’s covered with snow. But I know exactly where it’s located, for I have cast my eyes down upon it many a time.
The snow has ended and the clouds have lifted for just a moment. Time to look, as Benton MacKaye would say, “…to truly see that which we look upon.” Nearly 3,000 miles completed on this journey o’er the Appalachian Mountains Trail. Three hundred more to go to complete the first southbound thru-hike of the entire Appalachian Mountain range, thence to continue on along the Eastern Continental Trail to Key West, Florida, a total distance of nearly 5000 miles, most-nearly a year on the trail.
The Len Foote Hike Inn is a beautiful facility. It’s located on a parallel trail between Amicalola Falls State Park and Springer Mountain, requiring a hike the distance of some five miles for those who wish to enjoy its comforts. I had the pleasure of working there for over six months while I labored over the manuscript for my book, Ten Million Steps. I’ve been invited to be their guest this evening, so plans are for me to hike on in from Springer while Lee and Carole drive down, around and up the service road to the Inn.
Just at dusk, and to cap this perfect and most memorable day, I’m greeted by the great folks at the Inn. There’s Naomi, Josh, Shane and girlfriend, Kelly, Jeremy, and my great friend and fellow “Class of ’98” thru-hiker, Dan Cornbread Briordy. Lee and Carole soon arrive, with a bottle of bubbly to celebrate the occasion, and Josh has prepared a hiker feast for me. The snow adds to the magic that is the Hike Inn, casting a spell of beauty and peaceful calm over this high-held place.
The second leg of this grand journey, “Odyssey 2000,” is now history, my southbound thru-hike o’er the AT, now history. So many memories, so many great people to thank for making the journey so special. And to my sponsors, most whom will continue on with me–Vasque®, New Balance®, GORP.com, Bottom Line Results, Conquest®, Wanderlust Gear®, GVP Gear®, Cascade Designs®, Cumming Foot and Leg Clinic, Leki®, Rexall Sundown®, Flash Photo, Appalachian Outfitters and Feathered Friends®. Thank you, one and all!
Monday/Tuesday–November 20/21, 2000
The sunrise viewed from the Hike Inn is always special, no matter how many times one might have the pleasure of being here at just this moment. The Sunrise Room is certainly appropriately named, for from this location there’s an unobstructed view across to the east, a view even more spectacular than from man’s most heaven-bound tower or from the crow’s nest of the tallest of the tall ships at sea. And this morning, as dawn arrives so crisp and calm, does the sun set the eastern horizon afire. What a way to start this day, a fresh cup of steaming hot coffee warming my hands, and this magnificent sight–the sun igniting the mountain.
Cornbread is also up at dawn, at work in the kitchen, preparing a great breakfast for me. Carole and Lee soon come down, then the rest of the Hike Inn crew. Dear friends, what a great time–your taking the time to share with me. Thanks!
I have decided to rest a couple of days at my little place in the Nimblewill before tackling the Cohuttas. The Benton MacKaye Trail and the Georgia Pinhoti Trail are both tough hikes, especially the Pinhoti, for on this trail there remains much bushwhacking through sections not yet constructed, and I will do the bushwhacks. I’m really looking forward to the challenges just ahead, for I have prepared long and hard, but a little rest will be a great benefit.
Lee and Carole have offered to shuttle me off the mountain, and after lingering good-byes with the Hike Inn crew, we’re on our way to Nimblewill.
It’s a feeling of great comfort to be home again, to return to my own little place. Thinking back, I believe I can count on one hand the times during the last 180 days that I’ve slept more than one night in the same place. It’s the gypsy lore, isn’t it? Ahh, it’s the wanderlust, and I’m the Nomad, and I guess that just about sums it up.
Wednesday–November 22, 2000
I truly believe that Carole and Lee have found as much pleasure and joy, as have I, in the time we’ve spent together these past few days, for indeed it has been a joy. And what great help their time with me has been, just as today, for this morning Carole is here to get me, to shuttle me back to the trail at Three Forks, where I’ll begin the third leg of “Odyssey 2000,” the Georgia section of the BMT.
We’re at Three Forks Trailhead by ten. I bid Carole farewell and I’m headed out on the frozen, ice-covered trail. The goal today is to reach and perhaps get just past Skeenah Gap, but with the miles, the tough ups and downs, and the ice, I decide not to push, to just see how the day works. There’s been traffic on the trail, which surprises me. Two set of tracks I believe to be those of Spur and Ready, dear friend who have hiked north from Flagg Mountain, Alabama. Spur is on his way to completing a northbound thru-hike of the AMT. This traffic has compressed the snow, and with the thawing and freezing conditions, the remaining packed snow has turned to ice, making the never-ending narrow, off-camber sidehills extremely treacherous. One slip and I’m quickly on my way, down and into the next county! I must set my trekking poles firmly and stomp in every foot placement to reduce the risk of slipping and falling. The uphills, of which there’s no lack, are mostly on the north side of the crowns and ridges, the ice there adding another element of difficulty to the already tough, continual climbing. I am able to move along without incident and am making good time, but this hike today is extremely tiring, and I am becoming weary and fatigued. I try with much effort and fair success not to dwell on this labor, but rather to make my senses keen to the rare beauty here afforded me. For before me now is a true wonderland of brightness and purity. I must set my vision to the dazzle, my hearing to the void where is the usual din, my touch to the tingling sharpness of the air as I breathe, my body bound in the chilling spell–and that indescribable smell of the snow-covered woods in the grips of winter.
It is soon near dusk, and the miles have miraculously come to pass! Normally I would seek a campsite near a springhead or stream, but with the snow blanket all about I decide to stay the ridge tonight, for here are the driest twigs and firewood, and water is only a melted snowball away.
Oh, will this first day on the BMT add much flavor to all the days as it stirs into the blend!
Thursday–November 23, 2000 Thanksgiving
While home I stopped by Appalachian Outfitters in Dahlonega for a good pair of gloves. They’re one of my fine sponsors and I’m now sporting a luxurious pair of Marmot Primalofts. I’m also now toting a sleeping bag insert/liner that I’ve had for years. It’s a Wiggys Wear synthetic weighing about a pound and adding another eight to ten degrees to my three-season Rock Wren. Sure glad I had the gloves yesterday and the liner last night! These items have added to my pack weight, but they are needed and I’m very happy to have them along.
Today will be a long, difficult day with many nearly continuous elevation changes. The ice is beginning to clear from the trail but remains an additional challenge for the pulls over Wilscot, Tipton and Brawley Mountains. It is noon by the time I reach Shallowford Bridge. The roadwalk up Stanley Creek Road takes a little over an hour, just enough time for the warming day to aid me in my 1,200-foot climb over Rocky Mountain. It’s a great relief to have the ice gone, making the treadway much more friendly. From Scroggin Knob on into US76 at Cherrylog, it’s a downhill cruise and a roadwalk. I arrive at four, just as planned, where Carole is waiting to drive me to their cabin in the mountains near Ellijay. It’s great to be with these friends again, to be warm and dry. Their son, Brendan, and his girlfriend, Susan, and their friends come in later, but I’m too tired to be very sociable, so after supper I make the final climb for the day–up the stairs to turn in.
Friday–November 24, 2000
Thanksgiving here at the Perry cabin is planned for today, and I’ve been invited to stay over and partake of the feast. It’s raining and cold out, and I am tempted to accept their kind invitation, but I need to return to the trail and the task, so that is the decision. Brendan and Susan drive me back to Cherrylog, and I’m on my way again by ten.
The day begins with a hike through Cherry Lakes Subdivision, created by Joe Sisson. The subdivision is expansive with much greenway area, and it is here where the trail passes. There is also a chapel and shelter along the way! Joe Sisson has befriended the Benton MacKaye Trail Association for years, the annual meeting of the BMTA usually being held at his fine meeting facility in Cherry Lakes. I had the honor of being their guest speaker last year.
This will be my final day on the BMT, another strenuous day with many ups and downs. This jumble of mountains known as the Cohuttas forms one of the most amazingly rugged areas of all the southern Appalachians, and with this raw ruggedness comes sheer beauty.
I find, however, on this cloudy, rainy day, that I am dealing with a cloud of frustration. Today is the third day of it. It isn’t the rain, which continues and at times comes hard and cold, adding to the cause. What has brought this unsettled state is the fact that I’ve been hiking mostly north this whole time. The occasional day hiker or hunter I’ve seen along the trail who asks where I’m headed quickly points out that I’m going the wrong way. This is not encouraging; indeed, it is–well–just plain frustrating!
The trail through much of this section follows the Tennessee Valley Divide, ranging every compass point. It’s a wonder the runoff from the constant rain knows which way to go. But here goes the trail, and here I go toward my final destination on the BMT: Flat Top Mountain and the beginning of the Georgia Pinhoti Trail (GPT). As I reach a wildlife clearing, I’m almost back to North Carolina and Tennessee. I know that the ribbons marking the cutoff, the beginning of the GPT bushwhack, are nearby, but dusk is approaching, the cold rain has relented, and here is a small stream. Although I’d like to find the cutoff this evening, I decide to call it a day. Right decision; I no more get camp set than the downpour begins anew. This has been a hard day–hard hiking–hard good-byes.
Saturday–November 25, 2000
It’s cloudy and cold, but the rain holds off as I hasten to break camp and get on my way. I become anxious as I pass the wildlife clearing and move on, for I know the cutoff to the new GPT should be nearby. I’ve talked recently with members of both the Benton MacKaye Trail Association and the Georgia Pinhoti Trail Association about where the GPT will begin, so I have a pretty good fix on where I should find it, but as I hike along, it seems I’ve gone much too far. But as is most always the case, I’m not as far along as I think, and soon I see flagging and blue paint marks to my left.
This will be the beginning of the bushwhack. There is no trail, simply a marked line through the forest where the trail will ultimately be built. The flag and paint line moves along quite nicely for some distance before careening over the edge into an impenetrable maze of heath, greenbriars and blowdowns, on a long and seemingly never-ending sideslab. I must jamb my hiking sticks into the sidehill, then place my feet in the uphill “V” created to keep from sliding hopelessly down through the thicket. Some places I must go to all fours and crawl. The going is agonizingly slow, but I am making progress, getting through. Even where the line follows old logging tracks, the going is hindered, the way cluttered with blowdowns and brush up through which grow saplings and blackberry briars.
I finally manage the worst of it to arrive at Mountaintown Creek Trail, a trail used by both hikers and bikers. The going here is pleasant and I move along at a brisk pace. The new Pinhoti Trail will break off to the right after awhile. I keep looking closely as I proceed–for more that awhile. Sure enough, I’ve gone too far as I arrive at the Mountaintown Creek trailhead. Backtracking, I soon find a single red flag just off the trail. “Ahh, here it is,” I’m thinking, but after an hour of climbing around and whacking my way up the ravine all the way to the ridgeline I am unable to find a paint or flagline. Back to the trail beside Crenshaw Creek, I spend another hour combing the side of the trail all along and up the main ravine but I’m unable to get back on track. Finally, totally dejected and fatigued, I head for the trailhead again, and the road out. I have failed this day.
I soon pass houses on the Forest Service Road (FSR) to reach a gated barricade at Gates Chapel Road. Here a fellow from one of the residences just passed picks me up and hauls me into Ellijay.
I check into the Ellijay Inn, and after a good hot shower and a warm meal, I call my good friend, Hillrie Quin. I’m in luck. Hillrie is the prime mover in trail construction for the Pinhoti here in the Cohuttas. Plans are for he and another dear friend, Cynthia Crotwell, to come and get me in the morning, take me back, and get me going in the right direction again. I feel much better now. I’ll be able to rest. All is not lost, for I’ll be able, with the help of these dear friends, to hike this trail, the grand Georgia Pinhoti, a trail, much of which is yet to be built.
Sunday–November 26, 2000
Just after dawn, up comes one vehicle to my door, and in awhile comes another. My friends have arrived. First order is to get the old jitney fueled up. It’s a great breakfast, waffles, eggs, grits, the works, compliments of Hillrie. Then we’re off.
It’s pretty amazing how these trail-building folks know their way around these mountains. In no time at all I have not a clue where we are. We pass through a locked FSR gate, but not the one I came out of yesterday. From here we descend, to slide all over the side of the mountain as we zigzag down and around and back again. We eventually arrive at a small clearing. After parking and hiking the faintest of an unmarked trail down a spur and into a gap, here is the paint/flagline!
Says Hillrie, “Okay now, here’s how this is going to work. You hike down this line to Crenshaw Creek where you passed yesterday; it’s about a mile. That’s the only way you’ll find where the trail breaks off there. The final 100 yards were left unmarked intentionally. Then you turn around and hike back up the line. We’ll wait for you here.” Good plan, sounds easy enough as I plunge in. Aww, but dang, what kind of a torture gauntlet have I gotten into? Now I see why my friends have waited, choosing not to go with me. Penetrating this continual jumbled maze of laurel, briars and blowdowns is near impossible with a pack on, but down and through I beat it! This ravine, which forms Heddy Creek, is a narrow near-vertical slot plummeting down the mountainside. As I descend, climbing over, crawling under and wriggling around, the thought presents that I’m somehow going to have to bust my way back up through this stuff. The going seems to take forever, but Cynthia’s little beagle has come along for company, waiting patiently as I drag and fumble my way. I finally break out at Mountaintown Creek Trail some distance above where I had been looking yesterday. Hillrie was right, I never would have found it. I rest awhile then turn reluctantly to beat my way back up. This has got to be the most difficult two miles of hiking that I’ve ever done, save perhaps the night-hike while lost in the Everglades during “Odyssey ’98.”
I’m finally back to the little clearing where my friends are waiting. The plan now is for Cynthia to drive out to Bear Creek trailhead while Hillrie and I hike along together. We’re on Little Bear Creek Trail now. Soon the Georgia Pinhoti paint/flagline takes off again through the boonies. Here I bid farewell to Hillrie, as he continues on down Bear Creek Trail and I return to my bushwhack. Thanks, dear friends, for your time and for your help. Your kindness will remain in my memory.
After a successful day of following the paint/flagline I arrive late at the springhead above Mulberry Gap. I am soaked, filthy and totally exhausted, but I believe I’ve got the worst of this bushwhack behind me. As I pitch in the only flat spot I can find, the dished out little hollow of a huge old oak, I set my resolve to finishing this bushwhack. That’s my aspiration, that’s what consumes me now.
What an incredible day–my, what an incredible day!
Monday–November 27, 2000
The wind came up during the night, but the rain held off. The wind has proved a blessing, though driving cold, for the brush and foliage along the paint/flagline this morning has nearly dried.
I soon reach Mulberry Gap. Here I walk the road a short distance, then pick up the FS boundary line that runs up and along Turkey Mountain. This I follow to GA52 at Cohutta Overlook. So far, so good!
The paint/flagline soon leaves the highway to return to the precipitous sidehills that are the mark of these rugged Cohuttas. In awhile, my ankles totally mushed out, I reach Tatum Lead, the FSR that runs the ridge down to Baker Creek Ravine.
As I continue along, I reach for my compass to better get my bearing, but to my horror, it is gone. Somehow today, climbing around and through the wall of brush, I’ve managed to lose my compass. Oh my, this is not good. These mountains stand, plunge and reach for the heavens with absolutely no rhyme or reason as to their glorious plan, and here I stand, lost in a disoriented whirl, trying to figure out where I’m at–without a compass. I’m on a not-much-used FSR. There is no paint, no flagging. I know I’m in the Rock Creek section of the Cohuttas. That much I do know, for just a ways back I passed a sign for Rock Creek ATV Trail where nearby were parked two FS vehicles. I’ve gone a considerable distance now, and instinctively I sense I’m headed the wrong way. The sun is setting in the wrong place. I turn and hike back. By the trucks I meet Ricky, one of the FS personnel. Being evening, he’s headed home. He cannot help get me back on track, but he does offer a ride into Chatsworth where the USFS offices are located. What a stroke of luck (more a stroke of God’s plan!). “You’ll need to talk with Larry Taylor,” says Ricky. So now the plan is for me to meet with Larry tomorrow morning. Larry is the ranger that’s been marking the trail through the Rock Creek section. Hopefully, he’ll be able to get me straightened out. I figure there’s less than six miles of this bushwhack remaining until I break out at Dennis to begin the roadwalk across the Great Valley to Dalton. I’ve come so far, too far to give it up now. As we bounce along, I comfort myself with the thought that I will finish this bushwhack through these rugged Cohuttas–just fine–tomorrow. That, too, is instinctive.
With this reassuring feeling, I check into the ADCO Motel for a grand night of rest. The day has turned cold, very cold, as I walk to Mom’s Restaurant for supper. Oh, it’s so good to be in where it’s warm.
Tuesday–November 28, 2000
The USFS office here in Chatsworth is about a mile from the motel, so I’m up early for breakfast and the walk to their office. I arrive just as they open, but alas, Larry Thomas is out of town today. All here are very helpful though. Ranger Keith Wooster gets the maps out, and after a brief review we are able to determine where I got off track. He then offers to drive me back up the mountain. He’ll take me right to where I missed the turn. Folks, isn’t this hike absolutely and totally charmed! Of course it’s no fun getting lost, but just at the moment when it looked the darkest, the whole thing turned right back round. Again, and as always–thank you, Lord, what a blessing.
On the way up the mountain, Keith and I have an opportunity to talk about my hike, and about his career as a wildlife biologist with the USFS. I quickly learn that when Keith enters the woods things look totally different to him then they do when the rest of us venture there. He talks about fire and how throughout history it’s played such a major role in the life of the forest–before man began his meddling–and how the lack of natural burns affect the ever-changing balance of nature. I did not know, for instance, that when the small pine trees burn, they die, but when the small oak trees burn they just send up another shoot from a stronger and healthier root system. Keith points out, and do I now notice, how the small white pines have literally taken over the forest floor. “They’re just waiting for their opportunity, for an opening in the canopy to take off to the sky,” he says. He continues, “Without fire, the oak will eventually be totally driven out; there will be no more oak as we know today. It will not happen in our lifetime, but it will happen. Think about the loss of these hardwood trees, and the effect that will have on the wildlife that depend on mast for their survival.” “But we can’t have wildfires; they’re destructive,” I respond in a defensive manner. And so, it is true that the forest will change, and not for the better, and there is little that man will do to stop it, for we aren’t about to let Mother Nature go around burning Her forests wherever and whenever She feels like it. Fires are destructive! Ahh, but we can fix it–with programs like “control burns.” Man just keeps on tinkering–and meddling.
Keith drives me to where I should have turned yesterday. I’d trekked way past, heading the wrong way. Ah yes, instinct! He hands me a compass, then tells me, “Stay on that old woods road over there, till you see the paint and flags again, four or five miles; turn there.” I know I will have no problem with the last six miles of bushwhacking the Cohuttas. I bid Keith bye, get out and make the turn where I should have made the turn yesterday, go ‘round the barricade, and head on south. Thanks, Ricky; thanks, Keith!
The last mile of the “bushwhack” is really the only bushwhack that remains, which I’m easily able to follow, the blue paint and pink flagging being most prominent. I beat it right through–to the paved road at Dennis. I’ve done it, the unbelievably rugged and incredible Cohutta bushwhack is behind me. I am so relieved, for now the hike will be much easier, the going more predictable, more routine. Yet, as I rest here by the road, do I ponder, for I know that I’ll miss the intrigue, the mystery and unknown of it that evokes that vital, truly vital, feeling of really being alive, that gets the adrenalin pumping and your head spinning. That is all gone now, behind me. I’ll miss it.
What a drastic change here, perhaps the most dramatic of any, ever, in any of my vagabond ramblings. Here, I come out of the cold, dark woods, from the hell-tangled bushwhack of it, into this hot, shimmering environment of the tarmac, with the noise and racket that is all about, to begin a bang-out-the-miles, wide-open roadwalk.
First, I shed my gloves and wool shirt, then don my sunglasses. Next, I dig out my hiker trash painter’s hat. After much pause and much searching–and many thanks, my head bowed, I finally get up and get moving–on down the road toward Dalton.
It takes awhile to set my gait after being in the slow-going tangle for so long. The remainder of this day will be a long haul as I try reaching Dalton before dark, nearly a thirty mile day. The weather has turned most cooperative, with only a slight breeze to my back. The bright, warm sun feels good as I get up to speed, rolling right along. By three I know I’ve got the hike in the bag, and I cruise on in.
This has been a pleasant roadwalk, passing through rural Georgia countryside, along old secondary roads with beautifully fenced horse farms. I remember this hike well from “Odyssey ’98,” most pleasant. At dusk I pull into Kroger’s on the west end of Dalton just this side of I-75. I’ve a good friend here who’s invited me to spend some time with him as I hike on past. Reverend George Owen is a near life-long member of the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club, and has been a member of the Benton MacKaye Trail Association, probably since its inception. He has invited me, through my friend Carole Perry, to stay several nights at his home. And he’s offered to shuttle me to and from the trail. I call George right away from Kroger’s. In just awhile he comes to fetch me and we’re off to his lovely home, the Methodist parsonage in the little village of Rocky Face.
I get settled in and cleaned up. This has been a very long hiking day; yet, it has been a most successful and productive hiking day. I am totally “bushed.” George senses my weariness and urges me go up and right to bed. There is no argument.
Wednesday–November 29, 2000
What a grand night’s sleep in such a comfortable home. I’ve got the whole upstairs suite to myself, a very large bedroom with sitting area and private bath. George is obviously delighted to have my company, and we share good conversation as he shuttles me back to Kroger’s. I’m out and going by nine.
From Kroger’s I continue west on Walnut Avenue, crossing I-75, thence to climb Dug Mountain. Near the communication towers on the upper ridge, I see my first Pinhoti Trail blaze! This is my fifth day on the Pinhoti Trail, and I’m just now seeing my first blaze. In my past ramblings, I’ve hiked many a long stretch in between blazes, wondering if I were still on the trail. But five days, I believe, is about the longest stretch.
The Armuchees are totally different mountains, nothing like the Cohuttas, for here are there long, straight, orderly ridges running in near-parallel fashion for miles, not the jumble-upon-jumble as were the Cohuttas. Scientist’s tell us they’ve got all this geology stuff figured out, but I don’t know. To me, it’s all just a mystery, a mystery that someday will be revealed to all of us. I’m on Rocky Face Mountain now, hiking effortlessly for miles along this long, level ridge. In awhile the trail drops from Rocky Face to climb the next ridge and along I go again on Hurricane Mountain. Then it’s off again and up and onto Middle Mountain, and yet another descent followed by another ascent, and along I go again on the ridge of Mill Creek Mountain. By early afternoon I’m at Swamp Creek Gap, where I’m soon greeted by George, who has come out to shuttle me back to his home in the little village of Rocky Face.
I’m not near as beat today and have really worked up an appetite, so after a hot, soothing shower, George and I are off to Shoney’s for the AYCE buffet. Oh yes, I hurt myself, but then I have a great tolerance for pain. Another great hiking day. Another great evening. Thanks, George!
Thursday–November 30, 2000
I hear George moving about a little before seven, so I head down to join him for breakfast, a heaping bowl of corn flakes topped with blueberries and scoops of sugar, washed down with plenty of orange juice and coffee.
The hike today is a leisurely sixteen miles, and with George getting me on the trail by eight-thirty, I’ll have no problem finishing by three. That’ll give me time to rest and work on my email while I wait for George to retrieve me at four.
There’s more ridgewalking today, along Horn and Johns Mountains, interrupted by a descent, then a steep climb beside the lovely Keown Falls. Here the Pinhoti follows an intricate system of rock steps, climbing and twisting to finally emerge at an observation deck right next the falls. From this vantage can be seen the far ridges and peaks all about. Nearby is The Pocket, a naturally protected cove. Looking down into The Pocket, I can see the last vestiges of fall. Here in these gentle hills, one will not find roaring waterfalls, gaping ravines, towering sharptops or vast expansive vistas. Here the mountains can be embraced, much as holding someone dear. They are not awesome, aloof or forbidding, as it seems many of the mightiest mountain places are. Here, there is a feeling of gentle kindness, much as a familiar childhood feeling–like the bygone times with all the family about–like these mountains are now all about–like being with Grandma and Grandpa–like being with these timeless friends. Yes, these are peaceful, gentle-loving and graceful mountains; these are my mountains, my home, the Blue Ridge Mountains of Georgia. I sit, totally content. I am not alone, for have I here beside me today this veil-like wisp of whispering, falling waters, such a happy and gentle little friend. It is my companion, just for awhile, bringing deep inner warmth, much as the sun that now warms me within. What an idyllic, peaceful place. Blessed is he who can hear and feel and see, and understand the majesty.
The trail works around and down Johns Mountain, through the pleasant pungency that is fall in the southern hardwood coves, to finally emerge at East Armuchee Road. From here, there is a short roadwalk to Manning Mill Road, where George will come for me.
I find a spot where the sun has warmed the grassy roadbank, here to drop my pack and then to recline against it. Comes now time to reflect on the blessings sent my way this day. And does the sedative sun work so quickly, sending me away to the land of nod.
Suddenly the crunch of gravel and the squeak of brakes bring me back to the corner of East Armuchee and Manning Mill Roads. George has come for me. As I journey further south, does the ride back north to George’s home become longer, but we have come to enjoy each other’s company, for it seems we have much in common, not the least of which is our age, and we chatter our way along. George permits me to treat him to supper again, my choice–Pizza Hut! George goes for the salad bar and spaghetti dinner and I manage to put away a medium pan pizza. No yogurt or skimmed milk tonight, George. I’ve also been salting George’s console drink holder with Nutrageous bars and peanut M&Ms, which continue to vanish. I think I’m a bad influence on the Reverend!
Friday–December 1, 2000
I burn a day today. On the trail it’s called a “zero-mile” day. And what a perfect place to rest, for is this place, this lovely home, such a peaceful, restful place. What a blessing to be warm and dry and clean! George is here for just awhile this morning and then he’s gone. I’ve never thought about folks that serve in the ministry as actually having “jobs.” Indeed, for all who go that path, it is a faith-filled labor of love. But today, for Reverend George Owen, it would seem more one of labor, for this day I would not want this pastor’s job. It all has to do with a member of his congregation, a member who has been deathly ill, who has been sent home to live out his remaining short time, aided by Hospice.–and by prayer. In forced words, Reverend Owen said to me yesterday, “I must be nearby, for I may be called at any time.” The call has come, and he has gone.
I am hopelessly delinquent in my correspondence, and way behind in my daily journal entries. I spend the entire day in a desperate attempt to regain some ground. By late afternoon I’ve nearly banged the keys off my little PocketMail, but I have managed to get nearly current and I’m feeling better about the whole ordeal.
George has been in and out, and has somehow found time to tend to my needs, first taking me by the post office to get my bounce box mailed, then later bringing me carryout for supper. Oh, and peach ice cream, would you believe George has Breyers peach ice cream? George, you are a peach! What a glorious, restful day–just what the minister ordered.
Saturday–December 2, 2000
George’s plans were to depart Dalton yesterday evening to spend time at his cabin near Blue Ridge, and perhaps, just perhaps, get in a little hiking. But those plans have long since been dashed, for now there are funeral preparations to attend to and members of his congregation with whom he must spend time and to whom he must now minister. We have a quick breakfast, and George has me back to the trail at Manning Mill Road by eight-thirty. It’s such a joyful time making new friends, always a joyful time, but such a sad and agonizing time, it seems, when the time comes to say good-bye. And that time has come. We linger. For George, I recite the words to “Why Go” (please see epilog). And for me, George says a prayer for my continued good health and safe passage. Good-bye, my friend and thanks, thanks for your kindness, for the giving of your precious time, for your generosity and for your friendship, especially, and most of all, for your friendship.
I no sooner hit the trail than I hear gunshots. This is Saturday, a very fine Saturday, and the deer hunters are out in force. I don’t believe I could intentionally dress to look more like a deer if I tried…fawn-colored pack and white headband with trailing tails. I did, however, have the good sense to listen to George’s wise suggestion, to accept his offer to take along his orange vest. With more gunshots ringing out now, I stop and put on the vest!
The trail today follows dirt roads, paved secondary roads, grassy woods roads and recently bulldozed sidehill trail. The hiking is all very pleasant, except for the recently bulldozed sidehill trail. I hike this bulldozed section totally and absolutely perplexed. I can’t understand how the Forest Service can be so concerned and so particular about what may be disturbed as a result of cutting new treadway, yet when the go-ahead is finally given, to bring in a bulldozer to hack away what seems half the mountainside! The resulting new trail here today is actually wide enough to drive my 4×4 pickup through from one end to the other. Trees that have not been plowed away, that are still standing beside the trail, are all bleeding from being banged and skinned to death by the machinery. It’s all an entirely glorious mess, an abomination. That’s what it is, an abomination! I don’t understand it; I just don’t understand it. I know beauty is all around, but it is difficult to see it here.
As I near the end of my hiking day, a short distance remaining to US27, comes a fellow ’round the bend. I recognize him right away; it’s Reverend Owen! “I just had to get in a little hiking this weekend–somehow!” he exclaims with the biggest, brightest smile. Well, does the joy on this end of this hiking day make up for the sadness on the other! “Come on George, let’s hike!”
We soon reach the trailhead, and George loads me up and drives me to the Summerville Motel a ways up the road. He no sooner drops me off and I get checked in than the rain begins. I’m blessed again to be out of this cold, wet mess. I’ve still a very long way to go, and wet and cold can really get to wearing. In the evening, as I open the door and take a gander, the snow begins. I retreat to the warmth of my little room, count my blessings this day, say my prayers, and hit the hay.
Sunday–December 3, 2000
The snow continues throughout the night, but it has little luck sticking. This morning only the foliage and the vehicles out front are dressed in white. I head for the gas station deli down the road, where I put away three tenderloin/scrambled egg biscuits. I also knock a good dent in their coffee. Back in the room, I finally get all my gear in my pack and fret my way out and into it a little before eight.
As I cross to the northbound side of US27, the snow begins again. The day remains dark from the low-swirling gloom, and the vehicles fling their trailing little storms at me as they pass. Surprisingly, my third thumb-out is a hookup, as this fellow skids to the emergency lane. He’s glad to have my company. The guy drives sixty miles to and from work every day, including Sundays, a 120-mile round trip. He seems happy and content, though. Hustles cars, whatever that job is–didn’t ask him. He’s an Ichabod Crane type, his Adam’s apple moving up and down three inches every time he swallows. Would like to have spent more time with him, but we’re soon to the gap and the trail. God bless you mister. Sure wouldn’t want your life, not for love or money, no-siree-bob!
As I climb from Mack White Gap, ascending to Taylors Ridge, the magic begins. With each increase in elevation is there an accompanying and ever-increasing blanket of snow, first a scattering here and there, then an inch or so, and finally near the ridge, a half-foot everywhere. I’ve never seen snow so fluffy, yet so sticky. The fluff is sticking to everything, even the bark on the trees. Before me is an absolute wonderland of pure white. As the snow continues, the gloom of the day continues, but all around is there such an intense monochromatic brightness and beauty. Even the tangle of blowdowns and brush are sights to behold, their usual gnarly features transformed by the unmistakable qualities of provocation and beauty, into nothing less than artistic masterpieces. My camera is flashing, the shutter clicking in every direction.
The trail rises before me, a pure ribbon of white, and as I glide along does it seem to become the elusive and ever-sought pathway to Heaven. There are no burdens to pull me down this day, not mental, not physical. I am free of pain, free of strife, free to fly untethered, unbound. Ahh, it’s like “Sprouting Wing!”
Down from the mountain now, and down from the magic of the day, the trail continues along a Rails-to-Trails section. The old railbed has been recently graded and from the rains of yesterday is patched with mud. As I try moving along, I become taller with each step as the mud builds on my shoes. I finally give up, kick the mud and move over to continue on a roadwalk along the busy highway shoulder.
As I continue along do I realize that I am making remarkably good time today. Cave Spring is still eighteen miles south, but by continuing at my present pace, I can be there by evening. So continue the pace I do, and continue on I go. Temperatures are predicted to drop to the low twenties tonight, possibly more snow. I’ll choose a warm bed over the cold, hard ground every time; Cave Spring, here I come!
The GPT goes through Rome, Georgia. Why, I have not a clue. There’s an alternate blue-blazed route that’s been mapped out to the west that goes along and through rural countryside. I’ve come to the trail to escape the oppressive clash and grind of the city. I actually considered hiking in there but quickly concluded it was a dumb idea. Hiking through Rome would have involved an extra day of roadwalking through a dangerously congested area, for no apparent reason. I’ll take the by-pass, thank you very much!
I keep hammering the miles, right into the twilight, finally arriving in the little trail town of Cave Spring by seven-thirty, a thirty-four mile day. I check into the Creekside Motel, totally bushed. Cave Spring has a number of restaurants, but they’re all closed Sunday evening, so I run some hot tap water over my ramen noodles, fix a cheese sandwich, take a long, hot, bone-soothing shower, and hit the sack. This has been a tiring day but a great hiking day.
Monday–December 4, 2000
Cave Spring is a trail-town lover’s delight. If the post office were a little closer in, and if they kept other than banker’s hours, the little berg would be darn near perfect! So I decide, after very little pondering, to burn a day and stay over. I need time to write, and a little rest will be a blessing.
It’s still dark at seven, but the lights are on at Gray Horse and the klatch of locals are already at their usual table. I get a warm welcome from the waitress and a hot cup of coffee right away. Then it’s a three-egg load-er-up omelet, a large bowl of grits and a biscuit with a boat of gravy! Two more cups of coffee to wash it all down, and I’m set till lunch.
The local library is just off the square, and I head over to get online–two computers and they’re both available, how about that! Carole has sent the great last-day-on-the-AT snow pictures to my Webmaster, and he has them up on my web page. Great pictures, Carole. Thanks!
As I walk the old downtown, the day is warming nicely and the sun feels so good! Haven’t been off the trail a day and I’m already missing it.
Back in my room, I have a long talk with myself about getting busy and being productive. The little pep talk works and I launch right in, writing up a storm, right through to bedtime. As the sandman comes along, dawns on me–I’ll put another state behind me tomorrow. This dream of a southbound ECT thru-hike is coming true.
Tuesday–December 5, 2000
At the Gray Horse, a full stack of pancakes and a side of grits are the order this morning, and of course, lots of coffee. I can hike very well on pancakes or waffles. Greasy foods like bacon or sausage give me a problem. Hitting the trail on a really full stomach doesn’t work for me. It’s kind of like going out running after a big meal, not good. And no, I don’t run on the trail, although I have certainly been accused!
The last two miles of trail in Georgia are over private land belonging to Temple Inland. Negotiations are underway to secure sanctions to cross their land. I bushwhacked over Indian and Flagpole Mountains, and then crossed this property during “Odyssey ’98.” The real problem now is that these lands are leased for hunting, and it’s deer hunting season! I dearly want to follow this same route, bushwhacking the last two miles into Alabama, but at the same time, I don’t want to compromise or muck up the relations and negotiations now underway between the Georgia Pinhoti Trail Association folks and Temple Inland. I’ve thought about just doing a roadwalk clear around, but that’s out of the question. The temptation is just too great. I want to follow the planned and hopefully soon-to-be sanctioned and dedicated trail route. I know my way through, so it shouldn’t take more than an hour or so to cover the two-mile bushwhack, so I finally decide to stealth my way. Maybe not a very sound or good idea, but that’s my plan.
So I’m off this morning with a pretty unsettled, tentative feeling about the whole thing, and hoping, this being Tuesday morning, and a very cold morning, that most all the deer hunters are at work, and that I’ll have the place to myself. In fact, that’s just as it works out. When I arrive, there are no vehicles at the Temple Inland gate, and when I enter to hike the old road a short distance to where the bushwhack begins, there is no one about! The bushwhack takes me fifty-seven minutes to reach the state line/time change cairn that I built in ’98. Here I leave a little note for Marty Dominy and all his great trail building crew. Thank you, folks and thank you, Lord. It was a risky, foolish and potentially compromising move, but it worked.
The remainder of the day is literally downhill to US278, with the exception of two “steep ascents” as described in the trail data, which I chuckle at.
The fourth thumb-out is a hookup as a local stops to haul me to Lamont Motel in Piedmont. With the time change I’m in at two-thirty! I’m very tired, totally whooped, all from the emotional energy spent.
Wednesday–December 6, 2000
I’m up and out by seven. Moving into Central Time is going to take some getting used to. It’s still dark as I head for Waffle House about half a mile up the road. I count my blessings, being out of the cold for the night, as I hasten along, stuffing my hands in my pockets and hunching my shoulders to block the cold. Two waffles set adrift in syrup and butter, a side of grits and lots of coffee, and I’m stoked for the day. Last stop, the supermarket for two days’ provisions, as I’ll be pitching in the woods through the Dugger Wilderness.
There’s little traffic passing the light where US278 turns and heads for the mountains, but in less than half an hour I’m offered a ride all the way to the trailhead. I’m hiking south again by nine.
The Alabama Pinhoti lets me have it today with two good, hard, steady pulls, the first up Augusta Mine Ridge and the second up and around Dugger Mountain.
The day warms nicely, and I’m finally able to remove my wool shirt and heavy gloves.
Folks just look at me with puzzled expressions when I tell them about the rugged, remote mountains of Alabama. Oh yes, I’m in them today!
Near day’s end the trail sideslabs around Dugger, then follows beside a jagged, rocky ridge. As twilight descends, I break from the trail and climb to the rocks. Here I find a calm, sheltered spot among the boulders and settle in for the evening. As night falls, the valleys below on either side come to life with thousands of flickering dots of light–from Piedmont and far beyond. Above, the stars are there for the plucking. Winter can shine so clear and beautiful.
Thursday–December 7, 2000
I had hoped, by pitching on the very ridge, that in the morning, should the sun be out and not blocked by clouds or the mountain, that my tent would warm in the radiance. And so, as the sun comes to my little Nomad (tent) its innards, Nomad (me), indeed are warmed, and I am thankful for how this day begins. Though it is still very cold, my water bottle frozen nearly solid, I’m able to break camp and get my pack organized before my fingers poke like so many sticks.
Today the trail settles down as I hike into rolling, open woods roofed by a canopy of tall, mature and majestic long-leaf pine. In some places these monarchs stand in groves, so majestic and grand. How they’ve avoided being timbered I know not, but I know that I am truly thankful for their stately presence.
It is late morning now and as I glide along, my sticks propelling me through the rustling leaves in a near-trance, do I see another hiker approaching. I hesitate, falter, then nearly collapse in total glee, for here, coming toward me is my very dear friend, Mark Lee Van Horn. I’d sent him a hastily written email, inviting him to come out with me for a few days, but held little hope he’d be able to make it on such short notice…but here he is. What a joy, what a true joy! After many moments of happy exchange, Mark Lee turns to hike along with me, and we continue on together through the grove of towering pine. Later in the day we enter, then pass a recent burnover, very recent. There is much smoke and many burning and tumbling snags. An eerie, scary sight. It seems so strange to me at times that one moment Mother Nature can be so gentle and pleasant, the next so reckless and brutal!
We arrive at Laurel Shelter along with the cold of the evening, but I am warmed by a delightful fire and the very best of company!
Friday–December 8, 2000
In the shelter, the night didn’t seem as cold, but the water bladder that Mark Lee left parked on the picnic table managed to accumulate plenty of ice. The day has dawned clear, however, and if we should be fortunate enough to have a rerun of yesterday, it will warm up nicely by late morning.
The plan is for Mark Lee to hike back out to his car, a distance of about twelve miles, then to drive to the trailhead near Heflin and hike in to meet me. We wish each other good hiking and are off in opposite directions. The day indeed stays sunny, turning warm, and I’m soon able to shed my heavy gloves and wool shirt. As I near Lower Shoal Shelter I am filled with anticipation. Meg and Rachel, two northbound hikers Lee and I had met yesterday, knew immediately who I was from messages left in the shelter register here, but they wouldn’t tell me what the messages were. So I rush to drop my pack and hurry to find out.
Oh yes, both are from great hiking friends! The first is from Retread, a kind gentlemen who I met and who also thru-hiked the AT in ’98. He’s been down here hiking the Pinhoti Trail in Alabama. Knowing I’d be coming through he’s left words of encouragement for me, thanks, Retread! The other great friend is Spur. I met him in Hot Springs, North Carolina, earlier this year. He was passing through on his second northbound AT thru-hike, and I was there as a guest speaker for Trailfest, a celebration for thru-hikers, now in its third year. We shared a room at Elmer Hall’s great place, Sunnybank Inn, and while together there, Spur was full of questions about the other trails north and south of the AT, trails that combine to form the AMT. Turns out I poisoned him good! For when he reached Katahdin, successfully completing yet another AT thru-hike, he just kept on going, over the Knife Edge and Pamola, down into Roaring Brook and on north out of Baxter State Park, clear to the Cliffs of Forillon at Cap Gaspé, Quebec Province, Canada. He then returned to complete his thru-hike o’er the AMT from Flagg Mountain just north of Montgomery, back to Springer, reaching there in the same half-foot of snow I tramped through coming from the north, becoming the fourth person to succeed in this unbelievable trek. So here is a great entry from Spur, discussing his grand odyssey on the AMT and thanking me for sending him along that path. Also written here are the most thoughtful words of encouragement, words to lift me up and propel me along as I near the completion of this, the first southbound thru-hike o’er such a remarkable trail, the AMT! I linger here for the longest time, in the warmth of the sun, and in the warmth of the kind expressions left for me by these two dear friends. The blessings keep coming in so many ways, so many wonderful and remarkable ways. Thank you, dear friends, and thank you, Lord.
Rounding a bend, one of many this day, and at a grand overlook I find Mark Lee reclined on the soft carpet of pine needles, sound asleep! He has hiked back from the trailhead to meet me, already completing a fifteen-mile day. What a fine place to pull up and wait my arrival. It’s a short hike back to Mark Lee’s car at the Heflin trailhead, and we chatter and laugh, having a joyful time of it. Mark Lee then treats me to pizza before depositing me at the Howard Johnson Inn down by I-20. What a grand time with you, son! Thanks for taking off from your busy schedule to come and hike with this lonely old man. Hope to see you and to have the pleasure of hiking with you again soon!
Three dear friends, Retread, Spur and Mark Lee, all filled with wanderlust, and like the old Nomad, all of them “…lost, to the dust outward blow.” We will all hike together. There will come that day.
I wait patiently in my room this morning, for the lady who is to pick me up and shuttle me back to the trail. I met her here at the motel last night. She said, “If I don’t come to get you, my husband will, one of us will take you back.” She even called my room this morning to tell me she was running about twenty minutes late; that was an hour ago. So here I sit now, trying with all diligence to exercise patience, but patience isn’t going to get it done this morning. The lady just isn’t coming! So with this realization slowly sinking in, I turn to the labor of improving yet another virtue…tolerance. I find that by shifting from the reflexive thoughts that bring anger, to more compassionate thoughts that bring genuine concern–that my level of tolerance rises sharply. Of concern now is the real possibility that some intervening emergency or other unfavorable circumstance has prevented her from coming for me.
I shoulder my pack, depart the motel and head up the road. I’m now filled with the urgency of getting back to the trail, to my planned hike for today, a hike of fifteen miles, thence to meet Maggie Wade, my good friend from Waldo who will be coming to pick me up at CR24 at four.
I’ve my bounce box to mail ahead, and as I hike to the post office, the box under my arm, pulls this van to the side. The driver comes right around, greets me and places a folded bill in my hand. Before I’m able to respond, he says, “I’ll give you a ride; where do you need to go?” I can’t believe this. It’s all happened so fast. I nearly break down as I respond to his kind offer, finally managing to blurt, “Yes, I can use a lift. I need to go to the post office, and then back to the Skyway overpass. But, oh please mister, I can’t take your money.” He puts his hand on my arm to calm me, and as his wife moves to the back with their children, he gently directs me toward his van. “We’ll take you to the post office and then wherever you need to go,” he says. Riding along, and now again here at the post office, I glance at the bill I’m clutching in my hand. There’s a strange appearance about it. As the postal clerk weighs my box I open the fold part way to see revealed the number, 10. “That’ll be four-sixty,” he says. I pop the bill open to hand to him. That’s when I realize, as the clerk looks at the bill, then at me, with puzzlement–the kind man waiting patiently out front has given me a $100.00 bill! The clerk continues his quizzical expression as I refold it, put it in my pocket, and then fumble for my wallet.
The family has waited patiently for me, like there was nothing more important for them to do this day than to cater to my needs. We’re soon shimmying and shaking our way down the road. The old van is shot, the front end is gone, the springs are collapsed; it leans to one side. The windshield’s cracked. The side window is flopping open. The seats are inside out. It needs new tires. It’s burning oil. I plead with the man, his wife and children, “It’s nearly Christmas. Please, folks, I am so very grateful and thankful for what you have done. You are so kind. But, please, PLEASE keep this money for your family, you have your own needs.” I shove the bill back toward him. He turns to look at me, and then gives a glance back at his wife and children. He looks back quickly to the road, then turns to look at me intently, “We want to share what we have with you, we will do just fine this Christmas.” Another quick look to the road and he turns again to his wife and children, and in unison they all nod with him–in the affirmative. I pull my hand back sheepishly and drop my head. I cannot think of what to say. Soon, we are at the trailhead. As I’m handed my pack and hiking sticks, I look on this beautiful family one last time. I am at a loss for words. As they pull away, somehow I manage a feeble, “ thanks again.”
This whole miraculous experience has taken less than twenty minutes, from the time I was stumbling along filled with worry about this day, till now, as I stand in total bewilderment, waving good-bye. I am totally dumbstruck. My head and heart are in what I can best describe as freefall spinout. As I listen to the old van rattle away, I try composing and settling myself. But comes over me now an almost convulsive feeling, much as would be driven by a troubled and damning conscience. “Settle down, settle down,” I try pathetically, attempting to reassure myself, “you have a very firm grasp on what is right and what is wrong. You were taught this early on by your parents, it’s in you, it’s your upbringing.” But my gut tells me it was wrong to accept the money–my heart butts in, telling me that it was not only good to accept the money, but it was right. My gut then comes back, “Shame on you, shame, shame, you have fooled these gentle, caring people, how dare you do that!” My heart responds, “No! The good was ever-so-much more the giving than the receiving, that is what really matters.” But my conscience keeps struggling with it. “Why did you accept this money, you should have refused it. You don’t need their money–that family needed their money!”
As I hike along, through the ups and downs of Horseblock Mountain, and as I continue frustrating the entire while, I finally decide to believe what my heart’s been telling me, and to ignore the wrenching gut reaction that so overwhelmed me earlier. That’s when conscience steps up to the plate to take a swing at me again; “You’re just taking the easy way out, you jerk!” is what I hear from this not-so-wee-little voice. Aww, now I’ve got conscience siding with wrenching gut. “Okay, okay, time out here, listen to this.” I come back, as I attempt to maintain a modicum of control over the moment. We all finally settle down, and I tell the two, “Listen, let me lay this out for you, if you don’t buy it, then we’ll back up and start over.”
And so, as I hasten along now toward my appointed rendezvous at CR24, I will begin an attempt to make some sense out of (and perhaps unravel) the elusive and puzzling mystery behind the question so oft asked–”Why Go?”
With conscience and wrenching gut’s attention, I continue: “Can we all agree on something?” I ask. “Let me throw this out. This is really nothing more than a basic truism; can we all agree that it is indeed more blessed to give than to receive? Okay, so far, so good. This being true, isn’t it then a fact that, if giving is the way to go, there’s got to be somebody out there on the receiving end? Okay! Hey, we’re getting somewhere. Now, stay with me here. How about if, just perchance, there exists a mission for certain of us to be called to the task of being those vessels out there to receive? Maybe we’re finally onto something! Well, here’s a thought that just might shed a little light on this whole age-old quandary–perhaps, at least, a partial answer to that question we’re constantly asked, that we don’t want to be asked (because we don’t have a clue to the answer), and that is–“Why Go?” Okay, now, think a minute. Is this not a pure purpose, an honorable calling, to go among the people as a receptive vessel for the good of giving, to be the means whereby humankind all about might gain insight into the joy that is the very act of giving, wherein, and in no small way, each one instantly prospers by gaining the realization, the knowledge, that they are endowed with that true goodness that dwells down deep within each of us, that dwells within all of mankind!” Ahha–everybody’s quiet!
As I calculate my probable arrival time at CR24, I am relieved to find that I’ve plenty of time. In fact, there’s enough time today for me to hike the half-mile along the highway from where the trail crosses US431, to Five Points, and Spear’s Store. Once there, I fill up on sweet rolls and hot coffee.
In ’98, I got lost numerous times, having one heck of a go of it through this section, but the trail is now clearly blazed, the treadway well defined, and I am making great progress. About a mile before CR24 I see a hiker coming toward me. I recognize Maggie Wade immediately, and we share a grand time hiking back to her car.
Maggie and Philip have a lovely home, an old place that Philip has renovated and added to over the years. I no sooner get settled in than Maggie has the table set and our evening meal prepared and waiting. The Wades have offered to shuttle me for the next two days, bringing me back each evening to their cozy, warm home.
This has been a miraculous day, full of revelations and blessings, and now with the Wades, do the blessings continue.
Sunday–December 10, 2000
This is going to be a short and most enjoyable day, for I will not be hiking alone but will be accompanied the entire way by Jay Hudson, a dear friend from Birmingham, and Maggie Wade, with whom I’ve been staying.
Maggie drives me to the trailhead at Cheaha State Park, where we meet Jay. We’ll leave his vehicle here and drive around to where the trail crosses CR24. They’ll then join me in my hike as I continue south, and we’ll have wheels at the trailhead when we end the hike this evening.
Both Maggie and Jay love the outdoors, both are strong hikers, and both are members of the Birmingham Sierra Club, Jay the president of the Cahaba Chapter. Both are also very keen on conservation and the importance of hiking trails as they fit into the scheme of things, especially as to their importance in accentuating the need for preserving not only trail corridors but also entire viewsheds. We talk much about all of this as we hike along, about the future of trails in Alabama, and especially about an “Alabama Thru-Trail,” a trail connecting not only the Alabama Pinhoti to the AT, but a trail also extending south to the Conecuh National Forest on the border of Alabama and Florida, thus making possible a link-up with the Florida Trail which runs for over a thousand miles.
We end the day in a shroud of clouds and mist at Cheaha, from here to enjoy a most pleasant and memorable evening of dining at the beautiful Cheaha Lodge Restaurant. Then it’s back to the Wades’ where Philip is waiting. Jay and I are treated to dessert as we continue the social aspect of the day, which lasts well into the evening.
Thanks, dear friends, for coming out and hiking with me today. And thanks Jay, for preparing maps to get me on through to Flagg Mountain.
Monday–December 11, 2000
Another grand night at the Wades’. They are such gracious and thoughtful hosts, treating me with kindness usually reserved for and extended only to family and the very dearest of friends. I have really enjoyed being with Philip. He recently completed a cross-country bike trek, and I’ve taken much enjoyment in listening as he tells of his remarkable adventure. As he relates his stories, I am taken by the similarities between our respective odysseys; the experiences, the trail (road) angels, their magic, the day-to-day pain and fatigue, the ravenous appetites and accompanying weight losses, the loneliness, and the monotony and exhilaration that add spice to the mix. Philip has hung his bike up for now, literally, it’s hanging by a hook, on their porch, but he plans to get back into riding/training again soon. So, though our ways have been very different, taking us over dissimilar paths, there is much we have in common, much we can share and understand about the grand mystery of it all.
Maggie has told me that Philip is not always the early riser, but he’s up ahead of me this morning, preparing coffee and a great breakfast. Maggie is out and gone to teach the children at the Talladega School for the Deaf, lugging maps and other data, from which to make copies to help me along as I hike on past the southern terminus of the Alabama Pinhoti.
Philip has me back on Cheaha Mountain in good order at nine-thirty. The Wades have once again offered to shuttle me to their home this evening, so Maggie will come to get me around four at Clairmont Gap. It’s such a joy not having to make and break camp in this cold, rainy, snowy weather. If not for the Wades, I would be sleeping on the hard, frozen ground and carrying a much heavier pack loaded with food. As I bid farewell to Philip, I insist that he and Maggie permit me the pleasure of treating them to supper out this evening.
The ridge south of Cheaha is rocky and rugged, a designated wilderness area, the trail following and meandering along with and at times within feet of precipitous cliffs. The weather is much as it was during my journey through in ’98: near-freezing cold, cloudy, no visibility. My hopes of getting a view from McDill Point are quickly dashed. Also dashed is me, for I no sooner get in the boulder field than I take a terrible tumble in the rocks. A wet, leaf-covered off-camber slickery sends me flying out of control. It happens so quickly, so it seem is the case with most off-loads. As I bump along and down I manage to keep my pack between me and the rocks for the first bouncing ricochet. Then I careen off my right hip, striking my right leg with a thud against a sharply angled boulder, here to finally come to rest. One of my trekking poles has become wedged between the rocks, my arm now fiddle-string tight to the wrist sling. That’s what actually stops me. After getting some slack and uncuffing my wrist, I cautiously and prayerfully run damage control. I am relieved to find no blood spurting or anything broken. There is however, a deep throbbing pain in my right leg just above my knee. Getting upright in this jumble of boulders is not easy, but I finally manage by shedding my pack and rolling over on one knee. I quickly conclude that I am very fortunate not to have suffered serious injury, and I thank the Lord and count my blessings once more.
I manage to shoulder my pack, get my gloves back on, adjust my sticks and head on down the trail, as I continue stumbling and lurching through the cold rain and gloom–and the incredible maze of boulders and rocks. My right leg begins stiffening up as I move along, the pain now very troubling. I’m having much difficulty concentrating, keeping my balance, and I stumble, tumbling forward and to each side many more times. I’m making pitiful progress today and must soon accept the fact that there’s no way to reach Clairmont Gap by four, yet I hasten along as best I can.
In the afternoon, the treadway improves considerably, and somehow I manage a more rhythmic pace. I’m pleasantly surprised to find Maggie and her friend, Lynwood French from Lizard Scrape Mountain, hiking toward me only shortly after four.
During the day I’ve doubled up twice on my coated aspirin and Osteo-Bi-Flex, and after a long soothing shower, my leg begins unkinking and I feel much better. In the evening, Bob Beadles, a friend of the Wades comes by, and we share a really fun-filled time together at the Outback Steakhouse.
Tuesday–December 12, 2000
I’ve yet another grand stay at the Wades’, in the warmth and comfort of their lovely home, and in the warmth that comes through the friendship and from the love of such kind and gentle people. I’m constantly ask, “Why, Nomad, why are you on this journey?” And you know, by golly, I’m finally managing to figure it out. Oh yes! It’s becoming clearer to me each passing day. And the answer? Ahh, indeed it is the people, above all, the people, the outpouring of kindness and generosity from the people met along the way. It is their caring, their love; that’s the reason, that’s the answer! And why should precious blessings such as these come to and be so generously lavished upon one just because he or she chooses to shoulder a backpack and set out afoot? Well, perhaps there is a mission that we may not really know, an intended interaction between those giving and those receiving; I’m still working on that one. But I do know this, I know that for all the reasons we might choose to pick up and go, it is this outpouring of love, this sincere caring that comes from the people we meet along the way, this is certainly the main and driving force. These experiences make the pain and the drudgery, the arduous part of it, no more than a passing concern in such a grand and glorious scheme. Thanks, Maggie and Philip, thanks for bringing the mystery of it into focus.
Philip is up early this morning to prepare a tank-stokin’ breakfast, then to drive me the fair distance back to Clairmont Gap, where I promptly head up the trail in the wrong direction! Even the sign that shows the way to Dyer Gap slows me little, only setting me to wondering why there are two Dyer Gaps so close together! But in a short while, as I see other features now familiar to me from yesterday do I realize what has happened, and only then do I turn, to return to Clairmont Gap, to continue my trek on south.
I remember little of the trail today, little about the ups and downs, the treadway that seems more kind. It’s mostly a blur as I limp along to begin pondering the reality that I’m nearing the end of this trail, a seemingly endless trail through spiritually mystic mountains, a trail that surely begins and ends, as does this proud old Appalachian range begin and end. Today I cross the last brook, shimmy the last blowdown, climb the last switchback, dodge the last boulder, stand spellbound before the final breathtaking vista.
I am descending to Porter Gap now. I can see the trailhead parking area below. Soon I reach the final blaze, the last foot of treadway. Two days of hiking yet remain to reach Flagg Mountain, the southernmost mountain of these grand Appalachian Mountains to stand above 1,000 feet, but that is entirely a roadwalk. I stop now, to rest for awhile as I try to collect my thoughts, to gain some composure as my feelings and emotions go running. I give thanks to God for bringing me on this journey, and for the bounty of joyfilled experiences that has been the gift of his grace and steadfast love. To me has all this been freely given, an old man in the waning years of his life. It is so humbling to have been granted the health, stamina and resolve, and indeed to have been chosen to go, and then to have been given continued safe passage to complete such an incredible journey–the first southbound thru-hike o’er the entire Appalachian Mountain range.
Still trying to comprehend all of this, and stumbling past the parking lot in a daze, I’m jolted back to the “real world” as a passing logging truck rattles and grinds its way. On the roadwalk now I hearken back to the many times during this journey that I longed to be here. Those were the times when the going was particularly rough or agonizingly slow and trying. But now that I am here, now that the journey along and with these beautiful friends is nearly over and done I find that I’m leaving them behind with a feeling of sadness, a deep and forlorn sense of loss. The Appalachian Mountains; they’re a part of me, a part of my very being, no denying it, and I’m going to miss them, I’m dearly going to miss them.
In the evening, clouds gathering, storm brewing, and as the day darkens and the cold descends yet again, by the side of the road I come abreast of this most welcome and familiar old place. Here resides a kind and dear old friend. The place is Hatchett Creek Trading Post and the dear old friend is Tom Mountain Man Hess. I cross the road to enter his yard. Just then the door opens and comes Tom to greet me, much as he greeted and welcomed me on another cold and stormy day back in ’98. He invites me in, and as I enter, he introduces me to Carleton Griz Randolph. Griz extends both hands, one in greeting and the other to hand me a large mug of steaming hot coffee. Beaming now he exclaims, “You’ll like this coffee just fine, taste it!” Oh yes, hot coffee to turn a cold day, sweetened with a jigger of ‘Bama’s smoothest and finest! Mountain Man has a dandy fire glowing and dancing in the old hand-stacked creekstone fireplace, a fire to warm both hands and heart. He invites me to sit once again, as before, and to rest and chat. What a joy to return, to be here again in the comfort of this old place, and with this kind old friend. Ahh, life, indeed, is good!
Tom’s is a gathering place. Folks come from miles around. His home is their home. “They’re all just family,” says Tom, as the glow from the warm fire complements and radiates the glow on Tom’s you’re-just-family-too smile. And so, after a fine supper prepared by Griz on the old woodburning cookstove, “family” starts droppin’ in. First there’s Jerry and David and Jim and Russell and Ellen and Jason, and his wife Jackie (Tom and Ellen’s daughter) and their kids Christian, Caleb and Cody. Then come Junior, Karen and son Jesse, Jonathan, Gary, Roger, Van and Sue, Hook, Tonya, Randy and Jamie, and Charlie Brown and Sonya, then Gerry. Whew, What a family! All greet and welcome me with the most gentle and sincere kindness. Yes indeedy, folks, it’s the people–it’s their kindness, generosity and love–that’s what makes the trail, that’s what makes the trek, that’s what makes the journey, that brings such joyful and satisfying reward to this old man, to “Odyssey 2000!”
Wednesday–December 13, 2000
Today is a continuation of the roadwalk from Porter Gap to Flagg Mountain. The morning dawns cold but clear. Griz is up before me, and he’s prepared a full-spread breakfast, along with a lunch to send me on my way. Oh, and I’ve been invited back to spend some time (Thursday night, Friday and Saturday) with everybody at Hatchett Creek Trading Post. There’ll be much revelry and carrying-on in celebration of my completing the AMT. Tom and Griz have planned a pig butcherin’ and barbecuin’, along with plenty of cold refreshments for all! I’ll have a ride back, right to their door with Lee and Carole, who are coming over from Georgia to be with me as I climb Flagg Mountain, so I’m looking forward to returning.
I’ve planned a twenty-one mile day today, from here at Coleta, Tom’s little community, to US231 at Stewartville. I’ll miss Goodwater this time around, the route taking me instead through the Hollins Wildlife Management Area, then the little berg of Hollins, and finally across Holman Crossroads to US231. The traffic is no problem, and the wind is helping me along. At Hollins I pull up at Country Cousins, a little mom-n-pop restaurant and general store. They’ve got everything here, from grilled cheese sandwiches to nose rings for your hogs. I’ve a great lunch set before me, a huge platter of hamburger steak, a pile of mashed potatoes, with gravy over the whole heap. It’s a fine meal. I show my appreciation and gratitude by getting up, shouldering my pack and walking straight out the door without paying or leaving the least of a tip! I’m nearly a mile up the road before realizing what’s happened. Turning, I quickly beat a path right back. Everybody has a smile when they see me returning, sure glad they didn’t call the sheriff!
The hiking days have gotten shorter and shorter, and it’s dusk when I finally reach US231. As I poke my thumb out, the wind is really pushing. It’s turning very cold, and the rain, which has been threatening all afternoon, finally arrives. The traffic is really whizzing, but to my delight I’ve got a hookup with the fourth passerby. Hot dang, this is great! Pulling to the side and rolling down the passenger window, and as the cigarette smoke bellows out, the little old bony-faced geezer wheezes at me to come right up front. It’s only five miles to Sylacauga, to the motel Griz had told me about, and in minutes the old fellow, hacking, coughing and dragging incessantly on his cigarette, delivers me straight to the motel office.
What a blessing to be out of it tonight. From the office, and heading to my room now, I follow the covered walkway all the way around to keep from the cold, pouring rain. Closing the door, I pull the drapes and crank the heat. Warm and content, and as I drop off, I’m thinking how long a time and how great a distance it’s been from the Cliffs of Forillon to Flagg Mountain. Tomorrow will be a very exciting day.
Thursday—December 14, 2000
The folks here at the motel have been kind enough, but they insisted on a five-buck deposit before giving me the TV remote and room phone hookup. So I’m right back at the office first thing this morning to get my five bucks back.
I tell the owner he can keep the fiver if he’ll give me a ride back to Stewartville, no luck, so out I head into the cold swirling mist. I’ve got a half-mile walk along the cross-town main drag to US231. Turning the corner and hoofing it no more than two blocks, I’ve got my ride. Ricky Garrett greets me and as I toss my pack in the back and climb in he asks, “You’re the hiker, aren’t you? My boss, Pete Rogers told me about you!” I answer, “Yes Ricky, I’m the hiker,” as he reaches in the paper bag next his seat and hands me an egg and bacon biscuit.
After the depression and during that era, a CCC Camp was in operation on Flagg Mountain. There were a number of cabins, and on the summit, a one-room dwelling with a breezeway connecting the tall stone fire tower. The entire facility, long-since abandoned, and over the decades having suffered the ravages of time, theft and vandalism, recently became the interest of a group of local civic-minded individuals. As were many of the stone structures built by the CCC, the Flagg Mountain fire tower was a remarkable piece of work, an artistic expression if you will, representing countless man-hours of labor, and though suffering neglect and abuse, beautiful still!
And so, the ending to this story. Ahh, and a happy ending it is, folks! For you see, after many long and protracted rounds of negotiation with the government, this local group, now operating as the CCC Corp. (Coosa County Conservation Corporation…don’t you just love it!), has managed to secure a lease covering the entire mountaintop, including the CCC structures. The lease is for ten years at the rate of one dollar per year, with an option to renew the lease (costing one dollar) for ten additional years at the rate of one dollar per year! Since the CCC Corp. took over the property, they have made extensive improvements and repairs to the fire tower and adjacent structures, and the grounds have been landscaped and are now well-kept and manicured–and Pete Rogers? Well, Pete Rogers and his dad Joe, along with Roger and Randall Morris, Ollie Heath, Randy Snyder, Stan Messer, Asa and Dennis Farr, Charles Terrell and Roger Moon, are the CCC Corporation.
I thank Ricky and bid him farewell as he drops me at Stewartville crossroads, and I’m on my way to Flagg Mountain. The drizzle has let up, but the morning remains cold and overcast as I continue the roadwalk. The distance is twelve miles with a halfway break at the little crossroads of Weogufka. I’ve told folks I’d be on Flagg Mountain at three this afternoon, so I need to arrive at Weogufka no later than one. It’s a little after twelve now, and I can see the Confederate States of America flag flying above Caperton’s Store at Weogufka just ahead, so I’m in good shape.
At the store I’m greeted and welcomed by the owner, Lloyd Caperton. Lloyd’s just got the place up and running for the day and is busy putting on a pot of coffee and setting a fire in the old wood stove. I drop my pack and mosey, taking a look around. The old place is as much a museum as it is a store, pictures, memorabilia, gadgets and guns adorning the walls around. “The store’s been in the family for close to a century, some eighty years now,” beams Lloyd proudly. His granddad, Rufus Lloyd Ward, who was three-quarters Cherokee, ran it; his mom Helen Lloyd Caperton ran it, too. Now Lloyd Allen is running it, has been since 1981. I linger, pick up some snacks and a cup of coffee, which is on the house, and Lloyd and I have a good chat. Kent Cooper comes by; he’d stopped to talk with me on the road. And in awhile a fellow comes running in to look at one of Lloyd’s used electric guitars.
Plans are for some friends to meet me here and hike the remaining six miles to Flagg Mountain. And sure enough, shortly comes Maggie and Philip Wade and their friend, Tina Cunningham, then Lee and Carole Perry from Georgia. What a joy having these friends along as I complete this hike o’er the AMT! They all get their hiking boots and daypacks on, and away we go.
Most folks cannot understand how anyone could possibly enjoy hiking great distances day after day, let alone hiking the highways and byways across this vast, expansive continent, but with me today are dear friends who do understand, and it is such a joy hiking along with them. Oh yes, the dogs bark and come to greet us at each passing farmhouse, and there is traffic whizzing by, but we are having such a giddy time of it that these minor distractions have little play.
At Unity, the road turns to dirt. We turn onto CR55, and in just a short distance comes a vehicle from behind. The driver slows to greet us, and with such bright and beaming smiles are we hailed by Ed Rutledge and Mack Hall from Montgomery. They have come to share the joy of my triumph, the completion of the first southbound thru-hike hike o’er these grand Appalachian Mountains. I first met Ed and his wife Emily in Damascus, Virginia, at Trail Days this past spring. They were relaxing on the porch at the Maples Bed and Breakfast watching the parade festivities when Russ Shaw, who caretakes the Maples from time to time, invited me to come and stand at the rail and watch the parade from the very spot where Ed Garvey stood and watched for years! I was so proud; what a humbling, emotional experience. After chatting for awhile, and after hearing the plans for my upcoming AMT/ECT hike, both Ed and Emily insisted I give them a call upon reaching the Montgomery area, so call them I did, and here is Ed this morning! Great to see you again, dear friend, and yes Ed, I’m still hiking, have been most-nearly every day since we last met in Damascus during Trail Days in May!
The road winds and climbs now, becoming rutty and rocky. The first view of Flagg Mountain came along the road to Unity, but clouds were hanging this morning and we were afforded little more than a glimpse of its ascending flanks. This mountain is the last of the Appalachian Mountains to stand above the ten-century mark, rising to 1,152 feet. I have climbed countless mountains many times this high during the past six months, so I thought little of the ascent here this morning, but we’re going up and up and up! Soon we all start huffing, so at the next switchback we stop to rest.
In a moment we hear vehicles winding their way as they climb the mountain. Comes ’round the bend now Jay Hudson from Birmingham and right behind, a TV news van from Alabama’s ABC channels 33/40! Jay had called them and they were interested in capturing the moment of my arrival here at the summit of Flagg. I’m greeted with a hug from my kind and dear friend, Jay, and with tears welling up within me I’m introduced to Jerome Mabry, news photographer, and John Mangum, reporter with ABC. John is interested in getting an interview right away, so Jerome sets his tripod and camera. I sure don’t like having microphones shoved in my face, especially during such intense emotional times such as now. I gather my wits as best I can, but John is gentle and kind with his questions and Jerome stays back with his camera, so we have a good time of it. Heading on up the mountain and as I continue my climb, Jerome runs along ahead taking snips as my trekking poles click the rocks.
At the summit now, and with cameras flashing and grinding, I make my way, taking my last steps, to falter and collapse, trembling uncontrollably against the wall that forms the beautiful Flagg Mountain fire tower. Dear Lord, to you do I give thanks. Once again you have remained my constant and faithful companion, for more than 200 days, over 3,250 miles. Together we have completed this incredible journey. It’s history now, the first southbound thru-hike o’er the entire Appalachian range. Thank you, Lord, for keeping me in Your pure light. For through Your grace has this most fulfilling and remarkable experience come to pass.
Lee had driven to the summit here, and while we were hiking this way, he set to starting a fine fire in the old CCC-built rock fireplace in the beautifully restored dwelling by the tower. It is here I that am ushered, then to be greeted by all in the warmth of this charming old place, and in the warmth from the love of such kind and generous friends. Here I am greeted and welcomed by Pete and Joe Rogers, the proud folks with CCC Corp., and here, and at this grand reception, are Philip and Maggie Wade and their friend (now my friend), Tina Cunningham. Also here are Lee and Carole Perry, Jay Hudson, Ed Rutledge, Mack Hall, and from ABC TV, Jerome Mabry and John Mangum. Oh my, how can these folks be happier and more filled with joy than am I! Ahh, but indeed, so it seems they are.
In awhile Joe unlocks the door leading to the stairwell in the old stone fire tower. We all take the climb. The wooden steps, clinging to the rocks these many years, seem so precariously fixed, but neither do they shift nor sag as we climb. The old lookout is much as it was during the time when fire-spotters manned these old structures, the windows tight, the lofty little sky-perch flawlessly restored and maintained. The mist is still swirling, driven by the wind, but there is not the least draft. Thanks, Pete and Joe, thanks for welcoming us to your mountain! My regards, if you will please, to all with CCC Corp. And thanks, dear and faithful friends, thanks for coming and sharing the joy that has come to pass, this miracle, this day.
In the evening and as dusk descends, we descend Flagg Mountain. I am with Lee and Carole now as we wend our way back to Hatchett Creek Trading Post. Soon we are at Tom’s to be greeted yet again by many dear friends.
There has been seen and witnessed this day yet another miracle in this old man’s life. And what a day it has been. What a joy, what a blessing.
Friday–December 15, 2000
Fresh air is generally not a problem here in Tom’s place, especially when the wind is blowing the least bit. It just pretty much passes straight through. But that presents a problem when it’s bitter cold as was the night. Jason, Tom’s son-in-law, stayed over and kept the fire going and that has helped ward the chill off, but the wind is whipping this morning, and until Griz gets the cook stove cranked in the kitchen, I’ll head in to camp in front of the fireplace–move over, Jason.
Toward noon the day warms. So being outdoors is not the least unpleasant, and that’s where I head to watch Gary and Roger kill and butcher the pig. A carefully placed twenty-two round behind the ear takes him down very humanely, thence to be dragged from his wallow to the tall A-frame in the back yard. A rope to his hocks then up and over the A-frame to Tom’s pickup tow-ball, and he’s soon up and ready for skinning. You may not want to watch this part, especially when they cut off the head and open the gut cavity. It isn’t all that enjoyable a show. I’ve seen the operation countless times before on the farm near where I was raised, so I head back to the kitchen for a refill on my coffee and a couple more of Griz’s woodstove-baked biscuits.
In a little while comes Gary, Roger and Jason with the pig all dressed out to deposit the gleaming, dripping mass right on the kitchen table. It’s Griz’s job now to reduce this still-twitching heap to manageable size and into cookable pieces–then into the beer keg of marinade till tomorrow. Griz has obviously performed this task before, and with his keenly honed knife and an old hand axe, he quickly and skillfully has big piggy in little pieces.
Yes, folks, I have nothing better to do today than to relax, lounge around and toss down a few with the boys. That’s the only plan. Folks around here know how to live. Hey-hey, I think I fit in! Oh yes, “It’s Friday night and I just got paid,”–Everybody shows, and it’s party time at Hatchett Creek! Nine-ish, we’re off the ground, wheels up, seatbelt sign off–this thing’s flyin’. What a hoot! Tom, don’t you know it’s a pure blast being here again, with you and all the “family” at Hatchett Creek!
Saturday–December 16, 2000
…and the party really doesn’t get crankin’ till today! Okay Nomad, get your head back on, work yourself loose and get ready.
The day dawns cold once again, but by noon it’s warming nicely. Griz gets the grill up and glowing, and Junior comes out with his twenty-two to chase a couple of roosters from under the porch. He’s got his eye on two in particular that invariably start their pathetic wheezing around three-thirty every morning. He manages to dust one pretty good, and that’s it. The rooster freaks, the feathers go flying and he’s quickly two counties over. We’re all leaning over the pickup bed, sipping cold ones, watching. Folks, this is more fun than big screen football!
Griz heads for the marinade vat, soon to return with a big sheet of pig parts. I watch as he dumps bottles of all kinds of stuff into the pot he’ll use for basting. This is definitely going to be good pig, very good pig!
Barbecue chicken and pork is the planned fare, and by afternoon Griz has the pig parts tanning nicely, but Junior is still chasing the chickens. So it looks like pork is gonna be it.
This party-turned-flyin’-machine touches down only briefly as “family” begins arriving again early. A little refueling and it’s off the ground again. By late afternoon it’s become evident this day is going to be a serious darkin’-over day. Low, billowing clouds start moving through, and the wind comes up, bringing yet more biting cold. Right about this time Griz wheels the cooker to the porch and everybody moves inside, everybody, that is, except Junior; he’s finally nailed one of the roosters and is busy plucking it.
By nightfall the cold storm arrives, bringing snow. This isn’t shaping well. Plans are for Griz to drive me back to Flagg Mountain just after first light tomorrow morning. The forecast is for cold and snow. The weatherman is dead on. I go for another helping of Griz’s barbecued piggy, and then take a few minutes before turning in to talk with Jim Smothers, a reporter with The Daily Home, a Talladega newspaper.
I’ve had a grand time here at Hatchett Creek Trading Post, just the kind of break I’ve needed, but it’s time to break camp and move on. Tomorrow, I’ll continue ever south toward Montgomery.
Sunday–December 17, 2000
I’ve been staying the nights in the loft here at Hatchett Creek Trading Post. The old place–loose boards on the gable ends, some missing–isn’t well suited for sub-freezing weather, especially wind-driven, sub-freezing weather. At first light the wind comes up hard, moaning and whistling through. And at this instant does the old rooster that Junior managed to miss start his pathetic wheezing. I feel the gentle cold touch of snowflakes on my cheek and forehead and I sit up to open my eyes to a dazzling, twinkling wonderland of swirling snow. Here it seems is a microcosmic universe created by a gazillion points of pure light that ebb and flow, dancing through prismatic bars of shimmering brilliance formed by the light of dawn passing the cracks in the gable boards. I tug the drawstring on my Feathered Friends bag till only a squint of my eyes are exposed, to remain for the longest time, totally still, totally captivated and hypnotized by the kaleidoscope of light and motion that is flashing and dancing full around.
I can hear Griz downstairs jiggling the grate on the old woodburning cookstove. I’ll give him a little time to get the kitchen warmed up. I no sooner roll out than my fingers start locking up, but I must collect my things, organize my pack and prepare to go. As I stumble down the narrow, rickety loft stairs and open the old boards-of-a-door to the kitchen, Griz looks at me straight on, shaking his head. “How can you go out is this stuff in shorts and sneakers!” “Griz,” I explain calmly, “I came out of Forillon, Cap Gaspé in seven feet of snowpack, just like this, and did fine.” We both look out the window into the swirling fit. “Are we going?” he asks. Trying not to show my sadness, I respond, “Yes, Griz, we’re going…it’s time to go.”
Tom is still under the quilts. Just as well, I hate good-byes. It’s just an absolutely agonizing time for me. Better just to slip out and be gone. Griz cranks the sagging, battered-but-trusty old Ford pickup, and we’re sent bouncing and lurching onto the road. I’m consumed with sadness. Tom is not well and I’m thinking, “I may never see him again.” Aww, this is awful. “Don’t look back, don’t look back Nomad. You’ll return; you’ll be back someday, and then you’ll see your dear old friend again.”
It has snowed off and on all night, and the countryside is a wonderland of white. The wind buffets us as snow-snakes cross the road. The wheels spin and we take a little sashay to the side as we make the turn toward Stewartville. In just awhile Griz slows to stop in front of a farmhouse. “You remember Gerry?” Griz asks, “He came by for a few minutes the other day. He lives here. We’ve got time; let’s go in.” Don’t know how I could have forgotten this kind and gentle man. I guess it’s because I’ve met so many of the “family” these past few days. But I remember his glad and happy smile as soon as he answers Griz’s knock. We’re invited in to his comfortable, warm home to be greeted–and immediately seated–by his wife, Leslie. Griz had told me last evening that I would not go back on the mountain hungry, and was he ever right. Gerry had told him to bring me by for breakfast on our way. Griz had kept it a secret, and there were bright smiles on everyone’s faces (me, too) when I finally caught on. Folks, you just haven’t eaten biscuits and sausage gravy till you’ve been in the south. Thanks, Gerry and thanks, Leslie, for your thoughtfulness and for your generosity; have I got a fire in my furnace now! And Griz has packed a lunch for me: fried liver and pork, and more woodstove-baked biscuits. I’ll not run out of gas on this day.
The road winds up and around, then up and around some more as we climb Flagg Mountain. The hillsides all about are white with snow but the road is clear, and the old Ford chugs and bounces its way to the top. Here’s a wide parking area, where the road passes to the other side, and Griz makes the turnaround to head back home. I move in haste, not to linger. “So long, Griz,” my dear new friend. I wave as the old truck lurches off, and Griz is soon gone ’round the bend and down the mountainside. I am once again alone, in the bitter cold, the only sound the biting wind. I hunch my shoulders and lean into it, thrusting my poles to the gravel. The funk that began as I left Tom’s door, continues, for now am I leaving another great old friend, a friend that has been my most-constant companion these past six months. As I descend the last of these tranquil and majestic old mountains, I am leaving the Appalachians behind. Down and down I go, into the lee and into the warmth of the southern sun. It feels so good against my face. As I descend now, I am thinking how these past 200 days and 3,000 miles have tested my mettle, and how, as a result, I’ve been forged into a stronger and better man. In a beautiful email recently from Laurie Potteiger, the now grand lady at ATC Headquarters in Harpers Ferry, she talked about the “pioneering spirit.” I’ve never thought of myself as a pioneer, but I suppose in a sense it is true. Hearkens now my memory to the beautiful words of Robert Frost in The Road Not Taken:
The gravel road leads to a paved road, which leads nearly straight south through rolling countryside. I am leaving the Appalachians, my home. I will so miss this dear old friend. There is little traffic, the wind has relented and the day has turned most pleasant. As I click along, right down the center of the northbound lane, a vehicle approaches then slows and pulls across to the far shoulder and stops. The driver gets out and crosses the road to greet me. Oh my, I recognize him immediately; it’s Mack Hall, Ed Rutledge’s friend from Montgomery, who had come to the mountain with Ed last Thursday. “This is right about where I expected to find you,” he says, as we shake hands and exchange grand smiles. “Ed told me you’d be coming off the mountain today so I’ve come to spend it along with you, if that’s okay–then take you on to Ed’s; he and Emily are expecting you this evening.” I can’t believe this. Ed knew I would be spending the night, pulled off somewhere by the roadside. Mack continues beaming, pleased by how I’m taken by it all. I finally manage, “Sure Mack, sure, come along, but about this evening…” Interrupting me he exclaims, “Don’t worry, Ed will bring you back to the very spot where you finish today, bright and early!”
And so, cheered now by the enthusiasm and kindness of this new friend, and as Mack drives ahead and then walks back to hike along with me, do I find that I now have an energetic bounce and flare in my stride! The miles pass quickly, and at sunset, by this little mom-n-pop store south of Titus, we call it a day, load up and head for town.
In one of the most beautiful of Montgomery’s new residential developments now, and to this grand and spacious new home built by Ed, does Mack deliver me. Here Ed and Emily Rutledge greet me in the truest southern tradition, most cordially. I’m escorted straight away to their luxurious guest quarters where I relax, try to gain some composure, then to shower in the privacy of my own bath. Emily has prepared a full-spread supper, and in the evening now we dine in the finest fashion.
Mack, Ed, Emily, I am absolutely taken by all of this, by such kindness and generosity. All I can say is thanks, thanks so much. This is southern hospitality at its very finest!
Monday–December 18, 2000
Ed had indicated an interest in hiking along, so I’ve invited him to come out with me today. We talked about it last night, “This is a roadwalk now Ed, we’ll be on busy US231 most all day, you sure that’s what you want to do?” I asked. “Sure, sure,” he answered. “I need the exercise.” So, after a fine breakfast prepared by Emily, Mack comes by to follow us so we can leave a vehicle where we’ll end the day, then to shuttle us on north to the little store in Titus. We’ve decided on a nineteen-mile hike, which will bring us to the rest area on US231. We leave Ed’s SUV here, to pile in Mack’s car and head back to the little store. Bidding Mack farewell, we’re on the trail by eight-thirty.
What a beautiful day, perfect for hiking, a cool breeze and warm sun. The road shoulder is fairly level and wide, no ruts, and the traffic is tolerable. Ed, though a bit my senior, is a strong, steady hiker, and I’m pleased that we are able to cruise along at nearly three miles per hour. By noon we have reached Wallsboro, the little town where Emily was born and raised. We find a picnic table by the road and pull off for lunch. By now the day has warmed nicely, and we’re having a grand time of it. What a joy and pleasure to be hiking with someone again. Ed is great company, and we’re sharing very enjoyable conversation.
In the afternoon, and ahead of schedule, we decide to take a side trip into Wetumpka, an old town with much history, right on the Coosa River. Out of Wetumpka, we’re back on busy US231 again, and here the traffic is very heavy, pushing a wind right at us. By evening, both of us tiring, we decide to go for supper at Captain D’s. Near sunset we arrive at the rest area and Ed’s vehicle.
Roadwalks can actually be fun. This one certainly was. It was a grand time with a fine new friend! Folks, it’s the people, the people that stir the heart, that bring the magic that has so charmed “Odyssey 2000.”
Tuesday–December 19, 2000
For the past 200+ days the trail has been my life. On such a long and extended journey, loneliness can become a near-constant companion, wearing, crushing–to the extent of affecting one both mentally and physically. But on this trek have I been so blessed, and at the most critically important times have I been the fortunate sojourner with so many generous, caring people. My stopover here with the Rutledges is yet another example of the remarkable outpouring of kindness, generosity and friendship that has been so lavished upon me. Toward the end of the hike o’er the Appalachian Mountains and for those numbers of weeks, this burden of loneliness wore heavy upon me. So, to have been taken in by the Perry family, by Reverend Owen, by the Wades, by Tom’s “family,” and now by the Rutledges, it has been their love, their caring that has helped lift this terrible burden. And soon, and before continuing this trek to Key West, do I look forward with great anticipation to a much-needed rest, to go, and to spend the upcoming holidays with dear family and friends in Florida and Missouri.
Emily has prepared another tank-stokin’ breakfast, and Ed soon has me on my way back to the rest area on US231. The morning is clear but cold; the only clouds a wide dark wall way to the north. Plans are made for Ed to come for me around sunset at some point south of Montgomery on US331. These arrangements made, Ed is off to an appointment, and I am off to my appointed task: hiking through Montgomery. On US231 again now, and as the highway widens to six lanes, the traffic comes heavy and hard, driving a cold, continuous blast straight at me. The sun, which brings some relief, its warmth so comforting upon by face, lasts for less than an hour, the dark far-off wall of clouds now upon me. The harsh, cold wind has been steadily turning, now coming directly from the northwest and the road to Montgomery now angles to the west, turning me directly into the traffic-aided blast. As the day darkens, the wind intensifies and the temperature continues to drop. I push on, but in awhile I can take no more of it. Even with both pair of gloves my hands go numb, and I can no longer grip my poles. My face is becoming stiff and my lips feel like hard rubber. To my left is hurricane fence and open spaces to the horizon, so I cross the traffic to an old barricaded road that leads to the woods. Here, as the snow begins, and by some low trees and brush I find shelter from the driving wind. I try eating an orange Ed has given me but I become frustrated trying to peel it and finally give up.
Though my hands and face have gone numb from the driving wind, I had managed while on the road to maintain my core temperature at least. Here, as I sit huddled in the brush, and from the inactivity of hiking I begin shivering and can feel my temperature dropping. With much hesitancy now, I return to the roadwalk. I’ve put my poncho on to help break the bitter wind, and I find to my relief that I am managing much better.
Soon the road angles back southwest and finally south to be sheltered by buildings on the west that break the wind, and I am soon out of the worst of it. The feeling now returns to my face and hands. The snow, which had begun in flurries, is coming harder now, and as I turn toward the capitol I am out of the traffic. No one is by the grand promenade or at the steps leading up and up to the capitol. I have the whole grand place to myself. The road and grounds are turning white, the building ghostly gray in the midst of the swirling snow. As I look up to take in the whole impressive scene, the huge clock below the dome, hardly visible, I’m surprised to see that it’s only twelve-fifteen. Oh my, I’m making good time today despite the most unpleasant of conditions.
Hiking on now, I am soon past the government buildings and the downtown business district. Turning south, I’m hiking through an old residential area, and by mid-afternoon I’ve passed the last of the strip businesses. At the bypass I pull off to enter a convenience store, here to get some coffee, warm my hands and enjoy a little break from the cold. On US331 now, and heading ever south, the terrain opens and flattens, and the wind, which had been less a problem along the streets of Montgomery returns, kicking hard from the northwest in a no-nonsense, steady push. The traffic is moderate but the shoulder is soft and muddy, the result of current four-lane construction work. I must hike the edge of the road, lest I sink in the quagmire.
A mutt has been following me since the bypass, finally to adopt me, ranging back and forth across the road. Motorists slow, honk their horn, then give me a dirty look as they pass. She’s come close enough for me to give her a good whack with my trekking poles a couple of times, but she thinks that’s just in fun and romps on ahead, and right back into the road. This goes on for the better part of four miles until the frustration of it is finally broken by the welcome arrival of Ed and Emily, who have come to fetch me. I climb in, muddy feet and all, to be whisked away to the warmth and comfort of their beautiful home.
Dear friends, you could not have a clue to how incredibly happy and relieved I am to see you again! A warm soft bed and friends, that’s a slightly better choice than the cold hard ground–and the mutt…