Traffic was awful. I had no idea that Labor Day weekend sees some of the busiest traffic of the year, but I had already committed to driving to Atlanta on Friday evening, so I gritted my teeth and pushed through the frustratingly slow drive. First there were delays leaving Chapel Hill, and then there were slowdowns along I-85 south in Greensboro and Charlotte, and inexplicable stop-and-go traffic along random stretches through South Carolina. Then traffic slowed again just outside Atlanta before midnight (yes, third shift has a rush hour, too, in big cities) but I finally made it to Becky’s townhome just a block or two away from drunk students and alumni thronging around Georgia Tech’s campus in anticipation of the football game the following day. We could have joined the crowds at the bars if I’d brought some presentable social attire, but I hadn’t come eight hours for that: Becky and I had an extended weekend of backpacking ahead of us.
After a very quick night’s sleep on a blow-up mattress wedged in the living room, we piled our gear haphazardly into our cars (what, emergency matches? Yeah, between the two of us there were bound to be some stashed somewhere, and the same went for the rest of our gear) and caravanned along the highway. We decided to do a section hike of the Appalachian Trail - Woody Gap to Neels Gap in the north Georgia mountains - so we needed two cars to complete the single-line trek. I trustingly followed Becky north into the hills after a cursory glance at a barebones printed map of the region, devotedly mimicking every lane change and turn-off her little silver compact car maneuvered. Slowly the many-laned commuter thoroughfares dissolved into deepening curves pushing through the foothills and into the Southern Appalachians. Quick marts, drive-thrus, and strip malls gave way to the undulating horizon, broken only by bed and breakfasts, inns, farmers’ stands with honey and boiled peanuts, and abandoned rusted silos.
We arrived first at Neels Gap to park Becky’s car, check out the outfitters and utilize the bathrooms. The Mountain’s Crossing Outfitter at Neels Gap (aka Walasi-Yi if you prefer the Cherokee name) was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1937 (the same year the Appalachian Trail was completed) and the trail actually passes right through the building. The place is appropriately rustic, and includes a hostel, a section of store dedicated to hikers’ needs, a section of store full of souvenirs for tourists, and an overlook area with picnic tables. Bikers, hikers, and motorists all stop here and pass through the creaking screened doors to experience backcountry Georgia hospitality. It is famous for being the first major outpost of civilization for northward-bound thru-hikers, and the overhead beams of the store are strewn with tattered boots and sneakers and other discarded hiking gear. Becky and I would spend a good bit of time here, but it was still Saturday morning and we were eager to get started on the trail.
As I was washing up in the old stained sink, a woman entered the bathroom. She could have been in a Dolly Parton lookalike pageant: big blonde hair, Botoxed skin, lots of make-up, a great many gold bangles clinking on her wrist and rattling around her neck, tight dark wash jeans, and a white button up blouse with a deep plunging neckline revealing carefully-positioned cleavage. She stepped through the wooden door gingerly, picking her way across the brown tile in her stilettos.
“Ugh, it’s just old, isn’t it?” she asked me with a spoiled drawl. There was no way I in my plaid hiking shirt, tight braid and quick-dry pants could reasonably respond to her, so I just kept silent. But the woman would not be deterred.
“But it’s just so old!” the woman exclaimed in a guttural growl and pushed open a stall door, not bothering to conceal her disgust.
Well honey, I might venture a guess that you did not come prepared for the Appalachian Trail. Bless your heart.
Becky and I left the priss in the privy and continued on to Woody Gap, hoping we would be at least a little better prepared than her for the adventure ahead. My PT Cruiser sputtered and moaned pitiably, and was particularly unhappy when we wandered up and down the highway several times before finally finding the blind turn-off for State Road 180 to take us to the next trail terminus. It would only be 11 miles on foot once we got on the trail, but we had to drive a circuitous 25 miles to get to Woody Gap. #Mountainproblems.
We stopped briefly at the 180 Diner for lunch, where the waitresses were friendly, if a little slow to take our orders. Regardless, we were happy to sit on the front porch overlooking the valley, eat our slow-smoked pulled pork sandwiches, and talk of our significant others and where our lives were headed, until we were abruptly interrupted by a man sitting by himself in a booth nearby.
“Where are you from?” he demanded.
“Uhmmm, hi. I’m from Durham and she’s from Atlanta,” I replied hesitantly. He quizzed us on what we were doing (hiking the Appalachian Trail), what we usually do (work at office jobs), and where we had gone to school (UNC and GA Tech). As his interrogation progressed he demanded details that I did not want to divulge. I demurred against naming where exactly I lived in Durham and what offices Becky and I worked in, and where exactly we were going hiking. He may have been harmless, but then again I wasn’t shopping for a stalker.
My vague answers did not seem to slake his interest in us, and soon I was making every effort not to make eye contact with him or engage him at all. I intently stared at my sweating glass of water or at Becky. I asked her about the upcoming trip to Nashville with her boyfriend, and whether she thought he would propose. We daydreamed about weddings, and I asked her if she knew what kind of ring she wanted, and, more importantly, if her boyfriend knew what kind of ring she wanted. The whole time the man talked, unhesitatingly talking to the stars and the open valley sky for all we knew. We were mostly done with our meal when the waitress finally came by and asked the odd man if he wanted any dessert.
“Oh sure. Wait, can you tell me what my bill is at right now?”
“Sure, one sec,” the waitress said and bustled off. Even then the man continued to talk loudly, to us maybe, or maybe to no one in particular. The waitress came back holding the check.
“Right now you’re at $8.99,” she said.
“Aw shucks, that’s all I can do then. I’d better finish up,” and he paid his bill and finally left.
By then Becky and I had finished our meals as well and we didn’t have an excuse to linger and talk after he had gone: the sky was turning dark and we wanted to get onto the trail before the rain started. The waitress cleared off the man’s dishes and came to our table, inquired if we would like any dessert and added, “I’m sorry about that feller. He ain’t a regular here, and I’m sorry if he disturbed you.”
“Oh no, it’s fine,” I said and Becky agreed amiably. “We don’t need any dessert though, but thank you. I think just the check.”
“Sure,” and she dropped off the bill. We paid, and discreetly left to find Woody Gap. Somehow it was even more imperative to get away from shops and things and people, and I was very glad when we finally arrived at the trailhead.
Woody Gap was marked by parking lots flanking the narrow state road with a trailhead near a dark and dense treeline. We had just started packing the food into Becky’s bag and securing our effects when suddenly the sky broke and torrential rain fell in thick sheets. It came in from all directions, drenching our socks and boots before we even pulled them on and soaking our packs under the hatch of my car and the set of rain covers we carried. In a fit of impatience I threw aside my camp shoes, figuring I would just go barefoot when we set up camp. (Besides, Becky didn’t have camp shoes to bring, so why would I need them?) We loaded our packs onto our backs and started on the trail without so much as a backward glance, recklessly eager to escape the rain and forking lightning overhead. As soon as we stepped under the thick green canopy the rain and thunder became dampened and distant: it was about 1:30pm and we were finally on the Appalachian Trail!
With the downpour there was more standing water than trail and it took some time to adjust to the sudden weight on my back. That first ascent from Woody Gap was easily the hardest. The pack shifted uncomfortably - almost unbearably - as we sloshed through puddles and clamored up boulders, and watched day hikers blithely descend to their cars.
“Ohhh, this is for sure the hardest part up,” someone reassured me as her trekking poles clinked down the rocky switchbacks. “But once you get past here you’ll be fine.” Even with the encouragement I struggled to climb up, always up, while clinging to bent saplings and wedging my boot into unsteady footholds.
At the top of Big Cedar Mountain, just over a mile from the parking lot at Woody Gap, the monotony was briefly broken. There was a flat rocky outcrop where the trees thinned and created a window out of the woods. In clear weather it would have been an inviting place to pause, but somehow it seemed so soon - too soon - to stop, what with the rain and fog obscuring the view across the valley. And so we pushed on without any photos and without any rest.
At Jarrad’s Gap we paused to measure our position on a map posted on a trail marker. Just off the trail a family had set up camp with sprawling tents and folding chairs. I marveled at all the weight they had managed to haul up the trail, while they glared at us with haughty eyes as if they owned that piece of mountain gap. The mother said nothing, turning to coddle her Dursley-like son. The father teetered on the edge of a low camp chair: a bellicose and bespectacled man with a fat cigar held between his squat fingers, he demanded of us, “And where are you headed?”
“Neels Gap,” Becky replied.
“Where from?” he said, still shouting and shifting his weight on the chair.
“Woody Gap,” Becky said.
“That’s where we’ve come from. We come up for the night and we’ll go back down to our car in the morning.”
We didn’t linger or continue the conversation. Becky had half a mind to hike all the way to Blood Mountain that day if we could make it, but around 6pm or so we turned off the trail to head to a shelter. A day hiker had told us the big shelter at Blood Mountain had become hopelessly overcrowded by 4pm, but there was another shelter between Jarrad’s Gap and Blood Mountain, so we turned there for the night. It was probably only a quarter mile off the trail, but trudging along with a heavy pack on novice feet towards an unknown shelter and I may as well have been traversing the nine circles of hell.
When we finally made it to Woods Hole shelter we found a wooden lean-to structure with a raised platform - a common shelter layout along the Appalachian Trail. There were already four other people there: a young couple, a talkative youngish woman with short spiky hair under a turquoise bandana, and an older, quiet man who seemed to favor wearing a rain jacket with no shirt underneath. It was the first time either Becky or I had stayed at a shelter, so we hesitantly unloaded our packs, hung up some of our wet clothes on the line, pulled off our soaked shoes with a loud squelch, and went to a fire pit a little distance away from the shelter to cook dinner.
When staying at an AT shelter you are encouraged to use fire pits and a privy in order to concentrate human impact into small, specific places. The woman with the short spiky hair offered to show us the way to the loo, while giving advice about gear and how to stomach the stink of the outhouse (she claimed putting a little icy-hot right under your nose works wonders). When I saw the privy I understood what she meant.
It was simply an open shack with a hole in the ground and a filthy toilet seat that exuded a stench that could knock you off your feet. And my feet! My poor bare feet on the soiled outhouse floor! I desperately regretted leaving my camp shoes in the car, but then on the trail sometimes you simply have to make do (or maybe, make doo?) with what you have, even if what you have are bare feet, a wad of cheap toilet paper disintegrating from the rain and humidity, and a vial of green hand sanitizer. But rest assured, I will not be leaving my camp shoes behind ever again.
The woman waited while Becky and I used the privy in turn. I could hear her ask Becky about us when I bravely stepped first to the toilet. She seemed intensely interested in our back stories, and even tried to make small talk with me when I emerged, but the shock of the toilet left me in no mood to chat about hometowns or day jobs. In any case I soon suspected she was less interested in actually getting to know us than in asking us questions so that she could talk freely about herself. She asked if we were college girls, and said she went to a small college in Georgia. She asked when we graduated and she claimed she graduated just a couple years before. She asked if we came to the AT often, and explained she does a seven-mile hike around a lake at a state park every weekend and comes to the AT at least once a year. For every brief response we provided she launched into a detailed story, and kept this up when we returned to the shelter. She only fell quiet when people started unzipping their sleeping bags and crawling in for the night.
It was an uncomfortable night tossing and turning on my air mattress and I woke up violently several times. I was paranoid of rodents and bears and that one of our campmates would turn out to be a serial killer who gets their kicks from hunting hikers in the dark. And then considering I went to bed so early after sunset it was no surprise I awoke full of energy at 2 am, then 3am, then 5am, 6am, 7am, and 8am. At 8am I found it acceptable to get up and get moving. The sun had long been up and no one would find it odd if I rose at that ripe time.
I was only awake for a few minutes before others climbed out of the their bags. I greedily watched my bunk mates prepare coffee from various contraptions on their stoves while I reflected on the day before and the day ahead. My first priority would be water at the stream on the way back to the trail, and then breakfast, lunch and dinner and reaching the top of Blood Mountain.
“I’ve gotta admit,” the talkative woman with the spiky hair said to Becky and me, interrupting my reverie. “You two have got to be the quietest people I’ve ever camped with along the trail.”
“Actually,” I said, “she’s the quiet one. I’m just reserved. When I do speak I’m not quiet. I just don’t speak that often if I’m so inclined.” I couldn’t help it that I was more interested in the trail than in the woman’s mundane life story that she was so eager to share.
Everyone at camp was filling stuff sacks and organizing things into their packs when the talkative woman pulled out a very loud jingle bell.
“I hope none of you mind the bell,” she announced. “It’s for the bears. We’re in bear country now, so everyone needs a bear bell to alert any unsuspecting bear on the trail that you’re coming.”
I rolled my eyes as she gave it a jolly shake. Even attached to her pack it jangled shrilly, and with a sideways look at Becky we decided to put as much distance as possible between ourselves and that bell.
Becky and I were packed up first so we went ahead and left. We didn’t wait to take a group photo or to fuss over the hole in my compression sack that a mouse had chewed. We went straight to the water source and I happily pumped water through my brand new water filter. I had already filled three nalgene bottles and most of my water bladder when the rest of the group arrived at the mountain spring from the shelter. That woman’s damn bell was a red alert to their presence, so by the time they arrived we had packed up, and with a smile and a wave (and a quick warning to watch out for the dead millipede in the stream) we were on our way.
We made good timing that morning, passing small packs of hikers and adventurous youths, and putting a good bit of distance between us and the spiky haired hiker’s jangling bear bell. We passed a small group of boys who were hiking full speed in the opposite direction as us, followed a few minutes later by an adult looking haggard and defeated, and then another boy running up the trail alarmedly shouting, “Hey! Wait for me! Wait for me!” From the size of the group we wondered if they were boy scouts, except the boys seemed so ill-prepared (they were lucky if they were even carrying a water bottle) and the adult seemed completely out of it.
Shortly after that we came to a spring and a switchback. A froglike man in a rain poncho was perched on a boulder next to the spring, his bullfrog eyes scanning the heads of ten or fifteen boys who swarmed over the trail like fireants inspecting their disturbed mound.
“Have you found ‘em?” the frogman grunted to another man who approached from the opposite direction.
“No, Jim’s gone further on to see if he can find ‘em,” the second replied, and frogman shifted his weight uneasily on the boulder and smoothed his plastic sheet across his girth.
We almost walked past them unnoticed, when suddenly frogman narrowed his eyes and said, “the trail to the top of Blood Mountain is here, and up there it rejoins the Appalachian Trail.”
“I’m sorry, what?” I asked and his frog eyes bulged out again.
“The Appalachian Trail is up there,” he reiterated, his eyes following the vertical path beyond the stream. Sure enough there was the white blaze of the AT on a tree a little ways up, so we thanked him and continued on, eager to get away as the man started to shout boys’ names down the trail at the top of his bullfrog lungs, his little ants joining him in chorus.
The ascent up Blood Mountain was short. Our slow climb from Woody Gap had evenly distributed most of the elevation change over the span of several miles and smaller peaks, but the final push to the top was grueling. We finally emerged from the trail on a leveled-out bit of rock crowned with a four-walled shelter and overhangs with views to the north and south.
Becky and I dropped our packs in the shelter and scrambled onto the rocky outcroppings. Already the morning fog was rolling thickly up the mountain. We snapped a few photos and unwrapped some Clif bars while the wind blew colder and more vociferously. Still we remained perched on the ledge, longing for a glimpse of distant peaks and unwilling to don our weights and move on.
The only backpacker who caught up with us in that time was the older man who wore just a rain jacket and shorts.
“I thought we wouldn’t see you,” I said to him. “You seemed pretty tired today, so I wasn’t sure if you would take a rest day.”
“No,” he replied, “but I’m 43 so it takes a little while to get moving in the mornings now. I was thinking about taking a zero day up here, but I understand a group of boy scouts is headed this way.”
“Oh, that group with no gear that was shouting down the trail? They were actually boy scouts?” I asked incredulously.
“Yep,” he said, and we all half-smirked and half-winced at the thought.
“So I understand you’ve been on the trail since March?” Becky asked the man.
“Yeah, I thought I overheard you saying that to the one woman when she asked about you,” I said. Nobody had been free of Talkative's interrogations last night.
“That’s right,” he replied. “I started at Harper’s Ferry on March 24, hiked all the way south and am heading north again.”
“That’s awesome,” I said. “This is my first time doing a section hike on the Appalachian Trail. I mean, I’ve done other hikes before and I’ve been on the AT when it ran with another trail for a while, but this is my first time on the trail on purpose. I’m really intrigued by the idea of a thru-hike though.”
“Yeah, I don’t know if I could ever do a thru-hike,” Becky said. “I think three weeks is my max.”
“Well, after three weeks on the trail you might as well do a thru-hike,” the man said. "The first three weeks are the hardest. After that you’re used to it, and you just keep going every day.”
“I can only imagine what it would be like to hike and just not have any worries,” Becky mused. I laughed and exclaimed, “I think you still have worries! Food, water, shelter - they may be different worries, but they’re pretty big worries.”
“Well, yeah, but I mean like, car payments, rent, going to work every day and things like that,” Becky said.
“It definitely changes you,” the man said. “There’s just something about carrying everything you need on your back for a long period of time. It’s like you get to know yourself…” the man trailed off.
The wind had picked up again, but in the lull of conversation you could hear Becky shivering in her light windbreaker. The man still was just wearing a raincoat and no shirt, but the wind didn’t seem to affect him. His chest hair peeked out over the top of the zipper in dark curls, his tan and weatherworn features calm as he took long, slow drags from a hand-rolled cigarette.
“You missed the best of the views this morning,” I said to him, breaking the silence. “There wasn’t much to see when we got up here, but the fog rolled in so now you can’t even see the next peak.”
He muttered an acknowledgement, and we all withdrew into ourselves and huddled against the wind and took a moment to appreciate the altitude, reflect on the trail and imagine the beautiful vista rewards of our labors.
When the wind finally drove us off the rock ledge and we returned to the shelter we found the boy scouts had arrived and overrun the site like a swarm of pudgy worker ants. They whooped and shouted to others to see this rock, see this view, see this millipede: always a bustle of frenetic, exploring activity. We also found another group of hikers - 3 or 4 in total, I can’t remember exactly - who leaned against their trekking poles and looked bewildered: either by the weight of the packs still strapped to their backs, the struggle up the mountain, the disappointing view or the noise of the boy scouts.
The boy scouts, as it turned out, did not intend to stay overnight. They scrambled around, trying to take in as much of the mountaintop as possible before heading back from whence they came. Their frenzied activity was broken intermittently by one of the chaperones shouting, “Hold still! Your mother will kill me if I don’t get a picture!”
Even with the promise of their quick departure, Becky and I didn’t want to stay. The woman with the bear bell was somewhere on the trail heading our direction, and it would be hours before the fog cleared up, so we had a boy scout chaperone snap a photo of us in front of the shelter and then we donned our packs and moved on.
The descent was deceptively tricky, as there were very few white blazes, and several false turn-offs. We had to backtrack once when the worn path over rock disappeared into the brush. At least we were going down. I felt sorry for the day hikers plodding up the trail with their red faces, puffing for air and plaintively asking, “is it much farther?” Yes. "Yes, it is much farther," I wanted to say, "and it is all long and difficult and steep."
And when suddenly I felt like it was impossible for the trail to go much farther, because if I were to descend any more I would venture past the lamina of the crust and into the anteroom of the underworld, the trees gave way to pavement and paint, and just across the pavement was the outfitters store.
The outfitters store! The inviting wooden beams! The screen door, eager to swing open and slam shut behind you! The picnic tables, where Becky and I could eat bagels with peanut butter and honey and not worry how badly we smelled! All this and it wasn’t even past noon. We had made it: all 11 miles in less than a day’s journey.
We didn’t say much while we ate lunch. It was more than eating - it was a revitalization. Our boots came off, the first layer of dirt was scrubbed from our hands, our eyes filled with the view from the gap, and we tolerated a grunting infant who was clearly infatuated with a small dog at the picnic table next to us.
We lingered perhaps longer than we’d meant to, but we just couldn’t bring ourselves to pull on our boots, refill our water bottles and take up the yoke of our packs. Here it was good. Here we were welcome. Here we didn’t have to trudge onward, onward. But already the sun was sinking. Already we needed to move along and find a place to pitch our shelter, because on this night we were homeless. So we hoisted our packs and went - what? a half mile probably - up the trail before we stopped and decided that the first little campsite we came to was good enough. We pitched the tent, and having nothing better to do we propped ourselves up against some logs and waxed philosophical.
Blood Mountain. The sign near the outfitters claimed it was named after a particularly gory battle between the Cherokee and the Creek tribes, and that the mountain was a feature landmark for the Cherokee from that area: "In Cherokee mythology the mountain was one of the homes of the Nunnehi or Immortals, the "People Who Live Anywhere," a race of Spirit People who lived in great townhouses in the highlands of Old Cherokee County. One of these mythical townhouses stood near Lake Trahlyta. As a friendly people they often brought lost hunters and wanderers to their townhouses for rest and care before guiding them back to their homes. Before the coming of white settlers, the Creeks and Cherokees fought a disastrous and bloody battle in Slaughter Gap between Slaughter and Blood Mountain."
We looked back at Blood Mountain, a great red shadow rising behind us. Gold afternoon sunlight slanted through the trees from the right, casting acute angles against the curve of the earth as the mountain raised its heavy head toward the sky.
Our musings that afternoon were mercurial - applicable or not for our daily practical lives, the philosophies we believed or disbelieved in those dwindling hours were true enough for a moment. In that fleeting weekend we were transient, waiting in the wings of life’s stage for the next act to begin. We spoke our fears so that we might dispel them. We expressed our dreams so that we might fulfill them. We hoped for the future so that it might come true, in all its gilded glory.
And eventually we fell silent, willing our thoughts into actions, our wishes into reality, and lingering in the hospitality of the mountain before being guided back to our daily lives.
In the morning we retreated to Becky’s car parked at Walasi-Yi. The older man with just the raincoat was there, clean-showered and fitted with a fresh tshirt. He was staying at the hostel for a few days, helping to paint the walls and do some repairs in exchange for a bed. Since I didn’t want to smell like rancid sweat for the 6 hour drive back to North Carolina I followed his lead and showered in a decaying stall at the hostel and purchased a clean shirt from the shop.
It was agony to pull on my boots one last time and trudge back to the parking lot. I left my bootlaces loose so that the tongue flapped around my sore ankles as we tromped down the road. I shifted the pack frequently, trying to relieve the raw spots on my hips, and focused on the edge of pavement that crumbled off into the thick covering of grass broken by wedges of wildflowers.
I almost missed it when we turned off the road and into the parking lot: a bear! It poked its black shadow of a head over the curb from a deep ravine, spotted us, and dashed down the slope. Becky hadn’t seen it, but I pulled her to the edge to peer down and catch the shadow loping through the brush. I wondered how it planned to escape the ravine, since it was enclosed by the road and the horseshoe-shaped parking lot, but by the time we got to the other end of the lot where the bear had run to and where the car was parked we found a gaggle of geezers pulling out walking canes and cushioned sneakers and no sign of the bear. It’s probably for the best. That bear had no interest in us, and I didn’t see the point in alarming the wizened group. I took a moment to laugh privately though: with all the noise from the road and the parking lot, the bear still ended up here. So much for bear bells! I suspected spiky-haired Talkative would still have something to say about that though. It didn’t matter.
Becky and I clamored into the car and made the long trip again over the winding backroads to my PT Cruiser, where I found my greatly-missed camp shoes and a cesspool of stink and mildew where the water from the heavy shower and refuse from our hasty packing had incubated for several days. In any case, we had made it, we’d had our little hurrah, and so after one final tight hug, Becky and I went along our ways.
Becky did get engaged in Nashville the following week. I went on a hunt for the perfect place to live after spending a year in a cramped one-bedroom apartment. Our lives moved forward, but a week hadn't even passed before we asked ourselves, “when can we go back?”