Day 3 of my Appalachian Trail hike held the specter of Blood Mountain. The name alone scared me. At 4,458 feet, this was the highest point on the Georgia AT. Dustin had dropped the name several times, in a voice filled with trepidation. He was a native Georgian, and he had me convinced Blood Mountain was Georgia’s equivalent of New Hampshire’s unpredictable – and sometimes deadly – Mt. Washington.
But the northbound hike up Blood Mountain was actually quite easy, albeit steep. In fact, I soon found that, although tiring, mountain ascents were much easier than descents. Maybe something about the physics of the human body, a heavy backpack, and the slope of the ground. Ascents seemed more natural to my sore, tired feet than descents, where my feet always seemed to be dangling in mid-air.
Dustin had a good lead on me, but he waited for me at the rocky peak. Here, there was an impressive shelter made of stone. It looked like a fireplace had once even graced this sturdy domicile. I opened the shelter journal, leafed through it, and saw an August entry from three college guys who were thru-hiking – “Dirty Mike and the Boyz,” they called themselves – and whose blog I’d occasionally read back home. Their entry was pretty vulgar, but Dustin and I had a good laugh. These journal entries covered the gamut. Some were matter-of-fact, others crude, humorous, religious, philosophical. I tried out various types, but could never find my own voice, and eventually gave up writing in them altogether.
As with Springer, Blood Mountain was too foggy for a view. Nature was calling me, so I suggested Dustin go on ahead and I’d catch up with him.
Well, the descent was a different story. Twisting, turning, with scattered boulders everywhere. The white blazes, normally pretty reliable, seemed to go every which way. It was also busy due to a stream of Labor Day hikers. One hiker was a really fit, white-bearded man about 70 years old. I learned he hailed from the Ozarks and had hiked all the way from Fontana Dam, west of the Smokies: 90 miles (145 km). This was the greatest distance of any hiker I’d yet met.
I survived Blood Mountain, entered Neels Gap, and found out why it was so special: a highway, and better yet, a hiking-related store that had food, supplies, and even hot showers! It was a converted Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) facility called Mountain Crossings at Walasi-yi, run by Winton and Marjorie Porter. Other than an occasional road crossing, this was to be the only slice of civilization on my entire trip. The whole gang was here: Dustin, Sanna, Thad and wife, Traci, and Gold Bond. Sanna, Thad and wife were all shuttling home, so we said adios, and I joined the others on a large patio next to the store.
This store had everything related to hiking: boots, socks, non-perishable food, gifts, mail supplies – even designer walking sticks. It also afforded tourists the opportunity to gawk at the exotic species known as AT distance hikers. Here, we were celebrities. I remember looking up from my sandwich and seeing one woman beaming at me as if I was Robert Redford. Being an AT distance hiker is the only time I know when you can look and smell like a pig, yet still get treated with admiration.
Well, the hot shower was a godsend. Afterwards I called my wife, who’d been worried about me. I told her I was doing fine and had met some people, which made her feel better.
Dustin was the first to leave Walasi-yi, with Traci and Gold Bond following soon after. I held up the rear about ten minutes later. The trail passed under a stone arch of the building, then along a wide pathway, then up another steep slope and into the woods.
Something about moving again just feels so good. And now that I was fresh and clean, it felt that much better. Just north of Neels Gap I met a nice woman from nearby Blairsville who was on a casual stroll. She wanted to know all about my hike and assumed I was a thru-hiker, I guess due to my large pack and beginnings of a beard. After her, the only people I saw had backpacks, and even these were thinning out.
Near Wolf Laurel Top I rested, took some photos in a sunny clearing, and met a guy in a black t-shirt who was half-hiking and half-jogging. He had a slightly concerned look on his face. Odd. We chatted briefly, and I found out he was impatient to get to Tesnatee Gap because he had to work the next day. Poor guy. What’s the use in trail-hiking if you can’t enjoy the trail?
I was moving pretty swiftly, and at Baggs Creek Gap I suddenly heard my name called out. Looking to the right I saw Dustin, Traci and Gold Bond. They were pitching their tents, even though it was only four o’clock.
I think Dustin wanted to milk his Appalachian Trail sojourn. He’d taken almost a week off from work, had already extended his hike, and we’d made such good time that he faced the very real horror of daytime talk TV if he returned home too soon. Half of me wanted to join them. But there were still over three hours of daylight left, and I had my goal of Franklin prodding me, so I told them I’d see them further down the trail (knowing that this was probably unlikely).
Descending into Tesnatee Gap I saw something all backpackers dread. The path at this point consisted mainly of rocks. About halfway through, I noticed what looked like a large shadow on a rock, about 20 feet ahead. As I got closer, it was unmistakable: a snake. And no ordinary snake. A timber rattlesnake – Croatalus horridus – which, along with the eastern diamondback and eastern coral snake, is the most venomous reptile in the U.S. southeast. Ironically, the timber rattler is a handsome snake. Thick black stripes on a sleek, silver-grey background. I’d seen a western diamondback once while visiting Colorado, and this snake was much more colorful. However…
My shock was relieved a little when I saw he wasn’t coiled. Neither did I hear the distinctive rattle. To make sure he was no threat, I poked him with Biff. No movement. Since the rattler looked freshly killed, I wondered if Mr. Impatience maybe encountered him, and left his conquest on display for all to admire. It then occurred to me that, just before leaving home, I’d opted to wear my comfortable running shoes instead of sturdy, high-topped hiking boots (hey, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy had said this was ok!). I resolved to henceforth employ Biff at every step.
Hogpen Gap had a nice spring, and I filled my canteen here just as my thirst was peaking. Two middle-aged guys had arrived just before me. The one man appeared to be holding sentry duty at the head of the blue-blazed trail. I said hello and commented about the spring being a lifesaver, but he said nothing. The other man was near the spring, covered in sweat and only slightly more friendly. He told me they’d covered an exhausting 12 miles that day. He couldn’t wait to get his hammock strung up and plop down for a rest. The sentry-duty guy then quietly slipped by to set up his own hammock. I had the feeling that, maybe in their fatigue, they’d had an argument.
A couple miles later, on Poor Mountain, I found an open camping area next to the trail and broke camp just before nightfall. I’d forgotten to call my mom at Neels Gap, so after my mac and cheese dinner, I called to assure her I hadn’t been eaten by a psychotic bear, or a confused wolf that had drifted from Yellowstone. I was surprised that I still had cell service. This would soon change. I was heading deeper into the mountains, and eventually there would be no connection to the outside world. Also, Labor Day weekend was over, and a lot of the hikers had returned home.
Well, I wanted a mountain man experience. I soon got one.