Tell me again…why were we walking 7 plus miles in a monsoon? I can guarantee you that I wouldn’t be this wet sitting at home watching TV. Oh, but the stories you will have.
“Adventure may hurt you, but monotony will kill you.”
— Marcus Purvis
Debra and I were recently invited by her brother, John to join him on a two-day hike on the Appalachian (Appa-latch-uhn) Trail. He has been doing segments of the trail. On this trip, he would be making his way from Unicoi Gap to Dick’s Creek Gap between Helen and Hiawassee in Georgia. This 15.8-mile hike winding through the mountains of North Georgia is listed as moderately strenuous. It is one of the early sections of the 2000+ mile journey from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mt. Katahdin in Maine.
On Friday evening, the two of us tossed our two heavy packs into the back of the Jeep and we were off to catch up with John on this two-day hiking adventure. John would be at a place along the trail called the Cheese Factory, a camping area that once used to be a dairy some time back. We would park at Tray Gap, hump down ¾ mile to John, and camp the first night with him before taking off the next morning. We got our instructions from the GPS and left Franklin, confident we would be at the Cheese Factory by 7:30 pm.
What Do You Mean The Road Is Closed?
The first part of the fun began just trying to get there as the 6.5 mile Tray Mountain Road was closed off with a huge gate. I really didn’t want to leave my Jeep there and hike 7 miles up at that time of the evening. When we stopped at a nearby campground to see if they could provide us information, the owners didn’t know of a different route up to the top. In fact, they hadn’t even heard that the road had been blocked off. The weekend was getting ready to end before it even started.
Adapt and Overcome
As Amelia Earhart said, “Adventure is worthwhile in itself” and Debra was not about to give up. She quickly began hunting up an optional route even as I thought we were done. She did a great job of ignoring my grumpiness AND finding Indian Grave Gap Road in Unicoi State Park on the far side of Tray Mountain. I wasn’t as confident as she was that it would put us close or that the road would be open on that side either.
She handled me with, “just think of the adventure we’re having.”
Yep, she was good.
With an additional hour of travel, we arrived at Indian Grave Gap where the Appalachian Trail crossed and great news… it put us less than a mile from the Cheese Factory. We jumped out of the Jeep, threw on our heavy packs, strapped our headlamps onto our foreheads to cut through the pitch dark night, and we shot up the trail. WHEW!!! We were on our way!
We arrived at camp around 8:45 pm. John had a small tarp on the ground to reserve us a spot. Our first step was to shed the heavy packs and put up our tent. Debra had been snacking on a pineapple slice on the road and two remaining pieces were in a sandwich baggy that she laid on the ground next to our tent. This would be important later.
What’s In A Name
John took our food bag, I grabbed the pineapple baggy, and we set off to a very large oak about 50 yards away. He slung that bag with a rope over a tall branch and hoisted it well out of a bear’s reach. I sat down at the fire pit and had a short conversation with a man who only introduced himself as Whisky Cough. This was his trail name, a common occurrence in the hiker community. A trail name is a fun, silly, or serious name a hiker will pick, or be given by others, and use on the trail. Whisky Cough turned out to be a Georgia Tech professor on a 20-mile hike with his dog who was also warming himself by the fire. From the fire, you could look down into the dark valley and see the lights of Helen, GA. Whiskey Cough told us that many thru-hikers (hikers attempting the whole AT) had taken a 0 day (a day of no miles hiked) and went into Helen to avoid the rain that was expected to settle in the next day. We would not be taking a 0.
The idea of a trail name interested me since Debra and I spend so much time hiking…so I thought about one for a little while on the rainy day hike you’ll learn about in a moment. I feel good about the one I settled on since I could actually explain why I chose it – Ka-bar.
You see, as a U.S. Marine, we carried a big knife called a KA-BAR. And I always carry a large pocket knife that many consider huge when I open it. Though many hikers may not recognize the significance, when introducing myself as KA-BAR other Marines I run into on the trail would recognize that I am their brother. Makes total sense to me…
About 30 minutes around the fire and we all decide to call it a night. There was a busy day of hiking ahead for everyone despite the impending rain. The fire was doused and we all parted ways to our tents.
Our tent was the perfect size for two mats and two sleeping bags as long as the big packs stayed outside. My sleeping mat…that thing was uncomfortable. It was called a foam mat. It was made of foam. But don’t let the ‘foam’ part fool you. This thing was more like a 1” piece of steel – extremely uncomfortable. It provided zero advantage except that it raised me 1 inch above the ground. My night consisted of aerobics, rolling from one of my sides to my back to the other side just to give each part of my body a few minutes break. LOL.
Wile E. Coyote He Ain’t
At 1:40 am I am awakened by the sound of something lapping at the ground just outside my tent. Remember the pineapple pouch I mentioned earlier? Yep, I realized a coyote had smelled whatever had leaked out onto the ground and came to investigate. So I know the pouch had been sitting a few inches from the tarp when the tent was set up. The head of my tent is at the edge of that tarp. My head was just on the inside of that tent which put me within a 1-foot distance from this wild animal as it enjoyed whatever juice that had seeped from the packet. Knowing the animal had zero interest in any human, I laid there for five minutes and enjoyed knowing I was that close to Mr. Wile E. Coyote. When my interest faded I smacked the tent to run it off. It immediately stopped making any sound but I knew it had not left yet. I imagined it standing there looking around as it tried to figure out what that sound was. A minute later I heard it calmly walk away from my tent and head into the woods.
This was a really cool moment that I may never experience again.
Breakfast Was Good…But Coffee
The next morning saw a heavy, wet fog roll in on the campsite. John freed his food bag from the tree and brought out his little water heating drink mug-looking jet boil thing-a-majig. The air may have been a little chilly, a little windy, a little sprinkly, but we were getting ready to eat. But most importantly, John was making coffee! Not all heroes wear capes. Some hold coffee pots.
We walked down to the nearby water source, a spring head below the camp, and filled up our 2-liter water bags. We also heated up our breakfast meals in a bag and enjoyed them by the water
while discussing the next goal of the morning – the vehicle staging from different parts of the trail so we had transportation when we got to Dick’s Creek Gap.
A light drizzle began to settle in on the mountain as John and Debra hiked the mile out to the cars. I stayed to watch the gear and shoot a video I wanted to do on the Appalachian Trail. They drove around most of North Georgia to stage the van and Jeep. Then hiked the mile back into me. Tents were collapsed, packs were stuffed full and lifted onto backs, and we said goodbye to the Cheese Factory.
And So It Begins
I believe Lao Tzu is credited with saying, “A journey up an old steep Georgia mountain trail begins with a single step.” I’m paraphrasing, but I’m sure Ol’ Lao would agree with me had he been in my boots. We kicked off our day right out of camp with a 620-foot climb up Tray Mountain (El. 4398 ft). As if on cue, the skies opened up and we began our swim to the top.
Through the heavy rain, we marched in line, ten feet apart like a Marine Corps fire team, up and down steep mountainsides and pressed harder on the more level areas. With the rain, the Appalachian Trail was becoming more of the Appalachian waterway. The inclines and descents became waterfalls while the flatter trails were more like streams. The squishing sound of water inside waterproof boots was mesmerizing.
On the other side of Tray Mountain, we stopped at the trail shelter. It was packed with hikers trying to escape the rain for a while. The smell of sweaty damp hikers who had not had a good shower in a couple of weeks filled the air. Not to mention the strong scent of other fragrances from someone lighting up and lightening the mood inside the shelter.
We hung our heavy packs on the back of the shelter and huddled under a side overhang while we ate our lunch in the dry. Knowing we didn’t want to spend our afternoon around the rainy campsite, we three chose to press on to the next campsite in the gap before Kelly Knob. It would put us at 7+ miles for the day. It would rain the entire trip. It would put us sloshing, slogging, dripping, and slipping our way along. Heads down, rain gear on our feet, rain gear on our bodies, rain gear over our packs… there was so much rain it still got in and soaked everything. Noah was closing the door on the ark.
Deep Thoughts Of World Issues
As you march in the rain with little ability to talk to others ahead of you because of their waterproof hoodies you get a lot of time to think of important things. Like how could they have quickly hung an innocent man in “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia” when it was obvious not all the evidence had been presented? Shouldn’t having a band of demons join in disqualify you from a fiddle contest? Who was the first person to think putting raisins in potato salad was actually a good idea? And unsweet tea…seriously…?? C’mon, man!
Between the weather app and his trail app (I referred to as the Misery Index), John monitored the weather, distance, campsites, and our upcoming climbs on his phone. The forecast showed that around the time we would get to the next campsite at Addis Gap the rain should stop.
STOP THE PRESSES!!! The forecast was actually right because on the last big decline into the gap the rain came to and end.
A Dryer Time
We slogged into Addis Gap campsite and picked out a couple of what remained of the tent spots. There were already a few other tents set up in the location. We laid out tarps, erected tents, got into dry clothing which wasn’t easy as nearly everything was wet, and aired out our wet gear. Coats, pants, shirts…everything hanging on little trees around the tent. It looked like a laundromat had exploded. The sun poked out from behind the clouds and we began drying out. The sun felt good on the skin. We had dry clothes on and light blankets wrapped around us. We were all a little giddy about such a beautiful evening. A long rainy day makes you appreciate the sun more on the other side.
Check out Debra’s devotional video “The sun beyond the clouds” she filmed in the camp.
Next to the firepit there was a pile of wet sticks a previous camper had left. While Debra and I journeyed off on a 1-mile round trip to get water at a creek, John started building a fire. He was in his element constructing his little stick towers made of small twigs on the bottom to bigger ones on top so that it resembled a miniature log cabin. Then he burnt it down. Soon we were sitting by a firepit that once was saturated, eating dinner and laughing.
Like Moths To A Flame
The bright warm flame beckoned the other hikers from their tents and we learned a little about some of the thru-hikers. One couple in their young twenties, Fastlane from Tennessee and Bubbles from Pennsylvania, had met a year before on their first trek from Georgia to Maine. Here they were doing the 2000+ journey a second time.
No visits from a coyote that night but the foam core sleeping pad was still haunting me. I think using the word ‘pad’ in the name was a cruel joke by a marketing guy out there. The next morning we relaxed and took our time getting out of camp. We had 5+ miles today to a waiting vehicle at Dick’s Creek Gap and no particular need to rush.
What, No Takers?
With coffee and breakfast completed, water replenished, and the camp broke down, we were the last to hightail it out of dodge…but we also were not headed 2000 miles north. Two hikers stopped by for a rest as we got ready to throw our packs on our back. I tried to ‘Tom Sawyer’ them by talking up how much I really enjoyed carrying my pack and how cool it made me look. I was hoping one of them would buy that and want to grab mine and carry it for me. I had no takers. Ha ha.
How High Is It?
We moved out of camp about 11:30 am I think. Right out of camp we faced Kelly Knob (4,144 ft elevation), a 1000-foot climb. But it was a different day and the sun was high in the sky. We were warm and dry and it was quite refreshing as we proceeded along, taking breaks every 100 feet as we hauled ourselves up the mountain trail.
When we got to the top we met a trail ambassador who gave us numbers on who he’d met in the two hours he’d been on the trail. We were the sixteenth day-hikers and he had only met 6 thru-hikers. John passed the information he heard that a large group of thru-hikers took a day in Helen so they were a day behind us.
When we took our breaks I would guess we had just completed 1.5 miles. John looking at the Misery Index, would correct me with, “that was just .75 miles”. I learned out there that 1 mile is NOT equal to 1 mile with a heavy pack on my back. LOL. I had somehow stumbled into the Twilight Zone.
A New Day. A New Attitude.
But the day was beautiful and we passed by plenty of hikers with smiles on their faces like ours, enjoying the outside and God’s warm sunny day he had given us. Tunnels of rhododendron, great mountain views, creeks that cut across the trail, surprising rock slides, birds chirping, lots of laughs, and plenty of fellowship.
About 5 hours later we popped out at Dicks Creek Gap. We crossed Highway 76 between Clayton and Hiawassee and gratefully put those packs in the back of the van. When I took my pack off I felt so light.
It seemed like I had the potential for a vertical jump that would rival Michael Jordan. But my legs…they were broke as I tried to slide myself into the front seat.
On our way home, we celebrated with a dinner at the U-joint in Clayton, GA. I couldn’t pass up my favorite, the Steinbeck burger and tater tots. Even with the rain, it was a great weekend. Lots of laughs and we weren’t working. And oh the stories we have now.