Prophets and Dreams: The Hike Through Georgia
April 24 - May 1, 1993by Rodger Ling
At the start of the Appalachian Trail, the summit of Springer Mountain, Georgia, there is a mailbox carefully nailed to a tree which serves as a register for "thru-hikers," those who plan to walk the length of the trail to Maine. Inevitably, they pose for pictures and sign in before embarking on the first of the estimated five million footsteps it will take them to reach their destination. Already, many have coined a trail name, an alias: Lightfoot, Lone Wolf, Blister Sister, Hawk Who Walks. The most common thought left behind from those first moments of the journey seems to be captured in this entry: "Finally, the dream begins!"
Ah, the dream. Like those hikers, I imagined making a daring escape, of walking the length of the Appalachian Trail. With my friend Terry Hamrick, I came to Springer Mountain to be one of them, a thru-hiker. In that sense, it was a masquerade; Terry and I would be on the trail for eight or nine days, not six months, traveling at best a hundred miles, not thousands. But for a time we would share the same trail, the same challenges. With 60 pounds on our backs, Terry and I had already taken a full day to walk 9 miles from Amicalola State Park, near Dahlonega, to the first of the rectangular white blazes that mark the trail leading north from Springer Mountain. A bronze plaque at an inspiring overlook explained that we stood upon "a footpath for those who seek fellowship with the wilderness."
Just one day on the trail was enough for me to discover how quickly fellowship with the wilderness can turn into shoulders raw from a heavy pack, the sting of sweat in your eyes, and feet that feel like railroad spikes have been driven through them. The Appalachian Trail Conference, headquartered at the midpoint of the trail in Virginia, warns that a thru-hike demands both "physical and psychological stamina." There were times, usually in the middle of a long climb, when Terry and I began to question why we weren't home in the easy chair with a good book. Sooner or later, for every thru-hiker, there must be similar moments of doubt when the sunlit grandeur of open spaces becomes a vast, forboding darkness all around, when the trail stretches ahead like a lifetime.
It was over seventy years ago that New England forester and philosopher Benton MacKaye first proposed an unbroken pathway along the length of the Appalachian Mountains. Since then, millions have walked at least some portion of the trail. In any given year, a hundred or so manage to hike its full length, most taking five to six months to complete their journey.
Life for these adventurers is quickly reduced to the essentials: shelter, food and water. Shelter can be found either in a tent, or, if one wishes to travel light, from rustic three-sided structures found at intervals of roughly a day's walk, shared with whatever hikers, mice, skunks or other animals happen to be in the area. Food is carried in backpacks, and cooked using lightweight gas stoves, and hung high between trees at night to avoid problems with raccoons, bears, and other wildlife. Water can be obtained from the frequent springs and streams along the way. Although there are still those who kneel and drink freely from mountain springs, most now use filters or iodine to ensure the water is free of microbes, particularly the dreaded Giardia, which packs a revenge Montezuma would have loved.
Terry and I spent our first night on an isolated hilltop a few hundred feet off the trail, a pristine site which we were careful to leave in the same condition. Later, we would not bother to seek such solitude, but usually camped closer to the trail. If you truly wish to be alone, better to wander off into the desert. The Appalachian Trail is a place for communions of all sorts, an opportunity to study not just Nature but human nature as well. The next morning, at a scenic meeting of watersheds known as Three Forks, Terry and I encountered a group of thirty or more car campers from nearby Gainesville, Georgia. At their invitation, we stopped to accept big plates of scrambled eggs, bread, baked potatoes, and for dessert, gummy bears. The natives were definitely friendly. In fact, this is just the sort of generosity which is found all along the Appalachian Trail.
Most long distance hikers quickly learn to accept any gifts of food that are offered. It has been estimated that the average backpacker on the Appalachian Trail may need as much as 6,000 calories each day just to maintain body weight. Thru-hikers restock their packs every week or so, walking or hitchhiking into towns near the trail to purchase food and receive "mail-drops," packages of supplies they have sent to themselves along the way.
The hills of our second day, climbed only to reveal immediate and inevitable descents on the other side, taught Terry and I a lesson: Like many hikers beginning their trek, we were attempting to go too far, too fast. To reach our goal in North Carolina, Terry and I had to travel at least 12 miles each day, without fail. While that was not an unreasonable pace, it left little time to relax. The Philosopher's Guide, which claims to be the only Appalachian Trail guidebook to admit that it does occasionally rain on thru-hikers, proved painfully accurate: "Georgia from here on is one short, steep, rugged climb after another. Gets you in great shape for what lies ahead...if you make it."
How easy it is, I found, to fall into the trap of accumulating mileage like points in a game, counting inches on maps! The fastest traverse of the trail from Georgia to Maine was accomplished in something like eight or nine weeks, a pace of 30 miles or more each day, achieved by what was essentially a runner met each night by a support team. Despite his determination, despite his perseverance, one can almost pity this Olympic-style hiker, with little left after the experience but memories of scenery rushing by, aching bones, and a single entry in a half-forgotten record book. The best times on the trail are unspoiled by measurement, focused on the experience itself: the bloom of a wildflower, the distant tapping of a woodpecker, timeless moments spent gazing over a horizon of mountain silhouettes overlaid endlessly with others into the distance.
Shirts off, water bottles hanging like pistols from our belts, Terry and I got up those Georgia hills the only way possible, one step at a time. Often on these climbs, our eyes tended to focus on the ground just ahead, but this was not all bad: The trail led us past beds of galax, pockets of flowering bloodroot and trout lily, and the young, red-tinted leaves of poison ivy which would soon carpet the woods. We walked on the remains of old roads which long ago carried horses and stagecoaches, passing mysterious jumbles of rock and foundations which testified that men and women once lived on these isolated mountaintops, looked out at these same spectacular vistas and saw only wilderness stretching to the horizon.
By the end of our fourth day we were camped, feeling tired but victorious, on the summit of Blood Mountain, the highest point on the trail in Georgia. Spectacular views surrounded us in every direction as the sunset lingered, turning the sky into shades of purple and orange. Blood Mountain got its name following a terrible battle between the Cherokee and Creeks nearby, in what has been known ever since as Slaughter Gap. Today, thanks to its rocky beauty, this section of the trail is easily one of the most popular in Georgia.
The next morning we descended two miles into Neels Gap to the amenities of the Walasi-Yi Inn, a well stocked outdoor shop and hostel operated by former thru-hikers. Here we could buy sandwiches and fresh fruit, sip on cold drinks, even take a shower. Walasi-Yi, which is Cherokee for "Place of Frogs," is also the first mail-drop for many hikers. Having experienced the Georgia hills, some find themselves mailing home more "essentials" than they pick up.
We relaxed at Walasi-Yi with some of the friends we'd made along the trail: Scott, a talkative and athletic young man from Atlanta who like us was out only for a few days; Wayne, an older, quieter, but obviously determined thru-hiker who was finding the combination of steep hills and a heavy pack to be a challenge; and Jim, who with his curly long hair, beard, and Australian hat was the only one of us who fit the stereotypical image of a backpacker. Jim had worked an extra job for two years to save money for this adventure.
Terry and I, being short-timers, were a bad influence on thru-hikers like Jim because we talked often of the food and refreshment we planned to seek immediately upon our return to civilization. "Do they sell beer in grocery stores in Georgia?" Jim asked. Beer, it turned out, is one of the few things they don't have at Walasi-Yi.
Most of the shelters along the trail contain a notebook similar to the one on Springer Mountain filled with notes and greetings from those ahead of us. Often, lone hikers form shifting alliances, leaving messages for one another, meeting each night at shelters or sometimes hiking together. I was particularly intrigued by a group one or two days ahead of us who called themselves the "Children of the Trail." I couldn't help but picture solemn pilgrims, plodding patiently through the mountains as if on their way to Canterbury.
Just before Unicoi Gap, we caught up to older but equally tenacious pilgrims, each well into his seventies. Gray stubble was thick on their cheeks; their bodies sagged under the weight of their packs. The two of them stopped every few feet, as if on cue, to lean against the nearest tree and catch their breath. "Here comes another pair of racers!" one said as we came up from behind. I had to laugh. By this time my legs, unaccustomed to the many jarring descents with a heavy load, were quite sore. I was barely moving, much less racing along.
Not far ahead, at the Blue Mountain Shelter, we found Scott and Jim carefully tending to a tiny, hairless mouse which had fallen from its mother's nest in the rafters. Mice can be the nemesis of those who sleep in these shelters, keeping hikers awake at night with the patter of tiny feet, sometimes actually scampering across a hiker's face or into a sleeping bag, but Scott and Jim apparently held no grudge.
Scott told us of his friend Harry, a Cherokee Indian who had spent much of his life haunting the trail from Maine to Georgia. He warned us that Harry has threatened to steal the boots of white hikers, forcing them to walk barefoot as his people were forced to do during the Trail of Tears in the late 1830's. Clearly, Harry is a man who does hold a grudge, and we vowed to keep a close eye on our boots. Jim seemed unconcerned. "You think they sell beer in grocery stores in North Carolina?" he asked.
After rising from our sixth night atop the beautiful Rocky Mountain and hiking for a couple of hours, Terry and plopped down to rest at a picnic table at Dicks Creek Gap, where Highway 76 crosses the trail. This was Deliverance county, almost within sight of the Chattooga River, a place of undeniably wild beauty. At a table nearby sat a robed woman telling Bible stories to two beautiful children who were clad, like her, in hooded robes. They looked like monks. Good Lord, I thought, we've found the Children of the Trail, and they really are children!
It turned out they were not backpackers at all, but rather a family who had camped nearby. The father, a man of about thirty-five who wore a purple t-shirt, sweat pants, and a beard worthy of Moses, came over to speak with us. His name was Michael, he said, and he was a prophet. Terry and I looked at each other nervously as Michael told us how the Almighty talked to him, directing his movements and warning him of the future. For over a year, he and his family had been on the road, preaching and spreading prophecy from Oregon to Florida to Puerto Rico. Michael's speciality, we found out, was predicting disasters, particularly tornadoes, hurricanes, and blizzards. Each night, he reported, he sat in motel rooms provided through the generosity of strangers, watching the news and weather for signs of his prophecy coming true. His children watched television, too, but only documentaries and nature shows. At the first hint of a commercial or any sign of worldly greed, they were trained to snap the set off.
"The life I live in absurd!" Michael declared. His wife was six months pregnant. He had a total of sixteen dollars in his pocket. And yet Michael tried with the greatest of sincerity to give us his expensive North Face tent, saying he would leave it behind whether we wanted it or not. If he didn't get rid of the tent, he implied, his family might not be led to a motel room for the night.
Jim came out of the woods and stopped for a break at a table nearby. He wouldn't accept the tent from Michael, either, which left the prophet looking somewhat dismayed. Knowing that we would be leaving the trail soon, Jim bid us farewell. "Have a cold one for me!" he said.
By the end of the day Terry and I had crossed the border out of Georgia. In the morning, after a few more hours of hiking, we would meet my wife at Deep Gap, North Carolina and be whisked back to a world of fast food and instant gratification. I thought of Jim and his preoccupation with a certain golden beverage, countered by his determination to reach his goal, to live his dream. The urge to head into the nearest town and have a few cold ones would nag at him, but Jim would persevere. He would keep going all the way to Maine, I was sure of it.
As we walked those last few miles, it struck me that Michael (not to mention the Buddha and a host of other prophets with the same message) did have a point: By leaving behind the burdens of unnecessary possessions, dropping the excess baggage, we make room for riches of other kinds. Every thru-hiker must believe in this simple creed. If they didn't, they wouldn't be out there, even now, moving patiently up a long hill or sitting in quiet contemplation on some ridgetop, arms opened wide to all the trail has to offer.
They come to Georgia in the springtime and start north, a hundred or more of them, having chosen this path as special above all others, knowing that we are all children of one trail or another.