Despite the magenta and neon red splotches with flashing cores parading behind the weather gal delivering the national forecast with an exaggerated drama she’d clearly practiced the night before. Despite the warning from Sam Duke, our would-have-been shuttle driver that morning. Despite the daunting, lead-colored sky, on a Wednesday morning in early April, a humble but determined band of hikers found themselves scaling modest boulders on the side of Blood Mountain, the highest peak in the Georgia section of the Appalachian Trail.
I was the lone woman among this modest herd. Carbon fiber poles in hand, I heaved my weight up staggered rocks and scurried down slippery flat stones as drunken strings of the day’s downpour ran across and spilled over the bill of my hat and dropped onto my raincoat.
Oh, hello there, Mother Nature. It’s been too long.
The uncertainty of Her mood makes the vast wilderness both a magnet and a menace to me. She throws violent tantrums and then lures me back with fiery sunsets and soothing streams and masterful arrangements of stars. I liken her to the college roommate who said really beautiful things when she was stoned, but broke a lotta stuff when she drank.
So, why don’t I just break up with Her? Well, because as much as that bitch can break me down, she heals me, too.
If you’ve followed DSS for awhile, you might remember our hike on the AT last April. After nearly freezing to death in a tent on top of Roan Mountain, we made the collective decision to journey further south this year and knock out the start of the trail, beginning at Springer Mountain, in Georgia.
“I think you’re going to be pretty happy with the weather in those parts,” The General had said in February. “Real happy …”
As the week drew closer, we gathered our gear and laid out our freeze-dried dinners and watched helplessly as the conditions down south grew worse and worse. First, it was rain all four days. Then the declaration of downpours lessened, but the temps plummeted to the 30s. I thought we picked Georgia so we could get away from that shit! When you get one section a year, you hope to heck it’s a good one. It was definitely shaping up to be a long underwear kind of trip.
I pacified myself by cursing the Weather Channel app every day until the Tuesday we loaded our gear and our hesitant bodies into Just Matt’s big Ram truck (“Tank”) and hauled ass out of the Midwest to find solace in the great outdoors. Said solace wasn’t going to come easy. An accident on the interstate brought traffic to a halt for several hours around lunchtime. An eternity in Hell has nothing on the agony of spending that much time in crawling traffic with a full bladder, a Joe Rogan podcast where he’s more stoned than usual, and an impatient driver with a grounded lead foot. After a lifetime of slugging and snaking, we came to civilization again. Starving. Of all the options and all the restaurants, the men in the front seats chose White Castle for our late lunch. White Castle! Since I have tastebuds and my mother’s cantankerous intestines, I took it easy. But the boys didn’t hold back – a decision that would come back to haunt Just Matt the next day, to the surprise of no one.
After a quick REI stop in Knoxville, we pulled into Blairsville, Georgia around 11:30 that night. With lots of talk about town of tornado warnings and predictions of softball-sized hail, we knew it was time to check in with The General.
“Well, I called Sam Duke,” he said. (Sam Duke was our shuttle driver, scheduled to pick us up at 8 am the next morning.)
“He said, ‘I wuyundt duy it!’”
“Yup. He said, ‘Y’all can do whatcha whant, but the trail is alays gonna be dare. You won’t if ya dead.’”
And with that, the decision was made. We would meet Sam Duke another day.
Wednesday morning, over a cardboard continental breakfast Belgian waffle, The General, Gravy, Just Matt and I sipped small cups of coffee and listened to the local weather guy instruct Georgians to, “work from home if they could.” But we saw some windows, and gosh dangit, we came to hike.
The General went to work rerouting our course. We would get on at Neel’s Gap and slackpack Blood Mountain (which was intended to be on our fourth and final day) as a day hike, 2.4 miles in and 2.4 miles out. Once we conquered this summit, if there was still enough non-life-threatening minutes left in the day, we would drive over and complete Springer Mountain, which is technically, and I did not know this before that day, not part of the official AT mileage. It’s before Mile 0. The more you know [shooting star].
So, now we’re all caught up. The crew. Slippery rocks stacked on top of each other. Polls. Lightening.
One of my favorite things about hiking is the disconnect. I work in marketing, and I am responding to email, following up on Facebook messages, retweeting, typing, posting, fire extinguishing all day long. When you have to climb all the way to a mountaintop to get a signal, it’s really refreshing. But there, on a hill called Blood Mountain, under the ominous clouds of an unpredictable storm, these typically separate worlds collided. Up ahead of me I heard the distinct tones of a weather alert scream from Just Matt’s phone, followed by the rumble of thunder in the distance. It was so polarizing. We had made the decision to walk at the mercy of nature that day, but our modern day devices pulled and pleaded at us to rethink the vulnerability. We didn’t.
As we climbed up, it felt like the clouds came down to meet us as light fog enveloped our path. Eventually, we made it to the Blood Mountain Shelter, a magical-looking structure that rests in the shadows of Blood Mountain’s intimidating rubble. I used the privy and snapped some pictures of the overlook. My brother was ready to get moving. See, Matt was experiencing his White Castle sliders for a second time. I believe the comment was: “I’m scared if I fall on my ass diarrhea is going to shoot out of my mouth.”
I should have known better than to laugh. I mean, karma has gotten me before. But laugh I did. And on our squirrely descent back down the way we came, I ate shit. I felt my feet start to go, then there was a brief battle between my upper and lower bodies, and then, a second of serenity in that moment when I accepted the fate. I braced for contact. The group got quiet in anticipation of my ass’s connection with the stone below it. Had I been struck by lightning? No, oh no. Just a private demonstration of the grace God gave me. I made some indistinguishable noises in the space of their halted conversation. Then I crashed down, sending my poles flying off in both directions. My right hand and butt cheek took the brunt of it. Since people falling down is my favorite thing, I enjoyed a good laugh before I gathered up the puddle I had become and carried on. Then I laughed 50 more times as I replayed the scenario in my head.
Another window in the weather opened the door for a climb up Springer Mountain. But first we had to drive there. Every road in Georgia that leads to a trail takes 40 minutes or more and has more curves than a Playboy. Left … right …. Left … right … I took two dramamine and it didn’t put a dent in the dizzy. Every 5 seconds a yellow triangle with that damning squiggly arrow. Turns ahead. More. Turns. Ahead. I would pick a point on the horizon, but I was no match. The transportation part just destroyed me. Maybe that’s the cost of yellow blazing.
The rise to Springer was steady and manageable – Just one mile up and then back down. We posed next to the same plaque that Grandma Gatewood and Scott Jurek stood by. It felt like one of those moments where you should move something only semi-significant out of your memory so there’s room with extra padding for this moment, just to be sure. We lingered a bit. The smoky skies and gentle dew kisses suddenly felt fitting, rather than burdensome.
How do you end a day like that? When you’re going back to civilization to hide out from tornadoes rather than tent it? If you’re us, you eat 20 tons of Mexican food, clean up and climb into bed to watch My 600-lb Life with a king size Caramello. The rain and the cold and the fall all felt just fine given the promise of a hot shower, cable and two hotel pillows before sundown. Sleepless nights were tomorrow’s worry. And oh what a worry it would turn out to be …