We had planned for many weeks to take a weekend backpacking trip. My friend Mark and I had first camped together this past summer in Colorado, though for that trip we hiked in separately and camped in different campsites, taking day hikes together. This time, we would be hiking and camping together. Mark suggested a loop he knew of on the Appalachian trail starting about two hours from Chattanooga.
We would start at Rock Gap (see near top of map above) and go clockwise around the loop of the Appalachian Trail to Standing Indian Mountain, then cut back north through the state campground back to our vehicle.
Fortunately the weather forecast was for crisp clear conditions during this October weekend which had been scheduled many weeks in advance. I checked my gear, loaded my pack, and arranged to get off work early on the Friday starting the weekend. We drove to Rock Gap and parked the car, heaved on our packs and started down the trail. The objective was Albert Mountain, seen on the map above at the western boundary of the Coweeta Hydrological Laboratory. The woods were quiet and we saw only a few other hikers that afternoon. Temperature was in the mid-60s with blue sky above. One of the prominent features of the terrain was the abundance of mountain laurel, sometimes so thick that it actually formed a tunnel overhead through which we trudged. There was plenty of water. We struggled up the last steep pitch before Albert and found a grandfather with two teenagers cooking their dinner under the fire tower there. We took a few photos looking eastward but it was getting darker and chilly so we slid down the steep rocks on the other side and pushed on, looking for a campsite. After one false try, we located a good place for the night and set up camp. The long underwear came out and the fire was welcome.
Even more welcome was the smell of roasting meat-Mark had packed two ribeye steaks; along with a couple of taters that I buried in the coals we had one fine eating experience under the stars. Speaking of the stars, I decided to sleep under them that night, sans tent. The forecast low was in the mid-40s and I was comfortable as the wind through the trees provided my hiker’s lullaby.
Boy, is it hard to get out of a warm sleeping bag on a chilly morning in the woods-all your better instincts tell you to stay put, but you know you have to crawl out. After a quick breakfast, we broke camp (easier for me with no tent to fold) and headed out. More rolling hills and some fine views to the east greeted us.
We stopped for lunch at the Carter Gap shelter where we found some fellow hikers enjoying the sunshine and trading trail stories. I laid down amidst some tall green plants with a full belly for a post-prandial nap, waking up with a bit more energy for the afternoon ahead. We pushed pretty hard that day, covering about 10 miles total before finally settling on a campsite along a ridge looking south just east of Standing Indian mountain. Some college students came by after dark and shared our fire for a few minutes before passing onward along the trail without even a flashlight (!) As the wind was picking up and the temps expected in the 30s, I shivered and erected my tent. I was pleased to notice how little wind got through to the interior as I piled in for an early bedtime.
Sunday dawned very cold-my fingers got repeatedly numb as I fixed the morning java and hot oatmeal. Quickly breaking camp we struck out toward Standing Indian where we planned to take a shortcut along Lower Trail Ridge back to our starting point. What’s the old wisdom about shortcuts? They don’t always save you trouble. We tried to find some water along the main trail but were unsuccessful, so we struck out down the side trail confident that we would find some aqua soon. Downhill hiking is almost harder I think, then uphill, with all of the strain on your quads. Several miles later-still no water. Forging ahead on my own while still looking for a stream or adequate trickle, I managed, in my dehydrated state, to step off the trail for about 75 yards before realizing my mistake.
I had mindlessly stepped over a hiker’s barrier of limbs at the apex of a switchback without noticing the trail arching back on itself. After getting back on the right path, I went on and finally heard the sweet sound of gurgling water up ahead. Sure enough there was a stream and we stopped for a snack and filtered up a large quantity of clean cold mountain water-there is nothing like the taste of water when you are thirsty.
It was downhill the rest of the way back to the state campground where the jarring juxtaposition of campers and automobiles clashed with the forest silence from which we had emerged. We had a boring uphill climb along the shoulder of the paved access road as we watched warily for distracted oncoming drivers. Finally arriving back at our car, we celebrated one fine weekend of backpacking. That first sip of cold beer at the convenience store was mighty fine . . .