Appalachian Spectres & Superstitions (Campfire Optional)
Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, NOBOs make their way safely through the backwoods of Georgia and arrive at the beginning of their Appalachian Trail trek, whether at Amicalola Falls or Springer Mountain. Conversely, south-bounders cross into the southern region of the Appalachian Mountains via miles and miles of hiking.
Either way, somewhere south of Pennsylvania, thru-hikers trade crawdads for mudbugs and find themselves deep in a region of ancient native healing and folklore without realizing the rich and mystical history of the red clay under their feet.
Join me over yonder at the campfire (optional) and sit a spell. I serve this Appalachian folklore up with a glass of sweet tea and a buttered biscuit. If you have the sense God gave a goose, you might better tell these tales in hushed tones, so no Boo Daddies overhear you and come to call.
While the tradition of warding off spirits with the color “Haint Blue” is nearly entirely relegated to the Coastal regions of South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, and Alabama; tints of blue from Robin’s Egg to Seafoam have made the journey to the Upcountry, perhaps via the Savannah River, and you may stumble upon many a front porch painted in these subtle hues without really noticing, even as you trek through the Appalachian Mountains.
Spirits, reluctant to cross over water, mistake the sea blue painted front porch ceilings for ocean or stream and move onto the next abode.
Is it time for a come to Jesus with outdoor designers? Does this tent come in Haint Blue?
In some hidden lint-lined pockets of the South, the division between magic, mysticism, and medicine is arbitrary at best. Recent examples include my father-in-law, who was healed by a Firetalker in his youth (1960s), as well as (less anecdotally) the University of Mississippi having consulted Voodoo root doctors in the past for purposes of studies in treating schizophrenia¹.
The practice of fire-talking finds its roots 300 years ago and before that, when folks of Celtic origin were settling into the shadowy valleys of the Appalachian Mountains. Here, they lived among the Cherokee and Choctaw peoples and shared a coexistence.
“Granny Women” knew an elderberry plant could cure a cough, and calamus root would soothe a colicky baby. The root healers of Appalachia were midwives and served as doctors for all other ailments as well. Their brand of Christianity was animistic—they saw God in all things, and saw themselves, too, as a potential conduits for God’s healing powers. The fire-talker could not cure the injury created by the burn, but she (and later, he) could ease the pain and help with healing by talking the burn out.
There came an angel from the East
Bringing fire and frost.
Take the fire from this wound;
As on a frosty morn,
Let the fire be now gone.
In frost, out fire,
So help me God.
As Appalachian spiritual understandings morphed, the practice of firetalking went underground and became secret and ritualized, being equated by some with witchcraft…which meant you were going to hell in a handbasket. As a transplanted Yankee, I assure you with Northern plainness, these healing practices are still quietly being passed down to this day.
While some spirits of the South are easily fooled by things like crossroads and painted porches, others are smart and sly, sometimes taking the shape of animals. In the case of the Wampus Cat, though, the transformation to glowing-eyed panther was not voluntary. Rather, this permanent shape-shift was doled out as a form of punishment. Stories of the Wampus Cat are found throughout the Midwest, brought there by the Cherokee people during their imposed exile from the South where Wampus Cat stories still abound today.
The Wampus Cat is the dangerous spirit of a woman who would not mind her place and was caught spying on the secret meetings of Cherokee menfolk. Thereafter, she was damned to wander the earth as the Wampus Cat, resentful and unheard, she may be creeping around your campsite as we speak. If you hear her inhuman cat cries in the night, consider that maybe she just wants someone to hear her side of the story.
If you find your bear bag and tent all catawampus in the morning, it may be that the Wampus Cat came to call.
However, there is hope for you in the Native origins of this tale. As imperialism is like to do, it cast the original tradition of the Wampus Cat as a foreboding tale of a fearsome creature. But before that, the Wampus Cat actually served as a protector and guardian.
So, you can sleep well if you hear the Wampus cat nearby afterall.
Bigfoot of North Georgia
While Bigfoot is commonly associated with the Northwest region of the U.S., you may still enjoy this intriguing cryptid mystery while on the Appalachian Trail in Georgia. The Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization reports that Georgia is the 8th highest state in terms of encounters with this giant bipedal creature. With Bigfoot sightings this commonplace, you might want to keep your ears open and your eyes peeled.
Laying on Hands
Before you cross into the land of memory and myth, soak up some of its lore and legend. This way, as you pass through the Smokies, you can enjoy hiking through Appalachian mist while knowing you are snugly wrapped in a more mysterious shroud of story and superstition.
And don’t be surprised when the sweet couple offering you Trail Magic in or around Gooch Gap, Georgia, conclude with a request to pray over you, laying their hands upon you much like a firetalker or Granny Woman might do. Just one of the many ways the trail might bless you during your trek.
Glossary of Southern Idiom & Expression
Lord willing and the creek don’t rise: If nothing unexpected happens…
Mudbugs: Crawdads, crayfish, crawfish
Yonder: Over there, could be down the road a piece, could be nearby, don’t need to commit to a distance. It’s yonder.
Sit a spell: Take a load off. Sit down for a while.
Sweet tea: You must drink this in the South. It is required.
The sense God gave a goose: Common sense bestowed upon all living things as in “he ain’t got the sense God gave a goose.”
Boo Daddy: Spirit, ghost, boo hag, haunt, haint
Come to call: Come for a visit.
Haint: Spirit, ghost, haunt, boo daddy, boo hag
Come to Jesus: Can be a verb or a noun, either way, it means it might be time to come clean, be honest, get down to brass tacks, get this hard discussion over with.
To hell in a handbasket: Carried straight to hell via special delivery. Might as well tie this person up with a bow as in “I shouldn’tna said that. Now, I’m going straight to hell in a handbasket.”
Catawampus: Crooked or askew as in “fix your backpack; it’s all catawampus.”
Of special note:
Like a pot of gumbo, the loss of any of the South’s ethnic and cultural ingredients—French, Scottish, African, Spanish, and Native American; Creole, Gullah, and Hoodoo; —would render it a completely different place. While thankful for the various beauties that weave the rich tapestry of the region, there was an irreparable price paid by generations of our collective ancestors; the great grandmothers and grandfathers of the South; whose memory must be honored while enjoying the legacy of folklore, spiritual practices, music, and language they created and graced us with.
Happy Tales & Trails,
Myrt & Walkie
The Yoga Sisters
For more on these and other fascinating Southern folkways and traditions, a good place to start is The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture¹ in four volumes covering topics from agriculture and Hoodoo to language and social class. Or the more recent New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, expanded to 24 volumes, produced in amazing partnership by the joined forces of the University of North Carolina Press and The Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.
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Good morning Myrt
Loved your post. Those ancient beliefs are real. I can check haints off my list and other things that walk up on camp in the night. Reminds me, front porch ceiling needs to be repainted and will be a shade of blue.
The Appalachians are full of mystery and interesting folks. I suppose that when I pass, my spirit might wander the AT as it is a fine a representation of Heaven as one could as for. Best of trail luck to you.
I would humbly, add to your list, “Crazy as a sprayed roach”. Good list.
Vince aka The Dude, LASH, SOBO, ’16, ’17, ’18, ’23. Fair winds and following seas.
Thank you so much for sharing this! I lived in the south for a while when I was in the service, and all of those expressions are wonderfully familiar. Even though I’m firmly transplanted to northern New England, I still use them now and than, particularly “why bless your heart”?
See you out there!
Walkie here! We told some great ghost stories around the campfire or even while we walked on the trail. Any hikers out there also make it a point of telling ghost stories on the trail?
In regards to southernisms here are a couple of my favorite:
Doohicky: anything tactile…really anything that you can’t remember the proper name of
Quit Being Ugly: Stop being mean
Spittin’ Rain: Somewhere between no rain and a drizzle