Excitement shot through my body like electricity. Today we were going to get to Neel Gap! The tree decorated with disowned hiking boots, the gear shakedown, the only section of the trail that passes through a building- this place is famous among hikers. But before we got to the gap, we’d have to trek up the boulder-ridden Blood Mountain.
Everyone we’d run into so far had warned us about Blood Mountain. “There’s nothing like Blood Mountain down here in Georgia,” they warned, “Just wait til you get to Blood Mountain.”
We weren’t impressed.
“We just keep going around this mountain,” I complained to Nate, “When are we going to go up?” It was as if the mountain was an ice cream cone and we were hiking along every swirl, from the cone to the curly tip (The type of mountains we are used to go straight up–thanks, Adirondacks!). I kept telling myself that the summit was just around the next corner and after the twelfth time, I was right!
The peak of Blood Mountain had spectacular views, piles of snow, bitter cold winds and a few other hikers. A John McCain look-a-like, Tommy stood outside of the Blood Mountain shelter, beaming as he greeted each hiker who appeared around the curve. And when Nate and I decided to head back down he followed us. Then he passed us. Then he skipped over a few rocks, leapt down some stone stairs and disappeared around the first curve. Nate and I were so impressed, we looked at each other as if Tommy had done backflips down the mountain side. I’m sure he could.
As we turned the corner we found Tommy waiting for us with a chocolate bar. “Would you please eat one of these with me?” he begged us, explaining how helpful he finds the burst of sugars. He fed us then lead us down what he considers his mountain, as he has trekked up Blood Mountain over 500 times. He showed us which ice-covered rock had caused him to have knee surgery years ago and which boulder he used as a changing table for his grandson. At the bottom, we parted ways, but not before he introduced us to what he calls the “Wile E. Coyote” rocks.
Just one mile later we saw the outfitter at Neel Gap peaking through the trees. We ran across the road, stood below the shoe tree in awe and walked through the creaky door, where we were greeted by even more left-behind shoes.Then we enjoyed the sun-warmed patio with two hikers who we met on top of Blood Mountain.
After much debate, we decided to spend the night at the hostel at Neel Gap, not so much because of weather, but because there were a few other hikers staying there and we wanted to meet them. Even though I started yawning around 7:00, I stayed in the common room with the others until 10:00, cooking, laughing, planning an comparing gear. It was the AT community Nate and I had looked forward to.
Nate and I planned to increase our mileage after Neel Gap. There was nothing we wanted more. But when Rooster (self-named after seeing her bed head in the mirror), the wife of another hiker, offered to meet us seven miles down the trail and drive us to a hotel to avoid the impending snowstorm, we obliged. Those seven miles went faster than we’d expected and we found ourselves climbing into her van and saying goodbye to the woods much earlier and for much longer than we’d expected.
Riding off of mountains in the back of a window-less cargo van made me carsick. The big surprise is that Nate felt carsick as well. After forty weasy minutes, we raced out of the van and steadied ourselves on the blacktop outside the office of The Budget Inn in Hiawassee, Georgia. We took our time to inhale the town’s fresh air before entering the smelled-like-stale-smoke office. Our room was at the end of the building, freezing cold and not newly cleaned. We were sharing it with Wye Knot and Tadpole, two of the hikers we met at Neel Gap.
Bellies full of southern cooking from our first all you can eat buffet, our fellow thru-hiker roommates took a detour to the town’s ER on our way back to the motel. Tadpole had an infected blister on his heel. He was given antibiotics and we were all content thinking a few days off might help his heel heal.
Our first zero day. Nate and I spent hours investigating the shelves of the local stores, searching for the best prices. If we were going to have to get more food in addition to pay for a hotel, I would make sure we would get the best deal.
That night we had a rousing time playing Kings in the Corner with the couple who drove us all back to the hotel, laughing and teasing one another as though we had been friends for a lifetime. The husband, Ben (trail name Ultralight) has served the United States in two wars and is proud that several of his children are following in his footsteps. His war stories were most impressive and I’m glad he can spend these days moseying through the woods and these nights keeping warm with his wife.
“I can be ready in thirty minutes!” We were getting back on the trail. After casually laying in bed for nearly two hours we decided to tune in to The Weather Channel and we saw just what we wanted: temperatures in the thirties with no precipitation and lows in the twenties overnight!! We rushed next door to ask if our neighbors would be wiling to drive us back to the trailhead, and even though Ultralight wasn’t heading back out, they said they’d get us out there. We packed our bags in record time and were chugging the rest of our Sunny Delight we had bought the day before when we heard a knock on the door. It was Ultralight. “I was just in the office and there’s a fella who just came in off the mountain. He says it’s all just ice up there.” Darn. Nate and I went out to the corridor to intercept the hiker before he warmed up in his room. He was frozen stiff. “I would not go out there,” he warned us, his eyes bulging from his face. As much as we wanted to get back on the trail, we heeded his advice, returning to our room and telling Wye Knot and Tadpole to stop worrying about packing. Today was not the day.
Gathering the fruits of our labors the previous day, we bought food for two for five days for fifteen dollars. Proud of ourselves, we pranced back to the hotel only to find our room locked and our roommates gone. While waiting for the cleaning lady to be granted permission to open our door for us, we were astonished to see three hikers climb out of a Fire and Rescue truck. For once we were glad to be out of the woods! We were even more surprised when we recognized two of the hikers who were dropped off by the rescue team. They were Attrition (he’s carrying a sword to Maine) and Nemo and we had met them at Neel Gap. After settling in their room, they trotted down to us to tell us their story. They didn’t need to be rescued, but when they came to a road crossing along the trail and saw the free ride into town, they jumped at the chance. The third hiker in the truck happened to be the one the officers were looking for, though he didn’t need rescued either. He hadn’t called home in a few days and his pastor’s wife was worried about him, so she sent the forces out to save him! That’s how he got his trail name, Rescue.
We invited all of our newfound friends to the movies, but only we and Ultralight and Rooster ended up going. It was a nice distraction from the fact that we weren’t on the trail, but when we left the dark theatre for the sunny skies we were saddened once again that we were not yet back on the trail. From the town we could see that the tops of the mountains were white winter wonderlands and we shuddered, but we still wished we could be on the trail.
Itching to get back on the trail, we wandered through town again, visiting all of the stores we had been for each of the previous two days. Catching word of a pizza buffet just past city limits, we hiked to the restaurant only to find a handmade “Closed due to weather” sign taped to their door. On our way back into town we were offered a ride by some friendly North Carolinians but we politely declined their offer. We just wanted to walk.
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