The First 100 Miles of the Benton MacKaye Trail: When Disaster Strikes
My husband and I arrived at Springer Mountain in the early hours of the morning. As the sun began to rise the forest revealed its true colors. The path from the parking lot to the Benton MacKaye plaque rose a brisk 0.7 miles and was lined with vibrant moss on either side. A gleaming “red carpet” leading the way to the first diamond-shaped blaze and the beginning of a new adventure. Climbing over rocks drenched in morning dew I briefly turned around and glanced in the direction of my husband’s receding car. I was on my own from here.
Or so I thought. Doe-eyed Appalachian Trail thru-hikers began to pour out of the woodwork, passing me in the opposite direction, chasing dreamily after their own first few blazes. Even as I turned off-trail and on to my own path I could feel the woods were alive with the magic of those passing under the arch for the first time. It soon became apparent that I was not here to enjoy the same luxury. As I stepped onto the Benton MacKaye Trail, the footpath quickly became more overgrown. Bramble threatened to invade the way and the moss was replaced by thorny branches and fallen leaves.
This is truly the path less traveled.
The trail dipped down the backside of Springer Mountain and came to be parallel with a running river. Walking beside it the sun grew higher in the sky and the calls of birdsong began to fill the air. The first seven miles flew by as I sunk deeper and deeper into a part of my mind that hadn’t been explored since my last long hike. There is something about walking through the country at 2/3 mph with all that I need on my back that enlivens me.
At mile 8.5 I walked out of the tree covered woods to an unnamed bald. Many balds and gaps and valleys on the Benton MacKaye Trail are unnamed. It feels fitting for the remoteness of the trail and enhances the feeling of solitude that you get from passing through them. Yellow and white blooms dotted the field and a bird of prey floated above me, searching for mice and other small creatures in the open meadow. I raised my face to the shining Georgia sun and felt its warmth envelope me.
My first day and a half passed like this, blissful.
There is so much beauty out here.
There is also challenge. You forget the challenges you face on trail only days after you finish a hike. ‘Embracing the suck’ lessens over time and all you remember are moments like those I just described. Not moments like these.
I was 15.7 miles into day 2. I had needed to use the restroom for the past 2.2 miles of road walk and was approaching the Toccoa Riverside Restaurant. As I drew nearer to the store my heart sank. The lights were off, the lot was empty, there was nobody there. Nobody there, I whispered to myself. A sign pointed toward the back of the property where a gated-off privy stood. Looking at Guthook, I realized with agony that the road walk continued for another 2.8 miles.
I did the math in my head. 2.8 miles is another hour. Looking to my left the trail rose steeply up a ridge, still visible to the road. To my right, it dropped into the Toccoa River. The only option was to wait. As I continued alongside the narrow shoulder of the road, time ticked slowly by. The shoulder decreased to nothing and the cars passed within what felt like inches of my aching body. I walked faster, feeling the pavement dig viciously into my feet through my Altras. In the distance, I saw a sign for Fall Branch Falls begin to take shape and almost uttered a sigh of relief. Almost.
THERE WERE SO MANY PEOPLE THERE!
At this point, I’m running. I think that I must look insane. I smell of decay and my Hawaiian shirt is hanging halfway open below my backpack straps. Sweat drips down my forehead. My hair is poking out of its ponytail in all directions from the wind of the cars passing me at 50 mph the last 2 1/2 hours. My face a grimace from severe stomach pain and I’m limping now because who the hell did I think I was pushing out 41.6 miles in my first two days on trail!? A group of tourists gapes at me as I jog around them and fly up the mountainside. Mile 42.5. It has been six goddamn miles.
Finally, I look around and hear nobody in the distance, see no small children just enjoying a family day out. I stumble behind a tree and the relief that washes over me is unreal.
I barely notice myself sigh contentedly. Audibly.
But as I turn back to the trail I see it winds around the tree I just took shelter under, and two unlucky hikers are standing just a ways off looking uncomfortably the other way. The trail does not always provide.
Somewhere around mile 80, the blazes stopped. They would make a guest appearance along the side of the trail occasionally. Like a mostly retired tv star showing up in an episode of Friends, the recorded audio of clapping and cheering went off in my head whenever I saw them. A collection of three blazes for 5 minutes then forty-five minutes of nothing. A solid fork in the trail or 90-degree turn and no trail marker. This being my fourth day on trail, I was privy to its ever-changing terrain. This trail does not simply skirt mountains, it climbs. Every. Single. Goddamn. One. It walks along cliffsides less than 12 inches wide only to open up into an out-of-use mountain road.
Before embarking on the Benton MacKaye I had planned on camping on top of Big Frog Mountain. From the reports I had read on the trail, it is one of the most scenic views and most beautiful campsites. But as I neared the top of the climb the graying sky opened up and a cold rain washed over me.
Here is where I made (too many) mistakes:
- A passing day hiker told me that winds on top of Big Frog Mountain are often intense.
- My rainfly on my Nemo Hornet is broken so before the trail, I sewed and duct-taped it together in true hiker trash fashion.
- When the rain began instead of scrapping the idea of camping at 4209 feet of elevation entirely, I just decided to get off the peak of the mountain and hike down to the next tent site. Which was still above 4100 feet.
I pitched my tent in the howling wind and hunkered down, my feet aching with overuse. Pulling my beanie on over my head and snuggling up in my base layers I curled into a ball inside my sleeping bag. As I drifted to sleep I hardly noticed the weather change all around me. The sun began to sink behind the mountains and with it, all hope of a good night’s sleep vanished.
I awoke to the shrill winds outside my tent and the floor rose all at once from the ground. While I slept the storm had grown nastier. I jolted upright and dispersed my belongings into every corner of the swaying shelter to fasten it to the ground. Breathing heavily, I clutched my sleeping bag tightly around me and held my eyes closed wishing for it to stop. In the fading light, I heard the sound of something hard hitting my tent, just outside the door.
Smack, smack, smack.
The rain fly…
I ambled toward the zipper and with shaking hands yanked it open. The small beam of my headlamp found the rainfly free of its fastenings and flying through the air. A shining red flurry flashed past my eyes. The tent stake had been wrenched from the ground from the force of the wind. A vision of being impaled by a muddy metal rod crossed my mind and a hollow breath escaped my lips. I reached out to grab it. Missed. Again. Missed. Again. Finally, my hands closed around the wriggling stake. Get the hell off of this mountain, I told myself.
I hardly deflated my sleeping pad. Then I threw my wet clothing, tent, sleeping bag, and cookware in the pack all at once. It barely shut but it was good enough. I searched desperately for the trail, but of course, it wasn’t marked. I ran in the direction I remembered coming from to reach the trail, my pot clanking behind me in tune with my stride. As I followed a path poorly illuminated by the small beam of my headlamp, it opened up to a ridgeline. On either side of me, the trail dropped straight down. I ran faster, fully aware that one foul step would be the end of me.
I had already hiked 22 miles before settling for the night.
The next campsite was at mile 88.6.
Four miles away.
The terrain was straight down until that point so there would be no relief.
I turned my head to the side to look over the vast blackness of the world. I distinctly remember thinking how amazing this would have been in the daylight. Under a cloudless sky. With loved ones. Instead, the cold rain was chilling my bones but filled with adrenaline I felt nothing. At least for now, I thought. I remembered a fact I had heard long ago- most people die of hypothermia in 40-degree weather. They get wet and can’t warm up and drift away, maybe they don’t even realize that they’re dying. I thought about my sleeping bag, wasn’t it packed with my wet belongings? Would I survive the night?
It felt like hours went by before I reached the bottom of the mountain. In reality, I had covered 4 miles in about an hour, sprinting most of the way. Down here the wind was less intense and the rainstorm was no more than a subtle drizzle. I made it. Pitching my tent yet again in the mud above a river, I took care to jam my tent stakes deep into the ground. I walked nervously to my pack to retrieve my sleeping bag and looked in. In the bottom of the damp bag, my dry sack sat cinched tightly in my trash bag liner. I don’t remember doing this, but in the craziness of the storm, I had the presence of mind to secure my sleeping bag and a pair of dry socks in the driest place possible. A smile crept onto my frozen face.
And I realized that I can do this.
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We had some intense storms come through. Sounds like you got caught in one of them at a tricky place. Good to hear you have the resolve to push through.
I did the section from 76 to Thunder Rock the weekend before last. We were lucky to have calm weather but for the sub freezing temps. I feel you on the climbs. I found myself hoping that maybe the next mountain we would skirt around but no, right over the top you go. It makes for a good challange and an interesting trail. I hope to head north from Thunder rock to hiawassee in a few weeks if I can find the time. I look forward to hearing about this section.
I hiked the Beton Mackaye Trail in 2010 and experienced the lack of blazes as well. One day I followed a trail for a mile or so that just petered out. I sat there looking at my map for a while and finally decided to backtrack until I found a blaze. Turned out I went straight and the real trail took a sharp turn. My experience on Big Frog was much better. Just a light drizzle and hardly any wind, but in all my hiking in the Appalachians I learned you pretty much have to count on being wet the whole time. Whether from sweat or rain the humidity seems to keep you from ever drying out.