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Blood Mountain

(this story appears in Old Roads and Shadows, an eBook)

Blood Mountain

Discovering the Mountains of North Georgia

I drove into Georgia on November 9, 1994 and rented an apartment soon after my arrival. My company had relocated to Norcross, a small town northeast of Atlanta, and I had just driven across country from California. After settling in, I found the local hiking store and purchased a Georgia Trails guidebook along with a set of maps. I was already familiar with the Appalachian Trail (AT), the 2100-mile long footpath that begins in Georgia and ends in Maine. During the New England period of my life, I had hiked the length of the AT in New Hampshire and Connecticut, as well as portions of the trail in Massachusetts, Vermont, and Maine. Now I wondered what adventures awaited me on the AT here in Georgia.

I looked at the maps, read the guidebook, and then decided on the summit of Blood Mountain as my first Georgia hiking destination. The book said the name Blood Mountain came from a legend that the Cherokee and Creek Indian tribes fought a fierce battle on the mountain near Slaughter Gap. Although not as high as Georgia’s tallest peak, Brasstown Bald, the 4458’ summit of Blood is the highest point reached by the AT in Georgia.

The trailhead was located near Neels Gap. A road went through the gap at an elevation of 3100’ and the pass sported a hiker’s store and hostel called the Walasi-Yi. Many of the through-hikers I had met in New Hampshire spoke warmly of the store, and talked about the owners and staff with gratitude and respect.

Leaving Norcross early on a Saturday morning, I drove north in the pre-dawn darkness on rte 400 to its terminus, then turned north on rtes 19/129 and followed the signs as they curved around Dahlonega and made their way up towards the mountains. Passing the turnoff for Woody Gap, the car was soon climbing steeply towards Neels Gap with Blood Mountain towering above the surrounding woods. I gained the top of the notch and turned into the empty parking lot in front of the Walasi-Yi. It was still early so the store was not yet open. I left the engine running and got out of my car to stretch and breathe the cold mountain air.

A long green and white metal sign indicated the Appalachian Trail crossed the road at this point; for the first time in four years, I saw the familiar white blaze signifying that the trail was indeed the AT. I stood alone in the cold air of Neels Gap in northern Georgia while a tide of memories and emotions surged through my body. The best years of my life transpired among those white blazes some seventeen hundred miles up the trail to the north; now I was 44 years of age and beginning a new chapter of my life here in Georgia.

Getting back in the car, I continued north a short distance and downhill to a hiker’s parking lot near the trailhead. On the ground was occasional hard snow mixed with ice while stretches of frozen mud dotted the footway. The trail climbed to the top of a draw and turned left for a short distance before ending at the intersection of the AT in Flatrock Gap. I turned right and followed the AT south towards the summit of Blood Mountain, which loomed up before me directly in the west. The AT stayed on top of the ridge and soon came to another trail junction. Here, the Freeman Trail diverged left for Bird Gap, while the main trail continued up the hill. 

Staying on the AT, the trail quickly turned to the right and began a long gradual climb up the eastern slope of Blood Mountain. Later, the trail made a hard left and I found myself swithchbacking up the side of the mountain. The trail made its way through hardwoods that stood bare in the cold December morning. High on the slope the trail turned left and stayed fairly level as the footway headed south around the side of the mountain. The trail swung around to the west and began to gain altitude with good views to the south. Snow and ice became more prevalent and occasional patches of pine and spruce dotted the hillside. The trail turned to the north and worked its way higher, alternating between wooded areas, rocky gullies, and open rocky ledges. Eventually, I emerged out upon the summit itself and enjoyed the unobstructed views toward the south and west. Small trees, shrubs and grasses dotted the rounded summit that sat with its long axis aligned north-to-south. On the far horizon to the southwest, I could make out the tall buildings of Atlanta almost 80 miles distant.

A little farther north on the summit was the Blood Mountain Shelter, a formidable two room stone building. The door faced north, and when you entered the shelter, the first room had a stone fireplace. In the second room was a raised wooden sleeping platform that covered most of the floor area. Large windows on the sides had no glass, but rather wooden inserts that keep inclement weather out when secured into the opening.

Continuing north on the AT was a one-mile descent to Slaughter Gap where the trail made a hard left and headed west along the flank of Blood Mountain to Bird Gap and the junction with the Freeman Trail. Turning left and leaving the AT, I followed the Freeman Trail south as it curved around the mass of Blood Mountain. It eventually swung to the east around the southern flank of Blood and soon rejoined the AT above Flatrock Gap.

The spur trail led back to my car where I put on a dry T-shirt and drove back up the hill to the Walasi-Yi, parking in the now-crowded lot out in front of the store. The AT went through a portal between two buildings; the guidebook said this was the only covered part of the trail for its entire 2100-mile length. I went up the wide stone stairway and walked past the store out onto a large stone patio with several picnic tables where I enjoyed the extensive view of the country below Neels Gap that fell away to the south.

I went into the store and met the owners, Jeff and Dorothy Hansen. They were friendly and gregarious as they busied themselves with inventory and phone calls. I told them that this was my first visit to the area and briefly described my hiking adventures in the northeast, and they welcomed me to North Georgia with a smile and a handshake before returning to their tasks at the store.

I poured a coffee and walked around the place they called Mountain Crossings at Walasi-Yi, and met some of the staff who where helping customers in the two main rooms. A room filled with camping and hiking gear was off to the left, and Lee Evans was answering questions from the people milling around the displays within. Lee was a handsome man, young and lean with a ready smile. Behind the counter was Peggy Shadbolt, long light colored hair framing a warm grin. She had a figure that spoke of long hours spent outside and on the trail. She worked the register and treated everyone in a friendly and direct manner. On the floor was Elaine Morris, a lean and friendly blond-haired girl who assisted those customers searching for clothing or literature in the main room.

I finished my coffee and browsed the hiking literature; after picking out a topographic map of the surrounding area, I paid Peg at the register, walked out into a cold evening, and made my way to the car. In a few moments, I was on my way home and driving back towards Atlanta.

Over the Years

That is the story of my first hike in Georgia. What I did not realize at the time was the role that Blood Mountain and the surrounding area would play in my life. Georgia was my home for three years, and during that time, Blood Mountain became the axis of that world. In hindsight, everything revolved around it, most of the good things in my life that came out of those three years in Georgia came because of that mountain, especially the people I met and the adventures I shared with friends on and around Blood Mountain. The staff at Mountain Crossings all became friends, and although other friendships were made during that time, the deep and abiding relationships were forged and tempered by the hours spent together on Blood Mountain and in the surrounding hills of North Georgia.

First was the mountain itself. Over the span of three years, I averaged more than two ascents of the mountain per month and climbed Blood at least once in each month that I lived in Georgia, regardless of the weather.

The winter months meant snow, ice, and the biting cold of the North Georgia Mountains. With spring came the explosion of greenery and the onset of the rains. In summer, the mountains were hot and hazy and the air carried a humidity that was hard to endure, at least until the ferocious thunderstorms rolled through in the afternoon. With autumn came clear crisp days and the spectacle of color as the leaves of the hardwoods changed hue before making their fall to the forest floor.

In addition to the mountain and the area were the people who entered my life and became my friends.

I met Brian Illari at work and he soon introduced me to his wife Juliana, or Jules. Brian and I became fast friends and shared many adventures on Blood Mountain and in the surrounding high country. We made several memorable climbs of Blood in the winter. The longest day hike I ever completed was an eighteen-mile effort that I made with Brian one cloudy and cool October day, and that entailed a nine-mile hike from Woody Gap to the summit of Blood Mountain followed by a return trip back to Woody Gap.

From the trailhead at Woody Gap, we climbed the AT to the summit of Big Cedar where we had our first glimpse of our halfway point far in the distance. Leaving Big Cedar, we descended into Miller Gap and began making our way across the ridge toward Blood. We crossed Baker Mountain, Jarrard Gap, Bird Gap, and finally reached Slaughter Gap, where we began the final 1.1-mile ascent to the summit. The two of us stopped in the shelter at the summit to eat and rest. We allotted ourselves 45 minutes to rest in the shelter on Blood, which seemed to go by as fast as any 45 minutes in my life. Then I took two aspirin and got back on the trail with aching legs. Slaughter Gap, Bird Gap, Jarrard Gap, Baker Mountain, and Miller Gap (and all the ups and downs in between), where we stopped for a break. I had saved a thermos of coffee for this spot, and we drank the hot liquid and devoured chocolate cookies standing in the gathering darkness of the trail in preparation for the ascent of Big Cedar. As we started up towards the summit, it began to rain. At the top, we put on our headlamps but the rain had ended and the resulting fog made finding the trail particularly difficult as the light from our headlamps reflected back into our eyes. Exhausted, we inched our way along from white blaze to white blaze and finally made our way back to the car at Woody Gap.

Once we made a long daytrip from Atlanta to the Great Smoky Mountains to climb Mt LeConte. We met in the early morning hours and drove the four hours to the 5000’ summit of Newfound Gap. From the gap, we took the AT north for two and a half miles and then followed the Boulevard Trail for five miles across the ridge to visit the four summits of LeConte, the highest point standing at 6593’ of elevation. Leaving the summit, we continued down the Alum Cave Trail to the road, where we now faced a hitchhike back to Newfound Gap and our car. This was an arduous 13-mile hike, and the ride home was long and tiring. Before reaching Atlanta, every window in the car was wide open for fresh air and we sang along to the songs on the stereo at the top of our lungs just to stay awake.

William ‘Buddy’ Poe was a co-worker at the company in Norcross. We had several memorable ascents of Blood. On one, we came across the Freeman Trail from Neels in the clouds. As we came to Bird Gap, the trail rose up into clear air. The cloudbank stayed hard against the edge of the trail, as distinct as a wall, as if we were in a science fiction movie. I made two other notable climbs of Blood Mountain with Buddy, one was in the biggest downpour and the other was in the deepest snow fall of all my times on the mountain; those were two memorable ascents.

Jeff Leggett was another co-worker who also shared many special hikes with me on Blood and in the surrounding hills. One cold evening in the early winter, we returned from the summit in the dark and hiked through the abandoned Lake Winfield Scott camping area as we headed to our car. We heard voices ahead and came upon a large roof supported by four pillars that covered a picnic area. A group of people were eating dinner and having drinks in front of a large fire roaring in the fireplace. We stopped to talk with them and enjoy a bit of their fire, and they offered us a drink and asked us to join them. We did, and the result was a wonderful evening.

Darrin Kerrigan was a transplanted Scotsman employed by my firm and we enjoyed many hiking trips together, including a climb of Mt LeConte in the Great Smoky Mountains. On that trip, we drove up to the Smokies on a Friday night after work and made camp in the park. The next day we took the same loop across the Boulevard and over the summits of Le Conte that Brian and I had done earlier, and later descended the Alum Cave Trail and hitchhiked back to our car. All of this was on a pleasant day with no humidity and maximum visibility, a summer rarity in the Great Smoky Mountains indeed.

Jeff and Dorothy Hansen were busy, but we visited as we could. The store was always a bustling place and I often stopped in after a hike just to say hello to my friends and enjoy the atmosphere. The Walasi-Yi was a welcome sight to many a through-hiker. Jeff and Dorothy provided inbound and outbound mail and package service, advice, encouragement, repaired gear, sold supplies, offered a bunk and laundry service, and so much more to the legions of hikers that tramped through the gap.

Dorothy once shared a story with me about her young son; he wrote a poem based on images of new stars taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Her excitement and description of the words Chris used when talking to her about the article excited me, he likened them to leaves sown through space. I wrote a story about his words, and what really took me out of my element was the fact that I read my story aloud to the Sunday gathering at Atlanta’s Unitarian Universalist Congregation. I did this not once but twice that Sunday, as they had two services on Sunday mornings. I was nervous and out of my comfort zone, but I survived the experience and felt a new appreciation for the written and spoken word.

Peg and Justin lived in the rooms above the hostel at the far northern end of the Walasi-Yi and the AT ran right past their front door. After we became friends, I would spend occasional weekend nights sleeping on the floor of their apartment. Justin was an artist who fabricated metal sculpture out of discarded farm equipment. I commissioned a set of candlesticks from him and they still serve me well today. On another commission, he made two sculptures of Brian and Juliana’s dog Clarence, a rescued Greyhound. One piece was a large and long rendering, and the other was small and more suitable for a mantle. Brian and Jules decided on the small one for above their fireplace, so the large one became mine. We had a great party at the Goose Creek Cabins just north of Neels Gap to unveil the two works and to celebrate the artist. Aside from me, the group included Elaine, Brian, Jules, Peg, Justin, Darrin, and Darrin’s girlfriend during those years, Deborah.

Blood served as a springboard to other sections of the AT, and I hiked stretches both north and south of Neels. Our trips went through Hogpen Gap and Unicoi Gap, and we partied amidst the Germanic kitsch of Helen. Four or five times a year a group of us would use a multi-car shuttle and leave a car at Neels and drive around the mountains to hike across the AT over Blood Mountain from Woody Gap to Neels Gap, a joy of a walk almost a dozen miles in length.

In October of 1995, Hurricane Opal rolled into Atlanta and virtually shut the city down for October 5th and 6th. Marietta had the high metro-Atlanta wind gust of 79 mph, and Atlanta lost 4000 trees, yet the storm was even stronger to the north. On October 7, I slowly made my way up north to Neels Gap to make the loop hike around Blood. The damage was incredible. At Bird Gap, a jumble of mature hardwoods lay in ruins. Trees lay destroyed along the entire crest of the ridge traversed by the AT, and some areas looked as if artillery had shattered the forest. Everywhere I looked was damage and debris. The loop around Blood on the Freeman Trail and over the summit on the AT usually took me 4 to 5 hours including lunch and rest stops. That Saturday I arrived back at my car 8 hours after starting out. I was exhausted from climbing over, under, and through the destroyed trees and bushes that covered the trail, and my body had enough bruises, cuts, and scratches to attest to the ferocity of the storm in North Georgia. My favorite trail in the Smoky Mountains, the Boulevard, did not reopen until well into the following year. 

On one magic day in June, I ascended the AT from Slaughter Gap to the summit of Blood. Near the top, the rhododendrons were in full bloom and I hiked through a tunnel of flowering blooms, the fallen petals forming a thick carpet on the trail.

If hiking on Stone Mountain or Kennesaw during the hot months, I could always look to the northeast and see the distant shape of Blood Mountain and a line of clouds formed above the crest of the Appalachian Mountains. In the summer, when Atlanta was broiling hot and the humidity beyond description, I would leave early for the mountains and rest in the shade and relative coolness of the shelter on the summit of Blood.

Almost every humid summer day saw a thunderstorm and these could be storms of great intensity, especially if you were out on the trail. The sky would darken and the wind slowly quicken while the thunder grew in intensity as the storm drew near. When the storm front hit, the wind could be sixty miles an hour or more, and the great trees swayed back and forth and the leaves moved with the wind until only the bottoms showed. The sudden deluge amid the wind felt so cold on a hot sweaty body that the shock could take your breath away. I often stood in the lee of a tree with the lightning crackling and popping on the ridge with an almost simultaneous blast of thunder following the strike, my heart pounding as the spectacle of nature’s power raged around me. Then, just as quickly, the storm would be over, the tempest would diminish and fade as the sound of thunder grew distant and marked the track of the retreating storm. Then the air would become as steamy as a jungle and I quickly forgot the cold feeling of a few minutes ago.

The summer was also the time for swimming in Lake Winfield Scott after a hot hike. Occasionally, a group of us would camp at the lake and enjoy a weekend of hiking, swimming, and partying.

Every year beginning in February, I would spend weekends on the AT around Blood meeting the legions of AT through-hikers who were now working their way north on the AT towards Maine. They came from everywhere, young and old, male and female. After relating some of my stories, many would ask questions about the AT up north, what the White Mountains were like, and about Katahdin. I felt connected to my New England roots during those discussions, and greatly enjoyed my encounters with strangers out on the trail.

On Christmas Day, I would hike up Blood Mountain with my thermos full of Jamaican Coffee (a dark roast brew augmented with Myer’s Rum and Tia Maria) and a bag of small chocolates to share with the many people who hiked to the shelter on that holiday.

The AT in Georgia was facing the same challenges as the AT in the White Mountains, the popularity of the backcountry had led to an explosion of numbers, and more hikers and backpackers were looking to the wilderness as an outlet and a release from the pressures of modern life. Trails on popular routes became crowded and eroded. Shelters that once provided emergency cover for a small number of through-hikers now became weekend destinations for large numbers of trampers, and many of these new hikers had little respect for the wilderness ethic of leave-no-trace hiking and camping, and of carrying out the trash that remained from whatever a person had carried in with them. In the White Mountains, the Forest Service removed many shelters because of overuse and damage to the surrounding environment.

The Blood Mountain Shelter was no different; its solid construction, wood sleeping platform, and front room with a fireplace made the shelter a popular destination for weekend outings. The trees around the summit were taking a beating at the hands of those armed with hatchets and handsaws that were out looking for wood. With that thought in mind, Peggy and Lee (and I am sure others from the Walasi-Yi) completely stuffed the fireplace and chimney with rocks and so made the fireplace unfit for use. These rocks were large and jammed in with the skill of a New Englander making rock walls. Many is the time I overheard some weekend warrior complain about the fireplace and rue the fact that they would have no fire, and see a long collapsible Sven saw or other cutting implement tied to their backpack. This always brought a smile to my face.

The Autumn Days Grow Short

The autumn of 1997 arrived and for me change was on the horizon; I had accepted a job offer from a firm in Northern California and I would soon be making the long journey west once again. One Saturday in October, I stopped at Neels Gap, walked into the Mountain Crossings store, and saw Elaine helping customers out on the floor. She saw me and smiled. When she was free she came over to talk and I asked her if she could come out on the patio for a minute.

We walked out into the autumn sunshine and sat on the stonewall looking out to the south from Neels Gap. Holding her hands, I told her I had accepted the job and would soon be leaving Georgia, other friends now knew about my new position and I wanted Elaine to hear of it from me. I told her how much I cared for her and how important she had become in my life, how much her friendship meant to me. Elaine knew I was talking to other companies about jobs and contemplating returning to the West, but this offer came quickly and with time constraints; the suddenness surprised both of us. She was happy for me, but between us was the melancholy of endings and of possibilities left unfulfilled.

I left Georgia on November 9, 1997, three years to the day after I arrived. I spent my last night in Georgia at the home of Brian and Juliana in Marietta and left for California in the morning. The following years were good to me, and as I approach the end of my working life, I am now grateful to live in the West. Yet I remember those years in Georgia warmly, and I carry wonderful memories of the time I spent there and of the friends that shared those special moments with me.

For a time, Elaine and I carried on a long distance relationship. After I left Georgia, she made two trips to California and I made several to Atlanta. In California, we enjoyed two fine hikes on Mount Diablo, an area that became the next ‘Blood Mountain’ in my life. On an autumn visit, I took her to Yosemite and we visited the valley floor, Glacier Point, and hiked down to Illouette Falls. The highlight of that trip was when we climbed Mt Cloudsrest from the Tioga Road. We stood atop the narrow 9926’ summit and gazed down at the top of Half Dome some 1100’ below us. Later, acknowledging our situation and where we lived, we both came to the realization that each of us needed to get on with their own life and let this relationship go. We have remained friends through the years, and I have been grateful for that. Elaine is now retired and a proud grandmother and she has discovered the joy and camaraderie of motorcycling.

Jeff Leggett has visited me in California and we had the pleasure to share one of the finest California wines I have ever tasted, a rich Niebaum-Coppola estate cabernet. Jeff owns a home in Atlanta and still hikes the trails of North Georgia.

Elaine brought me up to date with the activities of Jeff and Dorothy Hansen since they left the Walasi-Yi. After taking a well-earned break, Jeff became the owner of the Book Nook in Blairsville and Dorothy is teaching English at the community college. The daughter is an adult now and actively supports environmental issues, and Elaine says she “is Doro made all over again”, which I take for the highest praise Elaine can give. Their son Chris is currently spending a year in China teaching English.

Jeff and Dorothy were more than just storeowners and caretakers at the Walasi-Yi; they lived the life and walked the talk. For almost 20 years, from 1983 to 2001, they were the face and the conscience of the AT in Georgia. One has only to search the internet to find a myriad of stories attesting to the friendship, help, and compassion shown to so many AT through-hikers over the years by this industrious and generous couple.

Peg and Justin bought a house near Blairsville, and Justin was working as an electrician; Elaine has not talked to them recently, so she is not sure if Justin is continuing with his metal sculpture and fabrication.

Buddy Poe is married and living in Georgia near Atlanta.

Darrin Kerrigan is currently living in Scotland and plans to marry next year. We trade emails and talk every year or two. I still have a 1985 Taylor-Fladgate Vintage Port that Darrin gave to me in Atlanta on my birthday in 1995.

Lee Evans and Elaine have stayed in touch over the years, and Lee now teaches high school English in Portland, Oregon.

Brian and Jules remain friends and still live in Marietta, Georgia, although they have changed houses since the time I lived in the South. Brian has visited me in California, and we made an autumn trip to Yosemite. We took one hike up to Mono Pass where we spent a wonderful sunlit October afternoon at the crest of the 10,600’ mountain pass. The next day we took the trail from the Glacier Point road to the summit of Sentinel Dome. We could see a storm approaching us from the high-peaks region, but we continued down the trail to Glacier Point and the rain began to fall. Climbing back towards Sentinel Dome the rain changed to snow. We continued on the trail toward Taft Point and found ourselves lost in the blizzard when we could no longer follow the trail in the drifting snow. Although we were never in real danger, the snow turned a simple Yosemite outing into a grand adventure. The last time I saw Brian and Jules together was in December of 2005, when I spent a week at their home in Georgia.

A knee injury several years ago ended my hiking adventures, yet I remain grateful that the joy I found on a mountain trail played such an important role in my life. I remember how I felt on that first trip to Neels Gap, how friendly and familiar it was to see the painted white blaze of an AT trail marker once again, as if coming across a long absent friend by chance, and to experience the onslaught of memories and emotions that came along with that encounter. My first visit to Neels Gap and Blood Mountain was the beginning of a special love affair with North Georgia, an affair that saw my life enriched and broadened by the people that I met and called friends during those years in the mountains of the South.

Leaving Neels Gap for the last time in November of 1997, I stood alone in the dark parking lot at Mountain Crossings before driving back to Atlanta, and looked wistfully at the small white blaze of paint that marked the AT as the trail passed through the property of the Walasi-Yi.

To date, that is the last white blaze I have seen.