A Week in the Woods: My Appalachian Trail 101 – Chester and the Waterfall

Campsite at fireroad near Addis Gap2

The fire road campsite at Addis Gap was my best yet, and Day 6 of my hike dawned with promise.  My goal was Plumorchard Gap Shelter, just under ten miles away.  But this was minimum.  I discovered that the AT lulls one into progressively shorter daily mileage.  I’d started at 16 miles and had dropped to 11.  I was worried I wouldn’t make Franklin by Sunday evening.  So I decided to strike back.

After Addis Gap, I climbed steep Kelly Knob, where the summit offered a breathtaking view of three states: Georgia at the base; Standing Indian Mountain in North Carolina to the northeast; and Table Rock Mountain in South Carolina in the misty distance to the east.  I took a photo, but my camera couldn’t capture the awe-inspiring distant peaks.  As the saying goes, “You just had to be there.”

The highlight of Day 6 occurred at Dick’s Creek Gap.  A two-lane highway passed through here, connecting Hiawassee to the west and Clayton to the east.  I approached this gap via a series of switchbacks, which are zigzag trails on the side of a mountain – easier to negotiate than straight ascents and descents, but very time-consuming.  I saw a couple monstrous trees here, one of which had knife carvings so old they were indecipherable.

Just when my sore shoulder was at screaming point, I came upon “Carnes’ Cascade.”  This was a little postcard oasis on the right side of the trail, tucked away in a grove of rhododendrons.  A small, green, wooden bench sat in the shade and faced a miniature waterfall.  A little wooden sign identifying the spot sat tilted in some rhododendrons on the hill above.  The scene looked like a slice of real estate plucked from a miniature golf course, but without the putter, ball, and green felt.

After resting my shoulder, dipping my bandana in the cascade, filling my canteen and munching some trail mix, I thanked the mysterious Carnes and continued to U.S. Rte. 76, about a quarter-mile further.  Although this was still rural Georgia, I heard a lot of helicopters.  The distant airplane on Day 4 was somewhat comforting, but what was up with this racket?  It seemed a real intrusion on the peacefulness of the forest.  In the back of my mind I wondered if my wife had reported a missing husband.

This worried me.  So at the gap I slipped my pack off and tried to call her, but got “No Service.”  Oh well.  Let ‘em keep searching.

As I was scanning my guidebook, I saw a guy on the other side of the highway, reading the Nantahala Wilderness kiosk near the trailhead.  He had a fairly large backpack, drab clothing, bushy hair and a dark beard.  Hmm.  I might meet my first thru-hiker.

I crossed the highway at the same time as the hiker dipped into the woods.  I was afraid he’d get away, since he was the first person I’d seen since the couple at Tray Gap, and I craved some conversation.  But instead of following the trail, he seemed to be flitting back and forth in the woods.

dick's creek gap

Boulder at Dick’s Creek Gap, with AT logo

I nonchalantly approached the kiosk, and out of the corner of my eye noticed the hiker had seen me.  He immediately descended into the clearing.

“Dude, I’m glad you’re here, I think I got dropped off in the wrong spot!” he said excitedly.

He looked really young, maybe 19 or 20.  He had a black, Amish-styled beard, contrasted by a wispy, dirty-blonde moustache.

“What spot are you looking for?” I asked.

“Dick’s Creek Gap,” he replied.

“Well, this is it.”

“Really?  I can’t find the shelter.”

I told him that not all gaps necessarily had shelters.  We chatted a little, and he told me he needed to get to Henson’s B&B to pick up a supply package.  But he didn’t know where it was.

I looked at his map, which was not very good.

“Wait a second, let me get out my trusty whiteblaze.net guide,” I said, as I once again unloaded my pack.

“Dude, thanks man.”

We read the information for supply and mail locations near Dick’s Creek Gap, but Henson’s wasn’t listed.  I was worried that maybe his mail drop wasn’t legitimate.  I read the instructions on his map.

“Ok, it should be here.”  I pointed at a spot in the air just off his map, and just this side of the well-known Blueberry Patch hostel.  “Your place isn’t on the map, but it should be located here, according to your instructions.”

“I swore I went that way, but didn’t see it,” he said.  “Is that the way to Hiawassee?”

I pointed westward and told him, yes, Hiawassee was 11 miles that direction.  I made sure I pointed him toward Hiawassee.  I told him do not go eastward, or he’d end up in Clayton.  “That’s where that banjo picker in Deliverance lives,” I said.  But he was too young to know what I was referring to.

“Why is the direction arrow for the trail going this way?” he asked, pointing to the AT logo on a nearby boulder.  This logo was an upside-down V with a T underneath.

“That’s the AT logo, it’s not a direction arrow,” I replied.

“Dude, I didn’t know that!!”

We talked a little more, and I learned his name was Chester and that he was from Tyler, Texas.  When I asked if he was a thru-hiker, his face lit up.

“No, but I plan to do one!  This is just a 13-day hike for practice.”

If he’d been hiking less than 13 days, he must have been cultivating his beard long before he started.  Probably to look the part, I guessed.  I wondered what Chester’s home life was like.  I then told him I hoped to soon meet my wife and daughter at a motel in Franklin.

“I stayed in a motel a few nights ago and didn’t like it,” he said.  “The air conditioning was way too cold.  I prefer being out here.”

I thought about asking why he didn’t just turn the knob on the register, but I kept quiet.

“Have you gotten lost yet on the trail?” he asked, explaining that he, too, was northbound, but that he’d had some difficulty back at Blood Mountain.

“No, but I’ve heard complaints about the blazes on Blood Mountain,” I answered.

dick's creek gap2

Clearing at Dick’s Creek Gap, where I met Chester

“Yeah, they need to do something about that, man!”

I told Chester I’d love to join him on the trail, but I had to make time and needed to move on.  After we said goodbye, I watched him walk toward the road, hoping that he’d point his thumb in the right direction.

I thought Chester was a really nice guy.  I also considered him brave for striking into the wilderness at such a young age.  But I couldn’t help thinking that section hiking, let alone thru-hiking, maybe wasn’t the best idea for him.

***

It wasn’t long before I arrived at a large opening in the woods, with a shelter sign pointing to the right.  Plumorchard Gap.  It was getting late, and I was torn between staying here and moving further.  I decided not to water up at the spring, but see if any people were in the shelter, then push on to Wheeler Knob, about two miles further.  Supposedly there was a campsite and water there.

At the base of Wheeler Knob I crossed a gravel road, and heard a vehicle crunching gravel in the distance.  Hunters, maybe?  I disappeared into the woods just before the vehicle arrived.  It felt good to see some conifers growing here; a sure sign of North Carolina, which was just a few miles ahead.  The campsite on Wheeler Knob was in the middle of a large arc, on the left.  I pitched my tent in a hidden area toward the back, and headed toward the water source.

But the water was merely a slow drip emanating from a small pipe.  My washcloth absorbed more mud than water.  It was a big letdown, since it had been a hot, sticky hike, with numerous spider webs stretched across the path.  If anyone would’ve seen me they’d have thought I was touched in the head, because all day I was swinging Biff 2 up and down in front of me, like a magic wand, to knock down these pesky webs.

Fortunately, I had just enough drinking water in my canteen till morning.  After burning my thumb once again on my stove, I turned in for the night.  My goal… the Georgia-North Carolina state line… was only two miles away.

Continued…

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