On Saturday March 3rd a group of us left Columbia, SC for a Georgia AT Section. It was particularly interesting since another group had gone down on Friday morning for a short hike and campout, so we were going to do a key swap hike. It was also the AT Kickoff weekend at the Amicolola Lodge 40 miles south of us, so we were pretty sure everything would be busy. We weren’t disappointed.
We barely found a parking spot just down the road from the Mountain Crossings store at Neel Gap, and the 6 of us headed up the hill to the store. We saw the famous “shoe tree” where hikers throw their boots (for a reason unknown to me).
After a brief visit inside, we started the bulk of the hike, which consisted of a roller coaster of steep ups followed by gentle downs. I can see why a large part of the hiking population gives up in Georgia. Parts of TN and NC seem much gentler, with short steep ups followed by rolling ridge lines and great views.
There wasn’t much water along this section of the trail. I stopped at a spring and was soon surrounded by a group of 6 hikers. One guy got the trail name “Colonel” because his last name was Sanders and his first bit of trail magic he got was a piece of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Two others were trying a thru-hike just like Colonel. Another couple were first-time section hikers, trying to fill a sawyer bag laying it down in the spring. They watched me fill mine with my red squishy bowl, and wound up borrowing it.
On down the trail we had split up pretty well. I ran into Mark and Mike, out in front of me, but Ron, Karen and Carol were behind us, having stopped at the store for a moon pie. Everyone I ran into seemed to be planning on spending the night at Low Gap Shelter, which was kind of concerning since I didn’t know how big the area was. Some shelter areas are nothing more than a little hut forced onto a hilltop, while others surround a large low spot or saddle between hills, with a wide tenting area.
I stopped as planned on the top of Wildcat Mountain, which is a “Summit on the Air” spot for Ham Radio activity. I set up my radio and wire, and started trying to call people. It was very noisy on the air, with lots of band fading and static, plus a CQ contest was going on, and it was hard to find a clear frequency. I finally gave up on my SotA stuff and just started trying to answer some contesters. I got one guy in West Virginia who gave me a clear signal report, and I was happy.
After that, I packed up and headed on. I had 5 more miles to go before dusk, and the sun was sinking. I made it into Low Gap with sunlight to spare, but it was behind a mountain and was edging on towards darkness. Thankfully Low Gap wasn’t the “shelter on the hilltop” kind of place, and there was a huge tenting area around it. We camped right off the trail on a slight slope, only going near the shelter for water, which had a nice flow of creek water next to it. The shelter itself was packed with thru-hiker hopefuls. After all, everyone is a section hiker until they get to Maine.
By this point I was exhausted. 2 hours of sleep and a 4 hour drive, plus a 12 mile walk uphill… I made my food and got in the hammock, after briefly talking to my hiking partners. The group had already swapped keys, so Jim, Pete, Dorothy, Chris, and Laura could drive our cars into town the following day. I intended on staying awake in the hammock for a while, but by 8pm I had fallen asleep. I woke up at 1am and hadn’t moved. My tent lights were still on, so I switched them off and fell asleep again.
At 6 I reluctantly awakened, needing to go to the bathroom. The sun wasn’t up yet, but the nearly full moon made it quite bright outside. I started laboring at packing some of my things, not wanting to give up the warmth of my hammock, as it was still 31 degrees outside. Finally I gave in and went to get water and make breakfast. When everyone started moving out, I slung the pack on and headed north, needing to do ten miles before getting to the car. It’s amazing that even though you eat the food and drink the water, the pack never seems lighter. In fact it almost seems heavier the second and third days.
Walking to the car was pretty much uphill all the way, with teasing downhills that lead to another uphill. Finally we reached another shelter with a privy (a kind of outhouse). I had run into Mark and Mike, but I was out of fuel by this time and in desperate need of the privy services. Thankfully it was still cold, so the privy didn’t smell. I took full advantage of it, before cleaning my hands and sitting in the sun to eat what was left of my food. I brought the perfect amount, as I ate everything I had before getting back to the car.
After the shelter was a brief up and then a long 1000 foot descent into Unicoi Gap parking area. The parking area was full, as a local ministry set up a hiker feed with hamburgers and water. The burgers were overcooked, but tasty any way. I met two deaf people with their hearing interpreter, and a blind guy named “Vaper” who was being helped slowly along the trail by his seeing-eye wife. They would do around 5 miles a day. I was amazed at his resilience, as it is all I can do not to break my ankle on the rocks, and I can see them.
Back at the van, the whole party united once again, and we headed down to Helen, Georgia. As we were leaving the Unicoi lot, we saw a hiker looking for a ride into town. We had seen him at Neels and at the Shelter. He had black curly hair and a brown/green outfit and pack on. I kept calling him Frodo because from a distance his face and hair strongly resembled the hobbit. We gave him the trail name, to spare him from such indignities as “Donkeybutt” or “stinky”.
The video in this case was a bit difficult to make, as I had to deal with two groups going two directions over multiple days, so I just kind of tossed the pictures wherever. Anyway, if you walk from Neel Gap to Unicoi, you’ll see this stuff..