#10: Things that Go ‘Bump’ in the Mountains

We’ve been at Vogel State Park for 13 days now.  Upon our arrival I was immediately aware that the vibe here was totally different than that of Tugaloo but I found it difficult to define.  Having spent a few days here exploring and working, I think I have finally put my finger on it: Vogel State Park is spooky.

There is an extensive list of contributing factors, the culmination of which creates a kind of energy that is both subtle and yet obtrusive.  It’s the kind of energy that causes an almost constant conflict between the rational mind and the irrational heart.  This feeling nagged at me incessantly for days before I finally consciously considered it carefully to determine why it has this quality.

The physical landscape is rugged and imposing.  While Tugaloo was also wooded, it was more sparse, mainly young pines, and very, very flat.  Here, the vast majority of the forest is made up of large, old hardwoods that soar upwards from the forest floor, looming ominously and covering the towering mountain peaks.  They themselves hold both a threat of danger (if they should fall), and a sense of history about them.  They are the keepers of the mountain, standing tall for many years through fierce storms, bitter winters, and scorching summers.  They whisper the history of this land as the breeze tickles at their leaves and whistles eerily through the valleys.  They bear the secrets of its violent and bloody past.

Vogel State Park was founded in 1931.  The land was previously owned by Fred and Augustus Vogel who owned thousands of acres of land in North Georgia.  They harvested the bark from the trees to use in the tanning of leather until a synthetic method of tanning leather was developed during WWI, rendering the operation obsolete.  The Vogels subsequently donated the land to the State of Georgia in 1927.  The park’s facilities were then developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression.  Young men worked tirelessly to dam wolf creek and hand dig the 22 acre Lake Trahlyta, as well as other park projects.

Long before the arrival of European settlers, however, this land was fabled to be the scene of many gruesome battles between the Cherokee and Creek tribes.  One such battle, according to folklore, was so long and gory that it turned the mountain red with blood, giving these peaks their names: Blood Mountain and Slaughter Mountain.  Blood Mountain is rumored to have a hidden cave bearing treasure stashed by the Cherokee which many have searched for but never recovered.  

These peaks are also said to have been home to an ancient spiritual people called Nunnehi, or the people that live forever.  According to folklore the Nunnehi lived underground across Appalachia and protected the Cherokee, often warning them of impending danger, even warning them of their forthcoming removal from their land (known today as the events of the Trail of Tears where the Cherokee were removed to Oklahoma) and inviting the Cherokee to live inside the mountain with them.

It is undeniable that these hills are steeped in a rich history that sets the imagination on fire.  Every curve of the winding road bears some relic of days past; the Indian Mounds at Sautee Nacoochee, the Walasiyi Inn (a backpackers’ Inn and outfitters on the Appalachian Trail), and the many arrowheads that litter the river and creek beds waiting for some lucky hiker or fisherman to stumble upon.

One of the particularly eerie places of the park is not actually unique to the park at all.  It seems that each park has one and I don’t really know why but it’s becoming something of a favorite for me to visit.  I call it the equipment graveyard.

At Tugaloo it was a dirt road off the main state road through the park.  Here it is a steep dirt road behind the maintenance complex.  It’s a dumping ground for anything and everything in the park that has served its purpose.  There are the twisted metal frames of old picnic tables, huge rotting tree trunks of felled trees, giant concrete slabs broken and crumbling, pallets, wheels, engine parts and tractor wheels.  They lay crumpled and mangled, vines and grasses of the forest smothering and reclaiming them.  It’s tragic for me to see such an abuse of this pristine land, but also beautiful to see the forest slowly creeping back in, bringing new life and continuing the cycle.

This place really comes alive at night though.

The tree canopy is still thick enough to extinguish any light from the moon or stars that tries to penetrate, cloaking the campground in darkness.  The only light is from campfires dotted around the park that send shadows dancing into the night.  The shuffle of dry leaves and occasional snap of a twig from the lurking raccoons, deer, and sometimes bigger creatures can be heard between the pop and crackle of the campfires.  Eerie owl hoots descend through the darkness and the sporadic eruption of howling coyotes over the ridge will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. 

Coyotes howl and yip almost every night while we sit by the fire.

Driving through the park at night to do laundry is a good way to creep yourself out.  The road twists down the valley between campsites and turns off the main road through the park onto a narrow track with an old wooden bridge that crosses Wolf Creek.  The wooden boards twist and creak under the weight of passing vehicles, the icy water rushing beneath.  A sharp curve on the other side winds the track along the creek toward the linen barn.  The creek is lined with the gnarled and contorted wild magnolia trees with branches that slither and jut outwards like hands grasping at passersby.

The linen barn is where resident employees and hosts go to do their laundry in the evenings.  It’s an old maintenance complex with block walls and no windows except for the small glass panels in the old metal roll up doors.  Far from the campground, there are no campfires to light up the darkness.

The building houses old industrial washers and dryers with big tubs on wheels fit for some old haunted hospital from a bad horror movie.  With stained concrete floors and a long dark hallway that every creak of each machine echoes through – it seems to have leapt from the pages of a Stephen King book.

The geographical location of Vogel contributes in no small part to its eeriness.  Tucked high in the mountain it is isolated and lonely.  Campers here, especially in the winter, are at the mercy of the mountain and the weather – which can be unpredictable and turbulent.

We seem to have arrived just as the vibe is shifting from Summer paradise to creepy ghost mountain.  The campsite is still busy with tourists coming to gawp at the almost supernatural scenery of the changing leaves, but the buzz of summer activity has ceased and the place feels almost deserted on weekdays.

During the summer months the park’s 90 standard campsites, 18-walk-in campsites, and 34 cottages are usually fully booked months in advance.  But this time of year the number of campers willing to brave the unpredictable weather and bitter nights becomes fewer and fewer.

As we walk the park during the day we are lucky to encounter some wonderful people who are friendly and always wanting to know who the young hosts are and what our story is.  As we tell them that we are staying through the winter, possibly until the spring, it seems to always be met with a raise of the eyebrows and a “well be careful, it can get kinda rough up here”.  

I’m not sure what to expect over the coming months.  I know that the first hard freeze is coming in fast tonight and winter seems to be descending quickly through the mountains as the temperature plummets to 12 degrees tonight (about -12 Celsius).  There is a definite change in the air and we are looking forward to whatever is thrown at us.  Perhaps we will get to see Junior experience his first snow, or even his first white Christmas this year, maybe we’ll get to drink some hot apple cider by the fire or curl up together and watch movies when the weather is bad and enjoy some time inside for once.  Or maybe this will be a winter of disaster that ends our short adventure of living in a camper and the mountain will triumph over us.  Either way, we know that our first winter in these spooky mountains will be an adventure to remember.

If you enjoy reading about our adventure, you’ll probably enjoy reading about my parents’ adventure too. They are about to embark on a mobile living adventure of their own on a canal boat in England. Read along with them here: https://myblogfromthefrog.wordpress.com

#8: Motherhiker

Living in such close quarters as we are certainly forces you outdoors a lot more than when living conventionally.  I’m sure there will be times where I will dislike this aspect of our life but this week has not been one of them.

My schedule at Vogel has me working 4 days on and 4 days off.  Wednesday began the first of 5 days off because of a screw up with the schedule when we first arrived.  With beautiful weather in the forecast I wasn’t upset about this.  So Wednesday morning I awoke with the itch to explore.  

Chris rose for work early as usual. I awoke around 7:30am and rubbed the sleep from my eyes just in time to give him a goodbye kiss as he handed me my coffee (I know, he’s wonderful). I stumbled, blurry eyed, into the kitchen to see Junior already in full destroy mode and he grinned at me with that cheeky little glint in his eye that says “I’m ready for mischief today”.

“Me too, son, me too.”

So I dressed us both and pulled on my running shoes, a scarf and a hat, strapped Junior into his stroller, slapped a leash on Dev and set out to find an adventure. We decided to begin with a gentle stroll around Lake Trahlyta – about 3km of flat and gentle terrain. I brought my camera and snapped some pictures of the gorgeous morning views.

The fall colors reflected on the glassy surface of Lake Trahlyta.
The fall colors reflected on the glassy surface of Lake Trahlyta.
Fiery reds of Lake Trahlyta.
Looking South-Southwest over Lake Trahlyta towards Vogel State Park.

On our way back I stopped in at the visitor’s center to say good morning to the ranger and the other ladies that work there.  We exchanged friendly chatter and they cooed at Junior as he flirted wildly.  I picked up a map of the park trails and asked the ranger if there were any trails suitable for an off-road stroller.  She laughed.  I took this to mean no.  So we headed back to the camper to devise a plan.

Now, about 3 years ago I could have very easily slung a 25lbs child on my back and climbed a mountain for breakfast, but a rough pregnancy with a very large little boy left me struggling to regain my once athletic physique.  I sat at the camp looking at the various trails and trying to gauge the elevation gain and the roughness of the terrain.

There are several trailheads at Vogel.  The Coosa trail is a challenging 13 mile trail that scales several large peaks including Blood mountain and has a 2 mile stretch with a 1500ft elevation gain – not for the faint hearted.  I discounted that one immediately.

The Byron Herbert Nature trail is a 1 mile loop that doesn’t leave the park and features many sign posts along the way pointing out different natural sights en route. It’s aimed at young children and is suitable for all ages and abilities. Too easy. We want adventure. One cannot adventure in one mere mile.

Bear Hair Gap Trail.  That’s the one.  It’s roughly a 5 mile loop from the trailhead, not including the hike to the trailhead, and has an optional short additional loop to Vogel overlook at the top of the mountain for views over the park.  I looked at the time and knew that if we were to return before dark then we would have to set off immediately after Junior’s nap.  

About 2pm we were ready to head out.  I checked the weather again to make sure we were all clear and saw that we had about 3 hours until the sun disappeared over the ridges and darkness would move in fast after that.  I hesitated a moment and asked myself “am I really ready to do a 5+ mile hike up a mountain with this kid on my back?”  I didn’t hang around for the answer and, against my better judgement, decided to just go for it.

The sun coming through the leaves at the trailhead.
The sun hovers above the peak of Blood mountain and peeks through the trees.
Junior playing peekaboo with the camera as we set off.

With Junior in his backpack carrier on my back, a couple snacks, a map, and my phone I set out.  About a mile in I realized that I had neglected to bring any water.  This is not a smart decision when hiking in the wilderness.  A map is helpful but sometimes can lead you astray.  I considered turning back but knew that the trail crossed several clearwater creeks in the area and that I wouldn’t be in danger of dehydration so decided to push on.  Then Junior decided to chime in.

“Doggy.”

“What?!”

I lifted my eyes from the trail expecting that maybe we were encountering other hikers on the trail with a dog.  There was no one.

“Doggy.”

I span around.  No one behind us.

“Doggy.”

I cast my eyes to the woods, frantically searching through the trees.  My heart began to race as the name of the trail surged through my head: Bear Hair Gap.  You see, Junior has just begun to talk and his vocabulary is limited to a handful of words, his favorite being “doggy”.  We took him to the zoo on a recent trip to Memphis, TN and he exclaimed “doggy” at most of the exhibits there.  But he has also been known to just say the word sometimes, as though he had forgotten that he could and was proudly reminding everyone that he can speak.  Thus, I could not determine if he was seeing a dog in the forest, jabbering mindlessly or, as I feared, seeing a bear that I could not see and calling it “doggy”.

“Where, son, where is the doggy?”

“Doggy”

I span around again.  I stopped and listened for movement amongst the dry leaves that covered the forest floor.  The blood was pounding in my ears and I struggled to calm my breath after the mile of steep incline we had battled.  I suddenly became abundantly aware of the fact that I had decided to leave the pistol at home, had no bear spray, and was utterly defenseless against any attacking creature larger than a squirrel.  I wasn’t even sure about a squirrel in my current physical condition.

“Doggy.”

I span around again.  I put my arms behind my head to feel that Junior was looking to my left.  I span around to my left and searched the woods hard, knowing that bears can be incredibly stealthy creatures.  Nothing.

“Doggy.”

“WHERE, SON??  TELL MAMA WHERE THE DOGGY IS??”

Giggling.  

I sighed deeply and swallowed hard.  I couldn’t see any dog, nor bear.  I had no way of getting any sense out of the kid, so I decided that I should continue along – but as loudly as possible.  One thing I did know to protect me against black bears in the absence of weapons is to be as loud as possible.  Bears don’t like humans; we are not part of their natural diet and they have no interest in combat with us.  The biggest chance of being attacked by a bear is to startle one by coming upon them suddenly.  So being loud, it seemed, was the best defense to any bear attack.

The rest of the already challenging trail became further challenging by the need for me to sing various annoying nursery rhymes much to the amusement of my 1 year old.  I am convinced that he masterminded this whole thing just to get me to sing to him all afternoon.

After about an hour of pushing hard up winding mountain trails crossing creeks and a final 1/2 mile of approximately 10% grade, we made it to the top.  At Vogel overlook there is a small break between the trees – about 10 feet wide – with glorious views over Vogel and the surrounding mountainous area.  In the middle of the sprawling mountain peaks was a vibrant blue splurge which was Lake Trahlyta; the lake we had hiked around that morning.  

The view over Lake Trahlyta from Vogel Overlook. The picture DOES NOT do it justice and my limited camera equipment doesn’t capture the sweeping mountainscape behind the lake.

“Wow, look, Monkey!”  I breathlessly managed to squeeze out.  He was, for the first time in over an hour, completely silent as he stared hard at the view.  It occurred to me that, in his short 15 months on earth, he had never seen a view of our world like this where everything looks so small yet so vast at the same time.  It’s the kind of view that instantly reminds you of how small and insignificant you are on this earth.  

I tried to take a picture of us with the view behind us.  I held my camera out to one side and tried to get Junior to turn around and look at the camera but his little eyes were locked on the view ahead of him.  I didn’t mind, it meant that my son indeed carries the same sense of awe and wonder at this beautiful planet we live on, and that he does in fact have the capacity to be still and introspective sometimes.

I finished snapping my pictures and checked the time.  3:15pm.  It’s getting late, I thought, better press on.  At least this is the easy part.

So down we went.  The trail wound around the other side of the mountain and I gave in to the decline, trotting over tree roots and rocks.  Junior laughed hysterically as he bounced around behind me.  I giggled with him for a while.  Until, that is, I felt a wet gush on my back and my arm.  I reached down and wiped my arm to find that the kid, from all the bouncing of the steep decline, had thrown up on my back.  Great.  At least he was still laughing.

Then the trail got steeper, slimmer, and rockier.  Tree roots jutted out from every inch of the trail and dried leaves and pine needles made it slippery and tough to get good traction.  Roots and rocks created big steps downwards.  As the trail wound around the mountain and got even steeper the hillside began to become a cliff to onside with sheer rock face to the other.  I paused a moment and considered my options.

If the trail conditions diminished any further I wouldn’t be able to continue – not with a wriggly 1 year old on my back and old running shoes on.  But to turn back now meant climbing another mile back up the mountain to come down the 3 miles on the other side.  I knew there was a good chance I wouldn’t make it before dark and the realization set in that I had gravely underestimated this trail.  I kicked myself for not properly preparing myself like I knew to do.

I had to push on.  No time to sit and deliberate now, I’d just have to be careful.  

The trail got steeper yet and wound around giant boulders jutting out from the mountainside.  These created steep drops in the trail that required me to crouch and jump down – not an easy task with Junior on my back.

Then I slipped.  I lost my footing and, because I was in running shoes and not proper hiking boots, my ankle rolled to the side and I collapsed – luckily forwards – and caught my knee and shin on a rock on my way down.  I lay there for a minute cussing and groaning in pain, holding my ankle and trying to calm my breathing.  Junior fell silent and I realized that he likely knew from the fall and then my tone that something was wrong.  So I began talking to him as calmly as I could – the last thing I needed right now was for him to lose it.

“It’s ok, baby, Mama just fell over because she’s silly.  You’re fine though aren’t you?”

I tickled his leg and he giggled a little.  Ok, phew, he’s fine.

I was not, however.  My skinned knee was stinging but was not an issue – I had powered through much worse in the past and knew that was fine.  But my ankle was throbbing.  I wiggled it to find it was sore, but not broken.  3.30pm.  I have to keep going.

So I pulled myself to my feet and, once again, soldiered on on the winding mountain path.  My ankle was sore and weak so I had to tread slowly and carefully for fear that I was hovering on the edge of disaster.

The steep drops eventually became gentler and at 4:40pm we finally made it back to the park – just 15 minutes before the sun disappeared behind the ridges of the mountain.  I text Chris to let him know that we were safe and to let him know that I had injured my ankle but that we were both ok and there was nothing to worry about.  I got the expected response: “You dumbass.  Glad you’re ok.”

I learned that day that one should never be so conceited as to not go prepared on unknown trails, even if they look easy.  I also learned that I am capable of much more than I thought I was with my jiggly postpartum body.  It is, perhaps, even because of motherhood that I was able to finish the trail.  It was a close call and certainly satisfied my appetite for adventure for a few days, at least until my ankle heals.

Calamities aside, it felt wonderful to get out and do things that I used to do often and really enjoy.  Before becoming a mother I was many things: a hiker, a primitive camper, a fisherman, a wood worker, a lawyer, a boxer, a runner, a cyclist… the list goes on.  I had many identities.  But almost immediately upon becoming pregnant I had abandoned most of those and assumed the role of mother.  For a while it was the only identity I had and this caused some emotional turmoil and something of an identity crisis which my dear husband spent many long teary nights counseling and encouraging me through.

Climbing that mountain with my son on my back, as reckless and dangerous as it was, helped me to realize that I can actually reclaim some of those identities without sacrificing my favorite one; being a mother.  Becoming a mother surely does mean that you have to shed some of your identities; it’s inevitable.  But with practice and time I have begun to figure out which of those identities was most important to me, and were a fundamental part of myself, rather than just something I do.  Now I have the confidence to embrace those parts of myself without neglecting my most important identity.  I actually found that including Junior made it considerably more enjoyable than I remember hiking to be.  I may not be signing up for the Appalachian trail anytime soon, but I will be taking a lot more regular hikes.  With the proper gear and supplies, of course.