My plan was to take down the 55 mile Georgia Loop in 2 days. The trail had other plans.
A 4:30 a.m. alarm isn’t too painful if I’m waking up to go hiking. I rolled out of bed, filled a tall coffee mug, grabbed my pack, and hit the road. Living in Northern Georgia has its benefits, one of which is the proximity to the mountains – it took me only an hour to reach the trailhead, and I was passing my first blaze by sunrise. My plan was to do The Georgia Loop – a 55 mile loop trail comprised of the Appalachian Trail, the Duncan Ridge Trail, and the Benton MacKaye Trail.
A guide I read called it “extremely strenuous”, “possibly the hardest section in Georgia”, and that “one should plan 8-10 days for it.” I wanted to do it in 2.
I hit the summit of Blood Mountain, 8 miles in, by 10 a.m.. I was feeling good, bouncing down the trail with the first big climb complete. I hopped on the Duncan Ridge Trail, which follows the Coosa Backcountry Trail for a few miles until the summit of Coosa Bald. The elevation profile showed a steep descent down Blood, followed immediately by a steep climb.
Well, I made it down the descent, but then the trail seemed to flatten out. I was confused but appreciative of the flattened terrain, so I convinced myself that the elevation profile had to be a little off. I continued hiking while trying to decipher the map and guidebook.
"There's no way I took a wrong turn right? The trail said it would follow the Coosa Backcountry Trail. Oh wait, isn’t the CBT a loop trail? There’s no way I am going the wrong way down the loop right? [pull out CBT map]. Shit."
By the time I had this realization I was already halfway through the 13 mile CBT, so there was no turning back. It was a serious blow - 10 miles added onto a trek which was already pushing my limits. Of course this is when the skies started churning. It wasn’t the type of rumble that precedes a typical summer shower. This was something much more ominous. In growing volume the heavens began to constantly grumble, rolling and rumbling like a stomach with food poisoning, louder and louder, until all at once the floods unleashed. Yeah, the skies were about to diarrhea all over me.
I pulled over and bagged my camera gear right as huge drops began falling from the sky. Cracks of lightning began to accompany the thunder rolls. Trees swayed sometimes nearly horizontal and within seconds the trail had turned into a river. Maybe not the best time to start climbing up a bald.
The storm raged, inciting terror in my step as I climbed a mammoth of a mountain. The 4 mile climb up Coosa Bald was a serious ass kicker, especially after already hiking 15 miles, especially with a full pack on (this was the first time I’d loaded a pack since hiking in Rocky Mountain NP 3 months prior).
With each step it became harder and harder to lift my feet. Sweat poured out as heavy as the rain. Every few steps I had to lean over my trekking poles, gasping for air, hoping my legs might somehow recover.
I usually like to take breaks every 5 miles or so, but I hadn't take one since Blood Mountain - crushing 11 miles in 4 hours. This was evident in my ever-shaking legs. When I reached the Coosa summit, however, I was completely revitalized. The rain stopped, the sun came out, a cool breeze whipped through the trees, and the terrain leveled out amongst waving ferns.
I saw the sign at the summit and crashed at its foot, basking in the sunshine. I inhaled some trail mix and started to regain energy as I flipped through the guide.I started to reevaluate my plans – should I stay the course and continue on The Loop? I still had 40+ miles to cover, so I’d have to split it into 2 days – leaving me with a very scant food supply. If I turned back, I couldn't camp between here and my car due to bear canister restrictions, so I'd have to push another 12 miles for a total of 30+ on the day. Neither option was too enticing.
After resting for a few minutes and feeling revived, I decided to stay the course, to go for the elusive Georgia Loop despite the struggles so far. It was 2:45 and I figured I could hike at least a few more hours before my legs gave out or more storms rushed in.
I started down the Duncan Ridge Trail and immediately recognized why it is infamous – this trail does not fuck around. It goes straight up a steep ridgeline, then straight down a steep ridgeline, then straight back up. There are no switchbacks, no level sections, no spots where you can coast. Not to mention it is so unmaintained in some sections that it seems like you are just bushwacking.
By 5 o' clock, I was starting to become delirious. The descent down Coosa was brutal and destroyed my quads right before a ruthless scramble up Buckeye Knob. The wind then picked up, it got noticeably darker, and the clouds came back with that familiar rumble. I needed to set up shelter before the skies really unloaded. After a few more steep climbs, I had to call it, finding a flat spot right on top of one of the hills, 24.1 miles done for the day.
I threw down my pack, got my tarp out, and quickly started assembling a shelter, my weary fingers struggling to tie and adjust the knots as thunder boomed. I strung my hammock underneath the tarp, immediately realizing that it was just a little longer than the diagonal length of the tarp. Shit. I tied and retied and adjusted and fumbled with the tarp as the skies clapped and popped, sounding their alarms. Before I could engineer a solution, the skies opened up and things started getting scary.
Wind whipped the trees back and forth, lightning cracked and rain poured down as I wearily lit my stove and set it away from the tarp, hoping the distance might keep me safe should a rogue bolt decide to strike down my pot of macaroni.
Skies to the east were a peculiar light orange hue, while the remainder of the skies remained a dark gray, causing worries of tornado potential [I later found out that several were spotted in the area].
Within minutes the exposed inch of hammock had already become soaked and water was seeping down. Shit. Guess I’m going hammock-less tonight. I yanked the hammock from its strap right as I heard the last of my fuel hiss from my stove. Shit. Guess I’m eating hard mac and cheese tonight. I poured dried potatoes into my mac water and proceeded to have one of the more interesting meals of my life, huddled under my skimpy shelter, intermittently setting my pot back out in the rain when the lightning torrents came roaring back.
By 8 o’ clock my food was put away and I was prepping for a questionable evening. I put on all the clothes I packed and took out my emergency blanket (I didn’t take out my sleeping bag because down is ineffective when wet, and it seemed like it was going to be a pretty damp evening). I laid down in the moist dirt and tried to turn myself into a human burrito in my crinkly aluminum foil quilt.
I started to ponder. Maybe I wasn’t meant to do The GA Loop this time around. Maybe my 10 mile detour, my fuel depletion, and my shelter deficiencies were signs to come back another day. I was beat up, exhausted, and slightly fearful of the night ahead.
I spent a few hours rolling around in the dirt, trying to keep the wind from sneaking under my covers, until the rain started to ease up. I laid my e-blanket down as a groundcloth, pulled out my sleeping bag, and crawled inside. And there I slept pleasantly for the night.
I let myself sleep in, deciding to just hike 16 miles back to my car, to come back for the GA Loop another day. But when I woke up, despite the overcast skies and my aching legs, I felt great, excited to hike again. I didn’t want to take the short way. I wanted to do the loop.
So I crushed down some calories and broke down the barracks, throwing my pack on around 9. I stepped back out to the trail and…
Wait. Which way did I come from?
I had been so delirious and rushed to set up camp that I didn’t really pay attention to my surroundings the night before. I hiked down both ways, but they were nearly identical – flat and fern covered for just a little ways, then a steep drop off into overgrown brush.
"Hmm… I definitely came from the left. That’s it. Right? Yeah, gotta be. Off we go."
And so I hiked on for 4 miles through dense brush until, upon stepping over a familiar tree, I realized it. I was climbing up Coosa Bald again. Sure enough, I reached the summit within another 10 minutes. I really tried to hike the Georgia Loop, but apparently it wasn’t meant to be.
The sun peeked through by noon, waking the terrain such a lush, vibrant green. The air was still cool from the storms and a smooth breeze had all plants and leaves swaying constantly. It was a beautiful afternoon to be in the woods.
I stopped at the top of Big Cedar Mountain, about a mile before the car, and dried my gear, laid in the sunshine, and read Dharma Bums. I wasn’t quite ready to leave the mountains yet.
Around 6 a dirty hiker approached and dropped his pack, admiring the view. We chatted a bit and I found out he was a thru-hiker - “street name: ‘Greg’, trail name: ‘Nothing Yet’”. Nothing Yet was about to finish the first half of his flip-flop (He started in Harpers Ferry, WV hiking south. Once finished in Georgia, he’ll go up to Maine and hike south back to Harpers Ferry.) I liked this dude, he was kinda crazy, like me -
Me: Where you headed tonight?
Nothing Yet: I think I’m gonna do some night hiking, might try to hit the falls
Me: [after pondering for a sec] You mean Long Creek Falls? That’s a good 17 miles from here.
Nothing Yet: No man. Amicalola. [30 miles away]
If he finished, he’d have hiked 50 miles on the day, finishing the first half of his thru-hike on a wild note.
“I figure if homedude [Scott Jurek, the new AT speed record holder] can do it, I can do it, right?”
I gave him some encouragement, telling him about how I did 42 over that same terrain a month before (see Balance Through Extremes: The 42 Miler). He was relieved to hear this, and even more relieved when I met him again at Woody Gap, carrying the guidebook pages he dropped near the mountaintop.
I made it down to my car in the cool mountain twilight, now 40 miles and 30 hours wiser. It certainly was not the trip I had planned. I didn’t complete the 55 mile Georgia Loop, but I did complete my own loop; I crushed a 24 mile day (first time with a full pack since the AT) over pretty wicked terrain; I camped in tornado-inducing weather on top of a mountain with only a tarp as shelter; and I got to contemplate 40 gorgeous miles of Appalachian Summer.
I’ll be back one day soon to take down the real Georgia Loop. If the trail allows it.