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Appalachian Trail, Part 2; Squirrel Poop? Mackenzie and Susan; Suches, GA; Blood Mountain; The Shoe Tree; Walasi-Yi

In the previous post, I introduced my new hiking partner from Germany. Manuel had recently completed a 3 1/2 year apprenticeship as a piano maker, and was taking advantage of his new free time to travel the world. He has already been to the Caribbean and Mexico, and after a visit to New Orleans to sample its cuisine, music and culture, he decided to hike the Appalachian Trail, probably as far as Virginia. We met up near the Stover Creek shelter in Georgia, where he had spent the night. As we hiked, I found out that Manuel was carrying a beautiful Swedish hand-made axe that his father had given him as a Christmas present. He is the only backpacker I have seen in years with an axe, because of the weight, although they are popular among car campers. But because it was such a personal gift, I could understand why he had to bring it with him. And who knows, it might come in handy against an aggressive squirrel one day…


As we hiked along that day, we found evidence that the southern Appalachian Mountains had been more populated in the past; this sign marking the former location of a school, and a nearby cemetery, exist now out in the woods, far from any population center. 

At one fire road crossing, we met shuttle driver Ron Brown (in blue jeans), and the three hikers on the left, whom he was driving south to the start of the A.T. at Springer Mountain. That’s Manuel on the right. Ron provided some Trail Magic in the form of fresh water (the springs in this section of the A.T. were mostly dry) and also relieved us of our small bits of trash (mostly food wrappers), saving us a few ounces. Ron has been doing trail shuttles for 7 or 8 years, and has 450,000 miles on a Toyota RAV-4; this is his new car, a Toyota 4-Runner with only 150,000 miles on it in under 2 years. During hiking season, Ron is often on the road from 0430 until 1900, and covers the area from Atlanta to Fontana Dam at the south end of the Smokies.

We set up camp near Horse Gap, GA, and that night while preparing dinner, I noticed that Manuel was carefully sorting his pasta, which had been stored in a blue Wal-Mart bag while he slept in the shelter the previous night. He mentioned that a chipmunk or squirrel must have gotten into the bag and eaten a pack of crackers. We looked carefully at the tiny black bits mixed in with the pasta, and he said, “I think they may have left this stuff behind…” YUCK!!! Squirrels and chipmunks are sources of Hantavirus, so Manuel prudently tossed the pasta. Fortunately, I had enough food for an entire platoon of hungry Marines, so I was glad to get rid of some weight and help the cause… After dinner, we hung our food up in a tree on parachute cord and turned in, Manuel to his hammock and me to my tent. Here is our campsite in dawn’s early light the next morning. Fortunately, no animals had breached our defenses, and our food bags were intact. However, Manuel had to get out of his hammock at 0530 and rig his tarp over it when an unexpected rain started falling. In all fairness, he had asked whether I thought it might rain, but I assured him that none was forecast. MY BAD… MISTAKE #3!!!

The third day’s hike was much like the first two, up and downs with an occasional flattish spot. The trail was pretty well marked with white blazes (seen on the big tree closest to the camera). Many hikers don’t even carry map and compass, particularly during the busy season, March-September.

Here we see Manuel filtering water from a creek. I also filtered water, but some times used iodine tablets. Either system works about 99% of the time, but filters take longer. Neither system is foolproof, and occasional stomach ailments due to bad water are not uncommon. 


The canopy of trees was pretty thick all along the A.T., and my sunglasses and ball cap were dead weight, so to speak. (I won’t be carrying them if I come back here.) Fortunately, because of the cool weather, bugs were not a problem, and I had not bothered with insect repellent on this trip (normally I would carry a small container of DEET). 

The first photo below is a young girl named Mackenzie, from Atlanta whom we met with her mom Kristin at the lookout on Ramrock Mountain (3,260 ft.). It then dawned on me that Mackenzie looked very much like my daughter Susan who was struck and killed by lightning in 2006. Without knowing any of our history with Susan’s passing and butterflies, they mentioned that just 5 minutes before, a beautiful yellow butterfly had flown by. As we chatted, I noted that many of her mannerisms were similar to Susan’s, and I asked to take her picture. It was only later that Suzanne noted the similarities between this picture and one I had taken of Susan back in 1999 (on right). The third image is of a drawing that Suzanne did of Susan years ago, with yellow butterflies (symbolic of those that visited us after her death) superimposed. Minutes after we left Mackenzie and Kristin at that viewpoint, a single yellow butterfly flew past me on the A.T., the only one I would see in four days and 40 miles of hiking. 


Oh, yes, I almost forgot that there was a nice view from Ramrock Mtn… 

Manuel needed to resupply his food bag, so we called into the booming metropolis of Suches (also known as the Valley Above the Clouds) 8 miles from the trail. There was a campground co-located with the only store and restaurant in town so we decided to spend the night in the campground and get showers. (The architects of the A.T. shelters somehow forgot to include showers in their designs… also omitted were electrical outlets, bunks, doors, toilets and air conditioning, although many do have outhouse-style privies.) We got a lift into town with a friend of the owner. This was the store; unfortunately, the selection of food items was rather limited, but we were able to enjoy some pulled pork sandwiches and hand-cut fries.


Joanie, our shuttle driver to and from Suches, was a friendly woman who gave us the history of the area during our drives from and back to the A.T. She mentioned that the town had been so poor during the early 20th Century and the Depression that all the farmers shared one big fence that encircled the town, and that many people could not afford to have outhouses dug into the rocky ground. Fortunately, conditions have improved, and Suches is becoming a popular place for Atlantans to retire. 


Our fourth day on the trail found us humping up the steep slopes of Blood Mountain (4,461 ft.) to the highest elevation shelter on the A.T. in Georgia.


It was windy and cool up on top of Blood Mountain, and clouds were rolling in from the southwest, predecessors of the remnants of Hurricane Patricia which would soon be pouring cold rain and high winds onto the area. We would not be spending the night here; I was meeting Ron, my shuttle driver, at Neels Gap and Manuel needed to resupply his food bag, so we continued hiking for another 3 miles.

There were a few spots where the colors had changed dramatically, probably due to the more frequent frosts at higher elevations.

The forest thickened as we dropped in elevation, and the trail flattened out a bit. This was a pretty part of the woods, but we couldn’t linger because it had been an 11 mile day, and my ride would be arriving shortly. We went into high gear from this point on…

As we dropped into Neels Gap, we left the Blood Mountain Wilderness. Manuel had told me over coffee one day that in Germany, camping is only allowed in developed (commercial) campgrounds, rather than what we were doing on the Appalachian Trail, where you could pitch a tent or hammock almost anywhere or stay in a rustic three-sided shelter for free. 

Just before my shuttle arrived, Manuel stood under the Walasi-Yi Interpretive Center’s shoe tree, where A.T. hikers who have finished the trail, and those who arrived here needing new boots, toss their old boots and shoes. There are hundreds of pairs of boots and hiking shoes hanging on the branches here.


This building is notable because it is the only place on the 2,185 mile long Appalachian Trail where the trail actually passes through a man-made building. Walasi-Yi also offers a mail drop where thru-hikers can have food and supplies sent, and also offers food and a hostel. 

Unfortunately, I had to depart for home now, but Manuel would be continuing on to Virginia. I had had a great time on my four day hike, and wished that the weather would have cooperated for another three or four days, but that’s life on the trail. The two highlights of the trip were meeting and making friends with Manuel, and having another visit by Susan, who I am sure managed to get Mackenzie to be at the summit of Ramrock Mountain when I passed, and then sent a yellow butterfly to be the icing on the cake…


  • Anonymous
    Posted November 5, 2015 at 7:00 pm

    Another cool post Ty! Especially enjoyed your description of the visit from your daughter. Happy trails! Brad

  • Unknown
    Posted November 6, 2015 at 3:23 pm

    WOW!!! It was so uplifting to read about your encounter with Mackenzie and the butterfly! There are no coincidences.Thanks for sharing Ty!


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