The Pondering Grapefruit
a blog of moments and musings
(Note: this is a long and plot-driven post!)
I almost died last Wednesday. My friend was visiting for a few days. She wanted to do something in nature, as she had been in the city for a while. On the third day of her visit, I decided to take her hiking in north Georgia, where the Appalachian Trail begins. Though I love hiking, I had only gone a few times before. As inexperienced as I was, I was determined to show her the beauty of Georgia and conquer another summit (yes to self empowerment!).
We looked up a list of popular trails and found one called the Blood Mountain Loop. It was a 6 mile hike that offered gorgeous views from the highest point of Georgia's AT. I think we were both attracted to the blood as well--we are both risk taking, adventurous girls with a dark side. And it was only an hour and a half away. The next day, we headed out in the morning after having some pho at my favorite Vietnamese restaurant. The morning was off to a good start, but my heart began to have pangs of doubt when I saw the peaks of the mountains covered in snow. "That couldn't possibly be where we're going," I thought to myself. But since that snow was on top of the highest peak, which could only be Blood Mountain, I knew that my sense of doom was well-placed.
At noon we arrived at the trail head (the Byron Reece Memorial Trail) and knew right away that we were both severely under-dressed. Georgia had been having colder than usual weather during my friend's visit, but since it was supposed to be in the 40s during the day (AKA not that cold), I only wore a wool shirt, a fleece, and a light down jacket on top. For my feet, I wore two layers of socks, yoga pants, and hiking pants on top. My friend was even more under-dressed--wearing only a fleece on top of her shirt and some jeans. She did not even have hiking shoes, instead just permeable running shoes. I forgot that it gets colder on a mountain. All the other hikers had full-blown parkas, hats, gloves, packs, and trekking poles. "We'll warm up when we start walking," I said.
So we did. We kept a brisk pace and reached the summit in one hour and fifteen minutes, which was pretty impressive considering we had no appropriate gear to handle the icy steps. The view was as gorgeous, if not more gorgeous than what the internet had promised. Because of the snow, which was still untouched and pure, the entire forest held us in enchantment. The snow covered trees formed a silver line that touched the blue sky.
At the top, we met a young boy and girl who were hiking together. The girl was from Florida, and the guy from Minnesota. They were childhood best friends and had decided to spend the Spring Break of their sophomore year of college together in Georgia. When I took a picture for them, the boy stopped and said, "Hold on, let me put on these gloves so my mom won't freak out when she sees this picture." Later on I asked the girl if they would be doing the loop. She said that they were initially planning to but would not because it was too long. They looked so young, but from the way they talked, they seemed careful, mature, and kind--perfect foils for my friend and me, and what was to come.
My friend and I decided to do the loop. I remembered from what I read about the trail that it was a more gentle decline, which would be safer. The way we came from was very icy, and I didn't want to risk slipping. I also just don't like going back the way I came from.
So began our descent down the other side of the mountain. At that point it was 1:30. The other side of the mountain did not get much sun, so the trail was still covered in snow, and it was cold. The hill was indeed less steep, and we carried on in high spirits. I knew that we would be on the AT for a while, then eventually switch to the Freeman trail.
We reached more level ground, where the dense growth of the mountain opened up into a clearer forest, surrounded by thick, tall, black trees. We then reached a crossroads. To the right was a blue-marked path called the Slaughter Creek Trail. To the left was a white-marked trail. At the time, I didn't realize that it was the AT. I initially wanted to turn right, but my friend was already walking down the white trail. I told her to wait a second. She came back, and we pondered which way to go.
Slaughter Creek sounded familiar. But I also remembered from the map we looked at last night that the trail goes very far West. We finally decided to go down the white path, and set on with some doubts but still good spirits.
It was still cold and bleak. We only saw black and white--the trees were so tall that there was no green foliage. As we trudged along, I suddenly had images of concentration camp survivors walking through the snow. We walked for what seemed an infinite amount of time, during which we saw no other hikers. Each time the snow on the path melted, I felt hope rise in me, but then it became covered in snow again around the bend, and my heart sank again. My friend's hands had begun to grow numb. Our phones had no service. I kept thinking of the prisoners.
Finally, we saw another hiker walking towards us. He was an older man wearing a bright green parka. I asked him what direction this trail led. He said that he was hiking the Appalachian, and that back where he came from was nothing but ice and snow and another mountain. He had not passed any Freeman Trail either.
We had taken the wrong path. We had to go back. I did not realize that we were on the Appalachian Trail either. These three thoughts hit me all at one like ice daggers. I was so grateful to run into this man, because had we not asked him for directions, we might have kept on going for God knows how long. "What are you going to do?" Asked the man. I told him we would probably head back the way we came from, back up the summit again and down Blood Mountain.
So we turned back. In just about fifteen minutes we were back at intersection with the Slaughter Creek Trail. I asked my friend what she wanted to do--go up Blood Mountain again or do the Slaughter Creek Trail. At this particular spot, we had service again, so we looked up the trail again and saw that the SCT was a part of the loop. We both decided that we were too lazy to go back up the mountain, and since we were also halfway done with the trail, we decided to go ahead and do the loop, looking for the Freeman Trail which would lead us back to the Byron Reece.
I forgot what time that was. It must have been around 2:30. When we walked along the SCT, it felt completely different. While the AT was cold and barren, this trail, which runs along the river, had leaves and green everywhere. And even though it ran along the AT, it felt so much warmer. Our morale increased again as we walked confidently forth. As long as we kept following the blue marked trees, we would be fine.
At some point, I saw the trail fork again, with another path that followed the river more closely. I remembered that the river flows very far West, and so decided to go the other direction. At every turn, I expected to see the Freeman Trail. I stopped at every wooden sign and marker for any signs of it, but there were none.
Despite the growing worry and impending doom, I could not remove myself from the beauty of the trail, the beauty of walking. I felt that being with nature was filling me up in places I didn't realize were empty, and it felt good to be so far, in time, space, and promise of return, to society. It was a form of suspension that was both unnerving and freeing at the same time.
After 2 hours of walking the SCT, I knew we were beyond hope of returning. Though I had begun to feel palpable fear, we had only one option, which was to move forward. My friend's extremities were still numb, and we had run out of food as well. We had to stay positive though, and passed the time by flapping our arms in the air to move the cirulation in our limbs (my friend's roommate is a 50 year old Russian poet, and he advised her to do this in the cold to stay warm).
And then, just as it seemed we would be on the trail forever, it ended. From afar I saw a street lamp, then a fence, and then a road. We exited the trail and stepped onto glorious asphalt.
The trail continued ahead. We faced yet another decision: to continue following it, or to turn left or right on the road. "No more trails," my friend said. We need civilization. We followed the road left because it seemed to be going down, but after it turned, it seemed to be going up a hill. Let's try the other way, I said. We turned around, and then suddenly noticed a mailbox.
"Maybe there are people we can ask for help," said my friend. We followed the mailbox, down a gravel road, and then stumbled on a shack that looked like it had come straight out of a cult movie. A huge, tattered confederate flag decorated the side of the house. All surrounding it were empty spray cans, metal junk, and an aroma of recent smoke. I couldn't find the front door. I don't know if there was even a front door. As we walked close, I was worried that someone would come out and shoot us. We were probably the only Asian girls in a hundred mile radius. We walked around the house, and I saw a set of battered, dirt covered washer and dryers. Nobody was answering. My friend was so confused about why I was so worried. She was international, and was not too familiar with the South and the hicks in the mountains. I explained to her that the confederate flag is a hate symbol, like the Nazi flag. She got the point.
We walked quickly away from the house and continued going down the road. We saw more mailboxes, and with each house, knocked to see if anyone was home. Nobody was, and we figured that these must be vacation houses. About half of them had confederate flags flying. I felt now a different kind of fear. Not of a slow, cold death in the forest, but a quick one, by hate and gunfire. The mailboxes were increasing in number too, and I felt that we must be going up the mountain in this case. But we were not going back.
After about twenty minutes, I prayed to the God above me to send us some people, and then a minute later, I heard the sound of a car. I turned around, and it was true! An old green car was slowly making its way up the road. My friend and I danced and waved, and the car eventually stopped next to us.
It was a middle aged man and woman (the woman was driving). We told them we were lost, and if they knew how to get back to the Byron Reece Memorial Trail. They were her on vacation and would be staying at one of the houses on this street. Neither of them knew where that was, but they had a guidebook for the trails in North Georgia. Apparently, my friend and I had hiked all the way to the opposite side of the mountain. The only way back was to go back on the Slaughter Creek, get to the summit of Blood Mountain again, and go back down the way we came. "Should take about an hour and a half to get to the top from here," said the man. It was 5:00. The sun was going to set at 6:30. If we got to the top, we could be going down in darkness.
Even though they had stopped, I did not feel much hospitality from them. They did not smile, and did not seem concerned that we were lost. "We can drive you up to the place where the trail starts," said the woman. I said that was fine, and thanked them. We drove up about a quarter mile to where the trail started again, and went off on our way.
"Those people were assholes," said my friend. I couldn't understand what she was talking about. Moreso, I was in denial. When I thought about it though, they had essentially sent us back to our deaths. I then wondered if they would have offered to drive us to our car if we had paid them. My friend had 80 dollars in her bag. I beat myself up for not thinking of that sooner.
My friend and I had walked just three minutes back on the trail when I began to have a very bad feeling. It would be dark when we got to the summit, if we got to the summit at all. We were both such inexperienced hikers that we would probably get lost again. Furthermore, the photo that I took of the map was terrible quality, since the book was in the shadows. "I think we should stay on the road," my friend said. "More people might come."
It was 5:45. I did not want to be back in the woods again, and thought, too, that it would be best to return to the road. I prayed again to God, the Universe, that we would get off this mountain alive. The plan now was to walk the other way down the road. What we thought was downhill was uphill. During the walk, I asked my friend what her scariest experience was. She told me it was when she got lost in the mountains of Tibet. "We were lost for maybe 4 hours. And it was so hilly, we couldn't tell one hill apart from the next, or where we were." They were rescued when a mountain boy found them. As we walked, I wondered where that couple had gone, which house was theirs, and if it was one with a confederate flag.
At this point I was tempted to buckle down to my knees and cry. My heart rate was up, I was breathing fast, and I felt like I was about to lose my mind. Either we would freeze outdoors or we would be killed or raped by the people up here. I told her that my scariest experience was getting stranded in Chile when the buses were not able to cross the Andes, but I had figured out that I could get a plane ticket to where I needed to be. That wasn't being lost though, it was just being set back.
Finally, we reached the part of the road where we initially started. We turned around that same corner, and then I saw, like a desert mirage, a group of people walking. People!
We walked steadily towards them. It was an elder man and woman and four teenagers. I was glad it was a family. Maybe they believed in love and forgiveness too.
As we approached them, I became very conscious of my body language. I made sure to smile, but not too much, to keep my hands out of my pockets, and to not look at them too much. I said hello first. The two groups finally met.
I explained that we had been hiking the Blood Mountain Loop but lost the trail, and were now wondering how to get back. They had just finished hiking to the summit as well. Just like the other couple, they had no idea how to get back to the Byron Reece. I asked them where this road led, and the man said that it turned into a trail which goes back up the mountain.
When he said that, I felt like someone had hammered my heart in two. The road, which was our last hope, was not a road to civilization. The man said that they were parked not too far away, and that close to where they parked was a big bulletin with phone numbers that we would call. "You can walk with us there," he said.
I was so happy to meet friendly strangers. We found the bulletin, found the park ranger's number, but our cell phones were still dead. Another door closed. One of the girls said that there was a park range that lived somewhere on this road, and that he could help us if we found them. If.
At this point, I felt that looking for the park ranger would be too risky, especially when the sun was going to set in half an hour. We had only one more option. I took a few deep breaths, calmed myself down, and then found the nerve to ask him, "Is there any way you could drive us to our car? It's getting really late, and I don't think we'll be able to make it back to our car safely if we go back on the trail. We're both small, we can fit in the trunk."
I watched the conflict sort itself out in the man's face. He was in front of his children too, and did not want to act in a shameful way. Finally, he turned to the woman and said, "It's your car, you decide." She said it would not be a problem.
It was 6:00. We were saved.
The story has a happy ending. The family drove us back to our car, which was about a 15 minute winding ride across the side of the mountain. We were lucky that the husband knew how to read maps. He took us back to our parking area without getting lost once. He told me that he uses an app called Map Me which has a usable map even when we don't have service.
I was never happier to see my 1997 Honda Accord with the stuffed animals in the back. We offered to pay them out of graciousness, but he declined. "Just bring a map next time," he said. And with that, we parted ways.
Sometimes I think about what would have happened if we did not run into that family, and I get chills. They probably would have been the last people on that mountain. I honestly believe that God answered my prayers.
And I gained a much bigger lesson from that hiking trip: when you are in the most impossible, hopeless, and scary situation, you just have to keep on walking. You cannot give up. During our hike we hit so many ruts, moments of decision, and all we could do was make our best guess and face the consequences. We went from one lost to another, one endless trail to the next, one disappointed hope to another. But because we did not give up, we finally met people who saved us.
Knowing that I survived Blood Mountain, I feel like I can survive the current struggles in my life too. I know that if I just keep moving and don't give in the urge to buckle and cry, I will make it down the mountain, I will make it out of the woods, and I will make it home. Plus, I'll have a good story to tell in the end.
About this Blog
I have no idea how to describe what my writing is about. I just write. I post when I can, which can be weekly or monthly depending on where the universe is taking me. As for the Grapefruit, my Vietnamese nickname, Buoi, means grapefruit.