Posts Tagged ‘Hiking’

One of the blessings of hiking at Grand Canyon is the absence of wildlife that wants to have you for lunch.

True, Canyon Country is full of lethal snakes and spiders and such, but critters like that are not out to get you. They want to avoid you.

Most places I’ve hiked back East are similarly non-life-threatening. For years, I never gave much thought to my odds of surviving in the backcountry.

It took a trip to Yellowstone in May 2005 to bring to my attention the fact that everything changes in bear country. If bears are out there, taking a hike is putting your life on the line.

I went to Yellowstone for the usual reasons: the geysers, the wildlife, the scenery, and, of course, the hiking.

Imagine my consternation when I saw this sign at a trailhead…

Bear Country

Translation: if a bear kills you today, your estate can’t claim we didn’t warn you.

I was genuinely upset when I saw that sign. For one thing, I was rattled that the Wyoming backcountry is so dangerous. For another, I had never before been told not to hike alone. Hiking alone is what I do.

Now, I realize the bears aren’t waiting to ambush you. They lead their own lives and attend to whatever occupies the day of a bear in the woods.

But hitting the trail in bear country still amounts to a roll of the dice; if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time — surprising a mother bear with cubs, coming between some big male and a recent kill, or emerging from the undergrowth when it’s the bear’s lunchtime — it may well be curtains for you.

Fortunately, in addition to backcountry hiking, Yellowstone offered activities aplenty to keep me busy. For seven days, I stayed at two different in-park lodges, and I explored every geyser, waterfall, and other feature that was accessible by road. It was a full week.

And the photography. Oh, the photography.

If you are a proper tourist, you drive Yellowstone’s main road, which does a figure eight through the park. That route takes you to most of the park’s attractions, passing a stunning variety of wildlife along the way.

Herds of bison, deer, elk, and pronghorns are everywhere, as are great flocks of geese and ducks. You will frequently spot moose, bighorns, eagles, osprey, and more. Keeping their distance, but still there, are cagy coyotes on the prowl and magnificent wolf packs on the hunt.

And, wandering where they please, mostly unconcerned about the people, are the grizzlies and the black bears.

On day two of my trip, on the northeast leg of the figure eight one morning, I spotted a large male black bear making his way through the ponderosa pines. He was in a ravine 50 yards away, walking parallel to the road.

Along with two or three other cars, I pulled onto the left shoulder, turned off the engine, quickly got out my camera, and rolled down the window.

The bear plodded slowly along, ignoring us. Based on his direction of movement, I guessed that he would cross the road about 100 yards in front of us.

That was a disappointment. I had a 70-300mm zoom lens on my camera, but photos from that distance would be worthless.

Frankly, sitting there in my rented Dodge Neon, a virtual tin can, I had butterflies from being so close to a full-grown male bear, even though he was 40 yards away and not heading toward me.

Abruptly, that changed. As I drew a bead on him through the camera’s eyepiece, the bear made a sudden right turn, looked up at me, and headed directly toward my car.

I was terror-stricken. My skills as a photographer vanished. Every photo, I discovered later, was a blurry misfire. I didn’t soil myself, but it’s a wonder.

I sat there, gripped by fear, practically frozen, as the bear made his way slowly up the bank of the ravine in my direction. Something in my brain prompted me to keep taking photos, but not to roll up my window.

Finally, the bear reached the top of the ravine. He lurched onto the shoulder of the road 10 yards from where I, numb and speechless, sat behind the wheel of my tin can.

He was gigantic. His shaggy, sloping back was directly opposite my head. The only thing between us was a Nikon D70, held in a death grip in front of me.

But the bear payed me no mind. Without even looking my way, he turned and lumbered off toward the front of my car.

He passed within inches of my left front bumper. As he did, I fired off two quick photos.

Then he ambled across the road, entered the forest on the other side, and was gone.

The photos are forgettable. Even forgivable, if a person is generous. But the memory is indelible.

Etched in my mind is the image of a wall of thick black hair, for a brief moment almost filling my field of vision.

Along with the sight was the sound, as if whispered in my ear, of the rustling of the undergrowth and his gentle breathing, panting, and snorting as he passed mere feet away.


The bear made a sudden right turn, looked up at me,  and headed directly toward my car.

The bear made a sudden right turn, looked up at me, and headed directly toward my car.

My skills as a photographer vanished. Every photo,  I discovered later, was a blurry misfire.

My skills as a photographer vanished. Every photo, I discovered later, was a blurry misfire.

Etched in my mind is the image of a wall of thick black hair,  for a brief moment almost filling my field of vision.

Etched in my mind is the image of a wall of thick black hair, for a moment almost filling my field of vision.

Read Full Post »

The late William Styron, author of The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie’s Choice, took daily walks “for business and pleasure.”

As a professional writer, Styron said the act of walking allowed his mind to rid itself of mundane thoughts and preoccupations, clearing the way for a contemplative mood.

With his mind thus cleared, “Ideas, conceits, characters, even whole sentences and parts of paragraphs come pouring in on me in a happy flood.”

Walking “unlocks the subconscious in such a way as to allow the writer to feel his  mind spilling over with ideas.”

Well said. I understand fully. Never mind that someone had to paint me a picture and point at it.

You see, in my mind, walking was always an act of pleasure, never of business. Walking and hiking carry me away from the daily routine and deposit me in quiet, beautiful places that I can enjoy in solitude, while my mind… well… rids itself of mundane thoughts and preoccupations. Followed by a contemplative mood.

Styron noted that solitude is an essential aspect of successful walking. But he wisely allowed, as I do, a welcome exception: the company of a dog.

“One’s dog,” he wrote, “Whose physiology prevents it from being a chatterbox, can be a wonderful companion, making no conversational demands while providing an animated connection with one’s surroundings.”

“One must enjoy the scenery,” he avowed. “Otherwise, an indoor treadmill would suffice.”

Styron said that while a vigorous walk is of great benefit mentally, that isn’t the case with more strenuous outdoor pursuits, such as jogging, running, and banzai biking.

He felt that vigorous outdoor activities are physically risky and mentally counter-productive.

I think he was going overboard about the physical part, but I agree that sports of the pants-on-fire variety impede the clearing of the mind and hamper the enjoyment of the scenery.

Nathanial Hawthorne, an avid devotee of walking, sided with Styron. “Intellectual activity,” Hawthorne sniffed, “Is incompatible with any large amount of bodily exercise.”

Or as Styron so acidly said:

Many of history’s original and most versatile intellects have been impassioned walkers. It is grotesque to think of Immanuel Kant, Walt Whitman, Einstein, Lincoln, Amiel, Thoreau, Vladimir Nabokov, Emerson, Tolstoy, Matthew Arnold, Wordsworth, Oliver Wendell Holmes, George Gissing, John Burroughs, Samuel Johnson, or Thomas Mann ajog.

My hiking companion Paco, a welcome exception, leads the way.

My hiking companion Paco, a welcome exception, leads the way.

Read Full Post »

This announcement appeared recently on the website of the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta:

Important Message

In contrast to what was announced on the Neal Boortz radio program this morning (5/7/09), there is not a chimpanzee loose from the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. The Yerkes Research Center takes great precautions to ensure the safety of our animals and the personnel working with them.

The Yerkes Center is a little sensitive about publicity. Yerkes has been the target of animal rights protests for two decades. Numerous demonstrations have been aimed at the Center since the late 1980s, all peaceful except for a 1997 clash with police in which 64 people were arrested.

The Yerkes Center houses almost 3,500 primates of the non-human variety. As you would expect, the protesters claim many of these residents are mistreated, sometimes cruelly. The Center denies it.

Yerkes is part of Emory University in Atlanta, and it probably wouldn’t be on my radar screen at all, were it not for the Lawrenceville Field Station.

The Field Station is a 100-acre research facility tucked away in the woods near Lawrenceville, Georgia — just a few miles from where I lived from 1979 until 1990.

In the early 1980s, the Field Station was gated, but otherwise accessible. I once drove down Taylor Road, the main route into the facility, out of curiosity.

The compound wasn’t much. Just a series of office buildings up front and a scattering of anonymous structures under the pine trees in the background. Disappointed, I turned my car around, exchanged waves with the guard, and left.

When the protests started a few years later, Taylor Road was rerouted, and the access road to the Field Station was made private.

One weekend after they hunkered down and got more secretive, I got it in my head to get a better look at the Field Station by hiking to it through the woods.

I know — the idea was foolish. Imprudent. Harebrained.

But in my defense, hiking in the local woods was my thing in those days. Today, Gwinnett County has virtually no woods left. But 25 years ago, the forests went for miles in all directions. Chances are, I was either hiking in the mountains or exploring some three-wheeler trail or old roadbed close to home.

Actually, the idea came to me because of a powerline. Being tuned in to the local hiking options, I had noticed a powerline on the map that passed very close to the Yerkes compound.

I hiked powerlines all the time, I reasoned. Why not follow this one and see what I could see?

So one Saturday morning, I parked where the powerline crossed Old Peachtree Road, grabbed a snack and a water bottle, and headed south on the right-of-way.

It was one of those Georgia spring days that start out dewy and cool and end up dry and hot. New growth was popping out on the hardwoods. The undergrowth was filling in fast. I walked fairly quickly, trying to judge the distance from the car and my position relative to the field station.

After about a mile, there was no doubt I had found it. A 10-foot-high chain link fence, topped with barbed wire, blocked the right-of-way.

The fence disappeared into the trees to the east and to the west. I knew the Field Station was east of the powerline, so I set out along the fence in that direction.

Progress was easy. The fence-builders had cleared a path six feet wide along the perimeter. I was quite pleased with myself. My plan was going well.

Suddenly, I saw something white through the trees. It was a building, about 20 yards inside the fence. I pressed up against the fence and moved a few steps to peer through a gap in the foliage.

It was a large, windowless, one-level building. Two small doors opened into an area of bare dirt, fenced on the top and sides with chain link. Inside the compound were 20 or 30 rhesus monkeys.

I held my breath, stood perfectly still, and took in the scene. The monkeys were, I assume, engaged in their usual monkey business. They sat around, paced around, chattered, and dozed. Trying to get a better view, I moved a few feet down the fence line.

When I did, several monkeys detected the movement. They came to attention and stared in my direction.

I froze, but it was too late. They knew I was there. As the seconds passed, more and more monkeys became aware of the situation. Soon, damn near all of them were silently staring at my location behind the leaves.

Then a single WOO! broke the silence. Others hoots followed, and soon, the entire troop had worked itself into a lather over the presence of an interloper in the woods.


As I backed away from the fence, preparing to turn and vacate the area, one of the doors opened. A lab-coated employee emerged.

My last glimpse of the scene was of the man surveying the compound, observing that the monkeys were all looking in the same direction, and looking in that direction himself.

Then, with a remarkable burst of speed, I turned and sprinted away through the woods.

When I reached the powerline right-of-way, I figured I was safe. Even if armed guards ran me down, I had plausible deniability. I was just a guy out for a walk.

But no one accosted me, and I got back to the car without incident.

As I drove home, pulse rate returning to normal, I realized that my curiosity about the Field Station had been thoroughly satisfied.

Mission accomplished.


Read Full Post »

That afternoon, the weather on the Lava Falls Route was calm and clear, the temperature in the high 80s. Nevertheless, my progress on the descent was agonizingly slow.

The trail was steeper and far more difficult than I expected. Numerous times, I was unable to proceed while wearing my pack. I had to lower it ahead of me on a rope.

Within half an hour, I began to feel flushed. I was concerned, but pressed on.

Soon after, I realized I was becoming light-headed. My vision and concentration were affected. I stopped to consider this ominous turn of events.

There I was, weak, dizzy, nauseated, drenched with sweat, and becoming more so by the minute.

With ears buzzing and colored spots swimming around my field of vision, I concluded that the food poisoning had lowered my reserve strength, and the exertion of the hike finally used up the last of it.

Only two or three times in my long career on the trail have I abandoned a hike and headed home. This was one of those times. It would be folly to keep going.

So, less than a third of the way to the river, I turned around and began the long climb out.

My pace was snail-like, and it got slower as I grew dizzier and more feverish. I would take a few steps, pause to rest, and take a few more. I wore my pack when I could, dragged it behind me on a rope when necessary.

Eventually, I became quite delirious and lost track of time. My memory of the next several hours is spotty.

I remember concluding that in my condition, the pack was too heavy. So I unloaded much of the contents — stove, fuel, food, rain gear, camera — and abandoned it beside the trail.

I remember stopping in the shade of a large boulder to rest and nearly falling asleep. I shook myself awake and, with great effort, kept going.

After an eternity, I reached another large rock and another patch of shade. I paused again to rest.

I remember thinking that I had a simple choice. I could either find the strength to keep going, or I could sit down beside the trail and never get up again.

Essentially on auto-pilot, I continued to drag myself slowly upward, sometimes standing, sometimes crawling.

I was beyond drained when, just before dark, I reached the rim of the canyon at last.

To this day, I am amazed that I succeeded.

Spent and light-headed, I set up my tent and prepared a quick supper of freeze-dried eggs.

As daylight faded, I realized I was still wearing my sunglasses. I reached for the plastic eyeglass case clipped to my pack, which held my prescription glasses.

The case wasn’t there. It had been scraped off as I roped my pack up behind me.

The freeze-dried eggs did not stay down. I threw up with enthusiasm, sailed the rest of the eggs into the undergrowth, fell into my tent, and slept the sleep of the dead.

I awoke at first light, donned my sunglasses, drank some water, and prepared a bit  of breakfast, which I deposited promptly on the ground.

Despite that, I was rested and stronger than the day before. And I already knew what I had to do.

First, I needed to retrieve my abandoned possessions on the trail below. Had I really been so desperate and delirious that I jettisoned my gear, including a thousand-dollar Nikon camera? Yes, I had.

Second, I had food and water, but the prospect of waiting 18 hours for Terry to return had zero appeal. The only solution was to walk the eight miles to the Ranger Station and call Terry.

My foray back down the Lava Falls Route took less than an hour. I was greatly relieved to find my eyeglasses case within 30 feet of the abandoned gear. The case was intact, but the sharp lava rock had left deep scratches in the plastic, as if it had been clawed by a grizzly.

I was shocked when I saw the two large boulders that, in my delirium the day before, seemed so far apart. The distance between them was about 10 feet.

By 8:00 AM, I was back at the rim, exhausted anew and more than a little queasy again. I rested in the tent for 20 minutes until the nausea subsided, then set out for the Ranger Station. I needed to make progress before the sun got higher.

The walk was as grueling as you might imagine. Luckily, two miles from the ranger station, a pickup truck came along and gave me a lift. Weak and exhausted, I banged on the door of the Ranger’s residence.

The Ranger’s wife opened the door. Her husband was away, but she sat me down, got me a glass of ice water, and listened to my story.

She told me that the only telephone service at Toroweap was the Park’s emergency phone. But the line was strictly for dire emergencies, and my situation really didn’t qualify. She said the dispatcher would not be pleased if I called.

I was in no mood for technicalities. I lifted the received and was automatically connected. “Dispatch. What is your emergency?”

I told her my sad story and gave her Terry’s phone number.

“Sir, that is not an emergency. You are tying up this line and possibly blocking a legitimate emergency call.”

I wanted to reach through the line and slap her.

“I know that,” I said, “But I’m stranded out here and deathly ill. If you don’t call my ride, you WILL have an emergency. Please, just call the number.”

The dispatcher put me on hold briefly, then agreed to make the call. We hung up. The truly desperate were free to make their calls.

At about 1:00 PM, Terry arrived in a cloud of dust. He said the dispatcher gave no details, only that I had placed an emergency call, so he came quickly. By 3:00 PM, he had returned me to the motel in Fredonia.

By 4:30 PM, I was sitting in Nedra’s Café, the best Mexican restaurant on the Arizona Strip, with hopes of holding down a meal for the first time in days.

I succeeded. Nedra’s combination plate bolstered me immensely. Maybe by the next day, I thought, normalcy will return.

Normal was a nice thought, but it didn’t happen. I was rested and much better the next day, but still weak.

This was getting out of hand. I had been sick for days and wasn’t pulling out of it. How tainted was that slice of pizza, anyway?

With the Schmutz Spring work project still looming, I decided to go to the hospital in St. George, Utah, 90 minutes away.

The emergency room doctor did blood work, an EKG, and other tests. All my vitals and levels were right on.

I came to see him, he said, one day too soon. He told me to take a vacation for two days. No hiking, nothing strenuous. After that, I would be fine.

The next morning, I called Grand Canyon Field Institute and dropped out of the work project. Soon after, I was on the road north into Utah.

For the next week, I traveled to new territory — Calf Creek Falls, the petrified forest in Escalante, Capitol Reef National Park. As the ER doc predicted, I was soon back to normal and able to resume hiking without restriction or consequence.

I went to Moab, Arches National Park, Canyonlands, Newspaper Rock, and the ruins at Hovenweep. When it was time to head home, I drove south to Four Corners, past Shiprock, through Gallup, and on to Zuni Pueblo.

By the time I reached Albuquerque, the bloom was off my vacation rose. I was mentally back in the real world and resigned to going home.

That ill-fated trip handed me one final indignity before I got home: every single mile of Interstate 40 in Arkansas was under construction. The project was so vast, they were handing out brochures about it at the welcome centers. It was the most unpleasant 300 miles I ever experienced in a car.

When I got back to Georgia, I shared the story of my adventures and misadventures with the family.

My son Dustin said, “Dad, You need to promise you won’t go back to Lava Falls without one of us along.”

I promised.

Who knew a slice of pizza could have such consequences?

Last photo taken on the hike down.

Lava Falls, the elusive goal. Photo from a 2007 raft trip.

Lava Falls, the elusive goal. Photo from a 2007 raft trip.

Note to self: eschew heat-lamp pizza.

Note to self: eschew heat-lamp pizza.

Read Full Post »

I should have suspected my trip to Arizona was snakebit when I got food poisoning from a slice of heat-lamp pizza.

I should have known the trip was doomed when I stopped to pick up a rental truck, and the fellow who promised it to me had left the country.

Oh — and this trip was in September 2001, mere weeks after the 9/11 attacks. Air traffic nationwide was grounded. I lost a big chunk of vacation time to the long drive from Georgia to Arizona and back.

On paper, my vacation had great promise. I had signed up for a work project with the Grand Canyon Field Institute. Our group was going to Schmutz Spring, a natural spring near the Toroweap Overlook on the north rim of Grand Canyon. The spring had been stomped into mush by cattle and needed restoration.

It was my second trip to western Grand Canyon. The year before, I had gone to Toroweap with another Field Institute group, and I liked it. I wanted to explore further.

Specifically, I intended to hike down the infamous Toroweap Trail, which leads to Lava Falls, the biggest rapid on the Colorado River. I planned to camp there for two nights and return home with awesome photos.

Twice, I had been through mighty Lava Falls by raft. Hiking down to the rapid and camping there would be a new adventure.

The previous year, our Field Institute group had a chance to hike down to the river. The group leaders called for a vote, but not enough people wanted to go. I was seriously miffed.

So the real highlight of this 2001 trip was the week prior to the restoration project: my long-awaited hike down the Lava Falls Route.

Author and photographer John Annerino, who wrote the definitive Sierra Club handbook, “Hiking the Grand Canyon,” described the Lava Falls Route this way:

Plummeting an astonishing 2,600 vertical feet in a mile and a half, the Toroweap Trail is an avalanche of a route waiting to throw you to your knees during the descent and to suck the last drop of moisture out of you during the debilitating crawl out.

There is little more to say about the viper-plagued route snaking its way through glass-black lava other than follow the rock cairns on the descent and, once you turn around, the white crosses shining the way back out of this fearsome hole.

How could I resist? A mile and a half? That’s a stroll to the mailbox.

On the other hand, getting to the trailhead on the north rim of Grand Canyon is a serious challenge. The trail begins near the Toroweap Overlook — 75 rugged, unpaved miles from Fredonia, the nearest town. To drive your own car to Toroweap would be foolhardy; to drive a rental car, probably illegal.

But I had a plan. On my previous trip, I had met a mechanic in Fredonia, Tony, who offered to let me use (rent) his truck on some future visit. The truck, fitted with heavy-duty tires and three spares, routinely made the run out to Toroweap to rescue stranded motorists.

A few months earlier, I called and told him about my upcoming trip. He readily agreed to let me rent his truck.

At that point, I had a vehicle, a Backcountry Permit, and my gear at the ready. Things were falling into place.

The unraveling of everything began on September 18. After the long drive west, I stopped briefly at Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim. At the cafeteria, I ate a slice of pepperoni pizza for lunch before heading to Fredonia.

On the road a short time later, food poisoning kicked in. I pulled over, staggered away from the car, and vigorously deposited the offending pizza at the edge of a roadside meadow.

I reached Fredonia a few hours later, still queasy, and checked into my motel. I went to bed early, hoping to sleep it off.

A good night’s sleep helped considerably. The next morning, feeling almost normal again, I went to Tony’s garage to get the rental truck.

The garage was padlocked. According to a hand-written note in the window, Tony had gone hunting in Canada.

Tony, Tony, Tony.

I was screwed. I couldn’t drive the long, rough road to Toroweap in my own car. All it had was one laughable donut spare tire. Unless I could find other transportation, somewhere, somehow, my Lava Falls hike was off.

With nothing specific in mind, I drove a few miles north to Kanab, Utah, a larger town that might offer options.

When I got to town, I stopped at a camera store to buy a few lens cloths. I told the owner, Terry, about my plight and asked if he knew anyone who might rent me a vehicle.

Terry had a better idea. He would be willing to shuttle me to and from the trailhead for the modest sum of $250.

Ouch. That was about a dollar a mile for two roundtrips, rounded down a bit to be nice.

Well, what choice did I have? I went back to the motel, grabbed my gear, and checked out. Soon, Terry and I were bumping down the road to Toroweap in a Land Cruiser.

Sixty miles south of the nearest pavement sits the Toroweap Ranger Station. Ten miles beyond that, the dirt road ends at the Toroweap Overlook on the rim of Grand Canyon.

To reach the trail to Lava Falls, you turn onto a ridiculously primitive spur road five miles past the Ranger Station. That spur, which is so rough it isn’t even comfortable for walking, ends three miles later at the trailhead.

The trailhead consists of a small bare flat spot close to the rim, a forlorn visitor register, and a beat-up wooden sign where the Lava Falls Route begins.

Terry would be back in two days to pick me up. I was the sole permit-holder. No one else would be there for days.

At that point, my bout of food poisoning was the last thing on my mind. I felt perfectly fine.

Terry helped me unload my gear, which included two extra gallons of water to leave behind at the trailhead, and departed. It was 2:00 PM. I shouldered my pack and headed down the Lava Falls Route at last.

To be continued…

The adventure begins here.

The adventure begins here.

The trailhead.

The trailhead.

View from the rim of the namesake lava flow.

View from the rim showing the lava flow.

Read Full Post »

All through the 1980s, I spent my weekends exploring trails and back roads around the North Georgia mountains. I usually concentrated on one locale — the Blood Mountain area, Springer Mountain/Amicalola Falls, Brasstown Bald — until I understood it sufficiently, then moved on to another place.

One Saturday morning, I drove up to Unicoi Gap north of Helen and spent the day hiking on Section 5 of the Appalachian Trail.

I had a Dodge Caravan at the time. That weekend, I had removed the back seat and planned to car-camp for the night in a nearby Forest Service campground.

After the hike, I drove a few miles south of Unicoi Gap and pulled into the Andrews Cove Campground. The place had about 10 campsites, restrooms, picnic tables, etc. — ideal for my purposes.

Surprisingly, the place was empty. I hadn’t expected to have the campground all to myself. But, anticipating a quiet and peaceful night, I picked out a campsite and pulled in. It was almost dark.

As soon as I turned off the engine, I heard the crunching of gravel. A vehicle had entered the campground and was coming slowly toward me.

It was an ancient, flat-nose, Ford Econoline van, battered and dingy. The engine sputtered. The headlights dazzled my eyes in the fading twilight.

The vehicle slowly came to a stop two car lengths away. The windows were up, but I could make out several shapes inside.

The way our vehicles were situated, the driver side of my Caravan faced the passenger side of the Ford. Then someone rolled the window down, and a head appeared.

It was a male head with long, unkempt, oily hair. He was small, thin, unshaven. He held the stub of a cigarette in his fingers. Tobacco smoke and mountain music emanated from the window.

The man looked across at me and grinned a toothless grin. “Howdy,” he said.

“Howdy,” I replied.

The toothless man rolled his window back up, and the Ford lurched forward. It rolled a short distance and pulled into a campsite about 40 yards from mine.

They could have been ordinary citizens on vacation. They could have been Mennonite pilgrims on sabbatical. But when the Ford’s engine stopped, mine started.

I drove quietly out of Andrews Cove, went south to Helen, and checked into a motel.


Read Full Post »


Meleagris gallopavo, the wild turkey, is the creature Ben Franklin wanted as our national symbol instead of the bald eagle. He said this about the superiority of the turkey:

The Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.


In modern times, these vain & silly birds are doing quite well. Populations are high, predators are few, and for most turkeys, life is good.

In the late 1990s, I went hiking at the North Rim of Grand Canyon and got my introduction to M. gallopavo merriami, the subspecies found in the Rocky Mountains region.

Merriam’s turkeys are common at North Rim. They’re also a protected species inside the National Park, which is good for the turkeys, less so for some of the employees.

On that particular hiking trip, I left my cabin and was walking down the sidewalk in the direction of the lodge. Up ahead, I saw two uniformed Park Service workers standing idle, leaning on their garden rakes, watching a flock of wild turkeys 10 feet away destroying a planting bed.

The flock numbered about 10. They were obliterating a bed of newly-planted something — hostas or liriope, I think — intent on getting at the grubs or acorns or whatever they wanted under the soil.

I stopped, and the three of us stood there, watching the turkeys scratching busily. Clumps of greenery flew through the air.

“Why don’t you stop them?” I finally asked.

“Can’t,” said one man. “Can’t shoo ‘em off, can’t yell at ‘em. We have to pretend they’re not there.”

The other man added, “Can’t kick ‘em, can’t throw rocks at ‘em, can’t wring their scrawny necks.”

“They’re a protected species,” said the first man.

“They can do anything they please,” said the second man, “And all we can do is watch.”

“Well, no,” said the first man, “We get to repair the damage when they’re done.” He pointed to a nearby garden cart full of plants in plastic containers.

“We’ve tried to get the Park Service to let us shoo ‘em away,” said the second man. “That’s all — just shoo ‘em away. No harm to the birds in that.”

“But we’re not allowed,” said the first man. “They’re a protected species.”

“Am I allowed to shoo ‘em away for you?” I asked.


A few minutes later, for reasons of their own, the turkeys moved on. I wished the guys a nice day and moved on, too.

A short distance down the sidewalk, I turned and looked back. One of the men was raking up plant debris. The other was fetching the garden cart.




Occasionally, a few M. g. merriami will appear at Phantom Ranch, 20 trail miles from North Rim, on the floor of Grand Canyon. I never understood how they get there. Surely they don’t walk down, and flying isn’t their strong suit.

But when they do show up, strutting around in their turkey-like way and peering at you wall-eyed, they’re always a hit with the guests.

Usually, they aren’t any trouble. They roost in trees and on roofs, wander the pathways, and do their own thing, gobbling contentedly, mostly oblivious to the people.

However, in 2006, when Britt and I stopped at Phantom Ranch during a rim-to-rim hike, two turkeys had taken up residence there and were practically terrorizing the guests.

We heard talk of “those crazy turkeys” as soon as we arrived. People jokingly compared stories about being charged and chased. The staff told us to keep our distance and be wary. An adult turkey can weigh 20 pounds, after all, and those spurs are for real.

One of the staff said the turkeys had “about run out their string” and probably would be removed soon as nuisances.

I asked if removal meant they would be captured and released, captured and disappeared, or turkey fricasseed. The answer: captured and released at the South Rim.

I envisioned the turkeys, trussed up like turkeys, blindfolded, gagged, and strapped to the back of a mule for the long ride up the South Kaibab Trail.

Late one afternoon, Britt had his close encounter with the turkeys. We had left the hiker dorm and were on our way to the amphitheater for a Ranger Talk. I was in the lead, Britt was 20 yards behind.

Suddenly, he blurted out a surprised “What the –??” or something similar. I looked back, and he was trotting toward me, laughing and looking back over his shoulder.

“The turkeys!” he said with a nervous snicker, still moving. “They’re chasing me!” He may have addressed the turkeys, too, during his retreat. I can’t recall for sure.

Abruptly, the assault ended. Having routed the foe, the turkeys turned their limited attention to other matters. We proceeded to the Ranger Talk.

On the way, Britt said, “Dad, check this out.” He held up his digital camera and showed me this photo.

Read Full Post »

Beautiful Country

Rabun County, Georgia, is a hiker’s paradise. I love the place. I’ve been going there for years.

I’ve hiked nearly all of the trails, many of them numerous times. I’ve also blazed my share of informal trails, if I count the times I got lost and had to bushwhack my way out.

One characteristic of a good hike is a payoff, such as a waterfall, an overlook, or a river. For that reason, some of the best trails in Rabun lead down to the Chattooga River.

As a National Wild and Scenic River, the Chattooga is protected along both banks by a half-mile-wide zone where roads and development are not allowed.

Furthermore, the zone itself is not easily accessible. It is located deep in the rugged woods, far from everything.

Only one paved road, U.S. 76, crosses the Chattooga. Only a handful of remote and primitive dirt roads work their way down to the boundary of the river corridor. It is wild country, indeed.

The most popular trailheads along the corridor are at the end of the shorter and better-maintained dirt roads. Even those are not heavily used. A person might find one or two other vehicles at the turnaround, but usually no more than that.

Some  of the forest roads, however, wind deep into the hills, and they make for a long and bumpy ride. At the end of those, you are almost certain to be alone.

I remember one particular hike, I think in 2002, from one of those remote trailheads.

Actually, I barely remember the hike itself. But the memory of the day is chiseled into my brain nevertheless.

That morning, I loaded my gear and my dog Kelly into my trusty Geo Tracker, and we drove north on U.S. 441. Just across the Rabun County line, past Talullah Gorge, we turned right onto Camp Creek Road.

That road quickly becomes a forest road with numerous branches leading into the wild in all directions. My destination was a spur I had scouted on the map. It would give me access to a new stretch of the Chattooga.

As expected, the drive was long and rough. In one spot, a deep rut in the road, dug by tires spinning in the red clay after a rain, almost blocked my path. I needed the four-wheel drive to get past it.

In late morning, I parked at the turnaround, a sizable field of dry grass. The river corridor was marked by the usual metal emblems, but no trail signs were present. All I saw were three openings in the undergrowth, which I assumed correctly were footpaths.

One path led west, the wrong way. Another led north, angling away from the river corridor. The third led east, the proper direction. Kelly and I set out down the third trail.

Again, I don’t remember the hike. I’ve probably seen the Chattooga 50 times at various points along its banks, but I have no memory that day. I hope we had a nice hike.

Sometime in mid-afternoon, Kelly and I arrived back at the trailhead. As I emerged from the woods, I saw a truck parked behind the Tracker. In a field of several acres, the truck was blocking my car.

Standing next to the truck was a bald man whittling on a stick. Nearby, leaning against the door of my Tracker was a tall fellow with a beard. They both looked in my direction.

The two were tanned and lean, about age 40. They wore ordinary clothes, not hiking gear, and were hatless. A Rabun County license plate was on the truck.

The plate on my Tracker identified me as a guy from Walton County, down Atlanta way. Neither man smiled.

I knew I was in trouble, and why. True, this was the land of Deliverance, but that wasn’t my problem. These guys were pot farmers. They had a marijuana crop growing nearby, and they were waiting to find out what I was doing there.

“Hi, guys,” I said cheerily.

“Howdy.” said the man leaning on my car. “Been hikin‘ today?”

“Yeah, me and the dog went down to the river. Beautiful country,” I said.

Still leaning, the bearded man said, “You came all the way out here to see the river? There’s easier places to see the river.”

I wondered if this was my day of reckoning. I wondered if they would shoot me, dump my wretched corpse in some ravine, and take my dog home to their kids. It was their choice, not mine.

“Yeah, this is my first time here,” I said. “It looked interesting on the map, but it was a lot of trouble to get back in here. I ain’t likely to do it again.”

The other man stopped his whittling and threw away the stick. He folded his knife, put it back in its sheath, and walked toward the truck.

“Beautiful country up here,” the bearded man said, finally rising from the Tracker’s door. “Lived here all my life.”

He followed his friend to the truck and got behind the wheel. The whittler got in the passenger side. The driver cranked up the engine and turned his gaze in my direction.

“Beautiful country,” he said, his eyes locked on mine. “But like I say, there’s easier places to see the river.”

“Well, I’ve seen this part of the river now,” I told him. “No need to do it again.”

“Mind that rut goin’ out,” he said, and they drove away.


Read Full Post »

Common Courtesy

No hiking destination in these parts is better than the Cohutta Wilderness. Tucked up against Tennessee in northwest Georgia, the place is 60 square miles of spectacular mountain scenery. Winding through it are the Jacks River, the Conasauga River, numerous creeks, and over 90 miles of trail.

The Cohutta is remote and roadless. Some trails have 20 to 40 river crossings. Even the names are invigorating — Tearbritches, Panther Creek, Rough Ridge, Sugar Cove, Beech Bottom.

My first trip to the Cohutta was on a summer day in the early 1990s. My friend Richard and I drove up one Saturday to walk the Beech Bottom Trail, which starts at the northern edge of the wilderness and leads south to the Jacks River and Jacks River Falls.

We chose the Beech Bottom because it’s the easiest trail in the Cohutta — relatively flat and just four miles to the river. It’s also one of the busiest trails up there, but we met few others along the way.

Richard and I were dressed light and moving along quickly. We reached the river, turned upstream on the Jacks River Trail, and arrived at Jacks River Falls in time to eat lunch. After a couple of hours of swimming below the falls and exploring, we set out for the return trip.

Before long, two men appeared around a bend in the trail, coming toward us. They were dressed in hunting clothes and cradling shotguns. This was not a good thing anytime, but especially in a protected wilderness.

The men, who said they were down from Tennessee for the day, clearly had been drinking. That fact had left them not mellow, but belligerent.

Used to be peaceful up here. Now them DAMN Atlanta people are everywhere.

Richard and I earnestly agreed, adding that we weren’t from Atlanta or anywhere near the place.

People ain’t got common courtesy no more. Wouldn’t give you the time of day.

We earnestly agreed that common courtesy seems to be on the wane.

The way I was raised, if a man offered you a drink, you’d take it out of common courtesy.

We said, yes, you would indeed feel the obligation.

Ain’t no point offerin’ a drink to them DAMN Atlanta people.

Probably not, probably not.

Say, boys, it’s a hot day, and you must be thirsty. We just happen to have a supply of alcoholic beverage with us. Would you join us for a drink?

Richard said we were flattered, but we preferred to have drinks after a hike, not during. I cringed.

Y’all don’t want to have a drink with us? That ain’t very neighborly, friend.

I spoke up quickly and said Richard was just being modest. We would be delighted, honored, proud, to have a drink with them.

One of the men produced a pint bottle, plain glass with no label, full to the top with a clear fluid, and unscrewed the cap. He took a healthy swig and handed the bottle to Richard.

Richard hoisted the bottle without hesitation and took a long pull. He handed the bottle to the second man, who did the same and passed the bottle to me.

I expected the taste and smell of diesel fuel. Instead, the liquor was smooth and pleasant, with a delightful, elusive taste and fragrance I haven’t experienced before or since. It was good stuff.

Good seein’ you boys! Y’all take care now!

By the time Richard and I arrived back at the car, the moonshine buzz had worn off, but the laughing and joking about the encounter went on for a long time.

I never did check, but surely, hooch and shotguns are illegal in the Cohutta. Surely.


Read Full Post »

In Nov. 2005, when I hiked down to Phantom Ranch, at the bottom of Grand Canyon, one of the staff workers there was a sweet young girl from Georgia named Lori.

Lori grew up in Covington. She was a recent graduate of the University of West Georgia. She became curious about Grand Canyon, went west to check it out, and took a job at Phantom Ranch.

Covington is one town away from Conyers, where I worked at the time, so Lori was my immediate pal. Furthermore, I knew that West Georgia is in Carrolton. “Ooooh!” she said. “You’re the only person in Arizona who knows where Carrolton is!”

Lori also said she is a huge Georgia Bulldogs fan. So last month, when Britt and I returned to Grand Canyon for some hiking, I took along a gift for Lori — a red rubber UGA “spirit band” that I bought in Athens at the campus bookstore.

When Britt and I arrived at Phantom Ranch, I asked the dude in the cantina if Lori still worked there. He said she did, but she was in Flagstaff that week with some pals. Too bad I missed her.

I showed him the spirit band and asked if he would give it to her when she returned. He agreed and put the band on his wrist.

“You know,” he said, “I’m really doing you a big favor, seeing as how I went to LSU.” I expressed my sympathy, ordered two beers, and went to join Britt at the table.

A few minutes later, the LSU guy came over and said, “Man, I’m sorry, but I’m gonna have to take this thing off. It’s burning my skin!”

He stripped it off his wrist and wiped his brow in exaggerated relief. “I think I’ll just keep it behind the counter,” he said.

“Sorry about that, friend,“ I said. “It takes a true believer to wear one of those things.”

He smiled and muttered something I didn’t catch.

Just doing my part to promote the Bulldog Nation, wherever I find it.

Lori in her office, the Phantom Ranch Cantina.

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »