One day in mid-October, I wandered into Occonee County for a walk in the woods. I had scheduled a day hike for students, but no one showed up. I was still in the mood, so I just took off for an area I had read about in a magazine. The Chauga River is a fairly short run through national forest, down to Lake Hartwell, but it is pretty and unspoiled. I wondered if there was nice hiking along it or if it might be good canoeing. So I got out the topo maps and tried to approach the river by road and by trail.
So I found Jenkins Bridge, still following the topo map, worked my way upstream, found a dirt road east, and went down a ways. But there, the road forked back to the highway okay but continued down to the river as a narrow, gullied track that I certainly couldn’t risk.
It reminded me so much of a day about 15 years ago, when younger son Colin and I drove out to search for put-in and take-out spots on the Tyger River near home. It was a cloudy, drizzly day like this Chauga day, and we were driving our little Toyota Tercel. The pavement ended, and the gravel got thinner and thinner. We drove on rain-slick dirt. I said to myself, if I can just get down this hill and back up the other side, we'll connect to a better road along the next ridge. I was younger then, and we blasted down, through a rivulet at the bottom, and up the other side. I was slipping and skidding, and at a level spot, I stopped to reconsider, before I bogged down or slid off the crown or otherwise lost all control of the situation.
We walked up the hill, and I just didn't think we could make it. Well, I was part way up the other side. Could I turn around, blast down, and muscle my way back up to the start? I tried it, but momentum couldn't carry me through one slippery spot. I backed off, still on the crown and out of the ditch. We gathered branches and laid them over the mud, and I prepared myself for one last effort, before we'd just have to hike out and find a friendly farmer with a tractor.
I could just hear him. "What in heaven's name are you doing down in this hole on a day like today?"
The top of the hill wasn't too far away, just up a stretch and around a curve to level gravel road. I told Colin to wait by the side of the road. I probably thought a little less weight would help, or maybe I didn't want him in the car when I bounced into the ditch. I walked back down to the car, revved her up, tore up the hill, over the branches, tires screaming, around the curve, and onto the gravel.
Ah, joy! So much trouble saved, and time and expense and embarrassment avoided.
I walked back down the hill to get Colin. He was running up the hill, crying, stumbling. He thought I'd gone off and left him, standing in the rain and mud, alone, miles from home, only wet fields and desolation all around.
I hugged him. I told him I had to keep going or I'd get stuck again. I couldn't have stopped to pick him up. I should have explained better. I'd never leave him.
I bet I've told this story before and will tell it again. I suppose a muddy road going downhill on a cloudy day will always remind me of that father-son adventure.
But I'm more conservative now, more thoughtful. I didn't try for the remains of Davis Bridge. Instead, I drove farther upstream and found a dirt road into a game management area. Public land. This seemed better. I walked through weeds, wet to my knees. I met two hunters coming out and then tied a red bandana around my head. It's deer season. I started whistling. Maybe I shouldn't do that. They might shoot me for scaring the game.
The stream and marshy spot on the old map was now a pond. A great Blue Heron flew along the opposite shore, his neck crooked into a tight S. A beaver or muskrat swam by, dived down, and reemerged a little farther off. A flock of starlings screeched like dozens of rusty hinges and drove a hawk up over the ridge. There were lots of new dirt roads. I hied up through the woods and out onto a height over a pasture.
I drove still farther upstream, into the national forest. The fall colors were deep coral and gold, and the wind brought great blizzards of them sweeping across the road. I found another dirt road and a trail down to Riley Moore Falls on the Chauga. I think it was 80' across and 10' high, a smooth, white curtain broken by rocks at the bottom, and a big pool swirling with swift currents.
That was a pretty spot, but we did not have old, mature forest here. This was a new trail, through immature growth. The trail cut raw scars in the clay, and plastic drainage pipes ran under the trail. I thought about the old terrain of the Appalachian Trail and natural stepping stones across the boggy spots. There were thick stands of young saplings, cut stumps sprouting circles of suckers, awkward and angular piles of dirt where bulldozers had worked, small erosion gullies. These wounds were softened by a few years now, but they left unnatural shapes and contours just the same. The AT has been described as a long, green tunnel; this trail was open to the sky walls, weeds, drifts of honeysuckle, but no roof.
The bank of the Chauga was uneven, overgrown and rocky, steep, with logs and branches tumbled around. I could just picture myself coming into this, optimistically, naively. I would have planned the hike at home, poring over the topo maps. "Oh, what a pretty river. Who needs a trail? I'll hike along the shore and maybe up across wooded slopes, slowly and leisurely making my way downstream through national forest, to the top of Lake Hartwell." Meredith would drive me to the headwaters and drop me off. "I'll meet you in five days at the Davis Bridge." A kiss goodbye.
I sort of did that in Chicago, in the fall of '68. Full of a minimalist fervor and an uncritical love of nature, I carried almost nothing a little cold food, I suppose, but no camping equipment. I thought I would pile up fallen leaves and burrow under for warmth and to keep mosquitoes at bay. Seriously. It was the '60s. Mother Earth News would begin publication just two years later. Meredith dropped me off, I would hike and commune with nature for a couple of days, and then walk back home; the forest was only a few miles west. I don't remember many details, only that there were no blankets of fallen leaves. It was fairly young woods, drab, barren; this was not Sequoia National Park. I ended up walking back home that night, late into the night. I was stopped by Chicago police (it was just before the Democratic national convention and hippies were coming to town), but they ended up giving me bus fare to get me off the streets. That didn't work because a transit strike began just then, at midnight.
Sleep under a pile of leaves indeed.
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