Shadows loped along the mountains that filled the sky when I paused to look and breath before entering the Betty Gap trailhead in Georgia's Cohutta Wilderness. Carrying my backpack home with me like a turtle, I felt an intoxicating sense of freedom. The mountains rang back the sound of my footfall as I stepped wide-eyed past the thick green elliptical leaves, and the pale pink fragrant flowers of the rhododendrons. Sunlight shimmered like water on the bristle-tipped foliage of the oak-tree forest casting sun-dappled shadows on the earth.
The trail followed a tiny rivulet that whirred down the mountain for two miles to empty into the larger fourteen-mile north flowing Conasauga River. Beads of sweat collected on my temples and back from the high humidity.
Outside the Smoky Mountains the Cohutta's is the largest mountain wilderness area in the East. Lying in the Southern Appalachian highlands it extends north between Chatsworth and Elijah, Georgia. The sixty-square miles of the Cohutta Wilderness is part of the western Blue Ridge and has round, flat-topped peaks covered with deep, damp, black soil.
The mountains were formed about two-hundred-and-thirty-five-million years ago, when the North American, European and African continents collided. Over the years the rivers, wind and weather have worn as much as five miles off the mountains.
The name "Smoky Mountains" comes from the mild temperatures and heavy precipitation that makes the forest so dense that mist rises on warm days, often obscuring the mountain tops.
Most of the fifteen trails follow the Jacks and Conasauga Rivers. With thirty-eight river crossings on the Conasauga River, I backpacked in rubber sandals and carried a pair of tennis shoes to use at night. The sun was setting invisibly behind the mountains when I pitched my tent among the flowering rhododendrons.
Leaning on a walking stick for balance while day hiking the following morning, I stepped gingerly among the ankle deep rocks at the first two river crossings. Feeling more confident at the third, I waded swiftly by focusing on the feel of my feet on the rock ridges.
Lazing on a boulder in the shade I closed my eyes. "Ka-ploosh, crack" a sound came behind me. I jumped up and looked around. A fisherman wearing camouflage clothes was fly-fishing in a backwater pool. He did not see me. Lying back I watched the white billowing clouds head east and the tree tops sway in tune with the bubbling water.
The rod of the fisherman made a whipping sound as he worked his way towards me. Not wanting to scare him I kept quiet. He moved closer—he saw me and winced. Peering at me he frowned.
"Ya hikin' alone?" he asked gruffly.
"Yes ... s!" I muttered, feeling uneasy.
He strode towards me and sat down on my rock. "Ya so purty and men is men!" he exclaimed glancing sideways.
"Catch anything?" I stammered nervously.
"Na, didn't git them trout today," he drawled. His hands shook when he took out a cigarette. "Where ya from?" he asked lighting it.
"I'm from Woodstock ... Canton area. Ya know it?"
"I've been through there."
He got up, put out his cigarette and picked up his rod. "Ya be careful now," he said slipping back into the river.
A six-inch brown speckled trout, with a transparent ventral fin, hovered within touching distance when I soaked my tired body back at camp. Stirred by the fish’s trust I felt part of a larger universe.
Knocked breathless by the Conasauga's deep canyons and waterfalls that splashed with a steady roar into huge clear pools or gazing spellbound at the sparkle of light on the gurgling river and the tiny minnows darting against the current, the four days passed quickly.
Watching the faint promise of saffron in the east from my tent on the fifth morning I decided to do a 24-hour spirit quest. A spirit (or vision) quest involves spending one to fourteen days fasting while sitting in a ten-foot circle in the wilderness. The goal is to purify the heart and body for a vision of our purpose on earth. In some cultures a quest is a required right of passage to learn how to best serve the community.
A monarch butterfly with deep orange and black rimmed wings flapped and circled while I sat against a fir tree in the sun. Hovering a moment it landed on my knee. Astonished, I trembled with delight. Waving its hair-like antenna it probed and tasted my skin with its delicate black proboscis and tiny feet. When I moved, it vaulted off, then skittered and bobbed right back. Rolling up its proboscis it slowly flapped its velvet mosaic-like wings covered with invisible scales.
My spirit soared as I gazed in wonder at this tiny being who could capture and hold my heart. Transfigured, the butterfly seemed endowed with divinity. When I stirred it vaulted up past the rhododendrons and out of sight.
Having a butterfly for company had been an honor, and I felt lonely when it finally left.
Half the river was in the shade when tree shadows lengthened and time passed. Facing upstream I stretched out my legs on a rocky seat still warm from the morning sun and touched the water with my bare toes. Brown, yellow and white pebbles rattled like dice.
Feeling hungry I was tempted to break my fast. Remembering how a beautiful butterfly had kept me company, I felt comforted.
Although I received no grand vision I got a deeper understanding of my frailty, a greater humility and a strengthened sense of self-discipline.
The sun's rays glowed through the forest to form pools of light on the gurgling river when I broke my fast the following morning. Steeple-like trees sparkled in the sunshine and the air was thick with the scent of lichens, mosses and mushrooms when I went for a walk. Feeling radiant and alive like a flower-strewn field, I hummed to myself.
At the third river crossing there was a rush and a scramble of confusion when a doe took off across the river, its white tail high like a flag. Her brown spotted fawn stood motionless behind a bush. Kneeling spellbound I crept closer to get a better look. With a rush the fawn bounded towards me but veered off behind a bush a few paces away.
Ashamed of spooking the deer I crossed the river and squatted against a rock. The trembling fawn darted to the river's edge further up stream. Looking over its shoulder it seemed to listen a moment, then whirled around and slipped behind a rock. The faun rushed to the doe when she daintily stepped into the river. Facing me they stood together, their golden brown bodies and eyes shining in the misty yellow-white light. A waterfall, surrounded by pink rhododendron flowers, thundered behind them—a picture of paradise. Then they were gone.
Another brown long legged doe entered the river as I was about to leave. She strolled forward, stopped at the waterfall and cupped her pointed ears. Stunned that the deer could stand before me without fear, I sat frozen. It seemed like a scene in heaven in which some spell held me. Then with a flick of her white tail, she vanished.
Placing the picture of the deer in my gallery of ecstatic memories, I frolicked down the trail filled with the sheer staggering glory of being alive.
For five days I'd not seen deer, then the day after my spirit quest, I saw five. Hallowed by their presence I felt connected to the universal current of life. It came as no surprise when I later learned that the deer are a symbol of love for the Huichol Indians in Mexico.
Thunder rumbled in the distance and dark clouds gathered when I sat next to a waterfall eating lunch. Looking up, the blackened sky became a burst of light, revealing dark rolling clouds. The crackling crush of thunder was so loud I feared it would shatter and split the cliffs. Then a few stinging drops!
A cold driving rain blotted out the canyon, and lightning bolts lit up the world a few seconds before a booming thunderclap echoed through the mountains. I jumped up and traipsed back in the beating rain. Although my poncho kept me dry, the crashing thunder next to my head and the roar of the river rising left me dazed.
Light veils of mist melted in the clean pure air when the sun came out a couple of miles from my tent.
The skies darkened and it began to thunder when I pitched my tent on top of a mountain near a waterfall the following day.
A blinding lightning bolt lit up the canyon and the world became one huge boom. Its volume shook the ground. The heavens opened, pouring rain like a waterfall. Trembling with fear I sprinted to my tent. The drumming of raindrops on my tent fly competed with the flickering lightning and the reverberating thunder booms. The skies grew even darker. Thunder, lightning and heavy rain continued for over and hour. Cold and wet I changed into dry clothes and ate trail-mix for dinner. The waterfall's roar sounded louder when the rain stopped. Peering at the river my mouth went dry. The fast-flowing muddy brown current was swift enough to sweep a person into the gorge.
The slow darkness, the raging water lit a flame of terror that began to burn bright. Being seven miles from my car and three miles from an empty parking lot brought little relief. Frightened by nature's power I crawled in my tent. Sleep would not come.
People seemed to be singing. I bolted upright to listen. Some folks laughed and cheered, others whooped and hollered. My heart beat faster. Was I going crazy? A harpsichord began to play in what sounded like a pub. My mouth went dry and I began to shiver. Was I hearing the sounds of civilization in my head or were they electrical waves in the water and air? Was I hallucinating? Lying motionless with my head against the pillow the sounds got louder. I half rose. The roar of the waterfall was audible above a church choir and organ. Astonished, my skin turned to goose flesh. Trembling from exhaustion and terror I fell asleep.
The sky was pink when I looked out my tent on following morning. My pulse quickened. The songs of civilization were still with me. A baby was crying while people sang hymns. But my fear had disappeared with the darkness. Remembering a comment by Thor Heyerdahl, an adventurer and author, about music without sound between the moss covered stones and foliage and beyond our eardrums, I felt better. Staggered by life's mysteries, I named the place "Vision Mountain" for its teachings seemed to be about confronting my fear and the songs of humankind.
The Conasauga River's water level was normal again so I stepped down the trail to the ecstatic sound of orchestral music.
Rock music filled the air when I relaxed on a ledge above the waterfall after a walk. Pleasantly tired, the songs and sounds of civilization did not keep me awake when I went to bed.
Light filtered through the trees and puffs of cool air brushed my face when I opened the tent the next morning. The songs of civilization had become more "primitive," sounding like African and Native American chanting. I liked it better; it was softer and more joyful. It was easy to tune into the "civilized realm of song" but I had to make a conscious effort to listen to the river. Because I was content the waterfall sounded gentler.
With only two days left, it was time to camp closer to my car. Taking down my tent I backpacked to the Panther Creek and Conasauga River trail intersection.
A dark brown two-inch long dusky salamander lay among the rocks when I washed my plate after lunch. I moved closer but it withdrew behind the stone. Its wet blotchy body reappeared half walking, half swimming among the pebbles when I sat still. Inching closer it lifted its lizard-like head out of the water, pumped its throat rapidly to increase airflow, and placed it on a stone. Two soft round eyes watched me. Sitting stone-like and utterly focused I felt like I was seeing the silent, deaf salamander for the first time. For company, I had a salamander and handful of water bugs yet I was content. My awareness seemed to intensify when I stopped thinking.
It had begun to sprinkle when I pitched my tent under some trees near a quiet deep pool. Sitting in the tent doorway I thought how cities seemed boring compared to the wilderness, there was so much more to see and do. My body, though stiff in places, felt stronger and healthier. Living in the woods and in the moment I felt a part of all beings, all creation.
At first there was a pitter, patter but when the drops got larger, the drumming started and I moved into my tent.
All the inhabitants of the earth were represented in the songs of civilization, I realized with wonder—Native American, East Indian, Asian, African and European. A rooster even crowed periodically. Was it the single song of the "Uni-verse?" Since I liked the singing I did not mind.
A brooding gray sky framed the overcast day when I slowly began the one-and-a-half-mile relentlessly steep thousand-foot ascent to my car at Betty Gap the next morning. The smell of leaves and earth and an eerie mist shrouded the trees enclosed by ferns and lichen. I stopped to rest when my heart raced while the gentle rain cooled my sweaty body.
Scurrying out of the trail, I changed into dry clothes and began my slow decent down the mountain in my car. The rain strengthened making deep channels in the gravel and the air hung thick with mist. My body remained tense until the road was paved. I relaxed and felt a sense of accomplishment—I had been alone in the wilderness for 10 days.
Something did not feel right. All I could hear was the hum of the car engine and the pitter-patter of rain on the windshield! The song of the universe had gone! As I headed back home to Macon, Georgia on the traffic-clogged interstate I felt a great loss.