There’s a line from an old Beatles song titled ‘Mother Nature’s Son’ that goes, “Sit beside a mountain stream. See her waters rise. Listen to the pretty sound of music as she flies.” Every time I hear that line I think about a warm stretch of days in the summer of 1994 and how they came to an abrupt end. But, the soundtrack of that time for me didn’t include the Beatles. Instead, it was a collection of great love songs.
The first half of that year had been a tough one for me. Maybe the toughest of my life to that point. Cancer took my mother in February at the age of 41, one day shy of my sister’s 7th birthday. Two weeks later, the girl I dated through 3 ½ years of college broke up with me. I immersed myself in schoolwork. It was my last quarter before graduation. I had a job as a student assistant to one of my professors, which got me outside into the field. We tramped through the woods mist netting birds and trapping small mammals for a survey of Moody Air Force Base near Valdosta, Georgia. Normally, this is where I was happiest. But, I wasn’t finding the joy I had always found in nature. It became just a job. My demons were robbing me of it all.
I finally graduated in May of that year. My mother’s absence from the ceremony left a gaping hole in that day for me. The wound was still fresh and a pall had settled over me. As sort of a reward to myself, and seeking a change of scenery, my friend Reid and I had been planning a camping trip to the mountains of North Georgia. We would leave a couple months after my graduation.
I had camped maybe 10-15 times before at various times in my life—growing up my Mom and Stepdad had taken me camping a few times up near Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina. The week after graduating High School some friends and I took our John boats down the Flint River from Montezuma to Lake Blackshear, camping out on the sandbars at night. Later I camped with friends, including several times with Reid, throughout my college years.
But, for the most part, I never had much need to “escape to nature” because I grew up and lived in a rural world. We really never thought much about it. That’s just how we lived. We were out there in it. Fishing, hunting, planting and picking fruits and vegetables, climbing trees, wandering through the woods, swimming in the lake, riding horses and bicycles. We were part of the landscape ourselves. I like to think I still am.
Most of my camping to that point had been done at drive up campsites at State Parks. The kind where you park your car ten feet from where you set up your tent (which is convenient) and there’s another campsite no more than 25 yards away. I had more privacy on the farm. This trip would be something different. I had never really hiked anywhere to go camping. It would be an authentic escape into the wilderness. It would be what I needed.
I met up with Reid at his parent’s house near Stone Mountain and we drove my 1986 4-cylinder Ford Mustang up into the mountains of the Cohutta Wilderness on the border of Georgia and Tennessee. Reid and I were both big Pearl Jam fans and he had won a CD of Pearl Jam’s April 1994 performance at the Fox Theatre from Atlanta’s alternative radio station, 99X. As a graduation gift, Reid, knowing how much I loved the band, had dubbed a tape for me from the CD, and with typical Reid sarcasm, labeled the cassette, “A Collection of Great Love Songs”. That concert recording became the soundtrack of our trip and of that time in my life.
We drove up into Tennessee, deep into the Cohutta Wilderness, and parked at the Beech Bottoms Trailhead, from where we would hike back into Georgia, toward the Jack’s River. The Beech Bottoms Trail is somewhat of a shortcut to Jacks River Falls, one of the most remote waterfalls in Georgia and certainly one of the most interesting as it tumbles across rock outcrops and empties into the larger pools below. Now, I believe, it’s only a day hike area but at that time, you could still camp there.
As a shortcut, it was only about 4 miles or so along the Beech Bottoms Trail, to the spot we had planned to camp near the river. I still have the photos of Reid and I looking young and energetic with packs on our backs in front of the trailhead sign as we set out. After about ¼ mile of hiking through the lush mountain laurel and hardwood-blanketed switchbacks, we crossed back into Georgia, climbing through the rhododendron and towering white pines. A world that smelled brand new. The further we went, the louder the Jacks river roared in our ears.
We had to ford a couple streams along the way but the water wasn’t too deep or dangerous and eventually we found the rocky, grass-lined riverbed of Jacks river flowing downstream on our left. We made camp not far from where the Jacks river meets the Beech Bottoms Trail.
So, here we were. Deep within the Cohutta Wilderness. The largest wilderness area East of the Mississippi. Thirty seven thousand acres of lush green mountains. Dense forests cut by two major trout streams and full of nothing but trees, wildflowers, deer, black bear, snakes, birds, wild hogs, the biggest bullfrogs I’ve ever seen, and the occasional hikers and campers you were apt to meet along the trail. It was a place to truly get away. To think. To heal.
The Beech Bottoms trail is considered a relatively short hike. The key term there being relative. This was rugged mountain country and I was a flatlander form the Coastal Plain of south Georgia. The hike was easily do-able, but it was a long 4 miles of strenuous country with a pack on my back for the first time. I enjoyed the first couple of miles. It then became work. The payoff though, such a remote, beautiful spot, was worth it. Besides it would be a few days before we had to make the trek back.
By the time we set up camp it was dark, and being worn out from the hike, we ate and turned in. The next morning we awoke refreshed and basking in the beauty of the glowing green world around us. Reid and I were both birders so we spent much of that day and the next hiking trails in search of birds, jumping and climbing on the rocks along the river and just took it easy. At some point each afternoon we’d go our separate ways for a little while. I would stretch out on a warm rock by the river, read a while.
During the night after our second day there, the weather took a turn. Tropical Storm Alberto had blown in from the Gulf of Mexico near Destin, Florida, then moved into West Central Georgia and Alabama dumping huge quantities of water. Pieces of the storm broke off and drifted, one cell of which found its way to the Cohutta Wilderness.
We were awakened in the night by the sound of rain. It grew harder and harder. The wind drove sheets of water through the trees and began to whip at our tent. Soon the weather was so loud we couldn’t hear each other talk. Outside, nature let loose its own violence upon that serene world from which we had crawled into the tent only a couple of hours before. We heard branches breaking in the trees. Soon we heard the whoosh and slam of trees falling all around us. Great old, enormous trees—white pine, beech, hickory, oak. We knew any minute one would come crashing down on top of us but we had nowhere to go for safety. We would have to ride it out.
After a harrowing and sleepless night, we emerged from our tent into the daylight to find trees down all around us. Though we and everything we had was soaking wet, our campsite was virtually untouched by the violence that had slammed the forest in the night. We were living in a miracle.
Reid and I set about straightening up our campsite, had a little breakfast, and started trying to dry out our things in the warm sunshine. After lunch we went for a hike along the river. We met a few people along the trail, most of them campers like us. We greeted most with a wave, a smile, a nod, or maybe even a brief “Hi”. Later, one fellow we met asked if we had parked at the Beech Bottoms trailhead. When we replied yes, he asked what we were driving. “A grey mustang”, I said. “Well, I’m sorry to tell you this”, he answered, “but its been broken into”.
The stranger’s words were the final straw for me. Though we were thankful to be alive and though our spirits had been brightened as we dried out and hiked around a little, the harrowing night we had experienced left me little tolerance for much else.
“That’s it”, I told Reid. “we’re heading back”.
“Why?”, Reid responded. “There’s nothing we can do about it now.”
“Maybe not”, I said. “You can stay if you want but I’m leaving.”
It was mid afternoon when we got word of the break-in. By the time we broke camp and got packed up, it was already late afternoon when we started the hike back. Darkness caught us along the trail and the best way to make a 4 mile hike through the wilderness carrying a pack longer, is to make the hike in the dark. The shallow streams we had crossed on the way in had swollen with the rain but they were manageable. We missed a couple of turns and had to double back to re-find the trail twice. We took turns with our flashlights, using only one at the time, trying to conserve our batteries as we tried to read the trail map and find our way.
By some miracle, we’re not still wandering around somewhere in the Cohutta Wilderness 26 years later. When Reid and I got to the trailhead, another group of three campers had made the same decision. Their car had been broken into as well. My car’s back window had been busted out. The stereo, which wasn’t anything fancy, a case of cassette tapes, a set of jumper cables, and some tools were missing. But, on the floor, amid the busted glass, lay a grey Maxell cassette tape with a label that read “A Collection of Great Love Songs”. We commiserated with our fellow victims over our predicament for a few minutes and they pulled out ahead of us down the road that would lead us off the mountain. We went a thousand yards or so and all of a sudden, their car stopped ahead of us. An oak tree had fallen across the road, blocking our way.
We all gathered around the fallen tree to observe the situation. Reid and I had a small folding camp saw but it wouldn’t be of much use on a tree of this size. Our three new friends had a single short-handled hatchet among them and so with no help on sight and nothing but time on our hands for the remainder of the night, the five of us took turns with that little hatchet, chopping away at the tree’s bulk one short swing at a time. We had to do this in two different spots on the tree in order to have a small enough section for us to roll out of the way and to create a wide enough opening to drive through. Finally after 2-3 hours we were able to get the road cleared and start back down the mountain, exhausted but cheered by the feeling of accomplishment.
We drove about 300 yards on and there was another tree blocking our path. So, we all got out and started chopping again. Finally, shortly after sunrise, we made it to the bottom of the mountain and turned West onto Big Frog Road, then on to Highway 411 and south to Georgia. Later that day I limped into my Aunt’s driveway in Moreland, probably as tired as I had ever been in my life. After recounting my story, I went straight to bed and slept for nearly 12 hours.
The storm that had pummeled us in the Cohutta Wilderness was the remnants of the tropical system that led to the great flood of 1994 in south Georgia. Aside from our adventure, the flood had cut off south Georgia from the rest of the state, leaving me stranded in Moreland, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Being around my mother’s family during that time probably did me as much good as the escape into the wilderness.
Nearly 28” of rain had fallen in Americus, Georgia when the system moved through. The Flint River crested at 26.3’ in Montezuma, 1000 bridges were closed, 471,00 acres of cropland were submerged in water, and 18,000 businesses and homes were damaged or destroyed. On our own farm, the waters of Lake Blackshear rose high enough to fill our family cabin on Limestone Creek up to the light switches. The lake crept into the fields beyond until the lake’s dam burst, inundating Albany, Georgia downstream. The waters of the Flint floated coffins out of their graves, and closed all the bridges in the area. Sinkholes developed in the porous limestone beneath Albany and swallowed up some of the homes that had escaped submersion in the water. They say it was a 500 year flood. The water covered an area larger than the state of Vermont.
A few months later, I received a call from a Sheriff’s Department in Tennessee. They had caught the culprits who broke into my car. It was a family who would park their van at the trailhead parking area late in the day where they would wait for nightfall, unload from the van, and steal what valuables they could find from the parked cars. None of my valuables were recovered. But, I still have that “Collection of Great Love Songs”.
One thought on “Mother Nature’s Son”
I enjoyed your adventure. You should scan the picture of you and your hiking buddy and post that with the article. Also maybe adding a picture from the internet of the falls would be great. But you did a wonderful job of painting a picture with your words. – ‘Pursuing Balance Through Adventure’