BMT 2020: Day 1, Springer Mountain to Bryson Gap

The boys are back in town

One key to successful long-distance hiking is flexibility. So after nearly 5,000 miles of thru-hiking, I've felt like I could adapt to just about any unexpected circumstance.

Then 2020 came along and put flexibility to the test.

I had several plans in place for this year. These included two long section hikes of the Continental Divide Trail, as well as some additional traveling with my wife.

In mid-March, after plane tickets had been purchased and packing lists had been made, the COVID-19 pandemic stopped all of my plans in their tracks.

My wife Kim and I were fortunate. We were able to stay healthy, but a big reason for that was we hunkered down in our home and didn't take risks like travel or eating in restaurants.

As fall approached, I began to get itchy from this quarantine and looked for a way to get outdoors for more than just a day hike. By now, I was already hoping the pandemic would ease enough that I could attempt a full CDT thru-hike in 2021. Perhaps a vaccine would help make that possible.

Still, that trip was too indefinite and far away to wait. I wanted to take a long hike now. That's when I hit upon the idea of hiking a shorter long trail. It needed to be one that could be hiked safely and responsibly.

I considered a few options that were within a day's drive of my house in Tennessee. The Benton MacKaye Trail eventually became the perfect fit. It was just under 300 miles long, running from North Georgia to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Most of this trail was two hours or less from my home. I could easily get to and from the trail, and it was close enough that I could make a couple of quick trips home in the middle of my hike to resupply. In this way, I wouldn't need to hitch into a town or stay in a motel. Minimizing my exposure to others would be much easier.

My ever-supportive wife agreed to this plan, which was a key to making it work. She would be my shuttle driver.

I didn't want to spend three weeks alone on the trail, so I recruited three friends. I knew they were also taking precautions to avoid COVID-19 risks and would be willing to follow safe practices like wearing masks while indoors.

DateThursday, October 22, 2020
WeatherMostly sunny, high in the low 70s and overnight low around 60; light rain late at night
Trail ConditionsMany ups and downs, as expected for a North Georgia trail
Today's Miles12.3
Trip Miles12.3

My hiking companions for this trip were Just Awesome, Tengo Hambre, and Polecat.

JA became a good friend when we hiked together during the desert section of the PCT. Likewise, I got to know Tengo while hiking through Maine on the AT.

I've known Polecat for about 20 years. He lives in my neighborhood and had already joined me on sections of the AT and PCT. He was unable to commit to hiking the full three-week trip, but he planned to join us for the middle week.

For this week, just JA, Tengo, and I would be hiking together. My wife Kim rode with us so we wouldn't have to leave a car at the trailhead.

On our way to the southern terminus of the BMT at Springer Mountain, we made a stop at Iron Bridge General Store and Café. This was to drop off a cache of food, which will shorten the distance to our first resupply. The trail goes past the store, and we will be able to pick up our food the day after tomorrow.

After a bumpy ride on a gravel road, we reached a parking lot at 11 a.m. The last time I had been here was nearly four years ago when I started my AT thru-hike.

Memories from that day would hit me several times today. They were constant reminders of how much things have changed.

When I started my hike here in 2017, I wasn't certain I could complete a thru-hike. I had never attempted something like that before. Despite all of my preparation, I didn't know how my body would hold up. I wasn't even sure I would enjoy being on a trail for six months.

Now I am hiking with confidence and with friends I met on previous hikes.

After Kim left us at the parking lot, we walked about a mile to the top of Springer Mountain. The trail was the same as I remembered it, though today it wasn't raining. The weather was sunny, and for late October, pleasantly warm.

Both the BMT and AT begin on Springer Mountain, but not at the same spot. They are separated by about two-tenths of a mile.

We followed the AT past where the BMT began to the top of the mountain. A familiar plaque was there to mark the AT's southern terminus. Painted next to it was the trail's first white blaze.

This was a sentimental visit for Tengo and me. Although JA hadn't been here before, he was already entertaining thoughts of doing the AT.

After taking a few photos, we backtracked to where the BMT connected. Its southern terminus was far less noteworthy, just a junction with the AT.

A short distance away was a bronze plaque mounted on a boulder, which honored MacKaye for his vision of creating a long trail that extended the length of the Appalachian Mountains. He called it a "crestline footpath."

He's known as the "father" of the AT because of his foresight and planning. It's fair to note, however, that he was far from a perfect leader for the project.

Even the Benton MacKaye Trail Association's website calls him a curmudgeon. "Because he found compromise difficult," the organization says, "he frequently wore out his welcome, or resigned in frustration."

Included in MacKaye's proposal for an Appalachian Trail was a series of spur trails to extend the AT and connect it to other regions.

In the 1970s, Dave Sherman became intrigued by this idea while working as director of the Office of Planning and Research for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. He proposed the construction of a spur trail extending from Springer Mountain and along the Tennessee-North Carolina border. It would be named to honor MacKaye.

It took 30 years for Sherman's idea to become a completed trail.

Past the marker, the trail continued a short descent, then made a shorter climb over Ball Mountain.

About half of the leaves from surrounding trees had already fallen and covered the ground. Although I enjoy the cooler, drier weather of fall, the downside of hiking in this season is the trail is covered in leaves. They hide roots and rocks, and they can be slippery.

On the descending side of Ball Mountain, we came to a short spur from the trail. This led to a spot called Owen's Overlook.

The viewpoint is named for George Owen, one of the volunteers who helped to map and construct the BMT. A 2007 Chicago Tribune story quotes Owen as saying, "When we were building the Benton MacKaye, we had the option of going down in the valley or staying up here. When I saw this view, I said, 'We need to stay up here.'"

By now, the time was already 12:30 p.m., and the vista seemed like a good spot to stop for lunch.

We didn't realize then this would be one of the few views we would have on the first leg of our trip. There were still too many leaves on the trees to open more views.

After our lunch break, the trail followed an easy path. There were a couple of small streams and another parking lot along the way.

Although this was late October, the area must not have had any frost yet. I found a few late-season wildflowers were still in bloom along the trail. Among them were thinleaf late purple asters. True to their name, their blooms remain longer than most other asters.

The Benton MacKaye Trail is marked similarly to the AT. White paint blazes designate the route, though these are diamonds instead of long and narrow rectangles.

Unlike the AT, we found the BMT's blazes were inconsistently placed. In some sections, they were painted on trees in short intervals. Then at others, there were long stretches with no blazes.

Another similarity with the AT was the terrain. Of course, that's no surprise because the trails are near each other. In fact, the two cross each other twice within the first four miles.

I often felt like I was back on the AT. This was especially true when hiking through a green tunnel of rhododendron.

At 6.1 miles from the start, the BMT and the AT joined to follow the same footpath for a little more than one mile.

I remembered this section from my AT thru-hike because it caused a moment of confusion. On that rainy day in 2017, a hiker named Froggy and I became unsure if we were still on the AT.

At first, we saw an AT blaze by itself. A short distance farther, an AT blaze was painted on the same tree as a BMT blaze. When we saw only a BMT blaze we wondered if we had failed to catch where the AT had turned away. We discovered this was just an inconsistency in how the trail was marked.

Along this section where the two trails followed the same footpath, we crossed Chester Creek near an area called Three Forks. If you follow AT hiking blogs or videos, you will nearly always see a shot of this pretty stream.

Many people say McAfee Knob is the most photographed spot on the AT. I contend Springer Mountain and this creek are photographed more frequently, at least if you discount photos taken by day hikers.

The reason is simple. All northbound thru-hikers pass this picturesque creek. By the time they reach McAfee Knob in Virginia, the number of thru-hikers has dwindled significantly. Fewer than 50 percent will make it through Virginia, and 25 percent or less will make it to Maine.

This section of the trail had a wide footpath. It must have been an old logging road. The trail followed Long Creek until the AT split to take its own route north. It will rejoin with the BMT again just before reaching Fontana Dam and will enter Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the same footpath.

A short distance beyond the split, the trail left the old roadbed and crossed Long Creek. From there, it followed the creek again for nearly another mile.

A campsite was located along the creek at mile eight. We had originally planned to stay there. Knowing we had more than a couple of hours of daylight left, we decided to just stop for water and then keep going.

While we were there, we met a hiker named Ketchup. He told us he had completed the AT in 2017 and the PCT in 2019. Those were the same years Tengo and I hiked the AT, and JA and I hiked the PCT.

Ketchup was planning to hike the BMT only to where it connected with the Pinhoti Trail, then hike that trail to its southern terminus in Alabama.

We had a pleasant chat with Ketchup, but before long we realized we needed to leave if we were going to get to our campsite before dark.

A few more late-season wildflowers appeared along the next section of the trail. They were showy gentians, which prefer acidic oak woodlands.

As the time approached 5 p.m., the trail crossed a large meadow.

I've heard it's not unusual to find soldiers rappelling from helicopters into this field. They are part of the 5th U.S. Army Ranger Training Battalion. The mountain training portion of this school is based at nearby Camp Frank D. Merrill.

The remainder of the day was spent going up and down along a ridge. I stopped at one of the high points where there was cell service to call Kim and make sure she arrived home safely.

I also stopped to talk to a couple of young women who were on a short overnight hike. They had several questions about other hikes in the area.

Because of these delays, Tengo and JA stopped to wait for me to catch up before we continued to our campsite at Bryson Gap.

By the time we arrived there, only about 10 minutes remained before sunset. This caused us to make an adjustment to our normal routine of camp chores.

Typically, when coming into a campsite, we will set up our tent first. In this case with fading light, our first chore was to walk down a short spur trail to fetch water from a spring.

We needed headlamps to finish setting up camp and cook dinner, and didn't crawl into our tents until 8:45 p.m.

A light rain began to fall at 11:00, but it didn’t last long. I stayed dry in my new Tarptent Aeon Li, which I had bought to use on the CDT.

It felt good to finally be back on a trail, and I was glad to be hiking again with good friends.

Guess who just got back today?
Them wild-eyed boys that'd been away
Haven't changed, had much to say
But man, I still think them cats are crazy

They were askin' if you were around
How you was, where you could be found
Told 'em you were livin' downtown
Drivin' all the old men crazy

The boys are back in town
(The boys are back in town)
I said the boys are back in town
(The boys are back in town)
The boys are back in town
(The boys are back in town)
The boys are back in town
(The boys are back in town)

From “The Boys are Back In Town” by Phil Lynott (Thin Lizzy)

Comments

"Nothing to tell now. Let the words be yours, I'm done with mine."ref.