BMT 2020: Day 2, Bryson Gap to Payne Gap

And the name is on the earth that takes it in

A view from the Benton MacKaye Trail

The most famous Bryson in this part of the south isn't Bill Bryson, who wrote a best-selling book about attempting to thru-hike the AT called "A Walk in the Woods." That we can be sure.

There isn't much love around here for Bryson. His book is filled with stereotyped depictions of Southerners.

I wondered, though, whose name was used for Bryson Gap, the spot where we camped last night. Maybe it was Col. Thaddeus Dillard Bryson. He was a farmer, Confederate commander, and legislator.

That seemed like a stretch, though. He lived in the town that is now named to honor him, Bryson City, which is 65 miles away in North Carolina. Though he may have been an influential citizen, it's unlikely his fame spread this far in the late 1800s. Perhaps the gap was named for one of his many relatives or offspring, but I was not able to find out.

DateFriday, October 23, 2020
WeatherCloudy early, becoming partly cloudy; high temperature in low 70s, low temperature around 60
Trail ConditionsLong and sometimes steep ups and downs, followed by a series of short and sometimes steep ups and downs
Today's Miles14.8
Trip Miles27.1

Our plan for today was to hike 14.8 miles to Payne Gap. Getting there would mean walking just 2.5 miles more than we walked yesterday. With an earlier start this morning, it seemed like this would be an easy day.

We figured the extra hours would allow us to take some longer breaks and walk at a leisurely pace. This didn't turn out to be the case.

For starters, we didn't get as early of a start as we expected. There were no particular reasons for this, other than perhaps we thought the day's mileage goal wasn't a difficult challenge. We were probably just lackadaisical.

Tengo Hambre finishes packing

We arose at 6:45 a.m., which was well before sunrise. That wake-up time would need to be our habit for this hike to maximize our daylight hours. At this time of year, barely 12 hours of daylight is available.

Still, we didn't leave camp until just before 8:30 a.m. That wasn't an efficient use of our limited daylight.

The Benton MacKaye Trail

Since our start yesterday from Springer Mountain, we have been hiking in Ed Jenkins National Recreation Area. The mountain sits roughly in the middle of the recreation area.

In fact, when the area was designated in 1991, it was called Springer National Recreation Area. The name was changed the following year to honor Edgar L. Jenkins, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives for 12 years.

That's just as well because no one seems to know how Springer Mountain got its name.

Yellow leaves

Leaving Bryson Gap this morning, the trail straddled the northwest border of the recreation area before curving around the summit of Big John Dick Mountain and heading to the Toccoa River.

Go ahead and snicker about Big John Dick Mountain. We did, just like a bunch of 12-year-olds.

From the gap, the distance to the river was 2.8 miles, with a drop of nearly 1,000 feet. The descent was sometimes steep. Leaves covering the trail made it slippery.

A COVID-19 warning posted on a tree

A sign was posted near the bottom of the descent to warn that the Appalachian Trail was closed due to COVID-19. This location wasn't on the AT, but that wasn't the only trail closed. The BMT was also closed for a time.

Trails and facilities were closed in late March during the first spike of the pandemic. Though most of the trails have since re-opened, this poster remained tacked to a tree.

Even now in October, some facilities remain closed. Additionally, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy has taken a stance that 2020 thru-hikes will not be recognized.

A great debate ensued over the issue among the hiking community. I won't rehash the arguments here, but I have great sympathy for anyone who intended to attempt a thru-hike this year. I know how much planning and dreaming they invested in their hike, and how much uncertainty the pandemic threw at them.

Toccoa River Swinging Bridge

Crossing the river was done over a 260-foot-long swinging suspension bridge. This length reportedly makes it the longest suspension footbridge in the southern Appalachian mountains. True to its name, it swayed as people crossed it.

The bridge was built by the National Forest Service and the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club, and was completed in 1977. That was just two years after the idea of the Benton MacKaye Trail was posed as an alternate route for the AT. Three years later, the Benton MacKaye Trail Association was formed to facilitate its construction and maintenance, and promote it.

Back then, some sections of the AT crossed private land. This raised concerns that residential and commercial development would crowd out the trail or reduce the wilderness experience it was intended to offer.

The bridge was constructed as part of a relocation of the AT that was planned in anticipation of these problems. When the future of AT became more secure after more land was acquired, the bridge was included on a route for the BMT.

Toccoa River

The bridge had to be strong and well-anchored because the river is prone to flash flooding during heavy rains.

It also needed to be sturdy enough to handle a lot of foot traffic. We saw many day hikers in the area near the bridge, and most were with dogs or young children.

This section of the river is part of a 13.8-mile paddling route designated as the Toccoa River Canoe Trail.

Tengo, JA, and I took a break at the river to collect and filter water from a stream that flowed into the river.

Just Awesome and Tengo Hambre hiking the Benton MacKaye Trail

Soon after we left the river and day hikers, the trail climbed 800 feet up and over Toonowee (or sometimes called "Tooni") Mountain. Both names are found in a list of Cherokee surnames from an 1835 census.

Fall leaves covering the Benton MacKaye Trail

Repeating the pattern of the day, we then made another descent. This drop wiped out nearly all of the elevation gained from the previous climb.

Preparing to leave after lunch

At the bottom, we stopped just short of Georgia Highway 60. There were some logs lying next to the trail, so we sat there and ate our lunch.

From where we sat, we could see cars come and go on the highway. There was a small parking area there, as well as a gravel Forest Service road that led to another parking area closer to the swinging bridge.

So many cars went by, we joked that we'd be really mad if we finished our lunch and then discovered there was a taco truck parked just around the corner.

Crossing Little Skeenah Creek

Immediately after crossing the highway, the trail crossed Little Skeenah Creek on a small footbridge. We were entering what is said to be one of the toughest sections on the BMT.

Though we had already walked some substantial ups and downs, there were more to come. They are big enough that some hikers claim this section is tougher than the AT.

Perhaps it's more than a coincidence that the word Skeenah is a derivative of the Cherokee word "Asginayi," which became “Skeinah.” It means ghost, devil, or demon.

One of the only views of the day

This section of the trail was within Coopers Creek Wildlife Management Area. It covers more than 30,000 acres, making it one of the largest wildlife management areas in Georgia.

As the trail approached the top of Wallalal Mountain, there were two small gaps in the trees. These were the only opportunities for views today.

While there, I sent a text message to check in with Kim.

Tengo ducks through a blowdown

After the descent from the top of Wallalal Mountain, of course, was another climb. This one was to the top of Licklog Mountain.

On the way to the top, I was surprised to discover Tengo was walking behind me. I didn't see him go off the trail to dig a cathole and didn't know I had passed him.

Together, we navigated over and around a few blowdowns. I had expected there would be many, thanks to COVID-19. When the trails were closed in late March, the Forest Service also suspended all volunteer trail maintenance work. Since then, crews have gradually begun to return.

poison ivy

A little care was needed as we were walking around the blowdowns. We had to make sure we weren't stepping into poison ivy.

Summit of Licklog Mountain

Licklog Mountain's summit was at 3,462 feet above sea level. The name "Licklog" comes from the way early white settlers cut notches in fallen trees and placed salt licks in them for their cattle, which were brought to higher, cooler elevations in summer months.

Licklog's elevation was nothing to compare with other climbs I've made on the AT and PCT. Still, the climb was plenty steep enough, even if I didn't think it was tougher than the AT.

This elevation was the highest we had been since leaving Springer Mountain and was the highest we could go for the next couple of days.

On the descent from Licklog's summit, a side trail led to a spring. When I arrived, JA had already come back from the spring and was filtering water, and Tengo had just left to get water.

From here, we still had about two hours of hiking left before reaching our planned campsite. This didn't allow us much time to get to camp before sunset, so we weren't able to take a longer break than necessary to finish getting water.

Before leaving, however, I discovered cell service was available here, so I checked the weather forecast. Chances were good for rain tonight and all day tomorrow.

Junction where the Benton MacKaye and Duncan Ridge trails split

We had been walking on a footpath shared with the Duncan Ridge Trail. After going six-tenths of a mile past the spring, the two trails split near the summit of Rhodes Mountain. The Duncan Ridge Trail headed to Blood Mountain, where it reconnected with the AT.

The BMT remained devilish as it descended to Skeenah Gap Road, dropping 980 feet in 1.4 miles.

Skeenah Gap Road

When I arrived at the road 40 minutes later, the time was 5:45 p.m. This left me just enough time to reach our campsite at Payne Gap.

That is, I should have had just enough time. First off, there was no signage or blaze on the other side of the road, so finding the trail took a couple of extra minutes.

Then, the last section to the campsite included several short but steep ups and down. They were hard enough that I thought to myself, "Gee, I’d hate to be injured here and have to walk back to the road."

The spot where Gravity tripped

Just before reaching Payne Gap, I almost had to eat my words and came even closer to eating dirt. In the fading light, I failed to see a rock covered in leaves and tripped over it, falling face first. I landed with a hard thud, coming inches away from having my ribs smash against a large rock.

Low sun through trees

After picking myself up, I did a quick assessment to make sure there was no damage to my body or gear. I wasn't hurt, so I didn't need to walk back to the road. Instead, I finished the remaining distance to our campsite.

By now, the sun had almost dropped below the ridge at the gap.

Campsite at Payne Gap

Our campsite was just 200 feet or so off the trail on an old logging road. A spring was located on the other side of the trail, about 150 yards away.

As we set up our tents and prepared dinner, we discovered we were more ahead of schedule than we thought.

We had made a couple of last-minute adjustments to our plan yesterday just before starting from Springer Mountain and failed to change the date for reaching Iron Bridge General Store and Café. This is where we left a cache of food.

Not that this caused a problem, but we realized we will get there tomorrow, a day earlier than planned. Maybe we can take longer breaks then.

What shall we say, shall we call it by a name
As well to count the angels dancing on a pin
Water bright as the sky from which it came
And the name is on the earth that takes it in
We will not speak but stand inside the rain
And listen to the thunder shout
I am, I am, I am, I am


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