Mountain wilderness has always fascinated me, long before the ocean did. The Alps are just at a stone’s throw from my hometown in Italy, and most of my growing up memories are related to walking in the woods, swim in mountain lakes and climb rocky peaks.
When it was time to figure out where to travel for our New Year’s Holidays it wasn’t difficult to pick the mountains. Kate and I needed a change of scenario from Coastal Georgia and the Blue Ridge Mountains north of Atlanta were the closest available option. Relatively close, I have to say, as it takes almost 7 hours driving to get there from Brunswick.
Even if life is sweet in the marshes of Glynn I felt the need to look at a different landscape. It takes some courage to find the time and the determination to do it, to subtract it to social life, work and money and general everyday schedule that ends up trapping our lives. It so much rewarding to be able to leave and go, and see what you haven’t seen before, and I am so lucky to share this attitude with Kate. We can say that we took our souls on a date.
With the burden/blessing of a multiple course feast we had for New Year’s Eve and tired by the consequently cooking and clean-up we jumped on the car the very first day of 2015 and started the journey. We killed two birds with one stone (I am practicing stone’s related idioms) visiting Kate’s siblings in Atlanta. It was nice to spend holiday time with family. Atlanta is so close yet so far there are not many opportunities to do it in the course of the year, when the Schedule reign.
After the Atlanta stop we drove up the mountains to a cabin in Chattahochee National forest. The forecast for the weekend was heavy and non/stop rain. Leaden sky, misty and grey, a true Appalachian atmosphere. We had to make a change in our plan, from hiking to sight seeing, using our car to explore the scenic roads of the Blue Ridge mountains.
UNICOI STATE PARK
Nestled in the Georgia Mountains, Unicoi is a state park that surrounds the 53-acre Unicoi Lake on Smith Creek. Kate dragged me to see the Lodge, which is a fancy building that serves conference groups, families and individuals with guest rooms, meeting space, restaurant and catering. We had no business there but to get a bit of free wi-fi to continue our planning of the visits. Nonetheless the staff was very welcoming and allowed us to walk around freely and to visit the building. They also gave us a straight forward advice: if we are interested in booking a room during low season we should just bypass the reservation area of the website and call the lodge: when the season is low they are always willing to meet your budget for a room in the lodge. Forewarned is forearmed.
HELEN, GA A FAKE ALPINE TOWN
Economic development strategies are to be judged by their effectiveness and the one that transformed Helen, GA into a touristic destination was a very successful one, even though bizarre. Once a logging town, Helen suffered a severe economic depression until a group of businessmen decided to invest and create a replica of a Bavarian village in the Alps in the 70s. Even national franchises as Huddle House and Wendy had to surrender to the style imposed by the zoning authority. Today Helen is a popular destination, with many restaurant and shopping areas.
We were unimpressed by Helen (as you see no pictures were taken), which is a bit disgusting for the kitsch style and the obvious inauthentic architecture. We had to take at least a stroll through the city and dine out. Thanks to Kate who is always able to extract local knowledge from store employees, we found the best restaurant in town, which obviously is not Bavarian and it doesn’t even have a Bavarian-style building. Bigg Daddy’s proved to be an authentic non-german restaurant and we still remember with pleasure the Jumbo Wings with lemon pepper hot sauce!
ANNA RUBY FALLS
The twin waterfalls lie in the hearth of the Chattahoochee National Forest and can be reached after a short and pleasant walk from the parking lot, the ideal condition for our rainy day. So when we hit the road to our NW route to McCaysville we made our first stop at the falls, where we had a wet little hike, some moment of meditation in the mist and a curious encounter with a pine-needle/spaghetti worm.
Visiting the Walasi-Yi Interpretive Center at Neels Gap was like a pilgrimage for us, as the site is an important crossing of the Appalachian Trail. In 2012 Kate and I took a summer trip to Maine and we visited Baxter State Park and Mount Katadhyn, the northern end of the AT. We were fascinated to learn about the AT and dreamed that one day we could hike it.
Walasi-Yi is a Cherokee word for “big frog” and it’s the original name of this area at Neels Gap. The native american people used to have a village very close to the actual position of the building, but they had to leave through the infamous “Trail of Tears”, the removal of the Cherokee Indians and other native tribes from their life long home in 1838. According to eyewitness John G. Burnett, “… many of these helpless people did not have blankets and many of them had been driven from home barefoot. […] The trail of the exiles was a trail of death. They had to sleep in the wagons and on the ground without fire.”
The actual stone building was built in 1934. Through the years it served as restaurant and dance hall, and today it houses a Hostel and an Outfitter shop right on the Appalachian Trail, which passes through the building, marking the only covered portion of the trail’s 2100 plus miles.
Our itinerary was designed around a specific appointment. We wanted to go and visit Hank, a man we met exactly one year ago in Cumberland Island. He was very interested int Tranquility, sitting at the dock by the ferry and we started to chat. After few words, we were all sat in the cockpit eating nuts an talking about sailing, and life afloat. He offered to trade his mountain cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains for our boat. We felt very tempted but we sticked with Tranquility. When we decided to go up in the Blue Ridge Mountains we called him, to see if he was still around, and he invited us to meet him in McCaysville, where he lives.
Hank took us on a tour of the area, first crossing the border to Tennessee, where we visited the abandoned copper mines in Ducktown. The scars of the mining is still evident, but trees are starting to grow back and repopulating the area. For Kate this was the sign of a profound legacy with her Pennsylvania ancestors who used to work in a mine town.
The second point of interest that Hank showed us was the system of dams on the Ocoee River. TVA manages the dams to produce electricity and to control the river flow for recreational purpose. The whitewater course on the Ocoee River was created for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and it is dependent by the water control system of the dams. In Spring, when they open the water, a group of kayakers and whitewater rafters gather to run the first wave down the river. Sounds like great fun!
Weather improved the following day so before driving back to the lowcountry we stopped in a gorge-ous place. Tallullah Gorge is a set of waterfalls that flows in a steep little canyon. The interpretative center give tons of informations about the history and the nature of the Appalachian Region, and the trails around the waterfalls are easy and accessible.
Walking around the gorge on a finally sunny day gave us the opportunity to discuss some of the plans we have for 2015. After a static 2014, where we consolidated our situation after leaving New England in a hurry, we expect to start travelling again. There are plans to point Tranquility’s bow on a northern route later in Spring/Summer, to explore the great crusing grounds of New England. There is also a plan for a family meeting in Italy next August, in the beautiful scenario of the Alps. Quod erat demonstrandum, I live on the Ocean but I belong to the Mountains.