The Bucket Lists of Mountain Men
They were from the “great generation” that lived through the Depression and won World War Two, but if my parents, Franklin and Zella Ohr, had a bucket list, they kept it a guarded secret.
The only hint of something unaccomplished in their lives was when my father spoke of Europe. Being in the Army Post Office, Dad had a great time in Europe during WWII, unlike many who fought their way across the Continent. He would tell my mother that he wished he could go back to Europe and see some of the sights.
What was holding him up? I asked. Money, he said. Although they had plenty of money, they couldn’t bring themselves to spend it.
In 1980 I received a substantial bonus from the sale of business I was managing. I wasn’t proud of the business or my management skills, nonetheless I accepted the bonus and used it to buy a 31-day European tour for my folks. I’m glad I did. It partially made up for a contentious youth and my ability as a bachelor to bring home pets and girlfriends instead of grandchildren.
Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman certainly didn’t create the bucket list, but they did popularize it. Some credit the term to the screenwriter of the movie with the same name. Others experts aren’t so sure where the term bucket list came from.
Either way, the term is now here to stay and part of our culture.
The Adventure Begins
“It’s on my bucket list,” my good friend said of the Len Foote Hike Inn. “I’ve wanted to go there forever.”
Lamar Fuss and I had lamented our mutual sleeplessness in 2013 and then started hiking together.
His sleep problems were different from mine, arising from two troubling bouts with cancer, which he had won. He also wanted to hike as much of the Appalachian Trail as possible. So did I. Hiking the AT was on both of our bucket lists.
My sleeplessness in 1975 was later attributed to PTSD. When in 2013 I had three allergic reactions in less than a month, one of them life threatening and occurring deep in the woods and miles from any help, my old enemy anxiety returned, and I seemingly spent more of the night listening to the grandfather clock than dreaming.
Lamar and I both love the woods. Our mutual feeling is that the closest we come to a religious experience is being out in nature.
In our sleepless year, we began hiking together once a week in the cold months. Our first adventure, humorous now, was a biking adventure during which I was treated to the sight of my Schwinn going end over end alongside Morris Bridge Highway after it fell off Lamar’s rack.
An article had appeared in the local paper describing the joys of unplugging from electronic devices and getting in touch with yourself and nature while at the famous Hike Inn in the north Georgia woods. The 5.1-mile hike from Amicalola Falls State Park to the Inn is one of two approach trails to the start of the Appalachian Trail. If we hiked to (and hopefully from) the Hike Inn, Lamar and I would have a test run for hiking the AT and crossing this item off our bucket lists.
My bucket list was made in 2005 after my mother died - twice. My father died ten years earlier. Twice in the month of June 2005, the local hospice called to tell my mother had passed away, only the first time they called me back shortly afterwards to say they had made a mistake. After this emotionally jangling and unbearable sad event, I got out pen and paper and wrote out my bucket list.
What did I do after making the list? I put it in a drawer and forgot it.
After the decision to test out the AT by going to the Len Foote Hike Inn, I took the list back out of the drawer to look it over. Taking stock was humbling. Clearly I wasn’t going to make it to the South Pole. I had failed to memorize one piece of music new to me by Mozart or Beethoven, and I lacked the time to sit about memorizing music. I had not yet started studying the collection of gnostic gospels, much less read the Gita or Koran. I had bought the collected plays of The Bard, although I hadn’t yet made it through the witty repartee in the first scenes of Two Gentlemen of Verona. And forget about a chance to thank Ophelia for being my high school sweetheart and apologize for how we parted.
Good intentions. Almost complete failure to launch.
Years had scurried by, the end (which I still refuse to believe in) of my life was drawing closer, and I had not completed one thing on my bucket list. Instead I published three non-fiction books, none of which I intended to write, a dozen or so feature articles, wrote a couple of unpublished novels (on my bucket list, but not the unpublished part), moved one wife into my house, and sadly buried six pets.
“I’m in,” I told Lamar Fuss. “(Curse word deleted)! Let’s do it,” all said without forethought. After examining my bucket list and lack of progress on it, I was ready to hike thru to Maine.
Not so fast.
Torreya State Park
As the date for our hike to Len Foote Hike Inn drew nearer, I began to fret. I had bought a Field & Stream backpack, put the necessary items inside, put it on, but it sure felt heavy when I tried hiking with it.
It slowly dawned on me that I had not toted a backpack since I was with the First Infantry Division in Vietnam, and most of the time there I didn’t carry a backpack at all, although sometimes I had hauled a 40-pound cratering charge on one aching shoulder. We used the explosive for blowing up tunnels after we crawled through and searched them, a task which thankfully our unit stopped doing after a couple of months on my tour.
Another cruel thing had happened along the way to hiking the Appalachian Trail. I was no longer young.
Called or emailed Lamar and said, “I think we need a trial run to make sure we can make it back and forth to the Hike Inn before we waste the money.”
“What do you have in mind?” Lamar asked.
“Torreya State Park,” I said.
Lamar said he had read somewhere that hiking Torreya near Bristol, Florida, is the closest thing in Florida to hiking the Appalachian Trail. That sounded familiar to me. I thought I must have read it somewhere too.
I’d been there before many times. It was like going to wonderland every time. I was ready to go and tugged Lamar with me.
There were certain disadvantages to staying in Bristol. Lamar’s toilet lacked a lid, for example. The wifi was spotty. There was no decaf at the 7/11. You couldn’t get a beer with your dinner, of vital importance to Lamar, or a craft beer (vital to me), but we were mountain men and endured. In the morning we were rewarded with a 2000-calorie breakfast for only $5.95 - the waitresses called Lamar “honey” while comparing dog photographs.
We picked the Rock Bluff Loop Trail and headed out a little after sunrise with our packs confidently in place. The confidence was misplaced and tested severely. Rock Bluff is one of two trails of relatively equal distance, 7 miles more or less, and (as they say) strenuous in places.
What wildlife did we see on our hike?
In the past I had seen a ten-point buck the size of a horse on the lawn in front of the antebellum house that serves as the state park ranger station. Up in a longleaf pine, a bear had swung around as merrily as a little kid. Copperheads mated before my eyes in the campground (most people hate to see snakes – I delight at the experience). And Pete Carmichael in 1999 photographed a coiled eastern diamondback for so long one afternoon that we started calling it “Hollywood Rattlesnake.” All these things I told Lamar in the expectation of seeing plentiful wildlife. But -
We didn’t see any wildlife at all, except a few bees and butterflies.
However there was a marked increase in the number of torreya trees, for which the state park is named. This lifted my heart, since on my previous visits the trees were spotty and far between.
Torreyas are ancient evergreens and endangered. In the 1950’s, fungus attacked the trees and whittled the numbers down to near extinction. Although sources say that torreya trees are restricted to the state park, I have seen some out of the park, but always a single planted tree, and as everyone knows it takes a male and a female to reproduce, meaning you need two trees.
At one point it was felt there were only ten torreya trees capable of reproducing left in the state park.
We also saw spectacular (for Florida) rock outcrops; the wide, alluvial, and fast-flowing Apalachicola River; pine flatwoods and sand hill dominated by longleaf pine and wiregrass; but uncharacteristically not one single animal.
There was something unseen, however, which we had not bargained for and certainly wasn’t on our bucket lists.
After our hike, we went to the ranger station, took off out packs, enjoyed the air-conditioning, and chatted about our hike and my previous visits. In the office, the rangers sold Florida’s Fabulous Natural Places, my first book.
The rangers liked the photographs we had inside the book.
I told them it was the words that were important. I leafed through the photographs and read my account for the park.
I had written that hiking at Torreya was the closest hiking in Florida to the AT.
The following day, Lamar and I left Torreya so sore we walked as though we were one hundred years old with broken hips. We could barely get in or out of my car, albeit it is small and low to the ground and should be driven by someone 30 years younger than I. We groaned lifting our legs in and out of the car and laughed at or with one another.
The pain brought back to mind those final climbs several hundred feet up at an incline of ten to 15 degrees. We had used unused muscles.
Worse than sore legs was to come.
Of the dozen or so times I had hiked Torreya, I had never encountered a single pest. In Florida you worry about mosquitos, ticks, yellow and black flies, and red bugs (called chiggers). On the drive home, I began to itch, and so did Lamar. About a day later, the itching was unbearable.
We had encountered chiggers, from the Latin capitaneous, with the Latin name changed by corruption in the English and French languages. Chiggers are tiny beasts found all around the world and more plentiful in the hot and humid climes. Within 48 hours, my body had hundreds of chigger “bites.” I counted over 50 itchy welts on each foot. Lamar fared a little better, but got his share too, including one on his shin that so bothered him he couldn’t leave it alone and required in the end medical attention.
There are a lot of old wives tales about chiggers. One is that chiggers burrow under your skin and you have to kill them by putting nail polish on top of them. This is about as useful as blow-torching your skin. And they don’t burrow under your skin.
Chiggers are larva of mites. They bite you and inject an enzyme. The little critters (I would tend to use another word) are fast moving. Once they get on you, they can get all around you long before you leave the woods and wash them off in a shower. The enzyme chiggers inject basically dissolves your skin cells so the larva can slurp up your flesh. Intense itching ensues, largely from your body’s immune response.
Mark Twain wondered why God let flies on the Ark. I wondered why God let the chiggers aboard.
The cure, according to my dermatologist, was “a tincture of time.”
How bad was the chigger attack?
For weeks, up I would go in the middle of the night into the bathroom because I had scratched my bites in my sleep until they bled. Screaming would I be when pouring alcohol on bleeding bites to avoid infection. Antihistamines swallowed and hydrocortisone creams rubbed on for four months may have helped with the itching, although “help” here is a relative term.
“Don’t scratch,” they say, but “they” got no idea.
Scratch I did.
Chiggers were not on our bucket list, but chiggers led me to some revelations about bucket lists in general. One early morning on my way to the drugstore to get some prescription-strength itch relief, I saw waiting on the bus to work largely minorities and the poor. It occurred to me then that these folks might have different bucket lists than mine. In many ways, I have been fortunate or lucky. My only poverty came while I was starting college in 1975.
The unfortunate don’t live as long. Bucket lists belong to the fortunate people who live a long time. Young people think they are going to live forever and have all the time in the world, until they find out they don’t. Moreover bucket lists are for the prosperous. Bucket lists are not for the poor, whose lives are too busy trying to stay alive or fed to think of such tomfoolery.
Deep Into Chattahoochee National Forest
Onward went Lamar and I, two men fortunate enough to live long enough with enough money that we don’t worry if we can afford medical care or don’t worry where our next meal may come from (at least not yet).
Amicalola Falls State Park and Lodge lies to the west of Dahlonega, Georgia, and is deep in Chattahochee National Forest, a place of trees, including plentiful hemlock. Dahlonega is where real military mountain men, Army rangers, go to train for mountains – a rugged place.
In addition to the beautiful falls, one can hike northeast toward Springer Mountain, the Southern terminus of the AT. Or you can hike to the Hike Inn. Or both if you have a couple of days.
It is beautiful to and from the Inn, up and down hills and mountains and around curves. The trail passes in places through rhododendron thickets and bogs. The forest is home to deer and bears, although Lamar and I had a continued lack of luck at spotting large mammals other than humans. Some folks we met on the trails carried bear spray, and we clearly passed a bountiful pile of recently deposited bear scat – as close as we got to a bear.
The trip to the Hike Inn is not as strenuous as Torreya, although you couldn’t tell it by Lamar or me.
We set off with folks who hiked to and from the inn on a regular basis, but soon they were way ahead of us. A woman passed us jogging with her dog. The fit-looking jogger planned on having cookies at the lodge (normally they serve lunch and dinner, but cookies are often on hand). The jogger and her dog also passed us on her return trip before the mountain men could reach the lodge; we had been lapped, sufficiently humbling for mountain men. The dog looked in better shape than us. It looked like it was out for a leisurely stroll, while we looked as if we were on an arduous hike, which to us it was.
The day hikers also lapped us before we reached the Inn, more discouragement.
Within an hour, we met folks hiking out of the lodge from the previous night. Amazingly most of them were senior citizens and didn’t look in shape. The majority leaving the lodge were smiling women. Each of them had enjoyed their stay, but one prankster told us that steak and lobster were on the menu that night at the kitchen.
After five hours of hiking (a rate of about a mile per hour), we arrived at the inn and went into our rustic room. The inn can sleep 20 guests. Our room was smaller than a sleeper car on a train.
We wandered about the lodge for a couple of hours, Lamar took a nap, I took a shower and read Thoughts in Solitude by Thomas Merton, a book owned for more than 20 years and picked for reading with the trip in mind.
We sat outside in yard chairs watching the afternoon sun setting and searched for Atlanta lights at night.
The dinner was extraordinary, thanks to the chef, nicknamed Critter, his handle on the AT. He had hiked it all, and later that night gave a talk about his experiences, which included hospitalization.
Lamar and I looked at each other when Critter discussed being hospitalized, because Critter looked like a mountain man, and we did not.
When making reservations, the Inn inquired about food allergies. For me, not a tomato or nut was in sight.
At dinner we met two women from Amsterdam, one a college professor in the U.S., old friends who had reunited for the Hike Inn experience. We also met John and Jill, a couple there for John’s bucket list; a man with incurable cancer, who fell twice on his way in to the inn. The guests included at least one journalist taking notes, who wouldn’t tell me who she was doing the piece for (a paranoid writer, know the kind).
Sustainability is everything at the inn. You used one cup during your visit by writing your name on it and reusing it whenever needed. Everything taken on your plate must be eaten. Everything possible is composted. Solar water heaters are augmented if necessary, but it is also a place of steaming hot showers, important to mountain men.
Quiet and sober is also required. Although everyone had cell phones, most folks didn’t have service. I had service, but put my phone on vibrate; it ran out of juice during the night. Alcoholic beverages are not allowed, and it’s a long hike back to where you can get a craft beer.
The next morning we had breakfast and set out on our return at first light.
After five hours hiking the previous day, we were having difficulty walking. I was great-guns going uphill, but having trouble walking downhill. Within the first mile, Lamar slipped and fell in a boggy wet area. Later that day, my feet went out from under me on acorns, and I promptly tumbled over.
We were sure we were finished with our hike when we hit a road. Unfortunately one of the mountain men made a bad decision, and we took a wrong turn. I won’t say which of the two mountain men was responsible for this.
“This is the way,” the wrong decider announced.
“Are you sure?” the abetting follower asked.
“Yes, look at the campsite we just passed. I remember it,” said in justifying his mistake. It’s hard to get a mountain man to say he’s lost.
We continued on in the wrong direction.
A mile later, we turned around. Instead of retracing our steps out, we had taken a wrong turn and were on our way to Springer Mountain and the AT.
It’s hard for a mountain man to get respect any more when they’ve conquered the mountain. Our wives were amused as we hobbled about our rented condo in the woods. They accused us of walking like the old men we declined to believe we were.
We’ll show them that we’re real mountain men on our next trip. The AT is still out there, and we’re going after it.
The Len Foote Hike Inn, 280 Amicalola Falls State Park Road, Dawsonville, Georgia 30534, www.hike-inn.com.
Torreya State Park, 2576 NW Torreya Park Road, Bristol, Florida 33321, www.floridastatepakrs.org/park/Torreya.