Today’s post is the third in a series of being on a journey… seen through the metaphor of hiking
Part of Walk with Him Wednesday…
My forays into the wilderness and my zeal to explore Georgia’s natural treasures have continued.
My rests mandated only for a duration long enough to allow my blisters to heal and harden. Immediately upon my return from the last hike, I began preparing for my next hike still pondering what the hikes have to do with uncovering my Africa story, but compelled nonetheless to adventure.
Vogel State Park
I began preparing for Thursday’s hike on Wednesday. I was careful to watch what I ate, get a good night’s rest, and hydrate properly. All day Wednesday I anticipated my journey but resisted the urge to plan the next day’s hike.
Thursday I awoke at six a.m. with an urgency to get going. I had a restless impatience during my devotional time but location had not yet settled itself in my spirit, so I journaled and waited until “let’s go to the mountains” began flushing the rest of my thoughts away. I landed upon Vogel as my day-hike destination, a state park securely rooted in the base of the Chattahoochee National Forest, and within thirty minutes was on my way.
I had a firm hiking plan prior to arriving at Vogel.
My mind was set on hiking the Coosa Backcountry Trail. Coosa is a 12.9 circular trail that begins its loop up and over the summit of Duncan Ridge (a notoriously difficult hike) where hikers descend and climb over 1 mile in elevation crossing 3 ridgelines including Coosa Bald at over 4,000 feet. Travel time is 9 hours and is accessible only by foot. Several trails converge during the 12.9 miles of Coosa including the Appalachian Trail, Duncan Ridge, Slaughter Gap Trail through the back country of Blood Mountain.
Map: Hiking Map of Vogel State Park
Receiving a thorough orientation, several permit papers to place in my car and on my person, as well as a raised eye-brow from the trail guard when I told her I was hiking alone, I began my trek along the trail head that would lead me to Coosa. Almost immediately I encountered a sign that read:
Coosa Backcountry Trail: More than a day’s hike
I was flummoxed.
My plan included a round-trip hike of at least thirteen miles for that day. I decided to determinedly carry on, more resolute that I would conquer this mountain by the end of the day.
The trail head was less than six inches wide and was all up-hill through dense foliage.
I spent most of my time avoiding briars and thorns on woody overhangs, and crawling around and under branches. The woods were not only around me during this section of the trail, they were on me as there was no separation between me and the branches.
The familiar claustrophobia did not manifest itself, but I hoped that the entire hike would not be like this.
Within a half-mile I had crossed Burnett Gap and was in a different section of mountainous terrain.
This section of the hike was gorgeous as the mountain loomed above and below me. I was surrounded by gaps of space and air to enjoy the trail through the steeply sloped mountain. The trail cut through the forest, and provided the only flat space on the sloped walls. For as far as I could see above and below, there was forest and mountain. Beyond the forest, I spied other mountains and ranges in the distance.
The mountain so embraced me that I found myself singing along with my headset to the woodlands “How Great is our God.”
But as lovely as the terrain was, I could not rest into my hike.
The trees that had fallen around and across the trail were enormous, each branch the size of my upper leg, and the trunks spanning five to six feet in diameter if not more. The fallen trees stopped me short and reminded me of my small size in comparison to nature. Each step took me farther into the largeness of nature around me as I continued to shrink in comparison.
I could not shake the sense of smallness I felt, as well as the fear of being watched, of being alone, and of bears.
With each step, my heart plummeted further into unrest.
The fear crept under my skin, rather like Neo in the Matrix after he takes the red pill and is covered by the liquid mirror.
My heart could not shake the feeling that I was not supposed to be on that trail that day, though my mind kept driving me farther along the trail with a barrage of hate-mail delivered directly to my fears. Fear of failure, fear of quitting, fear of being attacked by something bigger than me (i.e. a bear), fear of being alone in a place where I could not defend myself
I could not label the fear, it simply existed.
It reeked of an evil stillness that I had felt three times before in my life. During each of those events I felt invaded by a sense of evil and danger that I could not fully understand until later. Was this one of those times, or did I just need to calm my nerves?
The fear of bears and an overturned tree that I could not wiggle beyond finally turned my feet toward home.
From the moment my feet turned, I felt rest begin in my heart.
Each step closer to home brought more calmness to my spirit.
Ironically, I turned back and hiked Bear Hair Gap, hopefully not named because of bear sightings! As soon as I began my trek along this trail, all fear had completely left me.
This trail would take me up to Vogel ridge, which had a magnificent overlook of the valley. But during the hike, my mind would not allow me to place at rest the fact that Coosa had kicked my butt.
Upon exiting Bear Hair Gap, I attempted the backside of Coosa, reasoning that perhaps going clockwise would be easier.
I was not yet willing to admit defeat at the hands of a mountain.
I was only 1.6 miles from the Appalachian Trail along Coosa’s ridge, so I wanted to re-attempt the Coosa-journey.
Within five minutes on the backside of Coosa, I was struggling on my hands and knees around enormous tree vines and outcropped rocks. I had not made it fifteen minutes up the trail when the fear began building again.
For realz? I just want to hike the Coosa dagnabbit!
With my legs cramping and my body unable to maintain a consistent balance, and the dread building, I had to admit that Coosa was not to be for that day and I climbed back down to hike backwards along Bear Hair Gap. Thwarted again.
I do not know why (*) fear stopped me from my hike along the Coosa trail, but it did.
Each time I think about my turn-around point on Coosa, fear continues to grip my heart as if I had never left that location on the mountain. I knew after the second attempt at Coosa from the back-side, it would have been too difficult of a trail for me to attempt alone, but overcoming what I defined to be an irrational fear drove me onward.
Returning home, I read about the legends surrounding the Coosa connecting trails on Blood Mountain. Legends include stories of bloody battles between the Creek and Cherokee Indians. Was I somehow sensing this? That seems crazy to think about.
By the late 1600s the Cherokee and Creek had begun to compete for the same resources and fought a battle on the mountain near Slaughter Gap. The Creek lost, ceding Blood Mountain to the Cherokee, who considered it a holy place. Some people believe that the name of the mountain comes from this bloody battle between the Cherokee and Creek Indians.
Whatever the cause, Coosa is an unfinished journey for me and the fear I felt continues to baffle me.
Was fear being used to guide me away from a trail I should not have even attempted to journey, or was it a force I needed to move beyond? I do not know the answer, nor do I fully understand the ways God guides. Sure, we can add some over-used Christian platitudes that claim that “fear is not of the Lord,” but my repeated experiences suggest otherwise.
For now, I am choosing to rest in the mystery of it all and await my next hiking adventure, grateful that I have been given the blessing of experiencing the beauty of nature.
(*) Six months after I attempted to hike the Coosa trail, Meredith Emerson was kidnapped and murdered by a man wandering in the same area. I talk about it here (Fear Theology) and discuss the question “Did Fear choose me that day so that Evil could not?” I still do not know the answer to that question.