There was a period nearly 20 years ago when times were tough.  Airlines stopped flying, people stopped working, and the media spouted doom and gloom on cable TV for 24 hours a day.  It was 9/11/01 and my first impulse was to get to the wilderness.  So when the weekend came – that is exactly what we did.  Here we are at the Chattooga River trailhead in 2001.

Russell Bridge Trailhead 9-15-01

Tough times are here again – albeit in a very different scenario.  Stay at home orders are in place, schools are closed, unemployment is rampant, and once again the media shouts doom and gloom from the T.V. every day.  So again we head for the trail.  This time we drive to the Appalachian Trail at Gooch Gap.

Gooch Gap Trailhead

Fortunately, we make it out before the governor of Georgia issues a “stay at home” order.  It is one week before the Covid-19 pandemic explodes in our State, and our last trip to the wilderness for weeks to come.  We arrive at Gooch Gap to find a church group from TN with a 60’ long tent offering food, fire, and mental support to thru-hikers.  Here’s the Weasel next to their sign:

A Trail Angel in the parking area gives us a tip that there’s a secluded campsite up the forest road.  So we drive a few more miles until we top out at Sassafrass Mountain and find a van parked in a side road.  The mountain biking tracks around the vehicle tell us the owner is out riding the trails – so we maneuver around the van and set up camp about 200 yards off the forest road.  There are great winter views to the west.

Sassafras Mountain Cooking Area

The side road is muddy, rutted, and has deep pools of water.  So we leave the Weasel’s sedan on the forest road, and ferry his gear in my 4×4 pick-up truck.

As we shuttle equipment from the Weasel’s car, we notice a very muscular, tattooed, and bearded man at the van.  Turns out that he was mountain biking but plans to camp here tonight with a group of Army Rangers.  They are out doing navigation training this afternoon, but are expected within a few hours.  So we politely agree to pack-up and move on to another area.  They are fighting for our freedom to be here – so it’s a small sacrifice for us. 

We pack up camp and head down the other side of the mountain to some reputed campsites.  There we unexpectedly see the Army Ranger once again – but this time he is unloading his van and setting up camp.  Turns out there are additional sites down the road.  So back we go to Sassafras Mountain to pitch camp (again)

Sassafras Mountain Campsite

By now it is ~3pm, and time to pick-up our Appalachian Trail section hiking friends Bono and Beer Run.  I head down the mountain to meet them, but a text tells me that they are 15 minutes south on the A.T.  So I decide to get some exercise and hit the trail to meet them.  I walk past the campsite that I used at Gooch Gap during my 1994 thru-hike.  Here’s what it looked like then.

Gooch Gap Campsite

Here’s what the campsite looks like now.  The Gooch Gap shelter used to be a short distance southbound on the A.T. from here, but it was rebuilt ~ 1 ½ miles away after my thru-hike.

Gooch Gap Campsite 2020

I decide to look for the foundation of the old Gooch Gap Shelter, but had no luck.  The A.T. has been relocated since 1994, and I inadvertently followed it to this old footbridge which was still in relatively good shape.

Footbridge On Re-Routed Georgia A.T.

Took a short break at the creek, then Boone Dawg and I continued along on the old A.T.  I passed at least one white blaze and walked on a decent path – but realized something was off.  There were too many blowdowns for this to be the official A.T., and I should have met my section hiking friends by now.  Besides, I hadn’t seen a single hiker since I left Gooch Gap. 

Whiteblaze On Re-Routed Georgia A.T.

Then I looked up to the ridge line and noticed it – a well worn path.  It was the official Appalachian Trail, and the old A.T. lead right up to it.  Now I was back on track – and I quickly made my way back to Gooch Gap.  My section hiking friends Bono and Beer Run (plus son) found my truck and were already enjoying cold drinks from my Yeti.

By 4pm, we were all headed back up to Sassafras Mountain to rendezvous with Therm Rider and The Weasel.  They were already settled in at camp, and here’s Therm Rider relaxing with a cold cocktail.

Therm Rider @ Sassafras Mountain

We joined them around the fire pit, then finished setting up our tents.  A mountain biking trail headed northbound from our campsite and we explored it briefly before the sun set at 7:50pm. 

Sassafras Mountain Sunset

At dusk, the temperatures dropped quickly.  It was forecast to be down to the 40’s tonight.  So we stoked up a nice fire and it lasted well in to the night. 

Sassafras Mountain Campfire

Even the dog stayed toasty on his sleeping pad and in his sleeping bag

Boone Dawg In Sleeping Bag

The next morning we packed up and passed numerous people on the forest roads.  There were backpackers, day hikers, car campers, mountain bikers, motorcyclists, jeep enthusiasts, and even more army rangers.  People were everywhere.  Once again, the wilderness was a sanctuary – like it had been just after 9/11/01.

Gooch Gap Trail Magic

As it turned out the State of Georgia went to a “shelter in place” order the next 40 days.  The media preached doom and gloom as Covid-19 spread through the United States.  Tough times were on us once again, but they will pass.  And I will return to the wilderness when they do. 

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