Georgia (Part One)
A blast of steamy air greeted us as we passed from plane to gangway at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport on a hot June evening. A heavy shower had recently passed over the city and the asphalt still gleamed as a shuttle bus took us around the airport perimeter to the rental car centre where we picked up our shiny blue VW Jetta. A few minutes of slightly panicked pseudo-navigation was required whilst the satnav figured out which country it had been rudely awoken in and we were along the interstate to the Hapeville Dwarf House the original location of what later became the Chick-fil-a chain of fast food restaurants. Our oh-so-delicious chicken sandwiches and waffle fries were rapidly consumed in our hotel room at the nearby College Park Super 8 before turning in for the night.
Over the next few days our plan was to drive around north Georgia and into South Carolina, visiting several members of Leslie's family and stopping off at a couple of places in the Appalachian mountains.
The next morning after a simple but tasty breakfast accompanied by an unhealthy serving of Fox “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It” News we headed up to a leafy suburb in southwestern Atlanta where we visited Leslie’s cousin Leah and her family - husband Tommy and baby Eva.
After a lunch of delicious smoked chicken wings and potato salad it was a drive north up I-85 passing downtown Atlanta with its skyscrapers and gold-domed state building and up the Georgia 400 to Cumming where we were spending the night with Leslie’s Aunt Julie and family.
On the way we stopped off at a giant Walmart to stock up on various supplies, a US SIM card and plenty of ridiculous American snacks. Here we came across SPF 100 sunscreen which would come in handy over the next few weeks.
Julie and husband Dave looked after us very well that evening, providing chilli and taco salad and Leslie’s grandad gave us a tour of his various craft projects ranging from painting to glassmaking as well as telling us tales of his time as a site electrician for the Nabisco factory in Atlanta. Leslie’s cousin Benjamin treated us to a dessert of his own making featuring lime jelly and coconut. We had a pleasant evening of talk and enjoyed bottles of craft beer from the Jekyll Brewery based in nearby Alpharetta.
The next morning we headed north into the more hilly terrain of North Georgia and the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Our first stop was at Amicalola Falls State Park where we paid our permit fee and parked up at the visitor centre where the official approach trail to the Appalachian Trail begins. The actual start of the AT, Springer Mountain, is just a few miles further north.
We then took the car further up the hill and got out to follow a trail up besides a beautiful creek under sun-dappled trees to where a series of wooden steps took us up to a bridge with great views of the upper falls.
The surroundings were beautiful and it was hot and humid, especially under the dense foliage, but we took our time and thoroughly enjoyed this visit to the southeast’s longest cascade of falls.
We next headed into the city of Dalonegha (pronounced Delongah), the site of the country’s first gold rush, for a lunch of gator bites and a sausage po’ boy accompanied by a Terrapin Rye Pale Ale (from Athens, Georgia) at the Bourbon Street Grille where we enjoyed our meal out on the veranda. Leslie had the most amazing open sandwich featuring caramelised jalapenos, pimento cheese and bacon!
After taking a quick look around the centre of Dalonegha, which was decked out with flags and bunting ready for the upcoming 4th July celebrations, we continued our journey heading east and then north up to Woody Gap and our starting point for a short walk along the Appalachian Trail itself.
Set in the Blood Mountain Wilderness area of the Chattahoochee National Forest our target was a granite outcropping called Preacher’s Rock located on the southern slopes of Big Cedar Mountain a 1,134m high summit which the AT crosses from south to north.
As soon as we had left the car we came across the first of the famous white blazes which decorate trees, posts and rocks from Georgia to Maine, marking the 2,180 mile long Appalachian Trail. The trail itself was well built, winding its way along a fairly undulating course below a canopy of lush green leaves. It was a pleasure to move away from the road and start to hear bird song and the rustle of vegetation, as well as the strong musty smell of damp woodland.
The trail rose up via a series of switchbacks climbing the southern shoulder of Big Cedar Mountain. We gained height easily until we suddenly emerged out from the trees into the sushine and out on to Preacher’s Rock.
We spent a good while here enjoying the amazing views of the appropriately named Blue Ridge Mountains, relaxing in the hot sunshine and eating a few snacks.
Eventually though we had to tear ourselves away and retrace our steps back down the trail to the car. There were a few people down at the gap, a few with big packs who looked like they were at least section hiking the AT (most of the thru-hikers would have passed through this area back in April).
From Woody Gap we dropped back down the mountains and continued our journey northeast through the foothills, passing through sleepy towns with water towers and rusting railroads. By the side of Lake Hartwell we stopped for a quick view and then it was across the state line from Georgia to South Carolina and on along winding roads to eventually reach the house of Leslie's Aunt Andy near the town of Salem.
They live in an absolutely beautiful property which feels much more like a house in the woods than a house on an estate. Set in a crook of a lazy flowing river between two of the lakes, we were treated to amazing barbecued ribs and homemade slaw with red wine, followed by a walk down to the river and around their garden.
That evening as dusk fell we sat out on the porch, listening to the sound of insects, watching a handful of lazy fireflies and marveling at the close conjunction between Jupiter and Venus that could be seen through a gap in the trees as the sky darkened.
The next morning we drove back into Georgia, pausing at Lake Hartwell just in time to see a goods train rumble over the bridge on the Greenville District Rail Line.
Near the city of Toccoa we turned north and followed the road up to Tallulah Falls where we found our way to the State Park's Jane Hurt Yarn Interpretive Center. We had a quick look round the exhibits there and then planned a walk along the north rim of the gorge and a side trip down to the floor itself.
The gorge is incredible, though a large hydro-electric dam just upstream severely curtails water flow along the river. Nevertheless the natural beauty of the setting was evident as we meandered our way to various view points along the rim. There were views down to the falls (with names like L'Eau D'Or and Hurricane) and huge buzzards wheeled on the thermals.
After exploring the rim we made our way down the long wooden staircase to the Hurricane Falls bridge and then a final section down to the floor of the gorge.
It was beautiful and we watched and then chatted with a pair who had a gorge floor permit and had scrambled across the rocks from the north side. We were at the base of Hurricane Falls which rumbled away in the distance.
It was a slow, hot climb back up the stairs to the top of the gorge again but we were soon refilling our water bottles outside the visitor centre. A change in the weather could be felt and as the skies rapidly darkened we were glad to be getting back on the road.
We now drove roughly south to Athens, Georgia where I wanted to pay a visit to a few of the sites associated with R.E.M.'s time in the city. Along the way the bad weather finally caught us and a huge electric storm accompanied by waves of water had us driving very cautiously along the highway.
It was still raining by the time we reached the leafy streets of Athens so we headed straight to Weaver D's, the diner who's motto, automatic for the people was made famous by the R.E.M. album released in 1992. We parked up and ran inside, being confronted by the warm, comforting smells of fried chicken.
We ordered at the counter and then got called to a serving hatch where we were given a steaming plate piled high with food - I got the day's special: fried chicken in gravy with collared greens, macaroni cheese and a cornbread muffin. Everything was washed down by a huge cup of iced tea. The food was amazing and a steady stream of customers - even on a rainy Monday afternoon - proved the popularity of the place.
After lunch we headed around to Dudley Park where the old trestle railroad bridge, enshrined on the back cover of R.E.M.’s debut album Murmur now sits in a kind of splendid ruin. We stopped here for a quick walk around the park whilst the rain continued to come down. It didn’t look like clearing up so we curtailed our trip to Athens, deciding to tackle the drive back in to Atlanta to complete our circle around north Georgia.