Last week we left our hero (that’s me) as I was headed back to the car after not quite finishing a hike I’d planned to do.
“Not quite finishing a hike” is kind of like telling the kids on a soccer team that they came in second. That’s what I used to do years ago when my boys were little, and I was coaching six-year-old soccer. It happened at the end of just about every game (okay, so they weren’t quite ready for the World Cup), and usually it would go like this:
“Coach Steve! Coach Steve!” one of the kids would ask. Sometimes several would ask it in unison. “Did we win the game?”
“Well,” I’d answer, with great drama, “Way to go! We came in second!”
“Second!” they’d all say. “Wow!” And then, to anyone within earshot, one and all would proclaim with great pride, “We came in second!”
That minor shading of the facts worked until the following season, when they started understanding the world at a second-grade level. Once they reached that exalted plane of perception, I had to start telling it like it was. Second out of two, they learned, was the same as “losing.” They might not like it, but that was life and that’s how life was.
That’s kind of how I felt last week – like I’d come in second out of two. I’d set out to finish a hike, but I hadn’t made it. I told myself, at least at first, that I’d simply started too late in the day to make it feasible at all. I even believed that for a little while. But the truth, and I knew it was the truth, was that I wasn’t quite ready. Some might even suggest that I may, just possibly, have been spending too much time in “stationary” mode and not enough time in “active” mode. It’s fancy sounding language, but you get the general idea.
I’m not used to being defeated by the out-of-doors. So I decided to fix the problem with a week (a whole week!) of “watching what I eat” and “power walking” and all those other kinds of things that are not much fun as they sound like be but that promise, in the end, to help make sure I don’t come in second any more.
Then, after a week of it, I hopped in the car and drove north for a rematch with the Jack’s Knob Trail.
My goal, as before, was the place where the Chattahoochee started. I didn’t just want some far-upriver stretch of stream, no sir. Instead, I wanted the very first place where water came out of the ground and began its long, long flow to the Gulf of Mexico.
Did I make it this time? You bet I did – 4.8 miles roundtrip to Chattahoochee Gap via the Jack’s Knob Trail, plus another quarter mile or so round trip down to touch the spring where the river began.
I started where I started before, at the parking area off Georgia 180 near the big info sign at the start of the road up to Brasstown Bald. Crossing 180, I walked a few dozen paces to the left, back toward Georgia 75, and then turned onto the trail and began that first uphill climb - just like I did before.
At the end of that climb, I enjoyed the long and relatively level stretch that followed (like before) and even (like before) managed to climb the ridge that came next
That’s where this iteration begins to differ from the previous one. This time, instead of cashing it in at the top of that ridge climb, I decided to press on instead.
Why the change? Maybe because I hate to be defeated by a trail or maybe because I remembered what my friend Kimberly Maxwell said. Kimberly is one of those rare folks who have hiked the entire Appalachian Trail, and I once asked her what she did when she felt like giving up. At such moments, she told me, she simply didn’t. Instead, she hiked on, because she knew that she could.
So, inspired, I didn’t give up either. I hiked on. From that ridgetop, I followed the trail on a long and gradual descent and then another killer of a climb and then some more ups and downs (that’s hiker talk for ascents and descents, you’ll be pleased to know) until the final down that delivered me, at last, to Chattahoochee Gap and the intersection with the Appalachian Trail. It had been a great hike, really. I recommend it highly.
A big sign on the left of the trail marked the spot and celebrated my arrival. Attached to the sign was a piece of wood bearing the word “WATER” and pointing left toward blue blazes marked the route down the mountainside to the spring where the river began.
I knew I wouldn’t have to go far. From Chattahoochee Gap, it’s only a couple of hundred yards down to the spring, and so off I went. Don’t be misled by the slowly dripping seep which you’ll see first: it’s visible to your right near a point where the trail bends left. Go just a little farther, because the real start is a flowing spring that lies just out of sight down the hill.
I found the spring without difficulty and, as many have done before me, took a photo with my feet straddling the Chattahoochee. Try that in Atlanta!
And then, because I love to fish and because I had brought a fly rod, I dropped a tiny tan trout fly in the pool at the spring. Yes, I can now say that I’ve fished the very, very uppermost pool of the Hooch.
I stayed there a little while, enjoying the unique sense of place that unique places like that one always provide. Once, in the distance, I heard and then briefly saw two hikers on the Appalachian Trail some distance uphill. But other than that it was silent except for two things: the barely audible murmur of the flowing spring, and the voice in my head saying, “Way to go, buddy! This time you came in first.”