Thursday was another beautiful day on the mountain. Having done a few hikes in the park I decided to try a section of the longest trail in the park; the James Edmonds trail. The trail is only 7.2 miles total (according to the park info which usually understates the length of trails) but given that I am far from my pre-baby fitness levels I decided to try a shorter 3 mile section of the loop.
After Junior’s nap I gave him some snacks, milk, and a fresh diaper before strapping him into the pack and setting out. We walked down the gravel road to the main road through the park and down part of the gravel lake road until it met the section of the trail I intended to hike.
Looking at the map I could tell there was going to be a fairly challenging incline for the first part of the trail but I gravely underestimated how much of a gruesome cliff-scaling operation this would actually be. Within a few minutes of being on the trail I was too out of breath to continue my idle chatter and singing to entertain Junior and warn bears of our presence. At this altitude it’s still early spring and near freezing at night, so the trees were yet to sprout any leaves to provide shade from the hot afternoon sun for us hikers.
The lack of leaves did, however, provide impressive vistas across the surrounding valleys. The higher we climbed on Scruggs Knob along the eastern fork of the trail, the more spectacular the scenery became.
The trail finally flattened out somewhat as we approached Marsen Knob and I was able to enjoy the hike a little more. Junior giggled furiously as Devon bounced along next to us and I spent most of my time looking down for snakes or looking up for bears. The hike was peaceful and we encountered no other hikers.
After a little over an hour we reached our destination; the overlook at Lookoff Mountain. Situated on a bald on the North side of the mountain, this spot was yet another beautiful place to soak in the view of the green valleys and blue peaks stretching into the horizon and kissing the azure sky. I took a minute to rest here and slid the heavy pack from my back, flicked the kick stand out, and set Junior down on the flattest part of the rock. I pulled out some water for all of us and turned to take a picture of the overlook.
This is where the hike went from just another great day with my son and my dog, to a pretty scary disaster.
As I was snapping a picture I heard a thud. I turned to see that the backpack had fallen over with Junior in it. I did the classic Mom-jog over to him, thinking he was fine and that it was just a little scrape. But as I pulled the pack back up I saw that he had landed face first onto the rock with no way of breaking his fall. I found that he had an enormous instant goose egg with some pretty serious bruising.
I raced to unclip him from the pack. The shock of the fall and the pain that must have been horrific took his breath away and he was silently crying so hard and struggling for air that it panicked me even more. I tried to remain calm as I pulled him out of the pack, held him close, and tried my best to assess the damage.
It was bad. There was no denying that this was no little scrape. As he caught his breath he let out a blood-curdling scream – the type that sends a surge of adrenaline through any parent. There was little I could do on the side of a mountain. I raced through the options in my head while I tried to calm my poor boy.
I called Chris. Even though he was miles away and had no way of getting to me, he’s always the first person on my mind in a crisis. As I spoke to him it became clear he didn’t quite grasp the seriousness of the situation. I sent him a picture of Junior’s head, at which point he immediately understood my panic.
My next move was to message the park manager, Jessica, who is now becoming something of a hero for us. I thought it was a good idea to let her know where I was, what had happened, and ask her what the quickest way was down the mountain. She immediately told me that she was on her way to meet me at the bottom of the trail and told me which route to take (there are several trails down the mountain.
The trail she told me to take was an old service road that hasn’t been used in many years. It’s overgrown and neglected, but cuts straight down the mountain and provides the most direct route. I hesitated for a moment. Going back the way I came was at least a route I knew to be passable, going for a new route was risky as I didn’t know how bad the recent storms would have washed out the road. Concerned that Junior may be severely concussed and need medical attention soon, I opted for the most direct route.
I set off as quick as I could. Junior was reluctant to get back in the pack but cooperated nonetheless. We headed back up the mountain to descend the other side. When I reached the top the trail split in a place that I didn’t remember a split before. I headed down the path I believed to be correct but after 100 yards we reached a dead end.
We’re not off to a great start.
I turned around, frustrated that I was wasting time, and took the other path. Paying close attention to the map I jogged back down the mountain side, taking care not to slide on the rocky slope, or turn an ankle over on the deep ruts caused by rushing water of recent storms. Junior continued to cry throughout the journey, despite my best efforts I couldn’t comfort him. I did, however, feel somewhat comforted by his crying. Crying meant he was awake. My biggest fear during the journey was that he would pass out or start vomiting. These were signs of a severe concussion and would mean that I was in a dire situation.
We reached another fork in the trail and stayed left following the old service road. The mouth of the road was in bad condition. The previous week we had a storm come through Georgia that brought tornadoes and 7 inches of rain in one day. I stayed up until 3am that night waiting for the rain to quit pounding on the camper and the wind to stop howling outside. That storm had left the trail in bad shape. I took another second to consider if this was really the best option, but brushed my fears aside and pressed on down the ravaged service road.
A lack of any kind of traffic on the dirt road had left it covered in waist-high weeds where there weren’t 2 foot deep ruts in the trail washed out by the heavy rain. Being careful to watch for snakes, I charged down the road as fast as I could with the 40 pounds of extra weight on my back. The trail sloped gently downhill and straight to the Southeast towards home. I was grateful not to have to crash down the steep mountainside and wind through the valley.
After 10 minutes on the trail we rounded a corner and I found the road almost completely washed away by storm water running off the mountain. The trail was ordinarily about 8 feet wide with a sharp drop off to my left and a sheer cliff to my right. The water had all but completely washed a 6-8 foot section out and left just 2 feet of earth near the base of the cliff. The remaining earth was sunken and was potentially unstable. Junior was whimpering on my back and clearly in pain. To go back meant losing another 10 minutes or more going back up the trail, then another 30-45 minutes to go back down the way I came.
I took a deep breath and hung onto the roots protruding from the cliff as I edged across the rut. The wash-out was not as bad as I feared and the ground was stable enough for us to pass.
Safely on the other side, I resumed my exhausted trot down the mountain using my phone camera periodically to check on Junior’s head. He seemed ok, but I couldn’t be sure and didn’t have time to waste with unstrapping the pack to check on him every few minutes.
Looking at the map and judging by the direction of the trail our position in relation to Scruggs Knob, we were only a few minutes from the end of the trail where help would be waiting. But as we turned another corner another obstacle appeared.
This time it was a downed tree. Not a tall slim pine, no that would be too easy. This tree had big, bushy limbs coming out every which way and was laying straight across the trail. Going back was not an option so I had to fight through the brush and clamber over the tree trunk with the awkward load on my back – now feeling more like 100 lbs.
Being thoroughly unprepared for this surprise obstacle course that had now become my hike, I was absolutely exhausted and begging the universe to spare me any further mishaps or misfortunes. Once again I took off running down the trail toward the road.
Finally, after a very stressful and strenuous 30 minute race down the mountain I reached the road to find Jessica waiting in her car. I threw the dog in the back seat, unbuckled Junior from his backpack and hugged him tight all the way home. The goose egg was now protruding significantly and I was pretty concerned about whether we should take him to the hospital.
When we arrived I thanked Jessica and took Junior inside to clean him up and assess him further.
Pupils seem ok, doesn’t seem drowsy, no vomit on my back, he seems alert and like himself for the most part, albeit obviously in pain. I think he might be ok.
I tried to apply ice but he wasn’t having it. He kept pointing to the fridge. So I sat him down and listed off the contents of the fridge while he shook his head at each one. Honestly, at that point, I’d have given him beer if that was what he wanted to make him feel better. I was desperate to take his pain away. Thankfully we got to the cheese before then and he grinned and nodded.
Within a 30 minutes of getting home he was sat happily in his camp chair eating a half pound of cheese and watching the gameshow channel. I was relieved to see him smile and begin saying “happy” with a cheesey (pun intended) grin on his face.
We kept him up for a little longer after bed time that night to make sure that he was ok before we put him down. Amazingly, our little soldier seems to be alright. He’ll be sporting one hell of a shiner for a couple of weeks but I think he’ll still be starting school on time.
Once again, a simple walk in the woods became far more eventful than planned. But we’ve lived to tell the tale and still managed a good day overall. I’ll definitely be packing some extra first aid gear -including ice packs – from now on though. If you ever go to Lookout Mountain in North Georgia, be sure to look for the rock with the dent in it left by my brave son’s head.