I’ve always liked hiking, and I’ve gone on rambles through the woods off and on my whole life. As a teenager I was in Scouting (scouting? I was a scout (a Scout?)). Living in Athens as a college student, I went on expeditions with the organization called GORP (Georgia Outdoor Recreation Program). During my time in the Navy, I climbed Mt. Fuji, and later hiked all over the Koolau mountain range on Oahu. Once I’d returned to Georgia, I got away into the woods often during the first decade of this century.
I love seeing nature in all its splendor, and testing myself against its rigors.
In the past several years I haven’t done much hiking at all, unless you count occasional strolls to the summit of Stone Mountain, which I do not.
I mean to change this lack in the years to come. I’m taking metaphorical steps toward getting ready for the literal steps of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail.
When I learned about an educational event at the Len Foote Hike Inn on just that subject (“AT Kick-Off Program Hike Inn Style”), I decided to sign up.
The Len Foote Hike Inn, as the name implies, is a hotel that is only accessible on foot. It’s on Amicalola Mountain, higher than the famous Amicalola Falls. A five-mile trail beginning at the top of the falls and winding through dense temperate forest, gaining around 500 feet of altitude, is pretty much the only way to get there. You have to hike in to the Hike Inn.
Each room has twin bunk beds, and linens are provided. Toilet and shower facilities are in a separate bathhouse. The Inn also feeds dinner and breakfast to its guests, served family style in a third building.
Given all those amenities, I could have gone on this adventure with just a light day pack, but since I’m training for longer treks, I used my big expedition pack, designed for weeks or months of backpacking, and deliberately overstuffed it with many more clothes and equipment than I needed.
I left Decatur shortly before noon on Monday, March 5th, and arrived at Amicalola Falls State Park by two p.m. At the visitors center, I received a parking hang tag and was directed to the highest and most remote parking lot.
I’d assumed I’d lose cell service somewhere on the outskirts of Dawsonville, the
nearest town to the park. In fact, even here at the trailhead my iPhone still had one or two bars, depending on which direction I turned. I was a little disappointed by this encroachment of the twenty-first century, but not so much that I left my phone behind. I stuffed it into a pocket of my cargo pants, even though I knew talking on phones is illegal at the Inn.
I hit the trail at 2:09 p.m. The hike to the Inn was pleasant, and not strenuous. Since the trail gains altitude, it’s more uphill than downhill, but these gains are stretched out enough that most moderately fit people will be able to handle them.
The trail was marked by rectangular blazes of lime-green paint. I wish there had been a little more of them; they were just far enough apart that several times during my walk I was unable to see the next one, and had a moment of panic before it finally came into view.
The trail wasn’t very scenic at this time of year. It’s below the tree line, and the forest is thick enough that there are no sweeping vistas of the mountain range falling away in the distance, and March 5 is early enough in the year that there were no flowers and very little green except for ferns and ivy. So the walk itself was the main attraction.
I listened to podcasts on my phone the whole way.
According to signs at the trailhead, the hike takes three hours on average. I made it in two without hurrying, but I do keep a steady pace and I don’t like to stop to rest. On the way I passed two women hiking together when they stopped to rest before one of the more strenuous uphill sections.
At the lobby, I was checked in by a tall young woman named Diane. She gave me my room key and a cotton tote bag containing the linens for my bed and a towel and washcloth.
My room was #1, right off the lobby. I went there, dropped my pack, and made my bed. Like all the rooms, it was a rustic, narrow cell containing twin bunk beds, a narrow desk, several wooden wall pegs, and a mirror. It wouldn’t win any awards for luxury, but if I’d been coming here after weeks or months on the Appalachian Trail, as many do, I might feel like I was at a four-star resort.
At 5 p.m. I joined some of my fellow guests in the lobby to embark on a tour of the Inn and its grounds. The two women I’d passed on the way were just arriving. They checked in quickly and joined the tour. We were a mixed bag: a middle-aged couple and their brother/brother-in-law; a mother and her teenage daughter; some retirees; a young man who would soon embark on a northbound thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail; a wiry retiree who looked like a marathoner as well as a hiker. Near as I could tell, all of us were white.
The tour was conducted by Richard Judy, a Len Foote Hike Inn board member.
I can sum up the tour with a list of names:
Len Foote. The Hike Inn’s namesake was a famous naturalist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He was rarely seen without a camera in his hand, and he was part of the inspiration for the comic-strip character Mark Trail. That’s why the inn is named after him; I’m pretty sure it’s a coincidence that his name is also “Foote.”
All Points North. This nonprofit provided the Inn’s solar array, which currently provides seventy percent of the Inn’s power. There’s hope that improvements in battery technology over the next few years will allow the Inn to decrease its dependence on fossil fuels even further.
I didn’t see any power lines, so I don’t know how that last thirty percent of the power is delivered to the mountaintop.
Garland Reynolds. This Atlanta-area architect designed the Inn close to twenty years ago (the vicennial anniversary is around Hallowe’en of this year). His concept was that the Inn should just appear suddenly out of the woods. This was my experience upon arrival; I was looking at the trail ahead of me, and then without warning I was looking at the front porch of the Inn.
The Hike Inn was one of the earliest structures to receive Gold LEED certification for the green-ness of its construction. It’s built on pilings instead of a foundation, as grading the ground and pouring a foundation would have disrupted the mountaintop too severely.
Dahlonega. Looking east off the mountain, near sunset, we could see an unmistakable bright glint. This was coming from the gold-plated roof of Price Memorial Hall on the campus of the University of North Georgia.
I was disappointed to note that, while discussing the renewable energy and the other eco-features of the Inn, Mr. Judy was somewhat equivocal on the subject of climate change. I have to wonder if there’s a policy imposed by the state, or if certain funding might be in jeopardy, if he were to acknowledge the scientific certainty that anthropogenic global warming is happening, and is a problem. I hope not, but I can’t think of any other reason why he would have been so ambiguous on the matter.
The tour concluded in the dining hall, which was fine, because it was almost six o’clock and time for supper anyway.
Supper was delicious. There were about twenty of us tucking in, the roster from the tour and a few others, and we sat around wooden tables family style, guests and volunteers alike. The meal was brought out in large pots or on earthenware platters. The entrée was pork loin for everyone but the vegetarians; we were given steaming bowls of black beans that were slippery (not slimy) with some sort of spicy oil.
There were also green beans, a green salad (I put ranch dressing on mine), some sort of dirty rice, and baskets of dinner rolls, served warm enough to melt the pats of butter I tucked into them.
Dessert was a cake called “Tunnel of Fudge.” There were extra slices. I split a second slice with the man sitting next to me.
The Inn encourages a “clean plate” practice among its diners: take all we want, but eat everything that lands on our plates. I had no difficulty complying.
As the tables were being cleared, Diane appeared with a laptop and projector. She stood next to the unlit wood stove in the center of the room and began to set up for the presentation.
There were to be three presenters: Diane, Richard, and a woman named Gail; their trail names were “Firefly,” “Peregrine,” and “Georgia Peach,” respectively. They thru-hiked the trail in three different decades: southbound in 1973, northbound in 2016, and northbound in 1991, again respectively.
The talk was fascinating (to me), but probably wouldn’t be to anyone who isn’t interested in hiking
the Appalachian Trail one day, so I won’t discuss it here. I may talk about it in a future post.
After the presentation, the evening broke up pretty much instantaneously. I wanted to relax for a while in the Sunrise Room, a cozy building on the east side of the compound stocked with comfortable seats and a pile of board games. I hoped to interest some of my fellow hikers in a game of Ticket To Ride or Setters of Catan.
But, I set a requirement for myself: I write several hundred words every day, and I hadn’t written anything today yet. So I repaired to my room to accomplish this task first.
The room was cold when I returned to it, but it had a heating system. A dial on the wall turned from “Off” to “Lo” to “Hi” heat. I turned it to “Hi,” but I didn’t have a guess where the heat would be coming from.
It turned out it was coming from the ceiling. A large white rectangle, about the dimensions of an old fluorescent light fixture like one used to see in office buildings, projected a couple inches down from the ceiling, and it immediately began to get hot after I turned the dial. Solar powered? Exothermic reactions from the compost pile? Your guess is as good as mine.
I’d brought along my iPad and a folding keyboard. This was my first field test of this system (I usually write on my MacBook at home), and it went pretty well. I typed up and fleshed out some of my notes about the day, and in no time at all I’d pounded out over seven hundred words.
Shutting down my tablet, I grabbed a book and headed back down to the Sunrise Room. Nobody was there. It was only 9:30. I sat with my book for a few minutes, but soon realized just how tired I was; I’d had a very long day by now. I’d have been useless at Ticket To Ride or Settlers’, even if I’d found someone to play them with me.
I gave up and went to the bathhouse to perform my nightly ablutions (get to work, Red Wigglers!), then returned to Room #1 and called it a night.
Whatever that rectangle in the ceiling was, it put out so much heat that I woke up sweating at four in the morning
and had to turn it down.
I rose again at about seven, in plenty of time to pack, get dressed, and head back down to the dining hall for breakfast at eight. Like supper the night before, it was hearty and delicious. Afterward, I had a nice chat with some of the folks at my table.
Checkout was no later than ten a.m. I was enjoying the talk, but didn’t want to push the deadline, and besides, I wanted to get back home by a decent hour. When I returned to the front desk with my key, I bought a pair of Len Foote Hike Inn socks for my partner, a green Len Foote Hike Inn bandana for myself, and a copy of Richard Judy’s novel, THRU: An Appalachian Trail Love Story (all proceeds go to benefit the Appalachian Trail Museum).
It rained the whole way back to the trailhead. I had on a Gore-Tex raincoat, but I was still pretty miserable. I was glad to get back into my warm car.
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