To say I'm a hiker would be a politician's lie. I've hiked, but I think it's best, when trying to get from one place to another, to use some "mode" of transport: a car, plane, train, bike, escalator. Even a horse or a mule. It just makes sense. But, on occasion, I lace up a pair of hiking boots and hit the trail for a casual walkabout.
On Oct. 29, my boots and I headed north to Tallulah Gorge.
I've hiked Tallulah Gorge before. It's not a casual walkabout. Two separate trails along the rim and a suspension bridge straddling the canyon provide incredible views of the cascading waterfalls and rock-jagged rapids that make up this two-mile stretch of the Tallulah River. Hikers, possessed by the need to go ever deeper, can cross the bridge and make their way down even further into the abyss that supports several fragile ecosystems. It's all achieved by way of an extensive series of well-built, deck-style wooden steps that snake up and down the gorge's steep inclines. By my estimate, there are about 12 to 15 million steps into and out of the gorge, though the park rangers insist the number is more like 1,000.
Camping area excluded, Tallulah Gorge State Park closes at dark. But the evening I visited was an exception. It was one of the special Full Moon Hike nights, and I was joined by just over a dozen other people, including a small group of excitable campers and college students, two middle-aged love birds out for a romantic stroll, and a few retired travelers. We were on a quest in search of the Blood Moon.
September brings the Harvest Moon, a bright, full moon that provides farmers with enough light to gather their crops well into the night.
October's moon is the Blood Moon.
Also referred to as the "Hunter's Moon" by the Cherokee, the Blood Moon's bright illumination gave Native American hunters ample nighttime hunting opportunities as they stockpiled for the winter. It glows red shortly after it rises each night, a spectacle caused by a lunar eclipse and earth's atmospheric conditions.
The sun's rays, filtered through debris found in the earth's atmosphere, ranging from normal levels of dust to floating ash from volcanic eruptions, combine with the earth's million-mile long shadow cast onto the full moon to bathe the lunar surface in a red hue.
Each fall, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the staff at Tallulah Gorge State Park host Full Moon Hikes for anyone willing to part with $5 for the privilege of walking down into the Southeast's deepest gorge, only to climb back up to the opposite ridge. It's about a two- or three-hour trek. In the dark. In the woods.
When famed tightrope walker Karl Wallenda crossed the gorge in July 1970, he took a more direct route. The fact that he was on a tightrope suspended over the gorge was no big deal, at least to him. Today, the steel anchor tower that held his tightrope taut from the north ridge can still be seen, lying on its side, rusting in the brush, and marked with a plaque commemorating the feat.
Back on the nocturnal trail, the group heads down the steps and soon spreads out enough that, once voices have faded away, I find myself completely alone with the darkness closing in around me.
Before long, I began to feel a part of the environment, connected to the ageless, primeval wonder in which I was immersed. After a few minutes of adjusting to the darkness, I could smell the river floating up in a mist from the falls. The white noise of Hurricane Falls drew me downward in a steep descent toward the suspension bridge.
As I made my way down the steps, ever mindful of my footing, my ears filled with the gradual crescendo of the falls until their roar drowned the sounds of my footsteps on the bridge. From the bridge, the ghostly image of white water tumbling appeared as a foggy blur.
Standing there, watching the haunting specter and hearing nothing but the roar, I was transfixed. I could have remained there the entire night. I could have unrolled a sleeping bag right on that gently swaying wooden bridge suspended 80 feet over the rapids cutting through the gorge floor below, and been lulled to sleep by the loud, soothing sound of Hurricane Falls.
As I caught up with the group, I began to understand how the gorge got its name, Tallulah. Well, at least how it came to be interpreted so many different ways.
Most agree the Native American word has no direct translation to English. The Choctaw are believed to have meant "leaping water" when saying Tallulah, though the Cherokee may have meant "loud waters."
Pausing on the bridge to impart some wisdom, as he often did during the hike, our guide said that many believe the Cherokee were speaking of a terrible place when they referenced Tallulah. They believed that evil spirits inhabited the gorge and only bad things came from being in or even near the gorge. As beautiful as it was, the muscles in my legs were starting to agree with the Cherokee.
The Cherokee tribes that inhabited this part of the country, long before European settlers moved in, didn't have much use for the gorge. It may have been an interesting site to behold, especially when the then-untamed river surged through it. (In the early 1900s Georgia Power began damming the Tallulah River to provide generator power for North Georgia.) But to the Cherokee, it was just a big hole that wasn't conducive to farming or even hunting. After all, if you killed something down there, you had to drag it out.
At its highest point, it's a drop of more than 1,000 feet and the heavy foliage and thick forest that blanket the ridges could mean suddenly being on the edge of certain death.
One legend speaks of a young, white girl living in an early settlement in the area whose family was killed by warring Cherokee. Another tribe found her and raised her. As she grew up, she became an expert tracker, even tracking for other tribes during hunting season.
One day, hunters from a neighboring tribe came to ask her to lead a hunt. She agreed and then realized the hunters were the very warriors who had killed her family years before.
She led them toward the gorge and, as they approached the high ridge, she began dancing about with excitement as she told them that the deer they sought were just beyond some heavy brush, but that they must run to catch them. The hunters did as she said and rushed the heavy foliage, only to run straight over the edge of the gorge to their deaths 1,000 feet below.
According to the legend the girl then leapt over the edge, yelling, "Revenge is sweeeeeeeet!"
Back on the trail of steps, I was beginning to wonder about ever seeing the Blood Moon. It was, thanks to the far away churning of Hurricane Sandy, becoming more and more overcast.
The group paused on the suspension bridge — the right place at the right time to see the rise of the Blood Moon — but the clouds were too thick.
Our guide padded for time, in case a sort of atmospheric Moses appeared to part the clouds, but to no avail. So, we continued on until we were finally on the gorge floor.
We stopped to rest on a large wooden deck with bench seats. I leaned against the railing and peered into the night, the water rushing into a dark oblivion, the sky blank from cloud cover. I could barely see the ridges above.
I wondered how many brave, yet, superstitious Cherokee made it down this far on a dark night in order to tempt the evil spirits and maybe even prove their own fortitude to themselves and the others of their tribe.
I wondered if the legend of the young white girl was true or just another "Lover's Leap" story passed down around campfires back up on the ridgeline somewhere.
I thought about the time that has passed, the millions and millions of years that this old canyon has witnessed the world changing and has received the curious, the adventurous, and the romantic.
I never saw the rise of the Blood Moon over the ridgeline that night, which means that I'll have to come back. But that's not a bad thing. I'm sure I'll discover other spirits haunting the gorge in the night, though I doubt they're evil.