Cherohala Skyway and Beyond

Back in November of 2015, we hooked up with our friends Mak and Owen for an adventure in Appalachia. It was our first time camping together. It wouldn't be the last.

It was autumn in the Southeast, warm but the breeze carried a current of cool air, crisp enough to remind me that soon I’d need to start taking allergy meds for the ragweed that was sure to begin blooming any day now. An alert came across my phone from Instagram. Direct message from OwenC.

He and his wife Mary Ashley, who goes by Mak, were building out their own Vanagon and wanted some in-person tips on the ins-and-outs of working from the road and running a business while constantly on the move. We met with them both at a coffee shop in East Atlanta and felt an instant connection and friendship with them. This happens pretty often with people we meet. I don’t know if it’s because we have similar outlooks on life or if it’s because when you meet enough people, even over text or Instagram you begin to develop a keen sense of who you’ll jive with and who you won’t.

Bound for Nowhere Mak and Owen

They took us back to their house where we met their bone stock Vanagon Westfalia named Stanley. He was a little brown two wheel drive german piece of chocolate and if memory serves me, he wasn’t running, of course. They had big plans for him though. They were going to swap in a Subaru motor, get better suspension, a battery system and all the rest of the outfitting necessary for an overland rig. Our time with them was short but we promised each other that next time we were in Atlanta, we’d have to go camping somewhere in Appalachia. A little over a year later, that time would come and that’s where we now turn.

It was autumn in the South East and we were back in our home city to visit friends and family. Mak and Owen’s schedule had freed up for the weekend and so we packed up Falkor and headed over to their place. From there they’d follow us in roaring Stanley over to the Westside to pick up our friend Alejandra, a girl I’d worked with at an ad agency many years before and who is a lovely, fun person to be around. With our whole crew packed up, fridges full, fuel topped off, tire pressure set, we headed north to the Appalachian range. Our goal was to drive the Cherohala Skyway and find some forest roads to camp on in that area.

It was cool and overcast. There was a smell in the autumn air, I don’t know if it’s the dying leaves gasping one last time before falling to the earth below or if it’s just my memory filling in the scent when my skin feels a certain temperature in the Southeast. Memories rush back to me, filling me with nostalgia. The first time I fell in love was in September. Her name was Marisa and that autumn was the most vivid one I’d ever experienced. Every autumn since I feel a pain and longing to be in high school again and meeting Marisa for the first time. But then I remember that being 16 kind of sucked and Marisa and I were a disaster. There is a tyranny in nostalgia that is too often ignored but when faced head on it reveals that the fully orbed reality of the experience we long for wasn’t quite as rosy. As more autumns pass in different parts of the country, I fill them with memories of people and places and their associated scents, and that nostalgia for my youth fades away more and more leaving me with a clear and present sense of now here, what’s next? Make sense?

The sun descended closer to the horizon just as we arrived at the first forest road we were hoping to explore.

Our two overland rigs trundled north on I-85. The Georgia pines passed by the windows forming a mashed green blur, some of the oaks and maples we passed were brightly dressed in orange and yellow, their leaves not long for this world. Atlanta is in a geographical region known as the Piedmont. It’s where the Appalachian range begins its rise up the spine of the East Coast. As we drove further north, the hills became ever longer and taller. The roads went from a super highway with 12 lanes on each side to a two lane, winding road that had us passing shacks and barns and old cars on concrete blocks. The further north and higher in elevation we went, the colder it got outside and the fewer leaves were left on the trees. The air went from smelling of just autumn and its attendant earthy/highschooly smells to smelling of burning wood in a fireplace. The sun descended closer to the horizon just as we arrived at the first forest road we were hoping to explore. Much to our chagrin, it was a paved forest service road. My heart sank a little bit as I was hoping to stretch Falkor’s legs on a curvy stretch of packed dirt. The road went through a canyon with a river running through it. The water in the river was running at a brisk pace, every now and then there’d be rapids and small waterfalls spilling into dark green pools that then raced off further downstream toward their next free fall. Huge rocks lined the river banks, above them pines reached up to the autumn sky, a cool light shown threw the spaces between their skinny bodies. The ground was brown and red and orange. The sun fell further in the sky washing the canyon in a dull yellow then gray light after disappearing behind a mountain.

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We found a road that headed off towards the left and we took it. At first it was gravel and wide enough for a vehicle on each side, but as we drove further into the Appalachian forest the road grew more narrow, gravel gave way to clay which gave way to loosely packed leaves over a narrow, winding, steep trail. Up higher we went up a steep incline and over some rocks jutting out into the road. Stanley kept pace with Falkor though Owen did his best to drive gingerly while I mashed the pedal on our van to hear his engine growl up another long incline. At the top we caught the last glimpse of the sun. He was all red, cheeks burning, washing the valley in front of us in orange light, the sky was pink and purple. To be honest, sunsets on the East Coast don’t hold a candle to the fire in the sky every evening in the West. But beauty is beauty and we stopped our vehicles to take every bit we could.

We debated staying and camping at the top of this mountain but decided that it wasn’t all that wonderful of a spot because of the massive power lines overhead. So, we opted to keep going down the mountain even if it looked hella sketch for our two wheel drive vans. Stanley was getting his first experience of what it’s like to explore forest roads and even though Owen was apprehensive about going further, his face didn’t yet betray the terror and rabid joy that comes with off-roading a cherry van. So we pressed on to a junction where a massive, down sloping rock stood in our path. Jess got out to scout the best line over which to take our vans. Falkor chewed it up with no problem even though he was three wheels and then two wheels down at one point. Stanley and Owen, however, had a little more trouble. The open diff in the gear box of the stock Vanagon can be a blessing and a curse. When Stanley got in his three wheel stance over the rock, he was stuck. The airborne wheel spun because that’s what an open diff does
, it sends power to wheel with the least resistance, and with one wheel in the air, Stanley wasn’t going anywhere. Jess told Owen to give it gas and nothing. Owen looked a little pale. This being his first off road excursion in they’re freshly renovated van, a baptism of fire is what was needed. Mak went around the back and yelled out that the rear tire was in the air. Myself and Mak hopped on the rear bumper and were able to create enough weight to cause the tire to touch the earth again thus giving Stanley the grip he needed to free himself from his predicament.

The road became incredibly narrow, much steeper and windier. Thinking back, this was a horrible decision because if we had reached an insurmountable obstacle, our vehicles would probably not have been able to reverse back up the mountain nor was there enough room to turnaround. We would have easily been stuck on a trail in Appalachia with images of Deliverance filling our heads. But I was intent on finding a nice camp spot and spending the evening telling stories around a campfire. Besides, why stop? We’d made it that far. Caution be damned.

At the bottom of the mountain, the trail became less steep and slightly wider only to open up in to what can only be described as a thick, deep, and quite dark mud pit. The sun had disappeared and even with our LED light bar shining on what lay ahead we couldn’t tell if what stood between us and the main road was a shallow muddy river or thick sticky impassable mud. Fortunately just before the muddy crossing was a camp spot big enough for two vans to park nuts to butts. Regretfully however there wasn’t enough space for a fire. We parked our vans, walked around a bit with flashlights to get a lay of the land and decided that we’d wait until morning to tackle our last obstacle.

Good luck getting through this muddy shyit.

We all piled into Falkor where we ran our gasoline powered Webasto heater (I emphatically do not recommend a Webasto gas heater) and talked and laughed and joked and told stories until late in the night. It was a cold night, probably in the high 20’s but the Webasto and our excitement and adrenaline over making it down the mountain kept us warm. The next morning we woke up to the sound of a 4wd Ford truck driving through the mud pit we’d have to soon conquer.

The driver was old, he wore a huge mustache, had a camo hat, and looked like he’d smoked every Marlboro cigarette ever made. His truck bed had hunting dogs in it and I spotted a  plotthound which is only used for bear hunting in these woods. I looked at the hound and back at the driver and felt a sadness wash over me because I knew this guy was hunting bears which for the life of me I don’t understand why you’d want to hunt bears unless there is a thriving bear meat market out there. My thoughts were interrupted when he blurted out

“Ya’ll got here in them vans?! How the hell y’all manage that?”

I told him we went slow and picked our lines carefully.

“Good luck getting through this muddy shyit.”

I thanked him kindly and off he went to hunt bear. It bares noting that his 4wd pick-up was about a foot deep in the mud and it was fighting to get through it. I wasn’t feeling terribly confident that we were going to get through this mud pit without getting pretty muddy ourselves.

Everyone got up from bed, Mak and Owen set about to make themselves some coffee and breakfast, Jessica made some eggs and bacon, Alejandra sat in the van with a mimosa in hand. I walked the muddy trail looking for how we could navigate through the slosh. I was soon joined by Jessica, the earth whisperer and finder of perfect off-road lines. She scouted ahead, stuck a stick into the water to measure the depth and stickiness and formed a plan of attack. Breakfast ended and we all strategized how best to get through the pit without getting stuck. We laid down some limbs in the most sketchy areas of the track in hopes of mitigating the affect the sticky mud would have on our two-wheel drive vans.

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I went first in Falkor. Jess stood in front of me and guided me through the first obstacle where I managed to keep one tire on firm, semi dry ground and the other in the mud. Because Falkor has a torque biasing diff in the gearbox, he made easy work of the toughest stretch of mud. I passed the initial sticky section and slowly accelerated before giving it the goose and powering through the rest of the mud and creek that lie ahead. Cheers went up from our merry fellowship. Exiting the mud pit was possible.

Owen was legitimately nervous. That white terror I had been hoping he’d get in his face had finally crested and shown itself in his whitening cheeks. He walked down the trail away from the mud pit to take a piss and compose himself before returning to the van and firing up Stanley. What happened next was a christening, a cherry popping, a coming of age. Like an 80’s Spielberg movie where the kids you meet at the beginning grow up immeasurably in the following scenes, Stanley lunged forward at the mud pit, his open diff tranny struggling to find the right torque to power through. The van nearly slipped into the deep thick mud because only one wheel was providing power just when his tire grabbed some of that wood we had laid down in the path and off he shot like a rocket through the following puddle and creek and out the other side. Mak let out a whooping yell, I hollered in a chunky growl, Jess screamed delightedly at seeing Stanley smash through the mud and Alejandra, holding the camera on the far end of the track, yelled in victory. We’d both made it! And holy cow was Owen ever pumped. His baptism was complete and Stanley was the better van for it.

With the mud pit resoundingly conquered, we posed for photos with our vans to make sure the moment was forever etched in the annals of human history. From there we drove up the Cherohala Skyway in search of views and a camp spot for the evening. The drive took us up a winding mountain road up over 5,000ft, we stopped a number of times to take photos and to dance in the middle of the empty, winding North Carolina/Tennessee road. We talked back and forth over the walkie talkies like elementary school kids with their own first walkies. Any time we’d see iced over waterfalls on rocks to our left we’d make sure to let the other know. Why? Because why not?

We didn’t find any campsites along the skyway, but we did discover a few forest roads that led to old confederate era cemeteries. We also found a creepy old abandoned tabernacle where we were pretty sure snake handling worshippers gathered to praise Jesus. We had lunch near one of those spots and then continued down towards Lake Santeelah in search of a campsite. Most of the forest service established camp sites were closed which I didn’t really understand. At any rate, after an hour of searching we found one near the lake and set up camp for the night where we cooked dinner, made a fire, sat around talking about all manner of things. I smoked a little of the devil’s grass and was as talkative as ever. One thing I remember pretty clearly is laughing so hard I cried when Mak showed me this.

The next morning we headed back towards Atlanta but not before stopping in at a mountain cafe  for brunch. The place was packed with folks returning from their Sunday services. All of them dressed in their Sunday best, and the there was us, showing up smelling like campfire and mud and vanlife. We sat down to eat and Mak, being the boisterous lady she is, dropped a well timed f-bomb just at the time the whole restaurant was quiet. We got some stares that I’m pretty sure were “you need Jesus” looks. Whatever. It was funny.

We spent another week in Atlanta and couldn’t stay away from Mak and Owen’s house. We kept making plans to hang out and to keep the good vibes rolling. That was over a year ago now and since then we’ve had many more adventures with these two. You can watch one of those adventures on here. We will definitely write more about our time with them in the near future. Stay tuned, and go give these kool kats some love on their blog and store.

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