I arrived at Amicalola Falls State Park, the start of my 16 mile round trip, around 4 o clock. I had a late start due to a myriad of hiccups that included a discovered and repaired nail in a tire of the car I was borrowing. Needless to say, I was certainly not going to make it 8 miles before dark to my planned first night camp site. Still, I joyfully took to the path under a leaky canopy that sieved drops of rain down to my shoulders and head.
Soon the rumblings of vehicles and shrieks of children faded into the soft crunch of leafs beneath my feet and the steady drip of rain to the forest floor. A few other hikers crossed my path on their return trips, but I was mostly alone. After an hour or so, I decided it was time to find a place to hunker down for the night. Thick mist had arisen as I climbed in elevation and light was fading away. I passed three campsites, all with couples who clearly didn't want some long haired bumpkin sharing their space. One protective fellow made it quite clear saying, "We've got this site." I felt a bit like Forrest Gump excluded from bus seat after bus seat. I picked up the pace and trotted through the gathering darkness. The southern mountain woods have an ancientness to them that heightens in the fog. The woods began to seem a good place for ghosts. They would feel right at home just beyond the view of a hiker, hidden in the blankness. My eyes began to dart and squint, and I hoped no long lost Confederate soldiers would come pacing out of the mist. Little did I know, that's exactly who lay ahead on the path.
Close to full dark, I finally spotted two headlight beams wreathed in fog. I made my way to an open area where the trail intersected a logging road. Two men and a woman were standing next to a silver pickup flecked with mud from the drive up the road. Seeing this as my last chance at setting up camp with any semblance of light, I asked if I could stay. One said sure, and told me to come by their camp later for a beer. "You do like beer, right?" he asked. "I'm from Wisconsin," I replied. He returned a laugh and the mist suddenly felt a little farther away.
By the time I made my way over to their fire, two more guys had showed up in another truck. They had a impressive fire going considering the dampness of the wood, and promptly told me to take a beer from the cooler. As I reached in, I paused to look at the outside of the cooler. It was homemade and covered in confederate flags and the word "Aggressor" in bold fonts. I cracked open my PBR with a little more wariness to my actions.
As we sat around the fire, I started to get to know my new campsite neighbors. They were all in an Army program about 30 miles away. The reason being they, "Just wanted to kill people." Knives and axes sat next to crushed cans of beer, and were readily used to keep the fire roaring. They cooked a dinner of bacon and sausage over a propane stove while lamenting the prevalence of African Americans (they used more colorful language) in South Georgia. I quickly realized that my talking points for the night would be hunting, the one gun I owned, and how I loved the outdoors. Anything else or any social commentary from me might not create the most pleasant social situation.
Overall, my conversation tactics worked, and everyone seemed to thoroughly enjoy my company. These fine folks even offered me a swig of real moonshine. I took a timid sip for prosperity's sake, and was surprised at the relative ease with which it went down. "This ain't real strong stuff," the guy sitting next to me said. He then proceeded to take a large gulp and exclaim, "Do y'all think my breath would start on fire if I lit it right now?" I stuck to beer for the rest of the night.
Eventually I turned in while the others stayed up for awhile. I lay in the dark listening to some of the most offensive racial comments I've ever heard, but also the laughter of friends free to be themselves in the unassuming woods. At one point, there was a call on speaker phone made to a mother and father. Again racially volatile conversation dominated, but the call finished with a mother and father planning a tentative visit to see their son. A strange mixture of anger and loneliness swirled in my head like the mist just outside my tarp. I thought how strange this trip had become.
I woke the next morning to cheerful but hungover goodbyes from my site mates. Seeing their grogginess, I was appreciative of my restraint the night before. That next day's return walk was sunny and pleasant under the just turning leaves of poplar. I had time and peace to contemplate my "friends" form the night before. On a personal level, they had only been kind to me. They offered a stranger in the woods sustenance and company, far more than the previous couples I had passed. But had my skin been less like the fog that enveloped us all, there certainly would have been no such compassion. They were honestly the most overtly racist people I have ever met, but they offered me a place to stay when I needed it. It was a strange clash of emotions that I'm still not entirely sure how to parcel out. That being said, I think I'm bringing a friend next time I go camping in the Appalachians.