Before we left on our wandering honeymoon, we had narrowed the destination to the southeastern United States. But as it happened, everywhere we considered going in the southeast had a forecast for rain – except for a small sliver of the north Georgia mountains. Well, that’s an interesting roll of the dice, I thought.
I have a tense relationship with Georgia for a variety of reasons. I find its political and religious culture too often oppressive and irrational. I think the craziest drivers in the country live in Atlanta, a city in which I worked for a good part of the summer in 1997. I’m more than a little skeeved out by the profusion of billboards in southern Georgia advertising a mix of strippers, fruit, nuts, and Jesus – and I’m never confident it’s not the same folks hawking all of these items at once.
None of this, of course, means I don’t want to go there. In fact, I’ve long harbored a notion to spend several weeks traveling through Georgia and writing about it. I didn’t expect to start on my honeymoon, but why not? I knew of a few places in the northern part of the state that we might find interesting, primarily Amicalola Falls State Park, which houses the approach trail to the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail at Springer Mountain. In our hotel room in Chattanooga, I called up the park website to see what our options were. I knew the park had a beautiful lodge and a steep waterfall, but my attention was immediately diverted by a link to something called the “Hike Inn,” which turned out to be an inn accessible only by trail.
I’ve long been aware of the existence of backcountry inns – Glacier National Park has two of them, and they are so popular it’s difficult to get a reservation. But I’ve never been moved to stay at one, probably because our usual routine is to hike where we want and throw up a tent at the end of the day at the most scenic point we can find. I enjoy sleeping outside, especially after a day of hard physical work. But the draw of a new experience was tempting.
As I investigated, I hesitated at spending nearly two hundred dollars to sleep in bunk beds on our honeymoon. But that detained me only a minute. I wanted to try this out.The Hike Inn is at the end of a rugged five-mile trail. The elevation profile looks a bit like the EKG of someone being chased by a band of cannibalistic serial killers, though it only gained a net of about five hundred feet. But it was a gorgeous day, and we set out with my camera pack and a light day pack containing water and a change of clothes – twenty or twenty-five pounds lighter a load than we would usually carry.
Still, this was our first hike of the year, and while the trail was non-hellish,it wasn’t particularly easy, either. Fortunately, spring was in progress on the trail. Trilliums and lady’s slipper orchids dotted the edge of the path. I counted ten different species of butterfly flitting about. Lizards and skinks skittered up the trees, and a woodpecker traveled with us half the way. We arrived late in the afternoon. The Hike Inn was at the top of one last hill, and by then my calves were angry.
The inn is an attractive, gracefully designed building, fronted by a covered porch and a rhododendron in full blossom. We climbed a few stairs to the rustic front lobby, where the man behind the counter knew our names, presumably because we were the last to arrive. He handed both of us two canvas bags stuffed with folded towels, washcloths, and bed linens. He went through the drill: dinner was at six, served family style, and the loud dinner bell meant the food was hitting the table. Post-hike snacks and chilled drinks could be found in the dining hall. Composting toilets and hot showers were available in the bathhouse. While the rooms had electric lights, there were no outlets. Cell phones and other electronics were discouraged. Use of those devices for photos was perfectly acceptable, but any other use would be roundly mocked. For entertainment purposes, there were books and board games available in the glass-walled building at the back called the Sunrise Room. I appreciated the culture they were trying to create, so I left my phone in the pack, and hadn’t even brought my iPad along.
It wasn’t long before we hit the biggest drawback to this type of arrangement: other people. At the end of a long and tiring hike, I’m not overeager to engage with the humanity of others. Dealing with my own hiking partner is usually enough. And there was an abundance of humanity at the Hike Inn that evening. Almost immediately after dropping our packs off in the room, we discovered that we were sharing the place with a class of seventh graders and their teachers. But then, curiously, I learned something else: access to cold iced tea, a slice of pastry, and the opportunity to wedge my half-broken body into an Adirondack chair with a spectacular view does wonders for my post-hike humanitarianism. I’m not accustomed to feeling comfortable on hiking trips, and certainly not coddled. This was a new feeling, and I very much appreciated it.
We sat draped in the Adirondack chairs until a few minutes before dinner, when we limped over to the dining hall to get a good spot away from the tween crowd. There we met Jim and Deborah, a recently retired couple with a passion for the outdoors and adventure. Jim had a camera, and we talked photography. They’d traveled to Yellowstone, photographed grizzlies, and had just successfully entered the lottery to climb Yosemite’s Half Dome. These were our kind of people. As soon as the dinner bell rang, food began raining down on the table – huge bowls of corn, honeyed baby carrots, buttermilk biscuits with butter, and a platter piled high with ham. Another bowl, this one full of crisp salad with mixed greens, landed to my right. I gasped a little when I saw the greens; I always crave a cold, crisp, and unattainable salad when I’m hiking or paddling.
For obvious reasons, the Hike Inn is very interested in minimizing waste, so they ask that diners take only what they will eat. On the wall of the dining hall is a board on which is recorded – in ounces – the food waste for the day. The inn is managed on a sustainable model, and what little waste is produced is composted in a red-worm vermiculture bed. Solar panels provide ten percent of the total electricity needs. The odor-free composting toilets save about a quarter million gallons of water per year. And yes, they really are odor-free – the only disconcerting thing about them is that an underlying ventilation system is what keeps it that way, and it’s kind of startling to feel cool air blown at your lady bits when you pee.
I slept genuinely well that night, considering the stark appearance of the bunk beds. In the morning, if it looks like a good sunrise is coming, a staff member briefly beats a drum outside the block of rooms to alert anyone who wants to wake up and see it. No drum came out on our morning there, because the clouds didn’t clear till after the sun was up. But we’d been awake awhile when the dinner bell rang again at 8, and we gobbled down more perfect hiking food: bacon, scrambled eggs and peach spoon bread.
The word “glamping” has always bugged me — it sounds like something your intestines would do after you eat bad seafood. But though I see the draw of it, I’m not sure it applies to the Hike Inn. The place is startlingly comfortable, but both more and less comfortable than an ordinary inn. I like being connected with the outdoors, and although you can sometimes be enclosed within walls at the Hike Inn, I never lost the sense of being at least partially outdoors. There are windows everywhere, and they are often open. Each building is connected by a network of decks, so you do spend a lot of time outside while moving from building to building.
My verdict: I love a good backcountry inn, and the Hike Inn is a good backcountry inn. These places probably won’t replace backpacking for me — at least until I’m too old to do so without misery. It’s just a new kind of outdoor experience, and I want to do more of it.
Great, just what I needed. A longer list of bucket items.