Booster Time

November 1, 2021

Like everyone else, we heard about the covid boosters. They’re now available everywhere to the over-65 set and younger folks with health problems, six months after the second vaccination. The booster is supposed give a fresh dose of protection. That’s a good thing, now that hardly anyone is wearing masks.

I got an appointment at a nearby CVS. A younger man waited ahead of me. He, the store employees, and I wore masks, the only ones in the place who did. The nurse called the man’s name. She explained that right now the booster is only for old folks or those with health problems. “I can give you a tetanus shot,” she said. The fellow said OK. The nurse congratulated him as she pressed a band-aid over the needle mark.  She called my name, I slid into the chair, she chatted as she stuck me and filled out the card. I waited five minutes and was out of there.

Seeing the young guy cheered me up. If there’s one out there, there must be more. That is, a constituency of truth about health care that dissents from the South Carolina governor’s notion that vaccination or no vaccination are equally reasonable choices, and that all that mumbo-jumbo about covid deaths is just liberal propaganda. But Gov. McMaster’s message is preached everywhere.     

We are past the point of getting anywhere by rattling off the sad statistics. But covid keeps killing people, and not just adults. In mid-September 5.7 million children had been infected nationwide. South Carolina led the nation in numbers of schoolchildren with covid. In a grim article early last month reported from Grundy County, Tenn., The Washington Post found that only 17 percent of children 12-17 in Tennessee had been vaccinated, against 56 percent nationwide. In Grundy it was 6 percent.

Grundy County, Tenn.

The article noted that the county health department’s website does not mention the virus or vaccination sites. It quoted a retired teacher who said, “I’m worried sick about our community and our schools. … You have to be very careful about who you have a conversation with. People get angry and you can’t carry on a conversation. There’s too much anger involved.”

I paid attention because Sandy and I took our grandsons to Tennessee in June, before the delta variant showed up and things seemed to be improving. We spent time in Franklin County, where Sandy grew up, but drove over to Grundy, which is next door. Pretty spot. But I noticed not a mask anywhere.

Too much anger, the teacher said. Last year we heard about ugly confrontations at Wal-Marts, restaurants, and elsewhere between customers and employees. A security guard was killed at a Michigan store when he tried to enforce the mask rule. The fight then moved to school boards, defenders of mandates versus anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers.

The pandemic hangs on, thanks in great share to McMasters, Lee in Tennessee, Reeves in Mississippi, DeSantis in Florida, and so on, and the legislators who support them.  They tapdance around a notion of “liberty” and “personal responsibility” that enthralls folks who think they recall hearing somewhere that “liberty” or “freedom” mean their personal priorities come ahead of others’ rights. That is, self outweighs community. People who think this way are those who believe someone, President Biden, the CDC, the state health department, is trying to force them to get vaccinated. And where do they get off trying to take away our freedom?

We’ve been given a front-row seat on a national tragedy: the failure of millions of Americans to learn, in school or at home, a fundamental principle that must govern civilized society: that liberty, if it exists, implies correlative obligations. I am “free” only insofar as my freedom to choose how I live doesn’t impinge on or endanger the welfare of others. Another flavor is “conscience,” the idea that if I believe in my heart that I don’t want to get vaccinated, I get a pass to risk endangering others.

We can only guess how deeply this failure of elementary civics education afflicts America. Covid has brought it into high relief. The virulent transmissibility of the covid virus endangers any unvaccinated person who comes in contact with it. We’ve surpassed by a hundred thousand the 1918-1920 Spanish influenza toll of 675,000 Americans.

Nationwide, the mask thing is pretty much over with, except at doctor’s offices, hospitals, airports, and aboard planes. In the Northeast, where upwards of 70 percent have been vaccinated, people are beginning to feel safe. In the South and elsewhere it’s a different story. Mask mandates for schoolchildren, meant to protect the kids, rile the folks who still think Trump won the election.

The “masks required” signs are gone.  A store in Brevard, N.C., offers a 5 percent discount for either wearing masks or showing proof of vaccination. But the public is done with masks. I’ve noticed, when I’m wearing a mask, people look at me strangely. The numbers of vaccinations are growing, but painfully slowly. The docs advise that unvaccinated people still should wear them.

But the unvaccinated are not wearing them. They’re not wearing them because they don’t believe the scientists, the epidemiologists who have studied viruses and their pathologies for years—for decades, some of them. The Grundy folks aren’t shy with their opinions: they don’t trust the vaccine, it was rushed, it’s the Democrats and Biden. I ask: we know where Fauci and NIH head Francis Collins went to college. Where did you get your medical degree?

The Founding Fathers demanded liberty from King George, Jefferson wrote about it in the Declaration, the Constitution safeguards it, our servicemen and women stand guard worldwide to defend it. How did it mutate into willingness to risk infecting others with a deadly disease?

Sandy is set for her booster on Thursday, and hopes the line won’t be too long. Maybe the guy ahead of me will show up again. Maybe he’ll bring his friends. Maybe those Grundy County folks, and their friends in this town, will figure out why those scientists tell them to get vaccinated. And get over the anger. 

The General

October 25, 2021

While my seatmate on the plane slept, I finished ploughing through the two volumes of The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. I set it aside, then read the newspaper headlines, and felt I was with Grant and his generals near Shiloh Church, waiting for the rebels.

Nothing else I’ve read matches its power. No American military or political figure now living matches his stature during his life, nor his achievements.

In 1868, at 46, Grant was elected the then-youngest U.S. president. Although he served two terms, 1869-1877, by May 1884 he was broke, after a business venture failed when a partner embezzled the company funds. In the fall of that year he developed throat cancer. He started writing to earn money to support his wife, Julia, after his death. Grant finished Memoirs in July 1885 and died a few days later. He was 63. More than 1.5 million people crowded into New York for his funeral. Two former Confederate generals, Simon Bolivar Buckner and Joseph Johnston, were among his pallbearers.

Although a West Point graduate, Grant was an accidental general: he served mainly as a quartermaster during the Mexican War, a few years later he left the Army to support his family.  He lived a troubled, near-penniless life. He tried farming on land owned by his wife near St. Louis. He failed as a farmer and later as a real estate agent. At times he sold firewood on city streets.

Grant writes that as the acrimony over slavery grew, he “hoped that the passions would subside … and the catastrophe be averted.” In 1856 he voted for Democrat James Buchanan, who in his single term tried to ignore the slavery question. Settling in Galena, Ill., Grant worked as a clerk in his father’s leather goods store. In 1860 he supported Lincoln but could not vote because he had not yet established residency in Illinois.

He adds that “there is little doubt … that the prevailing sentiment in the South would have been opposed to session in 1860 and 1861 if there had been a fair and calm expression of opinion, unbiased by threats. But there was no calm discussion … . Demagogues denounced the Northerners as cowards, poltroons, negro-worshippers; claimed that one Southern man was equal to five Northern men in battle.” He notes that Jefferson Davis said he would “drink all the blood spilled south of the Mason Dixon line if there should be a war.”

South Carolina seceded in December 1860 after Lincoln’s election, followed by ten other Southern states. Lincoln was sworn in as President March 4, 1861. On April 11 the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter.  Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers for 90 days of service. Grant writes that he believed the war would be over in 90 days.

The outbreak of war transformed Grant’s life, as it transformed America. He writes that when a company was formed in Galena he said he would serve in some way. He never went back into the leather store. He led the local volunteers in drill. The governor called him “captain,” his old rank. In May 1861 Lincoln called for an additional 300,000 volunteers. The governor appointed Grant a colonel in an Illinois regiment. By August he was brigadier general of volunteers.

In February 1862 Grant beat the rebels at Fort Donelson, Tenn., the first major Union victory, and demanded “unconditional surrender.” Lincoln promoted him to major general. After Shiloh, in April, Grant writes, he “gave up on the idea of saving the Union except by total conquest.” In that bloody battle the Union lost more than 13,000 killed, wounded, and missing, the rebels lost about 10,000. Both sides claimed victory, but their positions on the ground hardly changed.

 In October he took command of the entire District of the Tennessee and launched his multi-pronged attack and siege of Vicksburg, Miss., the western linchpin of the Confederacy. Vicksburg surrendered July 4, 1863. Grant became a major general of the regular Army. In March 1864 Lincoln promoted him to lieutenant general, the first man to hold that rank since George Washington, and commander of all the Union Armies. He led the Army of the Potomac through a series of battles ghastly in bloodletting, grinding down Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and forcing Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Va., on April 9, 1865.

Grant reflects on public thinking about the war. He notes that during the war some Northerners spoke of the splendid fight the South had made over four years, with twelve million souls, four million of whom were slaves, against the twenty million of the North. He adds then that “the South had rebelled against the National government. It was not bound by any constitutional restrictions. The South was an armed camp. Conscription was resorted to early and embraced every male from the age of 18 to 45, excluding only those physically unfit to serve in the field.

“The arts of peace were carried on in the North. Towns and cities grew during the war. In the South no opposition was allowed to the government … . The press of the South … were loyal to the Southern cause.

“In the North the press was free up to the point of open treason. … The copperhead disreputable portion of the press magnified rebel successes and belittled Union victories.” He writes that “The North would have been much stronger with a hundred thousand of these men in Confederate ranks and the rest of their kind thoroughly subdued, as the Union sentiment was in the South.”

In July 1866 President Andrew Johnson named Grant to the new rank of General of the Army of the United States. Grant initially supported Johnson to implement Reconstruction, but later broke with him. He used the Army to enforce the Civil Rights Act, passed over Johnson’s veto.

Grant was elected President in 1868 with 214 electoral votes, 53 percent of votes cast. In 1869 he supported the 15th Amendment, guaranteeing the right to vote cannot be denied by race, it was ratified by Congress a year later. He supported creation of the Justice Department to back up the Enforcement Acts passed to prosecute the Ku Klux Klan.

He won his second term in 1872 with a landslide of 286 electoral votes to 66 for his Liberal-Democratic opponent, Horace Greeley. But support for Reconstruction faded and so-called “Redeemer” groups rose throughout the South to prevent Blacks from voting. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1875, but it was ruled unconstitutional in 1883. In October 1876 Grant suspended habeus corpus in South Carolina and sent federal troops to crush the Klan.

Grant nearly won the Republican nomination for a third term in 1876. James Garfield was chosen as a compromise candidate. The rest is history.

The Memoirs cover only Grant’s wartime service. On becoming supreme commander he persevered toward total victory—unconditional surrender, his terms at Donelson and Appomattox. He was gracious towards the Confederate officers and troops, sending them home with their horses for spring planting.

He despised slavery and the choice of Southern aristocrats to defend it, writing, “The South was more to be benefited by its defeat than the North. The latter had the people, the institutions, and the territory to make a great and prosperous nation. The former was burdened with an institution abhorrent to all civilized people … one which degraded it, kept it in ignorance, and enervated the governing class… . The whites could not toil without becoming degraded, and those who did were denominated ‘poor white trash.’”  

The aftermath of that great conflict endures. Today the country struggles with political antagonisms generated by cowardice and corruption that exploded in Washington on January 6, when footsoldiers of the new rebellion stormed the Capitol. Grant tells the story of the monumental nightmare of the war. He leaves hard lessons, but one question: where is our U.S. Grant?

The Peak

October 18, 2021

No good reason exists, except marketing, for calling Pikes Peak “America’s Mountain.” It’s on all the brochures and on the marquee over the toll gate. Someone in the city government of Colorado Springs, Colo., thought of that. Pikes Peak is operated by the city, it’s a national landmark, not a national park. Something like 500,000 people visit each year. It’s a magic place.

The Peak, 14,115 feet in elevation, isn’t Colorado’s highest, that’s Mount Elbert at 14,440 in the Swatch Range near the center of the state. Pikes Peak is only 31st of Colorado’s 58 “fourteeners,” mountains above 14,000 feet, the most of any state; the elevations of many of them differ by only a few feet. But the Peak has a story: the first American to see it was Army officer and explorer Zebulon Pike in 1806. Pike vowed to climb the mountain but never did and died in the war of 1812. For a while it was called “James Peak” after Edwin James, who ascended to the summit in 1820. At some point it was renamed Pike’s Peak to honor Pike, then  Pikes Peak in 1890. One historical tidbit must be cited: Katherine Lee Bates wrote “America the Beautiful” in 1895 after taking in the view from the Peak.

The snow-capped summit loomed in swirling clouds perhaps twelve miles due west of the city. We took the winding 19-mile highway, Steve at the wheel of his longbed pickup. The road begins at the toll booth in Cascade, the toll-taker reminds drivers to use first gear on the descent. The route, rising gradually, snakes through evergreen forest speckled with yellow aspen and burnt-red scrub oak that show the parching common in the semi-arid climate. The pitch of the road grows steeper beyond trout-rich Crystal Creek Reservoir. An old inn called Glen Cove at mile 13 has been turned into a souvenir shop. On the descent side near the inn cars line up at a booth to have their brakes checked. An attendant kneels at the left front wheel and takes the brake temperature, some vehicles’ brakes are red-hot from the ride down.

As the road ascends, the Colorado landscape drops away. I sat in the front passenger’s seat and stared. Looking left, then right, the view is of the sharp tops of the evergreens—then nothing. We inched along at under 20 mph, eyes on the car ahead, which followed closely the vehicle ahead of it. Beyond mile 13 the forest dribbles away to thin underbrush. The road turns into a series of sharp switchbacks (called “The Switchbacks”). The switchbacks, hacked out of the mountain, aren’t fitted with guardrails, though some of the turns have a short token rail. Looking forward through the windshield—if you can—the view is of sky ahead, red earth below.

Sandy and our daughter Kathleen, in the backseat, were silent. I said nothing, focused on the thin ribbon of road ahead and sky beyond, the blue deeper as we climbed. We now were far above the treeline, the landscape was nothing but that rough red Colorado sandstone, broken into massive boulders. I inhaled more deeply as we rounded the turns. A few cars had pulled to the side, people climbed over the massive outcroppings. The road snaked higher above us, cars crawled along, the summit still not in sight.

I resisted the urge to yell “slow down,” as Steve maneuvered up the switchbacks. To the left was the abyss. As we rounded each curve the drop was off to the right.  Then the left. And so on. Then we were at the summit.

A flashing sign advises visitors to limit time at the summit to 30 minutes. We stepped out and gasped in the thin atmosphere, a dry 18F. Mist swirled about, we stood teetering on packed ice. We stepped toward the edge of the observation platform, which was coated with stamped-down snow. I looked out at the hazy horizon, 125 miles distant, then backed away. A few chilled folks posed for photos, their smiles tight, tense, and brief. Just below the platform the bright-red four-car Broadmoor Manitou and Pikes Peak Railway, the alternative to driving, stood waiting to depart. The round-trip ticket: $59.50, $49.50 for kids under 13.  

We panted our way along the railing. The air at the summit contains slightly more than half the oxygen level as at sea level. Within moments of getting out of the car I felt lightheaded, my heart thumping. We took some quick pictures then headed for the huge visitor’s center, which overlooks the precipice.

Looking around, the visitor, acclimating to the cold, is stunned by the place: the windswept bleakness, the vast stretches of sandstone rock, and only rock—massive fields of car-size to house-size boulders. The closest tree or shrub is thousands of feet below, far beyond the eerie, towering shards of sandstone jutting from the surface, surrounded by more rock.

Along with dozens of others we were being treated to a glimpse of nature in its raw, forbidding intensity. Skilled engineers and laborers have attempted over years to tame this massive 14,000-foot-high rock as a tourist attraction, with a train station, souvenir shop, and café. Their efforts allowed us to walk this frigid, hostile moonscape nearly three miles above civilization and to witness its spectacular, elegant hardness.

In the visitor’s center shop I asked the cashier how the employees get to work each day. A company bus picks them up for the 90-minute one-way trip, then takes them home again. “When the weather’s bad, we just don’t come,” he said.

We looked out into the void once more, then piled into the truck and rubbed our hands together. The temperature had risen to 21F. We let out our breath, Steve delicately navigated us towards the descent, crawling around the switchbacks. We watched the upbound traffic crawl forward.

The Colorado people work to keep the mountain and the highway safe, with reasonable precautions, and tourist-friendly for those who want a tee-shirt or jacket with a Pikes Peak patch, a coffee mug, or some postcards. But the managers, whoever they are, can’t temper the impact of this unsettling place, the sheer drops, howling winds, ghostly mists, and amazing vistas.  What remains of stepping across this frigid piece of rock, and overwhelms, is the awesome nature of the Peak, a terrifying, majestic monument to God’s creative power.


October 11, 2021

We drove across Colorado in 2015 on our way to Montana. Now we were back to see youngest daughter Kathleen and her special guy, Steve. They settled in Colorado Springs in June after a few years in Steamboat Springs, the ski town near the Wyoming border. Her birthday is a few days away.

Kathleen left her admin assistant job in Washington ten years ago, headed west, and made a home in the cold-weather mountain states, Colorado and Montana. She’ll never move back. We visited her in Fort Collins, the last time six years ago. It was high time to go back to see her, which is to enter her Rocky Mountain world of soaring, sharp peaks, sparkling clear trout streams, spectacular national parks and forests, and noble wildlife.

The majesty of nature is reason by itself for living in the mountain West, in the vast spaces where golden Aspens blend with dense evergreens to form wide expanses of near-impenetrable wilderness. To live in these places is to love nature and share it with America’s unique wildlife.

The dark story of the West today is that the wonders of the natural world are endangered by the pressures of modern life, the raw economics of ranching, agriculture, and mining, and other things: population sprawl, pollution, careless, destructive tourism. Good people here fight policy battles to preserve the boundaries of virgin nature and its rough beauty. We had the vague, tourist’s sense of all of this. These same battles are fought back East. We did not know about wolves, once North America’s apex predators, now exterminated from all but a few states.

Kathleen and Steve escorted us to the Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center a couple of miles past the little hamlet of Divide, maybe 20 miles from Colorado Springs. The non-profit Center cares for more than a dozen animals rescued from private owners, a few born in captivity. These are the majestic gray wolves once common throughout the U.S.: red wolves that once lived in the Eastern and Southern states, Mexican gray wolves, Arctic wolves, and other canid species, including foxes and coyotes.

We were in wolf country, at about 9,000 feet elevation. Sandy and I panted as we slogged uphill in the thin air. The scrub oak, birch, and Aspens were well into bright fall foliage across the Front Range, which runs hundreds of miles north-south.

We took the tour of the wolf pens, which allow plenty of space to the husky animals, some weighing 130 pounds, with jaws capable of 1,700 pounds of pressure, more than that of an African lion. They stared at us silently with their glowing amber eyes while waiting for their dinner; some eat 30 pounds of meat at a single feeding.

The tour guide explained the impact of the decimation of the wolf population in Yellowstone National Park. Mule deer and other grazing species, without their natural predator, proliferated in large numbers and consumed wide tracts foliage and grassland. The loss of ground cover led to erosion along streams and rivers, allowing flooding and further destruction of wildlife. In the early 1990s a pack of gray wolves from Alberta were reintroduced to the park. The wolves quickly began reducing the deer population and started the process, already visible, of restoring nature’s balance.

Ranchers shoot the grays, claiming they are a threat to livestock. A few years ago a Department of Agriculture study found that wolves accounted for 0.2 percent of livestock losses. Hunters kill them in the belief the wolves are a threat to deer, elk, and moose. But the wolves instinctively go after old and infirm animals, allowing the strong, fit ones to survive and produce healthy offspring.

While wolf populations have been extinguished in most states, federal protections now are having an impact. Government and private studies show that the gray wolf, once common throughout the U.S. is making a slow comeback, with about 3,700 around the Great Lakes, 1,700 in the northern Rockies, and 7,000 to 11,000 in Alaska. The Mexican gray wolf was eliminated from the southwestern U.S. Today only 300 survive in captivity, and slightly more than 100 in the wild. A tiny number of red wolves remain in eastern North Carolina. The snow-white Arctic wolf survives now in Alaska and Canada, their numbers reduced as populations of caribou and muskoxen have declined.

We left the wolf center with the sense of a unique experience. We stepped forward, up to the fences, and felt the impassive stares of these graceful animals. This was no National Geographic Nature special, they stood before us, then turned and glided quickly across their rocky spaces. The half-acre pens replicate their habitats here in the parched, semi-arid terrain of eastern Colorado.

The next day Kathleen and Steve treated us to a couple of hours at Garden of the Gods, the mysterious cluster of sandstone rock formations that rise from the hills north of the city. We learned that some of the structures, formed by prehistoric rivers, had been here for 300 million years. “Millions of years from now, these formations may again become mud and pebbles,” an engraved marker said.

Twelve miles west, Pike’s Peak was swept by high winds, frigid temperatures, and snow squalls that closed the mountain road to the summit. We looked up from the sunlit surface; thick clouds  scattered snow across the peak. The unforgiving nature of the Rockies was in charge today. We felt the chill wind graze us, and pulled our jackets tighter. This was the world the gray wolves once crossed in packs. We stumbled into that world for a few days and learned their story, a rough story of wilderness, in its hard beauty and mystery. We turned and looked once more at the snowy peaks, and headed for the gravel path.


October 4, 2021

Kevin and I stared up at Amicalola Falls. The glistening, mesmerizing white water of Little Amicalola Creek cascaded over a half-dozen rugged ledges toward us from nearly 800 feet above. Other visitors to Amicalola Falls State Park, between Dawsonville and Dahlonega, Ga., stood nearby, like us, transfixed and silent.

We met to hike the park while Kevin’s wife Jean competed in a cycling event nearby. They drove up from Florida. I navigated down from Greenville, S.C., for 60 miles on I-85, then tacked another 100 miles northwest on Georgia roads that pass through rural flatlands to rolling hills to north Georgia’s share of the Blue Ridge. I passed Livonia, Toccoa, Eastanollee, Clarksville, Cleveland. I saw the signs of these places along GA-17, 105, 115, and 52. Graceful, stately courthouses, steepled churches, small farms, a few brick houses and mobile homes, then forest and more forest.

Halfway along, I crossed the Chattahoochee River, which over its 450-mile length flows rapidly down through the center of the state from the northeast mountains toward Atlanta to form Georgia’s border with Alabama, then flow into Florida as the Apalachicola.

Kevin and Jean moved from Virginia to Gulf Coast Florida more than a year ago, as our Northern Virginia running group emigrated to the Southeast. Amicalola, Cherokee for “tumbling waters,” was a logical meeting point. The falls are the third-highest east of the Mississippi, but as you squint from the foot to the summit probably the steepest. The cliff, a dizzying view from the base, is another high point within the North Georgia Mountains. The Appalachian Trail begins, or ends, eight miles away at Singer Mountain.

We climbed the 600 steps from the base to the summit, pausing on the platforms to catch our breath. Amicalola Creek thundered past. We stomped up the last few steps. Below the catwalk the water gathered speed from ledge to ledge. A month ago I had stared at Upper Whitewater Falls, highest in the East on Whitewater River just across the North-South Carolina state line. Amicalola is equally remote and spectacular.

The valley spread out to the south, pale green in the bright morning sunlight, a panorama of this rocky corner of the second-largest Southeastern state (Florida is slightly larger). We headed up the AT approach trail, which winds through rocky forest (what else?), levels for a stretch, then drops quickly before climbing again. A few hikers passed us in both directions, panting and gasping. Eventually we turned and headed back.

I had been through these parts before, to a wedding in Elijay, about 20 miles northwest, and for a running event that started in Blairsville, maybe 30 miles due north but farther on local roads. After the wedding Sandy and I, in a rented compact, ploughed seven miles up a Bureau of Land Management road hacked out of a mountainside to walk a few steps at the AT terminus. I watched for through-hikers. The woods was silent.

Wilderness, rocks, and fast-flowing water are what you get in the huge stretch of the South from North Carolina and East Tennessee down through north-central Georgia. The backroads connect a few remote communities and then more remote settlements hidden, or maybe stuck in mountain woods.

In August I hiked ten miles along the Chattooga River, the wild and lonely but gorgeous whitewater stream that forms the Georgia-South Carolina state line until it flows into Lake Hartwell. The Chattooga was the site of the filming of the scary 1972 movie “Deliverance,” that starred Jon Voight and Burt Reynolds and featured a young boy, Billy Redden, who played the silent banjo virtuoso in the brief segment that became famous as “dueling banjos.” Redden came from Rabun County, Ga., in the rugged mountains of the northeast corner of the state.

The forbidding theme of the movie summoned for many a distorted impression of local people as ignorant, vicious hillbillies. Local political and cultural thinking inclines to hard-right Republican, like the rest of the rural South. But I saw my first “Trump 2024” banner a week earlier not here but in Rosman, N.C., population 576, near the chic touristy city of Brevard. Instead, the source of the film’s impact, the major player, was the mysterious, fearsome power of nature—the crashing, boulder-filled river, jagged peaks, and dense forests, intimidating and haunting, yet virgin and beautiful, that make up the mountain South.

The Blairsville running adventure in 2018, called Cruel Jewel, started in Vogel State Park just south of the North Carolina hamlet of Murphy. The course runs through the Chattahoochee National Forest, which covers 867,000 acres across the northern tier of the state. Cruel Jewel extends through 26 counties to Blue Ridge, Ga., and over a torturous set of five, six, eight sharp peaks called the Dragon’s Spine. I persevered over the Spine once but faded on the second crossing. I left Blairsville remembering the climbing and the rocks, the relentless, dark wildness.

We enjoyed, carefully, the descent from the approach trail. A crowd had gathered at the top of the stair scaffold that crosses the Creek, where park visitors snapped photos of the white water rushing over the rocks and considered whether to make the trek. We took the longer route, winding through a pretty, tamer woodland down the mountainside.

We headed for Dahlonega (Dah-LON-ega), 20 miles east, site of North Georgia University, a military school. Students wandered the campus in cammies. A town square anchored by the Dahlonega Gold Museum offered coffee shops and cafes, crowded with college kids. No one wore masks. We got a quick lunch then said so long, Kevin headed off to meet Jean. My legs felt like rubber as I poked along east for two hours to the interstate, then northeast to South Carolina’s gentler hills.