Note: Following the route of an ancient Indian trading path, the Unicoi Road began at the highest point of navigation on the Savannah River and ran through the Cherokee Nation to reach white settlements near Maryville, Tennessee. From the Helen valley, the road ran northward to cross the Blue Ridge at Unicoi Gap, the lowest point for miles in either direction. The earliest known account of travel along the ancient Indian trail which preceded the road comes from the journal of Col. George Chicken, who crossed Unicoi Gap in 1715.
A Hot Day in July. At 11 AM on a sunny weekend day in Helen, it's already nearly 90 degrees, hotter than it should be, and the tourist crowd is building. It takes only about twenty easy minutes to drive the 10 miles from Helen up to Unicoi Gap. There, the thermometer says it is 78 degrees, a not insignificant difference and certainly a pleasant one. It's humid, though, as dampening mists still hang in the air above the creeks which arise on either side of the gap. It rains more in Helen than it does down in Atlanta, and rains even more along the crest of the Blue Ridge, 20 or 30 inches a year more than down in the piedmont.
Down by the misty creeks, it's easy to find the old Unicoi Road. Or it might be better to say "roads", since in many places there are several old roadbeds running side by side, the newer lanes built when it became easier to just move the whole thing over a few feet than to repair the ruts and washes in the previous path.
There is an underlying order in the natural environment, but to the eye, things can look kind of ragged. The north side of the gap shows signs of a recent windstorm. Trees are down, a profusion of undergrowth thriving in the newly admitted light. Insects flitter about and boulders are strewn where ancient upheavals, floods, and the effects of ice have left them. In contrast, the old Unicoi Road has a character which only man can impart. As flat and straight as its builders could make it, the road marches over the mountain and through the gap, full of determination and purpose, for it once had places to go and a great wilderness to cross.
Back in the gap, about a dozen cars are parked, their occupants dispersed along the Appalachian Trail. On the edge of the parking lot, a sweaty and tired-looking young man sits in the shade. Beside him stands his bike, a fancy one with many gears, saddlebags, and a big water bottle. At the moment, the water bottle is the most important part. He is riding south to Helen and wants to know if this is the top of the mountain.
Although it must rise to the same height, Highway 75 is not nearly so precipitous as the Unicoi Road. The old route had to keep close to the creek, which got real steep as it approached the gap. The modern road, though, cuts into the side of the mountain near its base, starting the climb early to ease the ascent. Even so, and even with all of his gears, the young man says the climb was difficult, hard enough to force him off his clever machine and into walking a good part of the way. This, of course, is by no means a new complaint. In fact, its a pretty good echo of a similar one made nearly three hundred years before by Col. George Chicken, when he ruminated into his journal about "being forct to light and walke more then ride. . ."
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