The Secret of Stuart’s Gap
The wind relentlessly buffeted the Cessna 172 as it’s lone pilot fought to maintain his airspeed. The ice buildup on the leading edges of the aging Cessna’s wings had been slow and insidious. Despite his years of experience, and his many flight hours in the cockpit, the pilot had failed to recognize the telltale warnings on his instrument panel. Now, his plane struggled to clear the mountain peaks beneath him. His airspeed had dropped to 61 mph, and the plane’s stick was now jerking and vibrating wildly as the beleaguered plane rapidly approached it’s stall speed of 54 mph. As if in surrender to impending disaster, the plane’s four cylinder Lycoming engine continued to roar valiantly for a time, then sputtered, backfired and quit; and silence . . . Now, only the desperate slapping and rattling of tree limbs could be heard as the Skyhawk clipped treetops and descended rapidly through a dense stand of pine trees to the forest floor.
I didn’t know what night it was, or even what time it was, when I was awakened from my sleep by the sound of what turned out to be an airplane flying low over the Inn with it’s engine sputtering and backfiring. We dogs don’t keep track of time, but I can tell you that the entire scenario happened so quickly that I wrote it off to Louella’s raucous 5 a.m. arrival in her kitchen, and I fell back to sleep immediately.
Just after breakfast, I came across Isabel and Micah standing in the kitchen alcove gazing at Isabel’s huge RCA television. A female Atlanta news anchor was reporting a missing plane that was last seen heading for north Georgia on the previous evening. In this sparsely populated region of the south, finding a small private plane can surely be problematic, and Isabel shrugged without comment as she routinely switched to our local channel for coverage of the storm system that had dropped nearly three inches of rain overnight.
That Thursday dawned bright, sunny, and pretty mild for a mid-winter day up here. I heard Micah mention that the bad weather had moved out, and I figured it was probably a good time for me to make my monthly trip to see my friend Pete Vanzandt at Vanzandt’s store over in Dial.
On my way through the Chattahoochee National Forest to Old Dial Road, the long-abandoned fire trails offer many dramatic views with scents and scenery accessable only to the most ambitious and seasoned hikers. On the Morganton side of these mountains, the elevation rises rapidly as two of these trails converge and then wend their way through Stuart’s Gap, dropping gently to a field and a bold branch creek fronting on Old Dial Road. It’s a steep trail, and it actually seems to get more difficult for me every time I take it; but, it’s good exercise. Yes, I’m getting old, and I admit that I was panting rather heavily as I crested the Gap and began to smell the sweet sap of the yellow pines that thrive there.
As my nose processed these wondrous smells, there was something else intruding on my olfactory spectrum. It smelled to me like the familiar gassy odors that I pick up from the undersides of automobiles that visit the Inn. Curious, I left my usual path and ventured west, following my nose. I had only traveled about 100 yards when I began to notice broken trees and bushes with a path of furrowed soil and underbrush leading off to my right. As I moved forward, the smell of oil and gasoline became much stronger, and I literally began to slip on brush that had been saturated with this smelly fluid!
Walking without falling, even with four good legs, was quickly becoming a real challenge for me. As I moved cautiously along, I thought that I heard voices, but way up here? No way! I became so involved with maintaining my balance that when I finally looked up, I saw a plane without wings! The fusilage of the plane was lying on it’s sidle with it’s nose partly buried in the ground. The body of the plane was twisted, wrinkled, and distorted with no windows remaining. What must have originally been a door — was missing, one wheel with a shredded tire was pointed askance toward the sky, and I could hear the sounds of a radio (similar to the ones in Ranger Matthew Tipton’s and Sheriff Kenny Payne’s trucks) crackling intermittently as various folks barked short commands that I really couldn’t understand. Otherwise, there was silence . . .
Despite the altitude, there was no breeze, and I became aware of a new odor; definitely a strange and totally unfamiliar smell. Dead deer, dogs, sheep and cattle all share some variation of this sickly stench, and I knew in my heart that this must be the smell of human remains – up close and personal. Yuck! There are definitely some scenes that you can’t unsee, and I suspected this might become one of them. I had had enough, and when I turned to run away, I immediately lost my footing on the slimy liquid that coated everything. I tumbled head over paws under what was left of the tail of the plane until I came to rest in what seemed to be a puddle of oil! What a mess!
Being a dog, naturally, my primary goal was still all about getting to Pete Vanzandt’s Store. At this point, the fictional escapades of Lassie and Rin Tin Tin never entered my current agenda. This was no time for nostalgia, my friends. Frankly, what I had just witnessed was WAY above my pay grade and I just wanted to get the Hell out of there. I scrambled to a position where I could get back on my feet and carefully retraced my steps to the main trail that winds through Stuart’s Gap.
It’s about two miles from Stuart’s Gap to Old Dial Road, and because my skin felt like it was on fire, I covered the ground as quickly as I could. Once I hit Old Dial, I found a big green patch of Kudzu and spent several minutes rolling around in it to help alleviate the ‘burn.’ There are times when it’s not pleasant to be covered in fur, and this was one of them.
Twenty-five minutes later, I found myself just a few hundred yards from Vanzandt’s store when Ranger Matt Tipton drove up and stopped his truck. I had been looking forward to some of Pete Vanzandt’s meat scraps, and I was almost there! Damn! Ranger Tipton was the last person I wanted to see at the time, but, of course, five minutes later I was sitting on a blanket on the passenger seat of his truck – headed nowhere!