|ONE EMPTY SEAT
Amy was having trouble seeing so she went for an eye exam to get new glasses. She waited in the waiting room, watching two children play with trucks on the floor. Her name was called and she went in. The doctor took a long time looking deep into her eyes before he spoke. He said, I am sorry but you have macular degeneration. She felt like she had been hit by a truck. She sat staring into space afraid of what her future would hold!
She could soon lose all of her eyesight, she sat stunned. How would she manage? How would her husband of 49 years accept this news? How would she tell him? She drove home slowly thinking about the future.
Camping was Amy and Alan's favorite pastime, they walked the trails, explored caves and visited waterfalls in Georgia and the surrounding states. Waterfalls gave Amy a feeling of serenity, peace with the world. Alan had promised to build a waterfall in the back yard garden after they retired, he had never gotten around to it.
The Swanson Senior Citizens Center was planning a trip to the mountains to tour waterfalls. Amy and Alan had been on a few of their trips since retiring and they always had fun, she decided she would book them on the next trip. She wanted to make this journey to the North Georgia Mountains to see her favorite waterfalls while she could still see them. She loved to just sit and listen to the water falling over the rocks.
Amy packed their bag for the overnight stay in Clayton, Georgia. Alan gave her a hug and thanked her for suggesting this trip. They hurried to the car and drove to the Senior Citizens Center. He looked forward to some quiet time with Amy who always had a list of things that she needed done around the house. They had been married 49 years and they both had retired from Sears.
George and Grace Turner hurried to pack their bags before heading to the Senior Citizens Center in Gainesville Georgia for their 2 day tour of waterfalls in north Georgia. They had been married 39 years, they both retired from teaching and now spent most of their time bird watching. They liked these guided tours because they didn't have to drive and they saw many different places on each trip. Filling their backpack, they put in field glasses, notebooks and bird identification books. They always met so many interesting people on these trips. They took 5 or 6 trips a year.
Arriving at the Senior Citizens Center 2 hours early they settled down with a cup of coffee and waited. Soon Abigail Anderson arrived, she was retired from the Department of Natural Resources and loved these trips where she could observe nature in its natural habitat. A slender lady with flaming red hair she introduced herself to the Turners as they chatted.
Samuel Johnson and Sylvia Campbell checked in excited about the itinerary for their trip, they had lived together for 5 years, still deciding if marriage is for them. Sam was a retired policeman, Sylvia was a retired secretary for IBM, they met when Sylvia was jaywalking in Atlanta.
James Robert Williams arrived next, a retired accountant, he had already run his 10 miles because he didn't think there would be a good place to run during this trip and he ran 10 miles every day that he could. JR could be tagged an exercise nut.
As more people arrived the excitement grew. Janet, their tour guide announced they would leave in 30 minutes and everyone should sign in. Janet was married with a 7 year old daughter, she loved traveling with older people because she heard so many interesting stories from each of them.
Matthew Hale, a retired fireman arrived next, signed in and went straight to the coffee pot. Sisters, Alice and Alyssa Bradshaw, came in excited about the trip, each carrying a back pack. They never married and have lived together in Cumming Georgia since their parents died. Both had worked retail for many years and this was their first trip after retiring.
Faith Dunbar was unhappy about missing her Zumba class but was sure this trip would give her enough exercise to make up for it. Faith was single and was looking forward to getting many great photographs on this trip. She was sure her cat would be ok for 2 days, she had a neighbor looking in after him.
Everyone was signed in and loading the bus by 8am. Everyone was excited to get started and to get to know their traveling companions. Janet was making announcements about their stops, rules of the bus line and the location of the bathroom at the back of the bus. Roll was being called as two more people arrived.
Susan and Mike Jones were the last to arrive, just in time. They retired from the airlines and were looking forward to taking many wonderful nature pictures on this trip. There was a photography contest coming up in six months and they wanted to enter. Their house was hectic and loud since their son recently moved his family to their home. He was here for a temporary job and they would stay 6 weeks. Susan and Mike enjoyed having the grandchildren around because they lived 500 miles away and they didn't see them often. Going on this waterfall tour for 2 days was a quiet reprieve for them.
It was October and the trees were changing their colors and this was a great time to drive through the Blue Ridge Mountains area of the Georgia. Blue Ridge gets its name from the blue-gray fog that flows through the hills, sometimes obscuring the sun. The highest mountain range in northeast Georgia, from 1,600 to 4,700 feet, contains Georgia's wettest areas and spectacular mountain scenery. The Appalachian Trail starts in these mountains and extends to New England, many people hike all or part of this trail every year.
Their first stop will be Toccoa Falls in Stephens County. On the campus of Toccoa Falls College it is the highest free-falling waterfall east of the Mississippi River. The college was founded by R. A. Forrest in Golden, North Carolina but moved to Georgia in 1911 and located on 100 acres of land. In 1977 the Kelly Barnes Dam, built above the college, collapsed and flooded the area killing 39 people. The Dam was never rebuilt after destroying much of the college housing.
The bus full of excited nature lovers left the Senior Citizens Center and started north. Many small conversations could be heard. James and Faith were comparing their exercise routines, Grace and Abigail were talking about the birds that they expected to see, tanagers, thrushes and warblers. Mary Beck, a retired teacher, was explaining to her 15 year old granddaughter Haley, the history of the places they would see. Mark Wills, also a retired teacher and local historian, overheard Mary and added some amazing facts about Georgia. Haley was going to keep a journal about the things she saw and learned from this trip. The bus drove north in the early morning haze headed for Stephens County and Toccoa Falls.
Faith and Susan were comparing camera equipment when the mountains were coming into sight with their bright colors. Some pictures were taken out of the windows but the best pictures would be after they exited the bus at their first stop.
The bus driver told the campus guard that they had come for the falls and he directed them to the parking area for the falls, everyone was excited, they entered the gift shop, paid their fee and exited through the back door and started up the trail, just a short stroll along a graded path to the 186 foot free falling falls. Sylvia and Sam were the first on the trail. They could hear the falls from the trail before they saw it. They were so excited when they reached the falls they made a lot of noise and scared most of the birds away. Everyone was in awe at the sight of the water tumbling over the rocks.
Susan, Mike and Faith were snapping pictures. Some were just watching the magnificent waterfall in silence. JR was trying to take everyone's pictures for them with their cameras, Abigail finally took JR's picture for him. There was still some evidence from the flood of 1977 to be seen. George and Grace saw a scarlet tanager and reported it in their notebook. Sylvia and Sam held hands and joked that this might be a nice location for a wedding. After a while Janet called to everyone that it was time to return to the bus. Everyone was sorry to leave but looked forward to the next stop. Janet called the roll after everyone was on the bus and they headed to Habersham County.
Next stop would be Minnehaha Falls and Angel-Panther Falls. Mark related some of the history of the area and answered questions from his traveling companions. While they rode along the Georgia mountain roads the passengers talked about Toccoa Falls, what they had observed and the tragedy of the past. They compared pictures and talked about what they would see next. The weather was great, 59 degrees, good for walking in the outdoors with a light coat. They were passing through Clayton Georgia and would soon be at their destination.
The bus slowly passed the Rabun Beach Campground and found the parking area. As everyone exited the bus thoughts of lunch were gone as they walked towards the short trail to Minnehaha Falls, 100 feet tall and one of the most picturesque falls in this region. Upon seeing the falls everyone started snapping pictures. The water cascaded over natural rock formations resembling steps down the mountain. Haley closed her eyes and listened to the flowing water, it was so peaceful. She and her Grandmother held hands and sat on a bench just watching and listening to the water. Janet said it was time to move on the Angel Falls. Everyone returned to the bus for the short drive to the next parking lot.
Angel Falls trail was 1.6 miles long and as the group walked they saw many small waterfalls along the stream. Soon they arrived at Panther Falls, many sat down on the benches for a rest and to watch the water fall 50 feet. After snapping pictures the group moved a half mile up the trail to Angel Falls. The red and yellow trees around the observation deck made a beautiful backdrop for their pictures. Ann and Stacy took turns taking each other's pictures when Susan offered to take a picture of them both. Grace and George were finding a lot of warblers and vireos to record in their notebooks.
Abigail studied a hemlock tree looking for beetles that could destroy the tree in time, she found none. She was looking at the plants around the area when Haley asked what she was looking at. Abigail was glad to share her knowledge of the plants and trees with the teenager. Most teenagers today only cared about their electronics but Haley was really interested. Mary eagerly listened also.
Jean and Joe Jeffers kissed on the observation deck, they had come here camping on their honeymoon 25 years ago. Joe was showing signs of Alzheimer's and Jean thought it would be good to get him out of the house into a different environment for a day. This place had special memories for them both.
Susan and Mike were busy photographing the trees, the waterfall and the people around them. JR asked about lunch and everyone realized they were getting hungry also. The group slowly made their way down the trail and back onto the bus. Janet called the roll and they headed for Dillard Georgia.
The bus driver headed up highway 441 to Dillard Georgia and found the restaurant easily inside the city limits. The lunch was included in their tour, many on this bus had never been there. The Dillard house was established in 1917 when Carrie and Arthur Dillard offered some of their 6 rooms to traveling visitors and Carrie, a wonderful cook, treated every visitor as family. Today the Dillard house has 92 rooms and 28 cottages for overnight visitors and a restaurant that offers southern cooking served family style. As the bus unloaded, the eager travelers filed into the restaurant and found themselves at large tables in a picturesque room with a fireplace. They wondered what famous people had sat at these same tables? Faith and JR sat together, they were looking for a more healthy meal, they found lots of vegetables, green beans, corn on the cob, squash, and cabbage casserole. Others in the group had fried chicken, parsley potatoes, tomatoes, and okra. Some wanted a little of everything including Peach Cobbler for dessert.
Mark met Kim Dawson at his lunch table. She was looking for a location to put a tea room. She was a chef at a large restaurant in Sandy Springs Georgia. Kim loved her profession but longed for a slower pace of living. She trained in Belgium and loved the lifestyle of Europe, not the "hustle bustle' of the big city. As she walked along the street after lunch she found a small restaurant for sale. She called the agent and they went inside to access the building. This building had the charm and location she was looking for. Kim took pictures to show her sister, they would work together in the tea room. The agent gave her his card and she hurried back to Atlanta to show her sister.
The bus lumbered along small country roads until they reached Overflow Road. When the bus parked everyone was exited. Who would take the easier one mile trail and who would take the more strenuous 1.3 mile trail, the group divided and everyone was chatting as they started out.
JR and Faith headed the group down the more strenuous trail. Jean and Joe Jeffers led the way down the easier trail when they saw a fox in the underbrush, the fox ran off after hearing all the people headed his way. Susan was disappointed she didn't get a picture of the fox. Everyone met up at the observation deck at Holcomb Creek Falls, a magnificent amount of water flowed over the rocks and tumbled down to the small pond at the bottom. The cameras were flicking and everyone was excited to move on to Ammons Creek Falls observation deck. How nice of the park service to provide observation decks at many waterfalls in Georgia for visitors to see better and take lots of pictures back to their home states. On their way to Ammons Falls they passed a smaller 15 foot waterfall along the trail and scared a whitetail deer drinking from the creek.
Ammons Creek Falls was interesting in that it divided and came down in two places and met at the bottom. After many pictures were taken, the group headed back to the bus. Janet headed the group back on the easier trail, some in the group were getting tired.
Abigail saw what she thought was a baby bobcat a short distance from the trail. She stepped off the path and cautiously approached the place she saw the cat but it wasn't there, she looked around and moved in the direction she thought the small bobcat had taken. Before long Abigail realized she did not see or hear any of her traveling companions and she knew she was lost. Her cell phone had no reception.
Abigail knew they hiked up hill to get to the waterfall so she headed down hill hoping to find water that would lead her to the waterfall or river. After walking for 20 minutes she fell into a crevasse on the mountain and could not get out.
As the group reached the bus and took their seats, one seat was empty. Matthew asked where Abigail was. Roll call confirmed Abigail was missing. A small group of men followed Matthew back up the trail, they called and searched, everyone staying within sight of the others. Janet called the park rangers.
After searching for about 30 minutes Sam thought he heard a noise in the distance and everyone moved in that direction. They found Abigail in the crevasse and came up with a plan to extract her. They quickly took their belts off and buckled them together. the belts were just long enough for Abigail to reach but were slippery to hold onto. The belts were pulled up and reversed so she could hold onto the buckle end.
Sam and Matthew laid on the ground to hold on to the belt , the others took hold of their feet. Abigail held on to the belt and the men pulled her up slowly until Matthew grabbed her wrist and she was pulled out. After much hugging and thanking the group they all headed back. The bus driver was blowing the horn every 15 minutes and they moved in that direction until they reached the trail back to the bus. Shouts and clapping could be heard as Abigail and her rescuers came into sight of the bus. The park rangers had just arrived at the bus to help in the search.
Abigail was not injured from her fall, but she was embarrassed she had made such a mistake and held everyone up, but she appreciated the men coming for her.
They headed to Clayton Georgia to Zeppelins Italian Restaurant, Janet had called ahead and made a reservation for the whole group. The owner Mark Taylor met them at the door, welcomed the group, showed them to their tables, and called their server. The food was good, the conversation lively and after everyone was finished they headed to the Quality Inn and Suites in Clayton Georgia for the night. Most turned in for the night early, some visited in the lobby and compared the itinerary for tomorrow. James and Faith went for a short run before turning in.
After dinner and settling into their room, Alan and Amy walked the garden path, hand in hand, admiring the mums, they sat down on a garden bench. Mike asked when she would get her new glasses. Amy turned to him and told him that glasses would not help her eyes. She told him about the macular degeneration, blood vessels behind the retina start to grow under the macula. These new blood vessels tend to be very fragile and often leak blood and fluid. The blood and fluid raise the macula from its normal place at the back of the eye. Damage to the macula occurs rapidly and would eventually make her blind. They embraced and cried for a little while. "Now" he said, "What are we going to do about this?"
Amy said she had another appointment next week and she wanted him to go with her. They would talk with the Doctor and find out about their options. Then they would get the family together and tell them.
Breakfast was served in the hotel before leaving for White County. Everyone was packed and ready to go after breakfast. They stowed the luggage and boarded the bus eager to see the next waterfall at Horsetrough Mountain. The high eastern ridge of the Blue Ridge Mountains is home to many falls and rivers that feed into the Chattahoochee River. Horsetrough Falls is at the peak of the Appalachian Trail. This water has a 500 mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico.
Alan and Amy sat quiet on the bus this morning, thinking about the previous day's news. Others were talking and comparing pictures from the day before. The bus parked at the Upper Chattahoochee Campground and everyone started up the hiking trail.
Matthew stayed close to Abigail not letting her out of his sight. Alan and Amy walked hand in hand talking to Mike and Susan, they were grateful that it didn't rain on this trip. Faith, Alice and Alyssa were taking pictures of the colorful trees, George and Grace were recording birds they saw and heard. The waterfall was magnificent and the rocks glittered as if they contained gold. After a while it was time to return to the bus for the short ride to Raven Cliff Falls. Janet called roll call.
Mark was telling the history of Raven Cliff and Brasstown area of Georgia as they parked for another small hike. Mark asked Abigail about edible plants. Several falls can be found along Dodd Creek, Sylvia thought one looked like a big fluffy wedding dress. As they reached the tallest waterfall Mary and her granddaughter thought the water flowing out of the rock looked like a bridal veil. Everyone took lots of pictures, Susan was hoping maybe one will win the contest.
As they walked back to the bus everyone was talking about seeing Helen, Georgia. They would eat lunch at the Old Bavaria Inn and walk around the colorful town before going to Sautee Nacoochee and Anna Ruby Falls, their last stop before heading home. The Old Bavaria Inn looked like someone had picked it up from a mountain in Bavaria and set it down here in Georgia. The whole town is so quaint that it attracts many visitors every year. After 2 hours everyone met up at the bus and took their seats, Janet took roll, and the bus headed out of Helen. Alice and Alyssa brought notebooks with them and wrote poems about the fall colors, the wonderful waterfalls and their interesting companions while they rode along.
The next stop was Anna Ruby Falls, it lies within Unicoi State Park in Sautee Nacoochee Georgia. It is one of the most visited falls in Georgia. The bus parked and everyone started up the paved walk to the wooden overlook. The two waterfalls from two different creeks merge into one at the bottom and become Smith Creek.
Haley was so happy her Grandmother brought her on this trip, it became a special bond between them. Samuel and Sylvia walked slowly down the trail talking about the possibility of a wedding in this park in the spring. George and Grace recorded more birds today than yesterday. Alan and Amy made arrangements to come back here camping in the spring with Susan and Mike. Many visited the interpretive center and craft shop before leaving. Susan bought the book Waterfalls of North Georgia by Jack Anthony. Alan bought 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles of Atlanta by Randy Golden, they would use all the time they had to enjoy the mountains.
As they reached the bus Janet took roll for the last time. She was happy that no one was seriously hurt on this trip and everyone had a good time. The bus headed down the mountain to bring these people back to the Senior Citizens Center and their homes. On this trip new friendships had been formed, new outings arranged and everyone looked forward to another bus trip in the future. Matthew would see Abigail for dinner on Tuesday. James and Faith decided to train together for the marathon that was coming up in two months.
Amy and Alan would drive home, stopping for dinner at their favorite restaurant. They had a lot to talk about. After they got home Alan was going to build that waterfall in the backyard for Amy and put a chair next to it so she could hear the water fall over the rocks every day.
Susan sent in pictures from their trip to the photo contest and was awarded honorable mention with a picture of Raven Cliff Falls. Faith sent one in but she didn't get any awards. Mike said they should all go back every season to the falls and repeat the same picture. Faith liked that and they exchanged phone numbers to keep in touch.
Mary's granddaughter Haley wrote in her journal on the bus, she included the historical information Mark Wills had given her. She looked forward to sharing her journal with Miss Stone, her English teacher. Mary was already planning another trip for her and Haley over Christmas break from school to Ashford North Carolina to the Biltmore house.