Food Feature: Frosting on one side

In a beautiful fog in the North Georgia mountains

My friend Drew and I went to North Georgia to hike the Coosa Backcountry Trail — 13 miles of steep, strenuous walking. I've hiked and camped it solo, and took Drew along in the dead heat of this past summer. Drew wanted to do it again on a pleasant autumn day, with air a bit less like pudding than it is in the summer, and without needing a gallon of water each.

In mid-November, the hills (they like to call them "mountains" here in Georgia) were mostly brown. We were a week or two late for the best of the fall foliage. As we drove up to Vogel State Park and the trailhead, the temperature dropped from the mid-40s to near freezing, and the sun disappeared behind solid cloud. Here and there, plumes of fog flowed up the mountainsides.

We walked and our urban nostrils became ecstatic at the fermenting smell of the fallen leaves. We exclaimed over the few remaining gold- or red-leafed trees. We saw puff-ball fungi, and found a small, intricate bird's nest.

We warmed up and shed a layer or two of clothing. An hour's walk brought us down to my favorite creekside campsite and then the climbing started, as did a chilly breeze and mist, then true fog. We put our layers back on.

We started seeing frost, but not the typical layer of rime that settles everywhere on a cold morning. The frost wasn't on the ground or on any other horizontal surface. It was all on one side of the plants and trees, the result of the fog freezing onto objects as the unshifting wind pushed it along. Branches and twigs all had a fine outline of white on the windward side only. Individual pine needles had been dusted, so that the trees were completely green on one side, entirely white on the other. When viewed halfway round, a tree seemed to create its own shadow in the now dim woods. "Oh, this is so cool," we said over and over, "It's so bizarre! Look at that spider web! This is so cool!"

We continued climbing and exclaiming. The fog and the frost got thicker the higher we went. The tree trunks all developed white spines, and the outline on the more slender parts grew, never thicker than the branch or leaf itself, but ever wider, pushing farther into the wind. A quarter inch, a half, a full inch clinging to the thinnest leaf, and even more in the higher branches. The treetops had a good four inches of white ice, like model airplane wings. The stuff defied both gravity and brute force, stubbornly sticking to the branches even after they crashed to the ground under the weight.

Then, as (I greatly fear) now, a description of the landscape beggared vocabulary. We remained vocal (we couldn't just say nothing), but I frequently lapsed into the non-verbal, pointing to a particular tree or waving my arms to indicate an entire vista, and saying, "Duh buh duh buh duh," or simply, "Aaaaaaagh!" We debated not telling anyone about it, figuring that if they said they understood us, we would know we hadn't described it properly.

The thick fog continued to roll up the mountain. We were surrounded by the surreal. If we happened to be cross-ways to the wind, we could look to one side of the trail and see plain, brown autumn woods, then to the other and see a pure white snowscape. The view from in-between was otherworldly. Although the frost was on the side of the trees facing into the wind, it looked as if it were streaming out behind. Like a photograph in which the subject has moved, the woods, seen from certain angles, appeared to be in motion — an entire forest rushing in one direction, yet standing perfectly still.

We could have stood happily in any one spot, gawking and slack-jawed until hypothermia set in, but we kept our legs moving and our blood circulating. What with the wind and the fog, it was getting pretty raw up there. And yet, when we reached the peak and had the opportunity to rest on the leeward side of the mountain, we chose to stay on the exposed and frigid peak for our snacks and bottles of pear cider. The protected downwind side had no frost, and therefore, no appeal.

We continued down the mountain, soon out of the frost, then up again into more of it, down, then up to a faint bit more, and finally walked back into the park in a thick, swirling snow. As we drove away, we looked at the mountaintops, which had all been autumn brown when we arrived. Some were still bare, while others appeared snow-capped.

"Our" frost had required some very specific conditions to form on one mountain but not its neighbor, and possibly nowhere at all for years at a time: a certain degree of moisture, the precise temperature, steady wind from one direction. The event could be explained by these factors, so, not quite a miracle. But, beyond question, an amazing gift.


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