After a restless night woken by rolls of thunder and the incessant rain hammering on the roof of the Pop-Top, I set off to find the start of the Trans-America-Trail proper. Up until now it had been a largely scenic drive through the Carolinas on rural backroads. Now it time to head off into the wilderness off-road. I left the campsite just outside of Andrews, North Carolina and following the track on the GPS. I hit the start of the trail signposted with a National Forest route number at 8am. There is no fancy 'Start of the Trans Am Trail' here, or anywhere else on the TAT route for that matter. It's just you, your maps and your GPS.
The track disappeared into the Cherokee Forest and it's where I stayed for most of the day. It was still raining and the heavy rain the previous 24-hours had left large puddles in some of the tracks but the trail follows good gravel forestry roads that are classed as real roads in this part of the world. They're not well traveled though. I didn't see another vehicle or person all morning. The occasional wild turkey and a family of wild pigs were my only company. In the afternoon I came upon a lone dirt biker studying his map. He was just out for a days riding but in the fog and rain had got lost. With my GPS we pinpoint his location on his paper map and we chat about the TAT. A half hour further down the trail I stop to grab some food from the back of the truck and a group of dirt bikers pull up to check I'm ok. They're a group of friends doing the Smokey Mountain 500. A motorcycle route that takes in 500 off-road miles in three days. One of the guys is into Land Rovers. We chat about questionable US Defender imports, TAT, Brexit and he tells me thanks to the favourable exchange rate (for him!) he's just bought a load of motorcycle gear from friends and business neighbours of ours at Adventure Spec back in the same home town as MUD in the UK. Small world.
Inevitably I take wrong turns a couple of times but quickly realise and besides, that's all part of the fun isn't it?! Fallen trees and branches are ever present and I just manage to scrape under one tree trunk that's fallen across the trail. Had I a roof rack and roof tent fitted I'd have had no option but to back track.
In Tellico TN, I stop for lunch at a traditional Mom and Pop restaurant. The packed car park a sure sign of good food. Inside the diners all look like they've just come straight from church; a reminder that this is real Bible belt country. A long table with what I take to be an extended group of family members are enjoying the Sunday special all-you-can-eat deal. Arriving with a tray of catfish the waiter reminds the diners 'As long as y'all keep eating it, we'll keep bringing it' Two brothers discuss axle ratios and engine displacements while their respective partners sit in silence.
Average speed on the trail is 15mph. My first day turns into a long one. It's 7:30 in the evening when I pull into a clearing for the night on Big Frog Hill somewhere in the Smokey Mountains. As night falls, I discovered why it was called Big Frog Hill. Lot of frogs, presumably big ones, making lots of noise. Another thing I notice is how dark the night sky is. In the blackness I'm thankful for the range of LED lighting we've fitted to the inside and outside of the truck. Shameless MUD plug over.
I break camp at 7:30 the following morning and its back onto the forest trails. The weather is better today but deep within the forest there is only the occasional tantalising glimpse of any kind of view. From 7:30 until 1pm I see two other vehicles. The trail eventually spits me out onto a proper road. I drop into the nearest town for food. It's the archetypal American small town. Lumber yard, steel roofing material supplier, Cheque cashing shop and a row of uninviting 'thrift' shops. I find a Mexican cafe where an enormous Burrito, bucket of Coke and bowl of nachos and salsa sets me back $7. I've already started to look for independent restaurants that provide a relief from the homogeneous food served in high-street chains that line America's major highways and main streets.
In the afternoon the forest tracks are smoother and there are some longer link sections on tarmac, albeit on quiet rural empty roads that pass through rolling farmlands. After a day and half of some rough forest tracks it's a pleasant relief to enjoy some pleasant cruising. The TAT dips in and out of Georgia at this point, making it my fourth US state on the journey in four days. Georgia was noticeable for its rebel flags, Trump posters and lifted 4x4s. Often all in the one tired pick-up truck package driven by a stereotypical male with cap, goatee and sleeveless shirt. Georgia also feels and looks noticeably poorer than anywhere else up to now.
After two nights in the Land Rover I decide I need a shower and some wireless for tonight. I check into a basic motel in Lafayette that has a pool. I dump my bags in my room, grab a cold Coke from the ARB fridge in the Land Rover and head for the pool. As I sink into the water I look over at the chair where I've left my watch, Coke and towel, but I don't see my mobile phone. That's because it's in my pocket...