Time to pack. Day hikes are a great escape. When only a few hours permit (we live in a culture that demands we work too much) the day hike is a much-needed mini-vacation. Day hikes are just long enough to shower the human spirit with natural wonder, share some laughs, see the sights, feel relief. The forest is largely a place of freedom. The mountains are a place to understand liberty. So, to absorb all of this, the body must be properly nourished. A good breakfast is needed, but more important is fuel for the mountains.
Food is needed for a day hike. Obviously, the body needs energy. I like food for purely hedonistic reasons in the wild — it just tastes better out there. Interestingly enough, being totally nude feels natural and sex feels better out there in the wild too. Primal! I digress — now back to food. Venison summer sausage, extra sharp cheddar cheese, some fruit and good bread are my preferred sources of sustenance for day escapes. With food and a couple liters of water in tow it is time to meet my fellow travelers and hit the woods.
City slickers. I leave my home in scruffy south Knoxville and head to the quaint town of Maryville, Tennessee to meet up with my best friend, Steve McQueen (true story) and a visiting pair of his medical buddies from George Washington (smart man, my friend). After a quick introduction to Carlos (Mexican) and Lou (Afghan from South Carolina) I learn my fellow travelers are politically incorrect, crass and love to joke. A good day lay ahead. We are off for the forest around 10:00 am.
On the way up we stop for beer. Carlos grabs a tall Modello and Lou a tall Budweiser. Myself, I go for a tall-boy of Busch at 25% more! Plus, Busch has a grand advertising campaign that may toy with my subconscious: “Busch Beer. Head for the mountains.” Well, the mountains are calling and I must go! Thanks, John Muir. Steve McQueen is driving, naturally, and he claims the tallest drink of all: Sobriety. He arms himself with Gatorade — a product of the swampy University of Florida. We live in Big Orange Country. Go Vols! We drink through the quiet side of the Smokies and pitch the cans. As we travel towards Metcalf Bottoms along the Pigeon River the booze kicks in. We biology types relaxed and make fun of each other. Long live a good laugh at oneself.
Feels good to travel mountain country. The landscape is beautiful. Traffic is light. As we pass the Chimneys trailhead we see our first black-bear of the day walking alongside the road. We slow to admire the beast, a cub, but do not stop. Mama may be around, plus it’s bad etiquette. We are human, after all, visitors in the bear’s home. Onward to Clingmans Dome.
Clingmans Dome rests at 6,643 feet making it the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The area offers a good shock to the system. Temperatures are extreme at such an elevation, often 20 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than the mountain lowlands. Plus, Steve and I wanted to bring his visitors for the views and the unique spruce-fir rainforest that decorates the terrain. We are not disappointed, at least I’m not.
The day before our visit an intense rain showered the region. Remnants of the storm were still around. Bring on the clouds and mountain weather! We stand in a sea of clouds. Some are a deep stratus grey in color and seep along the forested mountain ridges occupying hollers and deeper valleys. Others a magnificent puffy cumulus that appear almost golden as they bathe in rays from the star of life. It’s damn cold. I pull on a flannel shirt and don an outback hat. There are four tasks at hand: Relieve ourselves of the beer we drank, eat a snack, climb to the observation tower at the top of the dome, and then follow the Forney Ridge Trail to Andrews Bald.
Once our biological needs were fulfilled we begin our half-mile hike to the lookout tower. Now, a half mile is not a long trek, but it’s a steep half mile. Steve and I outpace Carlos and Lou. We have a good time reminiscing and telling more bad jokes. Brotherhood. Then we ascend into the very clouds we were just admiring. The temperature drops even more. When the weather permits ones view from the tower can stretch for 100 miles. On this day, however, about 20 feet. I laugh. This is the weather I like best — blustery, cold, grey with bursts of light. It’s elemental. Perfection.
Once the lads catch up we scramble down from the tower and hop on the Appalachian Trail to the mouth of Forney Ridge to begin our descent towards the bald. Again, a mesmerizing view. Clouds hugging ancient rock.
This first section of trail trods through a relic of the last ice-age. A unique spruce-fir rainforest typically occupies the higher elevations of the Southern Appalachian Mountains. The temperate zone is a deep green with beads of water clinging to the needles of evergreens. Their color is exacerbated, deepened, darkened, by the grey of the day. The weather is cold and wet, flowers decorate the ground. A natural spring gushes. McQueen stops and cups his hands in the ice-cold water and takes a few big gulps!
“Part of my allure as a mountain man.”
“You’ll catch Giardia and shit for days.”
“How do you treat Giardia anyways? An anti-biotic?”
“No. Giardia is a Protozoan. I won’t catch it anyway, no poop in spring water at this elevation.”
Biologists. No need to worry about the hiker’s sickness. This wild mountain spring is clean enough to drink on the east coast. What a miracle. I immediately regret not getting a sip myself. But, city slickers. We didn’t bring any rain gear and walk right into a thick cloud. Mountain mist begins soaking our clothes. Water droplets splash as they chorus across the terrain. We move fast, eyeing the trail and make our way to the bald. The deep green gives way to an open grassy meadow. Tiny spring flowers, strong in numbers, illustrate the gray afternoon. We stand in silence for a good while and breathe deep the cold, Earthy air. We bathe in a thick cloud. We cannot see the rolling valley and ridge ahead of us for the fog is too thick, but we know it is there. We feel connected to the terrain.
Onward. We trek the uphill hike back to Steve’s car and make our descent from the dome. As we pass New Found Gap the skies part and we are awarded the most amazing view. We are mostly silent, studying our surroundings. We make our way towards the lowlands and pass Laurel Falls. Then it happens. A traffic jam in the forest.
Most traffic upsets me. It’s especially irritating when one is visiting wild lands. But, the Smoky Mountains are the most visited national park in Uncle Sam’s territory. This isn’t such a bad thing. It’s actually exciting that more people want to explore the wild. There is one type of tourist that bothers me though: The motor tourist. Driving around in safe metal cages. Windows rolled up for climate control. White sneakers and white socks. Fannie packs and sun visors. Giant cameras. Now, I am pretty libertarian so I should support people getting enjoyment out of the land in any way possible — and I do. But, I am also a mountain hugger. One can only enjoy the land, her flora and fauna, if the land is understood — if “wild” is not an abstract idea but something one seeks to understand.
Just beyond parking for Laurel Falls a young black bear is treed. Hovering about 30 feet over the forest floor, tucked between limbs of a poplar, the bear stares in horror at the most terrifying, arrogant animal in the park: *Homo sapien*. Motor tourists are hopped out of their metal chariots, sun visors and Fanny packs in tow, and stand flashing pictures of the obviously distressed beast. Traffic is thick but the crowd is thicker. A ranger blows her horn as she directs people to leave; “Get back in your vehicles and move on!” Totally ignored she radios for back up.
Ignorance. The ranger is not there to protect the people who have treed the poor animal. She is there to protect the bear. If desperate enough the beast may leap from the tree and pick a fight with some tourists. If this were to happen the bear would be euthanized. A terrible scenario. I care more about that bear than I do any of the people who gawk and cage him. I wish more people would just experience and learn from the forest, it can teach us much.
We travel along and stop at The Sinks for a jaunt along Meigs Creek. We flip over rocks in the cool mountain waters and search for salamanders. We run up and down rocky slopes and through mountain laurel canopied walkways. We feel the sun on our backs and the mud on our skin. We trip over roots and marvel at rhododendron.
Photo by Soloway