PrefaceThe seeds of this outing were sown a year prior. As I was presented with a free day in the general vicinity, my decision about how best to enjoy it was unclear, until I glanced at my accompanying road map. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park area, highlighted in green, stood out from the otherwise colorless maze of routes and highways. As I began to drive the Newfound Gap road from North Carolina, my digital camera quickly hopped out of the luggage and it began to accumulate snapshots. The winding road took me into Tennessee, then past a road sign for the Chimney Tops trailhead, when I turned around and decided to add some hiking to this spontaneous trip.
My shoes were not hiking shoes. My collared shirt was hot and tight-fitting. My camera barely fit into my jeans, and my bottled water (taken almost as an afterthought) did not fit at all. I had to carry it by hand. The hike up the mountainside was unexpectedly tiring but enjoyable at the same time. The summit and its accompanying views were unlike anything I had seen before, and getting there was quite thrilling in itself.
As this yielded such enjoyment, why wasn’t I doing more of it? Though I failed to answer why I had never acted on these established interests before, I knew I would make it a hobby of mine in the time ahead, at least to some degree.
First dayMy second excursion in the mountains would wait until the following summer, but no longer. My past experiences in the area actually made more of a profound impact upon me than this lengthy wait to return would indicate. The day before in Asheville, I decided to collect some general information about living in the area, and discussed the matter with a local contact at a minor league baseball game. With that finished, I began my outdoor trip at the east edge of the Smokies, going northeast via the famous Blue Ridge Parkway. After a short drive, perhaps thirty minutes, I turned into the Craggy Gardens picnic area for a bit of a meal. The trail from the parking area to Craggy Knob is concurrent with the Mountains-to-Sea trail for just under a mile before it branches south to a trail shelter. From the shelter is a level walk through a meadow to a stone semi-circle at the quiet southwest end of the mountain top. The sun and breezes seemed to take turns warming and cooling me as I worked on my brunch.
The trail directed me northward toward the Mitchell summit. The forest swiftly descended around me, opening occasionally for the park restaurant and ranger residence. The trees would sometimes cluster tightly together on the trail, or arch over rocks to simulate a tunnel, or yield altogether to a grand view of the mountain.
Through all of this, altitude gently and steadily climbed, until I had reached the summit area in around one and a half hours. My first official state high point welcomed me with very cloudy weather which obstructed the opportunity for any sweeping vistas. It felt like I was in the clouds, because I really was, some 6684’ above sea level. After a short pause there, I made a steady walk to the restaurant for a dinner, then through slowly fading light and a soft, patchy rain to my lonely car at the park entrance. I never passed another hiker on the trail going up or down. The other visitors probably drove to the summit and they probably stayed dry, but I was certain I made the right choice.
Second dayNightfall was not far away when I left Mount Mitchell, and one missing part of my unprepared travel pack was a camping tent. At a North Carolina roadside rest area, a wave of intermittent showers accompanied me through the night to Saturday morning, when I traveled west to revisit the Smokies. My first destination was an enthusiastic return to the Chimney Tops summit. This hike was comfortable, pleasurable, and the summit view amazed me just as much as before.
Next was a drive along the Clingmans Dome road. The first thing to strike me about Clingmans was the look of emptiness in the forest affected by the hemlock woolly adelgid. It seemed to work in tandem with the foreboding clouds descending beside me.
Weather soon chased me back to my car, and with my meager preparations and skill set, on a heading for my flatland home - suddenly even more boring by comparison. Along the route, I continued to ponder what else lied out there. Was this one niche of the outdoors as good as it gets, or was it just one small example of all the wonderful areas waiting for me? I was suddenly developing the yearning to explore more places, and the poise to stray far enough from civilization to do so. My next true calling had arrived and I couldn’t wait to begin.