When we arrive at Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in Great Smokey Mountain National Park, we discover a long line of cars in the parking lot waiting for spaces. Pat does a quick U-turn and we drive a quarter of a mile back down the road and find a space on the side of the road. The space is tight against a sudden drop-off and long grass hides where the slope disappears. I step out of the car and take a step that misses the firm shoulder, but catch myself before I slide off the slope into the thick weeds. More cautiously, I move around to the trunk to start getting out gear. I strap on my camera with the wide-angle lens, expecting to shoot panoramic views from the lookout point, and screw my long lens into my monopod to carry over my shoulder. I pull out my day-pack and stuff it with food from the grocery store–enough to keep us energized for a day of hiking. I pull on my fivefingers trekking shoes, tie on my rain jacket since the clouds don’t seem to be clearing, and stuff my head into my sun hat, which it doesn’t look like I’ll need, but it keeps my hair out of my face. Dozens of tourist walk by on their way to and from their cars. They wear shorts and T-shirts and flip-flops–I’m sure they wonder what in the heck we’re doing. Pat straps on a canister of pepper spray just in case we encounter an angry bear and we lock up the car and head for the look out point looking completely ridiculous.
The walk to the overlook is a half mile from the parking lot. It’s on a paved path that climbs up several hundred feet. We pass exhausted tourists who stop to rest along the way. I wonder how their feet are feeling in their flip-flops. When we get to the peak, we are surprised by a bizarre structure standing at the top. It’s a tower with a circular viewing platform with a roof that looks somewhat like a UFO hovering over the landscape except for the long, spiral ramp that leads up to it. It’s an interesting way to provide a view over the trees, but the ramp occupies so much space that I have to wonder if any trees were actually spared in the construction. We climb up the ramp in spite of the heavy cloud cover. We have lost hope that the skies would clear. At the top, the view is still amazing with the nearest mountains looming like shadows through the clouds. We don’t linger for long–the lack of visibility makes gazing off into the distance fruitless and we are anxious to get out of the crowd and onto the trail.
The din of hundreds of people gathered at this one point surprises me. I’m not sure why, but maybe I expect people to be silenced by the awe of nature? As we enter the trail and head out, we encounter several large groups of people who are clearly enjoying themselves, talking and laughing loudly. I guess we all enjoy our experiences differently. Recognizing that I am crabby in the morning, I put on a smile and try not to judge their exuberance. We walk on for another tenth of a mile or so with the trail getting rockier and steeper. Suddenly, it’s like someone hit a mute button. All of the noise has disappeared and we hear only the sound of the wind blowing through the trees. I sigh audibly. This is the experience I seek when I go into the woods–the quieting of activity and the internal quieting that comes with it. For a moment I wonder that we’re so quickly able to leave all the busyness behind–it strikes me as odd that so few people venture no further than this into the woods when they come to a national park, but I am grateful for the solitude.
The trail flattens out as we reach a valley between the first mountain and the next. The trees open up and we find ourselves surrounded by berry-laden slopes. Given the lateness of the season, we’re not surprised that the berries here have been picked clean, just as they had been on the Flat Creek trail. The trail is tight and winding, so it’s probably a good thing that there the main attraction for bears is gone. We step over bear scat about every 20 feet or so, knowing that a few weeks earlier probably would have guaranteed a bear encounter in tight quarters. But then we see fresh scat and we perk up our ears, keeping one part of our brains focused on any sounds that might indicate we’re not alone. We hear a snapping branch and rustling that’s too loud for a squirrel and freeze for a moment on the trail. Then we hear voices and realize we’re encountering another group of hikers.
Moving on, we find two groups of hikers have stopped to eat lunch on large rocks at the side of the trail. We greet them as we pass and learn that they thought we were bears–I guess we are not the only ones who noticed fresh scat on the trail. Moving on, we enter deep woods as the trail moves lower in elevation. The forest floor is covered in ferns and bright green moss. The voices of our fellow hikers has died away in the wind and we are once again surrounded by solitude. As the trail starts it way up again, we come into a slight clearing that hosts a collection of birds that dart back and forth across the trail. I’m surprised to recognize Juncos given that they are a winter bird in Ohio. Apparently the mountains make a good summer home for those less interested in travel. Several other birds flit by, but I left my binoculars in the car, wanting to lighten my load. They are all moving so fast and hiding so well when they land, that I don’t bother to try to set up for a shot. We move on, listening to their calls and I wish I had spend more time learning bird songs as I’m only able to recognize a couple of them.
As we continue up the next mountain, climbing over rocky terrain, we encounter another group of hikers. This time, they are clearly on a trek on the Appalachian trail, carrying full backpacks. The three young men pass us a we stand aside, the third commenting on the size of the lens I am still carrying over my shoulder, as yet unused. I notice that he is wearing flip flops and wonder how that is possible, but do not comment out loud. We continue a little further and encounter two more young guys who have passed other day hikers. They ask us where the next entry point is on the trail, wondering why there are day hikers headed that direction. We explain that we’re dong an out-and-back from Clingman’s Dome, which satisfies their curiosity, but it seems as if they’ve never considered re-tracing their steps on a hike. I like through-hiking when backpacking because it allows us to get to places that can’t be reached in a single day, but Pat prefers hiking without the backpack and I have to admit that my body prefers day hiking as well. As we continue down the trail, I wonder if we’ve gotten too old to get back in shape for through hiking and long for a multi-day adventure on the trail. I decide that it’s more of a question of how much discomfort we’re willing to put up with than how old we are–however, tolerance for discomfort seems to have an inverse relationship with aging.
We continue on until we find a breezy spot along the ridge. Pat is sweating profusely and pauses in the breeze, enjoying the coolness. We do a time check and decide we need to turn around in ten more minutes. The clouds have continued moving in all day and thunder rumbles ominously in the distance. We hike a little further and then come to a log where we decide to pause for lunch. The salty beef jerky and peanuts make a good snack after sweating for so long. We carefully hold our peanuts in cupped hands, cautious not to drop any out of concern for the bears. Bears finding human food leads to bears attacking humans, which leads to bears being euthanized and we have no desire to contribute to the unfair death of a bear.
Having satiated our hunger, we head back the way we came, walking more quickly when the trail allows it and keeping our heads down, having given up on the views from the ridge. We pause only when we encounter a breezeway in the woods or when we hear a noise that we can’t identify immediately. We make better time on the return than we did on the way out with me stopping only once to shoot–this always happens on out-and-back hikes. We slow down as we make our way back up to Clingman’s dome. The trail is steep and rocky, requiring careful foot placement and a strenuous climb. At one point, we both freeze when we hear a low, guttural roar seemingly from the brush off the side of the trail. Then we laugh out loud when we realize the sound of a Harley has reached us from the parking lot still far off on the mountain. Relieved, we walk on, now racing against the increasing thunder.
As we get closer to the trailhead, occasional raindrops bounce off my hat. I contemplate stopping to put on my rain jacket, but I’m hot and so far the rain is too intermittent to worry about. As we approach the fork in the trail and I head in the direction we came from, we encounter two tourists who have ventured into the woods from the other fork and Pat suggests we take the trail they’ve come from. They tell us it came from the parking lot at Clingman’s Dome and it appears to be downhill while the trail we came in on is uphill back to the peak. We glance at the sky and feel the increasing rain drops and decide to take the shorter route to the parking lot. Going downhill over rocks is actually harder than going up, but we make fairly good time on creaky knees. I’m happy with the stickiness of my shoes that let’s me climb over the rocks with a sure-footness I’ve never had in hiking boots.
As we get closer to the trailhead, the rain starts for real and I decide even though I’m too hot and sweaty to worry about staying dry, I need to at least cover my camera and lens. Pat helps me tuck my rain jacket around my gear and we continue on at a faster pace. When we think we’re at the trailhead, it takes a sudden turn uphill and I’m disappointed that we still can’t see the trailhead after we make the turn. The trail is now smooth and covered in gravel, so the going is easier and we reach the parking lot in just a few more minutes. It strikes me as funny that I suddenly want to get off the trail quickly when a few hours earlier, I couldn’t wait to get on the trail, but carrying heavy camera equipment is no fun when it’s raining too hard to use it.
We make our way back to our car and get in a quickly as possible in the now pouring rain. We are soaked and get most of the car wet in the process. As Pat pulls out into the stream of cars evacuating the mountain, I change into a dry shirt and pull on an extra layer, now chilled from the rain and the accompanying drop in temperature. As we near the intersection with the main road through the park, we make a quick decision to go South instead of North as we had planned–traffic is backed up to the North and we are not prepared to spend hours sitting in traffic in our wet clothes. We head back to Cherokee to find a dry hotel room tired but happy.