Great Smoky Mountains: Trial and Error on the Trail

Gatlinburg, Clingmans Dome, and Charlies Bunion on the Appalachian Trail

Gatlinburg was crazy. Imagine Disney World covered in camo, $6 parking and Ripley’s Believe It or Not. But my stomach was empty and my camera batteries were dead and I just wanted a quick recharge at a fast food place where I wouldn’t bother anyone or be bothered, so I ventured down from a long sunset at Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park through the dark twisting mountain path into the bright lights of the valley. A gas station and big sign proclaiming “GATLINBURG: Gateway to the Smoky Mountains” bedazzled me when I emerged from the forest and it took me several minutes to get my wits together.

I shouldn’t have been quite so shocked. There were definitely signs indicating what Gatlinburg is all about. Bill Bryson even describes Gatlinburg in his book A Walk in the Woods (a description that is noticeably missing from the movie, ahem):

Gatlinburg is a shock to the system from whichever angle you survey it, but never more so than when you descend upon it from a spell of moist, grubby isolation in the woods. It just sits outside the main entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park and specializes in providing all those things that the park does not - principally, slurpy food, motels, gift shops, and sidewalks on which to waddle and dawdle - nearly all of it strewn along a single, astoundingly ugly main street.
— -Bill Bryson, "A Walk in the Woods"

Earlier I had been so absorbed in setting up my tripod at the overlook area at Clingmans Dome and eavesdropping on some serious-looking photographers who were exchanging emails and Facebook page info and talking about their gear and setup and their experience shooting weddings and landscapes and the big names they know in photography. Listening to them I felt horribly self-conscious as I fumbled with my tripod and worried over my little camera. I almost knocked my camera over the edge of the overlook and didn’t pay attention to the numerous souvenir t-shirts that came and went in the parking lot, gawking for a minute and walking to the privy or the garbage can and hollering with such heavy and unfamiliar Southern accents that I couldn’t possibly understand them over the strengthening wind. Instead, I was concerned with figuring out how to get the perfect shot and where to sleep and what to eat.

I hadn’t really made plans for that first night. I had worked out the backcountry permit for Saturday for my first visit to GSMNP, but for Friday I just piled my backpacking and camera gear into the car and headed west, hoping for a decent sunset and sunrise. So when I ventured into Gatlinburg for a quick fix for food and battery life, I avoided the muscle tees and cigarettes and gaudy arcades and hoped nobody would mind me writing and recharging in the back corner of the Five Guys.

I slept in the car that night as fog rolled up the mountain, hoping that my camera batteries had gotten enough charge in that jarring hour in Gatlinburg and that I’d be warm enough and comfortable enough in my sleeping bag in the backseat of my Subaru. In the morning I skipped up the path to the top of Clingmans Dome for the last bit of sunrise, and then headed to Newfound Gap for a short trek down the Appalachian Trail to Charlie’s Bunion. Despite the early morning there was a crowd at Newfound Gap, calling to one another to look at the hazy mountain view or to pose in front of the Appalachian Trail sign. 4 miles to Charlie’s Bunion. I took off into the woods.

It was a relatively peaceful morning walk to the landmark, a rocky ledge that offers vistas of the surrounding landscape. A promontory like that is rare in the Smokies and this one is a product of fire and torrential rain in 1925. After the landslide, naturalist and writer Horace Kephart hiked to the area with Charlie Connor and others, and as you can guess Kephart named the spot after Charlie’s now famous bunion.

There were already people there when I arrived: two girls who perched on the ledge as if they might take flight. I let them be, settled against a rock wall, and quietly lunched.

By the time I finished my bagel with nutella the girls had fluttered off. I claimed the ledge briefly before a succession of college kids arrived. They milled about for a minute and then free-climbed to the top of the outcrop before a group of senior day-hikers arrived, out on a hiking Meet-Up. I scooted to a lower ledge to make room for them on the “bunion” while one white-haired woman fretted and called me a sweet girl. I smiled wanly, and looked out at a ledge 20 feet below where one of the college boys had ventured out on his own. He sat regal and secure with his legs dangling in free air, and I was for a moment jealous of his audacity while I slipped and scrambled back to my pack, ready to move on.

I leapfrogged with the senior hiking group for a few miles. They were moving slowly, but I stopped frequently to snap photos or just gaze out through the occasional break in trees. I saw them at the fork with Grassy Branch Trail as they waited for some of their group members, and that was the last I saw them.

It was on Grassy Branch Trail that I found a good-sized mountain stream with a few pretty waterfall features. It was quiet for once. There were no constantly shuffling feet following me on the path, so I set up my tripod and, undisturbed, I experimented with my camera until I got the smooth, silky shot. I got the shot! Well, a shot at least. I was learning.

After that first stream there were others, each tempting and encouraging as I played with light and timing and subject, after which I filtered water for my Nalgene. No one came by and, happy in my solitude, I didn’t notice the bear nearby when I packed up my things and headed around the bend. I heard it rather than saw it. There was just a low, disgruntled growl and then a great crashing through the underbrush down into the ravine. I think the growl startled me more than anything else. I apologized to the bear, told it I was sorry for disturbing it and intruding on its land, and then I said, “I’ll sing for you so you will know where I am for a while.” I then began the worst rendition of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine ever heard. I don’t know why it’s my go-to song. I don’t know all the words and I don’t even sing it well, but for some reason it makes me feel a little better, though this particular afternoon I seemed to blank on more lines than usual and my voice wavered awkwardly from my awful surprise.

The shelter appeared shortly after the bear disappeared - never a good sign for snacks and dinners hung in bear bags - but still it was a welcome sight. Eight miles and lots of sightseeing and pictures and one skittish bear: not bad for one day.

And then the matter of food and sleep. The shelter had a lovely situation: a pretty nook in the ravine next to a steady gushing stream. I perched on a boulder and meditated, and lounged in the shelter and read by the light of my headlamp. This is the hard part - simply going to sleep! I had spent all day pushing my body, hurting it at times, developing a hunger - both for food as a real tangible hunger and for more abstract things like the next mile on the mountain ridge, and then the next mile, and the next.

I took my time in the morning as I packed up my things. A few more photos of the mountain stream. Another few pages read from my book. Sun salutations. Oatmeal. Rustling leaves.

At one point on Sweat Heifer Creek Trail I found my moment. I was just about to connect back with the Appalachian Trail heading back to Newfound Gap on a blessed downhill. I’d climbed over 2000 feet in the span of 3.7 miles through lush, dense rhododendron and goldenrod and hardwoods, up through spruce forest and blackberry patches and over creeks and streams and one long silvery cascade. Finally, at the top of the trail, it opened to a patch of Carolina rose and blackberry. It was just a small window of the surrounding mountains and it certainly wasn’t the most breathtaking or astounding view - I’ve seen bigger and better. No, what was so important about this was the sound. It took several minutes for my breath to slow, for my pounding heart to quieten, but once I was still I could hear. And the noise was wonderfully, blissfully empty - just the wind blowing up and over the ridgeline. Not a whistle, not a breath, not a gale or zephyr, but a steady, insistent stream of air through the wild landscape clinging to life on the mountain face. And me.

The wind passed through me, enveloped me, entered and became me as I breathed deeply, taking it in, taking it with me. Solitude. Maybe not complete solitude; there were still the bears and the family with bickering little girls in ponchos I’d passed a half mile down the trail, but in that little patch of underbrush with my little window to the world I heard, saw, and felt none of that. I was just there, present, and aware, growing again from experience and experiment on the trail. And that is my personal bliss.


Follow my blog with Bloglovin