Sunday, June 30, 2019

This Is What We're Doing

Gasping for air, I stopped for the third time. The old me would have been embarrassed, ashamed of my inability to climb a steep hill not even one mile up. But not this day. Instead, I paused, checked my heart rate, and watched small children run up the path and back down to their mother's call. Then with an energy only found in single-digit youth, up they sprinted once again as I looked on from the rocky shoulder. The strength in their legs and lungs was epic. I felt envy for their seemingly endless stamina as I glanced upward to the foggy sky and back down at my patient party, their words and kind eyes willing me to take my time. The summit isn't going anywhere. The word of the day is "conquer."

Onward we walked toward the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Clingmans Dome is also the highest point in Tennessee at 6,643 feet. Only a half-mile from parking lot to peak, the thin air and steep slope made it feel much longer. Then suddenly, the final stretch. A narrow winding bridge leads to a platform high above the treetops, but not above the clouds. On this day, dense fog limited the viewing distance, but not the scope of beauty. The evergreens played hide-and-seek through the soupy air. It was a heavenly sight. As panting hikers began to find the rhythm of comfortable breath, serenity took hold and gave way to oohs and ahhs at the scene stretching as far as the early summer mist would allow. We took our time at the top, finding good angles for selfies, chatting with strangers, and trying to wow the youngest of our group with facts that were awe-inspiring to the grown-ups.

Then it was time to go. Time to make way for other arriving climbers to experience the peace that comes with being above it all, but still touching the clouds.

Not at the top, but not at the bottom, there is a landing to sit and soak it all in. A park ranger greets visitors with anecdotes and advice. His words to me were golden when he pointed to a path leading into the thick forest and said "Appalachian Trail."

Without hesitation, we all looked at each other and instinctively knew, "this is what we're doing."

With one-track minds for Clingmans Dome, none of us realized the A.T. was a stone's throw away!

It seemed unreal to hike even a small portion of such a legendary trail, where novices and experts cross paths on the same rugged land. The A.T. is such a romantic and storied route that represents a life goal for many, a pipe dream for others. And on this day, a paltry mile of it was ours. We were elated and humbled at the unexpected opportunity.

Five steps off the trailhead and into the woods, the sounds of the busy, steep road to Clingmans Dome faded. The section of trail started off in that way that makes me feel hugged by the forest. Trees hung low, the sky only appearing in slivers here and there, the ground mossy and smelling of damp earth. And with every breeze that found its way through the trees, the smell of piney Christmas filled our senses. We were quiet as we left footprints in the mud on this highest stretch of the entire A.T.

Dirt soon gave way to rocks as we headed south, a few slippery due to lack of sunlight. A glimpse back at the landscape we had just covered did not do justice to the sense of accomplishment and the wonder at what was still to come.

We worked as a team to navigate areas of flowing water and potentially dangerous drop-offs. There was no fear of danger, only the concentration on footing and steady breathing as we kept our eyes open for incredible vistas and secretly hoped for a bear sighting (from a safe distance of course!).
At points, the trees became so dense to our left or right that it seemed impossible that anyone was ever able to carve a path. Water, breezes and bees were the only things able to fight their way through the impenetrable thicket.

And with every gust of wind came the indescribable combined scent of pine, fir and spruce.

As we reached the end of our journey, the left turn that would take us out of the canopy of trees and back to reality, hunger set in and we knew that for today this was enough. We had hiked one small slice of the Appalachian Trail in all its splendor. And we did it well. Conquered indeed!

I could have hiked the A.T. all day, high on the romanticism and scent of pine. The majesty in just one mile made me a lover for life.

Nearly four years ago I wrote about an inexplicable need to explore the outdoors and find a better harmony with nature. Five days in the Great Smoky Mountains helped renew that passion.

I am extremely proud of that one day and all the other days that my friends and I set out to see more of the park's abundant beauty. We embraced days of quiet living away from our responsibilities, we learned from park rangers, and we celebrated our surroundings, from the bright lights of Gatlinburg to the stillness of a summer morning sipping coffee in the Smokies.