When I first got into my rental car at Knoxville, TN, I felt such a rush of freedom and joy. That I was out traveling at some place I've never been, by myself, and able to do whatever I want. It was great. And the trees were changing color, so it was just lovely.
However, when I drove into Pigeon Forge and Gatlinsburg, the mountain towns at the foot of the Smokies, I was horrified. The main drag in those towns were horrible, especially Pigeon Forge which had huge digital billboards, and videos proclaiming shows and attractions. I detest the billboards that line I-35 in Austin. I especially detest digital billboards. I love Lady Bird because she got Mopac clean of billboards. And in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, their backdrop is the huge smokies mountain. Why interfere with such beauty? Also, since i got there at peak Autumn colors, there were so many tourists in Gatlinburg, it was like Disneyland.
At the outfitter, our guide leader, Vesna kept harping about how much water I needed to bring, and I was like, I've done marathons, I know how to pace myself for water and how much my body needs. (More on this in a future blog, about water stuff). Anyways, we started off on the wrong foot. After we packed, me and another lady got together, and she ended up sharing my hotel room with me, and we had dinner at the Smokey Mountain Brewery in Gatlinsburg (I had lunch at the Pigeon Forge one and there they had a delicious wheat beer. I love wheat beer).
The next day, we woke up to dreary rain. But Vesna drove us all the way to the topmost peak at Clingman's Dome, which was at 6700 feet elevation. It was extremely foggy and there was a lot of tourists. Apparently since we had backpacks on, and trekking poles, we became a tourist attraction. "Are you going to Maine?" No you dolt, we won't make it before winter.
But one elderly person made a point to compliment us on backpacking since it tired him just to hike there. He used a device that he had to stick to his throat so we could hear the words he was saying.
So my first time backpacking was uphill! She stopped several times to let us catch our breath, but all of us beginners were having serious doubts about the effort. But finally we got into the Applachian Trail. And it was beautiful (and not uphill at that section). The trail was tiny, and there was no tourists. It was silent and foggy. And dark because of the dense coverage.
Vesna turned out to be a great naturalist. She could identify plants and talk to their history and medicinal usage. Because of the elevation in the Smokies, there are multiple forest types since different trees flourish at different heights. She said that 90% of "old growth" forests (virgin forests that had not been cut down by man) in the country were in the Smokies. And you can definitely tell the difference when you're in an old growth forest, and when you are in a new forest. The diversity was much less in new forests. In the old growth forests, there were no poison ivy. The Indians think that poison ivy is nature's revenge. It's greater the higher the pollution, and it affects only man. Deers and birds eat it and is fine.
Ah, the old growth forests. At one spot, in a magical place that you usually see in movies or in visions in your head, I said... "There must be fairies here." The assistant guide Andrea casually said: "Yep."
I don't know how to describe the area.. old logs with moss and several different mushrooms. Trees that cover the sunlight, except for areas where shafts of light shine through. Golden leaves that soften your footsteps. The smell of the air. There were birch trees that were so large it needed 6 people to put their arms around it. Old old trees that were here before the country was born.
I loved it. That's where humans should live. The Eskimos say when they are going to the city that they are going "outside". I love that. The Outdoors is not outside, that's what should be normal. We aren't meant to live in concrete boxes. I have a line from a forming poem in my head: "You are not a cog in the wheel/Machines do not feel." Oh yeah. For some odd reason I was inspired to write poetry while in the Smokies. It was really odd, since I rarely write poems.
In the new growth forests, the birch grew straight and tall. There were no obstacles to fight in a cleared land. So the trees aren't as strong, nor do they make graceful curves to reach the sunlight.
Our first night, we stayed in an Appalachian Trail shelter. There were 6 of us ladies, and a group of men were there too. It was odd that we didn't bond, when we first got there, Vesna saw that their backpacks were in the shelter. Then she faced us ladies, and gave us a lecture about never putting the backpacks in the shelter, and never eating in the shelter because of the bears. The lecture was obviously meant for them, and some of the men were rolling their eyes.
They were also rather macho-ist. Like bragging about backpacking 13 miles and only having to take their backpack off down twice. Which reminded me about the "Eat, Love, Pray" book. Americans can be so driven at work.. and also play. It's like the people who backpack the AT in 3 months and brag about it. I don't think the point is to go through it as fast as possible.
And they didn't bring enough water either, they were expecting water at the shelter, but there was none because the Smokies is experiencing the worst drought in history. So they were wistfully looking at how we were rinsing our dishes. But hey, that's why I carried a gallon of water up with me. At one point, Vesna remarked how global warming was causing the drought... and one of the guys scoffed: "Global warming. That's a bunch of lies created by the Democrats."
I frowned and said: "I think environmentalism is beyond party lines." (Actually, I didn't said that. I was so pissed that my sentence came out garbled about "party lines" and "environmental"). So much for being an improviser.
Most outdoors folks are awesome, friendly, concerned about the environment. Most..
Anyways, the second night we tented in a golden forest. And there were only 2 other men in the site.. they started a fire despite a fire ban, but Vesna didn't rebuke them this time.
Btw, I did end up respecting Vesna a lot... she's a very strong woman, and I admire her for it. Reminds me of me. ;-)
The assistant guide, Andrea, she backpacked the entire Continental Trail. The first half with someone, and the second half alone. Her trail name ended up being "Viking Angel".
That trip was one of the most educational and awesome trips I've done. Go to the Smokies. It's worth it.