We awake in the bedroom I grew up in. My dad slices a bowl of fresh peaches. Mom cooks eggs and sausage, biscuits and gravy. We talk and eat our fill. Charcoal clouds lie heavy in the sky, menacing. Mike and I recount our last hike to Leconte, the one when we “almost died but didn’t”. We fill our water bottles, give hugs all around, and hit the road.
The rain begins almost immediately. We drive in and out of it over the next two hours. But then, just before we reach the trail-head, it stops. We strap on our packs, eager to be on our way.
The hike to Alum Cave is one of the most popular in the Smokies because of interesting geological features, historical significance, and diversity of habitat. For the first mile we hike along Alum Cave Creak, its gurgle and leap a constant music, and sometimes there is a canopy of gnarled rhododendron. The first geological landmark is the Arch, created over hundreds of years as water washed away the softer layer of rock underneath the bedrock. We ascend a set of carved stone steps to emerge on the other side. I do admire this use of local materials–stone steps, log bridges–elements that already belong to the landscape.
The trail bends away from the creek here and we cross Styx Branch, considerably smaller and, on this day, dry. Along the way, I notice several dead trees, their branches cloaked in what looks like a fine frost. Lichens. Still able to find the nourishment they need in the decaying wood, the lichens become a beautiful ornament, a contrast of silver among all the green. And they provide food and nesting materials for a variety of animals.
Just before reaching Alum Cave Bluff, we come to Inspiration Point where we can see Duck Hawk Ridge with it’s “Eye of the Needle”, a circular opening in the rock which admits the blue of the sky, a delightful curiosity which I was unable to capture in a photograph.
Alum Cave Bluff is the final destination for many making this Hike. For us it is nearly half-way. The Epsom Salts Manufacturing Company mined this area in the early 1800s. Later, during the Civil War, it became a source of saltpeter, used to make gun powder. It is an imposing edifice, framing the world below. Our experience of it differed considerably on our ascent verses our descent, as you can see. We linger here for a bit, listening to the drip drip of water from the edge of the bluff, looking out over the great expanse of earth spread out beneath us.
Over the next two and a half miles or so we are nourished by a proliferation of wildflowers (and fungi), occasional openings in the trees to jaw dropping vistas, and the sweet scent of evergreens, made more pungent by the recent rain. The last bit of the trail passes through dense spruce forest. It is dark and lovely, mysterious and magical. Then, the forest opens out again into a bit of a clearing, and we are arrived at Leconte Lodge. Last year, we only paused here for a bit to pour the water out of our shoes, hover around the wood stove, and try to dry out our clothes a bit before heading back down. But this year, we are staying.
We are received by a dear man with a long white beard whose name I wish I remembered. He tells me the names of all the flowers growing up on the mountain. He also gives us our pail for fetching water and our orientation: “Here are the outdoor latrines. Here is the faucet for cold water, already filtered, ready to drink. This faucet (on the back of the kitchen) is where you will collect hot water (in the pail) for washing. Here is the dining room; dinner at 6:00, breakfast at 8:00, coffee and hot chocolate available any time. This is your cabin, the basin for washing, and your key to the latrine. Light the kerosene lamp like this. Do not turn the wick up too high or it will smoke the glass. This is your propane heater.”
After our orientation, we walk a half mile beyond the lodge to the highest point on Mount Leconte. There, Mike ceremonially adds a stone to the cairn that marks the third highest peak in the Smokies.
We wash, put on a dry shirt and a fleece, take all our snacks to the metal containers in the lodge where they will be safe from small furry creatures, fill our cups with coffee and hot chocolate and sit on the porch til supper. When the dinner bell rings, we all gather round large tables with people we do not know, passing steaming bowls of beef and gravy, mashed potatoes, green beans, cinnamon apples, and a skillet of warm cornbread. The room thrums with conversation.
We turn in early, just as the rain begins. First a pitter patter, than a pounding of raindrops against the tin roof. Thunder booms overhead and lightening flashes in one window and out the other. And the raging storm becomes our lullaby. (I should here mention that outdoor bathrooms, while certainly adequate, are not especially charming in a storm.)
We wake to a world washed clean and a mist that moves before our eyes and all around us. We feast on pancakes and eggs, biscuits and apple butter, and steaming mugs of coffee and hot chocolate. We have an enthralling conversation with two musical brothers and their dad. The oldest brother is a sophomore at Eastman School of Music studying the clarinet. I ask him if he has played Rhapsody in Blue and he laughs. “Yes, but only the second clarinet part so far.” The younger brother plays mandolin and I wish Jake were here as we talk Chris Thile and Sam Bush. This is actually a trip built around him. They are visiting Appalachia to better understand the roots of bluegrass. Dad, incidentally, is a jazz pianist. And happily I wonder how, out of all the people in the world, we ended up across the table from them.
Back on the trail, we are so deep in conversation, we miss a cut off and take a one mile detour before getting back on track. But the trail is so pretty and the morning so new and fresh and full of promise, there is no space for regret. The cloud that last night enrobed the top of the mountain has now slipped down over her sides. We stop sometimes to watch the mist moving around us til it makes us dizzy and we have to move on. Many of yesterday’s vistas are hidden today. On the other hand, new waterfalls have emerged along the cliffs and Styx Branch, which yesterday was dry, is gurgling and tripping all over itself.
At the trail head I give thanks that no bear tore open the soft top on my Jeep to get at the overripe banana I unwisely left inside. (This has been causing me no small worry once I realized what I had done.) We drive a few miles up the road to the Newfound Gap trail-head where we are treated to an astonishing view before even leaving our car. Here begins the serious part of our training. 1.7 miles on the Appalachian Trail (mostly up), then 3.7 on Sweat Heifer Creek Trail (mostly down), then, turn around and come back. The fog has lifted, the sun is shining, and it is hot.
The AT is over and around rocks, up and up all the way. When we reach the branch for Sweat Heifer Creek trail, two ladies remark that they went a ways down and were not thoroughly convinced it was a trail at all. The high grass on either side leaning over the small strip of dirt tends to support their assessment. But this trail has been recommended by a seasoned hiker whom we respect, so we recklessly plunge in. Soon, the grassy sedge gives way to a soft trail of needles and leaves, wide and accommodating, though strewn with the occasional rock or root. We meander down and down, past the named creek, past spruce, then hardwoods, down and down.
At bottom, we find the perfect spot for lunch. (Lunch being, I should here qualify, a shared summer sausage–I wish I could tell you how amazing this tastes on the trail when my body is salt deprived from too much sweating and I find myself thinking far too fondly of the salt blocks my dad used to put out for the cows–sesame rice chips, almonds and walnuts.) A restaurant would charge dearly for a view like this. And perhaps the luncheon would be more elegant, but I doubt it would taste better. “Nothing seasons food like a hearty appetite.” I can’t remember who said that, but it is oh so very true. We sit on the edge of the bridge with our legs dangling and savor each bite as though it were the only thing standing between us and starvation.
We retrace our steps, up being much more difficult than down, obviously, but not so very much slower, which is surprising. As we rejoin the AT, we meet up with a group of twenty-somethings here from New Jersey for ten days, sharing a cabin and hiking all over the Smoky Mountains. And I wonder why we were not more industrious when we were their age. They tell us which trails they have loved so far and ask what is down that peculiar, half-hidden trail we have just come up.
When it is over, we put on dry clothes and complete our toilet, as best we can, with a couple of wet wipes. Convincing ourselves we are somewhat presentable, we stop for pizza and beer to reward ourselves for our effort. And dream of the deep canyon, a few hundred miles, and just over a month, away…
Ok, so there is only one outtake. And it is not so much as an outtake as a photo that I couldn’t figure out where to insert, but I love it so much and it is my blog after all so I can put anything I want to on here. So there was this tree, threatening to crush us on the trail to Leconte, and Mike had to hold it up…
He is really strong. But maybe not that strong.
*We are grateful to our friend Hugh for directing us to the AT/Sweat Heifer combo that gave us a chance to hike mostly down, then up, like the Grand Canyon.
**Also, I can not recommend highly enough the site hikinginthesmokys.com for trail info on all the major trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He lists trails by difficulty, by features, and by area, and gives vertical gain, mileage, and thorough descriptions of each. Invaluable.