I am not an avid adventurer, nor am I likely to add the Appalachian Trail to my list of accomplishments. With a little nudging from two people who would fit the mold for both of those, I found myself submerged in a unique, natural and somewhat magical world. I want more.
Since my twins arrived a few years ago, my only consistent workout has been carrying them around; helpful, but certainly not good conditioning for days of hiking up a mountain with a pack and no Starbucks plus nights with neither electricity nor a bed. Nevertheless, I was going.
What do you need to take with you if you are heading up a six-thousand foot mountain over four days? Everything. Luckily, someone with good experience, my brother, took care of all of that. Planning four days of food, cooking utensils, bedding supplies and more is big. Add to that we would be carrying everything….everywhere…and it becomes tremendously important. Literally, planning mistakes could mean disaster. I had the luxury of being able to show up with every detail already planned out for me and my 30-pound pack ready to go. Thanks, bro.
The trek started late and led into a very black night with a thunderstorm threatening much of the dark trail…eventually it caught us. Hiking uphill through blackness in the pouring rain with only small headband lights is probably not a good idea, but it was a blast. As the storm became an absolute downpour, with the trail already pitch-black, rock-filled and now more wet and dangerous, we found a small offshoot that, thankfully, led right to the small shelter we hoped to sleep in.
The little three-walled stone shelter is meant to give us some protection from hungry bears in the area. That night, it was likely the only reason we didn’t end up a completely drenched, cold and miserable lot. While the shelter saved us from all of that, I am not sure how it is supposed to help us with the bear situation, given it is totally open on one side. Nevertheless, people who know more than I say it helps, and that is good enough for me.
Day two saw more rain, but we didn’t mind as it was all during the uphill trek that ended at the top of Mount LeConte. The views from this mountain top are simply stunning. Among these views are the dizzyingly-high Cliff Tops – a series of boulders sticking out of the mountain with an eerie cliff-face drop shrouded by a thick mist. The peak of Mt. LeConte is close by. This peak is actually growing…sort of. Some time ago, I’m told, backpackers started carrying rocks from the base to the top to add to a pile on the peak, thereby making the mountain taller. So, not really officially getting taller, but fun nonetheless.
Nestled in the dense forest a little down from the peak is a cluster of small and simple little structures built in 1929. These few tiny houses now act as a small mountain lodge. This lodge area is so remote that supplies need to be either air-lifted by helicopter or brought up by lamas. According the info at the lodge, the guy that built the place once carried his mother all of the way up the mountain on a rocking chair that he had strapped to his back. In fact, he chose this specific site in hopes of getting influential people up there and win them over. His plan? To get support for the creation of a national park in the Smokey Maintains. Mission accomplished. Just a nice little side story of the great ability humans possess if they are free enough to dream it and determined enough to do it.
A few words need to be said of the nights in a wilderness like this. After hiking all day, getting out of the warm sleeping bag into the cold and misty air is not what you want to do. That said, braving the chill is well worth it even if only to look upward. The sky, unmolested by unnatural light of any sort, is simply amazing. The bright Milky Way explodes through the black night creating an energetic yet serene canopy. Stunning.
Day three saw more miles as we moved across a spine between mountains with large forested declines on either side. Continuing down a little of the mountainside we found more of the incredible rock cliffs and dense forests that create perfect, serene and massive panoramas that inspire and mystify. The Charlie’s Bunion area ups the ante a bit with a large Boulder sticking out of the crazy-high cliff. Not my cup of tea to climb all over, but for those into thrilling drops, it probably doesn’t get much better.
Day four led us back down the rest of the mountain through the trail we originally traversed in stormy darkness on the way in. Only sun and the calm of the dense forest enveloped us this time. After a morning and afternoon of travel, we reached our jumping off point and our car. Seeing civilization after four days was a little surreal, but being close to a car that could get me to a shower and a bed was definitely not unwelcome. That said, we were not done yet. A drive seven miles up a looping road took us to a tourist overlook called Clingman’s Dome. That allowed us to see a breathtaking wide view of the mountains, including Mount LeConte, whom we had just gotten to know quite well.
Not an easy getaway and certainly one with risks (bears, dangerous drops, etc), backpacking a mountain like Mt. LeConte would not be my choice for a relaxing vacation. That said, it is an experience many people make a regular part of their lives. I only enjoyed a small taste and it was still as big as any trip I have taken. There is something special in the bit of struggle and continuous effort that is diamond-studded together with amazing little rewards around every turn. A magical mix of physical demand, mental introspection and simple awe and wonder. Pretty damn cool.
Also published on Medium.