At Tremont, in the park’s northwestern section, we walked a wide path along the Middle Prong of the Little River. When David went his own direction to photograph, I scrambled down to the stream, where, two steps out from the bank on submerged rock, I found a comfortable shaded boulder to sit on. It was late in the day. For all the crowds in the Smokies, we had the path and the river to ourselves. From my boulder I could see only the stream, the forested far bank, boulders in the stream, sun on the far side, shadow on my side. Upstream, I watched sun dance on water, a ribbon of white rapid-spume dance on water. Riffles molded themselves around boulders, dancing. The colors of light and of green danced. Rippled reflections of the far bank danced. The ripples themselves danced—circling, merging, parting, merging, running swiftly, folding back, dancing, dancing in the sun, the shadow.
The air was filled with butterflies and birdsong, and the sound of water flowing.
There is a sign at the beginning of the path along the Middle Prong. In the Smokies they call this kind of path (there are many of them) a “Quiet Walkway.” The sign presents a wildness easily accessible. It invites without pressure, without challenge. Even if no one in the park seems to know who wrote the words, it states a truth about wilderness:
The trail has no particular destination. A short walk on this easy trail offers close-up views, subtle aromas, and the serene quiet of protected woodland. You will be walking in one of the last great wild land areas in the east, but you won’t need a backpack or hiking boots. Take your time. Have a seat on a rock or a log bench. The trail has no particular destination, so walk as far as you like and then return.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited of our national parks, protects about half the remaining old-growth forest in the eastern United States. Among the most biodiverse parks in the country, it has been named a United Nations International Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site. The Cherokee, whose land this was, called it Place of Blue Smoke, for the deep blue haze hovering over dark, forested peaks and passes and the troughs between mountains. The wettest place in the United States besides the Pacific Northwest, average annual rainfall can be over ninety inches at altitudes above 6000 feet. It is this huge amount of moisture that produces the haze, the illusion of smoke. I am certain most of that moisture fell while I was backpacking there one May. The good thing about that is there were also fewer people in the backcountry than later in the season.
The Smokies include the third-highest peak in the east, 6642-foot Clingmans Dome. Even though the Appalachian Trail traverses this peak, the highest point on the trail, this is one place, with its broad paved path and elaborate viewing tower, even I can’t translate into wilderness. (The Appalachian Trail actually passes about fifty yards below the peak so that hikers can avoid the busyness at the lookout.) But fifteen other peaks higher than 6000 feet offer a chance for wilderness, as do many of the more than 650 miles of trails lacing the park. Of these, sixty-eight are part of the 2146-mile Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia. The Appalachian Trail,
a National Scenic Trail and a unit of the National Park System, is one of the original two components of the National Trails System. The other is the Pacific Crest Trail.
The western escarpment of the Appalachians, the Smokies merge in the east with the Blue Ridge Mountains. Giant trees, spectacular displays of mountain laurel and rhododendron, a jumble of moss-covered ancient logs rotting into earth, glistening wood sorrel, dark violets, myriad waterfalls, the white, stark limbs of long-dead chestnut trees, their trunks swirled about, soaring skyward, all characterize the deep mystery of this place. In the omnipresent forest, something is always happening. A sudden fluttering of great wings and an owl lights in a tree beside the trail. Watching, waiting, finally lifting himself, he soars to a farther tree. A junco flitters up from the side of the path. There, where grass or moss or roots or mud hangs over to form a roof, he’s built his nest. Three white eggs lie nestled in it. A salamander, one of the twenty-seven different species of salamander in the park, slithers out of the inside of a log, then disappears beneath it. A mouse runs across the path; a rabbit munches grass in a gentle clearing; a dark bear walks quietly through dark forest; a surprised bobcat hurries across the early morning trail; a boar, which is not native and causes enough destruction that it should be eliminated from the park, roots through the understory. (Backcountry shelters along the Appalachian Trail in the park are fenced to keep boars out.)
Inside these dark forests, the park seems remote from the world, invulnerable. But this is among the most endangered of our parks. Nonnative pests and diseases are killing Fraser firs, dogwoods, butternuts and beech trees. In May 2002, park botanists also found hemlocks under attack from the hemlock wooly adelgid, a nonnative aphid-like insect that originated in Japan. Problems associated with air pollution are among the greatest in the National Park System. Regional coal-fired plants, industry, and motor vehicles create health issues and seriously compromised visibility. Nine million annual park visitors, plus traffic on US 441, the Newfound Gap Road traversing the park from Cherokee, North Carolina, to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, can bring traffic to a halt. The Cades Cove Road is often so congested it can take four hours to drive its eleven-mile loop. Polluting vehicle emissions damage historic structures and the health of visitors and wildlife. A lack of ranger staff exposes structures to vandalism. According to the National Parks Conservation Association’s State of the Parks Report on the Smokies, a proposal to build a road across the southwestern section of the park, “the largest unfragmented tract of mountain terrain in the eastern United States,” has the potential to devastate wildlife, especially bears. Other problems have to do with serious budget shortfalls and a full-time staff that is too small, but this is equally true of many other units of the National Park Service.
The presence of crowds depends on where and when you go. On that wet May, six-day, sixty-one-plus–mile backpack through the eastern section of the park (I started and ended at Cataloochee), I actually saw few other people except on a Saturday night near Mount Sterling, which is not far from the road. In more recent years, David and I have made several visits to the Smokies, specifically to hike to waterfalls. If we had chosen other times than spring, when visitors come for the flowers, or fall, when they come for the foliage, we would have seen fewer people. But even in the busiest seasons, most people walk the easily accessible trails without lingering longer than to snap a photo at a waterfall.
By staying put in a place, I have had even the most popular areas to myself, for a little while at least. Hiking to Grotto Falls in clear, still, autumn air, I often felt as if I, alone, were involved in autumn. I had the company of leaves falling in a windless afternoon, twisting slowly to the forest floor, red and gold and orange, sounding in the stillness like a light rain.