North America | United States of America (USA) | Southern States | North Carolina – Forty Foot Stare
We drove to the park that very night. It sort of made sense — we had all of our camping gear with us, and campgrounds in the Smokies cost about the same or less than private ones near Asheville. No RV’s to contend with either, and it gave us a head start for the weekend’s walking.
Oh yeah, and the park is free. Forgot about that one. That probably has something to do with the Smokies being the most popular National Park in the U.S. That’s right, more visitors than Yosemite, the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone, mostly because it’s only four hours from about six different major cities, and it doesn’t cost anything to go in, so it’s quite viable for a pleasant afternoon drive or a day hike.
With that in mind, Michi and I planned our walk with as much thought to avoiding crowds as avoiding mosquitos or steep climbs. Shouldn’t have worried though — as in most NP’s, visitation to the Smokies is confined almost entirely to areas a half mile or less from the main paved roads. Putting a pack on your back and walking for an hour separates you from 95% of the folks there, so even on a busy summer weekend like this one, with perfect weather and blooming mountain laurels, we got our trail all to ourselves.
I’ve talked a little already about how pretty the mountains are around here, so I suppose I can just tell you it was more of the same: lots of big trees, ferns, rhododendron and laurel flowers, birds chirping in the canopy above. So green it’s hard to imagine another color exists in the universe sometimes.
Precious little else to see, though, maybe I’m spoiled. The drawback to so much forest cover is that all you’ll ever see is forest. Despite determined attempts by the two of us to get to the top of a couple of “balds” marked on the maps — treeless outcroppings from which views out over the surrounding ranges can be had — Michi and I were frustrated everytime. For the most part, the hike consisted of walking through a tunnel of greenery, visiblity limited at about 40 feet.
The limitation is really an advantage, of course, if you see it in the right way. The growing, twisting, clamoring plant life that limited our view to 40 feet was worthy of plenty of attention itself, and in the absence of long vistas to distract us, the hike became a sort of education in the flora of the mountainous southeast. Michi educated me in the differences between hemlocks and oaks, we observed rhododendrons growing on this side of the hill and not that one (indicative of weather patterns and sun exposure), we walked through areas recovering from fires (preponderance of ferns, which are the first to re-colonize after the fire goes out), and talked a whole lot along the way.
Michi’s current job, it turns out, is not so terribly different from what she did in Peace Corps. She talks to farmers and landowners about water management and erosion prevention, and teaches techniques for preserving topsoil and such. So she knows a lot about land use patterns in the Raleigh-Durham area, and has plenty to say about the phenomenon of sprawl, which is on everyone’s mind these days, especially in the urban areas of North Carolina, which are growing at a totally ridiculous rate.
Being from L.A., the North American Champion of sprawl, I can sympathize, and we talk a lot about where it’s all going, and none of it looks particularly encouraging, so we interrupt discussion with frequent pauses to study the (so far) pristine forest around us. And I wonder how much longer it’ll all last.
Michi had to head back to pick someone up at the airport on Sunday evening, so the walk was a brief one, and we bid fairwell in a turnout by the trailhead, she heading east toward home, and I west toward Tennessee.