Hiking the AT

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One day previous to the taking of this photo, we had been a party of 10, hiking the Alum Caves Trail in the Smoky Mountains to the LeConte Lodge.  Now a day after the photo is the day to hike down. On the return hike, my husband and I opt to let the other 8 go down the mountain on the same trail, while we return by the Boulevard Trail. The Boulevard Trail is an 8 mile hike compared to the 5 of the Alum. What makes it attractive are the last 2.7 miles which overlap the AT, the Appalachian Trail. The lure of actually hiking on the AT is not to be denied. Chances are slim we will have another opportunity. Vacations seldom take us to the same destination twice, besides as our children like to say, we are ‘older than dirt’. Hiking will not always be an option.

To hike down we must first hike up, past the three sided sleeping shelter and past the mound of stones that marks the summit of Mt. LeConte. We scramble up rocks and down the other side. John pauses to admire the vista. I catch my breath. We have begun at too brisk of a pace for the steeper grade. John has found a walking stick for me. It is slightly short and though I keep it in my hand, I seldom trust to its use. I have to lean forward too far to plant it securely. Instead, ahead of me John offers his shoulder or gives me his hand over the rocks.

The trail is very different from the Alum Caves Trail. The vistas are few; trees and bushes grow along both sides of the trail for most of the way. I am surprised when  a cable secured into the cliff offers itself for a safety rail. I do not notice it until the need is past. The trail winds up as much down. It leads through a tall growth of forest, “This is the forest primeval, the murmuring pine and the hemlock, stand like druids of old. . .”  The lines of Longfellow’s Evangeline keep me company for nearly the entire hike. Unfortunately they are all I remember. The phrase’s  continuing loop in my head becomes annoying. The scenery does not. We alternate between low bushes and grasses nearly obstructing the path to the rocky or composted forest floor. Misty woods, damp and cool play tag with the sunshine of the open areas. Several times I am tempted to remove my lightweight sweater, only to be thankful for its protection when we re-enter the woods.

Few people pass us on the trail. None from behind, all are hiking upwards. We manage a steady pace. Though slower on the inclines, cautious on the rocky descents, we make up time on the level stretches. One place I opt to slide on my bottom. Funny how what would be accomplished with a skip and a jump under normal circumstances becomes planned and careful on a mountain trail. We appreciate the breezes that blow across the ridges. The stands of trees prevents a view when the mountains fall away on either side at the crest of a ridge.

The hike takes on the same timeless aspect of a longer canoe trip. Once the beginning is behind, the end will appear when it wills. The land marks are unknown. No signs are posted to tell us how far we have come or how far to go. We do not care. In this act of hiking, we exist in a private space which contains only us. Others may pass through our space, they do not disturb it. I do not day dream, or contemplate what duties await. At this moment it is only, and always, now. Now. Is that what constitutes eternity? I let the thought, too big to contemplate, pass. God knows, someday I will too.

John continues to comment on the inclines when our goal is to decline. We encounter switch backs, long level stretches, and loops. We understand why the more direct route of the Alum Caves Trail is the favorite.  We see no wildlife, though we keep a careful watch on the overgrown paths for snakes. Copperheads should not be surprised.

Before we join the A.T. with only 2.7mi. left to hike, we have counted about a dozen and a half hikers. Once we join the trail we cease counting. The section is a favorite with tourists and many, like me, want to simply say they hiked on it. We encounter an older man, a substantial pack on his back, who asks if he is one third of the way. One third of the way from where or to where? We have no answer. A younger man joins us. “You a thru-hiker?” The older man asks. “Section, today I’m scoping out what I’m getting into,” comes the reply.  Ha! I know the language. I had read AWOL on the Appalachian Trail and I understand the code.  A ‘thru hiker’ attempts to hike the entire trail from Georgia to Maine, 2,181miles, in one hiking season. A ‘section’ hiker bites it off in small pieces and not necessarily in order, in one season or to completion. John and I were day hikers, barely.  I feel qualified to consider myself a slight notch above the tourists. We had hiked nearly 6 miles from the top of the mountain to get here. The tourists only scampered across the parking lot.

About a mile from the end of the trail (or beginning) we are met by son Matthew’s loud “heehaw!” He and his wife Vanessa decided to meet us.  We finish the hike comparing experiences of the various hikers in our group. Our daughter and the eleven year old twins made the 5 mi. descent in two hours. One twin ran the last of the trail so she could use the bathroom at the bottom; too much traffic on that trail to simply use a private spot in the woods. The others followed at a slightly slower rate. Matt and Vanessa had not been waiting long. Our time for our 8 mile hike was an even four hours. Not bad for a couple who are ‘older than dirt’.

I am glad we had opted for the longer trail. The alternate suggestion had been to simply stop here after coming off the Alum Caves Trail and do the short hike from the parking lot. The lot was swamped with cars, the monument getting more attention than the trail itself. I would have declined to become a tourist. Vanessa agrees to take a picture of John and I by the sign for the AT trail. We pose with our hiking sticks and afterwards leave them propped against the sign. Maybe other day hikers would find use for them. As we walk away a woman steps up to take her turn to pose by the marker. “Oh, look,” she remarks, “props for the picture!”

We speculate on how many tourist pictures will be taken with the ‘props.’

Just off the trail from La Conte

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