Smoky Mountain Resilience
by Grant A. Mincy
I’ve lived in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains for most of my life. I cannot thank my parents enough for taking me on excursions to the park. Among the parks wild waters, forested canopy, steep slopes and rugged terrain I learned at a young age to respect the natural environment. This respect has matured through my years. Such maturity makes it difficult not to reflect on the past and think about the future.
In August of 2016 the National Park Service turned 100 years old. In its centennial year the service undertook initiatives to get folks out-of-doors to discover the parks. These lands are much more than places for recreation and vacation — they are fundamental for the health and survival of human civilization. Wildness, danger, emptiness, excitement and adventure are experienced, in purest form, in the wild. It’s good every now and then to think about the Leviathans of today and know that we can run away. In the grand scheme of things we are small. Natural processes have no regard at all for human activity (thank God).
A personal agenda of mine this birthday year was to get my son 100 miles of trail behind him in recognition of 100 years of the park. The idea came in summer. I re-discovered the forest in 2016. I’ve always loved the outdoors, ever since childhood. But, with a small child of my own and pressure from work I missed out on a lot of good wilderness time. So I was happy to get back into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for a few excursions. Most notably I got to hike with my Dad, my wife, some good friends and eventually my son. Hiking with the boy changed my life – but, that’s a tale for another time. I also got to hike with the park superintendent, Cassius Cash, and trail guru Christine Hoyer a couple of times. I owe my 100 miles to those two, they encouraged our family to do it. The boy and I finished in early autumn, just before the fires.
Disaster struck the Appalachian wilderness Thanksgiving week on a beloved trail. The Chimney Tops are a very popular hike in the park. A short, but very blistering hike to the summit of the Chimneys is a worthy adventure. At the pinnacle there is an inspiring panoramic view of the park. This year, though, a record drought struck the southern United States. The classic temperate rain forest went without water for months. The land was dry but autumn was still brilliant. The forest floor was littered in a beautiful blanket of leaf senescence. On Thanksgiving week, the drought conditions and littered under-story on the Chimney Tops trail collided with a few matches. The blaze began, but no one knew the extent of the damage those first simple flames would reap.
One of the worst natural disasters in the history of Tennessee unfolded because of those few matches. To date, over 10,000 acres of forested habitat within the boundaries of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park burned. Outside of the park boundaries over 6,000 acres burned. 14,000 people were evacuated from the nearby towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. Sadly, 14 people lost their life.
It’s hard, if not impossible, to describe such a calamity. To see this happen to anyone, anywhere is nothing but horrible. To have such an event strike a community and wilderness I truly love is beyond sad — it’s oddly lonely, helpless and terrifying. But, for what it is worth, it is important in our grief to remember the wild. The Smoky Mountain wilderness is mature, radiant and full of wonder. The ecosystem will respond to the damage and recover rather quickly. This is mountain resilience. In fact, the forest is already recovering. Since the wild-fire, rain has come back to the region. Once again we witness the beating heart of the forest. Water travels the vascular tissue of the forested trees and transpires over the entire valley and ridge. The wilderness is once again breathing, creating the mist and climate it’s famous for. This resiliency is important — it can inspire the human animal.
So, how do we appreciate such resiliency? How do we preserve wild lands? How do we protect species? How can we encourage new generations to leave human dominated landscapes and experience wilderness? The answer is to keep going ourselves. To keep sharing our stories. To explain what it means to truly be wild. To understand that we cannot understand humanity, our own wildness, our own resilience, until we experience the great out there. This is of fundamental importance. Without teaching these lessons to new generations we risk losing everything that connects us to natural splendor and each-other. Without the hearts and minds of the next generation such splendor could be lost forever. To care for and protect the wild is to care and protect each-other, it is all our community. We are part of our ecosystem.
So, in this time of disaster let’s tell our Smoky Mountain stories. As the forest transpires, as communities rebuild the region prepares for a long winter. Spring is coming.
Spring in the Appalachian Mountains is hard to beat. Winter transition in the ancient terrain is spectacular. During the cold months snow dusts evergreens and the naked limbs of deciduous trees. The rich summer canopy lies as decaying detritus on the forest floor. Ancient metamorphic rock is exposed. Dark in color this rock shadows the mountains. Ice is everywhere, enhancing the deep green of conifers. Characteristic steep slopes are marvelous, frigid, ominous, dangerous — wonderfully desolate, humbly beautiful. The terrain reminds the human how small they actually are. Good for the ego. We wrap ourselves around silly definitions, official terminology and mock importance in civilization. In this Appalachian wilderness, any wilderness, the human is simply another isolated animal. Simply wild. Happily alive.
Seasons change. In March the lowlands burst into life. Spring! A truly invigorating time to be in the Appalachian wilderness. One is still just another animal, but no longer as isolated. Other’s begin to stir from their winter slumber. We share the forest with a number of beasts — mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, mollusks, insects (particularly present in the summer) and so on. It’s all good and well to flip over rocks and look for salamanders, or study the canopies of trees for migratory songbirds. But, for me, the real story of spring is that of our genetic cousins: Plants!
One of my favorite factoids regarding the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is that just one acre of the forest holds more plant diversity than the entire continent of Europe. This is not lost. The resilient nature of the forest will serve witness to the power of natural systems. Our communities can find inspiration in succession. Spring wildflowers are truly an amazing spectacle in the Wildflower National Park. From the grey ground a wonderful mosaic breaks through the Earth. Soil erupts in the mesmerizing hues of purple, blue, white, pink, pale yellow and the virgin green stems of ephemeral flowers such as the hepaticas.
The brilliant dance begins. Spring is a truly extraordinary time to witness the cyclic relationship between life and season (phenology to the experts). The early trillium, for example, grow into life perennially just to disappear in a few short weeks. The plants gather energy from the sun, soak in seasonal mist, reproduce, relax for a spell and are then dormant again not halfway through the season. The forest canopy is blooming. The mighty poplar, the maples, the birch, the devil’s walking stick (brave yet holy name here in the belt, human is beast) and the paw-paw, to name only a simple few, begin budding. This will shade the forest floor. The ephemeral under-story buds have grown to understand this and sleep. They wait once again for their time in the sun. Thus are the workings of the wild. Pulses of life and dormancy, resource partitioning, mutualism, competition — natural splendor.
Other flowers will continue their bloom of course. As the forest canopy buds a light green begins to decorate the landscape. The dogwoods are an early April favorite with their beautiful whites and purples. Herbaceous plants, the rhododendron, mountain laurel, flaming azaleas and many others will wake to life later in the season. Ah, another season of change in the wild. Spring really invigorates the soul and entices the deep evolutionary urges of all animals who breathe deep of the sweet lucid air: Let me tell you about the birds and the bees, and the flowers and the trees, and the moon up above… And a thing called love. Thanks, Jewel Akens.
Then there’s the water. The Smoky Mountains earn their name. I am always in awe of water. Wild waters are truly nature’s greatest spectacle. Water, in its many forms, occupies every part of the valley and ridge. Head water streams, the products of tranquil rainfall, violent storms and frigid snow-melt travel the river continuum and trickle into one another. These tiny trickles evolve over the watershed and form the communion of rivers roar. Water occupies the soil and rock, seeps from springs and puddles the damp forest. Water falls from clouds who themselves travel the temperate woods producing a dense fog. The forest is always soaked.
Clouds are among my favorite forms water takes. There is nothing like standing on a green mountain bald on a cool spring day — the clouds are great entertainment in the ecosystem. Whether weeping grey or a fluffy white, when the land is again bursting with life, clouds hug ridges and occupy valleys in ways that can only be described as breathtaking. The forest flora absorbs this water from rhizoids and roots, utilizes the resource for food production and transpires the molecule back to the environment where clouds again form and the cycle repeats. The forest creates its own climate with this biotic pump. The landscape is indeed alive. The molecule of life deserves our careful reflection. Clouds rewards us with feelings of loneliness, nostalgia, adventure, love and life.
Seeing that I live in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park it would be irresponsible of me not to go for a few strolls. One early May 2016 morning my best friend, a couple of his buddies and I paid such a visit.
Time to pack. Day hikes are a great escape. When only a few hours permit (we live in a culture that demands we work too much) the day hike is a much-needed mini-vacation. Day hikes are just long enough to shower the human spirit with natural wonder, share some laughs, see the sights, feel relief. The forest is largely a place of freedom. The mountains are a place to understand liberty. So, to absorb all of this, the body must be properly nourished. A good breakfast is needed, but more important is fuel for the mountains.
Food is needed for a day hike. Obviously, the body needs energy. I like food for purely hedonistic reasons in the wild — it just tastes better out there. Interestingly enough, being totally nude feels natural and sex feels better out there in the wild too. Primal! I digress — now back to food. Venison summer sausage, extra sharp cheddar cheese, some fruit and good bread are my preferred sources of sustenance for day escapes. With food and a couple liters of water in tow it is time to meet my fellow travelers and hit the woods.
City slickers. I leave my home in scruffy south Knoxville and head to the quaint town of Maryville, Tennessee to meet up with my best friend, Steve McQueen (true story) and a visiting pair of his medical buddies from George Washington (smart man, my friend). After a quick introduction to Carlos (Mexican) and Lou (Afghan from South Carolina) I learn my fellow travelers are politically incorrect, crass and love to joke. A good day lay ahead. We are off for the forest around 10:00 am.
On the way up we stop for beer. Carlos grabs a tall Modello and Lou a tall Budweiser. Myself, I go for a tall-boy of Busch at 25% more! Plus, Busch has a grand advertising campaign that may toy with my subconscious: “Busch Beer. Head for the mountains.” Well, the mountains are calling and I must go! Thanks, John Muir. Steve McQueen is driving, naturally, and he claims the tallest drink of all: Sobriety. He arms himself with Gatorade — a product of the swampy University of Florida. We live in Big Orange Country. Go Vols! We drink through the quiet side of the Smokies and pitch the cans. As we travel towards Metcalf Bottoms along the Pigeon River the booze kicks in. We biology types relaxed and make fun of each other. Long live a good laugh at oneself.
Feels good to travel mountain country. The landscape is beautiful. Traffic is light. As we pass the Chimneys trailhead we see our first black-bear of the day walking alongside the road. We slow to admire the beast, a cub, but do not stop. Mama may be around, plus it’s bad etiquette. We are human, after all, visitors in the bear’s home. Onward to Clingmans Dome.
Clingmans Dome rests at 6,643 feet making it the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The area offers a good shock to the system. Temperatures are extreme at such an elevation, often 20 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than the mountain lowlands. Plus, Steve and I wanted to bring his visitors for the views and the unique spruce-fir rainforest that decorates the terrain. We are not disappointed, at least I’m not.
The day before our visit an intense rain showered the region. Remnants of the storm were still around. Bring on the clouds and mountain weather! We stand in a sea of clouds. Some are a deep stratus grey in color and seep along the forested mountain ridges occupying hollers and deeper valleys. Others a magnificent puffy cumulus that appear almost golden as they bathe in rays from the star of life. It’s damn cold. I pull on a flannel shirt and don an outback hat. There are four tasks at hand: Relieve ourselves of the beer we drank, eat a snack, climb to the observation tower at the top of the dome, and then follow the Forney Ridge Trail to Andrews Bald.
Once our biological needs were fulfilled we begin our half-mile hike to the lookout tower. Now, a half mile is not a long trek, but it’s a steep half mile. Steve and I outpace Carlos and Lou. We have a good time reminiscing and telling more bad jokes. Brotherhood. Then we ascend into the very clouds we were just admiring. The temperature drops even more. When the weather permits ones view from the tower can stretch for 100 miles. On this day, however, about 20 feet. I laugh. This is the weather I like best — blustery, cold, grey with bursts of light. It’s elemental. Perfection.
Once the lads catch up we scramble down from the tower and hop on the Appalachian Trail to the mouth of Forney Ridge to begin our descent towards the bald. Again, a mesmerizing view. Clouds hugging ancient rock.
This first section of trail trods through a relic of the last ice-age. A unique spruce-fir rainforest typically occupies the higher elevations of the Southern Appalachian Mountains. The temperate zone is a deep green with beads of water clinging to the needles of evergreens. Their color is exacerbated, deepened, darkened, by the grey of the day. The weather is cold and wet, flowers decorate the ground. A natural spring gushes. McQueen stops and cups his hands in the ice-cold water and takes a few big gulps!
“Part of my allure as a mountain man.”
“You’ll catch Giardia and shit for days.”
“How do you treat Giardia anyways? An anti-biotic?”
“No. Giardia is a Protozoan. I won’t catch it anyway, no poop in spring water at this elevation.”
Biologists. No need to worry about the hiker’s sickness. This wild mountain spring is clean enough to drink on the east coast. What a miracle. I immediately regret not getting a sip myself. But, city slickers. We didn’t bring any rain gear and walk right into a thick cloud. Mountain mist begins soaking our clothes. Water droplets splash as they chorus across the terrain. We move fast, eyeing the trail and make our way to the bald. The deep green gives way to an open grassy meadow. Tiny spring flowers, strong in numbers, illustrate the gray afternoon. We stand in silence for a good while and breathe deep the cold, Earthy air. We bathe in a thick cloud. We cannot see the rolling valley and ridge ahead of us for the fog is too thick, but we know it is there. We feel connected to the terrain.
“Thanks for the great view, assholes.”
Onward. We trek the uphill hike back to Steve’s car and make our descent from the dome. As we pass New Found Gap the skies part and we are awarded the most amazing view. We are mostly silent, studying our surroundings. We make our way towards the lowlands and pass Laurel Falls. Then it happens. A traffic jam in the forest.
Most traffic upsets me. It’s especially irritating when one is visiting wild lands. But, the Smoky Mountains are the most visited national park in Uncle Sam’s territory. This isn’t such a bad thing. It’s actually exciting that more people want to explore the wild. There is one type of tourist that bothers me though: The motor tourist. Driving around in safe metal cages. Windows rolled up for climate control. White sneakers and white socks. Fannie packs and sun visors. Giant cameras. Now, I am pretty libertarian so I should support people getting enjoyment out of the land in any way possible — and I do. But, I am also a mountain hugger. One can only enjoy the land, her flora and fauna, if the land is understood — if “wild” is not an abstract idea but something one seeks to understand.
Just beyond parking for Laurel Falls a young black bear is treed. Hovering about 30 feet over the forest floor, tucked between limbs of a poplar, the bear stares in horror at the most terrifying, arrogant animal in the park: Homo sapien. Motor tourists are hopped out of their metal chariots, sun visors and Fanny packs in tow, and stand flashing pictures of the obviously distressed beast. Traffic is thick but the crowd is thicker. A ranger blows her horn as she directs people to leave; “Get back in your vehicles and move on!” Totally ignored she radios for back up.
Ignorance. The ranger is not there to protect the people who have treed the poor animal. She is there to protect the bear. If desperate enough the beast may leap from the tree and pick a fight with some tourists. If this were to happen the bear would be euthanized. A terrible scenario. I care more about that goddamned bear than I do any of the people who gawk and cage him. I wish more people would just experience and learn from the forest, it can teach us much.
We travel along and stop at The Sinks for a jaunt along Meigs Creek. We flip over rocks in the cool mountain waters and search for salamanders. We run up and down rocky slopes and through mountain laurel canopied walkways. We feel the sun on our backs and the mud on our skin. We trip over roots and marvel at rhododendron.
Civilization needs wilderness. We need escape, liberation from the tones, dials, servers and hustle of our official titles. We thrive on the lonely, beautiful danger. We can find solace and comfort as the forest rebounds, as it buds, grows, blooms and showers. Without the anarchic wonder of the great “out there,” without the timeless shadows, our mind essence, the rivers roar, the childlike laughter, the burst of the heavens and even fires crackle we forget the bursting sensation to live freely. That is why we go to the wild — to experience and understand our wildness! The forest is resilient, and so too are we.
My advice to the next generation of preservation enthusiasts: Hike. Place one foot in front of the other. Note the geology. The small, well-rounded pebbles that crunch beneath your feet have an incredible story to tell. A story of deep time. A story of eras and eons perhaps unimaginable by our kind. A place in history we can truly never know or understand. Move onward. Feel the crunch of gravel, soil and Earth beneath your toes. Hike. Climb ever upward. Advance toward the clouds. Breathe deep. Become exhausted. Feel your heart pound in your chest, feel the pulse in your temples. Let your legs burn. No matter what, keep moving. Let the ridge flatten out. Take note of seasonal colors. Note their change. Recognize and wonder at your surroundings. Struggle across knotted limb. Experience how the ecosystem changes from mesic cove forest to spruce-fir temperance. Climb. Breathe deep into your lungs. Be tired and bone weary. Sweat. Come alive. Listen to the world around you. The roar of a bear is freighting, the croak of a dozen frogs at night is eerie. The crickets and cicadas are melodic. Take it all in. Hear the wind as it moves the leaves of trees. Sit in solace. Learn the chorus of wild waters. Bond with your fellow human. Create memories. Love deeply, as deeply as humanly possible. Laugh a little, too much, not enough. Yell. Holler. Weep. Do what the heart commands. Rejuvenate your soul. Escape. Rejoice. Be free.