On the border between the states of North Carolina and Tennessee, in the southern east of the United States, a National Park protects a sub-range of the Appalachian Mountains called the Great Smoky Mountains. Every time I visit one of the National Parks in the US, I am filled with gratitude and this is what I was feeling when I turned off my car’s engine at the mostly empty parking lot of the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. Whomever has and has ever had anything to do with creating and maintaining this park, I thank you. It is incredibly healing to see what a place looks like that has not been infested by cheap housing developments, strip malls and billboards that are constantly attempting to violate your mind. Immediately I was in a different, peaceful mood.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park receives thousands of visitors every year – but not when the thermometers show 20o F like this morning. In this clear and frigid morning, the park is left to its 140 elk, 1,500 black bears, and everything else ranging from deer and coyotes (I saw one) to salamanders and a handful of us humans.
Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the Appalachian Trail (6643 ft, 2024 m) was what I had my heart set on this morning. To get there, I was going to start walking from the Newfound Gap parking lot, some 16 miles north from the Oconaluftee Visitor Center on US-441. I had the option of either taking the Clingmans Dome Road, closed between December 1 and March 30, or taking the Appalachian Trail, that parallels the road. As I was walking by myself, I chose to stay on the road. 4 to 6 inches of fresh snow had fallen the previous night and I wasn’t sure the trail would always be easy to find. Lost at 20o temperatures was not exactly the title I wanted for this article. Besides, on the trail I’d be walking in the shade, making it a lot cooler. For some reason that did not seem that exciting either.
Some 45 minutes into the walk, some tracks on the snow intrigued me. I was wondering who could have left them when I saw a coyote trotting elegantly down the middle of the road, not a care in this world. I saw it before it saw me so I could watch it for a few seconds until it noticed my presence and disappeared into the woods. There is something magical about encounters with wild life. For a few seconds I was somewhat hypnotized. Then I walked to where the coyote had stood last on the road and checked its tracks. There were two different patterns. This one, left while it was trotting down the road, was the same I had seen earlier. Mystery solved.
The walk from the parking lot to the Clingmans Dome Observation Tower (a little less than 8 miles) took me about 4 hours. The ascent is gradual but the fresh snow made it harder to walk – my legs were really tired by the time I reached the tower.
In spite of the low temperatures, I had been blessed with almost no wind and sunny skies for most of the day but now the clouds were coming in. Wanting to be back in the car before dark, I made my way down the road trotting like the coyote over my own tracks to take advantage of the firmer ground. Temperatures were dropping gradually but steadily as the sun set and in the last hour it was difficult to keep my hands warm. At about 4:00 p.m. I was a little over a mile from the parking lot and ran into two young men who were just beginning the hike, no food, no water, almost no warm clothes, no idea how far it was to the Dome. We chatted for a couple minutes and I warned them that they would not have time to reach the Dome and come back before night but they proceeded on. It had been 0o F at the top the previous night, told me the ranger at the visitor center. I do pray the two men are not ice statues by now.