Frost struck this morning! Temperatures dipped below freezing, encrusting Sam’s windshield with icy condensation. For the first time, my first order of business was a quick defrosting. Although I know this weather won’t last as I leave the high country and head west, I couldn’t help but be excited for finally finding a hint of winter…
After an almost two week hiatus from blogging, I spent this morning holed up in a coffee shop in Sylva, NC and uploaded some of the posts and pictures that I had been accumulating over the past fortnight. Delicious coffee and Morning Edition on NPR made the process enjoyable and relatively expedient. Then I was off for more Smokys!
Entering from the North Carolina side of the park, in a town called Cherokee, I began my second day in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Instead of following another valley towards another undeniably beautiful waterfall, I opted for a more alpine adventure. My ranger friend had recommended a spot called the Jump Off, basically an outlook seated above a massive and sheer cliff. The name is oddly inspirational… The Jump Off lay a few miles into a section of the Appalachian Trail running northeast from Newfound Gap. Having visited Newfound Gap on my way up to Clingman’s yesterday, I knew it would be an absolute madhouse. It was. Cars backed up hundreds of feet down the road were all vying for a few dozen coveted parking spots. Tourists milled from viewpoint to viewpoint like clusters of seagulls squabbling over breadcrumbs. I packed up my daypack, filled up on water, readied my poles, and hit the trail.
In general, I move more quickly on my way out than I do on my way back (at least on out-and-back trails). This section of the AT was no different. The chilly fall weather and stiff breeze encouraged a quick pace to keep me warm. On my way out, I passed a veritable menagerie of hikers from all over North America, Europe, and Asia. The further I hiked from the trailhead, the more alone I felt. Where I had passed groups every couple of minutes initially, I now hiked alone for ten or fifteen minutes at a time. Eventually, I ended up at Charlie’s Bunion, a massive shale outcropping jutting northwest into Tennessee. The exposed face afforded onlookers insane views of the Smokys, whose hillsides were ablaze with turning fall foliage. Its exposure, however, also meant the wind blindsided anyone bold enough to visit the outcropping. After scrambling all over the rocks with a bunch of college kids from Pennsylvania, I turned tail for the protection of the trees.
On my way back, I ran into many familiar faces, including a few old timers who thought I was living on the AT because they had seen me so many times in the past two days. Halfway back, I discovered the turn off for my secluded overlook: The Jump Off. Nowhere near as popular as Charlie’s Bunion, I scrambled up an empty path until it dead-ended into open air. Below me, I saw the Bunion, Tennessee, North Carolina, and all the colors of fall laid out like a patchwork quilt of arboreal diversity below. It was worth the minor detour to be alone on that sheltered overlook, watching the world pass beneath me oblivious to my presence. As I stepped away from the edge, I said goodbye to the Smokys. Having served as my topographic escape during my time in the flatlands of New Bern, I will always hold them dear and I will undoubtedly return before long!
With the sun still relatively high in the sky, I dropped back down towards Cherokee and the entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Before I started heading north, however, I ran into twenty elk feasting on prairie grasses alongside the park road. I parked instantly and joined a few other photographers alongside the prairie. Despite the size of the herd, there were only two or three males, one of whom was very intent on mating with one of the females. She didn’t seem to be very keen on the idea. I sat on the grass watching them rest, eat, and wander in front of me. You don’t often see animals that big in the southeast…
Once on the Blue Ridge Parkway, I was again alone. The traffic of the park road faded, as did the noises of civilization. With the sun falling towards the horizon, I tried to find the perfect overlook for sunset. When I did, I realized that I was truly alone. The sounds I heard were wild, not civilized. No engines running or horns blaring, just the wind rustling the leaves and branches amidst the gentle songs of birds. That rustling and chirping, however, was often lost in a heavy silence. Alone, I watched the sun drop behind the endless mountain ridges of the Appalachian Range. I’m sure millions upon millions of people watched the sun set that night, but none of them saw it the way that I did. In the darkness, I continued north until I reached Waynesville, where I turned in for the night.
Maps: the more you use the more you know. MAPS!