This past weekend, I went for a hike in Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the Appalachian Trail. I currently travel around the country promoting Alaska tours and had a free day in Knoxville with my work partner Clint. Perfect timing for a drive out to the Smokies.
Clint grew up very outdoorsy in Utah and the surrounding area, but prior to this job he had seen very little of the eastern states. It was my first time revisiting the Smokies since thru hiking the AT in 2017 and I couldn’t wait to get back.
GSMNP is the most highly trafficked national park in the country with over 11 million visitors annually. Even knowing that, I was shocked at how busy it was for a chilly early March weekend. Some stretches of the winding mountain road were bumper to bumper and the parking lots were mostly full.
We parked in Newfound Gap, the same parking lot where I caught a hitchhike into Gatlinburg, TN on my thru hike. It immediately struck me how familiar the parking lot looked. I recognized a small median of grass where, three years earlier, I chugged two cans of Coke from a Trail Magic stand and loaded my gear into a stranger’s pickup truck. It played out so clearly in my mind.
We set off towards Charlie Bunion, a scenic rock outcropping about four miles north on the AT. This is the third stretch of AT I’ve revisited (the others being Damascus, Virginia, and somewhere near Cumberland Valley, Pennsylvania) and my heart always swells the first time I see a blaze, the white rectangles marking the trail all the way from Georgia to Maine.
Spotting white blazes became an integral part of my life, as baked-in as breathing and blinking. I followed blazes, hour after hour, day after day, month after month. Thru hiking is hard, but life is overall easier when there’s always a blaze telling you where to go next.
The crowd thinned immediately as we hiked upward out of the parking lot*, gaining 1000 feet of elevation on the way to Charlie’s Bunion. We lucked out with a pleasantly crisp afternoon in the 40s and not a cloud in the sky. Early on, the heavily shaded trail was frozen over with ice inches-thick and light patches of snow. Higher up, the snow transitioned to layers of crunchy frost, plastered onto rocks and vegetation by forceful winds gusting up the steep mountainsides.
Through the mostly-bare trees I caught glimpses of the surrounding Appalachian mountains; each distant range a different shade of blue, more saturated up front, fading further back. God I miss looking at those mountains every day.
We hiked about an hour before breaking through the trees to a viewpoint where we could really take in the sheer vertical rise of the Smokies. They’re enormous, that largest geographic features in that neck of the country. Clint fell in love, as I hoped he would. “These are REAL mountains!” Indeed.
There were a few other groups of hikers enjoying Charlie’s Bunion when we arrived, including a couple from Norway on their first hike in America, setting the bar quite high. I carefully crawled onto the namesake rocks jutting out from the mountain, overlooking a deep valley between frosted peaks. I didn’t dangle my legs over the edge at 5900 feet because, as regular readers know, heights scare the shit out of me. Clint, on the other hand, scrabbled up the tallest, slipperiest rock he could find.
Sitting on Charlie’s Bunion, soaking in the panoramic view and light winter breeze, I felt strangely at home. I say strange because I’d only ever been to that spot once before for maybe five minutes. It’s not like I grew up visiting the Smokies or anything. Hiking the AT changed my life, sure, but nothing particularly special happened at Charlie’s Bunion aside from pretty views (in any area full of them) and good conversation (often in abundance). How could I be at home somewhere so impermanent?
I’ve written before about struggling to establish a sense of home while constantly traveling, but any displacement vanishes when I’m back on the AT. The same thing happened when I revisited Virginia, and even Pennsylvania, the only state on the trail I couldn’t wait to finish (feet pulverized by rocks daily). You could show me a snapshot of any random tree-lined stretch along the 2200 mile trail, and maybe I could guess the state based on context clues, but that’s where my familiarity ends. Yet somehow every rock and tree welcomes me back.
The homey feeling is more than nostalgia, though my mind certainly raced with stories of the people I initially hiked alongside in the Smokies. It’s more than a fondness or desire for the past. It’s a sense of belonging exactly where I am, even if I can’t pinpoint the position on a map; a connecting link between Then and Now that I don’t feel anywhere else in the world.
Does anyone else know this feeling–being at home somewhere you vaguely recognize–particularly long distance hikers or bikers? Care to help me wrap my words around it?
*I’ve heard less than 1% of GSMNP visitors will venture as far as one mile from a parking lot. I totally understand that some people have mobility limitations, but for everyone else, like…what are you doing?! There are well-marked trails all over the damn place. You came to see nature, try actually being in nature, away from the sound of passing cars on a busy road. It’ll blow your world wide open!