“It’s been too long”
I wrote what follows on 11/06/97 and I just reread it this morning. Since I don’t think I ever published it anywhere, I thought I’d recycle it here for any who might enjoy reading it.
Yesterday, Vickie and I went to the Smokies to climb the Chimneys. It was our first hike together, even though we’ve worked together in the same company for the last 17 years. We had a magnificent day for it, cool enough to make our climb possible and sunny enough to keep us from being cold. We sweated nonetheless. This two mile hike is a challenge because it ascends 1700 feet in that distance, not an impossible feat for almost anyone, but one that does tax one’s physical resources. This old body of mine proved it could do what it used to, but with considerably more effort. I am, of course, sore this morning.
We did our hike in 4 hours and 15 minutes from the parking lot to the parking lot again, with an hour at the top of the promontory. We were on the upper end of what is considered normal for this hike, which at its trailhead estimates it to be a 2-3 hour hike. Vickie and I discovered we had a comparable hiking pace that each of us tolerated. As always it was rejuvenating and exhausting, parallel in effect to a very deep exhilaration and the filling the lungs once again with the sweet smelling moist air of the Smokies. I had forgotten how good clean air smells. It’s been too long.
The conclusion, that it’s been too long, is one I have every time I return to the Smokies. Although they are no more than 40 miles from my home, I find it too easy to be too busy to take the time to make hikes such as this. But when I do make them, I know it had been too long since I did it last. What a pleasure to exhaust oneself in such a joyful toil.
This was the first time I’ve climbed this hike when there was snow on the ground, though I realized in my most recent visit that I’ve made this particular hike quite a number of times. As a matter of fact since I came to Knoxville in 1979, I must have accompanied as many as 30 to 40 people on this trip. I haven’t maintained a count of the total number of times I’ve done it but I suspect is maybe 20 or so times. But always when I do it again, I conclude it’s been too long. It seems it has been about 5 years since I did it last.
The hike is a lovely experience distinguished by three different levels of terrain and difficulty . . . and reward. Upon entering the park on the Newfound Gap road, you come upon the Sugarlands Welcome Center where are found things like restrooms, maps, and other useful paraphernalia for exploring the park and guidelines about behaving in the area. Beyond that welcome center about 5 miles, you arrive at a widened portion of the road that serves as a parking area for about 20 or so cars. Once parked, suited up with backpack filled with munchies, water, and other necessities, you proceed downhill to reach the first bridge over the mountain stream that crisscrosses the path in three other locations on the way up, and come to think of it, on the way down.
The first level of the terrain is on a path along a gently undulating walkway surrounded by mountain laurel and rhododendron, ferns and moss covered logs and trees. Standing on one of the bridges as you cross the stream and looking either up or down river, there are massive boulders, frequent stepping stones for side trips off the trail. You can easily crawl far enough up the stream and around the bend to get a photograph of a completely wild looking river, with no evidences of the presence of man’s influence. You can be there, listening to the symphony played by the water on the instruments of rocks and puddles below them, different distances, different circumferences, different size streams falling, and hearing nothing else.
The second level, beginning just after the sign indicating you’ve passed 0.9 miles and have 1.1 mile to go, really gets the heart rate up. The ascent is still walking on a path, but the path is much steeper than in the first section. For about a 200 foot stretch, Vickie and I decided on a 50 step limit before we would stop to catch our breath and allow our hearts to slow to a somewhat more normal level. It was in this area that the snow was heavier, still not a problem, and the air was obviously colder, but the exertion guaranteed a sufficient level of body heat.
The third level, the pinnacle, is a steep climb up a relatively sheer rock face, using hand and foot holds to actually climb a rock. This is a short and most challenging portion of the climb. The view from the pinnacle is the reward for all the exertion of the whole trip, as you can see the entire Sugarlands Valley and look down the 1700 feet to the road you travelled to arrive at the trailhead. There are two points, hence the name the Chimneys versus Chimney. In the past I’ve made the trek to the second point, but today Vickie and I decided to be satisfied with having made it to the first, the higher of the two.
In honor of a practice of our firm through the years, we declared our lunch at the top of the Chimneys our company’s Quarterly meeting. Fortunately, there were other hikers there so we got them to take our picture for posterity. One must document these quarterly meetings for the company history books.
While we were there, several squirrels came up seeking a handout, having been conditioned by previous hikers to the degree that they seemed almost tame. We concluded that they were approaching us because they thought we were nuts for having scaled the most difficult face of the rock on the way up when there was an easier alternative around to our right that we didn’t explore before going up the hard way. While that ascent was quite taxing, as with all such giving of everything in an effort, it was also quite satisfying to have achieved it.
Although coming down the mountain is considerably easier than going up it, the previous exertion and the necessity to restrain yourself as you travel the trail in reverse causes the legs to become quite wobbly. Carrying the back pack also begins to take it’s toll on the muscles between the shoulders. So the trip down takes a bit of time too. In the past, both Vickie and I have had the experience of making this hike and staying at the top a bit too long, so that by the time we are on the trail back it has gotten dark. That’s a difficult trip on a dark night.
When we returned at last to the car, I was very tired, my feet hurt a bit where my hiking boots had rubbed on my ankles, and my shoulders were tired, but I felt good. And once again I realized it’s been too long since I felt like that.