“Is this even a good idea?” I debated with myself, unsure of how worth while my second attempt of the morning to see the Great Smokey Mountains would be.
I had spent the prior night horizontal in the back of a Dodge van in the National Parks welcome center parking lot, and made my first attempt at experiencing the mountains a trail run, which less then a mile into, I bailed on. I just wasn’t feeling motivated or inspired, and the twenty-two degree temperatures didn’t help.
I had come to the Smokies with a goal. Despite having driven highway 441 through the center of the Smokies numerous times in past years, I had never once left the vehicle to explore, have an adventure, and immerse myself in the Park.
I couldn’t with clear conscience say I had really experienced the park.
Standing in the cold next to the van my thoughts gravitated toward how tired I was, how I had not eaten food in 14 hours, that I still had 11 hours of driving to get home, and that maybe the 7 mile long dead end mountain road to the tallest peak in Tennessee was barricaded off for a good reason.
Before concluding my thoughts I grabbed my bike and hopped around the “road closed” gate.
The moment I committed to the adventure, and bypassed both the physical gate and my mental barriers, I was free.
Once on the other side of the barriers I realized what a rare opportunity I was being treated with. Mountain biking on trails is illegal in National Parks, for valid reasons, and riding the narrow crowded roads filled with understandably distracted drivers gazing upon majestic vistas makes the pavement a non-option for cycling.
But here I was, with the unique opportunity of riding a National Park road closed off behind me so none could follow.
I was all alone, with a delectable treat, and I didn’t have to share.
The road was clear, perfectly smooth, winding upwards with just enough pitch for my body to get warm from the effort. The road was cut into the mountain with a wall to my right, and exposed to the best views of North Carolina to my left. I imagined what the area was like long ago, remembering that many scientists believe the Appalachians to be the oldest mountains on Earth. Existing long before our continent, and dating back to the formation of Pangea, the Appalachians were once taller then the mighty Himalayas, before time and erosion rounded them down to their present size.
Two months earlier I had watched the sun rise over the south rim of the Grand Canyon, perhaps the nations most iconic symbol of how small we are as individuals, where I sat and contemplated time on the massive scale of 20-50 million years. Now I was trying to comprehend both the formation and slow unyielding erosion of a natural wonder on the scale of nearly half a billion trips around the sun.
A few miles farther up the climb, the wall to my right started to become lined with a curtain of icicles, and the road surface was a mixture of slick ice and sure footed snow. Behind the wall of ice a creek was flowing that created a low drone, which was contrasted by song birds, and punctuated by the chime like ring of crashing icicles. I felt so isolated, and spoiled. The sun was bright, the air was still, and the sound track was phenomenal. A live performance never to be repeated.
The top of Clingman’s Dome, at 6,643 feet above sea level, is the third highest point east of the Mississippi river, and only 41 feet lower than the tallest, Mt Mitchell. The rounded off dome is surrounded by a fir and spruce forest, and the only way to take full advantage of your superior elevation is to climb a 40 foot tower constructed at the top.
From the top I had clear skies and wide reaching visibility. I could see Mt Mitchell and Mt Craig in the distance, and wondered if anyone was standing atop them looking back. We would be the tallest people on the eastern half of a continent, and perhaps we had climbed the tallest mountains in the history of the Earth.
Janurary 14th, 2016.