In May of 1994, my teaching year ended early as I had just finished my one-year appointment as the Teacher-in-Residence at the University of New Hampshire. While my public school colleagues in Kittery, Maine had a month more of school, I had time to act on Michael Jordan’s decision to step away from basketball and play baseball. Assigned to the Birmingham Barons, Jordan was a work-in-progress as a baseball player, but still a national icon for many of us, especially the fourth grade boy living at our house.
Hannah and I pulled Will out of York Elementary for a week so he could drive with me 1100 miles to see Michael Jordan play baseball in Alabama. After two serious days of driving, we got seats with 4000 others (minor league games might normally draw a few hundred) to watch Michael glide in right field, cheer his every move, and even get a hit. Who else played? Who won? No idea. Will remembers the free Krystal Burgers (mini-hamburgers) we won as part of an in-game promotion.
On the way home Will and I hiked in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the Tennessee side near Gatlinburg. The park is so named Smoky for the clouds that descend into the valleys and then slowly burn off.
Today in the first week of October Hannah and I enter the same park on the North Carolina side near Cherokee to hike the AT on the NC/TN border near Clingman’s Dome, the highest point on the entire AT. (At the visitor center, the ranger tells us there are 20 mountains in North Carolina higher than the New Englander’s beloved Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. Who knew?)
Driving 15 miles from the Ocalusee Visitor Center on the Newfound Gap Road in our rented Ford Fiesta, we turn south and climb along the shoulderless 7-mile summit road to a parking lot clogged with cars trolling for spaces at 1130A on a Tuesday! (By the way, the road to Clingman’s Dome is closed from December through March due to the weather.) There isn’t a parking spot to be had. What drivers can do, as we do, is drive a few hundred yards back down the mountain and park on the grassy shoulder.
The place is swarming with people willing to take the steep half-mile paved sidewalk to the top of Clingman’s Dome. All body types, mostly seniors, but also families with homeschoolers, choke the walkway. There are benches along the paved sidewalk, and we always see someone resting there. By the way, Clingman’s Dome was named after Thomas Clingman, a Confederate general during the American Civil War.
After the half mile climb there is a curly cue concrete structure to an observation deck with a 360 degree view towards Gatlinburg, TN and back to Cherokee, Sylva, and Bryson City, NC. We are packed together and look to escape as soon as we get there. A park volunteer tells us that we should see this place in a week or two when prime time foliage season arrives. We count our blessings that we will not.
Just 150 feet back down the paved sidewalk is the AT heading south along the NC/TN border through a southern pine forest. Similar to hiking the Bright Angel Trail at the Grand Canyon, the AT from Clingman’s Dome means Hannah and I will have the easier downhill hiking for the first half of our hike.
For the first third of a mile we descend ever so slightly into the “green tunnel” with the forest canopy covering us. The trail is indeed easy going with its few ups and many downs. We see that the Double Springs Gap Shelter is 2.5 miles away, a perfect turn around destination for our day hike. Usually just wide enough for one of us, the trail is rocky and quite narrow.
With the heavy rains of the past weekend and Hurricane Joaquin out to sea, the sky is sun-filled in early October. With the occasional views to the mountains around us, I have what amounts to a perfect day of hiking – a well-marked trail, temps in the 70s, and Hannah.
After the swarms of humanity at the mountain top of Clingman’s Dome, we arrive at the Double Springs Gap Shelter in 75 minutes having not seen a single hiker. The shelter has been recently remodeled and this video gives you some idea about our afternoon lunch venue.
Having hiked 75 minutes basically downhill to the gap (i.e., between two mountains) we have 2.8 miles uphill back to Clingman’s Dome. Passing a few hikers, we have one catch our attention. He’s a Appalachian Trail flip flopper who is within 190 miles of finishing his 2180 mile hike at Springer Mountain, Georgia. His flip flop hike began in April at Harper’s Ferry, WV. From there he headed north to Mt. Katahdin. Once done with the northern part of the AT, he returned to Harper’s Ferry and headed south. He’s six months into his thru-hike and nearing the finish line in Georgia.
As we are about to leave, Hannah asks his trail name. He says Danger Bird from the Neil Young song of the same name. He sings for us, Danger bird, he flies alone. And he rides the wind back to his home. Different than most trail names, he gave it to himself. I like that.
I’ve always longed for a trail name; my latest thought is Jersey in reference to my birth state. But I do like the idea of taking it from a song. Hmmmm, what about my all-time favorite song, MacArthur Park written by Jimmy Webb and sung by Richard Harris. Hannah does not think much of the trail name Sweet Green Icing from the song. I’m not sure Cake from the line Someone left the cake out in the rain resonates either. It doesn’t help that MacArthur Park is one of Hannah’s Rock Bottom worst songs ever. I’ll not give up.
The climb back to Clingman’s Dome has us sweating and not at all remembering how much downhill we had two hours ago. Even so, we return at 3P to just as many people climbing to the top of the Clingman’s Dome Tower and just as many cars circling to find a parking spot.
We return to our night’s stay at Chestnut Tree Inn in Cherokee, NC, and what we think is an Internet bargain. Stay tuned for the further education of Dan and Hannah.
For your listening pleasure click on the link below for 7:24 of the ecstacy that is MacArthur Park by Richard Harris