My college roommate, Big Steve, who hailed from Virginia, always said people are friendlier (i.e., more welcoming) in the South. I cannot disagree. The you-alls, the yes sir’s, yes ma’am’s, and the look at you in the eyes smiles. I love it. Now more than ever we need that civility as a starting point for conversations rather than debates with others. I once taught poetry to a class of sixth graders for a nun who was a student of mine at Eastern Connecticut State University. When I came into the room, everyone stood up. It was very cool. As a prof of the Exploring Teaching class at the University of New England, I had my students stand when a guest speaker came into the room. After this election season, we need to listen more and judge less.
I do have a Big Beware for you!! Think Jersey shore Sunday afternoon on the Garden State Parkway. Think LA anytime. Think the Washington Beltway whenever. Coming from the west to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, we leave I-40 for the 22-mile gauntlet drive to Gatlinburg, Tennessee. First on the drive in, there is Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, and then comes the shops of Gatlinburg. Get this, on a non-holiday October Monday morning at 11A, the traffic is insane in G-Town. There are more stores and shoppers per square inch than at the Mall of America in Minne-snow-ta. I remind you it’s mid-morning Monday. It takes three changes of the traffic light to get to the next traffic light!
But…later we learn there is a bypass around Gatlinburg to the Great Smokies. Take it! Save yourself.
While Hannah trolls for a parking spot at the west side Visitor Center, I seek out a ranger to learn more about the Ramsey Cascades waterfall hike that we are counting on. After our experience yesterday with a waterless waterfall in nearby Dayton, TN, I ask if there will be any water coming over the falls. The good news is that there is water at the falls. The bad news is that the trail is closed due a bridge out thanks to a fallen tree.
Hearing we’d like to hike for three to four hours, she suggests the Charlie’s Bunion hike beginning at Newfound Gap in the center of the park on the Tennessee/North Carolina line.
The trail immediately grabs our attention with its steady climb, with logs placed conveniently across the trail to make the stepping up easier as well as a measure to limit the erosion. With Hannah motoring in the lead, we are rocking westward along the Appalachian Trail on this sunny 72F afternoon. We pass southbound thru-hikers (those hiking the entire 2180 miles of the AT from Maine to Georgia), who are now within 200 miles of their holy grail of finishing at Springer Mountain in Georgia.
The first 2.7 miles of the trail to Charlie’s Bunion is almost entirely uphill. Sweating and panting to keep up with Hannah’s pace, I am loving the physical challenge of such trails. Though the trail is rated “moderate” by the park service, it’s a serious, no let-up eight-mile round-trip workout.
In contrast, when I am at the gym, if I am tired, I chill and just pedal lightly on the recumbent bicycle. In pickleball, I stop early if I get weary. But today on a gut busting 90 minutes of steady uphill climbing, I have no choice but to put one foot ahead of the other and rock on. That said, I know that we are living the dream – hiking in the Great Smokies.
In addition, I love the “day hiking-ness” of our hikes. While AT thru-hikers are heading to the Ice House Shelter near Charlie’s Bunion to “sleep” with others in a three-sided shelter where mice scurry over sleeping bags and fellow hikers snore like the Chattanooga Choo Choo, Hannah and I have a humane alternative this evening. At our motel, we will shower, have a glass of wine, and later sleep in a comfortable bed. Ah, the good life of the day hiker.
The final third of the trail is basically downhill. Rocky and root-filled, the trail keeps our attention as our stride length increases and we continue to have a heckuva workout. On this mountain ridge line, often with steep drop offs to either side, we never feel in peril as we hike through thick brush and tall trees.
As the AT heads to the right, we take the 100 yard spur trail to 5565’ Charlie’s Bunion. The area beneath the Bunion allows us to rest, then climb the rock outcropping that, yes, does look like a bunion. Later I snap the arty picture below of Hannah removing her socks and boots, which impresses the hell out of me. Perhaps, you too from such a modest photographer?
In 1929, when two hikers, Charlie Conner and Horace Kephart, paused for a rest at this spot, Connor took off his boots and socks and exposed a bunion that reassembled the surrounding rocks. Kephart said, Charlie I’m going to get this place put on a government map for you. Hence the name.
With four rocky miles back over up and down terrain, we spend less than 15 minutes at Charlie’s vista with Gatlinburg to the west and the North Carolina mountains to the east. Check out the video below as we head back to the trailhead.
The hike to the trailhead continues to be quite the physical challenge, but with no choice but to move forward, we rock on.
As we pass a twenty-something couple, I think what a worthwhile test of a relationship it would be for those considering marriage to hike together to learn how each other deals with stress and the challenges of such a tough climb. Marriage is so much more of a challenge than this trail! Do I hear an Amen!
Anyone married, even a few years, let alone the 44 that Hannah and I have been, knows that life is challenges, compromises and negotiations. You don’t have to live too long to know that much of life is not about succeeding at Plan A, but learning to deal with Plan B on a regular basis. I am most fortunate to share the joys and challenges of the trail and life than with Hannah Banana.