By Lisa Duff
Three years ago, as Mother’s Day was approaching, I decided it was high time my daughter and I started a new tradition in recognition of the day dedicated to mothers everywhere. No more would she need to worry herself about what tangible item or simple gesture might make an appropriate gift, I informed her. No shiny trinket, small kitchen appliance or fancy meal out would be necessary for me to feel appreciated.
Instead, I told her, I’d rather we both strap 30-pound packs to our backs, hike six or seven miles from our car, pitch a tent, and start a fire. After a dinner of Ramen noodles and Graham crackers, we’d crawl in our sleeping bags and think about anything except wild hogs until we fell fast asleep. The next morning we’d sip hot coffee until our eyes fully opened, after which we’d pack everything up and head back to the car.
“You’re joking, right?” she said. “No, really,” I said. “I want us to go backpacking.”
And thus began our tradition of spending a night in a tent somewhere in the Smokies during Mother’s Day weekend. While this year’s route has not yet been determined, I’m certain wherever we go will have an uphill climb to top last year’s trip to Goshen Prong.
Speaking of uphill climbs, that’s exactly how this adventure began. Setting out from the parking lot at Clingmans Dome, it slipped my mind to mention that the day’s first half mile along the Bypass Trail would represent an elevation gain of nearly 400 feet. This section of trail is usually quiet, as most visitors either haven’t gotten out of bed this early on a Saturday morning or they’ve been enticed to find their way to the tower on the smooth pavement surface of Clingmans Dome Trail. Either way, the void this kind of quiet creates is quickly filled by an accelerated heart rate pounding in one’s ears, which can only then be surpassed by the need to loudly suck oxygen into one’s lungs, in a huff-and-puff, Big Bad Wolf fashion.
Someone recently asked me which trail in the Smokies is my favorite. The logical answer would be: All the short, flat ones. But that’s not the correct answer. Without a doubt, every section of the Appalachian Trail I’ve traversed so far through the Smokies is my favorite. Thanks to places like Clingmans Dome, Newfound Gap and Fontana Dam, accessing parts of the A.T. on short notice is relatively easy. Maybe one day I’ll hike it from end to end, from Fontana to Davenport Gap. Wait, you thought I meant Georgia to Maine? Nah, that’s not likely.
After only two short miles on the A.T., we found the Goshen Prong intersection. Traveling Goshen Prong Trail from top to bottom requires reading about it in Hiking Trails of the Smokies in reverse. For example, we came across the expansive view of Goshen Prong Valley early on this perfect spring day, just in time to set down our packs and enjoy a snack. Next, we found the small cave described about 2.6 miles from the top. What is it about a cave that makes looking inside impossible to resist? Perhaps it’s not the cave, per se, but nearly every human being’s desire to explore the unknown.
The water we’d been missing since we left the dampness around the Dome came back into view at this point. We could feel it when Goshen Prong, Fish Camp Prong and all their tranquil cascades perceptively added moisture to the warm, dry day. After snapping a couple of pictures, we pushed forward in search of for our destination, Backcountry Campsite #23.
On our inaugural Mother’s Day backpack trip, Niki and I experienced what it felt like to have the place to ourselves at Campsite #69 on Forney Creek Trail. None of our choices – from where to pitch our tent to how loudly we/I complained about sore muscles and tired feet – was influenced by neighbors. Not so at 23, where a single young man had taken up residence prior to our arrival. Knowing he was about 30 steps away gave more of an apartment feel to Campsite #23. We considered all the things you typically consider when your neighbor is within earshot. What kind of music might he play too loudly? What sweet dessert might he be willing to share? Was he prone to sleepwalking?
Fast forward to dark, after dinner and dessert, after we were too tired to play even one more hand of rummy. We’d gotten as comfortable as possible after consciously choosing to sleep on the ground. My eyes had been closed for more than a few minutes when Niki made a sound that immediately took me back to a Mother’s Day nearly 20 years earlier.
“Mom,” she whispered. Long pause. “Mom,” spoken a little louder this time.
I told myself the same thing I’d said two decades before: Pretend you’re asleep, and she’ll soon drift off.
“MOM,” she nearly shouted. “He’s shining his flashlight toward our tent! Why would he do that?”
I didn’t need to open my eyes to know Niki was now in a seated position, daring herself to loosen the tent zipper. I did, however, require sight to determine if her suspicion was correct, that our neighbor was either not a good guy or he had a Peeping Tom problem that would make for a long night.
Thankfully, it took about 30 seconds for me to work out what was actually happening.
“Those are fireflies; go to sleep.”