When I was in grad school at the University of Tennessee in the 1980s, I usually came back to Knoxville from the Christmas break before New Year’s. Doing so gave me a week to get ready for the next quarter at school, plan for classes I would be teaching, clean my drafty and dusty Ft. Sanders apartment, get groceries in, and goof off some. Even so, my hiking friends and I usually found time for a day hike, an all-day one—an extravagance that would not come often once the pressures of classes took over our lives. Another draw was that the park was quiet in January—it was not leaf season, not wildflower time, no rhododendrons blooming. Few folks were on the trails, so we could get a long hike in and be away from care as well as traffic and, well, people.
There were several of these New Year’s hikes, but the one I recall best was the Rich Mountain Loop Trail from the Cades Cove parking lot. We took my boyfriend Michael’s red VW bug, and he, his best friend Herb, and I set out after doughnuts and coffee at a local diner in late morning. We entered the park through Townsend. A rainy, dreary day, the neon-lit “Broasted Chicken” store marked the boundary. From that point, all we had were cheese sandwiches, apples, trail mix, and water. The weather was uncertain with a bit of snow on the ground and overcast skies.
I was not the heartiest sort, but I wanted to be. I was apprehensive that I could not hike fast enough to keep up with the guys. As inspiration, I had the forest green NorthFace daypack Michael had given me for a birthday gift on my back. (I still have it today.) I wore the family Christmas gift I had just received, a water-resistant parka. It insulated a sweater and turtleneck over jeans. I felt prepared. I’m supposing I had some boots though I don’t know, really. Maybe I wore tennis shoes. I was happy, ready for an outing.
What I recall are the multiple wooden trail signs at junctions and our studying the map repeatedly to be sure we took the correct turns: Rich Mountain Loop to Indian Grave Gap Trail to Crooked Arm Ridge Trail. For an eight-mile hike, there were numerous choices. Should we take Rich Mountain Road or maybe Scott Mountain Trail? The map was worn and somewhat unclear; after consultation at each junction, we made the right decisions. That was fortunate; the rain did not go away, nor did the chill. During much of the hike, there wasn’t much dramatic to see: galax, azaleas, rhododendron, pines and oaks. I kept my hood up; after a while, the water-resistant parka no longer resisted, and I became increasingly damp from the shoulders down. Mostly, the hike was switchbacks and climbs amid rain that drizzled and stopped, drizzled harder, and stopped again. We trudged. No matter; we were exuberant. We were together in the Smokies!
The best thing about hiking in the Smokies is that you earn your views by going upslope in the forest until finally, a vista opens before you. If possible, you wait to eat your sandwich until you arrive. And we did wait until we reached the clearing on Indian Grave Gap that gave us a wintry view of Cades Cove and the ridge to the south that defined it: blues, grays, muted greens and browns. It was the big moment. We lingered, laughed, and ate everything we brought and were still hungry. Like the valley, our New Year lay ahead. We readied ourselves for the next push toward our degrees, mine in English and theirs in microbiology. Perhaps 15 minutes elapsed before we continued. The rest of the hike was much as before: spotty rain, grey skies, some muddy slicks on the trail. By dusk, we had made it back to the bug. On the way home in the growing darkness, we stopped at the “Broasted Chicken,” its bright lights signalling that the adventure was decidedly over. Warmed by stale coffee, we drove on to Knoxville and our next beginning.
Beth Giddens is a professor of English at Kennesaw State University in Georgia and a longtime member of Great Smoky Mountains Association. She is writing a history of Oconaluftee Valley, which is forthcoming from GSMA.