James was a fountain of knowledge, an unsolicited fountain but fascinating just the same. And maybe more like an oscillating lawn sprinkler with no obvious shut off valve, a new topic beginning before the previous thought had been finished. I caught him sizing us up as we were walking into the small town thrift store where he was apparently employed, although he spent the better part of 45 minutes talking to us once we were cornered between the over-starched linens, thumb-worn romance novels and water damaged gospel albums. We discovered that James is a true naturalist in his own right. He originally took us to be Appalachian thru-hikers. Months of living in Lil’ Squatch must give us an outdoorsy look. What followed was a staccato primer on the natural history of Southern Appalachia around this corner of Tennessee, Georgia and North Carolina beginning with a quick karate chop description of the river drainages around where we had camped the two previous nights and ending with his interpretations of local Cherokee legends. We were finally able to leave once his exasperated co-workers pulled him away, but not before his very pregnant girlfriend showed up and a was able to show us an indecipherable photo from her flip-phone of what we were told was an amazing waterfall. Though the conversation was decidedly one sided I really appreciated his knowledge and enthusiasm. I think he was relishing the opportunity to share because he was working off a one year ban from the National Forest, though we couldn’t understand if it was for poaching fish, harvesting ginseng out season or for threatening a fellow camper with a bucket containing two live and very venomous copperhead snakes. People have deep connection with these mountains and rivers. We had another opportunity to learn this the next day when by chance we were able to join a volunteer river clean up along the Hiawassee. Organized in part by Trout Unlimited, we found a group of folks who knew the local waters thoroughly. We learned which rivers had good populations of native fish, and which ones were favored by non-native stocked fish that can thrive in the colder waters below the many dams in the watershed. Kayaking is also incredibly popular in Eastern Tennessee and a few of our cohorts told us of how several dammed rivers have become such popular whitewater destinations that compromises have been made in flow timing in order to benefit these users. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was also a sponsor of the volunteer event. This agency is the builder of these dams, beginning in the 1930s, to bring electricity and flood control to an impoverished region. A side effect was the substantial alteration of a large amount of river habitat. Over the years some efforts have been successful to mitigate the damage but the fact is most of the dams remain, though many are nearing the end of the functional lifetime as silt builds up behind them.
Eager to have our own first hand experience of this place we made our way to Great Smokey Mountain National Park. As the biggest chunk of preserved Appalachia it also preserves much of the human story of the region. The Eastern band of Cherokee still maintains a presence here despite their bitter and unfair removal along the Trail of Tears. Homesteaders also made a home here and were also compelled to leave as the park was formed; many of their historical homes and other structures have been preserved as visitor attractions. Today the human story appears to be throngs of automobiles. The Smokies are the most visited National Park in the country and the vast majority of those visitors see it from only a car window after working their way through a dense gauntlet of tourist trap attractions just outside the boundaries. Clearly this was no way to find some connection to this landscape so we planned out a 4-day backcountry hike into the heart of the mountains.
Up there we encountered a whole new culture that has staked a claim on these mountains. We found ourselves in the middle of the peak season of Appalachian Trail thru-hikers and had the pleasure of spending a windy and frosty night in one of the highest trail shelters on the route. The 2200 mile trail from Georgia to Maine reaches it’s highest point just up the trail from where we walked and each year more and more people attempt to hike the entire trail in one go. Along the route volunteers have built and maintain a series of wooden and stone shelters for hikers to sleep in with ten or more people squeezing into them each night during the high season. These become nightly social gathering spots where stories and information are exchanged and new hiking partners and friendships are made, folks only going by their trail names such as “Black and Blue”, “Bean-Counter” or “Proudfoot”. When we realized we’d be staying along the trail on Easter morning we ducked into town to get candy before heading out. As Rachael passed out treats to grateful thru-hikers I decided her trail name would be “Easter Bummy”.
Most of our time though was spent away from the crowd of this busy trail. I was extremely grateful to have the time to get back into the valleys and ridges of the backcountry because my desire for taking this hike was to get a closer look at the nature of these mountains. This wasn’t as easy as I had expected. My first point of entry in a new landscape is generally to get a lay of the land, to see the shape of its contours and get my bearings. Even in early spring with few leaves in the forest to obscure my view it is rare to have the open vistas of my western ranges. I found myself craning my neck, struggling to make out peaks, looking for rocky outcrops to use as landmarks, but it was all indistinct hills covered with a thick and indistinguishable uniformity of trees. What I learned was that to see this landscape you need to look into it, to look more closely and see the incredible diversity of trees, fungus, lichens, mosses, and insects, to flip over a few rocks looking for salamanders, to open my ears to the variety of birdsong emanating from hidden spots back in the endless tangle of branches, to immerse myself in the remarkably clear and cold waters of the countless streams. It has been these little creatures and processes that have kept this landscape humming, despite all the comings and goings of humans over the millennia, indifferent to our foibles though unfortunately not immune to them.