Celebrating Silence: An Autumn Hike On Mt. Le Conte

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN: October, 2018

Tennessee is said to have three Grand Divisions, physiocultural regions represented by the three stars on the state flag and on the Titans logo:

  • East – Mountains – Bluegrass Music – Smokies
  • Central – Plateau – Country Music – Nashville
  • West – Delta – Blues Music – Memphis

The northeast tip of Tennessee is closer to New York than to Memphis, and Memphis is as close to Houston as it is from the far end. I’ve written about each Grand Division of this diverse state – Starting with the east:

Seldom have I been more thankful for the National Park service than after approaching the Great Smoky Mountains from the east.  The tourist towns squirm off of the interstate and cling to the sides of the mountains like a parasitic lamprey with its teeth at Gatlinburg. There, the development ends abruptly at the park border and it is one of the few places in America where a built up area ends and a wilderness begins without a faux-rural transition zone of yards with junk in the front. After the first turn out of town, the pines and rhododendrons block out any trace of what we call civilization, but for an entire fifteen mile stretch from the interstate to the mountains there is a traffic choked and comically wide road flanked on either side by the most ostentatious display of a cartoon America imaginable.  The kitschy tourist traps and themed places to buy what nobody needs are straight out of a European’s oversimplified jibing of America, a seventies family vacation come back to life.  We passed go-karts and comedy shows, fake lumberjacks juggling real chainsaws, restaurants that serve fixin’s and a store called Goats on the Roof that had goats on the roof.  The buildings were all shaped like what they were purveying like some warped real life Roller Coaster Tycoon park.

I wondered why all this was even near the mountains – It could have sprouted up in the middle of Iowa and still have had the same effect.  In truth, many visitors to Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg don’t even venture into the mountains during their whole visit.  Some will drive up Clingman’s dome, go “ooh” and check it off a list but most just stay in town, content to let the awe of the Smokies act as a backdrop for mini golfing and Dolly Parton.  The leaflets in the lobby of our hotel were nearly without exception for manmade distractions like the Hatfield McCoy variety hour or Ripley’s Believe It or Not.  I flipped through them until finally, in the bottom left corner I saw a stack of pamphlets for white water rafting, the one Smoky Mountain related suggestion in the whole display, shoved and unloved behind an ad for a Jurassic Park theme ride that reassured customers that “You don’t get wet.”

Our first morning, when Lauren and I walked out into the rain dressed in hiking clothes and rainproof gear, we got some weird looks in the lobby.  The mountains were shrouded by clouds at the time so I’m not sure everyone knew they were there, but I could feel the other guests pondering our sanity, quizzically tapping their spouses’ shoulders and pointing in our direction.  “Didn’t they read?” they would say “that you don’t get wet?”

Despite its garishness, Pigeon Forge provided a decent jumping off point for the National Park and an even better respite for after a daylong hike.  Our hotel was nice enough and clean, not to mention had vacancy given we waited until October to book a trip to the Smokies during peak foliage season. There was a decent brewery and we enjoyed walking over to the Ol’ Smoky distillery for a moonshine tasting featuring an array of flavors like pickle and espresso. However, with just one full day, we were there for hiking, not hoedowns.

Mt. LeConte is one of the highest summits east of Colorado that you can’t drive up, rising more feet from its base than any other in the Smokies. The quickest and most common way up is via Alum Cave, about five miles of hiking both ways, and can be done in a day if you leave early enough, which we had hoped we did. There was one open space at the trailhead and even on a gloomy day we were promised a crowded hike. The trail remained as steady as the rain for the first mile and a half as we walked through a high open forest, sightline blocked only by a rhododendron understory. Their glossy wide leaves caught the raindrops and choked the path in what is the only temperate rainforest in the eastern United States. The first real elevation change began upon reaching a switchback with a view across the valley to an exaggerated promontory, barren of both trees, and unlike where we stood, people.

“See that?” said one hiker, wearing one of those plastic hat covers that state troopers do when conducting traffic stops on a day like today. We asked for clarification at what we were supposed to see.

“It’s the keyhole” he said. There was a nearly perfect circular hole in the rock face on the other side of the valley that made it look more like the blunt end of a needle than a keyhole. Fittingly, we later learned the formation was actually called the Eye of the Needle.

Shortly after this lookout, the rain faded and we walked upward into autumn, with cloud-shrouded trees the flawless monochrome of a grocery store pumpkin. Fog plumed irregularly from the forest below like stratified bonfires or ill-placed smoke bombs and collected in the low haze, blocking out the surrounding summits. We reached Alum Cave, the halfway point in distance but not nearly so in elevation, which isn’t so much a cave as a massive dimple in the mountain face arching over a hill of sand. We sat near the top and had a snack before continuing upward along the steepest trail thus far.

From the halfway point to about mile four the trail hugged the side of the mountain with conifers regularly situated between ourselves and the slope like fence posts. Nothing could be seen more than ten feet below due to the fog, and the trail was a continuously sloped uphill, combining both the most difficult part of the trail with the least amount of scenery. I nicknamed this area the doldrums. The only mental respite came in the form of a bright red salamander slopping around in a puddle.

After what seemed like half the hike, we peeked out of the tightened forest, and the foggy cliff came right up to the trail as if we were skirting a cloud. I had no idea whether the next horizontal ground was five feet below or five hundred but figured it was best to leave that unanswered. It was here we realized that we hadn’t come across any other hikers since leaving Alum Cave, before which company was a constant, and that it was all the better as cliff and cloud were becoming nearer neighbors and the likelihood of a uncomfortable pass diminished as we went along. The trail turned inward, away from the edge and into another elevation zone – a fir forest thickly hemming in the trail with short, stocky trees, a fresh mountain smell, and a noiseless tranquility.

Long gone were the ambient taps of the rain hitting the canopy, left downslope the occasional crunches of leaves hitting the ground.  Pine needles know no season and make no noise when they fall.  We stood in complete silence, the last sounds to cease being those of our boots, the wind calm on this side of the slope.  It is pleasantly surreal to hear absolutely nothing as even most quiet spaces are not completely so – an empty beach with lapping waves or a reading nook with an overhead fan.  I could not believe the gaudy lights and performances of Pigeon Forge were less than twenty miles away.  This spot on this mountain was true silence and it was transcendent.  After a few minutes it was broken gently by a whoosh from overhead, like the blades of a helicopter stirring to life.  An eagle, flying maybe fifteen feet off the ground whipping air around its wings, something that is normally hidden by the drone of the everyday, was all the more noticeable in the vacuumed ether.

We continued to the very top along a rocky path that eventually leveled out onto an equally rocky outcropping covered in spiky evergreen bushes that appeared as if they were manicured to look like an English hedgerow.  A small group of middle aged hikers, three men and two women, were behind us moving slowly and deliberately toward the summit where Lauren and I stood looking out into the fog.  The clearing day we saw downslope had yet to make its way to the summit and the visibility was almost nothing but the group seemed excited to see it.

We talked with them about the hike up and how we both got a late start due to the rain.  “We wanted to start at dawn because we are here for a wedding” said one of the men.

“Is it tonight?” I asked, assuming a Saturday night celebration.

“Nope. Couple minutes.”

The tallest man took out of his backpack a bouquet of flowers and handed them to a woman who was wearing a white Northface jacket. 

Lauren and I congratulated them and began making our way to the other side of the summit to give them some privacy, but before we did, we offered to take a photo of the five of them so that they could have at least one picture of the entire wedding party which they accepted.  Then the bride and groom, upon learning we were somewhat newlyweds wanted a photo of the four of us on the summit, and so we posed with the happy couple as the third man searched for a flat spot to do the ceremony. We made our way to the far end of the outcropping, not ready to descend to the lodge but also trying to get out of the way of the wedding, but we still overheard the quick vows as we watched the fog writhe its way across the valley.

The sign at Leconte Lodge says 6593 feet, but really that is the height of the summit– the lodge itself lies on a relatively flat upland about 200 feet below, but remains the highest accommodations in the US east of the Rockies.  It is also one of the toughest to get into, opening and booking solid the entire next year during the previous October.  This is likely because it is completely off the grid – so far in fact that all supplies have to come up the mountain by llama. 

We entered the dining room after using a hand pump to refill our water bottles.  They offer a packed lunch for day hikers that we prepared to take full advantage of despite the high price.  It included a bagel, summer sausage, some dried fruit and a dessert.  The best part was the mug for unlimited coffee and hot chocolate.  I mixed them together and it was splendid in the chilly lodge.

While we were eating, the wedding party walked in and the woman behind the desk jumped up to welcome them with a special bag of food and some wine.  A table of young hikers asked if we knew what that was about and we told him.  “I guess you can add ‘wedding photographer’ to your resume” one of the guys joked with Lauren.

They were outgoing gap year types and we compared our favorite trails, theirs being far more ambitious like those Wrangall-St. Elias in Alaska.  We were outmatched but this was no contest – it was pleasant being amongst similarly minded folks.  One of them, who sported an orange bandana and a necklace with a shell on it said something along the lines of “Life is what happens between Wi-Fi signals, you know?”

We left the dining room and had a look around the rest of the lodge.  There was a trio of women doing yoga on a balcony until one complained about the cold and walked back inside where it was only slightly warmer.  Another group was smoking weed on a bench by the restrooms and pointed us in the direction of the main office.  This was by far the warmest in the lodge courtesy of a space heater and we lingered a bit, looking around at what was for sale which turned out to be mostly shirts that say LeConte Lodge 6593 ft. and a few bumper stickers.  The most interesting info there was a chart with the first and last recorded snowfall at the summit for the last fifty years or so. The first normally hovered around late October or early November and would be rapidly approaching.  I had been following highonleconte.com and their daily posts and photographs for insight about conditions at the top, and they predicted that the following night would be the first measurable snow of the season – right on schedule.

The hike back down began by retreating through the fir forest and back into the deciduous altitude.  As we crossed the cliff section, I tried moving edgeward to allow a fit older man to pass.  He was wearing a Leconte Lodge employee shirt and was on his commute to work.  I slipped and had to catch myself on a cable drilled into the wall for that very purpose.  “Not the place you want to make a mistake” said the man, cheerily, as he used both hands to scoot along the cable in what looked like an exaggerated safety demonstration.

 It was as we rounded this cliff face that the fog immediately lifted, pulled up like a sheet in a cheap magic trick, and revealed the expansive downslope covered by every type of tree the park offers in each stage of autumn, the colors like a spongepainted tapestry. It didn’t seem real, as if I could reach out and touch the canvas instead of open air. We wanted to stay longer, but another group needed to scoot by and the trail here was far too thin to overtake.

Even the doldrums were spectacular on the return trip, not just due to our easier trajectory but also because what seemed like a tree tunnel was actually a shaded escarpment, the trunks that formerly blocked a foggy view now became foreground to a panorama, like watching a movie through your fingers. The only loss compared to hours prior was that the salamander had wriggled away.

By the time we reached the trailhead, it was late afternoon and the emergent sun had warmed the base to the point that it was almost stifling in the car, all evidence of the morning rainstorm gone. In less than a half hour we had crossed the magic gates of Gatlinburg, back amongst the exhaust-spitting trucks and flashy distractions. The megaphones of moonshine revelers reverberated in my pellucid mind, the din of diners clanging into the space cleared out by nature. Calmness lifted like the morning fog to an inverse effect, but the contrast made the quiet of the mountain all the more striking. Those who lived before the lightbulb couldn’t have appreciated the stars like we can, and silence is sweeter when you know what it’s like to have a ringing in your ears. We drove on towards Pigeon Forge in the fading light, ready for a night out and some noise.

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