Who could say the words “Great Smoky Mountains” or “Shenandoah Valley” and not feel an urge, as the naturalist John Muir once put it, to “throw a loaf of bread and a pound of tea in an old sack and jump over the back fence?”
Through long winter nights in New Hampshire, while snow piled up outdoors and my wife slumbered peacefully beside me, I lay saucer-eyed in bed reading clinically precise accounts of people gnawed pulpy in their sleeping bags, plucked whimpering from trees, even noiselessly stalked (I didn't know this happened!) as they sauntered unawares down leafy paths or cooled their feet in mountain streams.
I still have my appendix, and any number of other organs that might burst or sputter in the empty wilds. What would I do then? What if I fell from a ledge and broke my back? What if I lost the trail in blizzard or fog, or was nipped by a venomous snake, or lost my footing on moss-slickened rocks crossing a stream and cracked my head a concussive blow? You could drown in three inches of water on your own. You could die from a twisted ankle. No, I didn't like the feel of this at all.
“I, oh…I threw out the filter papers.”
I gave a sound that wasn't quite a laugh. “They couldn't have weighed two ounces.”
“I know, but they were great for throwing. Fluttered all over.” He dribbled on more water. “The toilet paper seems to be working OK, though.”
Woods choke off views and leave you muddled without bearings.
The inestimably priggish and tiresome Henry David Thoreau thought nature was splendid, splendid indeed, so long as he could stroll to town for cakes and barley wine, but when he experienced real wilderness, on a visit to Katahdin in 1846, he was unnerved to the core.
In fact, mostly what the Forest Service does is build roads. I am not kidding.
You become part of an informal clump, a loose and sympathetic affiliation of people from different age groups and walks of life but all experiencing the same weather, same discomforts, same landscapes, same eccentric impulse to hike to Maine.
We seemed to be looking out for each other. It was very nice. I can put it no other way.
“You're too fat. You should have lost weight before you came out here. Shoulda done some training, ‘cause you could have like a serious, you know, heart thing out here.”
I was beginning to appreciate that the central feature of life on the Appalachian Trail is deprivation, that the whole point of the experience is to remove yourself so thoroughly from the conveniences of everyday life that the most ordinary things—processed cheese, a can of pop gorgeously beaded with condensation—fill you with wonder and gratitude.
Planetary scale is your little secret.
These are, in short, seriously inadequate maps. In normal circumstances, this is merely irksome. Now, in a blizzard, it seemed closer to negligence.
For the Smokies are a very Eden.
We slopped up to the summit of Clingman’s Dome—a high point of the trip, by all accounts, with views in clear weather to make the heart take wing-and saw nothing, nothing whatever but the dim shapes of dying trees in a sea of swirling fog.
By 1987, Gatlinburg had sixty motels and 200 gift shops. Today it has 100 motels and 400 gift shops. And the remarkable thing is that there is nothing remotely remarkable about that.
“Jeez, it's ugly[.]”
The Appalachians alone lost four billion trees, a quarter of its cover, in a generation.
We experienced the whole of Luxembourg. Not just its trees.
In America, alas, beauty has become something you drive to, and nature an either/or proposition—either you ruthlessly subjugate it, as at Tocks Dam and a million other places, or you deify it, treat it as something holy and remote, a thing apart, along the Appalachian Trail.