I hobbled into a Starbucks on the Gatlinburg strip and ordered a couple lattes to fuel us for the drive back to my friend’s house outside of Nashville. We had finally gotten off the mountain after spending the night in kerosene lit cabin and then working our way down the slick rocky trail back to the part of the Smokies where tourists pull over just to point out rocks or trees mistaken as black bears.
The previous day we painstakingly made our way up the Rainbow Falls trail. I immediately knew I was wearing too many layers and had to quickly de-pants on the trail in order to take off the stifling base layers that had seemed like a good idea just earlier that morning. My friend watched out for anyone else coming up the trail. Our packs were too heavy and neither of us had used the summer to get in better shape before this chilly ascent.
In fact, we had a whole year to prepare but the reality of hiking up a mountain never really set in. To stay at the Leconte Lodge, you must enter a reservation raffle the year before. About 300 calls later and we had secured a cabin for October. The lodge sits at 6,593 feet elevation and can only be reached by foot.
As we climbed higher and higher, we reached the charred skeleton ridgeline where the fires had swept through a few years before. Some teenagers had carelessly tossed lit matches behind them along a trail which ignited a wildfire that devastated the region and wildlife. Lives were lost and the forest has not recovered but the arson charges against them were dropped. The heavy fog around them gave the illusion that they still smoked to this day. In sharp contrast, the ground beneath them was rich, anew with pines starts and wildflowers.
My friend’s too small boots and my labored breathing forced us to slow our pace even further as we wound up the mountain. The trail became harder and we rounded a corner to be greeted by a trail of solid rocks. Our poles blindly felt any sort of crevice that would support us as we climbed up the glossy, wet rocks. We had never been in so much pain or challenged ourselves to that extent. We were day hikers who bit off more than we could chew, but pushed through, determined.
After about 8 hours, we finally reached the lodge where we were informed that we were the last guests to arrive for the day. The dinner bell would be ringing in about 10 minutes but we were shown to our cabin and given a water basin to freshen up with. The cabin was largely encompassed by a wooden bunk bed with clean sheets and thick Pendleton blankets on each bunk. We also had a kerosene lantern, a few hooks, a single wooden chair, and a small table with plastic coffee mugs that we were to bring to dinner.
The bell rang and we were sat at a communal table with a young women and her aunt, then some older couples who were clearly more fit than us. At another table, it was announced that it was a woman’s 70th birthday. I hope to be that woman someday, climbing mountains in my 70’s and convincing my friends to come along.
One of the older hikers told us he had been coming to the Lodge since the 70’s and that the menu hadn’t really changed. Though I skipped the bowl filled with a round syrupy peach half, my vegetarian loaf was a welcome site for a hungry hiker. We finished with hot chocolate that we took to the deck to take in the fading light.
I took the bottom bunk since I’m scared of ladders and hoped that I wouldn’t need to leave the cabin again that night as a bear had been spotted recently. There was a little heater which was more than enough as we fell asleep to the sounds of a heavy rain storm.
We spent a little time in the lodge office in the morning, drinking coffee, writing, and shoving souvenirs into our already full backpacks. I made a little room by giving the guy running the shop a couple of beers that we hadn’t drank. He seemed more than happy to take them. The only way to bring anything up the mountain is on your back or on the back’s of the pack llama’s that hike up the mountain twice weekly.
We headed out in the rain, back down the path that brought us up the lodge. We stopped along the way to check out a red salamander that populates the Smoky Mountains. While it was easier going down, we struggled with our boots and our toes jamming with every step downhill. We didn’t see another soul the whole way down.
We eventually reached my car and hastily peeled off wet clothes for dry ones before more cars drove by. We were sore and dirty but so content in our accomplishment. We saw a part of the mountain that not many venture to as they drive through without ever leaving their car.
Now as I sit here in quarantine looking back, I would trade anything to be on that mountain, soaked through and happy.