“I like the old stuff, man.” Steve’s voice is soft as he sips gas-station coffee and cruises the Little River Road. “I mean, just listen to this, dude. Sounds like you’re supposed to rock Bob Seger in the mountains.”
We are heading to Rainbow Falls trailhead to climb Mount LeConte. I am excited to hike on a bright and cold Saturday morning in February. Over the past two weeks or so, we had warm temperatures and an aggressive amount of rain that caused flooding in the greater Tennessee Valley. I am relieved to see a bold sky and feel winter’s chill. Steve squints his eyes in the morning light as we meander our way through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We get a good view of the Little Pigeon River as we drive under tall hardwood trees without foliage. The waters are high as rapids surge across rock and eddies tornado the banks. The whole system gushes and roars.
“I dig old tunes, too,” I reply, scratching my reddening beard. “Seger just plays three major chords, followed with a minor chord, and sings songs about traveling, gambling, booze, and women – number one hit!”
“That’s right man, that’s right. These songs are all about the important stuff in life – the open road, vice, and heartbreak.”
As we pass the entrance to Elkmont campground, the sun shines bright overhead. The naked hardwoods are silent and grey; they reach skyward with gnarled limbs. The grasses, moss, and shrubs of the understory all shine in powdered glistening radiance. The plants are frosted. Their ice appears as a natural beard that shimmers and reflects the sun. Feels great to be up early. Steve stops his Bob Seeger CD and opts for one of my favorite musicians, Neil Young. I nod my head to the low bass hum and high twang guitar that gradually rattles the opening of “Down by the River.” This is right; this music fits the scene. Moreover, Steve and I have many memories of many adventures listening to this song together. As the song builds, I grin.
When we reach our destination, the Rainbow Falls parking area is full. I find this odd because we arrived early, at nine o’clock in the morning, with a freezing temperature at a frigid 27 degrees. Luckily, we find a parking place only a little beyond the entrance. We step out of the car and pull on our packs. We crack small but crude jokes and our breath creates small mists. I recognize and find comfort in the scent that surrounds us – the familiar hint of winter.
This winter season had a few cold days, but they have largely been absent. Here, in February 2020, we have witnessed notable extremes in weather, from brief bouts of snow, to heavy rain and even thunderstorms. But, for the most part, the weather has been spring-like. Our days have hovered near 60 degrees, which is not the historical normal this time of year, but the number of warm days this season have grown more common over the last decade. As mentioned, in the past week this warm weather brought with it a ton of rain. Flash flooding gripped our respective towns of Knoxville and Maryville. The water level in the park is still high. Today, though, I find comfort in the smells of pine, wood, frost, and cold air. In the seasonable winter, atoms of these odor molecules are rigid and move slower through the air. The smells are very subtle, unlike the warmer months when distinct odors cloud the senses. In the winter season, these smells run together to stimulate olfaction – memories of cold days past. The world, this morning, seems as it should be.
With gear on our backs and layers on our bodies, we begin huffing and puffing up the Rainbow Falls Trail. The sun illuminates the royal blue sky, producing mesmerizing rays that pierce through the absent canopy cover. Our hike begins with a gradual climb across a large moss and lichen-ridden boulder field. The smell and sight of frost laden leaf decay is beautiful. We welcome the rushing ovation from LeConte Creek. The low rumble of water fills the silent void of February.
“Uh oh.” Steve points to a sign that reads, “Rainbow Falls Trail Impassable When Water is High.”
“Well, shit.” I stop hiking and take a moment to catch my breath. “I reckon we can go a little farther and see how this works out. We could always turn around and head up Trillium Gap to reach LeConte. What do you think?”
“Well, I’ve never been up that way either, but let’s push ahead and see how this works out. I really want to come down Bull Gap.” As Steve talks, he removes his jacket. I do the same. Though the morning is frigid, we have already worked up a good sweat.
Our footpath is rough, rooted, and rugged. Our journey is a constant climb on completely exposed terrain. As we gain elevation, the understory fades from frost-laden plants to rock and larger shrubs. With every crest of a switchback, we earn an amazing view of rolling mountain country, and a reminder of a wildfire that raged in this area back in 2016. Our climb is steep across narrow corridors. To our relief, at our first true stream crossing almost two miles in, we pass our footbridge with only a little extra footwork. Looks like we will be able to summit LeConte after all.
Though the footbridge is passable, the water does roar as we cross. Rushing water always catches my attention. I stop for a moment. I look downstream and watch the force carve and plummet through this Appalachian terrain. When I turn to face the surge, I bathe in morning’s glory. Small falls roar as a single sunray shines through the canopy bright like fire – like a glowing Gungnir – across the water. My breath lingers in the air. As we move on, water trickles across our trail in all directions. The pathways of feeder streams are full of clear water that produce small puddles and moving springs. These springs flash with bright waves that hold and reflect the sun. We splash across mud and sodden Earth. I smile at the openness and freedom as we climb closer to Rainbow Falls.
As we emerge from a trail fully enveloped by burned hardwoods, charred rosebay rhododendron, sleeping teaberry, and lazy mountain pepper bush, we first hear, then see, the popular waterfall. The water plunges eighty feet and is completely visible under a sky only lightly feathered with clouds. Further, the cold allows impressive ice formations around the pathway of the plummeting water. Icicles shine faintly under the sun on exposed bluffs as they construct a fortress of solitude. With all the rain we have had recently, the falling water pours and roars like an Appalachian marvel. We watch our footing since the rocks and footbridge are laden with mist, ice, and algae. Despite these small dangers, we stop for a brief rest and admire the falls. We have had a good time so far – already gained 1,685 feet in less than three miles. After what feels like a mere moment with the waterfall, we look up trail to a winding path of bush, rock, cobble, water, ice, and old growth forest. Time to carry on.
Our climb to LeConte begins in a mature stand of mixed forest along a boulder and cobble strewn pathway. As our trail winds, we earn incredible woodland views. At this point, Steve and I are huffing and puffing too much for small talk, but we stop on a metamorphosed rock outcrop to take in the view all around us. The winter forest is inspiring. Water crashes and cascades across the system. As a winter’s breeze passes through the tree limbs, a low whistle whispers. Birds tweet a quaint melody. Our own breath adds to the living system. Steam rises from Steve’s head. On this frigid morning, under the illuminating sun, we labor our way skyward.
Steve turns his attention from the valley and looks up the slope. Through the unclothed limbs, he points to a towering peak in the distance.
“Hey man, we only have to go up there.”
Steve pulls my attention to LeConte. From where we stand, we clearly see the physical change from hardwood to coniferous forest. All the grey limbs decorate the lower elevations, while hemlock, spruce, and fir streak the higher country in ornamental green.
“Piece of cake,” I huff. We climb onward.
In a few moments, we cross a switchback and, instantly, everything changes. We see no more rhododendron or sand myrtle. The hardwood trees lying dormant but alive in winter slumber on the other side of the mountain are all dead here. Their limbs and trunks are no longer a living grey; instead, their bark is burned and covered in torched ash. Dead conifers are here as well. The trees are so tortured I cannot tell what they are – perhaps hemlock, pitch, or white pines. The scorched coniferous skin is eerie, but more shocking are the cones still hanging from dead limbs. The contrast is spectacular. We are standing on a wet trail, looking at black ash and bare, grey trees. When we look up to the cones, the trees’ reproductive organs, we see they are all just scorched carbon, dusted with grey ash. They are now nothing more than dead seeds holding would be future generations. This death is juxtaposed against a bright, royal blue sky. Suffice it to say, I find the imagery profound.
The earliest conifers in the fossil record date back some 300 million years ago to the late Paleozoic. The adaptation of pollen and seed embryos was an incredible, momentous, and important event in plant evolution. The early cone producers, the first gymnosperms, paved the way for all our modern evergreens. The advent of pollen allowed plants to reproduce without water. Pollen, with the help of wind and insects, took reproduction airborne. This allowed plants to adapt fully to terrestrial landscapes. Today, conifers have separate male and female cones. The male cones are rather small and produce pollen. The female structures are larger and produce ovulate cones. When pollen and ovulate cone come together, the next generation of conifers develop within a tough, resistant seed coat. At maturity, the seeds fall from the parent plant. These seeds will eventually grow the next generation of genetically unique coniferous trees. Sexual reproduction is the greatest evolutionary tool for complex life on Earth. The mixing of genes is responsible for all the beauty and diversity of life in the known universe. The seeds in the soil along this stretch of trail may get a chance to sprout new life, but those burned in the sky will not pass on their genes.
Natural fires are good for ecosystems; control burns can alleviate the disruptive nature of fire suppression, but the wildfire of 2016 raged out of control, and was the result of delinquent human hands. Throughout the summer and autumn of that year, the Southeastern states experienced an incredible transition from excessive amounts of rainfall in the winter and early spring, to extreme drought conditions. Making matters worse, temperatures soared above historical norms. In the Appalachian rainforest, plants had to transpire for food production, but this loss of water to the atmosphere dried out the soil. Drought specific wildfires became abundant across the Southern Appalachians. The early forest blazes started in September. In the national park, though, a devastating burn started as two teenagers flicked burning matches into dry brush on a mountain trail. The fire spread badly enough, but park officials quarantined the slow burn. Five days later, a windstorm producing gusts near ninety miles per hour whipped through and tossed ash and flames from the isolated burn across the wilderness. The fury raged out of control, eventually reaching the towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. The blaze consumed more than 17,000 acres of forest and township, and claimed the lives of fourteen people.
Such a calamity is unthinkable, and I cannot express in words how deeply troubled I was watching the news of the disaster unfold. I can say though, that I am glad the legal system did not, unnecessarily, ruin more lives. The teenagers were surely reckless, ignorant, and immature. Their actions will forever burden and haunt their lives. Yet, they did not set out to harm or kill anyone, and they never intended to burn thousands of acres. There is no way they could have predicted the windstorm that brought their fire out of containment. Drought and a changing Appalachian climate are the culprits – the kids are no more responsible for the severity of the fire than all of industrial society. My opinion may not be popular, but it’s the argument I hold. Extremes in weather are becoming our new climate norm. Those of us in the Appalachian region can expect more floods in the winter, shorter spans of spring temperance, and more droughts throughout the summer and autumn seasons. With more drought, undoubtedly, there will be more fire. Reaching the next switchback, our climb turns steep again. Soon enough, our view of the burn area is gone.
“Ah! This is starting to hurt.” Steve notes his discomfort but is steady on the trail as we dig into the climb.
“Yeah,” I moan. “But, if we are marching up with no breaks, I reckon that means we get to march down with no breaks.”
“I hope so. This is a killer. I even tried to behave last night.”
“Yeah tried. You know how it is.”
I grin because I know exactly what Steve means. “Sure do. You know, I think there are two of me sometimes. One Grant likes to exercise, has a newfound interest in the martial arts, and likes to try and be a little intellectual every now and then. The other Grant, well, he likes to eat and drink and party heartily.”
“I’m right there with you. I’ve got responsible and diligent, Steve, and I’ve got destructive, vice-laden Steve.”
“Thing is,” I offer, “I like both Grants. I just think they’re both trying to kill me sometimes.”
“That’s just because we aren’t in the same bodies we were a decade ago, but we’re still the same people”
My friend is right. Our human animal, Homo sapiens, is made of thirty trillion human cells – even more bacterial cells. In our bodies, conservatively, hundreds of millions of human cells die every day. To keep us going, our bodies must expend energy to balance this death with new cellular production. With each new cell, with every tick of the clock that keeps us going, the cells our bodies build to replace the dead become just a little more damaged. This damage is why we age and why we die on this harsh, demanding Earth. I really am not the same person I was a decade ago. Of course, I have gained life experience, grown and matured along the way, but my very body is different. The blood in my veins, the skeletal system that frames my person, the cells of my skin, almost all of me, is new and a tad damaged. This fact is amazing to me, though. As evident in our planet’s evolutionary history, life finds a way to survive the extremes – our own mammal bodies are evidence of this. We keep going. I find comfort in this knowledge – nice to know “the more things change, the more they remain the same.”
Steve and I have climbed a considerable distance and now find ourselves in the highland spruce-fir forests of Mt. LeConte. This forest type is the highest and coldest in all of this amazing Appalachian terrain. The montane wonderland thrives at elevations above 5,500 feet. Interestingly, we are hiking through an ecosystem that is a relic of the last Ice Age. The great glacial period ended some 11,700 years ago. The lower temperatures of this event allowed the migration of northern boreal plants to the Southern Appalachians. As our long and current periglacial period advanced, the climate warmed. What we call the mesophilic, or mixed hardwood deciduous rainforest, is now the dominant ecosystem across the southern mountains. Our warmer, modern climate preserves this boreal ice age system in only the coldest habitats in all of mountain country. Unfortunately, because of invasive species, air pollution, and a warming modern climate, this balsam realm is one of the most endangered ecosystems in the United States.
A mere half mile from the summit, our trail becomes treacherous. We are on the outskirts of the LeConte Lodge area. The spruce and fir, dressed in eternal green, are all around us. Their needles are healthy, their bases stubby, their seed cones a young but a healthy brown. Some of these ancient plants even grow rather tall and protect us from howling winds. Still, the air is bitingly frigid. The ghostly moans of the high mountain breeze transcend the alpine forest and remind us we are in one of the harshest ecosystems in Appalachia. In these conditions, the air smells fresh and clean. The harmonizing aroma of spruce-fir temperance comes from the production of organic compounds called terpenes. These terpenes fill the air with a scent that is sharp, sweet, and refreshing. The smell of ice adds to the atmosphere. With all the downpours lately, the pathway water traveled down the mountain is apparent – the thick current froze on the trail system in front of us. Seems like we’ll be climbing over a frozen flash flood to summit this damn mountain.
Steve and I start up the trail system by holding fast to the limbs, trunks, and roots of trees. I take my time, snapping pictures and examining my surroundings, while Steve climbs on ahead. The ice is incredibly slick, and the path does not offer a single dry area of relief. Even the moss lining our trail is frozen in ice. Eyeing the slick pathway, I reckon the freeze is about three to four inches thick. I can almost discern ripples in the icy current. I cannot imagine how cold the area must have been to freeze such a torrent of moving water.
Suddenly, I hear a faint “whoosh,” and gravity takes control of my body. I was careless with a foot placement, and my thoughts turned from the power of cold air to bracing for a fall. My knees hit the frozen Earth with such force, I lose my grip on a tree root, and my chest crashes to the ice. I hear myself bellow at the sudden blow to my body. On impact, I slide backwards on the ice, facedown. I repeat to myself okay, okay, okay, as I slip ever backward. I roll to my side and shift my body weight to the opposite side of the trail, so I can grab an exposed rock covered in roots. I pull myself steadily up the bank and watch my every move as I travel onward. I cannot help but chuckle softly aloud. I finally pass the ice and catch up to Steve. Our labor was well worth the trouble. We pick a seat on the footsteps of LeConte Lodge and have a picnic lunch below a thermometer that reads 24 degrees.
LeConte Lodge is rather interesting. I hope to get a chance for an overnight with my wife up here one of these years. Folks can spend the night in a cabin on the mountain, where they dine on sweets, soups, and drink never-ending pours from boxes of wine. Sounds perfect to me. The lodge came about when an Appalachian by the name of Paul Adams led some bureaucrats from the federal government up LeConte to show them the awe-inspiring, natural, rugged beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains. Adams used this trip to persuade the DC lot in granting national park status to these wispy, weeping mountains. The group stayed overnight in a large tent and likely had a damn good time. The following year, Adams went back and built a cabin on the spot where he and the rule-makers camped. His cabin led to the establishment of the lodge.
The spirit of conservation, of preservation, the importance of wilderness, shapes our very culture, but, so, too, does the progress and woes of a technologically advanced society – not to mention the whims of the economically powerful and politically connected. We live in a culture defined by systems of power and domination – systems that expect us to rationalize our existence through compartmentalizing our lives. We each hold many titles in society, make up different data points, and we are first defined by our roles in the economic system – our jobs. We live under Cartesian assumptions – under industries that ignore evolution and ecosystems, but uphold global, consumption driven, economic systems. We witness declines in biodiversity and ecosystem resilience, only to watch the powerful defend the State’s economic addiction to fossil fuels. Despite it all, I am no misanthrope. Admittedly, though, I am a malcontent. I believe in place-based thinking and economic planning. I support bioregional connectivity instead of political boundaries. I believe in human labor and ingenuity, so much so I think political boundaries should be dissolved and moved to the dustbin of history. This needs to happen quickly, before we lose our “life place.”
All the crimes of the 20th century, the missed opportunities of the 21st thus far – the wars, the genocide, the subjugation of civil rights, expansion of surveillance, the destruction of healthy ecosystems, all the other crimes of power and domination – were all committed by human beings. Nevertheless, human beings also achieved all the great advancements, all the profound struggles, all of the hope and integrity that has moved and expanded the floor of the cage. Against all odds, we fought back. I bring all of this up because the mountains inspire.
The preservationist movement of the 20th century was an incredible human undertaking, one that still preserves some unimpaired wildlands for all species. The wild offers our species enjoyment, education, and inspiration today, and holds the same promise for all future generations who take the time to know and care for her. Time for an organized 21st century new preservationist movement, as ever evident on this trail through an ancient, wounded ecosystem. In 1978, American Biologist Raymond Dasmann wrote:
“Living-in-place means following the necessities and pleasures of life as they are uniquely presented by a particular site, and evolving ways to ensure long-term occupancy of that site . . . It is not, however, to be thought of as antagonistic to civilization, in the more human sense of the word, but may be the only way in which a truly civilized existence can be maintained.”
These are wise words as climate change, very literally and without hyperbole, threatens organized human existence. Human civilization needs wilderness. To plunder and destroy her graceful grandeur defies the very notion of a civilized society.
Steve and I finish our lunch, pack up our waste – leave no trace, folks – and start our descent from the Ice Age forest. I will miss this haunting and endangered montane environment.
The ecosystem here is constantly changing, though. Much of the hike we take towards Bull Gap follows a trail lined with what looks like a wooden boardwalk. Many of the trees along this section of LeConte are either dead or actively dying. The main culprit is the invasive wooly adelgid. The insect drinks sap, causing these plants to lose vigor and drop their needles. Dead balsam wood litters this area all around the mountain. Since the early 1960s, more than 90 percent of the Fraser firs in the national park have been destroyed.
There is room for hope, though. A second generation of Fraser firs are beginning to grow across the balsam woodland – and some evidence suggests there may be some genetic resistance to the adelgid among the new generation and surviving trees. Hope lies in the seeds. Sexual reproduction and genetic diversity may just sustain this special place a little while longer. As we wind our way down the trail, we cross over several large Precambrian aged quartz outcrops that look like ice. A cold wind howls above us, but a stand of healthy, thick-needled evergreens once again block the air. We stay warm.
The invasive insect is not the only threat to this relic ecosystem, though. High elevation spruce-fir forests throughout all the Appalachian range are highly vulnerable to climate change. Fewer bird species call the highland cloud forests home these days, which stalls plant reproduction because their seed dispersing animal helpers are lost. There is also evidence that the cove-hardwood forests are moving up in elevation, chasing a warming habitat zone, thus causing habitat loss in the Montane Spruce-fir climate region. In the Southeastern United States, winters are warming faster than the other seasons. In fact, January 2020 was the Earth’s warmest recorded January in 141 years of temperature records. The four warmest winters have all occurred since 2016. As Steve and I descend into the cove hardwood ecosystem, I wonder if all the spruce and fir here, my favorite mix of trees in all of Appalachia, will be gone, extirpated, in my young son’s lifetime.
Our journey into the broad and bold forest is fun – no other word explains this section of trail. As the highland plants break, rolling meadow hills of swaying grass open all around us. The wide-open, pure, brilliant blue sky is liberating. White clouds smear and brush across the horizon. The sun casts long shadows. All around, a soft breeze whispers across mountain majesty, and my soul is happy. When we cross the transition zone, our trail turns rocky and gnarled, but towering old growth trees cover our descent. Steve and I round a switch back and stand on a metamorphosed siltstone to look out across a rolling expanse of wilderness. We have already climbed down a good deal in elevation, and from this vantage point, among healthy standing sentinel trees, we feel the expanse – almost as if the ancient Appalachian range is hugging us. How small I feel, how happy, and alive.
Our trail goes on like this for a good while. The faces of extravagant and exciting rock cliffs overlook mountain majesty. We arrive at a torched and twisted tree in the trail.
“Damn,” I mutter, as I take a few pictures and turn my gaze upslope. “We are back in the burn area. Looks like a ton of dead rhododendrons through here.”
“Yeah. Just wait until you round this corner, dude. This shit is unreal.”
Steve is about fifteen yards ahead of me on the trail, so I scramble to catch up with him. When I do, I see a hellscape. The terrain is completely charred, evidence of landslides is all around, and, furthermore, the entire mighty rolling expanse beneath us is black with ash and scorched carbon. The view is epic and sad all at once. We hike along in somber silence through all of the fire death. Valley and ridge after valley and ridge, for over ten-thousand acres, lays as waste. The blaze consumed everything and was completely unforgiving.
From death, however, comes new life. This harsh demanding planet of ours is not wasteful – the dead feed the living. Among the tortured, scarred remains of rhododendron, on exposed silt and busted rock, a mountain fetterbush, Pieris floribunda, sprouts mightily. The fetterbush is still small; perhaps a foot or so off the ground, but the evergreen plant is bold and proudly colored against the bare Earth. Further, raceme, a cluster of flowers attached by short, equal stalks along a central stem, are budding. Here, we see sexual reproduction again. A new generation of seedlings are sprouting from the nutrient rich mountains. Soon, the fetterbush is all I notice – the xeric plants are popping up everywhere. On all of the fresh growth, a slightly angled, globular capsule holds their fruit, assuring future generations of the plant will grow.
We are lucky travelers, alive in this incredible, biodiverse world. We are forever part of the beautiful pattern of life. Our special places, our loved ones, will never really be gone. All life is recycled into the Earth – broken down to molecules and nutrients that will feed and sustain this living planet. Steve and I pass the time chatting, as old friends do, about anything and everything. We labor down a steep rocky grade, out of the cove hardwoods, and once again among naked oak trees and pines along the pleasing song of LeConte Creek. As we walk through the whispering forest, winter buds burn crimson as fire in the sky. Together they all Pollock and splash against the eternal blue heavens. Soon enough, these buds will produce young leaves and seeds. Soon enough, the leaves will age and die to feed the soil and new life. Impermanence here in the mortal realm is what makes our lives so special. Death is always clicking at our heels. Yet, against all odds, we are here, and spring is coming.
**Featured Image Source: Grant Mincy