The air is cool as dark, billowy clouds let loose a light mist, and a gentle breeze rustles the brightly colored limbs of deciduous trees. Leaves, in all their late October glory, with their deep reds, dark purples, bright golds, and fiery oranges, appear to dance in the air. Their colors seem enhanced – like a bright natural quilt against an ash colored sky. Here and there, some of them lightly feather towards the ground in a dazzling, soft choreography. This brilliant dance creates a beautiful mosaic, a magnificent natural masterpiece, on the forest floor. Adding to the wonder, the waters of the Little River echo their pleasing ovation across Metcalf Bottoms. October in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park sure is special.
I leave my car at the popular picnic area. Despite the light sprinkle, a number of families, dressed in hooded sweatshirts and plenty of flannel are unpacking an early lunch along the river. I am sure they are in for a good time – eat well fellow travelers. My family is sitting this hike out. They have opted to cheer on our school’s soccer team this afternoon instead. Normally we would hang out together, but I need some mountain time. This lazy late Sunday morning I am out for a short but necessary solo adventure in the Appalachian Forest. I have spent the majority of the last two days curled up in bed fighting strep throat. Not fun, in fact, torturous. I’m not speaking about the pain that is, of course, bearable. Rather, the fact of being quarantined and bedridden this time of year strikes my nerves. Further, the bacteria soiled what would have been a great weekend of damp outdoor play. I’m happy to be out of the sheets – antibiotics sure are wonder drugs.
This morning I am taking the long way to the Walker Sister’s place, then down to the Little Greenbrier School. I’ll get a couple of hours in nature to myself. I like being alone in the woods. I never feel lonely or isolated; instead, my cares fall away like these autumn leaves. I enjoy the quiet, still solitude.
Moreover, along with the foliage, the cabin and schoolhouse offer a quick history lesson. When the Great Smoky Mountain National Park was established back in the 1930s, roughly 5,500 people lived within the political boundaries of new federal land. The residents, including the Cherokee and scattered others, would eventually have to move. Most folks, begrudgingly or not, sold their land and moved outside of the park boundaries. Those who resisted paid rent to the federal government and found themselves just tenants on land they once owned. I love this park more than I can express, but I loathe the authority of state power. This is one of the reasons I enjoy this hike so much: The Walker Sisters were too proud of their family heritage to leave. They lived right here, dug in their heels, stuck to the old pioneer way of life, and pretty much told Uncle Sam they weren’t going any damn where. And they didn’t. They sold pies and crafts to park visitors on into the 1960s when the last of the seven sisters died. Land is legacy and space is place – the Walkers have surely dug some deep and lasting roots.
I cross the bridge over the Little River’s chanting chorus waters. This is my favorite river in the park. Like the falling leaves, the river seems to echo a relaxing hushh – as if to tell me to let my cares be. Across the bridge, I pick up my pace. I need to hike rather quickly up the narrow Wear Gap Road. The scenery is enjoyable, but the passing vehicles are not. Most everyone is courteous, but one pickup truck passed way to close for comfort. I am happy to turn onto the Little Brier Gap Trail.
I last hiked this trail in the long summer of 2016. I traveled with my then two-year-old curly haired boy. I remember the forest that day was hot and particularly dry. That year we saw an extended drought that lasted well into the autumn and early winter. We also experienced record-breaking temperatures throughout the summer and on into the colder months. The changing climate resulted in extensive forest fires across the region – including right here in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A similar climate worry exists here in 2019. Highs stayed in the 90s through the first week of this month – nowhere near average for our temperate rainforest in autumn. Luckily, our temperatures, though still largely above average, have leveled out. Along with the cooler air, we have also received some much-needed precipitation.
Today, the detritus laden understory sparkles and shimmers in mountain mist, as water droplets bead on fallen leaves. Rhododendron and mountain laurel thickets, beneath a colorful canopy of yellow poplar, sweet hickory, and the wonderful scent of evergreen, seem refreshed, eternal. Amid the ferns, fragrant sassafras, and sourwood leaves, it is comforting to enjoy the sounds of katydids. The rummage of chipmunks over chestnut oak abscission, and the melodious songs of hooded warbler add to the music of mountain country.
The forest is too pleasing to describe. The entire environment is rejuvenating. The mist softens my beard, the air smells fresh, and, though the canopy is brilliant, the plants along the forest floor are a deep green – a remarkable green only possible under a cloud-laden sky. I stop several times just to take in my surrounding environment, to look at the contrast of plant forms, to breathe deep the sweet lucid air, to smile and enjoy my life.
The first little bit of the hike was a steady climb that raised my heartbeat a bit, but I’ve breasted the hollow along Cove Mountain and now enjoy a relaxing downhill stroll. The fog-shrouded forest envelops me – so beautiful I can only describe the scene as haunting. At this time, roughly half a mile away from the Walker Sister’s Cabin, I notice an oncoming traveler.
He’s a tall, slender man with a gray combover and a long, fluffy, white beard. As he approaches, I scratch my own reddening mane. Though my beard is getting rather long, this stranger has me beat by a couple of years. In addition to the facial hair, I cannot help but notice how the man is dressed. He dons old work boots, wool pants, and a buttoned vest, complete with what appears to be a Union Army jacket circa the1860s. As we pass each other, I give a friendly “hello.” In return, he flashes me a very kind smile, takes a bite of an apple, and waves. A few seconds later I turn back to catch another glimpse of the fellow, but he’s mysteriously vanished into the fog.
Eventually, I travel down the mountain far enough to reach the split towards the old Walker Sister’s place. The gravel leading toward the enduring homestead crunches beneath my feet. The plant community has changed, revealing dogwoods, more poplars, a littering of hemlock, and the longstanding apple orchard planted by John Walker, the sister’s father. The colors of the canopy have shifted a bit too, from gold and orange to crimson red and deep purple. Much of the understory is no longer green, but in full seasonal transition. As I reach the homestead, the mountain mist turns to a light sprinkle, and I cannot believe my eyes.
Seems the park service has spent some money down here for the autumn season. The old cabin, springhouse, and shack look completely redone. Even more, smoke is rising from the old cabin’s chimney. I peek in and see a woman dressed in hand knitted wool clothing relaxing next to a steaming kettle. The smells of apple cider and sweet dessert fill the air.
“Why hello!” I holler as I approach.
“Martha! Hettie!” the woman calls. “We’ve ourselves another visitor.”
At this time, I peer through the fog and see two women sitting on the covered porch. I shout a greeting to them.
“Hello to you as well!”
“Goodness!” They exclaim. “You must be cold and a bit hungry, come on in for a spell.”
I am excited at this point and am enjoying the historical representation of the Walker family. I walk inside the old wooden homestead to a warm and cozy fire, where two other women offer me a hot cup of cider and some apple pie. Rugs lay across the floor, along with comfortable looking chairs, a couple of tables, artwork, and several lanterns. The house smells of cinnamon, butter, brown sugar, and, of course, apples. Simply incredible.
I decline the cider, though the drink smells delicious. I don’t want to risk passing on any lingering germs. They are serving the drink out of mugs. I do oblige the apple pie. I bite into the treat, tilt my head back, and sigh with a smile. The crust is flaky and savory. I taste a hint of animal fat that must have been used to gold the flour. The apples are sweet and taste of cinnamon and spice.
“This is delicious. Thank you so much.”
“You’re too kind, young man, glad you like it.”
“How much do I owe you?”
“Well, you’ve just missed Father so I’ll cut you a deal. A dollar fifty, on account of all the inflation,” laughs a sister.
I pay and exit the cabin to savor my snack outside in the comfortable meadow. I am surrounded by tulip poplars, white oak, maple, beech, and others. As I chew, I enjoy observing the cabin and listening to the actors talk. While I take in the scene, I accidently drop a bit of food on my rain jacket. I pull a handkerchief out of my pocket and wipe away the pie. I snap a few pictures of everything, and, after a few moments, I say my goodbyes and head on.
My hike is almost over. Just a quick jaunt to the Little Greenbrier Schoolhouse is all that remains between Metcalf Bottoms and me. As I hike toward the old schoolhouse the forest changes – a thick, dense fog moves across the trail. I feel mist bead on my beard and shiver briefly in the cold. I cannot see but three feet in front of me, and then, just as quickly as the cloud rolled in, it vanished in the dazzling autumn forest. I now walk among the deep greens of rhododendron and hemlock, whose elemental presence offers stark contrast to the blazing gold leaves of all the deciduous plants. Again, so beautiful I can only describe the scene as haunting.
At the old school, I stop and snap a few pictures. I also check out the nearby graveyard. Seems a fittingly spooky thing to do so close to Halloween. As I look around the area, the old Blue Oyster Cult song, “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” the classic guitar riff, and of course the cowbell, play in my mind. I love this song. One of my favorites. I have long told my wife that when I’ve earned my death and it is my time to be buried in the cold, hard clay, I want this song played – “Seasons don’t fear the reaper, nor do the wind, the sun or the rain.” Time to head home.
Back at the house, I find out that the soccer game was canceled because the fields were too wet.
“Bummer!” I exclaim. I know for sure my boy is a bit upset – he’s a big fan of the sport.
“How was your hike?” Inquires my wife. “Did you have fun?”
“I really did. The Park Service actually had some employees out there all dressed up like the Walker Sisters and they repaired a lot of the old cabin and the other buildings.” I go on to tell her about the pioneer clothing, the kettle, the fires, all the decorations in the cabin, the cider, and, of course, the delicious apple pie.
“That’s cool. I wish we’d of known the game was going to be canceled sooner; we would have gone with you. You get any pictures?”
“Sure did, check them out!” I take out my phone and pull up my pictures. The hiking scenery is all there, but when I swipe the cabin, everything is empty. There are no actors, no fire, no decorations, no food – no nothing but the old homestead. It’s like the entire scene has been erased from existence.
“Ha, ha, ha,” my wife laughs sarcastically, “good story.”
“Dad, ghost stories are supposed to be scary,” my kid informs. “They aren’t about nice people with pie. Don’t you know that?”
I am a bit distraught and excuse myself from our living room.
“What the hell? Jeez, Grant, you’re coming undone,” I mutter to myself. The only reasonable explanation I can reach is my over active imagination really took hold of me. Often, on my solo outings to the primeval forest, my mind runs free and wild. I very often think of stories or essays I want to write, or other activities on which to spend my productive labor, but imagining the Walker Sisters? And what about the bearded man in the Union jacket? Did I imagine the spirit of John Walker? He was a veteran of the Union Army. Still, this is all to strange.
“Their spirits must be deeply rooted to the soil,” I mutter quietly to myself. More likely, I must still be fuzzy from the strep.
I head to our mudroom and unpack my gear. I hang up my raincoat and empty my pockets – my heart skips a beat as my stomach pits. A thrill bursts from my core and spreads all over my body. In my hand is my kerchief, and on it is a small piece of spiced apple pie.
An eerie feeling consumes me. All I can do is croak a single word:
Grant A. Mincy is an assistant professor of biology and (sometimes) geology at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee. He also sits on the Earth and Planetary Sciences Advisory Council for the University of Tennessee. In his free time, you’ll catch him either reading comic books or wandering around the Appalachian mountains with his wife and young son. Feel free to contact Grant (firstname.lastname@example.org) or follow him on Twitter (@gmincy).