This is the second post— to catch up read part one here.
It was on the agenda the moment I decided to drive on down to Knoxville; Chimney Tops Redemption, but it almost didn’t happen. An unexpected whirlwind of downtown Knoxville mayhem, combined with valuable family time, had already stretched me thin. I think it was concluded between Rachel and I sometime late Saturday, that after Easter Sunday, our last day of the trip, we’d make it a point to hit the trail and make the hike after breakfast. It was a bold, semi-dumb move as we got on the road late with a 4 hour round trip hike on our plates and then a 12 hour drive home after that.
As we closed in on our destination, I tried to recall familiar sights from that fate-filled childhood trip. Nothing really felt familiar until we descended upon the capitol of kitsch, Pigeon Forge. More plastic than the cast of Real Housewives of OC, it’s a flytrap for the Nascar loving, Larry the Cable Guy laughing, Southern. If my Odyssey was to make it to Chimney Tops, then this was clearly my Siren. With numerous dinner shows such as Dixie Stampede, LumberJack Feud, and Smith Family Dinner Theater (The rooty tootn’ess show in the south), it’s paradise for any serious aficionado of fine cuisine and the theater. Throw in a plaster iceberg piercing into a water spurting faux-Titanic, Bible-belt undertones, and Dollyworld— it took Rachel ratcheting down my seat belt to prevent me from running wild into its magnificent ironic wonderment.
Soon, the road and its scenery dramatically change from tourist traps to trees. The highway gives one last U-Turn before splitting around a rushing creek and a small weathered sign that welcomes you to Smokey Mountain National Park. The difference is dramatic; the change is beautiful. Entering into the park from Pigeon Forge makes it feel so much more real, but not just in a tangible sense. The power of the forest makes it be known that this can’t be duplicated, can’t be touched by a developers shovel and a contrived atmosphere. It lets it be known that it just simply exists. Always has. Always will.
We twist and turn for a few more miles before pulling into a tiny roadside lot that would begin our hike to the top. Instead of filling my Camelback with anything a survivor show would instruct you to bring, I packed a flask of rye whisky and a half consumed Cliff Bar. I take hiking very seriously, no matter how docile or well traveled the trail is— it’s far more exciting to pretend I’m on some treacherous adventure filled with bears and man eating beaver. I snarl at squirrels, muddy my boots for effect, and inappropriately grunt to showcase that no matter how hard this is (it really wasn’t) I am a man dammit! I had screwed my camera to a monopod with the intention of snapping scenic photos all the way, but I had waited too long for this, too much heartache, too many nightmares to allow anything to slow me down now. I was on autopilot, with a non-stop flight up.
The last mile of the hike is steep, not particularly OMG I can’t do this steep, but enough to break a sweat and cuss for the end to be near. If you primarily rely on Old Country Buffet for sustenance, it’s about this time you want to turn back or face potential death. The worst was over when we hit a few switchbacks and things started to level out; we meandered along, through obstacles of rock and root until we met again. She was tall and bold, alluring yet intimidating, and with all that was grand about her, she still hid behind that simple sign that triggered hysteria from my mom years ago.
Sign reads careful. Mother says no. Peak shouts go.
And this time I do.
Charging at it head on, I try to tackle the face, only to be held back by a lack of grip and excessive amount of camera gear. I navigate myself back down and head towards option #2. If you drop to the right of the face, a shallow path will bring you around and hug you tight to the peaks side. Once that path starts to fade into nothing you begin your climb straight up. 30 feet left, 65 degrees of angled rock working in conjunction with gravity licking its chops at the chance to see you fall. Leaving my camera gear behind, I start to pick my foot and hand holes and follow what novice logic I had towards the safest and straightest route. And everything is going just dandy until I find myself half way up, plastered against the rock . . . shaking.
And while people stare me at me in the midst of my predicament, I had one of those really really rare moments. I was silent. I was tucked into a kind of crevice, a piece of loose shale stone in my left hand, a tiny little root in my right. I remember my feet didn’t feel secure, so I opted at a sorta hip thrust into the rock, trying to push my crotch into something that would hopefully act like a cradle. I couldn’t look up, and god help me if I look down. So with my cheeks against the cool rock my view was directed at the start, where the warning sign sat comfortably laughing at me. “No way those kids in the photo climbed this fucking thing!” I thought, “clearly they were photoshopped in there.” My thoughts were agitated and short. “There is no way in hell the kids in that photo should even be on this . . . what the hell were their parents thinking!” . . . Oh shit, I said it, not only am I now agreeing with what my parents did, but I’m becoming them as well. This time I didn’t think about redemption, I thought about cutting my losses, convincing myself I “did it,” and retreating back to stable ground.
Sign laughs. I gasp. No turning back.
I come to my senses, get a grasp on my nerves, and realize I need to finish whatever dramatic bullshit I got myself into. My mouth started this, I need to back it up. I extended my right foot as far up as it would go, wrapped my toes around a piece of rock, and hoisted up. Instinctively my hands grasped forward, frantically going for anything that protruded out enough to grip. I scrambled and wiggled; I moved with urgency and fear, disregarding form and style in favor of just doing whatever the hell would get me to the top fast.
And so I made it to the top. It took me 10 minutes to move past the rock I was bear hugging and meander around its rocky edges, and another 30 minutes to convince myself it’s impossible for the whole thing to topple into the abyss below.
All those years, all that fuss, proved oh so worth it. The view is stunning, almost 360 degrees through the valley and into the sky. Everything appears as if drawn on paper, the end of the earth subtlety curves from left to right, mountains are lightly sketched and sponge painted with contrasting colors of green, browns and the varieties in between. Everything has an interesting flat feel, and the world becomes something you can touch. I tried to take a few photographs, but my mind was too further occupied to set up and take anything substantial. I felt it was more important for me to mentally take it all in, then try to relive it later in photos, and so the whole experience will forever be best exposed in my head.
Sign still stands. I laugh. Victory is mine.