Hike America #1: Clingmans Dome & Andrews Bald (Tennessee)

Today, I’m really excited to launch my new BHAG (big hairy audacious goal), Hike America. I’ve always wanted to visit every state, but I’ve only made it to about half of them. What better way to see the country than to hike all across it. Over the next five years, I plan to hike a major trail in each of the 50 states, typically to the highest point in each one. This is hike #1 in my series of 50 hikes across the country. Be sure to check out the photo gallery at the end!

Kicking off my Hike America series is my recent trek to Clingmans Dome, the highest point in Tennessee at 6,643 feet. While visiting my family in Knoxville, my dad and I ventured about two hours away to highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on September 14, 2012. The Smokies offered the perfect backdrop to begin my journey, having grown up in East Tennessee.

The temperature in Knoxville was typical for September – muggy and in the 80’s. Once we reached the parking area at Clingmans, the car temperature gauge read a chilly 58 degrees. Several of the tourists from out of state were obviously not prepared for the cooler temperatures, as they were donned in summer shorts. Thankfully, I checked ahead, prepared to stay warm in my jeans and fleece.

Our Route – Clingmans Dome to Andrews Bald

The hike to Clingmans Dome is a short one – 0.5 miles from the parking area up a steep, paved trail. The elevation gain was a tad more difficult than I expected, as we paused to catch our breath a couple of times. At the summit, a winding ramp leads you to the top of the tower, or the “space ship.” It was built in the 1960’s, and the concrete structure looks like it could take off into orbit at any moment. At its pinnacle, the circular tower provides panoramic 360 degree views of surrounding mountains, and you are seemingly above the clouds, as white puffy sheets envelop then landscape and obstruct the view of Mt. LeConte and several other surrounding peaks. A few moments later, the sun reappears and uncovers the surrounding mountain ranges.

People come from far and wide to experience the 360 degree view of the Smokies. Several motorcyclists had made their way to the top, snapping photos with their phones and cameras. At the same time, a large family of Amish ventured to the summit. The women were dressed in plain dresses, the men and boys in slacks, button-downs, and suspenders. None of them had cameras to capture the moment. It was quite a cross section of our culture.

Speaking to one of the rangers stationed at the base of the tower, he said that this was considered a really clear day on Clingmans. Only eight days or so of September offer decent visibility, and thankfully, this was one of them.

Andrews Bald

Since the hike to Clingmans was fairly short, I made up for that by planning a 4-mile round trip hike to Andrews Bald, one of two grassy balds in the park located just inside of North Carolina. After heading down from the Clingmans Dome Tower, Dad and I took the Appalachian Trail until reaching the Forney Ridge Trail, making our way through the dense forest on this recently reconstructed trail. At one point, I stopped and listened. No birds, no cars, no talking. Silence. It was surreal. There are so few times that we encounter complete silence that it’s completely unfamiliar.

The trek descends several hundred feet, as Andrews Bald resides at 5,920 feet, making the climb back much more difficult. Along the way, we encountered several friendly people, eventually meeting a young college couple who was taking in the view of the bald. He shared his photos that he had taken at Clingmans Dome from a recent morning sunrise. (Another adventure I must pursue!) We also spoke with a man and his daughter who vacation in the Outer Banks, just to the south of where I live.

One of my favorite things about hiking is all the friendly people who take time to talk to you on the trail. There’s something special about it. There’s a certain connection you discover with those who are out there trekking through the wilderness.

As my dad and I made our two mile return to the car, our hearts were pounding as it was mostly uphill. This was more difficult than the hike up Clingmans, a nearly 2-mile uphill climb. The return trip always seems longer, but we eventually huffed and puffed our way back to the parking area.

Clingmans Dome was a superb kickoff to a grand adventure, the type of goal that usually think about but don’t ever get around to starting. Well, I’ve started, and it feels like I’m finally moving forward. One hike down, 49 to go!

Along the Trails – Stopping to Say ‘Hello’

“The soul longs for passion, for freedom, for life.” -John Eldredge

Recently, my dad and I spent several hours trekking through the Great Smoky Mountains. (Tomorrow, I’ll share my adventure with you in both words and photos.) I kept noticing a common trend – everyone was so friendly, so free, and so engaging. With a wave and a genuine, “How are you?”, we acknowledged each passing hiker on the trails, and more often than not, individuals would pause long enough to engage us in conversation and vice versa.

Back in civilization, or cities made of asphalt, what do people generally do when you pass them on the street? How about when strolling past strangers at the mall? You know the drill. Don’t make eye contact. Look every which way other than directly at them so that they don’t think you’re some weird stalker. Actually, I try to make eye contact with others to see if they will give a hint of a “hello” or at least a head nod. It’s a interesting experiment to see how far someone will go to avoid eye contact.

Nonetheless, people are caught up in their own lives, the busyness of coming and going, keeping appointments, and living the “American dream.” Out on the trails, however, none of those soul-draining tasks matters. Our souls and senses are wide open to the world around us. We are stripped of our own agenda. The passion and freedom return, as we experience God’s magnificent beauty and find nourishment for our hearts. People have time to pause and engage with one another.

“The whole creation is unapologetically wild. God loves it that way.” -John Eldredge

Not only do we discover room to breathe, but we also rekindle our God-given need for adventure. Just like us, our fellow hikers were out on the trail searching. Some or most of them may not have known what they were searching for, but they were on a journey of adventure. They were seeking an escape from the rat race in order to find rest, to exercise, to be still, to spend time with the Creator, to experience a little risk away from modern comforts. Where else can we find such freedom, ruggedness, and stillness?

Who knows? Maybe it will cause us to stop and say “hello” a little more often.

In your life, where do you find people who are willing to stop and say “hello?”