Jane Fishman: Taking in the Smokies, one breath at a time

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Credit: Steve Bisson, Savannah Morning News

Credit: Steve Bisson, Savannah Morning News

I am no stranger to spiteful or negative thoughts. Most of the time I manage to keep such sentiments to myself. The world does not need more cynicism, more gloom; we hear enough half-truths as it is. But this time something grabbed me. I blame Flip – “The devil made me do it” – Wilson. I couldn’t help myself.

“Not much further,” I offered as cheerfully as I could. I was heading down the steep grade from Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, some 6,400 feet up. She was heading up – not easy – but sometimes heading down is not so easy either, especially on the knees.

“Just around the bend,” I said a few minutes later to someone else.

“You’re almost there,” I announced to a couple navigating with walking sticks.

Wrong, wrong and wrong.

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Credit: Steve Bisson, Savannah Morning News

Credit: Steve Bisson, Savannah Morning News

On the other hand, didn’t someone just say the same thing to me when I managed to croak out the same question between ears popping, heart pounding, doubt creeping in. My eyes were glued straight ahead and not on the 9- and 8-year-olds already out of sight, so far ahead were they, when I asked, “Um, excuse me. How much further to the top?”

“It’s not a race,” I said some 45 minutes later, so pleased was I to be heading down from the observation tower, which offered a 360-degree view of the Smokies. The hike is less than a mile but the grade is steep, very steep.

There are 63 national parks in the United States. Most charge an admission fee. The Great Smokies do not. The park spans Tennessee and North Carolina, not too far from the ridiculously cheesy Gatlinburg, but our quarters were close enough to Dollywood to catch the nightly firework show. The park is meticulously managed, scrupulously maintained. It’s clean.

It’s different being in the mountains. That’s for sure. There are vistas. You don’t have to strain to see the sky. The air is crisp. You can almost touch the clouds.

Can you say “No humidity”?

You can see forever.

Back on ground level, there’s another anomaly to us Lowcountry folk used to low tide, slack tide, high tide. It’s the river. It runs swift, over rocks, roots, boulders, tree trunks, maybe even a beaver dam or two. Nothing is going to stop that river. It’s clear, insistent, determined, maybe dangerous. It’s cold, a place you want to be in the middle of summer, not the end of November. It’s tempting to want to walk, make that balance, across on a fallen log.

On second thought, I say no. Instead I follow with my eyes a massive tree, 40 or 50 feet up. I face an open field and look for elk. In 2001 they were re-introduced into the Smokies. I see telltale carvings in the trunks of trees where they sharpen their antlers but no elk, no antlers lying around. Maybe next time.

I have a new appreciation for hiking – for families, young children, old people. It’s a great combination of nature and athleticism. You can talk or not talk. There’s no awards for coming in first, second or third. You can sit down when you need to. When you get back to your home base, you don’t need an excuse to sit by a fire (or pop into a hot tub). At the end of a hike, you feel you’ve accomplished something. Your hunger is righteous, your fatigue earned.

On the other hand, the clothes. Hats, gloves, long pants (sometimes two pairs of pants), scarves, the winter jacket that spends most of the year buried in the back of your closet, last year’s balled-up Kleenex, a tube of Blistex, a note to yourself still in the pocket. It takes a long time to get dressed for an outing. Laundry takes longer, too,

And there are all those cars on the road – trucks, campers, recreational vehicles, vans, caravans, motor homes, trailers – and in the parking lots. Not fun. If Cumberland Island, a jewel in our backyard, Georgia’s largest barrier island – also protected by the National Park Service – can restrict the number of people allowed at one time to 300, maybe our national park system should do the same. Or am I being selfish? Is that elitist? It’s a good thing people want to be outdoors, but so many?

Jane Fishman is a contributing lifestyles columnist for the Savannah Morning News. Contact Jane at gofish5@earthlink.net or call 912-484-3045. See more columns by Jane at SavannahNow.com/lifestyle/.

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Jane Fishman: Taking in the Smokies, one breath at a time