The Appalachian Trail

Stretching for 2000 miles from Maine to Georgia is the famous Appalachian Trail. For many hikers, this is the ultimate adventure, and if they can’t complete the whole thing at once (a huge commitment) then they will cover it piece by piece.

Atop the Smoky Mountains at the state border between Tennessee and North Carolina, there is a monument and a 1.7 mile section of the Appalachian Trail you can complete.

On this trip I’ve discovered a bit of a liking for hiking. In Peru all those years ago I discovered I didn’t like walking up or downhill. Something rather limiting when travelling in mountainous regions. But I think that laziness has faded, and I don’t mind exerting some effort to climb a mountain or descend a canyon.

Therefore, I wasn’t going to pass up the ability to say I’d hiked part of the Appalachian Trail. I set out from a carpark full of Americans and expected to find the trail heavily trafficked. Well, as my Lonely Planet explains, 90% of visitors don’t venture further than 100 yards from their car. I found this to be true. The first stretch was filled with families, but after a couple of hundred metres, the trail was quiet and just had a few people passing by.

Maybe here it was that I started to flesh out the idea that Americans aren’t particularly adventurous. I hasten to add that I have also met many adventurous Americans in my travels,  it just seems people are less likely to take risks and will continue in the well-worn formula of life – school, university, work, get married, raise a family, retire.

Waterfalls in the rain

I was all gung-ho to do a difficult hike to some waterfalls, but after the campground owner came around to have a chat because he was excited to have an Australian staying with them so he could talk about his daughter and granddaughters who live in Sydney, he had scared me off doing it.

He told me there was going to be a big storm. And that it wasn’t the ideal weather to be doing a big hike as the storm looked pretty bad. For some reason this news seemed to hit me like a punch in the chest and I had to bite back the tears that were threatening. It doesn’t happen very often that I have such an emotional response to disappointment, and even more rarely over something as trivial as a hike. But here I was, dealing with the dismay of having to change the plans I’d carefully crafted.

So I hiked to a different set of falls that were closer and easier to get to. I had my gore-tex jacket on to keep the constant drizzle off. My glasses fogged up which made seeing the network of exposed roots difficult. The walk was really pretty and given the weather, I had it pretty much to myself except for encountering a few brave families along the way.

After I got back from Hen Wallow Falls, the weather had cleared up, so I drove to the Visitor Centre, through the touristy town of Gatlinburg, and then decided with the sun now showing, that I would hike to Rainbow Falls.

It was more of an uphill than in the morning, and there were more people on the trail. It never fails to surprise me how under-prepared many Americans visiting national parks are. They embark on these hikes wearing flip-flops and carrying a half full bottle of water. Maybe I’m overprepared with my backpack, 4 litres of water, snacks, hat and Merrell hiking shoes, but I’d rather have those things than find myself wishing I had them.

Feeling like I’d walked a long way, I asked a couple coming back down if it was very far to the falls, and they said it was just around the corner. Around the corner was a smallish cascade that, while pretty, didn’t really seem impressive enough to name a trail after. So after a pause, I decided to keep following the trail and see where it lead. Lo and behold, 10 minutes later, I came across Rainbow Falls, complete with a sign. I shook my head and thought about those silly Americans who had walked all that way only to miss the actual falls because they weren’t curious enough to see where the path went.

Into the mountains

It must be something to do with coming from a flat, barren topography that makes the mountains so majestic and beautiful in my mind. They are awe-inspiring and I gape with wonder.

As I neared the Great Smoky Mountains, I nearly exploded with wonder at their dense, green blanket and low wispy clouds. The steamy, jungly smell of the forest and the vivid green appealed so strongly to me.

That combination of green and mountain is completely fascinating to someone who lives on the edge of the desert and where there is only one place in town to practise handbrake starts.

I can tell I’m going to love this part of America.