Finding Solitude in the Smokies
The drive down Interstate 75 through southern Kentucky and into northern Tennessee was breathtaking. It was a beautiful, sunny late April day, not too warm — perfect driving weather. I was astounded by the grandeur of the mountain vistas visible from the highway. Mountains folded into valleys that faded into the horizon. Mist clung to the valleys and the sides of the mountains like spun cotton snagged on splintered wood. Vibrant colors filled my field of vision. There is no scenery in Ohio to compare to the Southern Appalachians. I once thought the landscape of Ohio’s Hocking Hills was amazing with its streams, caves and rock formations, but it doesn’t compare to the Smokies.
This was my first trip ever to Tennessee. I was interviewing for a library job at Maryville College, a tiny liberal arts college in the foothills of the Smokies. It was a job that I didn’t plan to accept, even if offered. It was vacation with a practice interview, that’s all. Or so I thought.
I checked into the Alcoa Fairfield Inn on the busy highway that connects Maryville and Alcoa to Knoxville, 20 miles to the north. I settled in for the night, but the loud rumble of airplanes landing and taking off at McGee-Tyson Airport across from the hotel, the constant drone of automobile traffic, and a bit of nervous excitement made it difficult to sleep.
I awoke early the next morning and drove to Maryville College, just a few miles from my hotel. Founded in 1819 at a different location, the college now sits on a hilltop with views of the mountains from several places on campus. The directions that the library director gave me led me right to Fayerweather Hall, home of the library. Like most of the antebellum campus, it was grand, but tired looking. Tall, rotting wooden columns stood sentry over the large porch. Creaking wood floors covered with threadbare blue carpet greeted me as I entered. Fifteen-foot tall windows illuminated the interior with plenty of natural light.
The interview was a bit intimidating, but, since I considered it a practice interview, I wasn’t too nervous. First, I met individually with the library director and the other fulltime librarian. Later, I spoke informally with the rest of the staff and the person who held the position I would fill — ten people in all. We ate lunch, sandwiches ordered from a local sub shop, around a large work table in the center of the library’s office space.
The kindness and hospitality of everyone that I met impressed me. But the prospective job didn’t thrill me: it was essentially the same position as my previous job, and I wanted to do something different. Hiring, training, scheduling and supervising thirty student employees were stressful enough without the additional duties of managing the library’s closed reserve and circulation desks. Nevertheless, I was falling in love with the hills of East Tennessee and her people. By the end of the day, I knew that they wanted to hire me. The library director asked me to stay an extra day for further interviews. She suggested I visit Cades Cove while I had the time.
I originally planned to depart early the following morning, so when I returned to my hotel, I inquired about extending my reservation by one night. That was not possible, so I made a reservation at a motel in Townsend about twenty miles east of Maryville and closer to the nearest entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. After calling my roommate to let her know I would be gone an extra day, I crawled into bed. I had an even harder time sleeping than I had the previous night.
I returned to the library the following morning and one of the library employees escorted me to the administration building. The dean of the college, a man of perhaps fifty years, met me with a handshake and a friendly smile, and welcomed me to his tidy corner office. He wore a suit and tie, the obligatory attire of college administrators, but he looked like he would be more comfortable in jeans and a T-shirt. He asked me about the drive down to Maryville and my impression of the college, but didn’t ask any tough interview questions. He just wanted to meet the person that the library director had selected.
After the brief conversation, I returned to the hotel, changed out of my interview suit into shorts and a T-shirt. I checked out of my room and traveled toward the park and into Cades Cove. I made my way around the single lane loop road in the cove, stopping at all of the homesteads, churches and other structures that the park service maintains as historical sites, taking pictures of the buildings and the landscape along the way. I found one of the several hiking trails that begin, end, or cross the cove and started walking. I was hesitant at first since I was ill-prepared for hiking: my hiking boots were in Columbus, and I had no trail map. But following the trail was not difficult. Heavy tourist traffic on the path had created a wide, well-defined trail, unlike some of the trails in Ohio’s state parks that I had explored.
Before I left the park, I drove east along Little River Road, which closely follows its namesake. I parked my car along the side of the road, and walked along the roaring river. The sound of water crashing over boulders in the stream was all I could hear. Fly fishers wearing dark green waders stood calmly in the shallow river, casting their lines, waiting for a brook trout to swallow their bait. I was unaccustomed to the calm, quiet peacefulness.
After spending most of the afternoon in the park, I checked into the Townsend Howard Johnson. The lodgings were a half step down from the Fairfield Inn, but it wasn’t bad —the bed was comfortable, and I felt safe. The motel was set up high on a hill, far away from the din of passing cars and trucks. I slept well for the first time since the start of my vacation-interview excursion.
I returned to Columbus the next morning and shared all the details of the trip with my friends and family. The following week I received a job offer. Much to the surprise of my friends, family — and myself — I accepted it.
The move to Maryville, Tennessee, in June 1997 was an adventure. My oldest sister, Kathy, and my friend, Ben, accompanied me. We departed much later than planned, and the old diesel rental truck slowed our progress as we inched our way up the steep inclines, making the trip take even longer. As we drove through the mountains, my brakes started making horrible grinding noises. Fortunately, I made it to my destination without brake failure.
Finally, around ten at night, we pulled into my new apartment complex, exhausted from the long, slow drive. I climbed the stairs to my second floor apartment and inserted my key into the lock. It wouldn’t turn. The management changed the lock since I signed the lease a few weeks earlier. Tired and frustrated, I called the resident manager from a payphone at a gas station across the street from my apartment. The woman at the answering service must have forgotten about Southern Hospitality when she took my call. She informed me that the number I had called was only for emergencies, and that I would have to call back in the morning. After being in a car for so long, I was impatient and a more than a little irritated. It took me several minutes to convince her that having no access to my apartment was in fact an emergency. The jolly resident manager met us at the door to my apartment when we returned from the gas station. He had expected me earlier in the day and apologized profusely for my difficulties. He renewed my faith in southerners.
Ben and Kathy stayed a few days and helped me unpack my belongings. I took Ben to the airport to fly back to Columbus, and the next day I saw my sister off. As I watched her plane take off from the gate, I cried. I felt all alone and wondered if I was making a big mistake. To add to my discouragement, I lost a filling in one of my teeth and burnt my arm when the oven door closed as I took a dish out of it. My new job didn’t start for a few more days, so I busied myself with arranging my apartment and getting to know the area.
My outlook improved quickly once I started my new job and began to make new friends. My coworkers were very welcoming and made me feel like I belonged there. My duties were similar to those of my previous position, and as I was already familiar with the library software that Maryville College used, I adapted quickly.
It wasn’t long before I made friends among the members of a Young Adults Group at a local Catholic church, many of whom were avid hikers. East Tennessee soon became home, and I became a hiking fanatic myself. Groups hikes were scheduled at least once a month from March or April until November and other trips were arranged informally, often at the last minute, in between the planned hikes.
One beautiful Sunday afternoon I wanted to go hiking, but could not find anyone to join me. The weather was perfect: sunny and warm, but not too hot or humid. I couldn’t not go hiking. So I went out on my own. I was a bit scared, but I chose a familiar trail I had hiked several times. Saying a little prayer for my safety, I set out and discovered a completely new world in the woods.
I can’t remember which trail I hiked. It might have been Rabbit Creek Trail or Rich Mountain Trail — both begin at the Abrams Creek ranger station. What I remember was the freedom of the hike, and the experience of walking through the woods silently, taking in all that my senses could perceive.
When I returned to my apartment, I called a good friend to tell him all the exciting details of my adventure. “David, guess what I just did?” I asked excitedly.
“Umm, I don’t know. What did you do?” he responded, not willing to guess at what crazy answer I might give him.
“I went hiking by myself in the Smokies.” I told him. “It was great — I only saw a few other people on the trail, I pretty much had it all to myself!”
He didn’t share my enthusiasm. “You did what? Are you crazy? You could’ve hurt yourself and no one would’ve found you for hours.”
My enthusiasm wasn’t dashed. “I know it’s not the safest thing in the world, but I was careful. It was so peaceful; I can’t wait to go again.”
“You’re not going to do this again, are you?” he asked, knowing that I would.
“Of course I am. You can’t stop me.” He knew me well enough to know it was true.
“You should at least let someone know where you’ll be hiking so we can call the rangers if you don’t return.” We agreed to a truce: I would notify him or another friend of my intended route, departure time and expected return time. In exchange, he would cease trying to convince me not to hike alone.
I wouldn’t give up the treasure I had discovered. It was just what I needed. On the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (a commonly used personality scale), I am an “I” — an Introvert. I’m not particularly shy, but I need to spend time alone to relax and to “recharge the batteries,” so I can better cope with the demands of life. The physical exertion of hiking was a great stress reliever, and the time alone gave me the opportunity to analyze and process all the activity in my life.
Hiking alone was a completely different experience compared to hiking with a friend or in a group. When I was with friends, we talked and laughed the whole time we hiked, notifying any wildlife near us of our presence. We stopped to rest when the slowest person needed a break.
As much as I liked those hikes, the conversations distracted me from using my senses to their full capacity. When I was alone, I noticed things like the damp smell of the earth, the fresh air of a mountain stream, the sweet scent of wildflowers. I saw more shades of green and brown than I thought possible. Colorful red-spotted salamanders, yellow caterpillars, all sorts of creatures seemed to spring out of the woods. The chirping of tree frogs, the drilling of a woodpecker in search of its next meal, the rustle of leaves as an unseen critter scurried away, the cry of the hawk and the melodies of songbirds all sounded more real.
Spending time alone in the woods gave me the opportunity to take in all these details. I could stop and observe the peaceful beauty surrounding me whenever I felt like it. I didn’t have to keep pace with anyone — I set the pace. This was freedom.
I pondered the greatness of Creation and often prayed as I explored the woods on my own. I thanked God for this awe-inspiring landscape and for giving me the ability to enjoy it. I praised Him for everything I had, and asked Him for guidance regarding the decisions I had to make. Sometimes I would chant the Jesus Prayer silently to myself as I hiked: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” a prayer that has its origin in Eastern Christian monasticism.
Prayer came to me naturally as I explored the woods on my own. An unexpected obstacle once prompted me to pray for the nerve to over come it. Near the end of a long hike, I encountered a snake stretched across the width of the trail. Only two species of venomous snakes live in the Smokies: rattlesnakes and copperheads. Both have distinctive markings making them easy to identify. This was a common asp, solid black — not poisonous — about an inch thick and thirty inches long. While I was relieved it was not a viper, any snakebite could be painful and easily become infected.
The snake had found the one narrow swatch of sun peeking through the canopy of poplars. Going off trail to avoid this snake could entail encountering poisonous snakes or other unseen risks, and I would rather deal with what I could see. So I waited, watching from a distance, hoping it would move on. No such luck. By then I was pretty nervous; I was only few miles from the trailhead. Backtracking and taking an alternate route would take hours, and it was already late afternoon.
From a safe distance, I tossed sticks and rocks toward the snake. My arm was shaking, and I couldn’t aim. None landed closer than a foot to the snake. Since it didn’t react, I assumed it must be asleep. Cautiously, I approached the snake, and when only a few feet from it, I leapt as far across the snake as possible. I almost tumbled to the ground, but quickly regained my balance. Looking back, I expected to see the snake slither toward me to attack, but it was still there, motionless, sunning itself. I relaxed for a moment and continued on my way, relieved.
Close encounters with snakes and potentially dangerous wildlife were the exception rather than the rule on my solo excursions. Physical challenges brought most of the drama into my hikes. My favorite route, a challenging eight mile loop, was no exception. The first of seven-and-a-half miles was on Cooper Road Trail, which was once the main road into Cades Cove for settlers and loggers. After crossing Abrams Creek on a footbridge, a log hewn flat on one side, the trail was easy to follow, and the elevation gain was gradual. The next 2.3 miles were anything but easy: Little Bottoms Trail gripped the edge of rugged Abrams Creek. The lack of significant elevation change was deceiving; if I wasn’t scrambling over large rocks and boulders, I was walking on a narrow path with a cliff above me on one side and the creek several feet below on the other. It’s not a hike for the faint of heart.
The biggest challenge of the loop was at its midpoint: crossing Abrams creek again — this time, a wet crossing of the rocky creek. The cold, clear water was well above my knees most of the time, waist deep after heavy rain. The rocks protruding from it were spread too far apart to rock-hop across the twenty-foot wide creek. Some people brought running shoes to change into for wet crossings. I kept my boots on — the rocks in the creek bed were covered with algae, and too slippery to navigate barefooted. The crossing was nerve-wracking, but exhilarating. The rest of the hike was relatively easy, slightly uphill on Hatcher Mountain Trail for two miles, then two and a half miles downhill on Rabbit Creek Tail to the trailhead.
I had hiked this loop several times when the local news carried the story of a death at the same crossing. Another woman hiking alone, an experienced hiker, had slipped, hit her head, and drowned. Even with the precautions that I took, the same thing could have easily happened to me. I never made that crossing alone again.
My adventures in the woods continued, but in the real world, I struggled. The novelty of living in the South had worn off, and I was deep in debt. Work was increasingly frustrating. The same situations that stressed me at my previous workplace bothered me now. Hoping to gain enough skills to land a job in the then-booming information technology field, I took classes at the local community college and sent out dozens of resumes to no avail. It was time to move on.
I emailed my former supervisor at the library where I had worked as a student. She surprised me by responding within minutes, telling me to fax my resume to her as soon as possible. They had a position that they were having difficulty filling, and she knew I could fill it. The job involved minimal supervisory duties, and the pay was much better than I was making in Tennessee. A few weeks later, I drove back to Ohio for an interview. The job was mine — I knew it almost as soon as the interview began.
The human resources director called me the next week and offered the position, and, after negotiating for higher wages, I accepted it. My last day of work was on a Friday. The next morning, I packed up the truck with the help of some friends, and headed north, through the now-familiar hills of Tennessee and Kentucky. We arrived at a friend’s apartment, my home for the next two months, in the early evening. Monday morning, I started my new job, still exhausted from the move.
Leaving the mountains of East Tennessee and the friends I had made there was bittersweet. I vowed to return regularly and dreamed of retiring there. But I also looked forward to being spending more time with my family in northeast Ohio and my friends in Columbus.
It’s been more than six* years since I moved back to central Ohio — six years since I last hiked alone in the Smokies. An occasional solo jaunt at Sharon Woods or Highbanks Metropark is nice, but it doesn’t have the same effect on me as the mountains of East Tennessee did.
* Originally written in 2006