All week my stomach churned as I waited for my last hike day to arrive. During the week it snowed and rained and tornadoes whirled, reminding me that Smokies weather cannot be predicted, so you’d better be ready no matter what. The Old Sugarlands Trail is at low elevation so I knew that we could reach at least one end of it and hike it no matter what – but would everyone be willing to hike it with me?
My daughters made the pilgrimage from Baltimore and Blacksburg and my husband, my son and I drove through torrential rains from Charlotte on Friday. We had dinner at Ogle’s and then joined the river of tourists flowing through Gatlinburg, stopping at the magnet store and at Kilwin’s for ice cream. Finally we fell asleep at Smoky Pines. Saturday morning’s sky was still gray, but no rain.
At the Sugarlands Visitor Center our group of hikers came together, some meeting for the first time, but everyone familiar with everyone else from hearing my stories and reading this blog: me, Jim, Megan, Brett, Laura, Danny Bernstein, Lenny Bernstein, Don Gardner, Judy Gross, Frank March and Dan DeSetto. Dan had not hiked with me before but is a Smokies hiker and blogger himself at Old Dan Walking. (He has written a great narrative of our hike and has terrific photos - read the rest of his blog while you are there.) We got carpools arranged and drove over to the Rainbow Falls parking area to access the Old Sugarlands Trail. There we were joined by Chris Hibbard, took photos to commem- orate this historic gathering, and started walking.
Old Sugarlands Trail begins by following what was once Tennessee State Highway 71, one of the first paved roads. Here and there are old telephone poles to attest to this thriving community named for the plentiful sugar maples from which maple syrup was made and where farmers raised vegetables, grain for their cows and hogs, and many varieties of apples for market. We crossed a creek on a footlog (Laura can do it with her eyes closed) and continued on an easy walk. The chatter level was intense as everyone mingled, and as Dan said on his blog, I felt like a party host or the mother at the wedding, trying to talk with everyone. I took great delight in seeing all these people whom I have had the privilege of spending time with on the trail finally getting to meet each other, sharing stories and information. Especially noteworthy was seeing Chris and Frank putting their heads together because they both have such an intense interest and depth of knowledge of the history of the area.
At an intersection we chose the half-mile detour towards the Sugarlands Cemetery, and at the end of that section there was a second choice: left to the cemetery or right to site of the Pi Beta Phi Settlement School. My family, Danny, Lenny and Dan went to the cemetery while Chris, Frank and Judy went towards the school. Where was Don? He waited back at the main trail.
As always, the cemetery was a worthwhile diversion, and the largest one I have seen in the Smokies outside of those connected with Cades Cove churches. There were many Huskeys, Ogles and McCarters here and many infants. Walking back out to the main trail we noticed many rock walls and stacked of rocks, attesting to many former homesites.
The crowd (mob?) met back together and we continued on Old Sugarlands Trail. Chris and Frank showed us one of the abandoned garbage dumps and the ruins of a Sugarlands CCC camp. There was broken glass, broken pottery, rusted washtubs and this rusted lawnmower. No curbside service in those days! I wonder if future generations will think our trash is noteworthy?
About a mile from the end my friend Mike Davis from Charlotte appeared. He had been backpacking around in Elkmont for several days and made a point to come join us for this momentous occasion, making us a grand total of lucky 13. We were all still talking so much that I can’t tell you much about the rest of the hike. Oh, yeah, we did pass that giant rock wall that was once a quarry…and suddenly Chris said, “There’s the trail sign.”
Everyone else moved forward, and Jim spontaneously directed them to line up on either side and raise their hiking poles and sticks to form an arch for me to walk under. (Now, Jim didn't know this, but when I participated in the Hike For Discovery program last year, that is what we hike leaders did for the hikers as they arrived for the banquet after their Grand Canyon hike.) I was ecstatic as I walked through the arch and we all cheered. Then Jim and Megan and I pulled out the plastic cups and bottles of champagne and sparkling cider that we had been secretly carrying for the hike and shared it all around. There on the side of the road, with cars whizzing by and honking horns (they knew something important must be going on - is it a wedding? Is it Brad and Angelina?) we toasted the Park and a job well done by everyone.
Breaking out the champagne we stowed away
It was especially wonderful to have my family with me
We trekked back to the VC and Judy drove the shuttle people back to Rainbow Falls to retrieve cars. THEN I drove back to the VC to retrieve my family. The VC was very crowded and I wanted to come back later for souvenir shopping, but Megan insisted that I come inside “to see some very cool stuff” (yes, I was suspicious.) Once I was inside, the ranger made an announcement congratulating me on having just completed the Smokies 900 and there was an enthusiastic round of applause from the crowd.
We went for a late but well-deserved lunch at Smoky Mountain Brewery, my family, the Bernsteins and Don Gardner and his wife, Carol. The festivities continued as the Bernsteins gave me a 75th anniversary commemorative photograph of Presidential Roosevelt’s dedication of the Park and Don gave me a framed collage of Park patches and trail tags – both very meaningful gifts that I will always cherish.
The idea of hiking all the trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park came to me more than two years ago. My mother’s rapid decline and death from lung cancer was the catalyst, as well as my impending 50th birthday and my last child’s departure for college. Setting this hiking goal was my way of coping with all the changes. Did it help? Yes! Even the unexpected loss of my dad in July 2008 was assuaged by my trips to the mountains. While it may have appeared selfish to some, it was my way of honoring my parents by finding my own happiness. It enhanced my spirituality and brought me closer to the God that my parents always trusted to take care of us all. While I can’t go to the mountains every day, I can go there in my memories. My wish for everyone who reads this is to find some place or some thing that brings you peace in your everyday life. Happy trails!