I rose to my feet early in the morning, and enjoyed a big breakfast with some fellow thruhikers. They could not fathom why I was about to climb many miles that did not count towards the A.T.
I couldn't fathom why not.
I can't walk within miles of this impressive mountain and not yearn to climb it. It captured my interest and sparked a burning crave from within. It must be that part of me that just truly loves to climb mountains and roam deep forests with just what I can carry on my back. This part of me is what initiated my dream to be out here on the Appalachian Trail in the first place.
I said my goodbyes and proceeded south, and then began west on Boulevard Trail. Unlike the meticulously cared-for A.T., this trail was rougher, and required some climbing over and ducking under logs.
As I climbed, heavy fog once again rolled in. It created an eery feeling. As I climbed higher, and the trail became steeper, it created the affect that the cliffs dropped endlessy.
They may not be endless, but the cliffs were indeed high. Mt. Leconte has the greatest vertical elevation east of the Mississippi. What this means is while it isn't the tallest mountain above sea level, it is has the most elevation from its base to summit.
A hard climb, my excitement drove me on. It made me feel good to break away from the A.T. for a bit, to climb a mountain just for the pure desire.
It also peaked my passion to think that this mountain is taller than any point on the A.T., and would certainly be a highlight.
Eventually, I came to the top. There were trails leading in various directions. I first followed them to the cliff tops, but there were no views, just thick cloud. Again it felt like if I were to jump, I would fall endlessly.
Exploring this unique summit, which is home to many rare alpine plants including a few located nowhere else, I followed a trail that led to the Leconte Lodge.
The lodge looked like a fantasy setting, old log buildings engulfed in fog. It was built long ago to help convince those in power that the beauty and uniqueness of the Smokies should be protected under the status of a national park. It obviously worked.
Today, the lodge offers people and escape from modern society. One can reserve a place high atop the Smokies, in old log cabins adorned with antique furnishings. With no electricity, oil lanterns are used for light. It seems like a wonderful place to maybe invigorate one's mind. There were llamas tied to posts, which they use to bring supplies once a week. A visitor must hike to come. I like this place very much!
I walked into the dining area, and learned that a weary hiker could enjoy a lunch, and a bottomless cup of hot chocolate. And so, being a weary hiker, I did.
During my lunch, I learned that several staff members had thruhiked the A.T., or at least attempted. The cook did it in the '70s. I find it interesting; I think it takes a special breed to want to thruhike, and these particular folk who caught the bug went on to choose to live on a remote mountaintop for an entire season.
Finishing my cocoa, I stepped back outside. The clouds began to clear as I walked the trails. I proceeded to walk, and the views became breathtaking. I had time, beauty, and miles of trail before me. I am loving life.
Eventually I made my way back to the A.T., and stopped by the shelter. Greeted once more by fellow friends who are walking the trail too. I decided to push on north, not feeling the day was done, and did another 8 or 9 miles of the A.T.
My last full day in the Smokies was full of mixed emotions. It was a beautiful walk along ridges and mountaintops, with incredible views of serene nature. I was proud and excited that I was able to complete a notoriously difficult section of the A.T., through thunderstorms, hail, and mud.
And yet, I was also a little sad. I was amazed, I always desired to hike here, and it was beyond all expectations. But now it was about to come to an end. I am going to miss the Smokies.
I promised myself I would return someday, to hike more remote stretches of this awesome place. I also was quickly reminded of the many amazing miles I still had to go. Many things to see, and experiences to be had.
And so, I walked north along the final miles of this park. Distant thunderstorms echoed loudly throughout the valleys, as they did almost everyday here. It is as if the mountains, standing tall and mean, were calling out, making it known their menace and might.