Photo Essay: Soul: Recharged

First posted in April, 2006

I'd had a rough week - a week so rough I'll no doubt remember it forever - and decided it was time to do something to recharge my soul. I left work an hour early as part of my regularly scheduled work-out time - but why stop at an hour? I used the hour to give myself a headstart up a rather challenging little trail called Low Gap. Those of you who've played my interactive fiction game The Fire Tower may remember Low Gap - it's the trail you use in the latter half of the game.

I didn't have time for the full seventeen mile loop, considering that I didn't leave until about twenty of four in the afternoon, so for the first time ever I used Low Gap both coming and going to access the fire tower - a much shorter distance at around eleven and a half miles. The intent was to hit the tower by midevening, have the place to myself for sunset, and return in darkness.

I hadn't been there in two years. Two years. God, it really feels like maybe only a year has passed, but it's been two.

A late afternoon hike is a touch trickier than having the whole day.

Let me share the experience with you...

The hike departs the Cosby Campground in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and, after a short walk along an old gravel road, the trail meets Cosby Creek. You cross the creek three times during the hike, but only here, at the start of the walk and in the lower elevations, is the creek formidable enough to require a footbridge. Because the path is open to both hikers and horses, there's a ford in addition to the bridge, which you can sort of make out in the foreground. I can remember the first time I came to this area in the dark, and completely forgot that the bridge was there - I had a terrible time figuring out how to cross until I remembered to backtrack a bit and find the spur path to the bridge. Even when I remember the bridge is there, it takes a second in the dark to find the path to the dry route across.

Lovely, though, these bridges. This one needs to probably be replaced soon, though - it's rather bouncy in its old age, as the wood decays season to season.

A bit up from the first crossing,
you pass this wonderful little cascade.
I don't believe in fairies, but if I did,
I've always thought they'd live near here...

You stroll along through the woods for a bit - mercifully shaded under the thick hemlock canopy. One major drawback of a sunset trip to the tower - Low Gap Trail winds its way up the western side of the ridge, and eventually you climb out of the sheltering hemlocks into the late afternoon sun. I knew this well from the many times I'd descended from Low Gap on my way home from the tower, but this evening I was climbing in that sun - and not really gentle climb. The trail goes uphill at a consistent 7.5% grade for the first three miles (meaning that for every mile you walk, you go up over 700 feet in elevation). Fortunately, the hemlocks along this stretch look fairly healthy, but many of the hemlocks I've seen elsewhere in the park are being attacked by the hemlock woolly adelgid, and I dread a day where this forest will be forever changed without their comforting, protective presence.

Some trillium grow in the shade of the forest.

After a bit, I decided to put away the camera and just hike. Short breaks when I needed them, but persistently making my way through the switchbacks up the side of the ridge, out of the forest and into the sun. At one point I got a nasty little cramp in my calf - nothing torn, nothing pulled, nothing strained, just a stubborn knot that wouldn't go away. I decided to reduce the length of my stride and continue, and was glad that I did; this would turn out to be a fantastic hike, knotted muscle or not.

Just below Low Gap I ran into three other hikers - one solo guy about my age, and a married couple. I stopped and spoke to the couple, because upon seeing me they expressed their surprise at running into anyone else on the trail so late in the afternoon. I explained that my plan was to sit up at the tower for an hour or so, take in the sunset, then hike back in the dark. They exchanged glances at this, then the woman said, "That sounds lovely. You look to be in good shape to be up here." I wasn't sure what she meant by that... I mean, she was up here, too, right? Did I look that out of shape or something? Her husband must have seen the confused look on my face and clarified by saying, "We, um, bit off a bit more than we could chew this afternoon." "Oh?" I said. "Yes, we only get to go hiking once a year because of our children," his wife replied. I expressed my condolences to them on that, because really you have to do a hike like this at least once every couple of months at the least (with working out in between) to not have it be a total chore. I hadn't seen a mountain in six months (not by choice, of course), so I was even feeling it a bit, despite being in decent shape. We talked a bit longer, I confirmed that they were the last group that had been up there, and that I would probably have the place to myself. We parted ways and I move onward and upward.

Upon my arrival at the tower, I dug the camera out of my pack...

...and climbed the stairs to the porch that circles the building.

Eventually I set up my tripod inside the center of the tower (yes, I lugged my tripod up there, along with the essentials). I tried taking a few panoramics and a few 360 shots, ate a chocolate chip granola bar and drank some Powerade, then sat against the wall and flipped through a book someone had left up there while waiting for the sun to set.

And was rewarded with several shots, like these.

Not only was the sun setting to my west, but the moon was rising in the east.

A large, waxing moon, which would be full in less than twenty-four hours.

The short (0.6 mile) trail that connects the Appalachian Trail to the fire tower is pretty rocky in spots, so I packed up my things and decided to head back around quarter past eight - while I still had a bit of dusky light by which to travel. For a time, the Appalachian Trail runs the ridgeline, and I was treated to watching the moon climb into the sky on my left, the colors of an aging sunset on my right, and, down in the valleys far below and outside the park, lights coming on in the towns of Newport and Cosby. I toyed with the idea of digging the tripod back out for some low-light photographs, but felt I wouldn't be able to capture the feeling of the panoramas because I was viewing them through early spring trees, yet to come into leaf. I contented myself with enoying the vistas for myself in those moments as I walked along in the moonlight.

I was able to travel without any extra light for nearly half an hour, but as I began dropping back down the ridge, out of sight of the moon, I sought the aid of the headlamp. I turned it on and just at edge of the light I caught movement - given the absolute silence, I knew it had to be an owl. I found him, ever so briefly, with my lamp - a lovely Eastern screech owl, who regarded me in turn. I glanced at him only briefly, not wanting to ruin his night vision with my lamp, and continued down the ridge. As I walked I heard screech owls and great horned owls, and occasionally a frog.

As the moon rose high enough to again cast shadows, I turned out the lamp to see if I could make my way without it. By this time I was dipping back down into the hemlocks, and their branches were obscurring quite a bit of the moonlight. There were lovely shadows, though, and glancing back at the moon, I could see bats roaming through the trees on their evening hunt. I sighed, turned the lamp back on so that I wouldn't stumble on the rocky trail, and continued on.

I do love traveling after dark, but it requires concentration and your head, for the most part, needs to stay down and right in front of you, or you'll fail to negotiate some rock or root, or miss a turn in the trail. At one point, however, out of my peripheral vision, I noticed bark. A lot of bark. I stopped, glanced toward it, and found myself at the base of a gorgeous old hemlock - at least six feet in diameter. At its base was a wonderful flat boulder, which invited me to sit down and lean my back against the glorious old tree. I thought about it - really thought about it - but my legs were starting to feel the descent and I decided I'd best just push on. With a sigh, I placed my hand against the bark and gazed up to see how tall the hemlock rose, and in looking up I noticed for the first time how clear the rest of the sky was, and how filled with stars. I smiled and continued on my way.

Eventually, about a third of a mile from the bottom, the trail was wide enough to create a break in the canopy sufficient for the moonlight to really bathe the path. I turned off my lamp and walked through the woods in that natural blue light, watched it shimmering in puddles, casting shadows through the trees, my silhouette hiking just in front of me. The night air was warm, and I couldn't have picked a better evening for the walk. Just what I needed.

I don't do these things nearly enough.