The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Great Smoky Mountains National Park

I took the day off from work two weeks ago and drove to Cades Cove, a stunning valley in the northwest corner of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In fairness, the day trip wasn’t to get away from work but to cleanse my mind upon the aftermath of what may have been the meanest mid-term political election in U.S. history. ‘Murica.

But America, despite her flaws, is also home to some of the most natural beauty in the world. The wide-open spaces of the west house such wonders as Monument Valley, Yosemite National Park, and the Grand Canyon. Space comes at more of a premium as you cross over the Mississippi and continue east, but beauty isn’t in short supply out here, either. My current state of Tennessee and my neighboring state of North Carolina share hosting duties for what may be the most jaw-dropping sight in the Eastern Time Zone: Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The Smokies of the title join the majestic Blue Ridge Mountains as the southern half of the Appalachian chain of mountains. If you’ve seen the movie “A Walk in the Woods,” or better yet if you’ve read the book, you’ll recall that the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail passes through the Smokies on its way from Springer Mountain, GA to Mount Katahdin, Maine. Many of its thru-hikers cite the Smokies as their favorite section of trail.

There are other trails, too – 900 miles of them, in total. (Yes, you read that mileage figure correctly.) A few of those trails will receive a brief mention in later paragraphs, but my recent visit to the park in general – at a time when the fall foliage was perhaps five days past its peak – reminded me that this park, a gem, is, nonetheless, an imperfect place.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) is, according to the park’s own website, the most-visited park in the U.S. park system. Human incursion, and the traffic congestion, air pollution, and commercial over-development that follows, has left its footprint on the land. In November, 2016, arson in the Chimney Tops area of the park led to 14 deaths, and the park will long bear the scars of this devastating act. Mother Nature herself plays Russian roulette sometimes, too; flooding, snowfall, and other acts of weather do their own damage, although, lower carbon footprint notwithstanding, there is less that we can do to appease the spiteful weather gods.

I am already six paragraphs in and I can tell you that this will be a long post as I write about the Good, the Bad, and – yes – the Ugly of this beautiful and complicated national park. Spoiler alert: there is much more of the former than of the latter.

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Photo Locale of the Month – September 2018

Do you ever feel like disappearing into the mountains for a few days as a way of leaving your troubles behind? Yeah, I do, too. A few days of breathing clean – but thin – mountain air and taking in sub-alpine vistas can really cleanse one’s soul, and even though the journey doesn’t truly offer a permanent escape from whatever ails you, the trip can at least help put life’s crises into manageable perspective.

I lived in California for 12 years, and “escaped” into the mountains whenever possible. The 65-mile Backbone Trail, which I have section-hiked countless times, was no more than an hour’s drive from my apartment. That being said, there isn’t a single hiking experience in California that is on par with hiking in the High Sierra. Yosemite National Park, Inyo National Forest, Sequoia/Kings Canyon…these are special places.

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Photo Locale of the Month – May 2018

A common theme of my monthly photo locale features is the concept of time. Namely, where has it gone? Of course, I haven’t traveled much these past few years, a reality that I hope to change as my salary grows.

With that in mind, it hardly seems possible that nine years have passed since my first trip to sub-Saharan Africa, during which time I took a whirlwind “taster” trip to several countries in the region including Botswana, home of the unforgettable Okavango Delta, and South Africa, home of the granddaddy of game parks, Kruger National Park.

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Reaching for the Sky: Climbing Mount Whitney

Once upon a time, I lived in Southern California and took advantage of the state’s mild climate by vowing to hike as many miles as I could and summit as many non-technical peaks as possible. My ultimate goal: the 14,505-foot (4,421-meter) summit of Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the 48 contiguous United States.

Although there are several approaches to Whitney’s rocky summit, the most well-trod route is via the simply-named Mount Whitney Trail. Hundreds of hikers tackle the route each summer day, making the Whitney permit business a lucrative one.

It was more years ago this very month than I’d like to admit when I made the climb. How long ago? Put it this way: the pictures I took that accompany this article were on a non-digital camera! (This fact is no doubt reflected in their poor quality.)

But I did it! In the paragraphs that follow, I’ll share my story and give you the latest information on the permit process. If the hike itself interests you, think about some training hikes you’d like to pursue to get ready; it’s never too soon to start preparing for a Whitney hike or climb.

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Climbing Concepción Volcano

Some evenings, when sleep is slow to come, I watch the show “Naked and Afraid.” If you aren’t familiar with the show’s premise, it pairs up an adventurous man and woman who have never met before and drops them off into the hostile wilderness for 21 days. They are removed of clothes and personal belongings and left to fend for themselves. There is, of course, an element of phoniness to the whole thing, as medics and camera crewmen are never more than a few steps away. Still, the editing, which focuses largely on the snakes (vegetarians, avert your eyes) they often eat and on the ruggedness of the terrain, makes for a thrilling hour of reality television.

A recent episode found the protagonists in a rural swath of Nicaraguan jungle. Humidity was in the high double digits and there was an even larger presence of venomous snakes than normal, but of course our heroes survived their ordeal, dirtier and skinnier but otherwise little worse for wear. The episode reminded me of my recent trip to Nicaragua, a country about which I have not written nearly enough aside from a single photo gallery in late January. In particular, watching the participants navigate steep slopes and contend with ankle-twisting tree root “stairs” recalled the vigorous 12 hours during which time I successfully climbed Concepción, at 5,282 feet/1,610 meters the country’s second-highest volcano.

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Tennessee Hiking

Summer in Tennessee is normally too hot for hiking, but these past few weeks have seen temperatures perfect for enjoying the great outdoors. Additionally, rainfall for the year has been well above average, so that means that Tennessee’s lakes are full and its waterfalls are raging.

I have tried to take advantage of every free day to get out and about. Here are a few Tennessee hiking destinations from recent excursions worth mentioning:

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Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

I have mentioned more than once in this blog that September is one of the best months for hiking. My Mount Kilimanjaro hike, in 2010, is just one example of successful multi-day, late summer/early fall hiking. I can hardly fathom the thought that it has been exactly 11 years ago this month since I hiked the Inca Trail through the Peruvian Andes to the pre-Colombian citadel of Machu Picchu.

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Top Ten Life Lessons for My Younger Self

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Roughly half of my blog posts these past few months have been top ten lists. Alas, here is one more.

I woke up this morning* at the not-so-ripe age of 41, and to a plethora of Facebook greetings from friends near and far. Social media has its ups and downs, but I must confess: it always makes me smile to receive birthday greetings via Instant Message, Tweet, or Wall Tag.

*Written one week ago but not published until 5/21 because of computer problems. Meh.

FB birthday greetings notwithstanding, this hasn’t been much of a birthday. Efforts by coworkers to invite me over for a night of card playing and beer drinking failed, through no fault of their own. And I have been feeling under the weather ever since I awoke this morning to the fetid aroma of dog farts. “What is wrong with me?” I thought, and then the answer dawned on me: I am 41 years old. Holy crap.

Where does the time go? It seems like only yesterday that I moved from Chicago to Los Angeles, driving cross-country with my friend Chuck and stopping off in Denver, Las Vegas, and the Grand Canyon en route. But that life-changing relocation happened in 2000! Likewise, I can hardly believe it’s been six years since I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak and the tallest free-standing mountain in the world. For that matter, I can barely fathom that it’s already been two years since I moved to Tennessee from Mexico City with my tail between my legs.

I never really “got it” whenever I’d meet someone who entered a depression upon turning 30 and still being childless or single. But my first day of my 41st trip around the sun has been something of an eye-opener. I am tired, and I have seldom felt less certain about my place in the world than I do at this moment. If this is just, as the saying goes, the first year of the rest of my life, then I should relish it. But can someone pass the back pills first? 😉

Here, with a hearty dose of humor packed between the dollops of honesty, are the top ten life lessons for my younger self:

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