San Diego, the Pacific jewel of Southern California, is not particularly well known for it’s Fall. That’s because a perpetual sunny summer persists until a mild little winter, and fall never even gets a chance. And so, the very first time I saw and experienced the famous fall colors was three years ago – on a weekend getaway with three of my high school friends, to The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I write this post now, since I probably won’t experience Fall this year, I will have to be content with the memories from this trip.
I have always had a deep love for the mountains. It lies dormant, it is unassuming, but when I go to the mountains, it flares up and lets me know what I need to be happy, what I need to be fulfilled. It happened to me when I was 16 and saw the Himalayas for the first time, and it happened again when I went to the Smoky Mountains. I don’t really know if I can find the words to describe the feeling, or if anything I write can bring it back. It is in the air, in the stillness, in the beauty. It is a feeling, a moment that I can capture in my heart, but cannot truly revisit unless I go to the mountains again. It is a memory of happiness and peacefulness. Is this called inner peace? At such moments, I cannot talk, I can only breathe. Each breath seems so much more than it is at sea level – it fills my mind with new thoughts. It makes me want to write, it makes me want to become something better than I am.
Our Great Smoky Mountain experience started on the Blue Ridge Parkway from Asheville. We covered 80 miles of it in about 5 hours. It was one of the most beautiful drives I have ever been on, a winding road surrounded by colorful trees. Suddenly you drive through a picturesque tunnel, or over a cute little bridge. It goes high, up in the mountains, and you can see the scene change, fall is almost replaced by winter, and the trees are coniferous. The air is sharper, breathing is contradictorily easier.
We stopped in many places, and took many pictures, but a picture can never replace the real thing, it’s just a static snapshot of a dynamic situation. The most that a good picture can do is bring back memories of the feeling, but is a memory the same as the real thing? Is it ever true to the original, or is it colored by perspective? Is it how we really felt, or is it how we wanted to feel? I think memory is a very treacherous thing, it twists facts the way we want to see them, and the reality is lost because everyone remembers it differently. Does everyone have a different reality? We were all together on the Blue Ridge parkway, and yet we were separate, each finding our own peace. Each affected in our own way, and yet drawing comfort from the other. My eyes were full of tears that never fell, because every turn brought another breathtaking scene, everything was changing too quickly. It was after noon when we reached the Smoky Mountain national park, and so we had to change our original hiking plan since we only had about 5 hours of daylight left. We chose to go with a shorter one – supposedly 4 miles round trip, called the Chimney Tops trail.
The 2 miles up started off fairly easy, like a gentle uphill stroll in the park. It was pretty, walking across waterfalls, into the woods, listening to my friends’ crazy adventures.
And then it suddenly changed – there were rough steps hewn into the landscape and one mile went straight up. I don’t know how much elevation we gained in that one mile, but my calves could tell you it was a lot lot lot. The view at the top was breathtaking though! And then we saw the rock that everyone was talking about – the way to the “Chimney Tops” was to climb a rock about 300 yards. Unless you were a mountain goat, the only way to climb was to use your entire body, well arms, legs and core. I should have been scared for my life, but I was so pumped with adrenaline, I looked down at the 5000 ft drop awaiting me if I lost my handhold or foothold, and felt only exhilaration. (Honestly, I did not know that I was this adventurous. I guess you always discover new things that you are capable of, thats why I love traveling. I do things I don’t normally do – I push myself and am pleasantly surprised. And I come home with a stock full of memories, and heaps of stories for anyone that will listen). As we were climbing, we felt soft snowfall, and it was the “icing” on the cake. There is nothing more beautiful than first, fresh snow, nothing as pure, and as soft. Well, it snowed for all of 3 minutes, but we forgot all that when we got to the top.
The view was gorgeous. It was powerful. On one side, it was still fall, very colorful, very pretty. Like the Shire. On the other, taller side, winter had already seeped in. The trees were leafless, it was gray and bare. Mordor.
We had a lovely, well deserved picnic up on the Chimney Tops – bread and cheese (brie) and basil hummus and crackers and carrots. The way down the rock is scarier than the way up, you basically put one foot behind the other in a ridge, trust that you won’t get stuck, and pull yourself down on your bum. Just as we got to the bottom (the way down was much shorter than the way up!), the sky was filled with black clouds, we had to forgo the sunset we had planned to see at some beauty spot. “Straight to the cabin then!”
The cabin was super cute – nestled in a beautiful valley, isolated from civilization. The nearest town was 8 miles away! We had a real fire in the fireplace, and a couple of rocking armchairs next to it. It was like the cottage in Goldilocks and the Three Bears. The night was cold, but the cabin was warm and cozy and full of friendship.