US64 to Little Frog Wilderness (a day hike)
National Forest, along the Ocoee River, TN
April 5, 2011
There are many roads that lead back home from South and North Carolina, yet I chose to take one already traveled because itís so dang nice. Itís the most familiar mountain road in Tennessee to me: Highway 64, a ribbon of asphalt that curves and sways in synch with the beautiful Ocoee River, a clear mountain river that rushes ferociously out of the limestone cliffs and crags of the Smoky Mountains, headed for the Tennessee River. It is along this road that the combination of sunshine, budding green and blue sky make it impossible for me to go any further in the car. Sometimes you just have to stop and get out of the damn thing, even if youíve got someplace to be. I call Andra and tell her Iíll be late, then shoulder my pack and hoof it up the trail. Walking: The purest form of human travel.
The route starts on the highway, but within just a few minutes, the dull hiss of intermittent tires on the blacktop fades into the sound of the wind, and I am in the woods again, enjoying the fabulous first flush of spring green after a long winter. In the humid air, in the early spring, thereís nothing that smells better than dogwood on a gentle breeze. Several times I am stopped dead in my tracks by the overpowering fragrance of it, and in such cases I stop walking and look around, trying to see the flower that I can smell so clearly. This is quite impressive because my sense of smell is really pretty poor, so I can only guess at the pleasure afforded to one whose sense of smell is exceptional. Only rarely can I find the blooming tree through the thick tangle of tree trunks and shrubby undergrowth, but the scent is unmistakable. Itís a smell thatís not just pleasant, but emotionally fulfilling. Sound corny? Yes, well Iíve been called worse. But just wait until youíve smelled it. It smells like happiness to me.
I have no intention of hiking far on this hike, for it is only by compulsion that Iím even here rather than driving home. The Benton MacKaye Trail is long, and though nothing would make me happier than taking a couple of weeks to hike it all, the reality of work and homelife await further west. Itís good to get a taste of it though, if only for a few miles. Helps me formulate plans for what I will do with my long retirement, coming up in only 30 years, give or take.
The thick forest is cut through with a transmission line, and all vegetation taller than 2 feet is gone, as if a tree 6 feet tall posed a threat to the 500í towers. I hike uphill on the well marked path away from the powerline right of way, hearing water off to the east but sticking to the trail. My feet obligingly carry me along the terrain at a good clip, spurred on by the coolness in the air, and the sun slanting through the largely-naked trees sends bars of shadow flickering across my vision like a strobe. This effect is one of my favorite things in all the natural world. That, and dogwoods blooming. I rise ever upwards in the woods on the back of this forested ridge, catching better and better glimpses of Big Frog Mt to the south, a lump of mountain that looks just as much like bread dough rising as it does a Big Frog, but I still like the name. Too many Round Mountains and Deer Mountains out there. Frogs deserve their mountains, too. Equal opportunity for all, and all that jazz. I reach a nice highpoint on the trail after 45 minutes, and it is conveniently located at the Little Frog Wilderness boundary. Seems like a great place to stop fighting gravity and join it, so I do just that, and let kinetic energy guide me back down the trail to my car. (ÖAnd always let Kinetic Energy be your guide!)
A quick hike, no more than 2 hours, and Iím back near the trailhead. But not done with the trail. Sometimes when the fun is over too quickly, your mind rationalizes a longer stay. So it is that I hear the falling water along the creek near the trailhead, and am drawn to discover what it is. I clamber down the steep slope to the water, a thin creek flowing in a chattering rush over boulders and logs. Upstream, the water seems to come from the cliff face, and I can see the water falling in a silver veil through the trees. I bull my way through the low shrubs and stumble over rocks to get right at the base of the falls. Clear water with silver edges splashes on the mossy rocks below, sending sparkles of cold water glinting through the air like diamonds in the sunlight, some coming to rest on my face and arms. Next to actually drinking the water, this is the most refreshing enjoyment of the stuff.
Back on the trail, I am at my car in just a few moments, completing my compulsive circuit of yet more Cherokee National Forest, all for price of 2.5 hours of life. Not a bad way to spend it at all, friends.
Cruising west on scenic US-64 along the Ocoee