I take the afternoon of day three to resupply, then head out the next morning on a shuttle to the five-mile Alum Cave Trail, the most direct route to the top of Mt. LeConte. A cold mist creeps through the hemlocks as I stand on the slope above Le Conte Lodge. Constructed in 1926, this rustic retreat is famous for its view of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. But what really strikes me is that even now no roads wind to the top of Le Conte.
At the turn of the 20th century, great debates raged over what exactly should be preserved, discarded, and constructed within a national park. Certain advocates for a Smokies park, such as the Asheville Chamber of Commerce, pushed to build a great system of roads, including a skyline drive that would run the entire length of the range. To see where the road would have run, I hike southeast from Le Conte, taking the Boulevard Trail to its junction with the Appalachian Trail.
If not for Benton MacKaye, a highway would undoubtedly exist where the AT now traverses quiet ridgetops. Fortunately, the Tennessee forester and conservationist recruited his friend, Bob Marshall, then director of forestry for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, into an alliance that succeeded in squelching the idea of the skyline drive. What has been preserved is a remarkable stretch of the AT that runs along the Tennessee and North Carolina border, often hovering around 6,000 feet.
The only real signs of civilization here are the hiker shelters, like the one at Pecks Corner where I bed down for my final night. Instead of industrialized rumbling across the ridge above me, I hear only the wind in the oaks and the hiss of camp stoves outside the shelter. Yet something other than the soft murmur of thru-hikers keeps me awake. It is a image I wouldn’t have if it weren’t for Glenn Cardwell and the oral history he preserves of his own family.
I am stirred by the memory of walking with Cardwell through Greenbrier Cove earlier on this trip. The sun slanted through the oaks, and he slowed to show me a barely visible path on a thickly wooded slope above the confluence of several streams in Pigeon River. Sunlight broke through the trees, creating tiny prisms of light.
“They called that trail Lovers’ Lane,” said Cardwell. “Young people would leave church and hold hands as they walked down to the river.”
As I lie in my sleeping bag–the vision of brambles shrouding the thin ribbon of earth, and the cool water sweeping though the cove–it occurs to me that for every beautiful thing preserved in this park, something else was split apart.
There’s no question that I will always appreciate the beauty of these mountains, and yet my newfound knowledge changes one thing.
Often, we build bonds with wild areas by learning the names of the flowers, animals, and native trees. But here, among the misty slopes and hollows of the Smokies, the stories of a people long forgotten are the ties that bind.
Marcus Woolf is the author of the hiking guidebook Afoot & Afield: Atlanta.