We must have looked so pathetic, hovering and shivering, striking limp matches, cursing at kindling that refused to ignite. Moisture rose from the rich forest floor as a trillion tiny raindrops taunted us from above. Never mind that we were lost, too. It was a few days before Thanksgiving, and my friend Josh and I were barely surviving the first night of a three-day, 15-mile loop in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
To a couple of California-raised outdoors snobs spoiled by the Sierra Nevada, the Smokies promised to be nothing but a quaint compromise, the only wilderness within driving distance of the Corn Belt and Rust Belt colleges we were attending. Sure, the Smokies are big by Eastern standards, but that distinction, we agreed, was like being the tallest midget. Yet, despite the lack of groaning skies and 14,000-foot peaks, our first morning sizzled with promise. Temperatures held in the high 50s. The forest hummed with the white noise of the breeze. At lunch, we sat next to a creek and watched water tumble over slabs of 300-million-year-old who-knows-what kind of rocks.
But then the rain came. And we missed a turnoff, or we overshot our campground–or both. Neither of us remembers exactly where the day took a wrong turn. But we quickly understood that Eastern woods can be far tougher than the peaks in the West. Sorry to inform you, Mr. Softshell-Bedecked-Colorado-Peakbagger: The Smokies can extinguish your fun faster than you can whistle that tune from Deliverance.
As misnomers go, the word "Smokies" tops the list–this range should have been called the Steamies or the Foggies, doused as it is with 85 annual inches of rain. Here, Sierra-style fire building–armful of deadfall + mac-and-cheese box + Bic–is more futile than wrestling a greased pig. The canopy can be so dense that the sun never reaches the dark, fungi-rich soil.
We found plenty of river birch and southern hackberry and shagbark hickory, but every last twig was denser than lead and soaking wet. Of course, we'd expected wet wood, but we'd foolishly arrived with no Appalachian fire-starting knowledge. Had we known to whittle away the wet bark, we might have discovered combustible tinder underneath. If we'd brought real firestarter, like Vaseline-soaked cotton balls, we may have seen a proper flame. Instead, we resorted to a splash of white gas from the MSR stove, and discovered it burns very poorly without a high-pressure jet. I wish I could say that we started a bonfire and drank moonshine with twin-sister Tennesseans. Truth is, we got frustrated, heated some ramen on the Whisperlite, and went to sleep in a damp tent.
But our failure was not total. After cursing our soggy environs, we learned a lesson in biodiversity: It's like the Smokies have been soaked in Miracle Gro. Sixteen hundred plant species and no fewer than 30 species of salamander, including the blazing blackchin red, thrive here. All of those shades of green, however stinking wet, are what make the Smokies a living and breathing wilderness. When I return there–and I must–I'll leave my Western snobbery behind, bring a blowtorch, and appreciate the place for the title it so rightfully holds–not the tallest midget, but America's most popular national park.
Mastered the Smokies? Now learn how to light a campfire–with one match–anywhere with this video.