Ain’t No Mountain High Enough: Clingmans Dome and Chimney Tops

A few weeks ago there was a big coastal storm that ran its way right up the mid-Atlantic and put a stop to our backpacking in PA plans. So, instead Ken and I headed south to Tennessee to get away from the storms, but still get some time on the Appalachian Trail. I was a little disappointed that we weren’t going to be able to get a section done, but happy to get away for a bit. Turns out parenting tween boys is tough. They push back on a lot. Charlie told me that they were talking about conflict in his media class, he’s in 5th grade, and he used me an example. Ouch. He told me how he told his class that we have a lot of conflict because I limit his phone use and access. It’s true. My relationship with Charlie is strong, but there is a lot more conflict between the two of us because I am strict on screen time. Recently I told him I loved him while he was arguing with me and his response was, “I understand that.” Ouch. 

On top of pre-teen angst, prior to this trip, work had taken both Ken and I away from home, and each other. When I was single, I remember saying to myself and anyone who would listen that I never again wanted to be in a “normal relationship,” meaning the constant asking ‘what’s for dinner’ and things being so routine that the relationship defaults to cruise-control. Well, I got what I asked for. Being with someone who travels for work means a lot of freedom, but it can also be lonely. I can get a little cold to the outside world when I’m feeling this way. Honestly sometimes it takes longer than I’d like to warm back up to Ken after he gets back. The Friday of this trip was one such day. I had been frustrated with the learning curve of a new job, tired from diabetes, saddened that my kids lost that warm and generous love young kids have for their parents and generally angsty prior to taking off. 

Saturday, September 25th we drove into The Great Smoky Mountains National Park to get some hiking in and found out that it was free parking day!  The park is always free, but there is a small parking fee. The AirBnB had bear spray, which we packed in with us, we both hoped to see some bears in the park. We bought a week pass and some things from the gift shop to help support them. We also grabbed a trails map for $1 since there is very little cell phone reception. We drove towards Clingmans Dome, the highest spot on the Appalachian Trail. There is a 7 mile drive off the main road to get to a parking lot before Clingmans Dome. The parking lot itself is at a high elevation, with great views of the surrounding Smokies. A sign there reads: 

“Mountains: Refuge and Healing:

Clingmans Dome is a sacred mountain to the Cherokees, where the Magic Lake was once seen. The Great Spirit told the Cherokees that, “if they love me, if they love all their brothers and sisters, and if they love the animals of the earth, when they grow old and sick, they can come to a magic lake and be made well again.”

For Cherokees, these mountains have meant a refuge, homeland, and a mythical and spiritual foundation for their people. During the Indian Removal Period of the 1800s known as the Trail of Tears, the mountains meant safety from pursuing soldiers. Today these slopes provide a refuge and offer inspiration for visitors from a hectic modern society. 

‘Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find that going to the mountains is going home.’ – Naturalist John Muir 1898” 

We started our ascent in the late morning. It is only about a half of a mile to the concrete observation tower, but the incline is steep. We passed a few people, we were passed by a few people. The diversity of people on the wide, paved path reminded me that the mountains are home to anyone who seeks them. There is a movement to change the name of Clingman’s Dome to Kuwahi, it’s original Cherokee name, because it was a holy place to them, plus Clingman was pro-slavery. The parking lot, trail and observation tower were all crowded, especially on a Saturday morning. I didn’t mind the crowds, or the pavement, because it is accessible to many people this way. It was amazing to look out over mountain tops and know one day I will be here again, but on a backpacking trip as I continue to knock out section hikes of the AT.

“Love when you’re ready, not when you’re lonely.” -Author Unknown 

We left Clingman’s Dome and found the short path down to the AT. While we were in Tennessee (and/or North Carolina) we wanted to get a few miles in. We walked about 2 miles north towards Mount Collins. Immediately, I noticed how different the trail looked and felt from anywhere else I had been on it. The trees drip with moss, mushrooms look overgrown and there is a rainforest feel to the vegetation around us. We took our time and felt light as we walked along without packs. The first mile was a gentle descent. As Ken and I talked our conversation wondered from our relationship to our AT journey together. Ken meant to say that we fell in love our first backpacking trip together, but what came out was “we fell in love with ourselves.” I think the Freudian slip is just as true as what he meant to say. For myself, I was just accepting who I was when Ken and I went on our first date. I recently saw a video where someone talked about getting “stuck” in relationships because you married someone who was amazing at the level you were on. He goes on to talk about how there are levels in life and if we meet someone who cannot or will not level up with you, that is when you are stuck in a relationship. Taking that first trip out on the Appalachian Trail I pushed myself. Symbolically that trip leveled me up and looking back, I fell in love with the person that next level allowed me to be. I cut a lot of people out of my life, especially those who brought me back down to the level I met them on.  

“A good relationship requires us to be virtuous, faithful, present, empathetic, generous, open, and willing to be a part of a larger whole. It requires, in order to create growth, real surrender.” -Ryan Holiday

To date, Ken and I have been to the lowest point in Maryland on the AT at 230 feet, and now the highest, at 6,625 feet (the lowest point of the trail is in New York at just 124 feet above sea level). I suspect the highest point in our relationship is yet to come, those peaks grow higher and higher. To that point, I also know we have not reached our lowest point. A friend sent me this quote this week. “Someone said to me the other day ‘it’s better to be broken while free and healing, than to be broken and trapped in a miserable marriage’ and I just think someone else needs to hear that.” I’ve been at the lowest point in all types of relationships. There’s an innate feeling of being trapped when a relationship is at its lowest point, because you know the emotional weight has brought you so far down, it seems an impossibility to climb out. Taking moments to reflect on these thoughts, I know I can let go of the saltiness I feel, and to clarify, the saltiness I feel towards anyone or anything. I re-read the quote from the sign near Clingmans dome “Today these slopes provide a refuge and offer inspiration for visitors from a hectic modern society.” The word refuge comes from the verb, to flee.  I also don’t live in a place anyone would feel the need to flee from, but I think the part about our hectic modern lives is spot on. My refuge is my morning journaling where I can walk myself through the anxieties and annoyances that bother me. I find a lot of peace there, and often mentally go to a spot along the trail I’ve been to before. I have an amazing life, and sure there are some ups and downs, stresses and joys, but overall I just need to remind myself that I am on an amazing level, and when the time comes, I’ll keep climbing up. 

“In the middle of every difficulty lies opportunity.” -Albert Einstein

Our trip was a short one, so we crammed a few protein bars down our throats when we got back to the parking lot, chugged some water, and drove down the road towards Chimney Tops, another very popular climb in the park. The last part of the trail is currently closed. A large forest fire caused by two teens broke out in 2016 and not only ruined the last part of the trail, but also ended up killing 14 people and injuring 176. A new outlook of the exposed rock peaks was built in 2017. At only 3.3 miles round trip, this petit path packs a punch. The difficulty of the trail is rated “moderate” due to the last quarter mile or so. The first mile or so is very gentle. We crossed over the Little Pigeon River on a wooded bridge and walked the flowing river. There were people out on the rocks, and as we continued up, we passed several people coming back down the trail towards the parking lot. After another small bridge crossing, the trail intersected with the Road Prong trail, with a sign that the AT was just a few miles away. We turned left to continue on the Chimney Tops trail, and that is when the climb began. 

So many steps

Once you start the ascent on this trail, it is straight up to the top. There are a lot of steps built into the mountain. There were wooden steps, stone steps, wide steps and narrow steps. The air is thinner and I felt this climb more so in my lungs than anywhere else. I took several breaks as we climbed. I felt people coming up behind us on a set of these “stairs” and moved aside to let them pass. The two fellow hikers were a young couple, probably in their 20s and the guy was playing music out loud from his phone. I really dislike hearing other people’s music on the trail, I would rather listen to the rushing water, rustling of the leaves and birds. But as we continued, the couple would move aside and we would pass them. All I heard on the way up was his music, plus my own heavy breathing.

As often happens, I started to resent Ken as we climbed. The mental ribbon tape went “fuck Ken, fuck Ken, fuck Ken.” Luckily I never actually say this to him. He was my cheerleader for the last half mile. I was tired. We had hiked all day on very little sleep and I hadn’t eaten enough to hold off the hanger. Just as I was about to say ok, let’s turn around, we approached the lookout. Chimney Tops, which is one mountain with a double knob top, is one of the few bare rock summits in the Great Smoky National Park. The Cherokees named this mountain “forked antler” due to the resemblance. The trail continued a few feet past the lookout, and we noticed people climbing the bare rocks. We walked past the trail closed sign cautiously and made our way towards the rock scramble. Ken went up almost to the summit, while I stayed behind. The rocks were slippery and I wasn’t so much worried about getting up, but sliding back down, especially since we were in an area that was closed to hikers. The views were worth the climb. The peaks that surround Chimney Tops are closer than Clingmans Dome. While Clingmans dome it is an amazing experience to descend from above tree line, to eye-level with the tops of the trees, and then back down, it doesn’t have the same sense of nature. It’s a giant concrete walkway that takes you there. Chimney Tops is the real-deal. 

The descent was quick, and surprisingly not bad on my knees. We made our way quickly. For Ken he wanted to make sure we got back to the car before the sunset. For me, I wanted to get to dinner as soon as possible before the hanger got out of control. Conflict is an inevitable part of relationships. Brene Brown has done research on empathy, shame and other uncomfortable emotions. She breaks blame down in a profound way; “blame is simply the discharging of discomfort and pain.” It makes sense now why I always blame Ken while we are on tough hikes, even though I am the one who always wants to go hiking. The quote made me think of the more serious things I have blamed others for, because it was easier to sit with the discomfort and pain. We did not see any bears in the park, even though Sunday we spent exploring Cades Cove and we were told that area is teeming with wildlife. On a warm Sunday in the fall that area is actually teeming with families in cars. But we were visited by a momma bear and at least one cub at our AirBnb. To the Chinese, black bears symbolize “courage, independence, and a strong will.” My mother will tell you that I was an independent, and very strong willed child. I will tell you that both of my kids are strong willed children. They both push back against rules and make me question, briefly, if it would just be easier to give into their wills. To continue to climb, “level-up,” grow they need a supportive environment in which they can develop their courage, independence and internal strength. What I realized is that in the moments when I hate that Ken is gone for work, those exact traits are the ones I am doubting in myself. Rather than sit with that discomfort that comes with sorting out why I am feeling fearful, dependent and/or weak, it is “easier” to discharge that onto someone else. Those are the moments when journaling becomes my refuge, to flee from the discomfort into a safe space to process how I am feeling. Ken and I also share the responsibility to one another to foster a safe and supportive environment where we, too, can enhance our courage, independence and strengthen our wills to continue to climb higher.


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