It suddenly occurred to me as if out of a vision that I have never shared the details about any of my little excursions into whatever backcountry wilderness or road trip that I sometimes find myself taking part. Apparently I've decided to make good on this delinquency today. I won't go back very far so I'll limit the scope to this current year of 2014. But who knows, sometimes flashes and glimpses of specific moments come rushing back to me when I don't really expect them so I'm sure I'll be pitching back little nuggets of Moose memory(did you know my first and current nick name is Moose?) for you to enjoy or otherwise be disgusted with. So lets begin.
Well, not here....
Ah, this line feels like the right place. It's the end of another 16 hour shift at the hospital in late January and I have a decision to make: do I leave now or do I sleep a couple hours and get a later start on this cold and dank morning? I have a five hour drive ahead of me and I'd like to arrive in east Tennessee with enough time to hopefully get some images of Cade's Cove as the sun begins to set. So with tears in my eyes and a desperate feeling of exhaustion wrapped around me like a wet blanket I rush home, grab my prepacked gear...pack more crap that I forgot to pack, and hit the road heading east to Townsend facing the blinding mid-morning sun.
The reason for this trip is to hand deliver a few photos for a contest in Pigeon Forge and before you ask, I didn't win. I will drop them off, head back to Townsend where I've booked my hotel, and then come back home to west Tennessee the next afternoon...short trip. After staring at a white dotted line on I-40 for what seems like a half lucid eternity of engine noise I finally arrive at my destination. I deliver the prints, take a brisk drive back to Townsend, check-in to the digs, and immediately strike out into the Great Smokey Mountains National Park which I will refer to from here on out as "GSMNP" because Great Smokey Mountains National Park is too much to type in bulk and I've already did that for you twice, you bastard. After all, there was a couple hours of daylight left in the tank and given the brief nature of the expedition why burn them up with that "sleeping thing" everyone seems to be doing these days. For those unfamiliar with it, Townsend is a small city that lies about a mile or so east of GSMNP and has remained relatively unchanged since I was first taken there by my parents when I was still in single digits. It's somewhat of a jumping off place for hikers, fly fisherman, and the swashbuckling adventurer types.
When you enter the park from Townsend the road immediately forks with the left taking you towards my beloved Elkmont and further on to the horrors of Gatlinburg. The fork to right brings you deeper within the park and to my equally beloved Cade's Cove and other wonders. Fortunately enough, both options have exceptional views of the Little River and my choice was made easier seeing how the route to the left is closed due to ice, because you know, winter in the Appalachians. The sun is beginning to die behind the mountains so I calculate Cade's is a no go until the next day. I make use of a suitable turnaround spot and head back down the river to my long pined for hotel bed.
The blue hour(article on this likely forthcoming) is in full swing and all the snow seems to know it as everything white begins transforming into pale bluish-purple. My self says to me that I have to make a photograph and there's nothing that I can do to stop my self, because I'm myself, and myself is an unreasonable child. I see a familiar place in the river where the water is cut in two by a small patch of land that is anchored precariously by a grove of trees and rocks that form a tiny island in the whitewater. The appearance of a convenient pull off makes my decision final. So, camera in hand and gear on shoulder...and tripod in the other hand, I make my way down the ice slicked bank to the water.
This is the point in the story when I figure out that one of my boots has finally given up the ghost of being waterproof. As I wade through the ankle deep section of water I can feel its icy fingers slowly but diabolically seeping in around the toes of my right foot. It's so cold that it hurts. It hurts a lot. Here's a cold weather 101 for you: wool keeps most of its insulating properties even when wet. Seeing as my socks are made from this miraculous sheep hair, after the initial shock, my feet begin to warm back up. The new found relative comfort allows me to pick a suitable location, compose, and then fire off a few shots resulting in the image above. As usually happens, I begin to become caught up in the moment of the capture. The water around me seems to separate from the land with a roaring that becomes almost transcendent of anything else. Before I know it, it's damn near dark. So I pack it in and drive back the grocery store in town and then back to my room to dry out.
After finding the most efficient and highly technical method to rid my clothes and boots of river water I settle in for a long needed rest. I wash down my meal of frozen sesame chicken and box of egg rolls with some good Lagunitas IPA. I should mention that the hotel I stayed in was Townsend Gateway Inn. An unassuming lodging that I have passed countless times in Townsend and never thought to stay. Honestly, the place turned out to be one of the best hotels I've used and I highly recommend it if your're passing that way. Tell the kind folks at the desk I mentioned it to you. I digress, back to the story. I mentally make my plan for the next day. It will be Cade's Cove for sure. I have a lingering fear that as per my usual less than goood luck the road into the park will be shutdown due to a new coat of light snow that is currently falling. I put this catastrophic thought out of my head and set my alarm for 4AM so I can wake, coffee up, and make my way to the Cove well before sunrise the next morning. The time is around 10:30PM local. I have been awake over forty-eight hours.
After a few moments of precious sleep akin to what I can only describe as restful blackness I rise up and prepare for the morning hike through the eleven mile loop. It's cold, really cold. The thermometer reads around 16F and I elect three pairs of socks instead of two because the loop through Cade's is actually asphalt and I know it will be like walking on ice for half a day. I pull open the frozen door of my truck and climb inside. It's still long before dawn as I enter the park. I grab my gear and begin my trek. I've been in the open air for only about ten minutes and ice is already forming from my breath on my old shemagh and around my headlamp and mustache.
I immediately stop to make an exposure and find that I stupidly forgot to dry my tripod from the night before and compounded this mistake by leaving it in the truck over night. The tripod legs are frozen solid and unusable. I overcome this by brutishly clanging the legs together like a rabid energizer bunny and then push on to make my photograph.
The morning begins to break in the valley and everything is becoming more and more illuminated with a golden light. It gets brighter and brighter and I catch myself stopping more and more to just watch the mountains come alive. It's strange because here, depending on what elevation you're at and what location you find yourself, the day begins and ends at different times. At one point you can see the sun and at others it's hidden away by this or that mountain. After I turned around to take this quick snapshot I lost track of the sun for a few minutes as I made my way back behind the line of sight with Thunderhead Mountain which is the predominate piece of geography in Cade's Cove.
Which brings me to this.
I had thought I was already too late to reach the bottom of the valley up from the Hyatt Lane cutoff before the sunrise. I was wrong. This view took me by surprise and I will do what I can to describe the scene and if you know me, you have most likely already had to endure my attempts to verbalize the emotions this conjured. Call it spiritual or religious or magic, whatever label you choose, they all fall immeasurably short of the experience of being present for the sun breaking over the range. I almost feel guilty that I don't have the words to convey how I felt in this moment. Like I said, I had already passed this spot having thought I was too late. As I walked on, I immediately saw my shadow become cast in sharp relief and turned around. The sun was just beginning to peak over the mountain and I knew this was "it." I literally sprinted from the road and across a small patch of meadow to the base of this downed tree. It was on a small rise that looked out over Hyatt Lane and into the valley at the base of Thunderhead. I guestimated the exposure to keep the sun from being too blown out but still being able to see textures in the foreground. I fired away with my heart beating out of my chest. I made my way down a little closer to the pasture in front of Hyatt and made a few more photos and then moved on. I managed to document myself standing in the valley and doing the work. Still, there is nothing to bring you close to the place I was in that point in time, alone in the valley watching the new day being born.
Well, that's the end of the tale and I've told it as best as I can remember. I have another installment forthcoming that describes my latest venture into the Elkmont backcountry to document the amazing phenomenon of the synchronized fireflies that hopefully is fresh in my mind. Thanks for reading.