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Mt. LeConte Lodge: An Unexpected Jaunt

Seeing as how I just got my titanium hip in April, I did not plan to hike up to LeConte Lodge withmy husband last Wednesday.  I have a hard time climbing the stairs at home.  I’ve been considering having my other hip replaced asap, since it has little cartilege.  I’ve been going to physical therapy since the surgery, but the long aisles of Krogers are still daunting.   Maybe next summer, I thought.  Not now.

LeConte Lodge ( http://www.leconte-lodge.com/) is in the Smokies, and we’ve spent the night about ten times in the past thirty years.  You have to hike in and out.  We’ve tried all the trails, and I really prefer the Boulevard Trail, which is 8-1/2 miles long, but has the least up-and-down, about 1,000 feet.  It’s most easily accessed from Newfound Gap, on the Tennessee/North Carolina state line, where Roosevelt dedicated the Park from an impressive stone podium built for that purpose. 

I drove my husband up to the trailhead to drop him off.  He’d been on a waiting list in case of a cancellation; you have to make reservations a year ahead of time.  The last time I went to the lodge was two years ago, when I didn’t know what was wrong with me.  I only knew that I was utterly exhausted (though I bounded up the trail, with a heavy pack, many times before) and that it took me eight grueling hours.  I was lucky to get there before dark.  I did beat one other woman, though! 

I just intended to walk a bit with him until I got tired, turn around, and come back home to get some work done.  But it was a perfect, beautiful summer day, much cooler than the heat-wave flats below.  I don’t think I’ve ever set out on a hike without a pack before, not even a short one, and felt curiously light and liberated with just half-a bottle of water and my car keys hooked onto the belt loop of my shorts. 

I just kept going, mainly propelled by the thought that I may not be able to do it again, or have another chance.  You never know.  A similar thought propelled me the second time we hiked the Kalalau Trail on Kauai, when I broke my leg but had to continue because there was no other way to go–no road, just a sheer drop to the ocean and sheer cliffs above and six miles back compared to five miles to the beach and campsite.  Nevertheless, I had a great time and wrote a piece about it (ommitting the bit about the broken leg) that I sold to the Washington Post.  I still think in Travel Article Format, having sold about twenty of them early on, but years ago the Post shortened its format, and there’s no fun in just writing roundup pieces about which restaurant to go to.  I like to write essays.  And I was right–I’ve never been back to Kalalau since.

“Atral Weeks” played over and over in my head like a record, which was handy, since it’s been one of my favorites since it came out, jazzy and completely Other and Original, in 1968.  Any offers for the original LP?  I thought not.  It hisses and pops, emitting a stunning river of images and emotions still fresh.  I’ve been listening to St. Dominick’s Preview all week, anyway, and mulling over Van Morrison’s preference for studio work vs. Jerry Garcia’s love of huge live concerts, where fans were free to tape everything and trade the results.  Very different business models.  Van Morrison’s tight control over his recordings resulted in some of the coolest cuts ever laid down, but he has always been enmired in negotiations and contracts, judging by the content of a lot of his work.  We saw him in San Francisco in 1972 in a small club in the shadow of the Bank of America obelisk, and he was a gruff, sturdy, somewhat bearish man (though not all that large, except in voice and spirit) who belted out his stuff with horns blaring behind him; he also picked up his sax a few times.  There were no seats, just a carpeted floor.  They packed us in, but we still had room to sit down, though by the end we all were dancing.   I hear he has little patience with live performances and just suffers them.  I had tickets to see the Grateful Dead at RFK Stadium in 1973, and took my sister with me.  They mostly performed, sometimes for eight hours at a stretch.  We were there on time, but the Dead were not.  Typical Deadhead debauchery ensued as the crowd swelled.  It was hot.  It was rumored that the Dead were going to parachute into the stadium wearing American flags.  My sister, who was with me, had little patience for such things, and surely not for hours on end.  I would have stayed as long as it took, but I really didn’t want to make her suffer, so I never did see the Dead.  They did not play in my head as I walked up the Boulevard Trail, but I pondered their business model and thought about my own work, and how I might publish in the future. 

The Boulevard, once it achieves the ridgetop, is an absolutely lovely trail, with sweeping views of the North Carolina Smokies from knife-edge cliffs.  The trail really is smack on the ridgetop, and it is narrow–sometimes both sides of it are sheer drops–and the pines smell sweet, and the wind, even in July, is cool.   We reached the spot where it would be possible for me to return to the car without going uphill, now three miles out.  I thought I may as well go eight miles as six. 

We hadn’t really brought enough water for two people.  I cadged water from a guy from Maine who passed me twice–once having already hiked about eight miles, from the Alum Cave parking lot, and on the way back, having gone to a place called the Jump-Off, to which I hiked on my 50th birthday.  He had then made a two-mile side trip to Icewater Springs to fill his water bottles.  He was on his way back to the parking lot, and once he got there, would have hiked about 22 miles that day, way up.  And way down. 

The longer I walked, the more thrilled I became that I was actually able to do it.  Had I planned to go, I would have loaded myself down with a notebook, camera, probably a book and a reading light, special things to eat, and many more clothes than I would need, even if it rained and snowed and we were somehow trapped for a week.  Oh, and maybe some painting supplies.  I travel heavy.  I know it’s wrong.  I can’t help it.

At the office, they sell t-shirts that you can only buy there, and other souveniers.  They have two pretty nice Yamahas (this year, anyway), a foot-pedal Singer sewing machine (the mind boggles) like the one I used for years (my grandmother’s, with which I once sewed through a fingernail), and lots of games and jigsaw puzzles.  The cabins have log bunks with Hudson Bay blankets, a washstand, a kerosene lamp, and now, propane heaters.  Highest recorded temperature there is 78 F.   They have postcards carried in by llamas and stamped as such, and we bought two.  They helicopter in major supplies in the spring.  I suspect that the llamas mainly bring in fresh food and supplies for the staff.  They supply dinner and breakfast and now, a sack lunch.  They even have wine, now, but the menu hasn’t otherwise varied in all the years that we’ve been going there.  What’s really fun about the lodge is meeting all the other people staying there. 

I recalled the time we’d hiked down from Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in Tennessee, one April afternoon.  We stayed alone on an Appalacian Trail shelter while a storm dumped truckloads of hail on the tin roof.  The next day we woke to snow, and our next shelter, for which we had permits, was crammed with hikers from the previous night who didn’t want to move on, including a guy with a puppy.  Some rangers came, checked permits, the threw the people who didn’t have permits out, but they came back after the rangers moved on to put their bedrolls on the dirt floor, rather than the wire bunks we slept on, to be near the fire.  It’s really fairly rugged up there, with Weather.  We hiked the entire AT in the park when we first moved to Knoxville, and it was idyllic. 

Despite the hike, I barely slept; there can hardly be a more intractable form of insomnia than mine.  I clomped down the flagstone path in my untied boots with my walking stick many times that night, looking up at the stars and down on Pigeon Forge, home of Dollywood, ablaze, about twenty-five miles away, at three a.m., thinking about how astonished and, perhaps, dismayed the guy who built the lodge in the early twentieth century would be to see civilization so very close at hand.

The climb down on Thursday was torturous.  It is a steep descent of over 3,000 feet in 5-1/2 miles, heavily travelled because of the lodge.  There are cables to hang onto along the cliffs, handy in rain or ice, or when you are unsure of your footing, and log and stone steps on the very steep parts.  I went very slowly because I am naturally clumsy anyway, and took care as to where I set my feet.  I had to plan out many of my moves.  I thought of rock-climbing Kij Johnson, and thought about how writing a short story might be like rock climbing, where one move locks you into your way forward and might wipe out your way back, a series of interlocking choices.  I wondered if rock climbing was a writing metaphor for her.  I am completely composed of metaphors.  I can’t think without committing metaphor, and of course every word we think or speak is one. 

At any rate, I made it down, since there was no other choice. 

The next day, I went to physical therapy and told them that it works.

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