By Lawson Lau
There's absolutely nothin' like spending four cool, misty summer days hiking in Davy Crockett country: the Great Smoky Mountains, now a national park. Since it's in the Land of the Free, it charges not an entrance fee.
My family and I drove 529 miles from Mahomet to our friends' timeshare condo in Gatlinburg, Tenn. In the final leg, we drove ever so slowly in the evening hours through glitzy Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, where pedestrians are royalty and drivers are second-class citizens.
Gaudy flashing you-want-them-we-got-them signs compete for the tourist eye — from lodging to food to entertainment. And, yes, away from Champaign-Urbana, we pumped cheaper gas at $3.26 a gallon.
Our friends Mary Anderson and Mike Fimmen have a combined experience of more than three decades of hiking experience in the Smokies. They were our expert guides. We hiked 25 miles in four days on an assortment of easy to challenging trails, a small fraction of more than 1,500 trails crisscrossing the mountains, including the famous Appalachian Trail that winds more than 2,150 miles through 14 states.
Crockett, according to the ballad, was "born on a mountaintop in Tennessee." His likely birthplace is Clingmans Dome.
At 6,643 feet, it's the highest point in the Smoky Mountains and barely within the Tennessee border. If his mother had wandered a matter of yards to the south, North Carolina would have claimed Davy as her legendary son.
Clingmans Dome Tower is a half-mile hike up a paved pedestrian-only road from the parking lot. On a clear day from the tower, it is said, a person could see forever. ("Forever" is defined by park rangers as 100 miles.)
On the mid-July day when we were there, the Smoky Mountains were doing what they do best: smoking like there is no tomorrow. Mist drifted by us and shrouded much of the surrounding mountain peaks in a cool 60 degrees. We could have waited forever to see a clear day.
Heavy rain had fallen the night before and our first trail, the Cucumber Gap Trail, was at times soggy. It did not, however, impede our hike once I got over the thought, now that I'm no longer a kid, of having to step in mud and water.
Crystal-clear waters rushed down the mountain in a most natural fashion. The resonating, enveloping gentle roar of white-capped streams embraced us. Their rhythmic sound nurtured a soothing ambiance for the soul. Nature was around us, in us, part of us.
Water, according to Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, who lived in the fourth century B.C., is a gentle yet indomitable force. Nothing prevents it from seeking its predetermined place in nature.
Llamas and bananas
After bacon and eggs cooked by chef Mike for breakfast, we set out at 6 a.m. for the trail leading to the Grotto Falls and Mount LeConte. When we arrived at the start of the trail, nine llamas were being prepared to carry bags of linen to the LaConte Lodge.
Llamas love bananas. Our knowledgeable hosts brought bananas, and we fed them to the llamas.
We then hiked to Grotto Falls. It is a popular trail. Water cascades over a cliff in a constant muted roar.
Rhododendron bushes abound, some with blossoms. William Wordsworth would have said with a flourish, "Ten thousand saw I at a glance."
On some of the higher elevations where sunlight breaks through are blueberry and raspberry bushes. I saw that some blueberries were ready and free for the picking. Therefore I came, I saw and I picked.
No longer the good ol' days
Crocket, so goes the legend, "Kilt him a b'ar when he was only 3." Those were the good ol' days.
When we stood around eating our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches under the shade of many greenwood trees on the Cucumber Gap Trail, a family of four came by. Dad held the more senior boy's hand and mom carried the younger lad. It turned out that he was 3. I told him of what Crockett did when he was only 3. In those days, 3-year-olds were a tougher lot.
In all probability, young Crockett tangled with a black bear. And just maybe, he encountered a newborn that wandered far from mama, played with it and, not realizing his own strength, well, you know what happened next. Legends are made of these.
One morning, while driving to the Appalachian Trail, we saw a mature black bear on one side of the road and a cub on the other. I stopped our minivan, located the hazard button and pressed it. The adult bear appeared flustered by separation anxiety, rejoined the cub and they disappeared into the brush.
Much water has flowed down the mountain since Crockett's days. Now, there are only warning signs about "active bears." Don't feed 'em, don't startle 'em, don't run from 'em. Put your garbage in bear-proof containers. And, of course, don't kill yourself a b'ar whatever your age or the bear's age.
Bugs big as coffee mugs
Much of what is written is done in British Romantic poet Wordsworth spirit. But to give some semblance of equal time, here's Thomas Hardy's perspective.
He would have unhesitatingly pointed out the oozy, yucky, slimy, narrow Smoky Mountains trails. They are obstacle courses where trees, to express their displeasure, deliberately expose their gnarled roots to trip up the unsuspecting hiker.
Then there are the gargantuan rocks protruding from the ground to abet the trees in their effort to tell unwelcome human intruders to stay out of their territory.
As for the "climb every mountain and ford every stream" maudlin stuff, Hardy would say, "That's not for humans, but hungry bears." These nonhumans have the native right to climb every mountain to forage for berries and fish in every stream.
Last but not least, pesky insects descend on humans as though they are tasty free food. In one of his rare lighthearted moments Hardy could well have written, "There are bugs, bugs, big as coffee mugs, on the trails, on the trails. There are bugs, bugs, big as coffee mugs on the Smoky Mountains trails."
In honor of Crockett, he is given the final word. What would the King of the Wild Frontier have said about bug spray? As likely than not, he'd say, "Son, leave that nasty stuff well alone. One teeny squirt and 'em papa and mama b'ars would smell it from a clear 10 miles away in all directions on a windless morn."
Lawson Lau's travels have brought him from the concrete jungle of the Republic of Singapore to Davy's greenest state in the Land of the Free where NSA, IRS, Drone and Phony Scandals invasive weeds have taken fast and furious root. When he's not traveling, he pastors an international church, teaches a humanities class at Parkland College and reads about ancient China — which was then called God's Country.