by Cloe Chunn When I was a child, every summer my family drove from home in Tampa to the Smoky Mountains to spend time with both sets of grandparents. Even though I loved school, all year long I looked forward to summer vacation so we could visit my definition of heaven.
The Mountains were high and grand, full of damp cool shady spots, raspberries and blackberries, the smell of evergreen with the whiff of paper company on humid days. It was fun to follow a brook down, damming it with stones, watching leaves and twigs float down. My grandmother planted petunias every summer in planters built of river stones all along the porch wall. Each morning when she watered them, I would start all her rocking chairs rocking in thumping cadence. Carolina wrens and cardinals hopped about the steep yard, calling and singing.
On day trips we visited pounding waterfalls, steep gorges, and fairy glens, where we picnicked on Mimi’s fried chicken and apple pie. One day during a picnic, I noticed a sign to “Hickory Nut Falls.” Assuming the sign meant that the falls were just out of sight, I stepped away through the fir trees to have a look. No falls in sight. Maybe around the next corner? No. Well a bit farther then. Of course, it was a hiking trail, unknown in my experience. My quest took me steeply uphill, steeper than any place at home or anywhere I had ever been. I climbed and scrambled, intent on my project of finding the falls, all thought of deserting family wiped out by the grandeur of the mountainside, the cool deep mosses, emerald leaves hiding wildflowers, and monster tree trunks. The trail grew steeper and I realized that hands were made for this terrain, not just for climbing trees.
I began to hear running water and eventually found Hickory Nut Falls, a crystal cascade plummeting straight down to no visible bottom. To my Tampa eyes, this sight took time to sink in. I stood mesmerized, frozen in landscape so shockingly different that I was stunned. I had discovered a new frontier.
The rest of the tale? When I finally made it back to the picnic table, dirty and tattered from this greatest of expeditions, the ranger was there, having been summoned by my frantic mother and grandparents, who thought I had either fallen off a cliff or encountered a bear or kidnapper. I had been missing for two hours, which for me had passed in a few minutes. My return was greeted with relief and anger, and the new magic kingdom postponed itself into a sweet, inviting dream.
I have never had my fill of mountains and trails. Over a period of eight years I backpacked the Appalachian Trail in sections, loving every step. I have lived in Maine four decades, where I have written a hiking guide, Fifty Hikes in the Maine Mountains, and continue to visit high places for adventure and renewal. Mountains have made me a naturalist, been my teachers and preachers, my rescuers, my challengers, inspiration, and favorite journeys. Mountains have made my life wondrous.