Picking up where we left off in Nantahala National Forest, my girlfriend and I awoke to find the lake where we camped heavy with fog and pleasantly cool. We packed our tent and headed back on the road with the sun still low in the sky.
We had visited Shenandoah before and were filled with the rush of seeing something new but connected in the Great Smoky Mountains. We felt we were discovering a bridge between two discrete but known parts of the United States: the flat, tropical coast of the southeast and Appalachia in Virginia.
It did not take long to learn how the Smokies earned their name. Fog nestled low and comfortable in valleys. The road northwest took on a sense of grandeur and playfulness swooping up around hillsides and down into nadirs opaque with fog. The vegetation was thick and lush with large-leafed vines covering deciduous branches: the bright, competitive green of life growing over life willing to smother to seek sunlight.
Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the most popular national park in the United States seeing over twelve million visitors in 2019. But we went pretty early on a Wednesday morning when COVID was peaking in the south, so we figured it’d be pretty quiet.
The narrow two-lane road into the park had a high canopy of tree branches casting the ground in cool shadow speckled with golden light. We drove past people fly fishing in creeks just off the road. Cell service was poor and our GPS kept cutting out.
We were shooting to make it to Virginia and didn’t know how much time we had, so I’d scouted a few hikes, but soon we saw a sign for Clingmans Dome. That’s the tallest peak in the Smokies!, I thought. We have to go! We banked a hard left and headed up and up and up the winding road. We were passing very few cars, so I felt optimistic.
About an hour later, we finally found it. An enormous two-level parking lot stuffed with cars. Families and bikers spilled from the sidewalks into the road. Very few people wore masks and social distancing seemed a pipedream.
We did it. We walked the paved path up to the enormous cement viewing tower that spirals into the sky at 6,644 feet trying to do our best not to be COVID vectors. The view was beautiful. Layers of hills with clouds beneath.
Like Cadillac Mountain or Old Faithful, Clingmans Dome feels conquered, owned, claimed in a way that undermines its beauty. The strange concrete viewing tower looks shockingly out of place, makes no effort to be – somehow – tastefully incorporated into the landscape. It sits, importantly, above the highest peak in the Smokies. The older I get, the more I appreciate small parking lots.
Isolating the past into a photograph, Clingmans Dome is striking, gorgeous. But the concrete experience of being present there was as tourists claiming this land as conquered, ours, and leaving.