Heaven Can Wait

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Gone Summering, July 1998

Heaven Can Wait
The timeless terrain of the Smokies all but screams eternity. But first there's a lot more fishing to do.
By Donovan Webster

The West Prong and Beyond

A recent park service study concluded that one-sixth of the nine million yearly visitors to Great Smoky Mountains National Park never dawdle long enough even to turn off their engines — making it laughably simple to escape the hordes. Just get out of the car, start down any of the park's more than 850 miles of hiking trails, and within a mile or two you'll be strutting through your own private Ida ... er, Appalachia.

Getting There: The park is 45 miles from Knoxville, Tennessee. Drive east on Interstate 40 to exit 407, turn right onto Tennessee 66, and follow the signs to Gatlinburg and the park entrance.

On Your Own: Mountain Challenge (423-981-8125) in Maryville will rent you a pack, tent, sleeping bag, and eating utensils for $15 per day. Put it all to use hiking the 44-mile, heavily wooded Lakeshore Trail, accessed by the aptly named Road to Nowhere, which starts in Bryson City, North Carolina. Mountain biking isn't allowed on park trails, but Cades Coves Road is closed to cars on Wednesdays and Saturday mornings — the perfect time to cycle the 11-mile loop overlooking haze-shrouded ridges and deep valleys. Rent bikes at the Cades Cove campground (423-448-9034) for $3.25 an hour. Fishermen should bring their own gear and buy a license in Gatlinburg. The daily limit is five rainbows, browns, or smallmouth bass, in any combination. Try trout, trout, bass, bass, trout.

Outfitters: The Smoky Mountain Field School (423-974-0150) offers one-day environmental workshops, guided hikes, and fly-fishing instruction ($42 each). Just 25 miles southwest of the park is the renowned Nantahala Outdoor Center (800-232-7238), which runs daylong kayak trips on the French Broad River that conveniently end in Gatlinburg ($40-$56).

Bedding Down: The LeConte Lodge, a cluster of seven cabins and three small inns, is on the summit of 6,593-foot Mount Leconte (doubles, $70; 423-429-5704). The park maintains 100 backcountry campsites, for which you'll need a free permit, available at most ranger stations. For more information, call park headquarters at 423-436-1231. — M.L.N.

The first time I saw the place my ashes will someday be scattered, I was 11 years old. My family was in the midst of a road trip from Chicago to Florida, and things were going badly. My teenage sister had left her clothes in a hotel closet, while my little brother and I were continuing our longtime bait-n-punch relationship in the backseat.

Finally my father met his limit. In Gatlinburg, Tennessee, he disappeared, returning with a bag of groceries. He piled us into our Buick, drove a few miles past the entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and parked the car at a turnout. Then he led us off for a picnic along what I later learned was the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River, its banks only a steep quarter-mile beyond the highway's shoulders.

That lunch turned the trip around. We played in the water, throwing rocks and spying trout, until my parents herded us back into the car at sunset. Sibling relations stayed blessedly tranquil all the way to Florida. At the time, I made a silent vow: Someday I would live near that stream.

And I did, too, for six weeks in 1989, fishing the West Prong almost daily. But by then I'd already been catching trout in the river for years, always in total solitude. Over three decades, as I slept beside the Little Pigeon, had showdowns with snakes and bears, and took my share of fish from its shallow pools, I saw only one other person: a Japanese tourist, apparently lost, and carrying a video camera — the better, no doubt, to capture those fast-moving mountains.

I always feel sorry for visitors who rush through the Smokies. If they'd leave their cars, they'd find tranquil wilderness. Here in the shadow of Mount LeConte, the poplars and spruces rise hundreds of feet into the sky, and mist rises from the damp, mushroom-strewn earth. It's like fishing inside a terrarium. And the fish are there with a vengeance. Down low, at the mountain's base, there are brown trout and rainbows. Up higher, where the creek grows narrower and steeper, the browns disappear and the rainbows are smaller but more aggressive. When you get one to hand, it's solid and cold — like a little brick — and it almost thrums with low-level electric current.

I don't know when it first hit me that the West Prong was where I wanted my ashes scattered. Probably the same time I found the ruins of a few pre-1900 homesteads along the river. Coming on those low stone walls now overgrown by moss, I had a sense of placid eternity. Each time I see them, I'm reminded that not everything is urgent, that silence and deliberation have their place.

Last spring, my wife and I took our kids to the West Prong for their first picnic there. I brought my fishing gear but didn't use it. The kids were skipping stones, spooking the trout. So I shrugged and chunked some stones myself. We kept at it for hours, our feet in the cool water, my mind on the sometimes beautiful circularity of life and on the knowledge that the last favor these people I love will do for me is bring me to this place I love. Strange as it sounds, I was smiling.

Donovan Webster's Aftermath: The Remnants of War was recently released in paperback by Vintage Books.

W h e n   I n   . . .
... the Smokies, head to Cosby, Tennessee, for a healthy dose of true Appalachia. Here, Jean and Lee Schilling have been selling hand-carved folk instruments for the last 30 years (423-487-5543). Best-sellers include dulcimers, Jew's harps, and a metronome-like instrument that allows even the most musically challenged to tap along with the beat.

Illustration by Jason Schneider

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