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ADVENTURE 6: Unplug! (Leconte Lodge) (Great Smoky Mountains NP)

Updated: Jun 15, 2022

Thursday, 28 April 2022, Great Smoky Mountains NP

Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you. — Anne Lamott, writer

Mt. Leconte. This peak, reportedly named after the older brother of a Sierra Club co-founder, towers 6593' high. While not the highest peak in the park, if you measure its face (elevation difference between base and peak), no other peak east of the Mississippi equals it.

As I organized this challenge, I heard about the Leconte Lodge, perched on the slopes of Mt. Leconte ~300' below the summit. This lodge ranks as the highest-elevation lodging east of the Mississippi River (and the only lodging in the park) - and no road leads there! To reach it, you must take one of the trails accessing it, and hike between five and nine miles - all for a room with no electricity or running water. But if you stay there, they'll serve you a hearty dinner and breakfast!

Perhaps you've heard about a law called Supply and Demand? There's a very limited supply of rooms and a huge demand for them - such that the lodge runs a lottery for a pricey night's stay once a year. Since I didn't know when I would visit this park, I missed that lottery.

Once my schedule came into focus, I called the lodge in mid-March to see if they had any openings in April. "Yes, we had one cancellation for a room on April 28. That's it for the month." Sold!

Before tackling the trek, I had to visit the post office in Pigeon Forge to mail back the Shenandoah cabin key, and to send a postcard. I had learned that the son of a friend of a good friend - a 6th-grade boy who loved writing and had taken an interest in National Parks - was now reading my blog. Here's a shout out to you, Ethan! Enjoy your Shenandoah postcard.

I headed for the Trillium Gap trail. Not the shortest route up at 6.7 miles, but more moderate than the shorter trails. However, the ranger yesterday warned me away from using the Rocky Gap trailhead - parking there is very limited - in favor of Rainbow Falls parking. (Later I would realize this added another mile and a half to my hike.) The first Rainbow Falls parking area had filled; the overflow lot had several spaces.

As I nervously checked to make sure my day pack had all that I needed - three water bottles, snacks, cameras, headlight lamp, jacket, toiletries, journal, gloves, change of clothes - a car pulled into the spot next to mine. The couple who popped out - Terry and Kathleen, they introduced themselves - looked ready to hike. I stepped over to get their input. "Are you familiar with the park?"

Terry answered, "We get here quite a bit, from Indiana. What were you wondering?"

"How do I get to the Trillium Gap Trail?"

He pointed away from the lot. "That spur trail takes you right to it How far are you hiking today?"

"To Leconte Lodge. I've got a room there tonight."

"Nice! I hiked up there and back yesterday - 18 miles, counting spurs. But I've tried to get a room up there several times, never succeeded. They're hard to get!"

"Yeah, I heard that same thing from my podiatrist." Or maybe it was my cardiologist. Or my rheumatologist. Or my ornithologist. (You know, who handles those butterflies in your stomach.)

My stomach had many butterflies that morning. Was I up to this? Sure, I'd walked across the U.S. - thirty years ago. Yes, I'd climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro - fifteen years ago. But I'd done nothing challenging (other than moving twice with cats to a new state - a whole different type of adventure) since my 2015 bike ride from Cleveland to Charlotte. This hike will surely rank as one of the most strenuous of the challenge.

With my Rocky boots laced and hiking pole in hand, I set out. The trail started out rising and falling, perched above Rocky Gap Road. The trail proliferated with exposed roots, wooden trip wires waiting for the unwary. Several trees had fallen across the trail, forcing me to step over or stoop under them. I passed only two pairs of hikers in nearly an hour.

Everything changed when I reached the Rocky Gap parking area. The trail widened to a smoother, family-friendly trail. The trail's next mile-and-a-half, to Grotto Falls, attracted many day hikers young and old alike as it gradually climbed up the hill. I could relax a bit - this is a nice stroll -and I soaked in the verdant greenery. Spring had firmly taken hold at this lower elevation, and the bushes and leafy trees pushed away any unease from my mind.

Given my sporadic phone signal in Shenandoah, I figured this more remote area would not have a dependable signal. (I left my phone on in case an emergency call came in.) However, regular beeps from incoming spam texts told me that I remained connected to the world outside. I finally switched to airplane mode to save the battery (but still have it ready for photos), determined to embrace a wilderness atmosphere.

Focusing back on the world around me, I noticed several small waterfalls - rivulets, really - splashing down the hill and across the trail. They posed on difficulty to rock-hop across - and even wading wouldn't have put my feet ankle-deep.

Most people ended their hike at Grotto Falls, taking pics, lounging on the boulders, snacking. The trail ran behind the falls, a popular spot for photos.

Now came the test. Trillium Gap lay three miles ahead and 1500' to 2000' feet higher. The trail grew unrelentingly steep, with more roots and rocks to be aware of. My pace slowed. As I gained elevation, spring loosened its grip on the land, with more trees only beginning to bud. Still it stayed verdant, with bushes in full bloom.

Slowly I made progress, interrupted only by a couple of short breaks for water and grapes. As I ascended, I could glance to the side and see the mountains that had towered above now fall below me. I dropped from second gear into first, and then into grandpa gear - place a foot, look for my next spot, move the other.

"How far to Trillium gap?" I asked one descending hiker.

"Another mile or two." Not liking that answer, ten minutes later I asked the next descender. "Oh, it's just right up there. You've almost got it." Much better answer. I considered asking them if 'trillium' was really a Latin term for 'grueling', but declined to waste the energy.

At the gap, rewarded myself with a break - grapes with a granola bar chaser. With my body recharged and a less-steep stretch in front of me, I set off on the last stretch. The slopes were mild at the gap, and a carpet of tiny white wildflowers covered the forested ground. A few minutes in, I noticed movement to my left - deer! Five deer played in the woods. One dashed madly back and forth, while another repeatedly reared up on its hind legs. Occasionally they would glance at me, only fifty to sixty feet away, but they saw me as no threat.

Watching them for a few minutes further calmed the aching in my legs. Though the trail did soon steepen again, and the footing remained tricky, I had survived the worst of the climb. The last two-plus miles still took well over an hour, but I let my legs plod through it.

When I saw the first sign of the lodge, I could have shouted, but didn't have the energy to spare.

Quite the quaint scene awaited me: a couple of wooden 'lodge' buildings, each with four bedrooms and a small common area; a dozen or so cabins; a dining hall; a few employee buildings.

At the check-in desk, JK greeted me enthusiastically. After asking whether I wanted wine served with my dinner (I said no), she grabbed a tin bucket and led me to the door. "This bucket is for your water. The spigot is right here. It looks like a pump, but you don't need to pump it, just hold the handle down." On the path, she pointed to another building. "That faucet is for hot water, if you want to take a sponge bath. Next up is the dining hall. We ring the dinner bell at 6:00, and for breakfast at 8 a.m.."

She turned away from the dining hall to lead me into the Old Lodge. "Over here is your bedroom."

A lesson on how to light the kerosene lantern and use the propane heater followed.

More hikers were due, so KJ left me to settle in. I wandered around the site, locating the path to the sunset overlook. My legs declined to do any major walking, so I settled at one of the picnic tables to catch up on my blog writing. Four of my lodgemates sat at the next table, engrossed in a game of cards. I was soon joined by an Irishman sharing yet another room in my lodge, and we talked travel.

At 6:00 the bell rang, and the Irishman and I headed toward the dining hall. "No, no," said KJ, "the dining hall is closed. We deliver the meals to each of you. Do you want to eat outside, or in your lodge?"

Sure enough, the crew dashed into the dining hall and out to the cabins and picnic tables, carrying utensils and sauces in one hand and bags of food in the other. The meal was filling: beef in brown gravy, mashed potatoes, green beans, half a peach, spiced apples, cornbread, and a cookie.

As the crew cleaned up, someone asked KJ what it was like working here. "Well, we get up at 7:00 to put out coffee and hot chocolate, and make breakfast. After cleaning up breakfast, we service the cabins once people leave, and collect all the buckets. By noon, new guest start arriving, and we have coffee and lemonade again. After dinner, from 7:30 till 9:00, we put out the coffee and lemonade again."

"Do you live up here?" they asked. "Do you work every day?"

The lodge is open eight months a year, late March to November. We all work three weeks straight, then have a week off. I love it - it's a guaranteed vacation! My next week off, I may go to Alaska - because I can!"

She hurried off to collect more meal debris. I returned to my room to turn on my kerosene lamp and my heater, and to organize my day pack for tomorrow.

I opted to check for any new texts - in case I needed to respond to concerns with the upcoming trip to Congaree - but refused to make any phone calls. With the evening cooling off at our elevation, I made sure my jacket was close by. For a few minutes I glanced through the notebook provided in each room (call it the Leconte version of a Gideon Bible!), reading about the history and operation of the lodge.

One story in the notebook captured my imagination: In the 1940s and 50s, Jack Huff and his wife Pauline headed the crew at the lodge. Jack, a lean man of 150 lbs, made an estimated 1,000 trips to the lodge over those years - over 13,000 miles of walking! He would tell his elderly mother of his work at the lodge, of how beautiful and serene it was, and she longed to see it herself. However, she was infirm, and could not possibly make the hike. What good is a problem without a solution? Jack constructed a special chair for his mother, strapped her in, tied it to his back, and carried her up the mountain!

Before long, the time came to take the quarter-mile spur to watch the sunset. Thirty or more guests assembled at the rocky point, watching the sun head for the horizon.

Rays of orange and violet spread through the sky. Endless ridges marched across the land below us, filled with the 'smoke' that gave the park its name.

The group watched in silent reverie as the sun sank from view.

A perfect end to a fantastic day.

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