Updated: Jul 27, 2020
At 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is Great Smoky Mountains National Park's highest point. It is the highest point in Tennessee and the second highest point east of the Mississippi. This picture was taken by yours truly on what will be a day that changed my life forever.
I want to give some context on my backstory about my connection with nature and the great outdoors before diving deeper into my awe-inspiring backpacking tails. As a kid I was literally outside every chance I had (the rise of the Nintendo console didn't have a strong grasp on my attention span just yet). My brother and I were raised in Mississippi where all we really did was use our little creative and imaginative minds to forge a world that we wanted..a world just for us.. a world where we could be whoever we wanted and do whatever we wanted. You know, just being kids! My parents were brought up in the south, so right away, we all had this itch for being outside surrounded by the beauty of nature. My brother and I learned to hunt at a really young age. We even killed our first deer on the same night while hunting different territories--this is where my respect for life began. (And if you're having trouble painting a picture of me as a kid in some camouflage and holding a rifle, then see the picture below lol).
During this childhood timeframe my parents built a recreational equipment store from scratch called Newsom's Outdoors. They converted an old skating rink into a one-stop-shop for outdoor enthusiasts. This space was filled with fishing supplies, camo and boots for hunting, camping gear, arts and crafts store, a taxidermy, and an array of animals and amphibians. They kept boa constrictors, lizards, iguanas, tarantulas, baby crocodiles, birds, and I think there was a dragon named Viserion too. These creatures were all on display to WOW the new customers. At the time I did not understand that capturing animals to be put on display was nothing short of a no-no, but my views have changed since then, and I realize that things could've been handled differently. Nonetheless, I learned to respect the animals even more.
We started taking camping trips to cabins or using our pop-up camper when the holidays came around each year. These trips were usually to places such as Dismals Canyon, Tishomingo, Tannehill, or Lake Lurleen State Parks. Again, this is where my brother and I would run off and create the world we wanted while being outdoors. We climbed boulders, fished, kayaked, and rode mountain bikes all over God's creation--like kids should be doing! Unbeknownst to me, high school sports and adolescent wonders would soon be my disconnecting factors with the outdoors. It's not that I never went outside, I just lost my sense of peace with the stillness of being in the woods--I was chasing girls and sports dreams instead.
Now, let's fast forward to when the picture of Clingmans Dome was taken. In my late twenties, I met some friends for a buddy's bachelor trip to Gatlinburg. I was eager for some time with the guys and also to hike a trail or two since we were so close to the beautiful Appalachian Trail. I had been living in Nashville for several years and never really got out to explore the trails around the area so I planned to take advantage. I had heard about Clingmans Dome being a staple to do when visiting the area so we set our destination to the tallest peak east of the Mississippi River. Once we reached the top of the dome there were so many thru hikers in the area, geared up with light weight packs, trekking poles, and the coolest outdoor garb ever. (If you haven't heard of thru hiking before, it basically means to hike a trail from end-to-end in one direction.) The AT is 2,180+ miles from Georgia to Maine, and these folks were hiking it over the course of 5 months. I struck up a brief conversation with one of the thru hikers and he was happy to share his journey with me.
He told me stories of their highs and lows, but what struck me the most was how he mentioned that his adventure was the best decision that he's ever made. He was having an out of body experience as he watched himself conquer mountain pass after mountain pass on a daily basis, something he never thought possible of himself. I remember thinking to myself, "This is a man who isn't afraid to go for it!" Our chat reminded me of a John Muir quote which reads, "Keep close... and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. WASH YOUR SPIRIT CLEAN."
After our conversation, we parted ways. I walked away feeling energized and hopeful about spending more time re-connecting with nature. The guys and I climbed Clingmans Dome to snap a few photos and we had the chance to hike some of the AT as well. As we hiked I could feel something inside of my being speaking out to DO something great-something big-adventure-wise. Later that day we toured Gatlinburg and I had to agree with what Bill Bryson said about this town in his book A Walk in the Woods, "Tourists in Reeboks wandering through the street in between food smells, clutching grotesque c