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 comestibles and bucket sized soft drinks. Gatlinburg had become tacky. A horrible place that had been torn down and replaced with mini-malls and shopping courts that stretched across Main Street." Gatlinburg has its beautiful features just like any other city, but what's crazy to me is that you can hike and spend time in this blissful outdoor environment and within minutes be inside a galaxy of shopping malls, eateries, and tourist traps. Is this the epitome of America?? But I digress. So as our trip came to an end, I decided that I was going to go backpacking... the very next weekend.
A New Awakening
Once arriving back to Nashville I began brainstorming where I wanted to go backpacking and what gear I needed to obtain to make this a fun, memorable, and comfortable trip. From the desk of my soul-draining logistics job, I Googled the best places to go backpacking in Tennessee and stumbled upon a place called Virgin Falls. This hike is a nine mile out and back trek that has multiple waterfalls and is rated as difficult. The pictures seemed breathtaking, and I also had a few friends that recommended the trail. I reserved a campsite and turned my attention on what I would need to survive the weekend at Virgin Falls. I found my brother's old H-frame backpack that looked like something out of a 1990s Backpacker Magazine. It had never been used, and since I was ballin' on a budget, it was perfect for a weekend getaway. I took a trip to Dick's Sporting Goods for essentials: a Lifestraw for filtering drinking water, a Stryker Stove for boiling water, Mountain House meals (their breakfast hash and beef stroganoff were amazing fyi), a Gerber knife that could take down the most savage animal, some cookware, and an ENO Tarp to go along with my ENO Hammock for shelter. I didn't have a tent and I heard that sleeping in a hammock was pretty damn comfortable, so that was a no-brainer. Before I knew it, I was ready to hit the road for a backpacking adventure and a chance to reconnect with Mother Nature.
On October 8th, 2016, I set out for my first trip. My GPS took me through some beautiful backroads as I jammed to 'Hard Sun' by Eddie Vedder as loud as possible. I soon lost cellphone service as I arrived at the trail head parking lot and began to unload my gear out of the truck. I had the trail guide downloaded on the All Trails app for guidance, but this trail seemed to be heavily trafficked and impossible to get lost on. I laced up my boots, gave my pack a once over to check for any forgotten items, signed the guest login book, and began my first backpacking journey. I trekked through the beautiful green and lush woods of the rolling Tennessee hills in awe. Wild ferns covered the ground beneath the tree canopy. Birds sang without interruptions from planes, trains, or automobiles. Giant boulders and rock overpasses hovered over the trail. Deer, bobcats, snakes, and cool looking insects all shared their environment with me. You could hear water rushing around boulders and down waterfalls as the streams and rivers grew closer. This was absolute BLISS! I eventually came to a stopping point at Big Laurel Falls: A big open mouth waterfall that you could walk down into and inside the cave (depending on how much water was flowing). This was a breathtaking scene! The picture below is one I took with my ole pup Tyson. You can scroll to the next photo to see from inside the cave with no water running.
Can you picture a better place to stop and take a break!? I did a little exploring as I ate my snack consisting of beef jerky, cheese, and a protein bar that seemed to taste better than any other time before. Daylight would be gone in about 4-5 hours, and I wanted to explore more around my campsite, so I packed up and kept moving on. The landscape only grew more sublime the deeper I hiked in. As I hiked closer and closer to Virgin Falls (where my campsite is located), I could hear the roar of the waterfall becoming more thunderous. You can feel a change in temperature as the hills descend in towards the waterfall. As you approach, the mist of the falls starts to cool you to your bones, which feels incredible on a hot day of hiking in ten plus miles. You can see some white rushing water falling down through the trees until you come to the outer edge to behold the beauty of Virgin Falls. It really is something to see, especially on a day that has had some rain throughout the week forecast.
This was a wonderful experience for me, as I believe it was magnified by the difficult hike in to the falls that made it a more satisfying accomplishment. After snapping a few photos and basking in all of its powerful glory, I began to search for the campsite I booked. Eventually, I saw it was at the base of the falls, but it was surrounded by several other sites in rather close proximity. I wanted to have more privacy and exclude myself from the noise of other campers. I kept my pack on and and found a trail that looped around to the top of the waterfall. It was freakin' magical at the top! There was a cave with water flowing out that fed the waterfall and a few off-grid camping sites that people had made home for the night. Then, I came to a bluff that overlooked the falls. It looked like about five people had made this area their home because the climb up is really steep and far from a water source. It had perfect trees to set up the ENO hammock and a fire pit made with stones. Since I knew this site would be an untraveled area, I stripped off my pack and started to make camp.
I setup the hammock, filtered some more drinking water, and gathered some kindling for the fire that would cook the filet mignon that I had marinating in my secret sauce. I put my earbuds in and took a stroll further up the hill. I soon found myself dancing on top of the boulders (pictured in the background) along with the swaying trees to a song that gets me going called 'The Aubergine of the Sun' by Ott. I was dancing uncontrollably without a care in the world! (Something similar to the Seinfeld episode where Elaine awkwardly dances in front of everyone at the office party).
It was just me and the swaying trees, reconnecting with nature and LETTING GO TOGETHER! I could feel myself waking up. Waking up to the connection of my humanness and the Earth around me. I started to weep uncontrollably to that feeling. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced. I sat down on the rocks and tried to simply BE with those feelings and thoughts for about an hour. It was a powerful moment that had me wanting more experiences like this. I was thinking to myself, "I'm going to be coming back to this place a lot to reflect and explore more of myself in depth." It makes me ponder a speech I heard Alan Watts once give on YouTube stating that, "What you call the external world is as much YOU as your own body. Your skin does not separate you from the world, it is a bridge through which the external world flows into you and you flow into it." Deep, deep down and far, far in is simply the fabric and structure of existence itself, and when you discover that out, you laugh yourself silly... as I was on top of that hill. As daylight began to slowly fade, it was time to start the fire and prep for dinner. The fire burned down to coals, and I gathered them up to cook the steak and then I poured myself a cup of whisky. Just as the sun set below the trees, it was time to feast. This was a meal for the books! I ate dinner in my hammock as the night time creatures started to warm up and serenade the woods with their songs. I spent the next few hours lying in the hammock and thinking about the trip thus far. As I hung my food bag up in a faraway tree (to prevent bears from stumbling upon my campsite or snagging my food), I heard a pack of coyotes howling out in the distance. I thought that was so neat yet slightly unsettling. The night grew dark and my fire burned out as I geared up for bed. I remembered looking at the weather report before losing service on the way in and noticing it was going to be a little cooler at night, but I told myself I had enough warm clothes on to stay comfortable. Little did I know I would soon find out that I was completely wrong and unprepared.
I laid down in the hammock as the moon shined brightly through the trees and onto my shelter. It was nearly a full moon that night. I heard sounds of leaves rustling and branches breaking, which sparked a slight fear in me. I mean, it's incredibly easy to psyche yourself out, after hearing coyotes howling, while you're wrapped up in a nylon hammock like a pig in a blanket exposed to all of the elements of nature. I felt like I was a meal ready to eat by a bear, coyotes, or Sasquatch. After a brief nap, I woke to my body shivering uncontrollably. The temperature dropped to about 34 degrees and my sleeping bag was only meant for 55 degree weather and up. Oops!
"I guess buying a cheap bag from Dick's was a stupid decision," I blurted out loud. I was in the backcountry on top of a mountain next to a waterfall. Of course it was going to be cooler than the weather app said! (Side note, I later found out that you need what's called an under quilt to keep you warm and comfy if you camp in a hammock.) Since I didn't have one, I got up and started a fire. What saved my ass was something I read before my trip about starting fires with ease. It's no bushcraft way of managing the outdoors, but what you do is soak make-up pads or cotton balls in petroleum jelly and store them in an old pill bottle. They light up and stay on fire in pretty much any weather, and I will attest to that because it took no time to get that fire going. I warmed myself back up, to what felt like a normal body temperature, and then I remembered I had packed an emergency blanket, like the ones you see trauma victims wrapped up in or the tinfoil types seen on a NASA spacecraft. I pulled mine out and wrapped it around me inside of my sleeping bag in hopes this would allow me to actually get some sleep. Well.. IT DIDN'T! I think I slept about two hours that night, but as I watched the sun rise over the tree line, I was instilled with the same energy as when I started my hike in. There's just something about being in the woods alone that provides you with superhero energy!
I slowly got out of my hammock and moseyed over to the edge of the bluff to soak in the sounds of the forest waking up. I was happy that I could start (re)experiencing moments like this from here on out. I wanted to get back home at a decent hour to process this trip and also not be rushed with my hike out, so I boiled myself some water for breakfast and started breaking down camp. The morning breakfast menu consisted of dehydrated Mountain House eggs, veggies, and bacon, with cowboy coffee to drink. It was damn good and just what I needed after a night with no sleep. I had all of my gear back inside their stuff sacks and was ready to head out. I said my goodbyes to the most memorable campsite to date and began my trek out. I took my sweet ass time walking out. I found myself occasionally stopping in the middle of the trail to hear the sounds around--my favorite part: just a brief stop to notice, reflect, and connect with nature.
If you have made it this far through my rambles and are still reading then congratulations and thank you. I have felt called to write about this experience for years as it has made such a huge impact on my life. This adventure has sparked many many camping trips and outdoor adventures filled with eye opening and awakening experiences. I don't know who I would've become if I had never decided to take this trip to Virgin Falls. If I could leave you with ONE take away from this article, it would be that you leave this page just as I left the conversation with the man atop Clingmans Dome: feeling inspired to conquer something that calls to the deepest depths of your soul. Go after that thing you cannot stop thinking about that sits patiently in your heart of hearts. If it's re-connecting with yourself through spending time in the forrest like me then I can help get you started.
Your Call to Action:
Write it down. Manifest that which you desire by putting pen to paper. It works wonders!
If it's short adventures like the one above that you seek, let me be the first to tell you that you do not need a bunch of shiny new backpacking equipment to survive and thrive in the backcountry. Dust off that old H-frame, borrow some gear from your friends, and hit the damn trail! You have stuff around the house that will work and you will accumulate nicer gear as you grow into backpacking etc.
Do NOT let anyone tell you that you cannot do something (like John Locke on LOST) especially if it speaks so profoundly to your heart. Ignore what everyone else says or thinks. That is their opinion, not yours.
GO FOR IT!
If you enjoyed this blog post please let me know in the comment section below and if you feel called to take action on your next adventure please reach out to me via email or social media and let me know how it goes!