They came into the world as a child of geologic ages, the offspring of a planet-shaping collision at a time before man, before dinosaurs, when history was being written by minerals and gases and shifting volcanic forces. It was a time when crises were truly great; when clashes were not between armies and nations, but between continents.
It was a time when North America and Scandinavia were part of the same landmass, an immense island surrounded by a sea that was growing shorter, pulling the island-continent of Africa ever closer. The cataclysmic meeting took place between 225 million and 250 million years ago, and along the line of that collision the force of its impact pushed all surface deposits toward the sky. When it was over, a monument had been left to mark the site, a range of mountains higher than the yet-unborn Rockies, longer than the Andes. A range that extended from Alabama to Swedenthe original Appalachians.
Since then, a relative peace has settled over the southern end of that range. Below the reach of the ice ages, the Appalachians were protected from the mountain-eating glaciers that shaped portions of the Rockies and flattened the central plains. Rather than being hammered by ice, they aged slowly, gracefully, under the soft hand of water. Rain and rivers have been their main sculptors, gradually mellowing the towering vigor of their youth, changing their personality from a sky-scraping fence of rock and snow to a rolling green ocean of trees. And water has given it a name that sticks: The "smoke" of the Smoky Mountains are the clouds of water vapor snaking through its valleys and crawling across its peaks.
Reduced in size, they have grown in wisdom, living a more complex existence as a plant world soaked with rain, filled with an unending parade of life, giving birth to a forest as famous as the mountains. Oak, birch, chestnut, maple, ash, poplar, basswood, and buckeye are a few of the species known as deciduous treesthose that lose their leaves in the fall. They dominate the range and provide a canopy for the plants below, a world of laurel and rhododendron, of moss, lichens, and ferns, of gooseberry and holly.
It is the type of environment that wildlife love to call home, and these trees shelter black bears, white-tailed deer, boars, wild turkeys, raccoons, wildcats, mink, weasels, rabbits, skunks, warblers, owls, eagles, snakes, and grouse.
They may have come to life with noise and fury, but today's Smokies live a much different life. This is a land of quiet times, of whispering creeks and the murmur of rain—the soothing voice of experience.
Even poets can party, and there is one time of the year when the complex personality of these quiet mountains is turned inside out, when the beauty hidden behind the waves of summer green suddenly bursts skyward with a force that will make even the most jaded western rock jock take a second look: autumn.
In the course of four weeks in October, the constant green of the mountains gives way to a riot of color. The transformation is startlinglike watching a symphony orchestra trade its tuxedos for wild skateboarding garb.
The change has a magical pull on Southerners, drawing them from the steamy deltas and urban centers, from the college campuses and suburban malls. During the summer many will stay away, intimidated by the heat, turned off by the drive-through tourist crowds. But fall has a liberating effect, prompting the most timid to put their dreams to the test. People who spend most of their summers wrapped in the cocoon of air-conditioning or basting on Gulf Coast beaches emerge as born-again hikers, fresh-baked backwoods explorers.
The migration includes both innocent novices and veteran backpackers who know what lies ahead. They probe deep into the mountains for an experience that can't be sampled from the roadside, and they leave with memories that will never fade to black and white.
But they pay a steep physical price. The southern Appalachians are the highest and meanest part of the range. Mountains pushing up to 6,000 feet are stacked together like firewood, and the challenges they present can scorch the enthusiasm of the unprepared. Steep switchbacks turn thighs to jelly, icy-cold stream crossings freeze feet, and inevitably, rain and mist hang in the coves for days, turning human bodies into chilled sponges. It's all part of the bill for an intimate look at the great forest.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication