Karen Rodrigue, 23, was one of a group of city folk who had left the Big Easy behind for a chance to learn what all the Smoky yarns were based upon.
"The fall trip is always one of the most popular," said Byron Almquist, leader of our trip into the forest. "It seems like everyone has heard about the fall colors, and they all want to see it. People who wouldn't normally think about backpacking are willing to give it a try."
That includes Ash Tabir, another trekker, a physician whose native country was Pakistan. "When I first came to this country, I flew into the Northeast," he recalled. "It was the fall, and as we circled the countryside I saw all these incredible colors. It was unbelievable. I had never seen this before. I didn't know what was happening. I remember asking if these Americans painted their trees this way."
The color magic happens as a matter of survival, during a process botanists call abscission. When the shorter days and cooler temperatures signal winter's approach, trees, like animals, prepare for the coming rigors by building a wall of protection. Animals store fat, seek shelter, and retreat into various states of slowed animation. The great hardwoods of the deciduous forest follow that pattern by closing all openings, all spots vulnerable to freezing cold.
It begins at the stem of the leaves. Sensing the threatening chill, the tree closes off the stem by forming a layer of cork, a small yet strong wall that blocks the flow of water from the roots. That one miraculous step stirs the palette that eventually paints fall's colors.
Each leaf contains many coloring pigments, but the most dominant by far is the green of chlorophyll, the vital food-producing chemical. Chlorophyll, however, cannot be sustained without water from the roots. When the cork layer seals the stem from the tree, the chlorophyll begins to break down.
As the chlorophyll dissipates, other pigments that had been masked take over, and the show begins: Reds, yellows, oranges, and a staggering combination of the three turn a quiet withdrawal into a wild celebration.
That party is standing-room-only in the Appalachians, where deciduous trees dominate mountainsides for hundreds of miles.
Almquist steered Rodrigue and her friends to the heart of the show, aiming for the Nantahala National Forest, just south of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. While the park has made the name Smoky famous, it also made it generic to the entire southern half of the range. When Southerners say they're "going to the Smokies" it could mean either the park or the wild and beautiful folds of the range that surround it. Much of the region is managed under restricted use, as wilderness areas, national forests, or other state and federal preserves.
In 1970 most of the area was included in the Southern Appalachian Biosphere Reserve, part of a United Nations program that seeks to balance development with protection of this important and unique ecosystem. It came not a moment too soon. Since 1980, theme parks and time-share condos have spread like cancer, consuming every unprotected valley.
The park always draws the most attention, feeling the press of nine million visitors each year, the most popular spot in the national park system. Most simply drive through, spending less than six hours within the park boundaries, even during the fall. But many others come for extended stays, drawn by the park's 800 miles of trails, including a section of the famed Appalachian Trail. During the peak summer and fall seasons, trail shelters and designated campsites along this and other popular trails can be filled for days on end.
But the surrounding national forests and wilderness areas offer just as much beauty, plus one overpowering reason to avoid the park: far fewer people.
Almquist likes the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness, a 17,013-acre preserve just south of the park that offers a sampler of the best aspects of this landscape. Straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina border, it protects some of the highest and wildest sections of Nantahala and Cherokee National Forests, with peaks topping 5,300 feet. There are even "bards"mountaintops covered with rhododendron instead of trees, offering that rare eastern mountain treat: a vista.
The Kilmer-Slickrock name is a giveaway to the beauty of the area. Joyce Kilmer was the soldier-poet of World War I, immortalized by his poem "Trees." His wilderness includes some of the last virgin stands of hardwoods in the east, woodland giants that do his poem justice.
Slickrock is the name of a wild creek whose beautiful waterfalls cascade over rocks wearing slick suits of algae and moss. Its watershed is among the wildest patches of habitat left in the nation east of the Mississippi River, twisting and turning through draws thickly forested by virgin timber, tumbling into pools harboring wild trout.
Almquist's 14-hour drive has brought our group to the edge of the wilderness at a spot named Deal's Gap, where U.S. Highway 129 reaches the south side of Calderwood Lake. A local hiker listening to the flatlanders' enthusiastic oohs and aahs gives a small sniff of disapproval.
"It ain't as purty as usual," he offers. "We had a rail dry year. That hurts the colors. Makes 'em fall early, too."
To less accustomed eyes, though, the show is a hit.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication