Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Mount Cammerer: Love at First Sight (Part 7 of 7 on the Appalachian Trail)

My first visit to Mt. Cammerer, on the eastern end of the Smokies, was on the eighth and final day of a week-long backpacking trip on the AT, from Fontana Dam to Davenport Gap. Today the distance is 72 miles. Back then it was about 69 miles. Strange, but true.

The previous day, our seventh, had been quiet and thoughtful. The hike was easy, so we weren’t focused on the pain and sweat. The clouds from 24 hours of rain were trying to break up, and we had some commendable views. We were in no hurry, so we made a lot of rest stops, even though we didn’t need the rest. We were easing into that end of the trip mode of reflection and sadness. Our last night at Cosby Knob was uneventful. It felt like the trip was finished.

But it wasn’t quite.

On our final morning, the reality of schedules reared its ugly head. A couple of our wives were to drive from Atlanta to pick us up on Highway 32 in Davenport Gap at 3 pm, so we couldn’t tarry. We left the shelter by 8:45 and soon began a long, steep ascent. The best part about today was the lack of views. Forests mixed with heavy clouds made the panoramic views few and far between and forced us to make the half-mile side trip to Mt. Cammerer to search for one last vista. None of us had ever been there before, nor did we know much about it.

It turned out to be the highlight of the trip, which seemed appropriate. My partner and I had ascended a total of about 19,000 feet since our start at Fontana. After leaving Cammerer our hike would be all downhill, so Cammerer was a literal highpoint of sorts, even though it wasn’t the actual highest point on our trip.

Mount Cammerer was great, and it’s been great the dozen times I’ve been there since this first encounter. The views are very good – almost 360 degrees. There’s a unique rock and timber lookout tower on top, wedged between large slabs of exposed rock. Even the side trail leading to it is magical. There’s a sense of anticipation as you walk up this hallway of eight foot high laurel and rhododendron, with the sky as your ceiling.  It was love at first sight.

Cammerer from the north

I suppose if we had been immersed in a thick fog, providing no views, then we wouldn’t have been impressed. Or, if Cammerer had been just one of a dozen great spots on that day, we would have taken a quick look and moved on. Instead, Cammerer was the most dramatic spot with the best views in the last two days. The fact that we were all a little bummed out that the trip was just 3 or 4 hours shy of being over probably made us especially vulnerable to the drama of a final panorama. Whatever the topographical and psychological reasons, that first encounter was impressive.
Cammerer Lookout Tower (from the east)

We spent 45 overwhelming minutes there. The clouds had broken and risen. There were clouds above us, patches of fog in the valleys, and streaks of sunshine spotlighting the mountains and valleys. We took out our maps and compasses and identified several peaks and lakes: English Mountain, the Big Creek watershed, Mount Sterling, Interstate 40 winding its way through the hills, Douglas Lake. I didn’t know it at the time, but eight years later I would be living in those hills just beyond Douglas Lake.

Mt. Cammerer was great; we met our wives at Davenport Gap at 3 pm, just as planned; Phyllis and I soon moved to Athens, Georgia, for seven years and added a couple of great kids along the way. Then, in 1987, the four of us moved to Jefferson County, an hour away from Big Creek, Cosby, and trails to Mt. Cammerer.  Sometimes there are happy endings.