LOOSELEAF LAUREATE: A trudge to the mountaintop — the long way up

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By Terri Likens, Editor

My 17-pound pack, filled with water, lunch and rain gear, felt downright light as I plodded 9 miles uphill to the top of Mount LeConte.

After all, several years ago I was in failing health and my own weight was about double what it is now.

I could not have imagined then, while recovering from thyroid cancer and its complications, that I would be able to tackle this peak — my own personal Mount Everest of the Smokies.

I was not the fastest going up. In fact, I  made comfortable time in the middle of my hiking group as we spread out along the trail.

The last 3 miles up were grueling, but not so much physically. It’s just that each  time I hit a bend in the trail that I thought would open to the LeConte Lodge, I found nothing more than another bend.

The scenery, particularly along the Trillium Gap section of trail, was beautiful.

Plenty of water was pouring off Grotto Falls, thanks to heavy rain the day before. I chose to walk the trail behind the cascading water to enjoy the lesser seen view of the falls.

Closer to the top, hardwoods and hemlock gave way to balsam fir and a narrowing strip of trail. I walked alone, taking in the fresh scent in the heavy fog. It was easy to drift in time and place, and my mind’s eye took me to the Adirondack Mountains of New York and to the Black Forest of Germany.

On one section, I was accompanied for a time by a dark-eyed junco who refused to give up the trail as I approached.

The bird made a ruckus and flashed white bars on his tail as I kept coming and he kept moving forward.

I was amused at first, but worried that the bird would soon wear out, so I charged at him to make him fly off the trail.

My plan worked, and soon it was just me and the fog again.

Finally, I emerged from my foggy tunnel of trees to the top — the weathered, wooden village that is LeConte Lodge.

The fog turned to mist as I made my way through cabins to the small, rustic dining room. Those in my group that had gotten there ahead of me were sitting around a long table in the warm building. Some had ordered lunch ahead and were enjoying hot soup, sandwiches and the no-bake cookies the lodge is famous for.

I pulled out a peanut butter-and-date sandwich and a small container of canned ravioli from my pack and joined them.

Soon, we moved to the small store and sitting room and made our T-shirt purchases.

You can’t buy a LeConte T-shirt anywhere but at the top, so when you see someone wearing one, chances are they have scaled the mountain.

After having a few pictures made and stopping at the busy outhouse, I began my descent — this time down the Rainbow Falls trail.

It was steep and rocky and I suffered a goose-egg on my right knee as a result of one mishap.

I moved fairly well during the first four miles of the trip down, but then the injured knee began to spasm in pain.

I had to stop and get off of it for about 10 minutes with about a mile and a half left. And from there on, I used my hiking poles more like canes and crutches, doing anything I could to keep my weight off of that knee.

I have another 15-mile hike coming up, but I’m glad it is still a good ways off.

I love the outdoors and I love to hike — but I’m not a complete sucker for punishment.