Just as suspected, returning to the Smokies after seven months seems so natural. I choose to interpret this smooth transition as an indication of my growing familiarity and connection with this place, its ongoing role in my life. There is still much to learn, and I do not mistake this initial comfort for genuine intimacy with these mountains. I have no deep comprehension of nature’s ways here, much less her wrath and hardship. Intellectual knowledge is easy to acquire, but true understanding is hard won. Time and close proximity are necessary for the latter, and I have a long way to go to earn that. Tornado damage from last week’s storms on the northwest end of the park, which has closed several trails in that area, is just one reminder that nature sometimes rules with an iron fist. This “park” is no safe playground, but it is still the most beautiful place I know. I am happy to be back.
The 61st Annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage is the occasion of my return. I’ve been privileged to lead hikes during this wonderful week for seven years now, and thanks in part to the hiking adventures related in this blog, my improving grasp of the flora and appreciation of the biological richness allows me to relax and really enjoy the programs and Pilgrims. Most Pilgrimage hikes are actually leisurely walks. Since the purpose is to see and learn about the park’s diversity, it is often the case that as much or more time is spent standing and talking than moving. Few whole trails are covered. Usually, the group makes it a mile or two before turning around and heading back. There are exceptions. Some backcountry hikes of 13 miles or more take all day and include lunch along with a little botanizing, but the priority is covering ground.
This year, I co-lead hikes on Chestnut Top, Ash Hopper, Noah “Bud” Ogle, Courthouse Rock (which we fail to find!!), and Gabes Mountain. All but the last event are half day programs traversing little more than two miles. Ogle and Gabes complete entire trails, and I’ll post entries devoted to each in the next few days. Of the remaining three, only Chestnut Top is a recognized trail. One of the richest spring wildflower displays in the park, Chestnut Top in 2011 is a disappointment for the Pilgrimage. Spring sprang a tad early this year, and the usual jaw-dropping sights along the first quarter mile are largely long gone or well on their way out. Even Yellow Trillium, a stalwart almost always in its prime during this week, is faded and insect chewed. However, other plants normally overlooked in well-timed years make their floral presence known — Four-leaved Milkweed, Eastern Gray Beard-tongue, and the yellow blossoms of Rattlesnake Hawkweed. Not exactly an even trade off, but it does serve as a gentle reminder that April’s flush of flowering is just the flashy beginning of the season’s show.
For most of the program hikes, Crested Iris, Bishop’s Cap, all Trilliums at lower elevations (with one notable exception to be discussed in detail later), Purple Phacelia, Star Chickweed, Rue Anemone, many Violets, Doll’s Eyes, Showy Orchis, Dwarf Ginseng, Silverbell, Dogwood, Foamflower, and many others are finished flowering or winding down. In their place, we find Jack-in-the-pulpit (mostly the ghostly-pale, yellow-green form), a bumper crop of One-flowered Cancer Root (Orobanche uniflora), Pink and Yellow Lady’s Slippers in full glory, White Speckled Wood Lily (Clintonia umbellulata), Umbrella and Fraser’s Magnolia, Alternate-leaved Dogwood, the first flowers of Indian Cucumber Root, Canada Violet, and stunning displays of Vasey’s Trillium.
At higher elevations, off Clingman’s Dome Road, are fields of Spring Beauty, white and red forms of Trillium erectum, Rosy-twisted Stalk (Streptopus lanceolatus var. roseus), Thyme-leaved Bluets (Houstonia serpyllifolia), Serviceberry, Witch Hobble, and large patches of non-native Dandelions flowering brightly all along the roadsides! On a free afternoon, I drive up to Clingman’s Dome, the highest spot in Tennessee, and climb the observation tower. There is a stiff breeze, but the day is clear and beautiful, and the 360-degree view of the greening Smoky Mountains is spectacular.