I got the pink slip on a Friday. After four years, our office was closing down. I had anticipated this for some time, so it wasn't a shock. It did leave me with some decisions to make though. What do I want to do with my life? I needed some quiet time to think about my options. I decided to take advantage of my time off and do some backpacking.

So, where should I go? It was already mid-November, which meant that the prime destinations out west were already snowbound. I considered Big Bend National Park in Texas, which gets little snow. The 3000 mile drive made me reconsider. I don't do well driving long distances by myself, so I decided to look closer to home. The Great Smoky Mountains are only a few hours away, yet I'd explored only small parts of the park. The Smokies are cold in November, but not buried in snow. I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to explore our nearest National Park.

After hours of pouring over maps, I selected a route that starts at the end of "The Road to Nowhere". This road has an interesting history. During World War II, the federal government dammed the Little Tennessee River, creating Fontana Lake. In the process, they flooded previously settled areas, as well as an old road, which connected Bryson City with Deal's Gap. As compensation, the federal government agreed to build a new road, at such time as congress appropriated money to complete it. The road was started in the 1950's, and built as far as a tunnel through Forney Ridge. In 1962, construction was halted due to environmental concerns. Congress never appropriated the money to finish construction.

The road may have stopped, but the debate lives on. As one leaves Bryson City and approaches the park, it's hard to miss the billboard welcoming the traveler to the "Road to Nowhere". As the billboard states, it's a promise broken. The people of Swain County are right. The federal government has never lived up to its commitment. However, is finishing the road in anyone's best interest? A road already connects Bryson City to Fontana Dam on the south side of the lake. Do we need another road on the north side? Is it worth the environmental damage it is certain to cause? Some of North Carolina's congressmen seem to think so, despite the cost. The current estimate to complete the road is $150 million. That's a lot of taxpayer money for a road that will still go nowhere.

While the debate continues to brew, a new group has proposed a better solution. The Citizens for the Economic Future of Swain County propose a settlement of $40 million, to be paid by the federal government to Swain County as compensation for the lost road. This seems like a fair compromise. The county would get compensated, and can use the money to invest in the local economy. Plus, the environment in the wildest remaining part of the Smokies would be preserved.

I drove to the end of the Road to Nowhere and parked. I was surprised to see a number of vehicles already there. It had rained all day Saturday, and that evening, snow was expected. I shouldered my pack and hiked the final yards of The Road to Nowhere. It seemed like a fitting metaphor as I contemplated what to do with my life. The Road to Nowhere? Maybe it would be the trail to somewhere.

I reached the tunnel through Forney Ridge and entered the darkness. It is a long tunnel, with only a small arc of light at the far end. Unfortunately, this route is also a horse trail, which was apparent from the smell. I only hoped that I wouldn't step in a fresh landmine in the darkness.

I reached the far side, and the pavement ended. In short order, the wide road bed became a narrow path. I followed it in and out of coves before descending towards the roar of Forney Creek. I stopped for lunch on the bank, and viewed the spectacular whitewater. The water was up, and fording the creek would have been impossible. In planning the trip, I had avoided the Forney Creek trail for this reason. Luckily I had to cross the creek only once, and that was on a sturdy bridge.

That afternoon, I hiked steadily uphill on the Bear Creek Trail. Shortly after lunch, I passed a solo backpacker coming down. We nodded in passing; two solo hikers not wishing to break the spell of perfect solitude by speaking. I had seen two other backpackers at Forney Creek, and two dayhikers at the tunnel. This, however, would be the last person I'd see on the entire trip.

By the time I reached camp, snow was falling. I made a futile attempt at a fire as the snow fell harder. I made it through an early pasta dinner before the storm drove me to my tent. I had just relaxed with a magazine, enjoying the sound of snow landing on the fly, when the batteries in my headlamp died. The spares were in the food bag up on the bear-proof cable. I wasn't going back out, so I called it an early night. It was probably for the best, as I had a long uphill hike the next day.


I endured a long, steady climb the next morning, but made it to High Rocks for lunch. Last night's snow had settled nicely, providing just enough to cover the ground without really creating a problem. It was a perfect day, without a cloud in the sky. The infamous summer haze was only a memory as I gazed from the cliffs to the Nantahala Mountains to the south. Far below, the serpentine figure of Fontana Lake was easy to trace.

After a long, relaxed lunch in the sun, I explored the mountain top. A fire tower used to be here, but only the foundation remains. Or so I thought. I wandered through a thicket of rhododendron and discovered an old fire warden's cabin. It was in disrepair; in fact it looked as if it could slide down the side of the mountain at the slightest breeze. It did make me wander what it must've been like to live here. It's too bad there isn't much demand for fire spotters anymore.

I left High Rocks and began a long, monotonous traverse of Welch Ridge. It was a pleasant walk, if not exciting, as I spooked numerous grouse and one very smart turkey, hiding out in the National Park shortly before Thanksgiving. I didn't see much more wildlife, but I did see their tracks in the snow. I did follow a fox for a while, and then a bobcat. At one point, bear tracks crossed the trail before descending into the valley below.

The next tracks I saw were human. I reached the AT below Silers Bald, and found boot prints in the snow. They were heading towards the shelter, and I was faced with the prospect of loosing the perfect solitude I had enjoyed. I followed the tracks to the summit of Silers Bald. The mountaintop is becoming overgrown, but there was still a nice view of Clingman's Dome. On the far side of the bald was an even better view down the crest of the Smokies to the west, into the setting sun. I hurried through the snow towards the shelter.

I was pleased to find the shelter deserted. The tracks continued, so I had the shelter all to myself. I arrived shortly before dusk, and enjoyed a freeze-dried dinner. The temperature dropped quickly and the wind was howling, so I went to bed early. I promised myself I'd get up early for the meteor shower that was expected late that night.

I woke up late that night, to find myself staring at a mouse. A quick swat sent it scurrying. It was 4AM, so I got up to look for meteors. It was cold, but not as cold as it had been that evening. I stepped out of the shelter, and looked up, into a wall of fog. There would be no meteor shower for me this night. I returned to my sleeping bag, and the rain began shortly thereafter. At least the rain made beautiful music on the tin roof.


The weather had improved to fog and cold drizzle by the time I left the shelter. I hiked back over Silers Bald, this time without the benefit of a view. I hiked through the narrows, which would have been spectacular in better weather. It was an adventure as it was, as the narrow ridge was icy enough to make each step exciting. Soon the trail led into Spruce / Fir forest, which was eerie in the dense fog. Hiking through the balsams was pleasant despite the condition of the trees. The Frasier Firs are dying due to the presence of the Balsam Wooly Aldegid. Despite this, it's still hard to find a more pleasant hike than through a tunnel of Spruce and Fir. I recommend going now, before the Firs are wiped out.

I reached the junction just below Clingman's Dome, but decided to skip the summit. The mountain was still fog-bound, plus I was behind schedule. Each step on the AT had been into ankle-deep water, mud, or snow, and conditions had really slowed me down. I descended the Forney Ridge trail, which was so wet and rocky it was difficult to make up time. After a brief lunch, I climbed up to the open meadows of Andrews Bald. Andrews Bald sports one of the best views in the park, but today it was still fog-bound. There were hints of the sun trying to peak through, and I was tempted to wait and see if it would clear off. However, I still had 7 miles to go, and only 3 hours of daylight. I couldn't afford the luxury of waiting around, so I pressed on.

The lower part of Forney Ridge was a free-fall, as I dropped rapidly towards the lake. The fog began to break up, and the mist rising off of the lake provided a spectacular sight. Finally I reached the Springhouse Branch Trail, and quickly followed it down towards Noland Creek. I passed an old settlement along the way, but once again didn't have time to explore. I reached my campsite, situated at the confluence of Noland and Mill Creeks, after 5pm. It had been a long, demanding hike, so it was a relief to relax by the stream.

The area is a huge horse camp, but was totally vacant when I arrived. I enjoyed the perks of a picnic table and a privy, and feasted on another freeze-dried dinner. I managed to stay up a little later for my final night, but exhaustion finally caught up with me.


I had a tough time breaking camp on Wednesday. I knew there were only 6 more miles between me and the car, and a return to "civilization". I had come here to decide what I wanted to do with my life. Not only had I not decided, but I hadn't really even thought that much about it. Did I want to find another desk job, or should I try for something more rewarding? My fiancé teaches high school, and has been trying to convince me to give it a try. My initial reaction had been that I couldn't possibly handle it. I was starting to have second thoughts though. It seemed somewhat symbolic that I had camped that night at the sight of an old school house. Maybe teaching is worth a try.

I hiked out along Noland Creek, passing numerous former settlements. Foundations from homes were common, and the remains of an old mill were still standing. The people who lived here were all former residents of The Road to Nowhere. For me, it is clearly a road to somewhere, I just have yet to decide where.

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