Alone at Last

By Tyler Currie
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 28, 2003

If you seek solitude, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is not an obvious destination. Traffic in the park is infamous, often grinding to a crawl in July and October, the two busiest months. More than 9.3 million people visited the Smokies last year, by far the most of any national park.

By comparison, Grand Canyon and Olympic national parks combined -- both vastly larger western preserves -- had fewer than 8 million visitors. Meaning the Smokies are jampacked, right? Well, not exactly.

According to the National Park Service, 95 percent of visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains stray little from their vehicles. And the bulk of these tourists stick to the small number of paved roads. Yet the park, straddling Tennessee and North Carolina, sprawls for 800 square miles, most of it inaccessible by car or truck.

The lesson for solitude seekers is simple: Ditch your ride, grab your pack and disappear into what is arguably the greatest wilderness in the eastern United States.

Our guide into the heart of this wilderness is Vesna Plakanis. She and her husband, Erik, own A Walk in the Woods, an outfitter whose services include leading backpackers, even novice ones, to the least visited parts of the Great Smoky Mountains.

Carla Lopez, Laurel Johns and I, all city dwellers with limited backpacking experience, gather early on a recent Friday morning at Plakanises' home in Gatlinburg, Tenn. She comes across as even-tempered, ruggedly athletic and intensely maternal -- all cardinal virtues in a guide. She asks how much water we've had today. The humidity is high and dehydration will be a risk. A few cups, we say. She softly commands us to drink more before settling down to assess conditions. They're not good.

Storms have pounded the Smokies for a week. According to reports from the Park Service, a dozen park roads are closed, with some sections washed away. Backcountry trails are clogged with downed trees.

Rivulets have become unfordable walls of white water. But the rains, for now, have abated beneath a brilliant morning sun. Plakanis decides that our trip, with slight adjustments, can proceed safely.

We pick up our requisite but free backcountry permits from Big Creek Ranger Station in the northeast corner of the park. Plakanis has selected this part of the park because it's far from the tourist arteries in the western and central regions. We launch our two-night trip at the head of Big Creek Trail, a quarter-mile beyond the ranger station.

Big Creek itself, which parallels the trail, is swollen from the storms. The creek's rapids and thunderous pounding contrast with our own light pace.

We'll take nearly five hours to hike slightly more than five miles on the first day. But our guide's slow, mile-an-hour progress is purposeful. It seems as if every few minutes we pause to discuss another plant or tree, or the people who once inhabited these woods -- first the Cherokee Indians, and later Scotch-Irish settlers. Plakanis, we quickly realize, is more than just a guide. She's a naturalist. A forest guru. A professor in hiking boots.

A recurring theme in Plakanis's lessons is wilderness survival, for which purpose there is no plant more important than the hemlock, she says. In large quantities, hemlock is a diuretic. Its inner bark can be stripped and cooked like noodles or ground into flour. But when Plakanis asks me to nibble on a hemlock needle, I look at her skeptically.

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