I drove into Tennessee through the incomparable Great Smoky Mountains, losing the clear skies with every switchback. The parking lot at Newfound Gap was socked in with barely a meter of visibility. The light rain was mixed with a snowglobe flurry of fairy-dust silvery white that I first thought was snow, and then decided was frozen mist.
I ventured out onto the trail, frozen mist glittering in the sky all around me, lending a magical quality to the otherwise gloomy forest. Clingman’s was the highest point on the Appalachian Trail, and as the only hiker headed south I was tasked with relaying messages for all the northbound throughhikers on the trail (“hey, can you tell Houdini that Clydesdale is stopping at the second shelter?”). The night before I’d stayed in Hiawassee Georgia, only about a week into the trail, and the contrast of those hikers snuggled in the hotel was startling compared to these, seasoned by 140 cold wet miles. I wondered how the neophytes would look by the time they made it to Tennessee, or if they even ever would.
The mist congregated into a proper rain. Thick pine boughs sagged low and damp, hanging heavily over my path. Bright moss carpeted the fallen logs, slicing the red mud with a highlighter streak of neon. I half expected an Ewok to swing into view.
The rain turned harder and the trail turned steeper. I pulled my hood up and ducked my head down so I could only see the muddy dark path directly in front of me. There were some interesting lizard-like tracks in the mud; I’d read there were over thirty species of salamander in this area but these tracks were huge, nearly the size of my hand. As the rain pattered rhythmically on my hood I entertained ideas of a giant caiman-like lizard, or no maybe a velociraptor, until under a tree the tracks were less waterlogged and I realized I was sharing the sodden forest with a huge wild turkey.
The trail became a thin river, coursing swiftly to carve a deep channel, sometimes splaying out over logs into tiny waterfalls the color of chocolate milk. I slipped in the mud on each bank of this river until my feet were thoroughly wet, then gave up and sloshed directly through the muck.
I turned off the AT onto a little-used spur trail that led to Clingman’s Dome. Ice covered the river of a trail here, through the hazy surface I could still see umber water rushing below. I hopped awkwardly from the water to the mud to the ice, until a sheet of ice cracked underfoot, dropping me shin-deep into the water and throwing me backwards onto my ass in the cold clammy mud.
Huge pine boughs drooped and dripped overhead and I saw something strange through the mist– the tall spiraling lookout tower above Clingman’s. In a month the road would open and this place would be filled with tourists, but now it hung eerie and abandoned in the soupy fog. Alone, I climbed to the surreal spaceship in the clouds, my soaked shoes squelching on the concrete ramp.
About the beer:
Yazoo brewery was closed when I was in Nashville, but the whole building smelled strongly of smoke, like the best BBQ joint in town. I waited for Craft Brewed, the nearby package store, to open in the morning; they carried only huge bombers of Yazoo’s SUE smoked porter. I hefted it and scowled at the weight, but the rich smoke lingered in the air and I took the risk.
And oh wow I loved this beer.
It’s a rich baker’s chocolate smoked malty taste with a touch of roasty coffee, just enough hops to balance it out, and finishes with an amazing smokey taste, incredibly complex. Without defining the taste I thought of peppered beef jerky and black cherries and leather. It was thick and rich and wonderful, and every time I exhaled the smoke was there in my nostrils, reminding me of an earthy campfire on this cold wet hike.
Back on the main trail I encountered a pair of throughhikers huddled under an enormous evergreen canopy, waiting out the hardest of the rain, and they eagerly shared the remainder of my beer. They wondered curiously what a dayhiker was doing out here on a wet weekday, so I explained my project. “Well now you’ve got a trail name,” one of them announced. “You should be Summitbeer.” He glanced down at the now-empty bottle and passed it back to me to pack out with the rest of their trash, then broke into a delighted grin. “Summitbeer Suuuue!”