Straddling the North Carolina- Tennessee border, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a sea of lush forests, countless animals, and high mountains. It’s my favorite place on earth. I’ve been there countless times since I was young, and until Megan died, it had never been more than a few years since taking a trip there.
I know the park well. I know miles of its trails and the chill of its creeks. I know the tourist town of Gatlinburg, just outside its western border, with all of its restaurants, shops, and hordes of people. Though the area is constantly evolving, the mountains silently remain the same, as they have for millions of years.
This is where Megan and I had our honeymoon.
On Monday morning, Independence Day, Sarah, Shelby and I were here, awaking from a brief overnight stop on our return from the 3000-plus mile round trip to Texas from Ohio. Given the opportunity to even be there for a few hours, I took it without blinking.
We rose at 5:00 AM to drive up to Clingman’s Dome. This mountain is the highest point of the park, Tennessee, and the Appalachian Trail, and is the one spot that I never miss when I am there. It’s the namesake of “Ole Smoky” that everyone sings about being on top of. Megan and I climbed it when we visited in 2005, just after our wedding, and I can remember the half-mile hike to the summit taking well over an hour.
The thin air and her health in general didn’t stop her from attempting the climb, but we had to stop at every resting spot we could so she could catch her breath. The trail is steep, climbing almost 500 feet over half a mile, but it is wide and paved, with ample benches to rest at. She pushed on to the top because I loved this place, and she knew how much it meant for me to be sharing it with her.
Fast forward 11 years, and Sarah, Shelby and I are parking the truck in clouds so thick you couldn’t see ten feet, in 59 degree temperatures. We were operating on 5 hours of sleep, after a drive of 800 miles the previous day, and we weren’t even going to have a decent view.
Still, I wanted to share this place with them. Given all of the circumstances, the climb was still somewhat slow to the 6,643 foot summit. Nowhere near the hour it took with Megan, but leisurely at best. Shelby complained of being chilled, but kept finding small snails everywhere that distracted her from it. Sarah, god love her, was doing all of this without even having any coffee yet.
We had fun, but after looping back down from the summit via a side-trail, and nearing the end of our walk, there was a little bit of frustration with tiredness, hunger, and chilled air building up amongst the group, and it hit me.
I missed Megan. I enjoyed every step I took with her up that mountain 11 years ago, no matter how much it frustrated her, and the same thing was occurring again. It wasn’t a loss of breath situation this time, but it felt so similar. As we stood in the clouds, I teared up. I thought back to all of the years after Megan and I’s hike, and all we went through between her decline, her rebirth after transplant, and her ultimate demise. I longed to be able to have her do this hike with us.
I wished she could have seen Shelby counting the snails, and Sarah taking countless pictures of the misty trees just barely emerging through the fog. I wished she were there in the state she was in 2011 when we hiked it again, full of health and enjoyment.
But I could think of nothing else than the similarities to our first walk up to the top of Ole Smoky. The one where, even though she physically exhausted herself, she pushed on because it was someplace I loved that she wanted to share with me.
I suppose there will be many more times like this as we move forward with our lives. Times where I am revisiting something that Megan and I did or enjoyed, that I am now sharing with an older Shelby, and Sarah, that are different, yet the same.
These moments will likely always creep up on me. I was literally standing in my favorite place to stand, anywhere on earth, with the two people I love beyond words, and crying. It’s been awhile since this level of emotion crept over me, and honestly, i think this was the place for it to happen. It had to be somewhere that I loved personally, both before and after Megan, in order for me to truly just let go of any and all emotion. It had to be a safe place I knew well, that never really changes, that allowed me to think of nothing else but the past. It’s fitting that this sanctuary for plants and animals is also a sanctuary for me.
As I let my thoughts wander, Sarah and Shelby stepped just off to the side and sat on a rock, looking into the clouds. Little did they know that seeing the two of them sitting together on top of a mountain was the one thing that pulled me out of my own thoughts, and made me appreciate life in this second chapter ever more so, because it to was eerily similar to something I had seen before.
We’re going back as soon as possible.