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  • Ken Ilgunas

Notes from a road trip to the Rockies

Yesterday, after eight lovely days on the road, I arrived in Denver, Colorado. I’m staying with a friend in Denver because, later this month, I have a magazine assignment for which I will go on a three-day hike with the greatest hiker in the world.

To get in shape for the hike, I decided to begin my road trip with a 71-mile hike on the Appalachian Trail through the Great Smoky Mountains, which runs along the Tennessee and North Carolina border. Later, I drove along Highway 70 in Tennessee, Highway 64 through Arkansas, and Highway 400 through Kansas.

Some notes from the trip:

-There are a lot of dead trees in the Smokies. In the picture below, you can see a typical vista: Rolling forest country out of which sprouts the bare skeletons of hemlocks or Fraser firs, coloring the landscape with unwanted streaks of white and gray in an otherwise healthy head of green hair. Such trees were the victim of the rapacious Woolly Adelgid, which is an exotic pest that kills the trees.

On the trail, I came across two rangers wearing blue latex gloves applying something to the roots of several surviving hemlocks. They told me that they were applying an insecticide to the remaining hemlocks every five years. I thought there was something desperate and futile about having to go to each hemlock to apply this treatment every five years, and I wondered if it might be best to let nature take its course, as ruthless as that may seem. Yet I also thought there was something incredibly noble for the Park Service to commit to such a grand, implausible vision. It’s like the Great Wall of China or the Pyramids—a feat that shall require the concerted effort of thousands of people over hundreds of years, except better because they’re saving a species.

Dead Fraser firs
Trail shelter--there were about a dozen of these on the AT in the Smokies
I saw a decent amount of hikers on the trail. Each night I slept alongside 8-12 hikers.

Apocalyptic views from Clingman's Dome.

-Despite the pretty pictures, the Smokies—once known for their misty, cloudy, foggy vistas (good smoky)—are now known for all the pollutants from southern and midwestern cities that journey into the mountains and sully such views (bad smoky). It’s estimated that visibility is reduced by 80 percent because of these pollutants. When I stood on the top of Clingman’s Dome, the highest point of the AT at 6,643 feet, I was disheartened—disheartened because even there, on one of the tallest mountains east of the Mississippi, on a trail created to give people a place to get away from the city, in one our nation’s few protected stretches of wilderness, I knew, looking into the haze, that I’d never be able to fully escape the plumes of industry and chemical clouds of civilization.

Part of me wished I could see all the way to the horizon. Perhaps I’d view an undulating sea of blue-green mountain humps leveling out into a valley dotted with farms and country hamlets. I wished I was somehow an exception to the rule; that I was somehow exempt from the haze. But like everyone else, I couldn’t see more than a couple of miles. Now matter how much organic food I eat, no matter how much of my time I spend in natural places, I realized that I was just as susceptible to pollution and just as affected by industry as everyone else. Just as there are pollutants in the Smokies, there were pollutants pocketed in my lungs. Mercury was swimming in my blood. Cell phone waves were sending tidal waves rippling through my testicular seas. There is no escape.

To be there, in a national park, and to NOT BE ABLE TO SEE MORE THAN A FEW MILES seems to me like a dead canary in a coal mine. It should give us cause to think, “Hmmm… Maybe we took things a little too far…” Instead, we’re going to build another pipeline.

-After my hike, I hitchhiked back to the van with three very friendly and generous drivers, then took off west in my van down the I-40. I was starving from my hike, so I was on the lookout for a mom and pop diner—some place that might offer some authentic American cuisine that I’d normally abstain from for health and ethical reasons, but because of my grueling hike and the sense of freedom I felt heading west in my own van, I was prepared to throw all caution to the wind, shoe-shoe my inhibitions, and indulge in all the sinful fantasies I’d been dreaming about: hillocks of sodium-rich golden french fries smothered in ketchup, an obscenely large cheeseburger layered with slabs of bacon, ice cold chocolate milkshakes as thick and heavy as a jar of honey. I thought this fantasy wasn’t too far-fetched and that I’d have no trouble realizing it, but it soon became clear to me that I’d find no such diner on the interstate. All I saw were giant pillared signs for Ruby Tuesdays and McDonalds and Shoneys.

As my stomach grumbled, my misanthropy was raised to a fever pitch. The traffic was awful. The air smelled of rotisseried skunk slathered in rotten eggs. It was getting late, so I took an exit to a Love’s rest stop to buy a sandwich at a Subway. Four giant appallingly obese people—together forming a set of monster truck tires—were standing in front of the food line. One of them was talking to the cashier about “baby daddies.”

“You better watch out. Your baby daddy’s gonna leave you.”

“Nuh-uh. Not my baby daddy. He ain’t never gonna leave me.”

In the corner of the restaurant was a TV playing Fox News. Geraldo Rivera was talking to some “expert” on some Miss America fiasco, in which a contestant refused to compete with a transgender person.

It seems as if I’d wandered onto the hairy hemorrhoid of America. I got my sub, bought a map, and scurried out of the restaurant, promising myself that I wouldn’t go anywhere near the interstate or places like this for the rest of my trip.

And that’s just what I did. I listened to pop country the whole way through Tennessee and Arkansas and Kansas, drinking three chocolate milkshakes, going for morning jogs at campgrounds and finding myself becoming so prideful and impressed with this country and all the beautiful places left in it.

Hitchhiking along the I-40. Hitchhiking on the interstate is a very difficult way to get rides.
Tennessee Route 70.
Camping next to Lake Wedington in NW Arkansas

Scrap art on roadside in Kansas

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