Outdoors: Forty years exploring the Smokies

The book cover got my attention when 3,000 Miles in the Great Smokies landed in my in-box: a black-and-white photo in which author and Weaverville native William Hart leans against the Siler Bald trail sign. It's a scene from 1967, not long after the then-young man set out to explore the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as a kind of lifelong project — backpacking, fishing, hiking, studying its history and biodiversity, and just plain roaming as much of it as he could, off-trail and on. The photo provides a moment in time — before hiking had the popularity it has today (and definitely before outdoor gear benefited from the light materials now used, says Hart, when I called him for a chat).

Beyond the trail guides: "Every trip has a story," says Buncombe native William Hart, pictured on the cover of his book about exploring the Smokies. Photo courtesy History Press

I wanted to know the story behind that picture.

"I never thought I'd travel the world, but I set out to have an intimate knowledge of this area," says Hart, giving a broad answer. His first recollections of the park are hikes with his father and the memory of looking at the trail sign for Mount Le Conte, he continues. Hart thought the famed peak sounded mysterious, and he determined to go there when he got older. That same curiosity led him to places like Siler Bald.

After graduating from college and marrying Alice, a local girl, Hart backpacked regularly with friends and family in the park. He also picked out old trails on the maps and set out to retrace them, thus covering far more than the park's marked and maintained, 800 miles of trails. Hart says in his book, "I have never been lost during my off-trail outings, [but] I have been bewildered on more than one occasion."

He also did a little trout fishing in the backcountry, met lots of interesting folks on the trails and encountered more than a few wild creatures along the way, from bears to bees. As he explored, Hart pieced together an anecdotal history too — of the Cherokee, early settlers, lumbermen, old-time moonshiners and the like. Every time he stumbled upon an old fence, the remains of a stone chimney or an overgrown logging road, he pondered their origins, but along the way, he also started to create his own story. He says of even the shortest venture into the park, "Every trip has a history."

Hart, whose first job out of college was as a high-school history teacher, kept meticulous, handwritten records of each Smokies trip, even before he thought of writing a book. Then, on his 25th wedding anniversary, his wife had those notes typed up. "That got me started on the book," says Hart, who says he was inspired by writers Harvey Broome (Out Under the Sky of the Great Smokies, published posthumously in 1975 by Broome's widow) and Paul Fink (Backpacking Was the Only Way, 1975), as well as explorer/activists like the "dean of American campers," Horace Kephart, who helped create the park. These men, Hart says, offered not trail guides but something else: personal accounts of the lands they roamed. And there's been precious little of those kinds of musings in the last 40 years, he adds.

So Hart recorded personal reflections, observations and campfire talks with all manner of folk, from inexperienced campers who confused their water bottle with a kerosene container to a former chief of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee. Hart also kept up with sightings of such rare creatures as Jordan's salamander, found only in the park.

"What began as a mere curiosity evolved into a desire to visit all parts of the [park] to become thoroughly familiar with the facets of these majestic mountains," he writes.

Hart says he didn't want to create a trail guide, and that's the other aspect of 3,000 Miles that caught my attention. I had recently delved into the writings of naturalist John Muir, who in 1867 hiked through Western North Carolina on a thousand-mile walk to the gulf (and wrote a book by that name). Here, in Hart's book, was a work that at times seemed to echo Muir's sense of wonder as he walked these mountains: "Endless ranges of blue mountains spread into the distance, creating the perception that the Smokies were boundless," he writes of a boyhood walk to Pin Oak Gap. And on a 1971 visit to Mount Le Conte, the fog lifted "and we witnessed the gradual and magical unveiling of the western mountains. The rain-washed skies became crystal clear and peaks were outlined starkly against the golden backdrop of the setting sun."

And there's one more aspect to Hart's book that intrigued me: Though he opens with recollections of boyhood treks, he finishes with his grandson Will's first park outing. "With our children, over the years, one of the ways we could have a dialogue with them was to go hiking or take a camping trip," Hart explains. He wants to pass on his love of the Smokies to the next generation too. "I was hoping [with this book] to leave a record of my experiences that would fill in some gaps for people interested in the area. But only time will tell if I've passed on the joy the Smokies gives me."

You can meet Hart on Saturday, Oct. 17, at the City Lights Bookstore in Sylva at 7 p.m., or on Friday, Oct. 23, at Mountain Lore Books & More in Hendersonville.

Send your outdoors news to mvwilliams@mountainx.com or call 251-1333, ext. 152.
"Endless ranges of blue mountains spread into the distance, creating the perception that the Smokies were boundless."

[William Hart, author of 3,000 Miles in the Great Smokies.]

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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