For more than 30 years, Ben Anderson has ventured into the Smoky Mountains for solitude. Whether he was cleaning up remote backcountry hiking routes as a trail patroller, embarking on seasonal treks to maintain a campground as an Adopt-a-Campsite volunteer or simply hiking through the mountains with his wife and two sons, the forests of Great Smoky Mountains National Park served as an escape from everyday life.
In 2016, Anderson decided to examine the park with a fresh perspective: He wanted to document a year of hikes during the centennial anniversary of the National Park Service. Forty day hikes and a year of writing later, Anderson’s first book, Smokies Chronicle: A Year of Hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park gives readers a glimpse of the park’s appeal.
Hitting the trail
On a mild but overcast New Year’s Day, Anderson, accompanied by his grown son Rob, took the first steps of a journey that would ultimately cover more than half of the park’s maintained trails. “The plan was to explore as much as I could, drawing on past experiences, but realizing that I would have new ideas and different insights, that I would encounter at least on some hikes quite a few new experiences,” Anderson says. “All that was neat and, in some respects, became a way to reminisce about previous trips.”
The National Park Service’s centennial anniversary in 2016 marked 100 years of land protection and served as the perfect opportunity to rediscover the park, Anderson explains. By completing three to four hikes each month, he aimed to see the beauty of the park over the span of a calendar year, while keeping each excursion a distance the average day-hiker could complete.
“It was just really great to experience it and get to see new things, and to get to see it across all four seasons,” Anderson says. And luck was with him. “Not only was it a dry year, but it was a mild year, so I didn’t have to worry much about getting caught in bad weather.”
An initial 4.4-mile outing along Mingus Creek Trail was soon followed by hikes with varying elevations, lengths and tourist appeal. Anderson chose his destinations carefully, selecting locations relatively close to his home in Asheville that were not already well-known.
“I really aimed for interesting hikes at certain times of the year that didn’t involve an extreme amount of driving,” he says. For locals seeking a recommendation, Anderson suggests Kanati Fork trail off Newfound Gap Road about 5 miles north of Smokemont. The hike is especially pleasant, he says, “In mid-to-late April when thousands of trillium are in bloom on the forest floor.”
Each chapter describes one of Anderson’s hikes, weaving in personal anecdotes about past hikes, history and facts about the park’s diverse plants and wildlife.
“There was a lot of self-reflection about experiences in the past, and I grew an even deeper connection with the park,” Anderson says. “I had already had a bond with the Smokies for more than 30 years, but you also get a sense of how vast the park is and how diverse different parts of the park are. If you were driving through, you could say that there is a certain sameness: You know that the park is heavily forested, and there are a lot of different types of flowering plants and wildlife, but [hiking], you really get a sense of how different many of these areas are.
“Most of the trips I was out there on my own and on a lot of them I didn’t see a single other mortal being, not a single soul, even though some of the hikes were maybe 10 miles long. Just total solitude. It gives you time to clear your head a little bit.”
Yet Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the United States, drawing over 11.3 million visitors during the 2016 centennial. With that popularity comes a need to balance the influx of people with the natural beauty that brought them there in the first place, Anderson notes.
“It’s always a difficult balance to protect and preserve the resources and nature within the park that make it so special and the accessibility and ability to share it with human beings for the enjoyment of people,” he says. “[Crowds] can kind of diminish the experience for some people with traffic jams, crowded parking lots, busy visitors centers, heavily traveled trails. But you do meet people from all over the place — I’ve met people from the Southeast, Midwest, West Coast and from countries overseas.”
Anderson has had his fair share of strange encounters in the woods. Over the course of the year, he recalls, he encountered backpackers and campers pairing their outdoor adventures with alcoholic beverages and vehicles moving fast on narrow, twisting dirt roads.
Pen to paper
At age 65, this is Anderson’s first full-length book, despite a long career in journalism and media relations that has yielded hundreds of newspaper, magazine and online articles. While hiking, Anderson recorded his observations in an old hiking logbook. As soon as he returned home, he wrote the first draft of the next chapter — a process he says made compiling an entire book a bit easier.
“There are some days when you’re writing something, and you say to yourself, ‘Will anybody actually want to read this?’ It can grind you down, and sometimes, you just need to take a step back from it on days when it isn’t going too well,” Anderson says. “But 95 percent of the time, it was fun to work on. The editing process could get very tedious and a little stressful, but I really thought from the start, before I had a publisher or any of that, that this was something different that a lot of people would be excited to read.”
After a year of hiking, Anderson’s connection with the Smokies is stronger than ever. But while he is excited to see Smokies Chronicle on the shelves of local bookstores, he hopes that readers are inspired to take advantage of all the park has to offer. For, as the opening Theodore Roosevelt quote in the book states, “There are no words that can tell the hidden spirits of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy, and its charm” — a message Anderson agrees with wholeheartedly.
“You always expect a few hazards along the way, but each trip had something to commend it, even if there wasn’t some completely new revelation or some new site to see,” he remarked. “There’s a reason it’s a national park. There are only 59 of them. It’s just a great place to visit at any point in the year.”
Smokies Chronicle celebrated its official launch on June 12 at Pack Memorial Library. Copies of the book are for sale at Malaprop’s bookstore and online through Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million and Amazon.