Nowhere, No Way

A seven-mile stretch of road from the southern lip of Great Smoky Mountain National Park to its tunnel terminus remains a source of irritation for generations of locals, and a symbol of an unfulfilled promise from the Federal bureaucracy,

road to nowhere

which once pledged to replace submerged Highway 288, but lost their way amid a forest of red tape and environmental concerns.

Fontana Dam begat Fontana Lake in 1941 after the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA)–in concert with the Army Corps of Engineers–built a hydroelectric plant for ALCOA in consideration of the military’s demand for aluminum essential for aircraft, ship-building, and munitions during WWII. Consequently, communities and roads disappeared under the high-water reserves, and townspeople lost their land and their livelihoods.

In exchange for losing Highway 288, the displaced people of Swain County were promised a road north of Fontana Lake–through Great Smoky Mountain park lands–for continuing access to their ancestral cemeteries left behind, and compensation for relocation assistance. However, most of the 1,300 citizens who resisted the move never saw a dime after ultimately fleeing the rising waters.

Thirty years later, after building 7.2 miles of road and a quarter-mile tunnel, appropriated funds had dried up and the project stalled. By 2003, the National Park Service eventually revealed a feasibility study listing several considerations for public debate, and in 2007, issued a 13-page report detailing the government’s position, electing the No-Action Alternative:

The No-Action Alternative would forego any improvements to Lake View Road with the exception of routine maintenance. Under this alternative, there would be no changes to the existing conditions within the study area. No compensation would be provided in lieu of building the road. NPS would continue to provide transportation across Fontana Lake for annual cemetery visits and would maintain current  amenities, policies, and practices of GSMNP.

Subsequently, Swain County sought a monetary settlement, demanding $52 million from the Department of Interior for defaulting on the original agreement. Yet to date, only $12 million has been paid, thus generating a pending lawsuit for the balance of money owed.

After learning about the history, Leah and I decided to make the pilgrimage to see this road for ourselves. We departed Bryson City on a dreary autumn morning, surrounded by mist and brisk winds that had us zipping up and foraging for hats and gloves from a backseat storage bin.

The drive along Fontana Road took us through bucolic farms and pastoral settings.


autumn cows

We followed the lightly traveled road until we reached the park entrance, and continued along a windy incline dotted with shrouded overlooks of the Tuckasegee River below us.

We knew we had reached the end of the line when we crossed over Nolands Creek,


and encountered a barricade of steel poles that barred us from approaching the tunnel around the bend.

lakeshore trail

The ¼-mile tunnel was dark and dank. And while a flashlight was a handy accessory for navigating the rutted road and avoiding scattered animal feces,

tunnel opening

it became an essential tool for spotlighting the pervasive high school graffiti that randomly “decorated” the oft-covered whitewashed walls–

tunnel to nowhere

–most of it, a reflection of egocentric teenagers flexing their hormones…

fuch grafitti

tunnel grafitti

wall cracks

…but in other cases, the graffiti represented a cathartic release of current political expression–

Fuck Donald Trump

–bringing new meaning to an erstwhile patch of pavement.

As advertised, the “Road to Nowhere” terminated on the back side of the tunnel,

Tunnel End

casting a glimpse of an uncertain future fraught with empty promises disguised as good intentions.


Parhelic Circle with Sundogs

While enjoying the exhilarating views of the Great Smoky Mountains from the vantage of Andrew Bald’s grassy slopes, a narrow ribbon of color caught my eye just as the clouds were parting on the right side of the sun. I knew I didn’t have much time, so I refocused my attention on capturing my discovery through the lens of my camera, while trying not to blow-out the exposure by shooting into the sun.

right side

“Ooh, a rainbow,” I thought, “That’s cool.” I turned to the few hikers present, now relaxing after the trek down from Clingmans Dome.

“Did anyone else see the rainbow?” I asked around to no one in particular.

Their casual shrugs spoke volumes. Glancing back to the sky, I understood their ambivalence; the rainbow had already vanished.

After a snack and a brief respite, it was time to start up the mountain before darkness descended, but not without one last look as I was leaving the clearing. That’s when I noticed–if only for an instant–a reciprocal slice of color on the left side of the sun…

left side

…and then it was gone. Leah and I ascended the trail in sufficient time for photographing a glorious sunset over Clingmans Dome, and nothing more was considered, until it was time to construct the post, On Top of Old Smokey.

While putting my thoughts together with the TV running in the background, I became distracted by a local meteorologist from Charlotte, who was standing in front of a projected image submitted by a viewer that looked very similar to photographs I had recorded on Andrew Bald.

And then he replaced the image with this graphic:

parhelic graphic (2)

while giving a brief explanation of the earth science behind the phenomenon of a parhelic circle with flanking sundogs.

That’s when I realized I had captured something special…caused by sunlight refracting off tiny ice crystals in the atmosphere, and creating a larger halo around the sun.

I returned to the file to re-examine the photographs, and wondered–by chance, and given limited resources–if I could stitch the two views together using Windows Publisher to reproduce the full effect, even though the photographs of both sides of the sun were taken minutes apart from two different viewpoints and parallax.

While the technique is purely experimental, I believe the result comes very close to interpreting “what could have been” had the clouds not interfered with my “rainbows”…

parhelic circle with sundogs

…all of which makes for a more remarkable discovery, given the Great Smoky Mountain smoke.

On Top of Old Smokey

A side trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park from Asheville takes only an hour, but the payoff is timeless. Admission is free, but the views are priceless.

The National Park straddles North Carolina and Tennessee, with Clingmans Dome, the highest peak in Tennessee, and a natural boundary between both states. The park is situated within a day’s drive for 60% of the nation’s population, making it the most popular of all National Parks, with over 9 million visitors per year.

The park can be accessed through a dozen different gateways, with Sugarlands Visitors Center being the prevailing entry point from the north side through Gatlinburg, TN. But Leah and I approached the Great Smokys from the south, and entered via Oconaluftee Visitors Center, the heart of Cherokee Nation.

Once there, we took our time strolling through the Mountain Farm Museum on the banks of the Oconaluftee River…


farm garden

elk field fences


…before driving north on Newfound Gap Road–stopping frequently at the many overlooks–to gaze across Carolina’s side of the Blue Ridge Mountains,



and preview our next destination, Clingmans Dome, at 6,643 feet elevation.

Clingmans Tower LS.jpg

A dogleg turn onto Clingmans Mountain Road took us through short winding turns as we climbed the Appalachian Trail ridgeline, eventually leveling off at an over-sized parking area with trails radiating from the top of the bald, and views extending a hundred miles.

Clingmans Dome view

Thinking that views might be even better at the very top–allowing us to see over Mount LeConte–we trekked half a mile up a very steep asphalt path to Clingmans Observation Tower, albeit knowing it was closed for repair until next year.

To our surprise, families were scaling the spiraling ramp to the tower.

Clingmans Tower

Looking around, there were no views to be had at the base. We were surrounded by a dense growth of evergreens without breaks. Sacks of concrete were stacked under the column with flimsy, yellow, KEEP OUT tape tied across the tower entrance.

Scores of visitors-turned-violators stood around the column base, determining their next move. Should they make the ascent or not? Yes, the tower was officially closed to the public while undergoing repair. But was it too risky to breach the ribbon barricade? There weren’t any park rangers present, but maybe there were cameras? What a moral dilemma!

“I’m not going up there,” exclaimed Leah. “There’s a reason that tower is closed.”

“But look around us! Where are the views?! We hiked up here expecting to see something, yet there’s nothing to look at, unless you want a closer look at this fir stump,” I argued. “And what about everyone already up there? If they really wanted to keep us out, then why didn’t they secure the entrance better? Why didn’t they use fencing instead of tape?”

Leah was adamant. “I’m still not going up there, and I don’t care about everybody else! It’s not the right thing to do.”

I offered Leah my Roy Moore rationale: “But it ain’t illegal if ya don’t get caught!”

I deliberated carefully…

…and ducked under the tape. I couldn’t help myself. I wouldn’t deny myself the views I had come all this way to capture.

The 45-foot tower was completed in 1959 to give unobstructed 360° views of the surrounding mountains and valleys, and it was showing its age. The concrete pathway was separating from the wall in places, and patches of rebar were visible along the way. But did it warrant closing while in the midst of being repaired?

tower panorama

Probably, but not until I had the chance to document the landscape. I scurried up the ramp with the intention of quickly getting my shots, and hurrying back down, just in case I should be noticed.

Tower base

Tower ramp

On our way back down the trail, several families on their way up the trail, paused to catch their breath and ask, “Is it worth it? Is there anything to see up there?”

“It all depends on how good you are at following orders,” I’d answer cryptically.

But our day wasn’t done yet. It was only three o’clock, and we hadn’t hiked more than an easy mile. We’d been told by a park volunteer at the Visitor Center that the two-mile trail to Andrews Bald–which intersects with the Appalachian Trail–was a worthwhile hike with amazing views at the end.

trail sign

So, we took her advice, and set out down a narrow, terraced ridge capped by embedded logs as steps–to keep the erosion to a minimum–until it turned to saw-toothed rocks and twisted roots, and occasional mud in low lying places.


“You realize that it’s now getting dark around five, so we’re not gonna have much time before we have to turn around,” Leah warned. “And climbing back up this hill is gonna be a bear!”

“Sunset’s at 5:30, but as long as we’re out by five, we should be fine,” I replied. “Besides, there’s no way I’m gonna miss the sun going down from up top!”

We made excellent time down the mountainside, and crossed onto Andrew Bald, a grassy clearing with breathtaking views. While Leah was making new friends, and photobombing their picture,


I was focused on the sky, and that’s when I realized that the sun had created something remarkable.

Andrews Bald

That slivered arch of a rainbow crisscrossed by contrails was an elusive sundog, a small portion of an optical phenomenon caused by sunlight refracting off tiny ice crystals in the atmosphere, and creating a larger halo around the sun.


The excitement of capturing this meteorological moment was enough to propel me up the mountain and back to the parking lot with plenty of time to prepare for sunset. But the look on Leah’s face after emerging from the hike told a different story; her feet were achy and her knee was throbbing.

 While she retired to the truck to relax and seek shelter from the bite of cold air moving across Clingmans Dome, I stood steadfast on the edge of the mountain, camera in hand, taking a front row seat to nature’s second act.


almost sundown1


sundown panorama (2)


sunset sky

Almost immediately, all the visitors who stood shoulder to shoulder, drifted back to their cars and trucks to wind their way down to the bottom of the mountain road in the faint tinted light of dusk.

If only they had stuck around long enough for nature’s curtain call…

Sky on Fire