The group of twenty-three chugged up the mountain, unleashed from a full day of sitting in educational sessions at the 2016 Southeast Recreational Therapy Symposium. This peloton of participants – a mix of students, young and seasoned practitioners, and educators – climbed Trillium Gap Trail toward the destination of Grotto Falls. Two days before I was on the other side of the mountain, hiking up to Trillium Gap immersed in a smoky mountain cloud, sharing the experience with good friends Jim Smolen and Mike Phillips.
The three of us, college friends and ongoing hiking companions, had set up our base camp in Cosby Campground in Great Smoky Mountains National Park on Sunday afternoon. We used a walk over to Hen Wallow Falls from our campsite as a warmup for more ambitious hikes the next two days. After dinner that evening, the winds started to pick up, climbing to gale force, and giving the tarp covering our campground quite a shaking. A locomotive-like sound heralded incoming higher gusts, and one of these tore out a corner grommet; we struck the tarp for the night.
We headed over to Greenbriar the next morning for the Ramsay Cascades Trail, a destination for many hikers, and rated strenuous due to its steepness. The promise of the early spring wildflower bloom was fulfilled as the sides of the trail revealed one species of wildflower after another. With the aid of a Smokies wildflower guide we verbalized the names of these newly opened beauties. Unfortunately, there was also a littering of trash, notably toilet paper, along this distinctive walkway, suggesting a callowness I found hard to grasp. I remembered the last steep sections, stone steps built into the trail, prior to arriving at the falls, which were unaccountably more impressive than my recall.
On the way back down the mountain, we were surprised to see 6-7 dogs with their owners on the way up. We wondered later if any were service dogs, and whether they were “on the clock”. Two of the dogs were clearly pets, and the young women (wearing heavy backpacks) walking them up the trail were as clueless about that regulation (no pets on trail) as they were about camping – they were told there was good camping along here. In fact there are no designated campsites along Ramsay Cascades Trail. Mike informed them in a friendly manner about Park regulations, drawing on his many years of knowledge of backcountry camping in the Park. He laid out the options including potential fines. At the lower section of our hike, we found more blooms than on our ascent opening in wildflower patches: the dwarf crested iris was striking.
We anticipated rain the coming night and next day, and that evening the wind blasts returned right on time. Several more tarp grommets tore out, and a roar preceded the final destruction and taking down of the site cover. Fortunately our tents withstood the buffeting and steady rain arriving in the night. We moved our breakfast place to a covered picnic shelter in the campground, and were joined by another group of hikers. They were from Nashville – all women – and were spending the week covering various trails. As we compared notes, they were impressed to hear about the dwarf crested iris blooming. One of their group remarked that two of her peers had impressive hiking credentials – members of the 900 mile club (hiked all 900 miles of designated trails in the Park), and they were now helping their friends accomplish this goal. I outed my humble friend Mike, noting his own hiking pedigree – completed thru-hike of Pacific Crest Trail in 2015 (trail name: Hush Puppy) – and his accomplishment got their attention.
We arrived at our trail head in Greenbriar during the rain to find a crowd. It was an organized hike by the Friends of the Smokies up Porters Creek Trail, and though we weren’t signed up I thought it might be of interest to go along for the first mile, at which point we planned to head up Brushy Mountain Trail to Trillium Gap. The idea of joining the organized hike for the first mile was emphatically vetoed by my peers, and we skirted the gathering of over twenty people and started off. Brushy Mountain Trail was a fine choice, since it was clearly “the less traveled path” with room for just single file. While we had not carefully researched this trail, it was well designed, and what it lacked in the steepness of the Ramsay Cascades Trail it provided in a long and relentless climb of over four and a half miles. We walked in a cloud in steady rain, but with willing, fit, and prepared friends it was a joyful experience. One of the aspects of our many years of friendship was the lively kidding and trash talking, and Mike’s PCT credential etched a large bullseye on his back. I did provide homage to him at a small stream/waterfall, naming the feature ceremonially with raised hiking sticks as “Hush Puppy Falls”.
Jim at Hush Puppy Falls
We broke camp and parted the next morning. My trip was shortest, and I arrived in Gatlinburg at the conference site in an hour. My first priority was to clean up, and then work on final preparation for my presentation at 4:30PM “The connection with nature as a recreational therapy intervention in mental health”. An article I had previously read looked at the cognitive benefits of the nature experience, and one researcher hypothesized it took three days to get the restoration of attention necessary for productive cognition. So my previous three days seemed a healthy preparation, added on to the many hours of exploring the scientific basis of this nature connection. And I knew I had not exhausted this examination of the research; it seemed that my identifying the early spring wildflowers was just a beginning, analogous to my awareness of the nature research literature. I may have overshot in the expectation of my attendees meeting the session objective of being able to cite three of the research studies I presented. From my perspective the impact of the nature observation experiential (outside the building), and my sharing clinical experiences using nature with patients, was more useful for the audience.
However there was one study that grabbed my attention from the beginning: Park JP, Tsunetsugu Y, Kasetani T, Kagawa T, Miyazaki Y. The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan. Environ Health Prev Med. 2010 Jan; 15(1): 18–26. [PubMed]. I was stunned when first learning of this Japanese concept – Shinrin-yoku – forest bathing! I had known this effect intuitively, and one example from this locale in the past was worth recounting in the session. We had been on a family camping trip at Elkmont campground in the Park, and one day I had reluctantly agreed to go into Gatlinburg with my wife Susan and children Sara and Eliot. If I could have been monitored pre, during the excursion to Gatlinburg, and then upon returning to the Park, I’m sure there would have been measurable physiological changes. I clearly remembered when finally leaving the crowded bustling town and entering the greenness of the Park that I had felt a great tangible relief.
One of the learning experiences I use in my nature sessions is the reading and discussion of nature quotes I have compiled over some time, and I shared a few in the session illustrating various outcomes of the nature experience including spirituality, mindfulness, relaxation, and humbleness. A famous Ralph Waldo Emerson quote spoke to nature immersion: “Live in the sunshine, swim the sea, drink the wild air”. Yet another minimalist Emerson quote that I had noticed on a back page of the Smokies wildflower book two days before resonated with me even further: “Earth laughs with flowers”.
I got back out to the forest the next afternoon for the hike up to Grotto Falls and back. I wore the hat of an old friend given to me after his death – we were kindred spirits in the outdoors. I later recalled that I had walked this trail with him and others in 2011 after the Thursday conference proceedings. (My tribute to him was A walk with Ed). Our group of 23 all made it to the falls, and I was happy to share this experience. Around twenty years ago, I had a quite different experience. Employing my therapist use of the experiential, I led a group of children including Sara and Eliot to sit near the falls, close their eyes, and just listen. I modeled the same, and was taken aback when I heard the words “Welcome home, my son”. I have come to view it as a moment of transcendence, and a push in the direction of a spiritual life.
This Park has remained a home for me over the years. It was striking that I was more comfortable on a strenuous hike in a cold rain than sitting in an educational session in a distressingly frigid room; the nature experience has always been beneficial for my mental health. It was a pleasure to have good friends on both sides of the mountain: campsite and conference. The old familiarity of this Park trail and the forest bathing was a tonic. As we left the trail and drove out to the east on the Roaring Fork Motor Trail, descending the mountain, and passing preserved nineteenth century homesteads, the wildflower bloom surged. Blooming trilliums covered the hillsides; the mountains were in humorous uproar.