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This must be the place: Some new light may be passin’, but it may never pass again

The Appalachian Trail at Tellico Gap. (photo: Garret K. Woodward) The Appalachian Trail at Tellico Gap. (photo: Garret K. Woodward)

It was mid-afternoon Sunday and I couldn’t stand to be in my apartment another minute. I was done with all my writing for the day. I’d already eaten a hasty breakfast and had two iced coffees. It was time to disappear into the depths of Mother Nature. 

With blue-bird skies and a warm sun still lingering from summer, I jumped into the truck and headed for the gas station. Fill the tank. Grab a snack. Pay the attendant and aim the nose of the Tacoma westward, down the Great Smoky Mountains Expressway for destinations unknown. 

Initially, I had thought to run my usual, default logging road up in Balsam Gap on the Haywood and Jackson County line. Nah. The urge to keep driving was deep and antsy. The mind and soul wanted to soak in the wind through the open windows, the pedal pushed closer to the floor with each straightaway on this early fall day. 

What about hiking Black Rock at Pinnacle Park in Sylva? Or the dirt trail system behind Western Carolina University in Cullowhee? Perhaps, but the steering wheel didn’t shift towards the off-ramp when I passed by Exit 85. Onward. 

Tsali Recreation Area, maybe? Who knows? See how the restless soul feels once we get there and cross that bridge, literally and figuratively. The sun was still hanging high about the Great Smoky Mountains by the time I rolled passed Cherokee and Bryson City. 

Just before I was to turn towards Tsali and the serene, unfolding nature that resides on the trails there, I saw the sign for N.C. 28 (aka: Bryson City Road) heading south towards Franklin. The gas station at that corner seemed abandoned now: no fuel prices on the sign, concrete barriers now blocking the entrance. 

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I remember once stopping in there for gas and a beverage, an elderly couple behind the counter. They owned the station. Lived upstairs. Nice folks. Chatted for a bit. But, that was years ago, moments and memories now in the rearview mirror as the truck nose now aimed down the endless s-curves of N.C. 28 South. 

It was decided in that instance to wander up to the Appalachian Trail at Tellico Gap. An escape hatch of sorts for my sanity. Of the many things that I truly enjoy in life, one of my cherished traditions is finding remote access points for the A.T. Go on Google Maps. Find the A.T. Look around the map for spots where Forest Service roads intersect the famous footpath. 

And of those findings, one of the happily-discovered gems is Tellico Gap. Either heading north or south from the small parking area, it’s quite possibly the best bang for your buck in terms of hiking distance and panoramic views. 

But, for me, it’s mostly about escapism. Heading down these desolate backroads when the world gets a little too noisy, a little too heavy, in search of nothing and everything, but mostly just in search of myself — my true self, once again. 

Leave N.C. 28 and turn onto Tellico Road. The road goes from pavement to gravel to dirt within about 10 minutes. Just the way I like it. Along the babbling brook. By that personal dream house with the waterwheel. Past the old red barn with the rusty Gulf gas station sign. Give a double honk of solidarity to the older gentleman sitting on his porch. A nod to the sheep in the distant field, too. 

Though I’ve been down the road many-a-time, I vividly remember that first time through here. My old rear-wheel drive low-rider GMC Sonoma. Wondering if the old truck would even get up the dirt switchbacks. Do I even have room to turn around at some point? Fingers crossed there’s enough gas to get out of here and back to civilization. 

I also remember a first date at Tellico Gap with a femme fatale who, like a whirlwind, dropped into my life from seemingly out of nowhere (as all things worthwhile seem to do, truth be told). It was decided to go on an adventure one day several years back. She hopped into the truck and we headed for the A.T. 

Park at Tellico Gap. Hike to Rocky Bald. Admire the view over Franklin and greater Macon County from high above a mountain ridge. Back to the truck. Back to pizza and pints at nearby Hoppy Trout Brewing in Andrews. And don’t forget a spontaneous swim and cliff jumping from the rope swing at that spot near that bridge on Fontana Lake. 

This most recent visit to Tellico Gap resulted in a solo trek north to the Wesser Bald Fire Tower. A warm sun to the west, quickly fading behind the mountains. Cool air in the shaded backside of the ridge. Silence. Pure, priceless silence.

Trotting along in my muddy trail running shoes. Hopping over rocks and roots. Push up the trail. Beads of sweat trickling down the forehead. Stand atop the fire tower in awe of time and space, of being in that moment in those sacred mountains — late afternoon Sunday and I couldn’t stand to be in my apartment another minute.

Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all. 

(Garret K. Woodward is the arts and entertainment editor for The Smoky Mountain News. He’s also the music editor for Smoky Mountain Living magazine and a contributing writer for Rolling Stone. You can reach him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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