Sphere of clarity

When you look at the pictures in those glossy travel magazines, it is always sunny in Aruba.

I don’t understand this obsession Americans have for sunshine and blue skies. Sunlight blands out the world and obliterates every mystery.

But weather is what gives a place emotional resonance. If you travel through a location for the first time and there is a thunderstorm, then, in your mind, it is always raining there. I had that experience in the flats of southern Minnesota, where it must have rained 10 inches in a half hour. I have not yet been back, so, I naturally assume it’s still raining in Pipestone.

And even when you have visited a place as often as I have visited the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it is the constantly changing weather that most clearly defines the place.

I’ve seen the Smokies in sun and rain, in haze, drizzle, and shimmering in summer heat. I’ve seen it crystalized in ice, with each tree jacketed with a solid sheath of glass. I’ve seen the foggy snow clouds rise up from the coves to sugar the ridge crests and I’ve seen the dark diagonals of rain drop from the sunbrightened clouds to the north, while I sit dry and warm at Newfound Gap.

In short, the Smokies are weather.

And this most recent visit gave me something new once more.

I entered the park from the Tennessee side, driving up Little River Road from Townsend. The road follows an old logging railroad right-of-way along the Little River, which is perhaps even too little to be called a river.

It is only a creek, but it has gouged out an impressive gorge through the hills on the northwest side of the park. The road winds erratically along the stream path, around knolls and into coves, always with a slope of greenery above you.

At 6 in the morning, there were no other cars on the road, although I would have had a hard time seeing them if there had been. The route was whited out in fog, yet a peculiar kind of fog that was of uniform density, so that no matter in what direction I looked, I could see about 60 feet.

So I drove upstream in what I called a “sphere of clarity” with a diameter of 120 feet. It was a ball of visibility and my eye was at its center. It moved with the car, always unfolding new scenes before me and closing up those behind.

And what is more, it was a green fog: Everything was colored by the light reflected from the leafy forest above and around, making the scene soft-edged, mossy and wet with dripping dew.

Beside the road, the creek cascaded downhill  with boulder breaking up the water into white rapids overarched with willows and witch hazel. When I pulled into a turnout and got out of the car, I could hear the squawk of crows and blackbirds over the roar of the stream.

Little River Road eventually turns away from the stream and up and over Sugarland Mountain and into the main part of the park, where it joins with U.S. 441, or Newfound Gap Road, which crosses the crest of the Smokies into North Carolina.

The road climbs steeply up the north side of the mountains. At one point, it even circles above itself in a great corkscrew called The Loop. The highest point on the road is Newfound Gap, at 5,048 feet.

Here, there is a view both north into Tennessee and south into North Carolina. Or, there is sometimes a view.

On this trip, the sphere of clarity lets me see only a portion of the parking lot and a red spruce tree growing just on the other side of the stone wall that bounds the road.

That and my own frosty breath.

In such weather, it is easy to notice how limited your vision is. Sometimes the air is so clear, your sphere expands to the horizon and you don’t notice it.

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