In early April’s strengthening sunlight, when high temperatures one day bump into the 70’s, then retreat to the mid-50’s the next, a springtime walk up Scott Mountain thumps my brain like a finger flicking winter away. This trail from the valley floor up to an elevation of 2,150 feet at Schoolhouse Gap leads me from dogwood to dogwood, redwood to redwood, trillium to trillium, all gloriously abloom.

It also rises through the history of this area where I’ve lived for the past quarter century or so. A century ago, farmers here drove cattle along this very path to summer in the Smoky Mountain high country, sending teenaged boys along as herders.  Pause at the Bill McClanahan’s childhood cabin halfway up the mountain and it’s possible to conjure up visions of Bill, dead three years now, working livestock in this very spot.

Several families lived at White Oak Sink, a meadow renowned for spring wildflowers a couple of miles away, prior to establishing the national park. Their children walked this path down to the school in the valley below, which is why this is called Schoolhouse Gap.

Of course, history here, like that of almost any place you’d care to name, reaches far past European settlement. Buffalo used to walk through the gap in the hills visible the other side of Bill McClanahan’s cabin, then cross the valley and head to the high meadows right along this path. An old timer once told me that, in fact, the buffalo made the path.

I don’t know when the last buffalo came by here, but they were certainly rare by the 1800s. The Cherokees used buffalo for both clothing and food, reports historian George Ellison, and gave a dressed buffalo skin to Hernando de Soto’s men when they came to the area in 1540.

This day I walk along the path made by the long-gone Woodland bison, which no doubt was followed by the also absent red wolf and probably as well by the now-vanished Eastern cougar. Human beings have wandered through here for at least 8,000 years. With those ghosts alongside and a very real pair of hawks screaming high overhead, I move upward past dogwoods and wildflowers and yellow-and-black butterflies intent on dandelion blooms. Out of habit, I keep an eye and ear open for black bears, but it’s still too early for them, I suspect.

At the gap, Chestnut Top Trail enters the scene a quarter mile up the way. It is home to exactly zero chestnut trees, thanks to a 1940s blight that killed chestnuts. Until then, chestnut trees made up about a third of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park forest. Those trees are gone but the fungus that killed them is still living in this soil, killing any chestnut sprouts that emerge.

However, this forest is still very much alive. Things come, things go. People do, too, as we understand all too well.  These hills, though, are full of living things busy taking in sunlight and carbon dioxide and giving off oxygen. Some of these rocks right here, the gneiss and granite and schist, are a billion years old, and they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Neither am I.

I find a familiar rock by the trail and sit down. In the valley below, less than a mile away as the proverbial crow flies, sits my house, where I’m blessed to live. That spring air, that eager sunshine, there’s nothing quite like it for awakening the senses.

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