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  • Writer's pictureTracy

Ephemeral, Ethereal Leaf Peeping

Crisp morning skies laced with Orion's belt, deep oranges and blues rising from the distant mountains, donning the extra layer. It's fall and it's time to get outside!

Fall is inherently mystical, in that she only puts on her show or a brief moment. As humans, we collectively feel the sense of urgency to stand among her fleeting performance. And for the souls who are swept into the call of Mother Nature, she unfurls the red carpet.

Leaf peepers. Interestingly enough, this term has an official, unofficial definition, and a very official website tracking one of fall’s favorite hobbies.

Although the term became part of the vernacular in the last decade, teaches us that they have been around for 22 years. And reader, they have a myriad of information, as well as a leaf-peeping hotline. The website is up-to-date with the recent post about Fall's Greatest Influencer, the Pumpkin Spice Latte. And while this article is being written at the height of popping season, there still is time.

So, how does one leaf peep? We took to a popular destination, the Great Smoky Mountains to find out. The traffic was tricky to navigate, as we chose human-powered transportation (read - gravel bikes) to take to the scenic mountains. With record dry spells across the US this year, we were met with plumes of gravel dust that kept us coughing and needing frequent hydration. Not to mention the climb over Rich Mountain from Townsend is about 1800’ in elevation. No matter, because the bluebird skies smiled at us. Leaves danced around to the tune of fall’s symphony and kept us in smiles. Ridiculous smiles.

Conversations in our group centered around Halloween costumes and color as we climbed. We were gifted with the most spectacular day. We rode up and down Rich Mountain into Cades Cove. Rich Mountain road was open from April 8 - November 13 this year, which kept vehicular traffic on the road while we were climbing and descending. Everyone shared the road well and many waves and smiles were had.

The setting vacillated between ephemeral and ethereal. It was as though the leaves, falling to the ground knew this was their greatest performance and took to center stage, showing off every bit of brilliance. We took in every, single leaf and gave the show a standing ovation. It was true, the time spent on those gravel roads in the Smokies echoed no other fall day I had seen. It will be a moment that we remember for years to come.

Sitting by the Forge Creek in the Smokies, snacking on cliff bars, my friend and I discussed the traffic in the ever-famous Cades Cove, the families that were coming out to explore the Leaf Peeping Emergency, as my friend donned her day.

Our trip took us over to Parson’s Branch, a 180-year-old road that was recently refinished and is now open to car traffic. In the spring of this year, we met two of the Smokies Park Service employees who had refinished Parson’s Branch, and they were proud of the work they accomplished. As they should be, the road had previously closed in 2016 due to an estimated 1,500 fallen trees, and the Park Service cleaned it up. The two employees were thrilled to invite us to go there and ride. We were grateful for this chance meeting, as it took us to Parson’s Branch, eager to see their work. The road is narrow, steep, and hilarious to ride a bike up and down - calling to mind Type Two fun. But on Parson’s Branch is where it got quieter and our senses got even more conscious of the ephemeral, ethereal experience that is leaf-peeping.

Pictures only serve a little justice, but we recommend instead, calling the Leaf Peeping Hotline in your neck of the woods to find out just where you can immerse yourself in wonder, awe, and some good old-fashioned leaf-peeping.

As we returned to our car parched to the Townsend Historical Trail, we met a couple who had moved recently to Tennessee from Mississippi. They had driven the Cades Cove loop, and up and over Rich Mountain Road. Their sedan made it with no problems on the gravel. We chatted for a moment about where we were from and where we were heading, and the couple said, “Cades Cove loop wasn’t that bad, today, compared to other days!”

We smiled. Isn’t it funny how perspective can shift everything? Take two gravel cyclists, used to having miles of road all to themselves, and put them in Cades Cove during Leaf Peep season, and the anxiety raises. Take two people who live in Townsend and frequently traverse the loop and they had a relaxing day. We are grateful for all kinds who get out, enjoy nature, and take a moment to stop and view the display.

Our day ended with 41+ miles of riding and 4879’ of elevation gain. It also ended with my bum in a chair, refueling, and resting. My mind full of joy recalled this story to my husband, and my friends shared photos of our experience.

Note, as of the writing of this article on October 16th, the leaves are calling, and you must go.

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