GATLINBURG — The crew at LeConte Lodge are connoisseurs of sky gazing. Whether it’s an orange sunset blazing across the horizon, an August meteor shower, or the International Space Station orbiting at night, they’ve seen it all.
Two weeks ago, the crew and lodge guests were treated to a rare occurrence when a dense layer of clouds settled over the valley at sunset, leaving the skies over Mount LeConte, elevation 6,594 feet, crystal clear.
With Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg buried beneath a sea of clouds, the stars that night twinkled at full strength, unblemished by city lights. Nobody was more thrilled by the nocturnal pageantry than Chris and Allyson Virden, a married couple who have been the site managers of LeConte Lodge in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park since 2003.
Their last day as managers at LeConte was Tuesday, when the lodge closed for the winter. They say that after 12 years it’s time to leave the highest overnight lodge east of the Mississippi River for a world with electric lights, indoor plumbing and washing machines.
“I’ll miss living on a mountain in a national park,” Chris said. “That’s a privilege few people get.”
“We’ve seen the Northern Lights five times,” Allyson added. “I’ll miss waking up above the clouds.”
When LeConte reopens on March 23 for the 2015 season, the new site manager will be Ruthie Puckett of Decatur, Ala., who worked this past season as a crew member.
The Virdens met in 2000 while hiking the Appalachian Trail. The following year they got married. Like the rest of the LeConte Lodge crew, they get eight days off every month. When they need to go down to their home in Gatlinburg, they take the 5½-mile Alum Cave Trail — the shortest, but steepest, of the five trails that lead to the lodge.
How many times have they hiked up and down Alum Cave over the past 12 years?
“I don’t know,” said Chris. “I was always going to work. It’s like anybody’s commute. Some days the trail is crowded and the hiking is slow, and other days it’s a quick trip.”
LeConte Lodge originated in 1926 as a log structure built by Jack Huff of Gatlinburg. Today, the rustic sleeping cabins and dining hall attract about 12,000 guests throughout the season from late March to late November. Stokely Hospitality Enterprises operates the lodge under a lease agreement with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Propane heats the cabins and the kitchen stove, and solar panels provide limited electricity for laptops and radios.
Three days a week, a pack-train of llamas and their handler travels up and down the 6½-mile Trillium Gap Trail to deliver clean linens and fresh supplies to the lodge. The seven small cabins and three group sleeping cabins can accommodate as many as 60 guests, and the lodge usually is booked well in advance.
During their tenure as managers, Allyson and Chris have cooked for the crew and guests. Chris’ specialty is breakfast. Over the years, he has flipped an estimated 264,000 pancakes, and his homemade biscuits earn rave reviews.
When something at the lodge breaks down, Chris is the one to fix it, and Allyson supervises the crew.
For the last 12 years they’ve spent most of each year working in close quarters on a remote mountaintop, and they’ve managed to stay married.
“I’m fortunate I married my best friend,” Allyson said. “Chris and I have different strengths, so we make a great team. If anything, 12 years on the mountain has made us closer.”
For the next chapter of their lives, the couple will devote themselves full time to two business ventures: one involving the production and sale of their own brand of organic hot pepper flakes; the other, selling 1960s furniture in Knoxville’s Old City.
They’ll miss welcoming guests who barely made it up the mountain — “For some people, this is their marathon,” Chris said — and they’ll miss the crew members and regular lodge guests who have become like family over the years.
They were on LeConte a few summers ago when the thermometer rose above 80 degrees for the first time in recorded history, and they were there on Halloween 2013 when Superstorm Sandy dumped 36 inches of snow.
“We’ll carry a lot of memories down the mountain,” Allyson said. “We always told each other we’d leave as soon as we figured out our next step. We don’t want to be up there getting burned out. We want to give the mountain what it deserves.”