After taking our hike in the Balsam Mountains, we are starving. Since we did not plan any meals prior to leaving (one of the advantages of not backpacking–we have the flexibility to drive somewhere to eat), we head into the closest town to find a restaurant. Neither of our AT&T phones nor my Verizon 3G iPad has service up on the mountain, so we are limited to searching for restaurants in our Tom Tom GPS app. This is one of the reasons I bought the Tom Tom app. It downloads all of its data to your phone, so you can still navigate when you have no cell signal. However, the data isn’t quite as complete or up to date as what’s available when there is a signal and searches from the web are available. In any case, we find a list of restaurants in Maggie Valley, which is only 4 miles away. We pick barbecue. After all, we’re in North Carolina, barbecue should be good. When we get a route, we discover it’s actually over 8 miles away–apparently if we were crows it would be 4 miles, but the road does enough twisting and turning to double the distance.
The “Bar-B-Que Shak” sounds like it’s just what’s in order given that we’re not exactly fresh from our hike, a “shak” sounds like a place we’re likely to fit in. We pass several closed restaurants as we enter Maggie Valley. These are decrepit looking buildings with sagging roofs and trash scattered on the property. It looks as if the tourist industry has taken a big hit in recent years. As the road descends into the valley, we pass a tourist trap with a giant tower behind the main store and big signs that say “The Most Photographed View in the Smokies.” The tower is constructed of wood and doesn’t look particularly well engineered. We look at the scene behind it and wonder why that would be the most photographed view. Then we wonder how anyone could measure that. We pass on by, not disappointed that it appears closed.
We find the Bar-B-Que Shak and are dismayed that there is only one car in front of it in spite of the sign that says “Best Bar-B-Que in Town.” Although, it’s 7:30PM, so we hope that maybe they eat early here and the dinner rush is already over. We always take comfort in crowds at restaurants, though. An abandoned lot speaks volumes. The “shak” is not fancy. It has a log cabin sort of feel although it’s not made of logs. Two large rooms connect and one is roped off, containing the crowd to the smaller of two rooms. No one is sitting in the dining room and the proprietor is talking on the phone when we walk in. She hangs up quickly and greets us in the loudest drawl I’ve ever heard. Her voice is high in pitch and hits a note that would make a dog whine when she says hello. I wonder if she is hard of hearing. She recommends the pulled pork, so we both order it, me in a sandwich and Pat as a dinner without the bun.
We take a seat and wait for our food. The dining room wallpaper catches our eye. It’s not wallpaper at all but rather a collage of puzzles. Every square inch of the wall has puzzles pieced together, covering the wall from floor to ceiling. I can’t imagine how long it took to put all the puzzles together and then adhere them to the walls. I find myself thinking about dust and dirt working its way into those puzzle pieces–they don’t seem to be coated with anything and some of the pieces have started to peel off of their cardboard backings. It does lend a certain down-home ambience, though. In one corner, a collection of stuffed and toy pigs sits proudly displayed. I suppose I am a bit squeamish about being reminded of the animal I am eating, but I have a hard time looking at any of the cute, pink pigs in the eyes.
When the food is ready, the owner calls to us in her painful voice, making every vowel two syllables, “He-ey, y’all, you wan-na co-ome ge-et your fo-od?” She is pleasant enough and well-intentioned, after all, how much control does a person have over their voice? The food is served through a window off the kitchen. Pat jumps up to collect our tray and brings it to the table. The pork tastes good for about 3 bites, but then the salt starts to get to me. I add extra barbecue sauce and it adds moisture (the pork seems dry), but makes the salt situation worse. I try mixing the pork with the cole slaw instead and that helps. The cole slaw is sweet and saucy, providing moisture and offsetting the saltiness of the meat. We are too hungry not to eat heartily regardless.
The owner returns to the phone and calls back whomever she was talking to, talking on the phone in the same volume she used to call across the restaurant to us. Pat, with his back to her, thinks she is talking to him when she asks “Do-o y’all wa-anna co-ome ge-et a pi-ece a thi-is pi-ie?” of her caller. He turns around to respond, but she is so short that she is completely hidden behind the cash register, so he’s only more confused as to whether she’s talking to us or not. I laugh and end his confusion, having seen her take out the phone before sitting on the stool behind the register.
After wolfing down our large platefuls of food, we get out tip money and try to figure out the logistics. The owner calls to us again, seeing our confusion, “The-e tra-ash i-is o-over the-ere. Y’a-all ca-an ju-ust le-ave yo-our tra-ays on to-op.” Now we don’t know what to do with the tip given that she apparently doesn’t come out from behind the counter and there was no tip charge by the register. We decide we’re not supposed to tip when we serve ourselves and bus our own table, so we pocket the money feeling slightly guilty and head out the door. She thanks us and encourages us to “co-ome se-ee” her again the next time we come up to the park. We smile and thank her and think we might actually do that–after all, what’s a little extra salt in comparison to someone actually wanting to see us again?
We drive back up to our campsite in the growing dark. The elk is still out although he has moved up the road. It’s too dark to get any more shots of him, but we drive by slowly. He is now right next to the road and we pass only 20 feet from him. He raises his head and looks non-plussed as if he recognizes our car as we crawl by. Arriving at the campgrounds, we decide to stop at the bathroom on our way in and get ready for bed. I am still gathering my toiletries when Pat returns to the car and informs me that there are no lights in the bathroom. We dig up a flashlight and Pat chivalrously tells me to take it. I remind him that we have another flashlight somewhere, but he says he’ll be OK in the dark. I wash my face and brush my teeth in the strange light from the flashlight sitting on a window ledge. I stand there dripping with the realization that I forgot to grab a camp towel and there are no towels in the bathroom. I try to wipe the water off my face with my hands, which I dry on my pants. When I return to the car, I dig up a towel and dry myself more thoroughly. I am ready to turn in for the night even though it’s only about 8:30PM.