See Ya Later

Nearly a week into our 2008 Christmas road trip, we made it to Everglades City, Florida.  We were looking forward to 3 days of canoeing and camping along the Gulf Coast.  But, the day we arrived, we decided just to enjoy the surroundings and spend the night comfortably in a local bed and breakfast (who also happened to rent canoes).

Before we could really enjoy ourselves, we decided to head to the local grocery store and stock up on supplies for our camping trip.  This did not take long because the local grocery store was about the size of a large convenience store at a gas station.  There was very little selection and only one brand of anything they carried.  This had the advantage of making decisions very easy.  Do you want bottled water?  1 liter or 2 gallons?  Do you want beef jerky?  Oh, they’re buy 3 get one free.  Do you want granola bars?  1 box or 2?  I love easy decisions!

On the way back to the hotel, we discovered a roadside park with a lovely swamp occupied by so much wildlife, at first I thought it was a zoo.  I couldn’t get over the birds.  If all birds were that big, birding would be so much easier!

The Cormorants stood around drying their wings.  The Little Blue Heron posed while stalking fish.  And the Anhinga, well, they were the most amazing of all.  I saw a stick poking up through the surface of the water and suddenly realized it wasn’t a stick at all!  It was the beak of an Anhinga who was walking along the bottom of the pond with its beak sticking up through the surface like a breathing tube.  I don’t know if it was really breathing, but I was blown away by the scuba diving bird!

If the birds weren’t enough, the alligators added a whole new level of excitement.  While you can’t tell from the photos, there was a fence between the closest alligators and us.  Although, it was a fence they could have run around to get to us.  I’ve heard alligators are pretty fast, but Pat kept an eye on the gators to make sure none were sneaking up behind me when I was looking at his brother.  You have to respect any animal that has been around for as many millennium as the alligator.  They reek of ancientness.

Amazed, loaded with images, and stocked with food for our trip, we decided to try a local restaurant that was recommended to us by the bed and breakfast.  It was one of those hyper casual places that served on picnic tables with paper plates.  But I had the best salad I’ve ever had in my life there–the greens, herbs, and flowers (yes flowers) were all grown in the restaurant’s own garden.  Just writing about it makes me want to return just to have another one of those salads.

It was a great way to prepare for our canoeing adventure.

Dinner in Maggie Valley

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.

A Room with No View

Pat and I arrive at the South entrance to Great Smoky Mountain National Park around 3PM on Saturday.  We pull into the visitors’ center and I ask for available front-country campsites.  The ranger at the visitor’s center checks her list and rattles off all the campgrounds that are full.  It’s the first time we’ve had to ask a Southerner to slow down–we can’t keep up.  She shows us the list and advises us on which camp grounds with vacancies are closest.  We opt for Balsam Mountains even though there were only 12 sites left there as of 11AM.  It’s relatively close and it’s less popular, so we figured the odds that it will have filled are slim.

We drive through the Cherokee reservation to get to that part of the park, taking the Blue Ridge Skyway for a stretch.  It’s such a beautiful part of the country.  While Colorado and the Rockies have long been personal favorites, the Smokies have their own charm, covered in trees and draped in “smoky” clouds.  We enjoy the drive up to Balsam Mountain campgrounds although it takes longer than we expected.  It’s something I forget each time we go to a remote place–8 miles doesn’t take 8 minutes like on a highway.  As we crawl our way up the winding mountain road, we see wild turkeys along the road.  Each time, I get a step further in getting my camera together, but they disappear into the underbrush before I can get a shot off.

Then, Pat comes around a corner to see a motorcyclist pulled off in the grass on the left.  Across the grass field, a large bull elk stands with his head down, eating grass.  Pat stops the car and I get my camera out.  Having been well versed on personal safety and elks in the Canadian Rockies (where we were told that the vast majority of animal/people encounters resulting in injury are between elk and humans), I stay in the car.  However, I’m shooting with my big lens and sitting in a running vehicle.  I curse my aging eyes that I can’t tell if the pictures are clear or not from the LCD on the camera.  As soon as I put my camera down and we start to roll forward, the elk lifts his head and looks at us straight on with a mouth full of grass.  What a great shot that would have been.  We wind our way slowly by the elk, who watches us go as if he appreciates the entertainment of us stopping to gawk.

We make it to the camp grounds and go on a quest to find an empty site.  The first site in is empty, but it has a handicapped sign.  We debate the rules of occupying a handicapped site.  Is it like a parking place, which you can never park in without a sticker?  Or is it like a handicapped stall in the restroom, which you would only use if all other stalls are full?  We decide to drive on and see if anything else is open just so we don’t have to deal with the dilemma.  Fortunately, there is another site that looks to have good shade.  The sites are smaller than in most state parks and a little more on top of each other than I would like, although still more private than some of the commercial campgrounds I’ve seen.  There is a gravel pit framed with wood for pitching the tent.  The gravel is fine enough not to be bumpy but large enough to hold stakes.  We pitch our 2-man tent (which Pat says is perfect for 1 person) quickly, spread the rain-fly over it, stake it all down, blow up our Big Agnes air mattresses, and I crawl inside to get things positioned properly.  It’s good that there is no view from the campsite because the rain-fly prevents us from seeing anything other than an orange glow from inside the tent anyway.  Deciding not to put our sleeping bags in the tent yet, we head back to the entrance to fill out our site information and pay our $14 for the night.  We also make a pit stop at the restroom, which has running water, although only cold.

When we return to the site with our permit, two rangers are making rounds.  They stop to warn us about bears and about not keeping food in our tent.  One is familiar with Chattanooga and he and Pat end up chatting while I talk to the other about potential places to go for an evening hike.  He recommends Flat Creek Trail, which has one end near the campground and the other end a few miles down the road.  He says there have been many bear reports in that area and I look forward to the opportunity to see a bear (although preferably not too close).  We’ve encountered black bears several times on various hikes and have never had a problem.  However, I wouldn’t want to run into one in close proximity or come between a mother and her cubs.

We gather up the gear we’ll need for the hike.  We plan to go no more than 5 miles round trip with the amount of light left, so only one day pack will be needed.  I will, of course, haul my camera gear along with us just in case I get the chance to shoot a black bear.  Packing everything we don’t need back into the trunk of the car for security, we load back into the car and head back the way we came, deciding to start at the far end of the trail where we will be further from the humans at the campground.

As we pull out of the camp grounds, Pat spots 3 wild turkeys on the side of the road.  I’m excited by the number of wild turkeys in the park–they were once such a rare occurrence.  They, of course, dart behind tall grasses and disappear down the slope before I can get a shot.  If only they would pose for me instead of running away!  But, I suppose their quick retreat into hiding partly explains the resurgence of the population, so I’m glad that they know not to trust humans.  After we go around a few more curves, we encounter our elk friend again.  This time, a white SUV is stopped in the middle of the road and a woman is standing outside the vehicle with the door closed shooting our friend who has bedded down in the grass.  We stop and wait.  The SUV pulls off to the side to allow us to pass and the elk decides to stand.  Now, if I were that woman standing there completely exposed with no quick escape, I would start walking backwards and get into the car.  However, she takes two more steps forward, trying to get a close-up shot with a small point-and-shoot camera.  Pat passes the SUV slowly, although I really want to stay and watch just to see what happens.  As we go by, the elk looks at us with an expression that makes me think he’s asking us, “What the heck is up with this woman?”

We head on down the road and just a few curves later, find our trailhead.  We gear up and prepare to head down the trail.  Pat wears the day pack with our water and I sling my big lens on its monopod over my shoulder and we start off.

Weekend Road Trip

It’s Saturday morning and I manage to sleep until 6AM–woo hoo!  We are leaving for Great Smoky Mountain National Park today and we have no plan and haven’t started to pack.  First, we decide we will camp, but not backpack.  This tells us what we will need.  Next, we decide we will enter the park from the South side, which tells us how we will get there.  Next, we head for the storage room and start digging out our gear.  Most of our camping gear is neatly packed into our two backpacks, but my sleeping bag and the camp stove are missing.  Back in the storage room, we dig up my sleeping bag, stored full and puffy in it’s large storage bag so that it doesn’t lose loft.  I love my sleeping bag.  It’s a Western Mountaineering down, water resistant bag that weighs next to nothing but manages to keep me warm in sub-freezing temperatures.  I toss the big bag in the air a few times just to appreciate how light it is.  We find the camp stove (well, it’s really a super-light single burner that screws directly onto a small propane tank) in a plastic storage container that also has bug spray, an extra flashlight, wet wipes (a must for camping), and two super-absorbent, fast-drying camp towels.  We collect our booty and return down the hall to our apartment.

All of our gear is spread out on the floor, looking much like an explosion.  We sort through what we need for camping in the front-country from what we only need for back-country.  Having decided not to backpack, we need less stuff but don’t have to worry so much about how much space it occupies.  We thought we were going to take our mini-van so that we’d have the option to sleep in the van if the weather turned nasty, but the front brakes were making some nasty noises when we drove the day before (making Pat extremely angry since he’d just had the brakes done a month ago and the dealership had ensured him the front brakes were fine) and we decide we’d better take the BMW.  It’s a small car and we don’t want to have to leave anything valuable sitting in the seats, so we debate whether we should roll the sleeping bags into their impossibly small stuff sacks or leave them in their storage bags.  Deciding they will fit in their storage bags, we move on to packing clothing.  I grab two pairs of hiking pants, a couple of high-tech T-Shirts that will dry fast when wet.  Then I choose some bra tops that are comfortable for hiking, my five-fingers trekking shoes, a pair of socks for night time, and the world’s most comfortable underwear, Ex Officio boy-cut briefs.  Normally, I would not mention my unmentionables, but these are just so awesome for the active woman that I can’t help but share.  I slip on a pair of cropped hiking pants and tank top along with my Chaco Z sandals.  I grab my 1-quart zip lock bag of toiletries from my trip to New York and remove the items I won’t need while camping.  I stuff it all into a reversible stuff sack that has a nice fuzzy interior that can be turned inside out and stuffed with the perfect aount of clothes to make a nice pillow.  Since we’re not worried about weight this trip, I throw in my neck pillow.

Now that my gear and garments are ready to roll, I focus on water.  Unfortunately, our faucet is one of those sprayer types that you can’t attach a water filter to.  I filter 2 gallons of water through our filter pitcher and fill two large water bladders for our day packs and a gallon jug to take with us.  We drink a lot of water when we hike.  Since we can’t carry the gallon of water with us, I also prep our backpacking water filter that will allow us to safely refill our bladders from any stream should we run out.  I’m a little paranoid about hiking.  Maybe not paranoid given my proclivity for hurting myself, but I like to make sure I always have a first aid kit, emergency blankets, and plenty of water.  I figure that ensures we can survive any accident for at least 3 days.  Even when we are taking short, easy hikes, I like to know that we’re prepared for disaster.  Maybe I’ve read too many stories about hikers who died from hypothermia after a minor injury laid them up on the trail, but I want to know that I will be able to stay warm, dry, and hydrated even if we’re only a couple miles from help.

Having gathered together all the necessities save food, we load up the car.  Pat decides to take two trips.  I wait for him outside, keeping an eye on the car now that I’ve put my backpack containing my camera gear in the front seat.  He returns with the last load and we pile in and head out.  I am practically bouncing in my seat as we head out of town.  While part of me is so tired I want to lay around all weekend, I don’t want to miss the opportunity to spend a long weekend in the Smokies.  We talk about what we will do when we get there, since we still have no real plan beyond getting there.  Our first goal will be to find a campsite.  I’m somewhat worried that with it being a holiday weekend, there won’t be any available.  We also stop for gas and stock up on snack food so we can go straight from getting a campsite to going on a hike.  It’s taken us so long to get out the door that we won’t get there before 3PM.  I don’t want to miss out on a hike just because we don’t have any snacks to take with us (another little paranoid thing I have–unless I’m hiking in a metro park, I want to make sure we have some food on us).

It strikes me as funny that we spent so much time rushing around to get ready, yet we don’t know what we got ready for.  I pull out my iPad and start digging through old emails, trying to find the name of a trail a friend recommended to me.  Unfortunately, I’m not able to locate it.  I figure I’ll have to ask again and we’ll catch it next time.  I download an app that is supposed to help with planning a trip to the park, but it has little information about hiking trails.  I do searches and try to figure out where we should go when we get there, but in the end, I have to sit back and relax and assume that it will all work out.