Hiking at Clingman’s Dome

When we arrive at Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in Great Smokey Mountain National Park, we discover a long line of cars in the parking lot waiting for spaces.  Pat does a quick U-turn and we drive a quarter of a mile back down the road and find a space on the side of the road.  The space is tight against a sudden drop-off and long grass hides where the slope disappears.  I step out of the car and take a step that misses the firm shoulder, but catch myself before I slide off the slope into the thick weeds.  More cautiously, I move around to the trunk to start getting out gear.  I strap on my camera with the wide-angle lens, expecting to shoot panoramic views from the lookout point, and screw my long lens into my monopod to carry over my shoulder.  I pull out my day-pack and stuff it with food from the grocery store–enough to keep us energized for a day of hiking.  I pull on my fivefingers trekking shoes, tie on my rain jacket since the clouds don’t seem to be clearing, and stuff my head into my sun hat, which it doesn’t look like I’ll need, but it keeps my hair out of my face.  Dozens of tourist walk by on their way to and from their cars.  They wear shorts and T-shirts and flip-flops–I’m sure they wonder what in the heck we’re doing.  Pat straps on a canister of pepper spray just in case we encounter an angry bear and we lock up the car and head for the look out point looking completely ridiculous.

The walk to the overlook is a half mile from the parking lot.  It’s on a paved path that climbs up several hundred feet.  We pass exhausted tourists who stop to rest along the way.  I wonder how their feet are feeling in their flip-flops.  When we get to the peak, we are surprised by a bizarre structure standing at the top.  It’s a tower with a circular viewing platform with a roof that looks somewhat like a UFO hovering over the landscape except for the long, spiral ramp that leads up to it.  It’s an interesting way to provide a view over the trees, but the ramp occupies so much space that I have to wonder if any trees were actually spared in the construction.  We climb up the ramp in spite of the heavy cloud cover.  We have lost hope that the skies would clear.  At the top, the view is still amazing with the nearest mountains looming like shadows through the clouds.  We don’t linger for long–the lack of visibility makes gazing off into the distance fruitless and we are anxious to get out of the crowd and onto the trail.

The din of hundreds of people gathered at this one point surprises me.  I’m not sure why, but maybe I expect people to be silenced by the awe of nature?  As we enter the trail and head out, we encounter several large groups of people who are clearly enjoying themselves, talking and laughing loudly.  I guess we all enjoy our experiences differently.  Recognizing that I am crabby in the morning, I put on a smile and try not to judge their exuberance.  We walk on for another tenth of a mile or so with the trail getting rockier and steeper.  Suddenly, it’s like someone hit a mute button.  All of the noise has disappeared and we hear only the sound of the wind blowing through the trees.  I sigh audibly.  This is the experience I seek when I go into the woods–the quieting of activity and the internal quieting that comes with it.  For a moment I wonder that we’re so quickly able to leave all the busyness behind–it strikes me as odd that so few people venture no further than this into the woods when they come to a national park, but I am grateful for the solitude.

The trail flattens out as we reach a valley between the first mountain and the next.  The trees open up and we find ourselves surrounded by berry-laden slopes.  Given the lateness of the season, we’re not surprised that the berries here have been picked clean, just as they had been on the Flat Creek trail.  The trail is tight and winding, so it’s probably a good thing that there the main attraction for bears is gone.  We step over bear scat about every 20 feet or so, knowing that a few weeks earlier probably would have guaranteed a bear encounter in tight quarters.  But then we see fresh scat and we perk up our ears, keeping one part of our brains focused on any sounds that might indicate we’re not alone.  We hear a snapping branch and rustling that’s too loud for a squirrel and freeze for a moment on the trail.  Then we hear voices and realize we’re encountering another group of hikers.

Moving on, we find two groups of hikers have stopped to eat lunch on large rocks at the side of the trail.  We greet them as we pass and learn that they thought we were bears–I guess we are not the only ones who noticed fresh scat on the trail.  Moving on, we enter deep woods as the trail moves lower in elevation.  The forest floor is covered in ferns and bright green moss.  The voices of our fellow hikers has died away in the wind and we are once again surrounded by solitude.  As the trail starts it way up again, we come into a slight clearing that hosts a collection of birds that dart back and forth across the trail.  I’m surprised to recognize Juncos given that they are a winter bird in Ohio.  Apparently the mountains make a good summer home for those less interested in travel.  Several other birds flit by, but I left my binoculars in the car, wanting to lighten my load.  They are all moving so fast and hiding so well when they land, that I don’t bother to try to set up for a shot.  We move on, listening to their calls and I wish I had spend more time learning bird songs as I’m only able to recognize a couple of them.

As we continue up the next mountain, climbing over rocky terrain, we encounter another group of hikers.  This time, they are clearly on a trek on the Appalachian trail, carrying full backpacks.  The three young men pass us a we stand aside, the third commenting on the size of the lens I am still carrying over my shoulder, as yet unused.  I notice that he is wearing flip flops and wonder how that is possible, but do not comment out loud.  We continue a little further and encounter two more young guys who have passed other day hikers.  They ask us where the next entry point is on the trail, wondering why there are day hikers headed that direction.  We explain that we’re dong an out-and-back from Clingman’s Dome, which satisfies their curiosity, but it seems as if they’ve never considered re-tracing their steps on a hike.  I like through-hiking when backpacking because it allows us to get to places that can’t be reached in a single day, but Pat prefers hiking without the backpack and I have to admit that my body prefers day hiking as well.  As we continue down the trail, I wonder if we’ve gotten too old to get back in shape for through hiking and long for a multi-day adventure on the trail.  I decide that it’s more of a question of how much discomfort we’re willing to put up with than how old we are–however, tolerance for discomfort seems to have an inverse relationship with aging.

We continue on until we find a breezy spot along the ridge.  Pat is sweating profusely and pauses in the breeze, enjoying the coolness.  We do a time check and decide we need to turn around in ten more minutes.  The clouds have continued moving in all day and thunder rumbles ominously in the distance.  We hike a little further and then come to a log where we decide to pause for lunch.  The salty beef jerky and peanuts make a good snack after sweating for so long.  We carefully hold our peanuts in cupped hands, cautious not to drop any out of concern for the bears.  Bears finding human food leads to bears attacking humans, which leads to bears being euthanized and we have no desire to contribute to the unfair death of a bear.

Having satiated our hunger, we head back the way we came, walking more quickly when the trail allows it and keeping our heads down, having given up on the views from the ridge.  We pause only when we encounter a breezeway in the woods or when we hear a noise that we can’t identify immediately.  We make better time on the return than we did on the way out with me stopping only once to shoot–this always happens on out-and-back hikes.  We slow down as we make our way back up to Clingman’s dome.  The trail is steep and rocky, requiring careful foot placement and a strenuous climb.  At one point, we both freeze when we hear a low, guttural roar seemingly from the brush off the side of the trail.  Then we laugh out loud when we realize the sound of a Harley has reached us from the parking lot still far off on the mountain.  Relieved, we walk on, now racing against the increasing thunder.

As we get closer to the trailhead, occasional raindrops bounce off my hat.  I contemplate stopping to put on my rain jacket, but I’m hot and so far the rain is too intermittent to worry about.  As we approach the fork in the trail and I head in the direction we came from, we encounter two tourists who have ventured into the woods from the other fork and Pat suggests we take the trail they’ve come from.  They tell us it came from the parking lot at Clingman’s Dome and it appears to be downhill while the trail we came in on is uphill back to the peak.  We glance at the sky and feel the increasing rain drops and decide to take the shorter route to the parking lot.  Going downhill over rocks is actually harder than going up, but we make fairly good time on creaky knees.  I’m happy with the stickiness of my shoes that let’s me climb over the rocks with a sure-footness I’ve never had in hiking boots.

As we get closer to the trailhead, the rain starts for real and I decide even though I’m too hot and sweaty to worry about staying dry, I need to at least cover my camera and lens.  Pat helps me tuck my rain jacket around my gear and we continue on at a faster pace.  When we think we’re at the trailhead, it takes a sudden turn uphill and I’m disappointed that we still can’t see the trailhead after we make the turn.  The trail is now smooth and covered in gravel, so the going is easier and we reach the parking lot in just a few more minutes.  It strikes me as funny that I suddenly want to get off the trail quickly when a few hours earlier, I couldn’t wait to get on the trail, but carrying heavy camera equipment is no fun when it’s raining too hard to use it.

We make our way back to our car and get in a quickly as possible in the now pouring rain.  We are soaked and get most of the car wet in the process.  As Pat pulls out into the stream of cars evacuating the mountain, I change into a dry shirt and pull on an extra layer, now chilled from the rain and the accompanying drop in temperature.  As we near the intersection with the main road through the park, we make a quick decision to go South instead of North as we had planned–traffic is backed up to the North and we are not prepared to spend hours sitting in traffic in our wet clothes.  We head back to Cherokee to find a dry hotel room tired but happy.

The Morning After

After a night in the Balsam Mountain campgrounds in Great Smoky Mountain National Park, we give up on sleep as soon as there is enough light to see. Watching the lightness of the sky increase through a rain fly is not actually very exciting.  So much of the campgrounds is still asleep that I try to lay there as long as possible, not wanting to disturb the quiet.  We whisper to each other, wondering what time it is.  Pat has an uncanny ability to tell what time it is; he usually guesses within 2 minutes of the actual time.  But today, he is operating on little sleep and he guesses it’s only 5AM.  Since I have been getting up at 4AM, I know that the sun doesn’t rise until after 6AM, so I guess it’s sometime after 6AM.  We lay there contemplating whether we could possibly go back to sleep, But then our nearest neighbor’s baby starts crying again and I decide it’s time to throw in the towel.  For the second time since going to bed, I unzip the tent and head down to the restrooms.

This time, I take my toiletries with me and a camp towel.  I wash my face in the cold water and wish there were a way to take a shower.  After cleaning up, I walk back to the campsite where Pat has gotten up and started putting our gear away.  He has also checked the time and we are both surprised to learn that it’s almost 7AM!  I get out the park maps we’d collected at the visitors’ center the day before and we quietly discuss what we’ll do today.  Amazingly, we hear our neighbors on two sides still snoring in spite of the noisy children.  The neighbor to our left has a large, multi-room tent with a screened “porch” area that we can see through.  We see their dog sitting alert, watching the squirrels that keep chattering from the trees.  We didn’t know they had a dog with them until just now–it hasn’t made a single sound.  The dog sits silently amusing himself by creature watching, moving only his ears and head, patiently waiting for his people to wake up.  What a great dog to camp with!

We decide we will drive towards Cherokee and find a place to eat breakfast and then drive up to Clingman’s Dome to see the view and hike along the Appalachian trail as far as we have time for.  Pat amends our plan to add that he wants to find a hotel for the night–he’s not up for another sleepless night next to noisy neighbors.  We decide we will head North through the park after our hike and find a place to stay in Gatlinburg.  Our plan settled, I go about making a cup of coffee on our camp burner while Pat heads down to the restroom to get ready.  Unfortunately, I discover that when we were packing, we grabbed the mug that did not have the coffee filter stored with it.  Since morning coffee is something that I can’t live without, when Pat returns, he helps me look for the other cup with the filter.  Having no luck, Pat shifts into MacGyver mode.  He suggests making a filter from a Wet One, a sock, and a mesh sack, but I prefer not to strain my coffee through something icky and opt to just put the grounds straight in the cup.  After stirring and waiting for the grounds to settle, I sip carefully so as not to disturb the grounds on the bottom.  This actually works better than I expect–especially since you can’t drink coffee too quickly from a Titanium mug, it transfers too much heat and will burn your lip.

Now fully awake, I join Pat in tearing down the campsite.  We take the rain fly off the tent and turn it over, spreading it on the picnic table to give the condensation from the night a chance to dry.  We un-stake the tent and flip it over, exposing the damp bottom to the air so it, too will dry.  We pack away all the other gear and wait, our tent and rain fly still damp in the humid air.  There are heavy clouds and no rays of sunshine to help dry our gear.  Eventually, we dig napkins out of the glove box and dry off the rain fly as best we can, tired of waiting.  I make a mental note to make sure to get the gear out again when we’re at home so it can dry properly–I don’t want to have to deal with a moldy tent.

Having packed up, we stop at the restroom one last time on the way out of the campgrounds for a post-coffee brush of our teeth.  The same two rangers pass us as they start their morning rounds and we exchange enthusiastic smiles and waves as if we see each other all the time.  After finishing up, we head back down the road for the final time this weekend, hoping to see our friend the elk on the way out, but he has disappeared into the woods.  We do see an entire flock of wild turkeys with nearly a dozen young ones following their parents on a grassy slope.

Near Cherokee, we find a restaurant serving breakfast.  They have a buffet, but when we look at it, we decide to order from the menu.  Since we have a cell signal again, I’ve taken my iPad in with me to get my daily blog post done.  The waitress comes over, sees my iPad, and says, “Oh!  I want one of those!  If I had one of those, I would read all the time!”  I think she would do a lot more than read, but just smile and agree–I contain my enthusiasm for my iPad and stop myself from launching into a spiel about all the wonderful things you can do with it.  Pat gives me a look that indicates he is grateful for this–he often tells me I should work for Apple.  Breakfast comes and we eat hungrily, shoveling down eggs and bacon, toast and hashbrowns without attempting to savor it.  It’s not the best breakfast I’ve ever had, but it’s hot and we’re hungry.

We decide to go to a grocery store while in Cherokee and get some provisions for a day of hiking.  We find a large Food Lion not too far from the park entrance and wander through the store collecting apples, bananas, trail mix bars, beef jerky, and water.  We had prepared a gallon jug of filtered water to bring with us, but discovered it didn’t make it into the car when we went to refill our day-pack water bladders.  That task accomplished, we head back to the road to make our way to Clingman’s Dome.  I look forward to this–the last time we were in the park it was December and the road to Clingman’s was closed for the winter.  Although it’s overcast and visibility was poor on the way to Cherokee, I hope for clearer skies and spectacular views.

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.

Hiking Flat Creek Trail

I’m not sure who named Flat Creek Trail, but I suspect they have a twisted sense of humor.  The first half mile of the trail is virtually straight down to a creek.  The second is almost straight up.  This repeats several times.  I’m not sure where the “flat” part came from.  Since it’s close to 5Pm by the time we leave and sunset is around 8:30PM these days, we calculate how long we have before we need to turn back around.  Given that we’re on the shady side of the mountain, it will get darker earlier.  We decide we want to be off the mountain in 2 1/2 hours and that we should allow 15 extra minutes for the return trip.  This is a habit we have developed after many years of hiking together.  We always assume it will take us longer to return since we seem to always choose trails that end uphill.  However, we always take far less time on the return than on the way out.  This is mainly because I want to stop and shoot frequently on the way out, but rarely on the way back.  In any case, since we’re always relieved to be back in plenty of time when we’re racing against nightfall, we continue to pretend the return will take longer than the way out.

We work our way down the steep mountain trail and I relish the feeling of my feet sinking into the earth.  That is what I most love about my fivefingers shoes–the feeling of being barefoot when I’m not.  However, the thing I love the least is how it feels when I kick a rock with my pinky toes–something I seem to do every third or fourth step.  I wonder how long it takes to learn to keep track of your pinky toes after they have been sheltered inside a toe box for so many decades?  As we work our way down to the bottom of the trail, the trail gets narrower, encased in berry bushes.  If it were a month earlier, I’m confident we would find an entire bear family cheerfully munching on the berries, but since this berry crop has been completely stripped, there is little chance of a beer encounter here.  That’s a good thing.  As much as I want to see a bear, these are the kinds of tight quarters where the risk of sneaking up on one accidentally is too high and too dangerous.

I continually hear rustling in the bush as we walk.  I stop frequently and ask Pat if he hears it.  He doesn’t–although he asks me if I’ve heard the gun shots that keep going off in the distance (I have).  Each time I stop, the noise stops.  This is usually a sign that I’m hearing something rubbing that I’m carrying or wearing.  Each time I start again, I try to figure out what could be making the noise I hear.  I am never able to figure it out, but then Pat starts hearing noise in the brush.  We stop and spot wild turkeys at the side of the trail.  By the time I get my camera in position, on, and the lens cap off the last one tucks her head behind a weed and they disappear.  I decide to leave my camera on, although I do put the lens cap back on.

We walk on and I continue hearing the underbrush noises that I can’t quite reconcile with any explanation that makes sense.  Then Pat stops me again.  This time, it’s a female pheasant (I think–I’m not too good with game birds) working her way back and forth on the path ahead of us.  I manage to get a couple of shots off this time, but who knows if they will be clear?  We wait for her to find her way up into the woods before we pass, keeping our eyes open for any friends or family that might be lurking near by.  However, she appears to be alone and we continue down the path.

We come to the first creek crossing and walk carefully across a single-log foot bridge.  It’s smooth under my feet but my fivefingers grip the surface securely (another thing I love about them).  We both manage to cross without getting so much as a toe wet.  We see interesting mosses and lichen growing on the trees near the creek.  Pat always spots the most interesting fungus.  Unfortunately, I didn’t bring my macro lens with me and neither lens I do have is good for these kinds of shots–my wide angle won’t focus from close enough and my telephoto requires brighter lighting for close up shots.  I pass on taking the time to try to get a shot, knowing what I’ll get won’t likely be worth the effort.

We trek on, crossing a second creek.  This time, we work our way across on the tops of rocks.  Pat opts for the path most travelled, while I head up stream a bit for a route that seems a little drier, not wanting to walk in wet feet.  My fivefingers make me feel like a rock climber the way they stick to the rocks.  I cross with dry feet and we continue on.

When we get to a flat area (maybe that’s what the trail is named after?) where the creek runs through fern-covered ground and the trees are small and young, we spot many small birds flitting around the branches that hand low over the water.  I do not even try to shoot them in the dim light.  I have a hard time shooting song birds in bright light because they are not so cooperative when it comes to sitting for my camera.  We spot a yellow-rumped warbler and a goldfinch, but several others remain a mystery, silhouetted against the sky.  We watch for a while, catching our breath and waiting to se if more of the birds will fly down to reveal what they are.  I ask Pat what time it is and if we need to turn around.  He tells me he left his phone in the car.  Neither of us has our phone or a watch, so now we have to guess at how long we’ve been hiking and whether it’s time to turn around or not.

Pat votes for turning around given that it’s getting darker faster than we expected and we have a lot of uphill climbing to do to get back.  I agree and back we go.  now we are on a mission.  I’m not exactly sure what it is that worries us so much about getting caught in the woods after dark.  We have a flashlight with us and it’s not like we’ve never hiked at night.  But, for some reason, getting back to the car before dark seems imperative.  Maybe it’s more about our growling stomachs and only one paltry bag of salted peanuts in our day pack that drives us to set this artificial deadline?  In any case, we put our heads down and hike out like there’s no tomorrow.  We pass by another group of wild turkeys, but otherwise see no more wildlife.  Whatever the sound of something in the underbrush was that I kept hearing on the way out, I don’t hear now.

When we get to the final climb, we slow down and pace ourselves.  Our goal now is to finish our hike without smelling so bad that we can’t go out to eat.  We prepare ourselves for a long, slow, uphill climb and are surprised when the total climb is less than half as long as we expected.  I comment that maybe it’s like the first time you drive somewhere–it always seems a lot longer on the way there.

Returning to the car, we get out wet wipes and clean shirts and clean up the best we can on the side of the road.  As we stand there cooling off, a ranger pulls up in a pick up truck and asks if we’ve just come off the trail.  When we affirm that we have, he asks if we saw any wild boar.  Apparently, wild boar are a problem in the area.  They were first introduced here by Europeans for hunting hundreds of years ago, but they have become an invasive species in the woods of the South ever since.  After the ranger leaves, we wonder if that’s what they were shooting.

After making ourselves semi-presentable for a casual dining spot, we once more pile into the car and head down the road.

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.