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.

Sleeping (or not) in a Tent

Having filled our stomachs in Maggie Valley, gotten ready for bed on our way back to camp, and now arrived at our campsite as the remaining twilight fades into darkness, we decide there’s nothing left to do but sleep.  I think this is a key difference between backpackers and “campers.”  People who think “camping” means loading up their car with all kinds of goodies, setting up chairs around the fire ring, and sitting around all day think differently from people who backpack.  Backpacking means being able to haul everything you need on your back all day, rarely, if ever, gathering wood for a campfire (depending on where you are, the rules, and the fire danger level), and retiring with the sun.  Cooking is done on a super-light burner in one titanium pot because anything more than that means you’ll have more to carry.  We camp because we like to sleep outdoors, not because we like parking ourselves at a campsite and hanging out all day drinking beer around a camp fire.  While, in the state parks, beer is not allowed, which makes for a family-friendy experience, there still seems to be a set of people that hang out at their campsite all day.

We are staying next to one such group of people.  As we get our sleeping bags positioned and our food safely tucked into the trunk, they start winding up instead of down.  Somehow, they have cell reception here.  And they seem to really like the push-to-talk feature on their phone that causes them to shout at their phone from several feet away and broadcasts the responses.  I’ve been told that push-to-talk phones come with the option to talk privately, but for some reason, it seems that push-to-talk users want to broadcast both ends of their conversation as far as possible.  I find it disturbing enough to have neighbors on cell phones when I’m trying to get away from mine, but to have to listen to their conversation blaring across the quiet night challenges my ability to be patient.  Fortunately for all of us, the conversation is a short one and our neighbor puts away his phone for the night.  I figure I have to cut him some slack given that it isn’t even 9PM yet.

As we settle into our sleeping bags (or, more accurately, on them as it’s too warm to crawl inside), I nestle into my air mattress and think what an amazing invention.  I used to sleep on one of those super-thin Thermarest, self-inflating jobs, but never felt comfortable.  More recently, I invested in a Big Agnes air mattress that weighs about the same as the Thermarest and packs up almost as small, but makes me feel like I’m in the most comfortable bed when I lay down.  The only down side is if it gets a hole, but I carry a patch kit and enjoy the comfortable resting place.

Once I am situated, my eyes start to close immediately.  Just as my lashes hit my cheeks, a wail starts up in the tent behind us that does not bode well for a peaceful night.  The family behind us has 3 small children.  Two of them are small infants that don’t seem too enamored with camping.  When one starts crying, a second starts crying, then there is the fussing of the toddler.  Mom and Dad seem calm and quiet as they shush them, at least.  But Pat and I glance at each other and wonder at the wisdom of selecting a front-country campsite.

I doze off as soon as the babies go quiet.  But I’m startled from my sleep a few minutes later by another wail.  I awake with the vague feeling that I was hearing a rumble.  Pat tells me I was snoring like never before.  I laugh sheepishly and sleepily.  Apparently the neck pillow I’m sleeping on is not good for snoring.  Perhaps my snoring is what set off the crying babies again?  I rearrange the pillow and roll onto my side, hoping that will keep me quiet.  Once the babies stop crying again, I fall into the sleep of the dead.

I wake up in the middle of the night, as invariably happens when we’re camping.  I need to use the facilities and realize that it’s a long walk to get there (another disadvantage to front-country camping).  I start looking for the zipper to the tent, but there is no light, not even from the moon.  I dig around until I find a flashlight and shine the beam on the door.  I find the zipper and unzip it with a sound as loud as a gunshot in the stillness of the night.  I stick my feet out and slide them into my sandals, sitting under the vestibule formed by the rain fly.  I lean out the door and open the rain fly so I can step out of the tent, turning back as quickly as possible to re-zip the door to prevent insects from making themselves at home in my bed while I’m out.  I get myself oriented and shine the flashlight on the ground, making a small circle of light just in front of my feet so I can safely navigate the steps out of the campsite and down to the road.  I expect to be able to navigate the road without the flashlight, but it’s such a dark night and my eyes are now used to the light, I can’t see my hands in front of my face.  I turn the flashlight back on, but keep it pointed at my feet so as not to disturb sleeping campers by inadvertently shining light into their faces.

I’m concerned that I will walk on by when I get to the restrooms since it’s so dark out, but there is a concrete sidewalk outside the building that manages to reflect back what little light escapes from my flashlight beam.  It is just bright enough to allow me to see it so that I safely find my way.  On the way back, it seems even darker–probably because I managed to shine the flashlight directly into my eyes when I set it on a ledge above the sink so I could wash my hands.  I trip going up the stairs to the road, but make it up the road the 10th of a mile or so without any more tripping incidents.  When I get to the tent, Pat is wide awake, sitting up at the door.

“Do you need to go out?” I ask, thinking he’s waiting for the flashlight.

“No!  Did you call me?” he replies, sounding slightly flustered.

“No,” I say, confused.  Just then a small child let’s loose a wail that sounds just like, “Paaaaaaaaaaat!”  Pat laughs and realizes that he was awakened from a sound sleep by the cry of the child, but in his sleepy state, thought I was hurt and calling his name.  We chuckle and lay back down, listening to the child cry for a few more minutes and then hearing the call of a Barred Owl when the child settles back down.  Pat tells me that he has been awake most of the night and that the owl (and the kids) have been calling off and on.  He also tells me that I snored my way through the children screaming.  He said that it sounded like the babies were being eaten by raccoons and the older one was completely freaking out.  He couldn’t remember ever hearing children scream like that and was fairly certain they were all dead except that he heard the parents talking to the kids and calming them down and no adults screaming.

I am impressed that as a poor sleeper I managed to sleep through such havoc.  I appreciate my air mattress even more.  I settle back down and try to get back to sleep.  But, it must be close to 4AM–my body seems to think it’s time to be up.  I lay there anyway and before I know it, I am opening my eyes and darkness has been replaced with a dull gray.