Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Not-So-Great Smoky Mountains

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most popular national park in America, annually being visited by about twice as many people as Yellowstone. The most popular time to visit the Park is in the fall when the leaves are changing colors and so, a couple of months ago, we started making plans to visit the Smoky Mountains along with Jamie and David who are… well, it's complicated. Let's just say she is the mother of Christopher's cousins and leave it at that. Jamie and David were planning to fly in from California for their first vacation in six years. We were all set for some major-league sightseeing and then, two days before they arrived, the United States government decided to take a couple of weeks off and closed all the national parks.

We had driven down from Knoxville, staying in a campground called Smokey Bear RV Park about eight miles east of Gatlinburg. It is a pleasant enough campground, we had no complaints. That first evening we went into town to see what was going on. Gatlinburg is a strange place, kind of a tourist town on steroids. Driving through town reminded me of Waikiki. The sidewalks were packed full of tourists and the cars trickled down the main drag at about 2 mph, significantly slower than the pedestrians on the sidewalks. Instead of tourist shops filled with plastic flower leis and shell necklaces there were tourist shops filled with Appalachian pseudo-crafts, probably mass-produced in Taiwan. And I asked myself the same question I was constantly asking myself when we lived on Oahu.  Who actually buys any of this junk?  There were also dozens of what I guess passes in Eastern Tennessee for tourist attractions like "Ripley's Believe It or Not" museums, mirror mazes, dark rides, spinning machines designed to make you throw up and miniature golf… lots and lots of miniature golf.

We did not go to any of these. Even the ones that might have been fun, I would've been embarrassed to be seen walking into. What we did go to was the Smoky Mountain Brewery restaurant where they make some quite excellent beers and burgers. And they validate your parking, which is important since a parking spot in Gatlinburg runs about 10 bucks per half day.

David, Jamie and the "fun vehicle"
Jamie and David flew into Knoxville that evening and took a shuttle down to Gatlinburg. What with one stopover and the three-hour time difference, they did not get in until late, 12 or 13 hours after their departure time.. They stayed in a very nice hotel up in the hills behind town and finally had dinner there at about 9 PM and we drove over and joined them for dessert. Their hotel room was probably about a mile from downtown Gatlinburg as the crow flies. We, unfortunately, are not crows so we had to take the 10 mile twisty, winding road to get there. We sat under a tarp covering on the hotel balcony eating cream Brulé as a rainstorm rolled through. It was actually rather nice.

The next day we got together to go see what we could see of the Smoky Mountains. We had mis-timed our visit by a week or two. The
Hwy 441
leaves were just starting to turn but most of the mountain sides were still pretty green. Never having spent much time in this part of the country, I expected fall to be well underway by early October but it appears that late October/early November would have been better. Although the national Park was officially closed, they couldn't very well close the main highway over the mountains, so we could at least drive through. Jamie and David had decided to rent a "fun vehicle", a jeep with a removable roof. This was high enough off the ground that I needed mountaineering equipment to climb into the backseat. That's fun, I suppose. Temperatures were in the low to mid 50s but with the top-down, rolling along at 30-40 mph the wind chill factor brought the perceived temperature down to a pleasant -10°.

We drove through the Park admiring the scenery. Of course, all of the campgrounds and picnic areas were blocked off but prior to leaving the area, the Rangers had also gone to the trouble to block off about half of the highway pullouts, leaving relatively little space to stop and look around. We did find a half-dozen places we could pull over and get out of the Jeep (and then struggle back into it). It was a nice drive overall and if you frame your pictures just right you can almost make it look like autumn. When you exit the park on the south side you find yourself in the Cherokee Indian Reservation. We were hoping to get a late lunch and found ourselves with a choice of half a dozen fairly terrible looking places to eat. We got some advice from one of the locals on which was the least terrible of the lot. I had an Indian taco which was okay. I think David was significantly less than impressed with his hamburger. We sat on the front patio where the dogs could join us and bark at the other diners. We then drove back over the same road to return to Gatlinburg. That was our tremendous visit to the most popular national park in America.
Judiciously framed fall foliage
One of the things I never got an explanation for is what the deal is with Gatlinburg and pancakes. There are pancake restaurants everywhere. I did not keep an exact tally but there were at least eight and possibly as many as 12 pancake places. The Flapjack Emporium, the Little Pancake House, the Big Pancake House, The Log Cabin Pancake House, the list goes on and on. Vicki and I actually got up and went to one of these establishments for breakfast the next morning. Neither of us had pancakes. Vicki had crepes with fried apples. I had a waffle which, I guess, is kind of a pancake with ridges. As breakfasts go, it was okay but nothing special. The syrup seemed to me to be actually watered down. Kind of disappointing. We then drove the 10 miles of switchbacks back up to the hotel only to discover that Jamie and David had decided to spend the day sleeping off their jetlag. I assume they were sleeping. What else would you do in a hotel room on your first vacation in six years?  As we were leaving the parking lot we saw this guy amble through with three of his friends. Unfortunately, his buddies had shuffled off down the hill by the time I ran to the back of the car and got my camera out. This is for you Ruth.

Vicki and I drove out to the nearby neighboring village of Townsend. There was a shop there that manufactures dulcimers on site and Vicki thought I would be interested in seeing it. Yeah, right. Only later did I discover that on learning that the dulcimer is the easiest stringed instrument to learn how to play, she had decided she needed one. Here you can see her having her first dulcimer lesson. We left the shop with a dulcimer, a dulcimer bag, a teach yourself dulcimer book and a dulcimer CD for Vicki. And for me… well, nothing really. I did not even get to see them make a dulcimer since the luthier was out of town doing other business that day. Now Vicki is practicing diligently on a daily basis so she will be ready to lead the group singing of Christmas carols when we get back to California in December. Be afraid... be very afraid.

1 comment:

  1. What could possibly go wrong? I mean, I play my mandolin almost every day! See you soon.

    -The Kid