I was all a twitter to be heading to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I made reservations at a Tripadvisor recommended motel in Townsend, TN. Let me just say that Tripadvisor has thus far, never steered me wrong. I have used it a lot on this trip for hotel and restaurant advice and can happily report to accurate data. It’s nice to have a reliable source for travel info when you pull into places you have never been before.
The drive to Townsend from Asheville took me through Pigeon Forge,TN the home of Dollywood. I was rather astounded at what I encountered there, a cross between a tacky Disneyland and a jubilant state fair. Glaring signs, large buildings in the shape of the Titanic, or with King Kong dangling from a tower, jostled for my attention and the attention of other drivers for the traffic was a disaster. There were amazing looking miniature golf courses, that I wished I had my girls along to challenge to a game but just passing through was enough, I was here to see the Smokys!
But the tacky tourism aura continued along my route with funnel cakes, kettle corn, horse riding, river tubing, and some phenomena they call a “country store” here. I stopped at one thinking “old time general store” but was sorely disappointed with a bunch of ceramic resin animals, t-shirts with kitschy sayings, and various collectables. I took two steps in and turned around and headed right back out.
Getting to the Gateway Motel was an oasis after that. The small town of Townsend is at one entrance to the National Park, near the popular Cades Cove drive, which I promptly drove as soon as I deposited my bags in my room. It is a one-way 11 mile loop of 20 mile an hour road with historic buildings but mostly just beautiful views of the pastureland and mountains and the wild inhabitants. It gets backed up in the summer with cars stopping in the middle of the road to take pictures of deer, turkeys and bear, a slow meandering byway. I stopped at the visitor center to get tips on my hike for the next day and was encouraged to do the Gregory Bald hike which ascends over 3000 ft in elevation and is 12 miles round-trip. The ranger said the access road was closed, but should be open the next morning, but if not that would add 4 more miles to the hike along the gravel road to get to the trailhead and back.
I got up early to get myself going and out the door to make the slow drive back into Cades Cove for the hike. Arriving at the access road I found it still closed, that meant I was looking at a 16 mile hike, round trip. Bummer, but thought I may as well give it a try. After the Grand Canyon hike, I can do anything, right? Yes, it turns out, but it wasn’t as much fun as I had hoped.
Another hiker started off on the trail before me with a much more diligent pace. He had done it before and I sensed he knew something I didn’t. The lower half of the trail is beautiful, along a river with ferns, wild rhododendron’s blooming and birds singing like it was a jungle paradise. Simply gorgeous. I tripped along taking photos and pausing to breathe deep, squandering precious time. The trail then started it’s rigorous ascent, and after three hours I started to wonder if I would have time to get to the top. I decided I would just keep going until 1:30pm and turn around so as to make sure to get back to my car before any gates closed. The heat and humidity were so thick that by 12:30pm I had to give myself a pep talk around every corner, always disappointed that I didn’t see any sign of the top. I did run into 2 black bears, and at that point I thought if they wanted to eat me I wouldn’t have much stamina to put up a fight. I just hoped I smelled more like bug repellent than the beef jerky in my backpack. Luckily they were shy and lumbered off up the creek bed without a backward glance. I was too surprised to grab my camera but I did pick up a rock to throw in case they returned for me. They were very cute in a large, fuzzy, scary, bumbling way.
I walked through many downpours, which helped with the heat. Then I finally saw people descending, coming toward me. I inquired as to the length left to go and was cheerily lied to that it was only a mile or so more. A jolly man said, “If you’ve made it this far, you’ll make it!” He was such a boon to my withering spirit, but I cursed him later as every group that came toward me said the same thing! “Only about a mile to go”….no matter how far I went, it was like Elijah’s miracle of making the widow’s oil never burn out, always another mile. Everyone seemed surprised that I was alone, I guess it’s unusual to see a woman hiking solo. On an especially grueling section a woman descending said “only about another mile,” and I must have grumbled because she said, “oh I know how you feel, I thought I was going to die.” That somehow cheered me up for the last “mile,” misery loves company.
The last encounter came from the hiker that left from the bottom at the same time as me. He was so flabbergasted, literally jaw hanging open, that I had made it. He thought for sure that I would turn around. He was full of praises and gave me advice on the paths at the top and sent me forward with an “I am deeply impressed.”
It was about 1:30pm when I made it to the top, just the time I said I would turn around. And it was a bit anti-climactic. I walked all that way and endured all that agony for this? After Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon, I am spoiled I guess. It was rainy, the view obstructed by trees and haze so that there was no seeing my accomplishment. The wild azaleas were beautiful and blooming, but not worth walking 8 miles straight up for! As I had a long hike back, I spent 20 minutes exploring and then headed down.
My body was so much happier descending. I had a close encounter with a buck, his fuzzy antlers tempting to pet, a big gray snake coiled on a rock, butterflies, a bee (who stung me), and grasshoppers that congregate in sections of the path and all leap out of the way so it seems like you are walking through popping corn. White-tailed deer were all over the park, using their tails like windshield wipers to swat at insects, the white fur underside showing.
The last few miles on that closed access road were painful. It was a testimony to human will and determination. I normally do not put myself to this kind of physical test, but there is something to say for it. Accomplishment, yes, but something else. A realization that I have guts, stamina, and strength that I didn’t know I had. When tested I really do rise to the occasion. I wouldn’t know that without being in situations like this. It is empowering; I am capable of mighty things. I say this to my daughters all the time. I believe in them whole-heartedly, they can do anything, they are truly amazing! But I haven’t totally embraced this belief in myself, I guess it’s about time. Time to bust out of the cocoon and fly.