Thursday, April 18, 2013

On Top of Old Smoky

While it wasn’t covered in cheese, it was still the main event on today’s schedule. But before I get to that, there is much scenic driving to report:

After trying to hide in every corner of the tent last night before finding the one containing her bed, Latke made it through her first night of camping unscathed. So this morning we reloaded the car and headed down the not-quite-as-long-but-still-just-as-windy road from Max Patch back to civilization.

By a stroke of luck, this route took us through the eastern segment of the Foothills Parkway – one of my favorite roads. Originally designed as a cousin to Newfound Gap Road and the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Foothills Parkway was to go around the northwestern border of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but has since become synonymous with death by government. In the 50 years since land for the road was allocated, less than half of the designed route has been built – a 28-ish mile western section and a 6-mile eastern section. I drove the western portion last year, scaling Look Rock for some of the best sunset views of the trip. The eastern spur, I discovered today, is just as scenic with just-as-outstanding views and is just as drivable.

Eventually, we arrived in the greater Gatlinburg area. You may recall my dismay at how Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg’s neighbor to the north, is an odd combination of the tackiest parts of Wildwood, NJ and Las Vegas. Well, Pigeon Forge has nothing on Gatlinburg. Here instead of one street of kitsch, it’s an entire town. No room for parking lots when there are blue plaster waterfalls, Ripley’s museums, and that damn Dixie Stampede to build! We can just have trolleys drive around and shuttle people to various souvenir shops (none of which seemed the type to have the one souvenir I’m hunting – authentic BBQ sauces and spice rubs). Never mind the fact that we didn’t leave room for bus lanes and that every time a grandma wants to debus traffic is backed up for a half mile.

All this driving around Gatlinburg was really just a waste of time since I hadn’t been able to come up with a full day’s worth of stuff to do in the area. Pets aren’t allowed in most of the park, so I was limited to one trail where Latke could go, and I didn’t really feel like taking it. I decided I’d drive into the park and just meander around by car. But just after the welcome sign I received a pleasant surprise – an electronic warning sign that usually means your commute is about to get longer instead informed me that US-441, the one road that both graces a Tom Petty song and traverses Great Smoky Mountains National Park, had reopened to traffic after a several-month closure due to a landslide which took a large chunk of the road down a mountain with it.

This changes my plan for tomorrow. I had originally planned to take The Dragon around the park 1) because it’s a cool road and 2) because the main road through the park would be closed. Well, I’ve seen plenty of cool roads this week and I feel like The Dragon won’t offer anything more superlative than the others I’ve driven already. I’d rather cut through the park and have more time to find an outstanding and open BBQ place in Asheville and potentially get up to Shenandoah before dark. So hurray to the valiant government contractors who got that road open ahead of schedule.

After that moment of elation, I remembered that I still didn’t really have anything to do. I thought of driving up to Newfound Gap just to take in the view, but halfway there I changed my mind and decided to drive to Cades Cove – a picturesque meadow surrounded by mountains. On the way, I figured I’d stop at the roadside waterfall that I was unable to get a satisfactory picture of last year. But then I passed it and was too lazy to turn around. Finally arriving at Cades Cove, I knew to expect a pleasant diversion but I was surprised that wildlife was still around this late in the day. This enabled me to get this picture of mountains and a meadow and 3 deer and a turkey. That’s like a royal flush.

From Cades Cove I took advantage of one of the interesting roads that was closed on my last visit but open today – Rich Mountain Road. I assume it’s so named because it traverses Rich Mountain, accomplishing this through 12 miles of what the NPS warns is “one-way unimproved gravel road.” While most of this turned out to be true, there had clearly been someone filling in potholes as needed because it was one of the smoothest and most pleasant windy mountain dirt roads I’ve ever driven. Even Latke appeared to agree.

The biggest problem with Rich Mountain Road was that after it ascended and descended a couple of thousand feet, it spit us out in the middle of nowhere in Tennessee. Since this wasn’t NPS land, the NPS hasn’t put up any signs directing travelers back to any meaningful destination. By sheer dumb luck I started making my way towards the main highway back through Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. Somewhere along the way, I decided I wanted to find a BBQ place for lunch and that Pigeon Forge would be a likely place to find such a place (stellar use of vocabulary, I know). Sadly, I didn’t find (or rather, Copina didn’t find) any good BBQ joints, although I did find people lining the main road in lawn chairs, while the parking lots behind them were filled with classic cars. Apparently there was a massive classic car show going on and the people were set up as if watching a parade, just to see some of them come down the road. As much as it seems like that should be something to be made fun of, it actually makes pretty good sense.

Anyway, after fighting through 10 miles of Wallyworld I decided to check into the hotel before heading back into the park, up US-441, through Newfound Gap, to the highest point in Tennessee – the summit of Clingmans Dome. This was to be one of the highlights of the trip – the one thing I couldn’t do last year that I vowed to make sure to see whenever I came back. Sitting at over 6,600 feet and being located right smack in the center of the national park, the view from Clingmans Dome, in my opinion, easily trumps that of Mt. Mitchell. While some of my pictures from there may look similar to those from Max Patch, I needed a zoom lens to capture last night’s scene while tonight I could use the wide-angle lens. In other words, these mountains were much higher and much closer.

The view that Latke had from the parking lot was pretty impressive – as made evident by the fact that when I returned there was a row of at least 15 photographers set up ready to capture a sunset that I had already realized wasn’t happening. But the parking lot wasn’t the summit and I wanted to see what there was at the top. This would be my last opportunity to stand at such a height for the foreseeable future, so the very steep half-mile path to the summit tower was worth the effort, regardless the view.

In a way, the summit of Clingmans Dome – the original “Old Smoky” referenced in the song – is like a less extreme Mt. Washington, even though it’s over 400 feet taller. While temperatures in the valleys had reached 82 degrees during the peak of the afternoon, the parking lot read 48 and the summit itself, 300 feet above, was easily 10 degrees colder. On top of that, there was a steady wind I’d estimate at around 30mph, gusting to something strong enough that I had trouble keeping my balance a few times. Leaving the hat in the car was a fortunate mistake, since it would have abandoned me at the summit and sailed towards Georgia.

I could handle the wind and the cold but with about 15 minutes to go before sunset the cap cloud that had been stalking the mountain from 500 feet above, had started to descend. Along with it, the view to the direction from which the wind was blowing (is that leeward or windward? I can never remember) disappeared behind what looked very much like a heavy downpour. Being stuck up here in a thunderstorm would have probably been the second worst place I’d have ever been caught in a thunderstorm (the first being at Boy Scout camp on a bridge across a lake carrying an umbrella and wearing a metal-frame backpack).

Taking one last look at my favorite view to the west, I convinced myself that the colors weren’t going to change appreciably in the next 10 minutes, so I headed back down the mountain (or, for some, perhaps I rolled off the table and onto the floor). Then, before returning to the hotel, with the help of Yelp I had managed to find a BBQ restaurant that was still open and, as I would soon learn, offer good-but-not-quite-as-good-as-I-wanted-it-to-be Tennessee-style barbeque. If things go according to plan, tomorrow’s BBQ should be better.

Oh, and one last thing – It’s actually entirely possible that Old Smoky was, at one point in its geologic history, covered in cheese. Since these mountains were never glaciated it wouldn’t have been eroded off by a glacier. Since it’s acidic, acid rain probably wouldn’t have had much of an effect either. What I suspect to be the cause of the distinctly lactose-free summit environment is that the constant strong winds disturbed the cheese coating, as if God had sneezed while pouring the contents of the cheese packet onto his divine Kraft Macaroni & Cheese which, as we all know, is likely the kind of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese us mortals have already been blessed with.

(And for those of you keeping score, that ridiculous sentence is 64 words long and is grammatically correct).

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