In honor of the vacation season, here is another travelogue previous published as part of our Out In The Open newspaper column:
There is a saying among airplane pilots and boat navigators: always trust your instruments. I did, but it was also a little disconcerting to realize that it wasn’t the GPS unit that was going to be dragged from the car, robbed, shot and buried in a shallow grave.
I have just returned from a week-long backcountry adventure in my own personal version of Fantasyland, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Feeling it was time to take a vacation, I fled into that vast Tennessee and North Carolina wilderness to enjoy some trout fishing, solitude and relaxation.
The goal for this trip was the western-most area of the park around the Abram’s Creek campground. Though I have traveled extensively in the 800 square miles of park, this area was the last remaining major trailhead that I have not explored. Considering that the creek is considered one of the finest trophy trout streams in the park, I felt it would be worthwhile and stimulating to spend four days backpacking, fishing, exploring and generally shedding the annoying restraints of civilization.
However, before I could begin my frolic, I had to reach the small campground and ranger station that would be the base of operations. Fortunately, since I am equipped with the latest in satellite navigation technology, it was presumed this would be a simple matter. Gear packed and stored in my new mini-SUV, the route was locked into the magic navigation box and I headed out onto the highway early on Monday morning.
The first major checkpoint was Look Rock on the Foothills Parkway. The parkway is a discontinuous stretch of highly-scenic roadway that skirts various areas of the park and offers a nice trip into the wilds for those who would like to sightsee without dirtying their shoes. This particular section travels for 20 miles atop the ridgeline of Chilhowee mountain, the western vanguard of the smokies.
At Look Rock, there is an observation tower, picnic area and large campground. I chose to ignore the fact that this campground was the most recent site of a fatal bear attack in the region.
From the campground a small county road heads down the mountain through progressively lower economic strata, finally descending into the ironically-named “Happy Valley.” While there were certainly some modest but well-kept homesteads in the valley, these were overshadowed by others that were like those in the movie “Deliverance,” only more run-down and ominous.
It didn’t help that I had read reports from local hikers of frequent vehicle break-in’s and other various crimes in the area. I was glad it was daylight, though my anxiety rose like a rain-soaked creek as I head farther into the “holler.”
Things reached the crisis level when I turned as directed by my GPS. Though a faded road sign indicated that it was indeed Abrams Creek Road, the battered “KEEP OUT” notice and rusted yellow sign noting “DEAD END” did a better job of drawing my attention. After setting stationary for a minute or two, I gulped and started slowly forward.
The road grew worse and worse, old pavement fading to a rutted single-lane of gravel. There were more signs warning away trespassers though I wasn’t sure if they were meant for the roadway or to anyone contemplating heading into the mountains. Finally the road passed two hillside shacks and made a hard bend. Things were getting too “picturesque” and I stopped to contemplate the wisdom of continuing.
Easing forward, I decided to drive 100 more yards around the bend until I either saw signs of civilization or shotgun-toting mountain men, whichever came first.
Slowly passing the shacks, I eyed the porches for any sign of a snickering inbred boy playing banjo. Suddenly, something popped into view that caused me to exhale.
It was a small sign along the roadside, partially hidden by foliage: “Welcome to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.”
I had made it.
A few minutes later, I was parked in a beautiful campsite along Abrams Creek. The campground, less than 20 spaces and offering no other services aside from a restroom, was only half full. Most of the sites were alongside the creek and all stood under a canopy of enormous old-growth hemlock trees.
I ran into a couple of National Park Service Rangers on routine patrol who were checking out the campground. While staking out my tent, I spoke to the pair.
”This is a really beautiful campground but, wow, you really have to WANT to find this place,” I noted.
“Yep,” one of them said ominously as he pulled a banjo from the back seat of his cruiser.
NEXT WEEK, part two- backcountry trout fishing, one thousand seventh graders on top of a mountain and my apology to the National Park Service for inferring that one of their rangers was an inbred mountain boy.
PART II- The Adventure Continues
Last week both regular readers might remember our description of a recent week spent in the western end of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Our story closed as I had finally found the Abrams Creek Campground after traversing the ironically-named “Happy Valley.”
In that story I did allude to the movie Deliverance in my description of the area and I did also throw in the obligatory appearance by an inbred mountain boy. However, I want to take a moment to publicly assure the Director of the National Park service that when I recounted a conversation with park ranger, it was merely a case of literary license. I swear his eyes were the normal distance apart and he never once inquired if I would be traveling via canoe.
Having apologized in print, I would ask that the director call off the government assassination team dressed as spotted owls that are parked near my driveway.
Anyway, once I was safely ensconced in my streamside campsite, I sat back to appreciate the Abrams Creek and its surroundings.
The creek arises in the Cades Cove area of the park appears to be a typical smallish and raucous mountain drainage. However, the stream is unique because it is as it more fertile than most in the region and harbors some incredible trout. I also learned it harbors a rather large number of fishermen.
I’ve fished all over the Smokies and encountered fishermen many times, especially near roadways. It’s simply part of the game when visiting the most popular National Park in the U.S. However, more so than anyplace else, don’t visit Abrams Creek if you are looking for solitude.
Though the numbers of fisherman are not necessarily extreme compared to other areas in the park, the more disheartening problem from a fishing standpoint is the fact that most of these anglers seem to know what they are doing.
So, I won’t tell any great trout stories in this article. I did land lots of little fish but spent too much time staring at fresh footprints in sandbars along what I had, moments prior, believed were remote stretches of stream. I won’t complain however, because the simple act of standing by yourself in a tumbling mountain river, casting for wild trout with a fly rod, fills the soul with enough satisfaction to let you survive until the next vacation.
One day during the mid-afternoon fishing lull, I drove to the top of the Smokies at the well-known and popular mountaintop known as Clingman’s Dome. This 6600-foot titan is often shrouded in clouds but on my chosen day, the weather was more perfect than a mountaineers dream. Under cool, cloudless blue skies, I ascended up, up, up on the winding road until reaching the Forney Ridge parking area just below the summit. From here, it is a steep half-mile climb to the mountaintop observation tower.
Aside from the usual collection of cars, van, trucks and motorcycles in the curving parking lot, I noticed something else: buses. I saw three enormous tour buses idling in the thin mountain air.
Frightened, I sat in my vehicle for a few minutes to determine what species of Touron (tourist+moron) inhabited the buses. From previous experience, I knew it wouldn’t be good.
In fact, the situation proved more horrific than I could have imagined. Moments later I discovered that the buses had disgorged a veritable plague of seventh-graders on a class trip.
Far worse than gaggle of grouchy grandmothers on a quilting tour or a photo-snapping pack of Philippine tourists, such a critical-mass of adolescents on a class trip is capable of producing some of the loudest sounds know to man aside from a jet engine at full throttle or Rosie O’Donnell.
As I’ve said before, I love children; just not yours, especially when they are on a class trip with an inadequate number of chaperones. As a veteran of such outings, I’m sure the absent fathers were all gathered in the back of one of the buses secretly sharing a round of “nerve tonic” before facing the remainder of the trip.
Fortunately, the class only spent an hour on the mountain so I sat in my vehicle listening to music and admiring the view as they were herded back onto their submarine on wheels.
An hour later I reached the mountaintop. From the top, I could see from horizon to horizon in the flawless weather, a view that spanned states instead of miles.
I stood, enthralled, entranced and inspired by the panorama as a crisp wind tugged at my light jacket. Aside from the few other people sharing my special moment atop the world, I was free, alive, soaring and at peace with the universe and all its inhabitants.
At least until I noticed the second assault of seventh graders ascending the hill.