09 July 2010
Reporting live from Memphis, TN and our first (and probably last) hotel room of the journey. Now in the former home of many of our shared musical idols, Adam and I decided to dip into our special occasion fund so we could stay downtown and enjoy a Friday night of music in Memphis. We are using some late afternoon time to hide out from the heat and catch up on the blog while we have access to our technology.
We left off a few days ago as we prepared to enter the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. After a scenic drive from Asheville, we arrived and found ourselves a sweet spot in the Big Creek campground, on the NC/TN border. We cooked up a fine dinner, featuring the Amish double-yolk eggs we purchased in Asheville and my prized mini-skillet (Gracias Papi!).
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is remarkable for its bio-diversity. According to the National Park Service no other area of equal size (about 800 square miles) in a temperate climate can match this park’s amazing diversity of plants, animals, and invertebrates. Over 10,000 species have been documented in the park and scientists believe an additional 90,000 species may live in the area (NPS, 2009). In laymen’s terms, this means that there are lots and lots of bugs in the Smokies. Not to play down the importance of bio-diversity. Really, I love it. But never before, in a temperate climate of equal size, I have seen such an array of butterflies, spiders, beetles, grasshoppers, moths, biting flies, regular flies, ants, bees, et al. all competing for space on and around a campground picnic table at meal time. The Smoky Mountains are like a carnival for insects of every ilk and let’s just say they are friendly. We hoped that at least the Brown Recluse was feeling reclusive.
Here are some of the lovelier butterflies:
After packing our packs with everything we thought we were going to need for our trip, we started hiking in the morning, climbing around 4000 feet to the summit of Mt. Sterling before leveling off and continuing on to Laurel Gap, where we would camp in a shelter (This park is strict about backcountry permits and reservations).
Let me just take a moment to explain that we are accustomed to hiking in the Northeast and most recently went out in April. The last time we climbed a mountain it was shorts weather in the morning, knee-deep snow on the trail in the afternoon and a near-freezing rain in the evening at camp. Suffice to say, we over-packed for the temperate, summer-time Smokys. No big deal really, though the extra weight might have had something to do with the blisters I developed by mile 11:
At Laurel Gap we met six Park Service workers who were setting up a base camp at the shelter, to put in a week of trail maintenance in the area. Pleased to have their company, we passed a pleasant evening learning about their work and hearing their stories. They were camping all around so we had the shelter to ourselves (save for the mice and aforementioned other bio-diversity) for the night. Here is a picture of a typical Smoky Mountains shelter:
Notice the chain-link fencing? I forgot to mention the bears. There are more black bears in the park today than ever before and, like many animals do, they have learned to associate human hikers with the delicious snacks they carry. This system of fencing in shelters was designed to protect innocent hikers from bear attacks but, ironically, has worsened the issue (funny how that happens). Particularly along the AT, hikers developed a trend of locking themselves in the shelters and feeding curious bears through the fence in order to take photographs. The bears, sensibly enough, quickly learned to accept the treats and then wait nearby for people to come out so they could jump in and demand more yummy bear treats. A bear jumping in, as you might imagine, is scary and sometimes results in injury or death. I am uncertain if this is the bear’s fault or that of our own. Either way, the park has begun to remove the fencing, preferring to let humans fend for themselves once again. A little more on bears later.
We had coffee and breakfast and, upon checking out my oozing feet, started deliberating our plans for the day. We had hoped to continue another 10 miles or so into the park, which would have left us with a challenging 15-mile, multi-peak day to loop back around to night three, and then another full day to get back out to the car. Not wanting ugly blisters to translate into a dangerous, time-sucking injury, we decided to cut diagonally through our planned loop, hoping we could find a place to camp out that wouldn’t require a reservation. We set off, hooting and hollering to warn any hungry bears of our approach.
Presently, we ran into a solo hiker, Jeremy, from Louisville, Kentucky. He was headed down a less-maintained trail that we had overlooked on our map, so we decided to team up for a scenic six mile decent that would lead us to some big camp areas along a river. After saying farewell to our new friend at the junction (when hiking, friend status can be achieved in mere hours), we stopped off to enjoy lunch at just about the most scenic place we could find.
A few miles later, we found the sites and learned that they were closed for bear activity.
Heeding the warning and the date (we are due to arrive in New Mexico by the 16th), we decided to buckle down and spend the rest of the day hiking back out to the car. In the end we didn’t really regret our decision to follow the river trail:
After a beautiful afternoon and evening (and with blistery feet weeping) we arrived back to the Subaru/our house-on-wheels in time to drive around to another, equally bio-diverse (see, doesn’t that just sound better than “buggy”) site where we could spend the night before hitting the road to Nashville.
To be continued…