Thursday, September 12, 2013

Animals all around

Those who know that I spend a fair portion of my life idling on or near a semi-remote North Carolina beach island might feel I get enough slow-paced relaxation doing the little things I do in that lovely setting.
Well, I suppose they might be right, but that didn't mean I couldn't squeak out a little more laziness on our recent trip from Carolina to our Illinois hometown. So, instead of a headlong rush via the mighty interstate highways that connect just about any two points in this great nation of ours, we chose a kinder, gentler way home; one that would require three full days of easy-going driving and take us to some of our favorite spots along the way.
It is, frankly, what I do best. I was looking forward to it.
We chose a new beginning to a journey that we make often, heading south into South Carolina, then west, then northwest up into the western part of North Carolina, I had been told it was a good way to go, because it avoided the traffic jams that surround the "triangle" cities of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill and the line of big towns that follow the westward route, while also skipping some of the hot, slow travel experienced along the dusty rural parts of central North Carolina and the unavoidable cities of Charlotte, Fayetteville and nearby Fort Bragg.
It was worth a try, we thought, and we found ourselves pleased with the easy driving, nice scenery and quiet traffic patterns we found in South Carolina.  We were back in the old north state and at our night's destination even earlier than we expected.
Maggie Valley, which is nestled among the easternmost peaks and dales of the Great Smoky Mountains, is one of our favorite places. It is truly a tourist town that time forgot, just far enough off the beaten track, and overshadowed by the lovely artsy/craftsy/touristy town of Asheville and the nearby Cherokee casino, along with Tennessee-side tourist attractions like Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg.  It is almost utterly devoid of anything resembling big-time entertainment, lodging or dining, surrounded instead by breathtaking mountainside views and featuring a single main street that is lined with 50s-looking mom-and-pop motels and eateries. Even the couple of brand-name hotels that have sprung up are pretty laid-back looking, as if they are apologizing for almost spoiling the mood. Unlike some travel destinations, where the locals seem to maintain an edgy love/hate relationship with visitors, the folks in the valley are downright friendly, and almost seem to be wondering when you're going to wise up and move there yourself.  After a bigger dinner than we needed, plus an ample helping of fresh mountain cobbler, we retired to a motel where we've stayed before, which features rooms opening onto a balcony overlooking a fast-moving mountain stream.  We slept to the music of that rushing water, attended morning mass at an astonishing stone church built high on a peak overlooking the town, and set off on the next phase of our idyllic journey.
"I hope we see some animals," she said, as we entered another of our faves, Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
"Yeah," I said. "Me, too."
Note to self: Be careful what you wish for.
After a stop at the visitors' center, an arduous climb up Clingman's Dome and a visit to the haunting deserted village called Elkmont, an abandoned vacation community that is in the heartbreaking process of "demolition by neglect" due to the short-sited policies of the National Park Service, we decided to visit Cade's Cove, another settlement that was abandoned when the land that is now the park was bought back in the 1930s. The area features an 11-mile, one-way scenic drive through a beautiful mountain plateau that was once home to early settlers, farmers and a mill. That structure, plus several cabins and churches, still stands, along with dense forest land and fertile mountain meadows that make it prime territory for history buffs and animal-watchers alike. In fact, a ranger I spoke to as we entered the area said that there were bears in attendance that day, requiring several of her cohorts to work the road to help avoid man-bear interaction and to keep traffic from bottling up too much when the bruins were spotted.
Sure enough, after a few miles of oohing and aahing at the bucolic sights along the winding road, we encountered a line of stopped cars.
"Oooh," she said. "I bet there's bears up there."
She blithely hopped out of the car for a look-see, after promising to keep her distance from the furry, well-toothed tourist attractors.  She returned a couple of minutes later with the news that there was, apparently, a bear in the middle of the road up ahead.
"Finally," I thought. "Animals."
Note to self: Again, be careful what you wish for.
She was walking back towards me as I waited in our car, when, suddenly, the peaceful day was shattered by a sound not often heard in those quiet valleys.
Amazingly, inexplicably the guy in a white Dodge just ahead of me was honking his horn.  At who?
At the people looking at the bears?
At the bears themselves?
Thinking, perhaps, that the dunderhead in question had somehow accidently wandered off the Dan Ryan expressway, my spouse gently reproved him.
"Excuse me," she said in her best teacher-voice. "Why are you honking your horn? This is a scenic drive. You're scaring the bears."
"@#%*#^%&!" replied the now fully irate guy in the passenger seat, jumping out of his car.
Now, I am not often riled to the point of wishing to punch someone, but I was so outraged at his tone and language, that I hopped out of our car and yelled back.
"Hey, get back in your car," I grumped. "It's a national park, you jerk!"
"@#%*#^%&!" he answered.
Fortunately, the line of cars started moving at that point, so I was not forced to smack him with the only weapon handy, a half-eaten package of licorice Twizzlers.  Instead, we glared at each other and returned to our cars. I was sorely tempted to rear-end them as we made our way around the rest of the scenic loop. But I resisted, in spite of the fact that they repeatedly tried to zoom around the car ahead of them, even though the road was barely wide enough for a single car, then honked and shouted at the one critter we saw, a startled white-tailed deer who was just minding her own business.
"What are they doing?" she asked. "Are they crazy?"
 I just growled. Then I stopped. Then I thought about it.
I thought about the bears, deer, elk, raccoons, turkeys, woodchucks, chipmunks and all the other wild creatures who really belong in that pristine park.
Then I thought about those guys in the Dodge.
"Well," I said. "I think we finally got to see the animals."
Like I said, be careful what you wish for.

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