That was NOT what I meant by a wilderness experience…

Theme of the whole vacation: “Suicidal Wildlife Jumping In Front of Chris’s Car”.

First, it was GREAT. We went to the Smoky Mountains, to Gatlinburg. Despite what folks say, yeah, Gatlinburg is a bit touristy, but it’s got it’s charm (especially when you compare it to the hideous Pigeon Forge), but we were there for the mountains, and Gatlinburg is the closest place to drop your bags and park your car and head off. I twisted my knee on the second day there (slipped on some rock coming down from the Chimney Tops, a strenuous steep trail that leads up to one of the best views in the park from one of the highest mountains there), so I was in a knee brace from Tuesday on. Both of us got sunburned from the hike up to Clingman’s Dome, the highest peak in the park — it used to be shady & cool until a parasite took out all the Fraser Firs up there, so now it’s SUNNY and cool, deceptively so…you don’t think that you can be so chilly and still get sunburned. Well, you can, and I did — I’m usually very fair-skinned, so I look like a boiled lobster at this point.

But there’s something about those mountains, and the forests, and the pines, and the streams and creeks, and the sheer thrill of stopping alongside the road to see the trees and clouds *below* you and the folded carpet of pines and land spread out and away from you far into the distance…

———–
Some backstory:

The last time I was in the Smoky Mountains/Gatlinburg area, I was with my parents on a grown-up “family” vacation, about 8 years ago. I will not do that again. My dad has this thing where he’s in a hurry to GET somewhere, and won’t stop to look or experience anything along the way. Even when we’re there, it’s always hurry hurry hurry to whatever the next thing is. That’s INSANE when you’re in an area like the Smokies, and I can’t describe how frustrated I got when I’d see something cool, or want to stop, and would hear, “no, not now, we don’t have time, can’t do it here, etc, etc etc.”. Add to that a familial addiction to cameras, and you’ve got a family that rushes to get somewhere, shoots a picture/video of it, rushes home, then spends a couple hours admiring the picture/watching the video to make up for the memories they didn’t get during the actual experience.

My family also have this insane fixation on Smoky Mountain deer and bear — to the point that we went to Cades Cove specifically to see a mama bear & cubs that were supposedly in the area. Never mind about the great historic log cabins, quiet trails and wonderful waterfall (Cades Cove is the first settlement in the area, complete with rough one-lane country road loop)…they wanted to see the bear. So I’m in the backseat of my parents’ car, sitting next to my youngest sister as Dad passes trail after cabin after trail, and sure enough, we round a bend, and there’s a good ol’ Smoky Mountains “bear jam” — about 10 cars pulled off & blocking the road and everyone OUT OF THEIR CAR to get a closer look at the mama & cubs.

What do my parents do? GET OUT OF THE CAR AND GO INTO THE WOODS AFTER THE BEAR…hoping to get a closer shot with their cameras. Not just my parents, mind, but also my youngest sister and my other sister and her husband.

Now I’m a city greenhorn, but I know better than that (for those greener than me, cardinal rule of the Smokies: Do Not Disturb Mama Bear & Cubs Unless You LIke Death By Dismemberment). I made Dad leave the car keys (“Chris, nothing’s gonna happen…” “LOOK, I’m NOT gonna dig ’em off your dead body when that mama gets PO’d at you, all right??” you get the idea), and off they went, tromping into the woods, leaving me at the car. Few seconds later, they come running back, going, “she’s moving! she’s moving, over that hill!!” and they slam into the car and off we go, down the road and around another bend, to a spot just before one of the churches, heavy forest on both sides.

Man, we could’ve been walking, enjoying the day, enjoying the trails, but NO, we had to be chasing after these bears. Dad stops, parks, and the family piles out of the car and go across the road, up the hill & disappear into the forest to try to find the bear. Except for me.

At this point, I’m PO’d, but decide I’m not gonna let the idiocy of my family ruin my trip to Cades Cove. So I get out of the car and settle back against it, leaning against the front passenger side door, just listening to the birds, the wind, the trees, the sun on my face, the loud rustling of brush across the way…er…

I stand there, frozen, as I realize the brush IS rattling loudly, and I’m thinking, “oh gods, they’ve scared the damn bears this way”. But before I could go diving into the safety of the car, a huge buck with a full rack of antlers comes bounding out of the woods & down the hill straight for me, and I just stared in idiotic delight as it swerved and bounded right past the back end of the car — I could’ve reached out and touched him, that’s how close it was. I watched as it bounded away into the woods behind me, just as my parents and sisters and brother-in-law come running out of the woods, yelling, “Was that a deer? Did you see a deer?”

heheheheheheheh…
————

Okay, fast forward back to this past week. There’s an old Zen koan about what you don’t seek, you find. And as you can probably guess, I don’t carry cameras. I have the camera in my head; I want the memories, the experience. I also don’t go hunting after wildlife. Up close and personal is NOT how I want to encounter them; such things are bad for both said human and said wildlife. I’m happy to stop & watch them if they cross my path, but I’ll wait calmly & quietly until they go on about their business (or I’ll back away slowly, depending on the wildlife in question). I’ll leave seed & bread out for the songbirds near my apartment (goldfinches, mockingbirds, cardinals and the occasional blue jay), and I’ve had a couple inadvertant face-to-face encounters with the hawk that’s in our area, but that’s it. Until this past week.

So Brett and I were driving 321 from Cosby into Gatlinburg…a MUCH better route than the usual 441-through-Pigeon-Forge monstrosity. 321 is a quiet drive that goes right along the border of the Smoky Mountains National Park, through some quiet villages and communities. Gorgeous, beautiful, and peaceful…

…until we got about 3/4 mile outside of Gatlinburg, and out from the woods comes a big black bear, bounding across the road, right in the path of our car. I got over my shock just in time to hit the brakes and slow down so I wouldn’t hit it…and it was a good thing I did, because next, directly in FRONT of my car, tumbled/squalled/tripped/rolled three bear CUBS, and if I hadn’t slowed down for the mama, my jamming on the brakes for the cubs wouldn’t have done any good. As it happened, I got the car stopped barely in time as the cubs made their way across the road & disappeared into the trees on the other side, causing a traffic back-up on both sides as everyone stopped to go, “omigod…”

That was wildlife encounter #1.

#2 and #3 were in good ol’ Cades Cove again. Thanks to the knee-brace and the sheer pain if I tried to do anything that involved walking more than a few steps, we couldn’t see much of the historic buildings, save for the ones that were right near the road (and even then, it was iffy). So Brett and I took our sweet time driving the Cove, stopping often and getting out to stand and breathe, soaking in the views, the silence, the melancholy haunted feel of some of the areas in the Cove. Speed limit in the Cove is 20 mph, and we were going well below that.

We rounded a bend, near the missionary Baptist Church, and had to jam on the brakes to avoid running into 2 young bucks, standing right in the middle of the road, looking at our car like, “You want something, humans?” 3 point antlers — they were young, and they took their time going across the road, towards the church. So we sat in the car, and watched, and watched, and slowly drove past to avoid startling them…only to round the next bend and into 3 more deer, just off the side of the road. That was what the whole visit to the Cove was like, and it was great — usually we’d pass some idiot tourist who was trying to stalk a lone deer off in the field, and we’d get just past them to see two or three deer right up close & personal on the side of the road.

We also had close encounters with hummingbirds, of all things. The Visitor Center at the Cove has these wonderfully rich-smelling viney flowers near the Cable cabin (like trumpet vine, but smaller & bushier), and we were admiring the flowers when we saw these jeweled green birds darting around and just stood there in shock, watching the hummingbirds. Gorgeous.

Then on the way BACK from the Cove, we saw something stretched all the way across the road ahead, and slowed down, not wanting to hit a tree branch…and realized as we got closer that it was a freakin’ RATTLESNAKE, rattle high, sunning itself on the road. That thing was HUGE. We went around it, as slowly and carefully as one can in a Chevy Cav on a mountain road…didn’t want to watch it, for some reason.

And the BUTTERFLIES…

Gatlinburg and the Smokies are home to the biggest and prettiest swallowtails and tigertails I’ve ever seen. Gatlinburg, especially — its garden association has planted flower troughs all along the streets, and the butterflies just flock to them. And you. Around you, on you…I had more butterflies land on me this past week than I’ve ever had in my life. We stopped at one pull-off, high up on the other side of Newfound Gap, and as we’re admiring the view, a red-winged butterfly decided that Brett was its best friend. It fluttered up, landed on his arm, and stayed there a good five minutes. Brett finally, gently, shook it off…and it fluttered around him and landed on his shirt, then fluttered off and landed on the back of his jeans, then back on his arm, then back on his shirt, over and over until Brett finally walked it over to a stand of wildflowers and shook it off again. That little pretty thing was just having ecstasies over him.

Jeez, I’m jealous. 🙂

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