Monday, November 12, 2012

Asheville and Great Smoky Mountains trip, Day 6 - In which we stage an intervention for Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.

Cades Cove
Cades Cove Landscape

Tuesday, October 2
After days of drizzle and gloom, we awoke to brilliant sunshine[i] filtering through the trees and campfire smoke. Breakfast was unhurried, letting me take time to make some hot oatmeal with nuts and fruit before we set back out again. Since we were at Cades Cove already, I thought it would be nice to do the loop again and see some of the sights we had missed in the rain/dark the day before[ii]. We stopped by Cable Mill, which is one of the more postcard sights of the park, with its large water wheel. I wasn’t as impressed in person, but the volunteer on site playing old timey music on a dulcimer and banjo was pretty great[iii].

Horse Herd, Cades
Old Timey Musician
Cable Grist
Cades Cove Horse Herd, Old Timey Musician, Cable Mill, Cable Mill Walkway

The intent was to head up to the high elevations and see what had been enshrouded for the past couple days. While the foliage and scenery on the way up was outstanding, clouds closed in while we were driving. By the time we reached Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in the park, it was completely clouded in. We made the short hike up to its summit anyway, and the clouds occasionally cleared enough to give a glimpse of what must be amazing vistas, but we mostly just had views of flat grey clouds[iv]. At the top of Clingman’s is a retro overview tower. Its tall concrete tower with observation platform, and curved, elevated path look like something out of a 60’s Popular Mechanics/space age dream.  As disappointed as I was about the lack of views, the foliage at the high elevations was really pretty in the moments when the sun broke through and we got to at least stand for a moment on the Appalachian Trail[v].

ColorIn a Yellow
Trail Newfound Gap overlook
Ridges panoramic
Newfound Gap
Clingman's Dome
(non-)Vista from
Clingman's Dome View from Clingman's
Abstract Wood and Stone
View from Clingman's
Fall Color, In a Yellow Wood, Appalachian Trail, Newfound Gap Overlook, Ridges Panoramic, Newfound Gap Vista, Clingman’s Dome Tower, Non-Views from Clingman’s Dome, Clingman’s Dome Vista-ish, Fog Abstract, Wood and Stone, View from Clingman’s Dome

We ate a quick lunch at the base of the tower, and marveled at the variety of tourists passing us. Since the Dome is right off the major road in the park, which is itself a highway traveled by non-park visitors, this is a heavily visited area of a very heavily visited National Park. Attire ranged from the expected AT hiker with large pack to a businessman and his wife in casual dress clothes. 
While I was disappointed in what we’d seen that day, and that we hadn’t been able to get a better hike in[vi], I was equally excited to be making a short stopover to see an old friend just outside the park in Pigeon Forge that evening. On our way out of the Park we stopped for a couple short hikes near the Sugarland nature center, and then booked to our hotel in Gatlinburg.

Falls Leaves and
Old Cabin
Cascade Falls, Leaves and Water, Old Cabin (antiqued)

Gatlinburg….is nuts. NO other way to describe the sheer chaos. The border between the town and the park’s northern edge is sharp as a razor. The very centimeter over the boundary line is where Gatlinburg craziness starts. Imagine every tourist town you’ve ever been to. Regress it to 60’s style motor hotels. Add 75% more pancake houses. Then funnel it into a fire hose and spray it in your face. That is the experience of entering Gatlinburg from the Smokies. From a scenic wooded drive you hit a veritable wall of signs and people and lights and attractions. We did our best to weave through the throngs and got up to our hotel which, thankfully, was on the southern edge, overlooking the Park. While its open interior column was somewhat nausea inducing on the glass elevator ride up to our room on the 15th floor of the tower-like structure, the sweeping views of the Park were well worth whatever we paid for it. They even had cookies for us at check-in.
Vista Hotel Interior
Gatlinburg hotel
Hotel Vista, Hotel Interior, View from Gatlinburg Hotel Balcony

Unfortunately, we were running pretty late at this point, so we made a hurried change into clothes that didn’t smell like wet tent/dog, and drove north to Pigeon Forge. If Gatlinburg’s insanity is based heavily in its compressed density, Pigeon Forge’s is based on what seems a never-ending oneupsmanship of oversized attractions. The road we traveled was 15 miles of nonstop tourist traps on a scale I can’t even mentally hold on to. Giant buildings included a ¾ model of the Titanic, a massive upside down house, innumerable signs for Dollywood, mini-golf places with full sized dinosaurs, “bear pits”, Lumberjack Feuds, Jurassic Boat Rides, wax museums with 50 foot tall King Kong climbing the side, and an ungodly number of pancake houses. It was really like they took an amusement park, county fair, and Donald Trump in a blender, and then spread the result along a long stretch of highway; massive, tasteless, and awesome in the literal meaning of the word.

I was driving, so have no pictures of this. Picture the craziest thing you are able to in this space.

We met my friend Joel at the Apple Barn/Applewood Farmhouse Restaurant, and establishment he recommended. I was somewhat apprehensive about the place after having driven through the Pigeon Forge gauntlet of tacky megalomania, but it ended up a nice southern home-cooking[vii] sort of establishment. Our waiter was doing his very best to channel Jeff  Foxworthy, and the décor was a bit country kitsch, but the food was great and the service was attentive. The “Apple” in the “Apple Barn” was not taken lightly. Nor was what seemed to be a near-fanatic dedication to value based, seemingly, on pounds of food per dollar. We were greeted with a complimentary serving of apple fritters, apple butter, and apple julep[viii].  About 18 more courses were to follow. In between valiantly trying to shovel plate after plate of home cooking into our mouths[ix], we had a great time catching up with Joel. A lot of the talk focused on people from our time together in high school, but I think in part that’s because of the oddness of reunions post-Facebook. There’s not as much to catch up on when you know what that girl you knew in elementary school had for dinner last Thursday because of her facebook/flickr/tumblr/Twittr/Instagram/etc account. Regardless, it was great to sit down and have a meal with an old friend I haven’t seen since late in the Clinton Administration. 
Apple Barn Restaurantfacebook_-634465529
Apple Barn Restaurant, dapper Joel and Mountain Man me

Fully stuffed we said our goodbyes and waddled back to the car. After a senses-dazzling journey back through the now-neon lighted cacophony of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, we retired to bed. For someone who usually has disdain for anything except a sleeping bag on the ground during camping trips, I slept just fine on the big bed in the fancy hotel that night.


[i] One can infer from this that I failed in my duty to get up ludicrously early to photograph the morning light. After two days of rain-camping,  Ansel Adams himself couldn’t have dragged me out of my sleeping back that morning.
[ii] This didn’t end up being a very good idea. The morning was beautiful, but we took so long getting out, Cades was already in the flat bright light of midmorning, and the sites we visited, including the Cable Mill, weren’t really that spectacular for the long car ride they cost. And it cost us some good views later on…
[iii] Though, I have to be honest, even on a sunny day surrounded by tourists, the first few notes of banjo music filtering through Appalachian woods do cause an involuntary shudder and or clenching of the nether regions. Damn it Deliverance, you’ve ruined the banjo.
[iv] This ended up being not a great trip for photos…nature contrived to deny me shots of most of the iconic views of the park.  Well played, Nature, you win this round. 
[v] Sadly, after years of cubicle life in the flatlands of Houston, dreaming of epic hikes, just standing on the AT felt like an accomplishment. And I did walk a little way along it, so I can at least claim I’ve hiked part of the Trail. All 0.458% of it that I sojourned along. And yes, that is the exact percentage..I did the math.
[vi] One of our planned hikes, Chimney Bluffs, was closed. The other longer hike we wanted to do, Alum Cave Bluffs, ende dup not fitting in the schedule because of all the rain. I was actually fairly depressed that, while we had some nice hikes, we didn’t get to do a really long hike into wilder areas. Timing, unfortunately, was against us on this trip.
[vii] Think, chicken friend steak, collared greens, and biscuits.
[viii] Which, sadly, was not an apple-flavored mint julep but a fruit juice blend. Still tasty.
[ix] My entrée alone consisted of three types of chicken…fried, in gravy with dumplings, and in a pot pie. My arteries signed an instrument of surrender upon the arrival of the plate. 

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