Monday, September 9, 2013

The Appalachians and Other Adventures

I told the Pilot that I thought the Smoky Mountains looked "squishy".

They do! See:

I grew up in the shadow of the Rockies. Which are aptly named. In Colorado, mountains that don't have a tree-line aren't mountains. They are Very High Hills.

Seriously, though, the Smoky Mountains ought to be named the Squishy Mountains. They are like masses of green gumdrops– if you were to fall into one of those mountains from an airplane, surely you'd bounce!

On a side note, I know why everyone calls them the Smokies, but I still prefer the Appalachian Mountains. Appalachian is a delicious word– folksy and fruity and wild all at once.

Anyway, Labor Day weekend was my first experience of them. The Pilot had come home, a week prior, and said, "I get a four-day weekend! Where shall we go?" and I said, "The mountains!" because of course I'm homesick for mountains. Planning just a week in advance meant that most affordable-yet-not-creepy hotels in most of the little towns we might want to stay in were already booked, but when we looked at Gatlinburg, there was a Super8 with a room to spare, so that is where we went!

We drove the scenic route through the Smoky Mountain National Park, and I had my first experience of being on a winding road leading very steeply up a mountain side, but being unable to tell just how far up we were because the winding road was pretty much a leafy green tunnel. Fortunately, the kind people who made the Smoky Mountain National Park provided convenient pull-offs at the Scenic Views.

This butterfly kept flittering around me before it kindly consented to pose for the camera. 

A nice middle-Eastern couple offered to take our picture if we would take theirs. 

We drove to the Clingman's Dome trail parking lot and hiked the short trail up to the observation tower. It's the highest point in the park. The trail is steep, but perfectly paved, so this Colorado-girl didn't have any excuse for puffing or panting... and I didn't much. And I giggled to see the people who had walking sticks and tons of gear for a 40-minute round-trip hike– of course they might have been hiking the Appalachian Trail, which crossed over our path at one point. 

The sad-skeleton trees are ones that have been eaten up by some kind of beetle.

The curve of the ramp leading up to the observation tower. It was fairly empty when we were there, and the Pilot said we got lucky: usually on holiday weekends it's so jammed you can barely get a place at the edge to see the view. 

There are just as many trees at the top of the mountain as there are everywhere else, so they had to build an observation tower so that people could actually see the views!

After this it was dinner-time, so we left the park for Gatlinburg– which I was surprised to see is literally directly outside the park beginning. I hadn't expected it to be in the mountains, and I enjoyed the picturesque backdrop to a town that is the most perfect archetype of a Tourist Trap that I have ever been in. Not that I didn't enjoy it! Tourist Traps can be quite fun in their own way, particularly if you like people-watching. I felt like I was once again in Rome– a city I remember particularly for the crowds of people swarming like ants out of anthill. You never got to the end of the crowd. Gatlinburg was similar, in a smaller, very American, redneck sort of way. The main thoroughfare of the little city is lined with restaurants, candy shops, arcades, haunted houses, shooting galleries, hotels and motels, "Old Tyme" photograph shops, and other attractions that give the whole place the effect of a carnival that moved into town and forgot to move back out again. The street was jammed with the cars of those unfortunate enough not to be situated near enough to that main funnel-street to walk. Fortunately, our humble Super 8 was just up a sidestreet, within an easy walking distance. We had a rather inedible dinner the first evening at Shoney's and made up for it with Orange Leaf frozen yogurt and miniature golf. The miniature golf course is very aptly named "Hillbilly Golf" and the course was built along the sharply-ascending mountain side. We had to ride a miniature trolley to get to the top, and then zig-zag our way through the holes back down. Certainly the most unique game of miniature golf I've ever played!

Hiking Day came next. We had packed a picnic in a cooler from home, and we set off into the park to find a trail that would satisfy the Pilot's wish of being challenged, my wish of not being exhausted, at the end of it, and our joint wish of not being absolutely swarmed with tourists. Abrams Falls looked likely, so we drove fifteen miles through the park to get there. We were delayed on a one-way scenic tour loop when, inexplicably, all the cars ahead of us slowed to a dead crawl. When we got through the obstruction it became apparent that somebody had seen a bear close to the trail and decided it would be a delightful idea to get out of their cars and chase after it, and thirty or forty people behind them followed suit. We saw them traipsing back through the field towards their vehicles as an irate park ranger chastened them, and the Pilot and I made some rather uncharitable remarks to each other about rednecks feeding the bears.

This was our healthy picnic! (Note in particular the sugar-snap peas.)

Whenever my family and I went on hikes when I was a child, I would always pretend to be a pioneer girl in a wagon train, blazing the frontier. This was a good trail for traveling back in time, imagining what kinds of people wandered under those trees and crossed the river.


This tall flowering plant is, in fact, Phantom Joe Pye Weed. How do I know that? Because my mother-in-law and I picked it out and transplanted it into our back garden patch last month! It was growing everywhere around the river– often in clumps reaching up to three or four feet high, like this picture.

The waterfall! 

We were nearly at the end of the hike when the plastic covering of the sole of my athletic shoe actually separated and started flapping in protest at every step I took. I was delighted– I've had those shoes for six years now and I want to get new ones, but when anything is still technically usable I feel guilty throwing them away. Now I didn't have to! I left them in the trash can of the Super 8.

That night we had dinner in a delightful, ritzy restaurant, making up for the previous evening's travesty. If I was a culinary dish, I would want to be caprese salad. The crisp bite and tang of arugula paired with  sweet tomatoes and soft threads of fresh mozzarella, all drizzled with balsamic reduction that is so yummy I just want to drink it– but I digress.
After dinner we rode the Sky-Lift up the side of the mountain and watched the lights of the town start to twinkle as the sun went down, and saw the swarms of people looking very much like ants scurrying along one of those ant-tunnel kits.

On our way home the next day, we stopped for lunch in downtown Asheville. But for the absence of the Rockies in the background I could almost have sworn I was in Manitou Springs. I had not realized that one could encounter rednecks and hippies in such profusion in the same part of the country! We ate at a restaurant called the Local Taco and I had a taco made with duck medallions. No doubt the ducks were locally grown. And then I had a taco made of portobello mushrooms, and I know those were local because this was on the wall:

I wonder kind of a man Keith Byrom, Mushroom Forager, is? I am sure that he has a long dark beard, and wears a corduroy cap. He is probably a vegetarian, too, and keeps rabbits as pets.

For dessert we indulged ourselves at the French Broad Chocolate Lounge– I had "sipping chocolate" which was exactly like drinking a glass full of cool liquid truffles. I convinced the Pilot, who hadn't had coffee that morning and was therefore inclined to be a zombie, to get the "Jitterbug", an iced concoction involving pure chocolate and two shots of espresso. Needless to say, he was abounding with energy the rest of the afternoon.

This is what happens when I tell him to "look French".

The last place we went was a little stationary shop, because I am an English Major and a nerd. I found this line of products, which were just too utterly weird and unique not to buy.

I mean, what self-respecting writer can resist a little book of Mr. Elli Pooh's Elephant Dung Paper?

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