In case you were wondering, this is not a song title - I will not be starting my songwriting career with an ode to the Great Smoky Mountains in the vein of Dolly Parton. But it really probably should be a song (and maybe I need to holler up at Dolly) because these mountains envelope you until you feel wrapped from all corners and snuggled in, just like vegetables in a foil packet, cooking over the fire.
I took off from North Mills River Campground in the morning and headed into Asheville to do a bit of shopping before my next camp stop. I went to Walmart. Everyone, I am sorry. Like, deeply apologetic. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I am struggling so hard with the abundance of Walmart in not New York City. It is so fucking cheap and everywhere and the siren call of saving cash is drawing me in. I drove by a goddamn Target in order to get to the Walmart in Asheville. There, I said it. And, god, I LOVE Target. For so many reasons, but particularly their business practices. However, now I find myself on a fixed budget and when Walmart sells you two propane canisters essentially for the price of one, it is so hard to say no. I was telling this to a friend and he laughed, agreed, and then pointed out, “yep, you are getting those because they pay their employees so shitty.” God, and then all of that money goes to anti-abortion groups. And then they put all of these tiny little family-owned local spots out of business (which, I guess, Target probably does, too). I am so ashamed as I write this. Maybe this is what I needed to do. Put myself on blast - much like my snack confession, I needed to make a Walmart confession, too. I am not going so far as to say I’m quitting Walmart just yet, but, like, maybe only for propane canisters. I need to set parameters.
So, I went to Walmart and bought propane canisters. And deodorant. Everyone - you’re welcome. For that, at least.
I skirted my way around Asheville on a tiny little road where I saw all kinds of incredible stuff and then made my way to I-40. Late last summer, my dad and I did a 10-day road trip visiting a few places I was considering living - Louisville, Nashville, and Asheville (to appease my mother). Our drive from Nashville to Asheville put us on the I-40 corridor through the mountains that divide Tennessee and North Carolina, so it felt slightly deja vu-like to be on the same road, going the opposite direction. As far as interstates go, this section of I-40 is pretty much the tits. I was up and down through some absolutely majestic country.
I arrived into Big Creek Campground through a series of dirt paths. This part of the world used to be and, to some extent, still is, logging country so most of the roads around here are old logging roads. When I went to pay for my campsite, I met Junior, who was paying for his previous night. So far, he is my favorite - more on that later. I unfortunately didn’t get a spot that was right on the creek, but this was a small campground - only 12 spots - so the rush of the creek that runs alongside it is almost deafening, even from 200 feet away. I threw camp and eventually tried to see what’s up for firewood.
There was a guy, Ronnie, who brought some wood to the camp next to me and I asked where I could find some. The responsibility of selling firewood here is apparently passed on to the local Citgo gas station about a 20 minute drive from the campground, so I opted to have no fire my first night. This is where it gets awesome. After seeing my kindling collection efforts, Ronnie came over with a piece of newspaper to help me start my fire. A few minutes later, he and Annie, one of the women camping next to me, came over with a few huge logs Ronnie had brought with him and a bottle of lighter fluid. Annie put the big logs down in the fire ring, threw the kindling on top, and then poured a half a cup’s worth of lighter fluid on it to get her going. That fucker went up in blazes. I thought to myself “well, hell, I guess that’s one way to do it.” That fire burned out pretty quick, but Annie came over a few more times throughout the night with her bottle and more sticks, throwing them on and pouring lighter fluid on the pile to help. Honestly, it was one of the sweetest things someone’s done for me thus far. Annie was camping with her son, Jayden, who is a special needs 11- year old and her friend, Diane. We became camp buds and I am grateful to have made their acquaintance.
Tuesday morning, I woke up and decided to check out Max Patch, a park that the campground hosts had suggested to me the night before as their favorite place in the area. That park made you work for it. I was on an ascending gravel dirt road for what seemed like forever, but it was only 10 miles. Max Patch is a bald mountain in the middle of about one hundred million other mountains (I counted - that number is totally accurate) and, from the top, you can see them all.
I climbed up to the top and it looked like that scene in Gladiator when the sunlight casts a warm haze over the tall grass and then Russell Crowe is reunited with his dead wife or something. Basically it was that setting sans the dreamy state. Tall grass, warm haze, blue skies. When I reached the crest of the mountain, though, it kind of took my breath away for a second - when you get to the top, you are looking out over miles and miles of mountains (namely, the Bald Mountains, the Unakas, the Great Smokies, the Great Balsams, and Black Mountains) - rolling green hills, positioned at different levels for as far as you can see. That day in particular was spectacular. There was a chance of rain, but really all I could see were the biggest, marshmallow-like clouds that cast shadows over those rolling hills and mountains. I found a rock to lie on and was there for an hour, watching the clouds swirl, squinting to try and make out the house that was hidden away in the hills, considering nature and all these surroundings. Blah blah blah introspection blah blah. It was awesome. I’m so glad I found out about it.
After Max Patch, I ran some errands and, as I was driving back to my campground, decided to take a left instead of going straight and headed to the Cataloochee Valley. As with all of the roads that connect these small towns in the Smokey Mountains, this, too, was a gravel dirt road. There’s something about taking a dirt road that is so unknown and, to someone whose driven on paved roads most of her life, connotes adventure. As I headed up, the trees became thicker, the temperature dropped 5 degrees, and the light through the forest was magical. Not far into the drive, I came across a large septic truck that was coming down the road. Thinking that I was being a courteous driver, I reversed and backed up some to give them a little more space to get around me. I thought they were using hand signals to guide me back easy. I was wrong. Because then I was in a ditch. I tried to throw Rosie into drive and get out, but when that didn’t seem to do much, got out of the car and realized she was a few feet off the ground and my efforts had been futile. The driver, Robbie, and his toothless colleague got out, threw a chain around my axle, and pulled my novice ass out. Robbie called me darlin - for those of you who know me well, you will understand how that just melted my heart. Seriously, the nicest guys. And just like that, I was back on my way with no damage but a muddy back wheel and exhaust pipe. I drove along this road and saw all of these hidden homes/farms/cabins/mountain getaways/family properties that probably had all been there for decades. Dilapidated buildings like whoa.
It took me an hour to go 16 miles, but I eventually found my way to the Cataloochee Valley. This valley was settled back in the early-1800s by a few pioneering families, but was a Cherokee hunting ground for god knows how long before that. Over time, the valley’s population grew and the families were pretty successful. They all lived in this valley until the government created the Great Smokey Mountain National Park in the 1920s. Based on reading, it looks like the government granted all of the families lifetime leases if they wished to stay, but most of them ended up selling their land by 1943 due to all the restrictions that were placed on them and moved out. I drove around and looked at some of the old structures that are still maintained by the park, but a storm was coming and it was getting late, so I decided to head back since I knew I had an hour of tiny dirt road driving ahead of me.
That night, Junior came by my campsite, I offered him a High Life, and we chatted while I fixed dinner. Junior lives only about 15 miles away and told me that he’d been coming up to Big Creek Campground since he was a child. He first came with his father as a boy, before there were ice coolers and they had to salt all of the fish they caught in the creek. Then, later, for several years with a group of friends who would come up and spend time in the woods, fish the streams, and sit around a campfire grilling up whatever choice cuts of venison they’d brought with them from last season’s hunt. At 75, he is the last surviving member of that group of guys and he still comes up, by himself, several times a year. He sets up a tarp covering, a little stove, a few chairs around the campfire, and sleeps in the bed he makes up in the back of his pickup truck. He’s done a few things for work over this life, but his passion was fixing cars and was one of the most trusted mechanics and auto body guys in the region for years. He had to give it up when his doctor told him he would die doing it (the chemicals were starting to affect him) and spent the rest of his working life doing janitorial work with the school district until he retired. From what I understand, Junior is pretty popular at the campground. He often has folks come and sit down around his campfire, telling stories as the wood logs turn to coals. After getting the chance to get to know him, I understand why - he’s a sweetheart of a guy, amiable in every way, and has a hell of a lot of stories to tell. I feel like he would make a hell of a surrogate grandfather.
I waited up late that night for my friend, Doug, and his boyfriend, John, who were driving up from Charlotte to spend my last day in the Smokies with me. Doug and I met each other back during my second go-around at living in Los Angeles. He moved to Charlotte a few years ago and we hadn’t seen each other for at least a year before that. I was real happy we were able to meet up while I was in his neck of the woods.
The next morning, we all woke up, did a little catching up (Doug and I)/getting to know each other (John and I), ate some breakfast, and then headed out to find Midnight Hole, a popular swimming hole in the area. The hike up was pretty moderate, but, as with all of the other outdoors activities I’ve done in the area, it was lush with vegetation, trees of all kinds, rushing sounds of the river, butterflies, etc. Midnight Hole was badass. This was my first swimming opportunity so far and it took some courage - that water was ice cold, but I made the swim across the way to the jumping rocks. My fear of heights was in full effect here and there was a lot of rock lounging and hemming and hawing, but I eventually was like, duh, I am going to hate myself if I don’t jump into this big ass swimming hole, so I did. And it was rad. You’re never angry at yourself for making the decision to go ahead with shit like this; you’re only ever regretful if you don’t. Yes, this is me, stating the obvious. We continued on up the trail and came across this awesome waterfall then decided to head back just in time to catch some rain at the campsite, which eventually turned into a goddamn deluge of a storm. Everything got soaked.
I am starting to really wish for just one camping trip where I don’t have to fuck with a rain situation. I can handle it, sure, but it is such a pain in the ass when you have to deal with wet shit. This was the definitely the worst of the storms so far. We were wringing out drenched towels, trying to get our fire going again with soaked-through wood (John was totally excellent at this, btw - we owe our raging fire that helped dry us out to him), and generally doing what we could to get camp back to some semblance of normal. The thing is, though, that you just do it. You figure out what you need in order to get your life straight again and get it done. This is not a blog post where I make any profound observations (clearly), but having been a city girl my whole life, I am starting to appreciate the simplicities of just doing.
After the storm passed, the stars that night were unreal. They looked like they were reaching down from the heavens to snap me up. There was a lot of quiet campfire considerations, some toasting of marshmallows, and damp butts.
And then, my trip to the Great Smokey Mountains was done. We woke up and broke down camp pretty early. Doug had to be at work later that afternoon and I was itching to get on the road and make my way down to Athens. Junior told me I need to come back to Big Creek so we can sit around the campfire and visit again. I told him I would and I’d like to keep that promise.