Calling All Bears – Smoky Mountain Discoveries

Under cover of a thin ribbon of mist, I could make out the outline of a buck, his antlers branching off the top of his head. In the foreground, a solitary photographer, respectfully watching from a safe distance. The quiet of this early morning was quickly disrupted when I heard several car doors slamming behind me. iPhone in hand, a group of women squeezed beneath the wire fence and marched directly up to the deer.

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“I just love deer,” said one of the women as they tramped across the wet grass and back to the car. The deer, while mostly used to such intrusion, moved quickly across the field and high tailed it to the other side of the road, leaping effortlessly over the fence.

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Effortlessly leaping over fence – photo: Barry Scully

This was to be one of many such encounters as Barry and I wandered through Cades Cove in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Inching forward at 10 miles an hour along the 11-mile conveyor belt loop circumnavigating the broad valley, you are guaranteed to see wildlife if you peer beyond the bumper-to-bumper line of cars.

“Hey Bear, over here, check these guys out.” I say to Barry who I rarely call Barry.

“What? Bear? Where?” asks a stranger from across the street.

“Oh no, just a bunch of turkeys. I call my husband Bear!” That really cracks me up, but when the stakes are high, this is no laughing matter.

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Well-worn path

Animal encounters in National Parks are what people come for – in this case, everyone wants to see a bear, and it’s obvious when there’s a sighting. At an already crawling pace, traffic comes to slow halt, each car edging forward to try to get a glimpse. It doesn’t help matters when people abandon their cars in the middle of the road – doors wide-open, engines running, to get a closer look at the animals.

Of course, not all encounters end amicably for either the people or the animals. At another part of the park, volunteers tell me about people getting close enough to pet the elk. In another incident at Yellowstone, a tourist put a bison calf in their back seat because they thought it was cold. Unfortunately, that bison was rejected by the heard and was euthanized.

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Too close for comfort. A huge elk keeps his distance from a little boy eating grass (yes, the boy was eating grass).

With iPhones acting as a magical protective shield, people approach the wilderness through a rectangular screen, once removed from harm and inches away from the animals. The animals, for their part, either reluctantly move deeper into the bush or bolt across the road to escape. Some of them are clearly agitated, but being outnumbered, they cower away.

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Trying out the panorama feature on his new iPhone for the first time!

I have slowly learned to abandon travel agendas and checklists of ‘Must Sees’ or ‘Top 10 Must Dos’, their authoritarian tone causing me an alarming level of anxiety. In a time where people are embracing so-called minimalist lifestyles and moving away from accumulating things in preference to acquiring experiences, there is the proliferation of bucket lists that turn these experiences into a commodity. The rush to tick off all the boxes leaves little time to linger, where is the pleasure in that?

Now, if everyone turns to go left, we turn right, and in spite of these traffic jams, we pull off the road several times and lose ourselves in the bush. Our favorite time is early in the morning, just before the sun burns off the dense mist, slowly, patiently peeling away the layers of fog revealing the distant hardwood forests and ancient mountains.

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Beautiful black bear foraging for acorns – Photo: Barry Scully

We hop back onto the conveyor belt and drive a mile before Barry spots a black bear. I let him out and park off the side of the road. By the time I join him the bear, a large male, has moved into the trees. A group had come up behind me, and in their excitement at seeing a bear, scared him off.

Later in the day, we decide to hike a trail that follows Abrams River to the falls. As we begin our hike, the mass exodus of people streaming out surprises us.

“You planning on camping overnight? It’ll be dark by the time you come out,” offers one hiker.

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Me venturing upstream along Abrams creek – photo: Barry Scully

Undeterred, we enjoy the solitude as we walk deeper and higher up the valley, the river getting father away beneath us. We round the bend and start our decline toward the river, and eventually to the falls. We’re not the last ones in and a few fishermen follow behind us – it looks like a favorite place to catch trout. We do make it out before dark and just in time to join another line of cars leaving the park.

The next day we explore several homesteads scattered around the valley, their isolation a testament to the tenacity of the early settlers who carved out a living in this remote region that was once part of the Cherokee nation. A walk through some of the cemeteries reveals the story of nature’s indifference to people’s resolve. There are numerous children’s graves, some with pennies left atop gravestones as remembrance.

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In remembrance of a short-lived life

“Bear, bear,” I hear myself saying as I try to get Barry’s attention, trying to conceal the panic in my voice. Barry was walking deeper into the woods, but the bear that had previously disappeared into the bush had doubled back and was hunched on a branch behind me, looking even more nervous than me. The small yearling eventually crossed the road safely, appearing to pause for the numerous paparazzi before rambling into the bush.

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Why did the bear cross the road? Photo: Barry Scully

We were reluctant to leave the park, having become familiar with the trails, anticipating what is around the next bend and predicting where the bears are likely to be foraging. It is easy to understand why Smoky Mountain is the most visited National Park, averaging more than 10 million visitors annually. But if you do go, a few steps into the woods will uncover solitude readily found within the layers of mountains.

Honky Tonk Confessions

It might have been the rousing vodka soaked night of dancing on the sticky floor, or it could have been the spirit of Hank Williams sitting in a dark corner in the back of the bar below faded autographed snapshots of county legends. Most likely it was the neon sign of a pinup girl straddling a guitar that lured me into the boot shop where I laid down a good sum of money for a pair of embroidered cowboy boots. I’ve only worn them once – and that was the day I bought them in Nashville.

Broadway, along Nashville’s famed Music Row, is crowded with lines of people teetering down the sidewalks. The wait is never long to get into the bars as the groups of tiara-crowned bachelorettes and trailing entourage of boys quickly do the rounds and move from one bar to the next, making their way through the succession of country music at the other end of town. A couple of the regulars at Robert’s Western World reminisce about the fact that no one seems to be dancing anymore– the bar hoppers preferring to yell over the musicians and slosh their PBRs on the dance floor in front of the stage.

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Robert’s Western World along the Music Row strip in Nashville

As the night progresses, the crowds of people making the rounds settles on a bar, perhaps in spite of their best intentions, and the country swing dancers take over the floor one centrifugal spin at a time. I join an older gentleman who is clearly a great dancer and I try to call up variations of disco moves long relegated to the orange shag carpet of my childhood suburban basement. I lose my partner on the last spin to my friend who clearly has a better grasp of the moves.

Nashville is synonymous for all things country music; record studios, radio stations and numerous bars attract aspiring musicians from around the country where they bust their ass for their big break. The musicians at Robert’s pays tribute to honky tonk, and like most musicians on the strip, they play for tips.

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Humor not lost to the crowd

I have to confess; in the past I have expressed great disdain for the genre. Living in the ‘South’ you can’t spin the radio dial without hitting a country music station of one sort or another spanning the gamut from bluegrass to Christian gospel and new country. I rarely linger for more than a few seconds, enough time to decipher the manufactured lyrics. Maybe it was the earnest live performance, or the kick-ass cowboy boots, but I found myself being drawn into the raw and jagged sound set to a syncopated beat that defines an American mythology.

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Waiting for the dance floor to clear

“You sure this is the place?” Asks the cab driver as he pulls up to an unlit house. All signs indicate it’s closed.

“No, but we’ll get out anyway.”

We walk up the steps to what appears to be a law firm. The door is open and behind heavy velvet curtains is the well-stocked bar at The Patterson House, dimly lit with chandeliers reflecting off a stamped tinned ceiling. The menu reads like song titles – “Maisy Makes a Sling” and “Shanty Town Jewel”. These aren’t the same bar tenders wearing tank tops and straw hats, but Gatsby-esque mixologists complete with newsboy caps, satin ties tucked into vests, sleeves rolled up.

This tops our 48-hour extravaganza in Nashville. From the well-worn honky tonks to the boutique-crammed neighborhood of Hillsboro, there is no doubt that Nashville is more than a collection of boot shops and museums constructing an edifice of Americana.

The next morning, I pack my boots into the trunk of my car, the leather soles scuffed from a night of dancing. We eat lunch at Hattie B’s – famous, like everything else in the South, for exceptionally crisp fried chicken. We also stop at Antique Archeology of American Pickers fame to browse some unique and bizarre junk – but that’s a story for another time. As for the boots – they stand stiff at the back of my closet. Yes, its time to take them on another road trip.