Chapter 7, Great Smokies and Tennessee
Skunk Smacking and Chawklett Gravy
After the storytellers conference we headed south in Tennessee through rolling countryside, some of the most beautiful farming country we’ve seen. It was October 9 and sunny; there was just a hint of wood smoke on the air. We turned east and climbed steeply into the mountains toward North Carolina to find a campground marked on the map. It was in a very remote valley, at the bottom of a mile-long steep gravel hill that I despaired of ever riding back up.
It was worth it though, deep in a heavily wooded and remote valley beside, Paint Creek. It was about a rod wide, flowing mostly, sometimes tumbling whitewater, over the dark smooth rocks. Lockets of florescent green moss streamed from the lips of ledges and stained the edges of the current.
It looked like good trout water to me, but I hadn’t brought a fishing stick. I used to love fishing for native brook trout in West Virginia, and I’d bet they’re in Paint Creek. But an iron skillet is too heavy for a long bicycle trip. You got to have one to fry trout, breaded in corn meal, the way I like it. Maybe we’ll come back on fossil fuels someday; haul all that fishing stuff and cooking stuff, and spend a week. For now, I prefer our freedom.
We were alone. There was no wind. Hardly a yellowing leaf fell. The soft-shouldered ridges gathered us in and we nestled in the cleft.
I washed in the cold creek, Claire opted for the pump to do a bird bath. Later, our campfire spit curled sparks, and the light danced in the leaves overhead. It was cold and clear. A screech owl’s call rang among the trees like a cathedral bell. A silver moon rose through the leaves and he fell silent; creek sounds and the cool damp air took us in sleep.
The next morning as we struck camp, a man drove into the campground. We decided to ask him about alternate ways out of the steep valley. As we talked, he told us that he was a sheriff’s deputy, just off his shift. He comes to the woods to relieve the stress built up in his job. It is the only place he can get away from telephones and loud noises. He looked sad. And, this is rural Tennessee. The world is becoming a very stressful place for more and more people. No wonder our health-care system is overloaded.
He told us we could go downstream and come out on another paved road. We did and after several miles on gravel we rode up the French Broad River (love the name) to Hot Springs, North Carolina. Found a good and greasy breakfast at the Hot Springs Cafe at noon!
It is pleasant to sit in the midst of the easy banter between people who have known each other all their lives. There’s more of that here in the mountains; like Nebraska, roots are deep here; everybody has a history, and everybody knows that history — all of it.
Everyone has a part to play, a place on the communal stage, and boundaries for their lives. To be as a stranger among this strict, almost predestined, camaraderie of small-town Appalachia, is somehow comforting. I am not a stranger here. I was raised in it. I felt stifled by it, and went West young man, went West. And yet, I remember, and understand.
We decided that since we were in North Carolina, we would head east and explore the state some instead of going back to Tennessee. What the heck. What’s an extra few hundred miles and a double crossing of the Great Smokies.
We rode on to Asheville that afternoon, and found a League of American Bicyclists hospitality home there. Tom Reddinger works for the Veterans Administration hospital, does some touring, and takes in long distance tourists off the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Tom is on the North Carolina Bicycle Advisory Committee, and Claire and he talked bicycle advocacy for hours. We have found North Carolina’s drivers to be considerate for the most part, but like much of the East, the roads are lacking in reasonable shoulders, and riding was stressful around a town this size.
We enjoyed Tom’s hospitality for the evening (great spaghetti!) and decided at his suggestion to ride back toward Great Smoky Mountain National Park and Tennessee on the Parkway. We also added Tom to our growing email newsletter list. Now he can come with us, in spirit at least.
The next morning, we found a new tandem-only bike shop, Breakaway Bicycle Shop, just off the Parkway. We picked up some tandem-specific long cables, a quick release for the drum brake, and a tire gauge.
Frans and Sheri left Maryland, where he was an engineer, to return home to open the shop in recent months. A return to a slower pace of life. A gutsy move, and a good one.
After we left their shop the serious climbing began. I don’t know how high Asheville is, but I am sure the climb was over 5,000 feet including considerable lost elevation. Much of it was also quite steep. This is serious climbing country, and it just keeps coming at you. We’re glad we’re feeling fit.
It is a beautiful starry night here at 4900 feet on Mount Pisgah. First time we’ve seen the Milky Way clearly since Nebraska. We just had dinner at the lodge, overlooking the Blue Ridge mountains turning mauve in the haze.
We met Mercer Blankenship on the climb up from Asheville today and joined him for dinner at the lodge. Mercer is celebrating his sixtieth birthday by riding the Blue Ridge Parkway. He is an attorney in Charlotte and decided last year he was going to stop working so hard and begin to enjoy his life.
He’s loving the trip and getting in great shape. From the questions he asked us and the enthusiasm, I suspect he will be doing more touring and even less lawyering — a very good thing for us all (Just kidding Mercer).
The next day we rode over 60 miles with a stop at the high-point on the Parkway of 6040 feet, and back down here to around 2,000 feet. I have no idea how much elevation we gained, but I do know that the constant loss of elevation on the way to the high point, was maddening.
The Parkway has been beautiful riding, with sweeping views of endless mountains receding into the haze. Mostly the haze is natural, but near Asheville and the Interstate 40 corridor it has a very brown color. The fall colors are not spectacular here this year, but it is very pleasant to see the blending of browns and subtle reds, yellows and greens against the white and black tree trunks.
The preponderance of rhododendrons, azaleas and mountain laurels in the understory would indicate that late spring would be spectacular.