Tandem, An American Love Story

Funny thing happened last night at the Mount Pisgah campground. Claire heard a noise around the tent vestibule and woke me. Something was after our food. I unzipped the mosquito netting and saw a small skunk working diligently at opening a sack of food. I must have been still sleeping to do what I did next.

I smacked him on the head; pretty good smack.

He looked at me.

I looked at him.

As the small skunk slowly came into focus, I realized that we both might be about to pay dearly for my indiscretion. Skunks have effective weapons for such insults. This one, thankfully, decided not to use his weapon and scurried off. Phew.

Cute little guy. Thanks.

I wonder how many gallons of tomato juice it would take to wash a tent and two bikers?

We got a late start from Cherokee, NC. yesterday into Great Smoky Mountain National Park where we encountered the worst traffic congestion of the trip. The exhaust was constant and we breathed a lot of brake-lining. One of those tour bus drivers made us bail out onto the soft shoulder. He probably would have missed us, but that was not clear until too late to respond. These guys drive like they’re hauling logs by the load. Zippy is getting good at soft landings, and we appreciate his strong mountain bike wheels in such situations.

We followed a beautiful stream up to 5034 foot high Newfound Gap in a steady rain with limited views. We answered lots of questions from incredulous tourists at various pull-outs. Most of them found the drive strenuous and could not imagine us riding Zippy up there. It wasn’t a particularly hard climb, but for the traffic. We would probably find it tiring in a car also.

The weather eased on the descent into Gatlinburg through some truly spectacular color. There is no transition from pristine park to the strip of lights and ticky-tacky that is Gatlinburg.

The center of the strip is given over to the lowest common denominator of American consumerism; T-shirt shops and candy stores, indoor go-carts and miniature golf, junk-filled gift shops and video-game rooms, Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not and Guinness Book of World Records, The House of Horrors and House of Mirrors, bungee jumping and a huge fake waterfall and several grossly glittering wedding chapels.

All this is topped off by America’s largest gondola running up a mountainside and “The Space Needle”, a bad copy of Seattle’s. Carnies call from “attractions” and advertising glares from all directions and in all media. Tourists from all over the East, South and Midwest spend huge amounts of money on junk. All this in the shadow of one of our national treasures. Amazing.

Driven to the outskirts of town by the kitsch are numerous shops displaying quality Appalachian mountain crafts at reasonable prices. How do things get so turned around? Pigeon Forge and Dollywood is just down the road. Perhaps we should go there next.

I don’t think so.

After finding the last site at the last campground, we decided to take the fake trolley (bus) into the ticky-tacky and amaze ourselves.

We did find a place to dance to country music and enjoyed freaking out the locals and tourists with our outrageously bright biking clothing, sandals and spirited jitterbug. When we got up to dance, the floor usually stayed empty. It was too much fun watching us freaks I guess. After awhile the disc-jockey got into the slow, sad drinking songs, and we left.

The rest of the evening we walked around with our jaws dragging the sidewalk at the incredible variety of junk and strange attractions there to separate the tourists from their money. The strange thing is people seem to just love spending money on trash, and so the place is booming. We are in awe of the weirdness of it. It’s quite entertaining.

We stayed in the campground because it rained all day. We slept and ate and took a wet walk to some very nice craft shops a mile away.

Since it was still raining, we decided to stay another day in the campground. That morning, we were invited to breakfast by a gathering of six families from Nashville camped there. They made wonderful biscuits in a Dutch-oven over coals and had home-made jam. One of the men was offered the opportunity to work for Hewlett Packard in Corvallis, Oregon after a stint there with his current company. I sensed that he is sorry he gave up the opportunity. He really liked it there. I reminded him how much it rains in the Northwest, although I’m not so sure it’s more than in the Southeast.

We decided to go back into the park, to see Cades Cove, so we had to pass back through Gatlinburg one more time. The traffic was so slow that we pushed Zippy up the sidewalk and made better time than the cars.

Once inside the park the traffic eased up only slightly and we suffered the stink-pots again. We do not exaggerate the congestion here. This park gets more than a third as many visitors in the month of October than Olympic National Park gets in a whole year! And they don’t even charge an entrance fee. They could pay off the national debt if they did.

When we arrived at the campground in Cades Cove, the sun was falling westward rapidly and we were informed that the campground was full and, no, there were no hiker-biker sites as in western national parks. They work on a reservation basis only, and the day had been filled for months. Oops. How were we, I suggested, from Washington state, to know this, and even if we did know this, how could we guarantee being there on a certain date when depending on such uncertain (if non-polluting) transportation.

She shrugged.

I asked to speak to her supervisor.

Federal government logic finally prevailed and we were given a group campsite for 20 people. Go figure.

We went to a wonderful program by a wolf biologist who is in charge of the reintroduction of the red wolf to the park.

We walked back to our tent and it was very cold. The moon was full, and the wolves, being kept in pens nearby prior to their release, howled most of the night. They have beautiful voices and sing in a much different way than the gray wolves we hear at Dungeness, courtesy of the Olympic Game Farm.

We awoke to a cold clear morning and after a nice visit with, Wayne Lovell, a McCalla, Alabama police officer and his family, we headed out to the 11 mile loop around Cades Cove.

They did a good thing with traffic control here. The road is narrow and twisting, but it is a one-way loop. No problems with cars despite bumper to bumper traffic at times.

Through late September cars are kept off the loop until 10 a.m. on Wednesday and Sunday so bicycles and walkers can have it to themselves. People bring bikes on cars or rent them there. Apparently nobody rides up the mountain like we did. Most western parks get hundreds, even thousands of cyclists. We were told that we were the second bicycle tourists they had seen the entire season! This in a park that receives 9,000,000 visitors a year.

Cades Cove was settled by subsistence farmers and the park still runs 500 head of cattle on the pastures to maintain them. There are exhibits of water milling of corn and sorghum making and other pioneer skills and many preserved buildings. The mid-October day was beautiful and cool, ideal for cycling, and the colors were cooperating.

We were stopped several times for many questions about our trip. We were asked to pose for the several cameras of one group. They were a church group and promised to pray for us. I suspect we get lots of prayers from people who are afraid for us. We appreciate all of them.

Now we will try to find a low-traffic rural route across Tennessee to intersect the Natchez Trace Parkway which we intend to take for as long as we like it, which could very well be to Natchez, Mississippi. It is supposed to freeze again tonight, so we are inspired to loose some elevation and boogie south.


Tandem, An American Love Story — 3 Comments

  1. Thanks for the memories, and the update on your own adventures. That last few days back to Sequim was bitter-sweet after more than a year on the road. We’ve never been the same; a good thing.

  2. What a marvelous and beautifully descriptive article about a simply amazing woman – Karen Landis. I’ve had had the serendipitous experience to create and nurture a friendship with Karen after I underwent a hip replacement and three hip fractures and realized I needed to request the local “Meals on Wheels” service. And of course, if she didn’t have enough on her plate, Karen serves the Chino Valley community two days a week by delivering meals to people in my circumstance.
    I loved Karen the first moment I met her. And when we started chatting I knew I had met a soul mate. I’ve been looking all my life for a role model, a hero, an amazing example of humankind. I don’t know if she realizes what an outstanding example she is of a strong, independent, intelligent, talented woman. Sometimes as women, we have a dentency to undervalue ourselves. But Karen, I want you to know you are the real deal. You are just so beautiful in your authenticity. And I a so appreciative of the value you have added to our environment by caring for the land and the animals under your watchful care. Your abilities and strength simply boggle my mind. And thank you for your loving service to me these past four months. You rock girl!

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