I grew up in California and my family’s idea of summer vacation was camping in the Sierras. In fact, in my early (and not so early) years, I believed that “vacation” meant camping in the Sierra. When a kid at school said they went on vacation, I’d ask if they caught any fish. And they’d say, “No, I went to Chicago.” And I’d be confused. As I got to middle school and my brother and sister were out of the house, my parents found the extra money for plane tickets and we went to New England where I was introduced to the concept of “hotels” and “motels.”
I bring this up, because camping in California spoiled me for camping other places. I dare say, it prejudiced me. We moved to rural North Florida when I was fifteen where there were thick woods across the dirt road from our house. My friend and I would camp where the evidence of decades of impromptu hunting camps were hidden in the palmettos. We’d listen to the radio and shoot at old discarded bottles and cans with our BB guns. And we’d sweat and swat mosquitos. We never lasted more than a single night.
In college I took two notable camping trips that cemented my bias toward camping out west. One, an idyllic backpacking trip through Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico. Then I took an ill-advised trip to the mountains of North Carolina – in January – in 19 degree weather. (Floridians have no idea what the weather is like north of them.)
I didn’t believe there was any decent camping east of the Mississippi. To me, it was defined by bad weather and bugs. Then, last summer, things changed. We went camping in the Smokies. The notion of a lush leafy green forest, blanketed in ferns, and little streams running everywhere, could not exist without swarms of biting insects and cockroaches the size of dogs. But the Smokies don’t have pests in this way. Yes, there are spiders, Lots of them. Daddy-long-legs, which hardly qualify as a spider, are everywhere. And there are big furry spiders we don’t see, but know are there. But spiders are reasonable critters. They don’t flock to humans like mosquitos or no-see-ums (see our last trip to the Florida Keys).
Wide, well-marked trails. Rushing rivers. Butterflies by the millions. And for the “most visited National Park,” it sure isn’t crowded.
The Smokies – and every other part of the Appalachian mountains that I’ve experienced, are a gentler version of nature. Yes, there are bears that might devour us, but these aren’t the big black bears or grizzlies of the west. One park ranger in the Smokies described their black bears as “large curious raccoons.” Frankly, a raccoon the size of a bear is the most terrifying animal I can think of, but I understand what she meant.
The trails here didn’t try to kill us.
If there’s an animal I worry about in these parts it’s the snakes. Why? Because as we explored one of parks’s the many abandoned homesteads we almost stepped on a Copperhead. There’s an old saying about wild animals, “They’re more afraid of us, than we are of them.” Except snakes. These snakes are definitely not more afraid me than I am of them. (Of course, it wasn’t a scary insect or reptile, but the mild mannered tick that gave our daughter Lyme disease a few weeks prior.)
Top left: a very poisonous copperhead snake we walked past without noticing. Top right: a black racer and the hands and feet of an idiot tourist. Bottom series: We walked out into a meadow behind an old house in Cade’s Cove. Upon returning to our car, we spotted a bear and her cub, where we’d just walked. They sit unseen in the tall grasses until people leave.
This year we camped in Cade’s Cove, which is known for its 11 mile, one-way loop road through a beautiful valley. Along the way there are a couple dozen preserved homes, farms, and churches. The history of the area before it was a park is fascinating. The loop is closed to cars on Sunday and Wednesday mornings, allowing cyclists and runners to enjoy the trip without the traffic. Monica had planned to run the entire, hilly, course, but she was suffering from a cold passed to her before we left town (thanks Cesar and Dani!). She took the shortcut and ran about 6 miles.
No, I’m not trying to catch a fish with my mouth. I’m washing my hair.
We drove the loop several times, which frankly, was not kind to the Westy. Traffic is constantly backing up as people stop to take pictures of bears, or a dark bush they think is an elk, or a deer – not realizing they’re going to see hundreds if they keep going. (Seriously, deer are like squirrels here, you get to the point where you stop pointing them out.) Idling along at 3-5 mph was challenging for the old Volkswagen.
Back at the campsite, a mysterious puddle formed on the ground under the van, but I didn’t notice it for several hours. My daughter and I analyzed the mystery. I used to sell automotive fluids, so I know them by sight, feel and smell, but I was legitimately unsure whether it was engine coolant or runoff from Monica’s van-sponge bath. “I need lots of water running down my skin to feel clean,” she said, as she splashed around inside the Westy as if there was a shower drain in the middle of the floor. I desperately wanted the puddle to be these soapy remnants, but deep inside, I knew we’d boiled over hot coolant. The reservoir wasn’t too low, so I topped it off and crossed my fingers.
Using the Westy’s middle seat as a bench by the campfire gave credibility with the locals.
Leaving the Smokies required one high elevation climb before we could get the van down to lower elevations. Our route took us through Newfound Gap, one of the highest passes east of the Mississippi (or a foothill out west). The Westy handles well in the mountains, but she still boiled over a little as we stopped for a picnic, confirming my suspicions that Monica’s bathwater wasn’t our mystery slick. But the coolant was doing its job as the temperature needle stayed in the safe zone as we made it over the pass and out of the mountains.
Our next destination was a lake house rendezvous with family in South Carolina. But first, we decided to take a night in a hotel before reentering society. We aimed to stay in Asheville for a night, but the only available hotel room remotely close to downtown was in a Best Western to the tune of $375 for the night. I like Best Westerns. I’ve even paid an ungodly amount for a Best Western (but it was the only hotel in Brian Head, Utah, and they had an amazing outdoor hot tub). A run-of-the-mill Best Western by a used car lot in Asheville was not going to get that kind of cash out of us.
One of these Best Westerns was worth the price.
Undeterred, we quit Asheville like a bad habit, and headed to another southern ‘ville – Greenville, SC. There, for about $150 we got a Hyatt Place in the heart of downtown. I know there are major differences between Asheville and Greenville, but if you only have a night, both offer charm and good dining options. You heard it here first, Greenville, SC, is the new Asheville.
Look out, Asheville, Greenville is coming for you.
Next week: Books and boats in the Blue Ridge.
“Don’t make me turn this van around” is written by Jonathan Kile, and approved by Monica Kile. Jon’s 2014 thriller, The Grandfather Clock, is available free for Kindle on Amazon.com and other eReaders at Smashwords. Reach him at email@example.com. Monica is a marathoner, baker, freelance grant writer, non-profit consultant, tour guide, and prolific bath taker.