Great Smoky Mountain National Park has become one of our favorite places to camp. When we planned our third visit this summer, Monica picked out a site at the Cataloochee Campground on the North Carolina side of the park. Great Smoky Mountain National Park is dotted with former settlements from the days before the park was established. Our first year we stayed in Elkmont and explored the ghostly remnants of a logging village and modest summer getaway. Last year we camped in Cade’s Cove, which boasts a popular loop road ringed with old churches, cemeteries and cabins.
On paper, Cataloochee seemed even more intriguing because of the size and relative wealth of the community that once thrived in the remote valley. In the days and weeks leading to our reservation I kept getting emails warning that the campground was still closed due to COVID-19, missing several potential opening dates. And ultimately, I booked a back-up campsite at the park’s Smokemont campground. I never got to find out if our RV could make it up the steep, winding, and sometimes unpaved road to Cataloochee. There’s always next summer.
Our arrival at Smokemont could have been a sign of bad things to come. I preface what I’m about to tell you by saying that every single interaction I’ve ever had with the National Park Service has been positive. And our arrival at Smokemont started out typical, before it turned a little weird:
We were greeted at the campground entrance by a young twenty-something park employee in standard uniform. He had the look of a young, nature lover, with long hair and full beard. I could picture him through-hiking the Appalachian Trail or kicking a hackey-sack with The Grateful Dead playing in the background. He approached our vehicle with a mask over his beard and we gave him our name.
Next, he went back to his little hut and began pulling out the maps and rules, discarding his mask as he chatted with a woman inside. He returned with our hang-tag and paperwork, and without putting his mask back on, approached very close to me and began showing me a diagram of the campground. I tried to lean back to get some personal space, thinking maybe the conversation would be over before it mattered. But when he began to ask questions about pets, Monica spoke up. I must emphasize how non-confrontational she was in tone, when she said, “Hey man, I think you forgot to put your mask back on.”
He looked up, with a sort of confused look. I thought maybe he thought he was wearing it. Monica repeated, again smiling, “Dude, where’s your mask?”
I can quote you exactly what he said next verbatim, because it was nothing. His face was stone, but his eyes seethed as he breathed deeply. He silently stepped back a few feet, staring intently at us. Monica then said to me, “What’s going on? Can he not hear us?”
Next he pulled out his highlighter, scribbled a few arrows on our map, approached the RV and tossed the papers in the window and turned his back on us without a word.
Our jaws dropped. We slowly pulled away and found our campsite, replaying the event over and over, trying to figure out what could have prompted his silent rage. The only scenario that made sense was that Park Ranger Norman Bates planned to show up that night with a knife and kill us all. But we never saw him again.
Fortunately, we quickly got over our little encounter and found Smokemont to be a fantastic place to stay. And with our newly repaired water heater, we could now shower without incident too.
Or so I thought.
On our second evening in the park, I was putting away some gear in the storage compartment underneath while Monica took a shower and I saw some water dripping. Prior to this, I’d noticed that our camp chairs were damp, and assumed that it was water that had somehow gotten in from wet roads. The good news is that our storage compartments are water tight. The bad news is that the shower was leaking.
“Leaking” is actually the wrong word, because it implies that some water was staying in the pipe. As I began exploring the source, I opened a false floor to find the lower storage area filled with several gallons of water (luckily nothing vital was stored there). This was most of our shower water from a week of camping.
I grabbed my tools and started trying to find the source. It didn’t take long. Beneath the entrance to the shower is a handy access panel that makes reaching the drain a cinch… if the manufacturer hadn’t strategically placed a 2×4 support right in front of the drain. Three or 4 inches to either side and this would be so simple, I might not even write about it. But then I couldn’t show how amazing I am.
I attempted to take photos to get a look at my leak, but it didn’t help.
Unable to see the drain, I reached around the 2×4 and felt with my hands. I was quickly able to tell that it had a p-trap just like the ones we find in a bathroom sink at home – and astonishingly like the p-trap on the RV kitchen sink that was broken when we got it. In fact, by feel, I could tell that it was broken in the exact same weird way, with a crack running the circumference of the threaded fitting. It would be hard to break something so perfectly once, much less twice, but here I was.
I won’t make this long story any longer than it needs to be. I’d already repaired one of these, using my hands, some super glue, and my eyes. Why not show how awesome I am and do it blind? It just adds to the level of difficulty.
Examining the broken pieces and feeling for irregularities, like Louis Braille, I determined exactly how the broken piece needed to go back together, like putting the broken handle back on a coffee mug. I donned a pair of latex gloves and practiced the repair without glue several times, knowing that once superglue was involved, I would only get one shot (just like Eminem). Once I was ready, I applied the superglue and carefully placed it. If I dropped it, it would be gone and likely stuck to the subfloor forever. Finally, with same precision NASA used to repair Apollo 13, I glued the broken piece back together and waited several minutes for the glue to harden. Then, I carefully threaded the P-trap back onto the drain. A perfect fit. How long would it hold? (It held the rest of the trip, and will probably break as soon as this post goes live. I now travel with two spare p-traps.)
As I began my victory ritual (dancing, texting various friends and family members, and reminding my family that I’d saved the day, again), I pondered the accidental “auxiliary” tank of gray water in my storage area. I noticed a little plastic screw in the bottom of the storage area, and before my mind could finish saying, “What does this do?” I removed it and water was pouring on the ground.
Obviously, you’re aren’t supposed to dump your gray water onto the ground in a National Park. But this wasn’t your typical tank of dirty dish water. It was only shower water, mixed with a little shampoo, filtered through the fabric of two camping chairs. I was relieved the next day to find a wet spot with no residue, and it dried without a mark. But yeah, I felt a little guilty and nervous about it until it dried.
Having vEDS, I’m not allowed to run anymore. I don’t play sports. No more rock climbing. But my doctors do want me to walk. And that’s one reason I love the Smokies. When we arrived, Monica scoped out a hike, but wouldn’t tell us how far it would go. You’d think I learned not to trust her with a hiking map after our experience in Shenandoah last year, but I trusted her, and she delivered a gradual uphill hike that seemed to go forever, followed by a quick descent.
When we hit a steep uphill, I use my Apple Watch to monitor my heart rate and move slow. Our daughter kept me company by explaining The Descendants trilogy in its entirety.
This is me, getting ready to cook for some friends, and before I learned about our busted shower.
One of Monica’s late grandfathers was in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) back in the 1930s and helped build some structures in the park. It’s quite possible he lived in a CCC camp that we hiked through.
If you’re not paying attention, you might think hiking in the Smokies is just a constant state of forest. At the risk of being overly sentimental, there was a point on one hike where I was suddenly awestruck. With the creek rushing below creating open space, it was as though the tall trees were supporting a cathedral roof. It was really spectacular.
We were in Smokemont four nights and we left feeling rested and ready for a jump further north. We were about 11 nights into our trip and really feeling at ease in the RV, despite the little repairs on the fly. For me there’s something really spiritual about the Smokies. I grew up in the west and I love the majestic Sierras and the wide desert views. The Smokies really surprised from the first time we visited. Yosemite and Yellowstone have their famous sites, but I have a lot of love for the Smokies’ lush dense forest and, considering it’s the most visited National Park, feeling of isolation.
Next week: Wipe out! Summer 2020 draws blood.
“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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Monica is a leader of a local non-profit, marathoner, baker, tour guide, and prolific bath taker.