Great Smoky Mountains National Park

GSMNP: Embarrassing Camping FAIL, Walking Cades Cove Loop, Finding Avent Cabin, & Clingman’s Dome Sunset

Welp. I was that guy this morning in the campground. I was so proud of myself for waking up at 5am in the pitch blackness of still-night. I got out of bed even though it was drizzling and I could hear large drops on my tent, plop…plop…ploploplop. I went back and forth on it. Should I sleep longer and hope the weather improved? I ended up envisioning the sunrise over Cades Cove and that got me going. I quietly opened my tent, tiptoed to the bathroom, and opened the car to get food. I also quietly made my breakfast. However, when I went to quietly open my trunk to put everything away, my car apparently thought it was being broken into and the loudest of all horns that was ever horn-y SLICED through the dark with a SCREAM of terror to everyone in this poor campground


I don’t know how many times it took my shaking fingers to finally press whatever special button needed to be pressed, but the shame and mortification of destroying the predawn peace was immense. My first solo camping trip and I put a blinking bullseye on my tent that screams “amateur.” I quickly got in the car, started it up (I mean, by this time all my neighbors were awake anyway), and got the hell out of there as quickly as I could. I ate my disgusting oatmeal on the way to Cades Cove, gagging it down, knowing I needed to eat before walking 11 miles. It was drizzling and totally dark, not even a glimmer of light yet. I kept thinking, “Why am I doing this?” I got to the Cove and parked near the campground store. There were some volunteers in the parking lot getting their bikes ready as the day started reluctantly with a sickening gray ebb of light. I gathered everything I needed in my daypack and put my shoes on slowly, hoping the morning would brighten and the drizzle would stop.

            When I started toward the loop, I made a left turn to go the opposite way and walk it backwards because I thought the solitude would be nice. The woods are so dark when it rains. The road was quiet and I was hemmed in by jagged looking trees, so my brave self got freaked out and turned around to go the usual way that everyone else was going. I could not be more happy that I did this. Volunteers were friendly and said hello, people were zipping past on bikes. I passed another woman alone walking her dogs. My rain jacket kept the morning mist off of my clothes and the air was cool enough so I didn’t feel too warm. As I came up to the point where the John Oliver cabin is, I passed a volunteer and we started talking. She was a delightfully sassy woman from New Jersey who happened to be a Hike The Smokies member. We talked about hiking and her volunteering with the park for 5 years as she picked up trash along the way.  Eventually we parted and I continued on.

            The morning continued to brighten into day and I started to feel giddy. Bikes kept whizzing past, volunteers called out cheerier hellos, and there was this feeling of owning the place with no cars coming down the road. It was, in a word, glorious. I found myself stopping and taking pictures and just meandering at my own pace, loving every second of it. I rounded a curve in the road and saw a group of people and some neon shirts. A volunteer told me there were bears in a tree. BEARS IN A TREE!!! I was so freaking excited because I haven’t ever seen bears in a tree before and this was awesome. It was a mother bear and a cub up in a wild cherry tree, just tearing that tree to bits to get every little cherry they could stuff in their adorable faces.

The baby was really agile, like a little chimp. I couldn’t believe what a crazy climber he was. I don’t know how long I stood there watching them, but it was a while. I didn’t want to leave because how often does one get to watch bears in a tree eating cherries?! But I eventually headed on after taking an embarrassing amount of pictures.

The sun kept fighting with the clouds and finally won. Just like that, the Cove was awash in sunlight. Thank goodness for bathrooms halfway. Some of the bikers asked if I was walking and said I was “doing great.” I left there and headed over to the little cemetery you can see from the visitor center. It’s the Cable family. I didn’t realize Cable was the family that the little mill is named after. Something new to learn every time.

            I kept walking and ended up coming to pass another woman walking by herself. After stopping at another cabin to check it out and relish the experience of being there alone, I headed back out and started to pass her again when she asked about my Pstyle of all things! So we started talking and she said she’s planning to hike the AT in 2019 when she turns 50 and she’s getting in shape for it. So I asked if she was part of the AT Women’s Group and sure enough she was and she recognized my name. Well she and I walked the last 3 miles together, talking all the way about hiking and women’s health issues, and changing careers. We saw another bear along the way in the woods. When I finished the walk I just felt like I’d had such a special experience and somehow I wasn’t alone. God had placed some people along the way to walk with me and still given me incredible moments of joy by myself. I was so excited. I ended up driving the loop because I didn’t want it to end. Walking the Cove is by far the best way to experience all that area has to offer. I headed into town to get some lunch and call Rob before deciding where to go next.

            After town, I headed back to Elkmont and decided to hike to the Avent Cabin because I’d read about Mayna in the Women of the Smokies book. She was an artist and had a cabin off the Jakes Creek Trail. The trail to her place is unmarked so after finding some information online and using my pacer to figure out where the unmarked trail my actually be, I was able to spot it after going down one wrong trail and having to hike all the way back up. Ugh. Once again, I was totally alone in this part of the woods and as beautiful as that cabin was and as lovely as it was to cross the little bridge and see where Mayna used to live, I got a little freaked out.

You can walk in the cabin, but it’s weird to be alone in the woods with some vacant old cabin…once again, the horror stories we tell ourselves. So I headed back and was so excited I’d found the place.

            After that, I headed back to the campsite to cook my gross chili that didn’t dehydrate well. With just enough time, I headed out to the visitor center to check on some phone stuff before going up to Clingman’s Dome for sunset. I’ve always wanted to do this and I’m so glad that I didn’t decide to just stay in for the night. Today I was able to wake before the sun rose and then to watch it set in all its blazing glory over the mountains. And what a show it put on. I sat there for about an hour and waited for it to go down, watching the mountains change from green to deep blue to purple…it’s a sight I want to remember forever. All the photographers were out there trying to capture what can never be fully experienced through a photo. On the way back there was one last viewing spot where the sky was ablaze with orange, red, yellow, pink, purple….all the hues of a sunset that was just as lovely as some of the prettiest ones I’ve seen on Long Island.

            Tonight when I got back I was getting myself ready for bed and started to brush my hair. My dry, tangled, damaged hair that is turning gray on me and falling out due to hormonal changes. I have felt decidedly unfeminine on this trip. I don’t know why. There is something about being out here that makes me just not care about that, but at the same time I had this moment when I was brushing my hair and thinking about it. What defines who a woman is? Have I bought into so much of society’s pressure that when I’m at home in my usual habitat I’ve lost sight of what it means to live, to adventure, to be a woman? Has what I’ve done out here made me any less of a woman, or has it strengthened who I am as a woman?

I realized some things on this trip:

  • I do tell myself horror stories and I can consciously work to reverse these false tales when I am in the middle of them.
  • I can work through my fear to reach my destination.
  • As introverted as I am, I do like being around people and am not an isolationist. Having those two women to walk with and talk to today in Cades Cove was life affirming for me.
  • Nature is truly my happy place, even if it scares me sometimes.
  • I can camp alone.
  • I hate oatmeal.
  • In listening to podcasts and even in conversations I’ve had, there is a tug happening somewhere inside of me. It feels like a tug toward new things and I have no idea where it will lead. It scares me, this tug. It is the unknown. I think I have to continue following my heart.
  • You can never have too many pairs of socks.
  • Thru hiking must be the hardest thing a person can do – mentally, physically, everything. I try to think how I would handle falling into a stream on a thru hike and having everything get wet, or camping through nights and nights of rain, or having to eat shitty food and still end up hungry. I don’t know how I would handle any of it because I like my creature comforts.
  • I need a better camera.

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