Hello Dolly!

We headed east from Rock Island to Sparta and Crossville before picking up Interstate 40. We were headed to Gatlinburg. The road was heavily trafficked and took us past Knoxville. It rained off and on, but seemed to be clearing as we got farther and farther eastward.

At Sevierville we turned on to Highway 441. Immediately the scene changed and we encountered the beginning of one of the most overbuilt, mind-blowing commercial shrines to American plastic culture either of us have ever seen. Sevierville led to Pigeon Forge and Pigeon Forge led to Gatlinburg.

The frenzy of crass American consumerism continued with hotels, chain restaurants, every big box retailer imaginable and an assortment of shrines to low brow culture including the FunStop Family Action Park, the Dixie Stampede Dinner Show, the Titanic Museum and the Hatfield and McCoy Dinner Show.

Of course, Pigeon Forge is the home of Dolly Parton. This is the home of Dollywood. And this is all  Dollywood’s spawn. Actually, I don’t mean that to sound so nasty. There is no denying that Dolly Parton is a goddess in these parts. She has brought a tremendous tourism business to this region, supplied hundreds of jobs and never forgotten her roots.

In the wake of the devastating fires which raged around Gatlinburg, the Dolly Parton Foundation gave stipends to hundreds who had lost their homes for months on end. Indeed the payments had just ended with a surprise final bonus check for each household of $5,000.

Dolly was actually in town for the Annual Dollywood Parade during our visit and everyone was abuzz with excitement. She was featured in the parade on the evening local news as reigning royalty.

The Chimney Top 2 Fire which devastated an enormous area around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Gatlinburg began just before Thanksgiving 2016, but its roots went back 80 years to the 1930’s when fire suppression techniques were adopted across the country. Over the decades dead wood and tinder accumulated. After four months with no rain in the fall of 2016, it took only two teens and a match to destroy 17,000 acres, kill 14 people and destroy countless homes. The fire began small, but after four days, hundred mile per hour winds blew it into an unstoppable conflagration.

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We were slated to stay at the Twin Creek RV Resort. I had tried to book us in to the Elkmont Campground in the Great Smoky National Park, but it was full. Twin Creek was highly rated and, as it turned out, much closer to Gatlinburg than Elkmont would have been.

We arrived to a darkened campground. When I entered the main office, the lights were off and only then did we find out that the power was off. A big wind event had hit the area the day before. Everyone had lost power. The national park was actually closed as was the main road, Highway 441, through the park. Winds had hit with 100 mph blasts, not unlike those which fueled the Chimney Top 2 Fire, and wreaked havoc in the park. All campers in the Elkmont Campground had been forced to leave.

Our resort hosts were harried. They had been turning refugees from Elkmont and other resorts away all day, but would honor our reservation as we had already paid. They explained that there was power in one part of the park and they planned to move us there. They were trying to get the power re-established in the other part of the park, but had no idea when it would happen. We decided to stay in our original spot. It was much prettier. We could always dry camp until the power came back on. It was a calculated gamble.

Our hosts were very nice. This has been a difficult time in the area. In the wake of the Chimney Top Fire, business had been down substantially. The fire received so much coverage that everyone assumed Gatlinburg was in ruins and stayed away. While there had been tremendous damage and Dolly Parton’s foundation had done much to help many who lost all, the town itself appeared unscathed. This accounted in part for the upset on the part of the resort hosts, they had already been hit and could ill afford more lost business.

We backed into our site and relaxed. We could last for days without power. It wasn’t two hours later that we noticed the power was back on. Our gamble had paid off. The park was pretty empty and we were happy in our camp site.

It was raining again the next day and we accepted with disappointed resignation that there would be no hiking. We headed to the Sugarlands Visitor Center to find out when the park was going to re-open and if we could use the trails the next day.

It was packed at the Visitors Center. An enormous topographical model of the park dominated the entry room to the building. It gave a great context to the enormous size and scope of the park. There was also a small museum dedicated to the flora and fauna of the park. Some of the roads through the park were now open, but the higher elevations had been hit with snow and 441 was still closed. We watched a 20 minute movie on the ecology of the park and got some guidance from a ranger as to where we should hike.

The rangers we spoke to at the information desk looked a little overwhelmed. She said they had not been able to assess damage to the park yet. They were still working on getting the highway open. It would be months and months of work to clear the trails. She urged us to be very careful as there were bound to be trees down on the trails which could be dangerous. We felt sorry that they faced another big challenge in the aftermath of yet another devastating weather occurrence. It was absolutely pouring when we left the Visitors Center.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was chartered in 1934 and dedicated in 1940. It is one of the first parks to have been purchased with federal as well as state funds. The federal government agreed to support the park if the states of North Carolina and Tennessee would each purchase part of the land. The park has two main entrances, one in Gatlinburg on the Tennessee side and the other in Cherokee, North Carolina. It is the largest protected area in the eastern United States and one of the most visited parks in the country.

The park is known for its tremendous diversity in terms of geography and biology. Ridges roll off into the distance in all directions. There are mountain tops and deep valleys. The area gets a lot of rainfall and is quite humid which makes for tremendous biodiversity. The park features over 850 miles of trails and unpaved roads. We had been waiting for this visit for weeks.

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We drove back into Gatlinburg. Surprisingly, despite the torrential rains, the streets were packed with people. Waddling from fudge store to burger joint, they were intent on consumption. We were intent on our own kind of consumption. I had heard the Pancake Pantry had excellent corn meal pancakes. We dove in out of the rain for a lunch of pancakes and sausage.

 

Waddling ourselves back to the truck, we took refuge in the Airstream. We did make one quick stop on the way back. I had seen in the Gatlinburg tourist brochure a write-up of a local fiber shop. It was the Smoky Mountain Spinnery. Incredibly, this was my first and only stop at any retail establishment with fiber for this entire almost five month trip. I had been a pillar of restraint for months on end. This was a very cute shop with a great selection of wheels, roving, rug hooking materials and some yarn. I tried out a very nice Ashford portable wheel. Restraint again. However, a little roving did somehow drop into my bag. Jim and Dakota waited patiently in the truck during this fiber foray.

We were getting a little tired of all this spring rain. The forecast was perfect for the next day. Meanwhile, since we were in a fancy RV resort, we had cable and we spent the evening watching television.

It was a glorious morning the next day. Having visited the Sugarlands Visitor Center, we knew exactly where we wanted to hike. We drove back through the craziness of downtown Gatlinburg. Oddly, it was a lot less crazy than it had been during the driving rain. It was, however, Sunday. I guess everyone was in church.

We headed to the Elkmont Campground area to hike. Our route took us past the Elkmont Campground. It was open, but close to empty.

We parked near the trailhead and discovered an unexpected treat: the remains of a former summer vacation community. Early in the 20th Century the Little River Lumber Company began selling plots of land to Knoxville residents many of whom were executives with the railroad which hauled lumber. They established The Appalachian Club. Every summer this retreat became quite a social scene.

The Club was divided into three sections. Daisy Town, was located in close proximity to the club house and consisted of more modest cabins, some were almost shacks. There was also Society Hill which was located on the banks of the Jakes Creek and Millionaire’s Row located on the rushing Little River.

With the creation of the Great Smoky National Park, residents were given lifetime leases to their cabins. Those were turned into 20 year leases most of which were renewed until 1992. Two cabins retained their leases until 2001.

Now the cabins sit vacant. A few have been made historic buildings and will be maintained but under the terms of the National Park, the rest will be torn down and the land returned to its natural state. They were actually in the process of tearing down cabins on Society Hill as we visited.

It was here that we learned the difference between a national park and a national forest. National parks are dedicated to the preservation of the land in its natural state. Hence, the tearing down of the cabins. National forests are used for multiple purposes. They may be harvested for lumber, used for grazing and, of course, for recreation. Making the Great Smoky Mountains National Park a park rather than a forest was controversial at Elkmont and a tremendous sacrifice for those families.

The Spence Cabin and The Appalachian Club buildings are now available for day use and indeed a wedding was taking place while we were there. It was an exquisite setting for a ceremony. The Little River rushed right past the cabin. It was easy to imagine how delightful summers must have been here: the heat of the day softened by the cool of the running water and mist from the rapids. Surrounded by towering trees, the daily soundtrack was that of the river’s waters.

Our hike took us along the cabins on Society Hill and the Jakes River Trail. We then ascended the Cucumber Gap Trail. The woods were very beautiful and the weather was perfect. There was definitely damage from the storm and we threaded our way carefully around and under downed trees. The rivers were running very high and it was hard to cross without getting wet.

The Cucumber Gap Trail was one of the most magnificent we had hiked. The trees were enormous. Rivers ran along the trail. There was tremendous natural beauty and we were constantly exclaiming at new sights.

Our hike was a good long one with lots of hills and we were tired and footsore at the end. We were also really sorry that we had only that one day to explore this absolutely entrancing park. Now we understood Dolly Parton’s passionate devotion and loyalty to this land. We vowed to come back one day and spend several weeks exploring this remarkable place.

We’re On the Road Again, Willie!

Despite my deep desire to get back to San Antonio, re-entry was a bit challenging. Simultaneous with the challenges in getting a flight back, I suffered a technical challenge with my email support. Verizon was discontinuing email service and when I tried to move my account, it was frozen. Two lengthy calls with Verizon later, the upshot was I needed to change email addresses. This was a huge and unwelcome task. So I spent that first day back in San Antonio dealing with Delta in trying to get a refund for my ticket (down to a ninety minute wait) and changing email addresses.

It was hot at Blazing Star and we did not want to be there. We were missing one of the parks we had most hoped to see: Pedernales Falls State Park. Finally, common sense rallied and the next morning I called the park to see if they could still accommodate us. We were assured we could salvage two days of the four we had planned to spend there. We immediately felt much better.  We hitched up and were were back on the road in no time.

The same ranger I had spoken to on the phone was on duty when we arrived. There had clearly been a major downpour at the park. When we arrived at our site, there was quite literally a river running through it. A stream ran though our site and the step into the trailer was under water. We were a little daunted, but the site was really pretty. We had our very own little meadow. There was lots of space around our site. We decided to stick it out. As we un-hitched, we could see the flow of water beginning to diminish. By the time we returned from a get-to-know-it perambulation around the campground, we were almost on dry ground.

The two nights we were able to salvage at Pedernales (locals pronounce it Perdernales, per the park ranger this pronunciation dates back to LBJ, I don’t know about that, but everyone really does pronounce it with the “r”), gave us one day for hiking. Looking at the map, it was hard to choose where to hike. There were so many attractive options. We decided to hike Trammel’s Crossing and the 5.5 Mile Loop to which it led. When we got to the trailhead, all bets were off.

We were just beginning to understand that Pedernales Falls was a flash flood zone. Due to yesterday’s very heavy downpour, the river was up and running hard. Trammel’s Crossing was under deep and fast running water. Reaching the 5.5 Mile Loop was impossible. A nearby camper directed us to the nearby Twins Falls Trail. We took that as a warm up hike and visited the little waterfall on the trail.

After some debate between the Wolf Mountain Trail and the Pedernales Falls Trail System, we opted for the latter. It was a very fortunate decision. We would never have wanted to miss the falls for which the park was named.

The Pedernales Falls Overlook was fairly crowded, but we headed up the trail and were soon totally alone in a very beautiful landscape. It was a beautiful landscape with a frisson of fear attached to it.

We walked out onto the rocks. Signs warmed to watch the water even on a sunny day. If it turned muddy and brown, run for the hills. Literally. We ate our picnic lunch sitting on some rocks looking at the glorious view.

We got a bit turned around with the trails and wandered onto the North Loop Equestrian Trail. It was hot and very sunny as we followed the wide track. There were enormous colonies of fire ants. We picked our way around them, but they made me wish we were on horseback.

Eventually, we ended up back at the park road which wasn’t our goal. There was room for improvement in signage at this park. We realized if we headed back towards the parking lot, we could pick up the Hackenburg Loop Trail. We followed what we thought was the correct track and encountered a sign which said “river” with an arrow. This seemed a bit inscrutable, but beneath the wood cut letters was a small dymo-label “Hackenburg Loop.” Someone else recognized the signage shortfalls.

This proved to be a lovely trail through meadows and along the river downstream from the falls. Spring was in full flower and we marveled at the bountiful wild flowers. It was thrilling to see a prickly pear cactus in bloom. We had admired so many on so many trails, we finally got to see one in bloom!

The river was running hard and fast. No wonder our first choice trail was closed. This water was impassable and deadly. The force of the water was apparent along the banks. Trees hung onto their ground with tough, exposed root systems. Hold on guys, it is just a matter of time. The water will win.

When we finally returned to the beach below the Pedernales Falls Overlook, we were footsore, but happy. It had been an especially rewarding hike.

Back at our campsite, we visited the Camp Host and bought some fire wood and a fire starter. It was a complete delight to relax after dinner by the cozy fire and gaze at our private meadow as the darkness deepened. We were so fortunate to have made it to Pedernales Falls. We could stay a week at least, but tomorrow the camp would fill and we were expected elsewhere. Maybe its good to leave wanting more, we hope to be back one day.

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The force of the water laid leaves in a lovely pattern.

Angling Towards San Angelo

Our drive would take us east to Odessa and Midland and then south to San Angelo. My Blue Beacon app told us a truck wash was to be had in Odessa. We stopped, got cleaned up and headed through the arid west Texas plains.

Right outside Sterling City we saw our first big wind farm. We couldn’t count the number of turbines standing at the top of the ridge silhouetted against the bright blue sky. It was quite striking and in this easterner’s opinion, much more beautiful than the oil derricks dotting the west Texas landscape. But I know that would be a minority opinion among most in these parts.

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San Angelo lies south east of Midland and north east of Fort Stockton. We had almost closed a giant loop of travel through west Texas and up into southeast New Mexico. The San Angelo State Park is just west of the city of San Angelo. The park sits just outside the city which is slowly encircling the park. The park is shaped somewhat like a bent hourglass with two distinct sections joined by a narrow middle.

We were camping in the Red Arroyo section of the park which abuts the O.C. Fisher Lake. The O.C. Fisher Reservoir Dam was visible to the right of our campground and beyond the dam was San Angelo. The other section of the park contained the North Concho and Bald Eagle campgrounds.

Our campground sat on a plateau above the lake and was sparsely populated. The sites were spaced well apart.

Our site overlooked the lake but the water’s edge was still quite far away. When we got to our site, we were pretty excited to see our next door neighbor was another Airstream. The wide spacing between sites was not conducive to campsite chatting and we never did speak to them.

It was very hot and sunny when we un-hitched. The picnic table and shelter were a cooler oasis and caught the breezes. We sat there as dusk deepened to night sipping our wine and enjoying the vast sky. It was a sweet magical evening. The ever-present west Texas wind was soft and gentle.

The next morning we got ourselves up and headed out to find one of the park’s trails. Darn if we could find it. We ended up following the park road back to the ranger headquarters to ask where to pick up the trail. Of course, it had been just inside the bushes and brush the whole time. We followed a big loop trail through our end of the park. It was very hot and the sun was strong. There was no shade and I had an eye out for snakes and other dangers. The thermostat read 92 degrees and I worried about Dakota in his heavy coat.

Once we had the trail, it was no problem to follow and we wound through our end of the park ending up quite close to our campsite. We were hot and sweaty and surprisingly tired since it wasn’t that long a hike. We got cleaned up and decided to head into town. We needed to re-supply groceries.

The parking lot at the H.E.B. was packed and hotter than hades. We had grown to love these Texas supermarkets named for Howard Edward Butt. They had great produce and pretty much everything else was first-rate. Traveling through small towns you are at the mercy of the local supermarket and some of them had been pretty dismal affairs. Of course in this kind of heat, we couldn’t leave Dakota in the truck alone so poor Jim was relegated to the firey-hot parking lot while I shopped. I felt vindicated to hear the checkout people complaining to each other about the excessive heat.

We succumbed this second night to the high winds and heat, closed the trailer and put on the air conditioning. The news broadcast predicted more heat for the next day and the arrival of a major storm front which would ultimately break the heat wave. It was a quiet night in the campground and we were grateful for the creature comforts of our Airstream.

Despite the weatherman’s prognostication, the next morning seemed cooler. A hike in the other section of the park was on the docket.

It was actually quite a long way to the other park entrance, a matter of six or seven miles. The ranger at the north entrance was very excited that the Wiener Dog races were taking place in the park. Indeed, the parking lot was packed with vehicles and wiener dogs were everywhere. Given Dakota’s predilection to lose his mind barking at small dogs, we hustled him off to the trailhead.

It felt good to hike the trails in the north end of the park. It was much greener with trees, a creek and more bushes and vegetation. The trail signage was inscrutable and had nothing to do with the trail map the ranger had given us. Not only were the trails not where we expected them to be, there were trails which never appeared on the map. Despite those frustrations, we wandered up and down and all around. We had a picnic lunch sitting on a bench and left the north end of the park tired and satisfied.

Tired and dusty, we got back to the trailer and cleaned up. That afternoon we drove into San Angelo and poked around the downtown. San Angelo grew up next to Fort Concho in the 1870’s. San Angelo regards itself as the Wool Capital of the World which should have been enough to endear it to me forever, but I didn’t see any sheep. We had just missed the Rodeo in February which was probably quite an event. I am sure there are amazing things to be seen in San Angelo, but either we just weren’t into a cosmopolitan experience or it was lacking there. After a brief reconnaissance, we headed back to the park.

The evening skies were spectacular. Huge white clouds stretched thousands of feet up into the atmosphere. The wind was blowing fiercely. The storm was blowing in from the south and east. The wind was so strong it was almost impossible to stand outside. It would wrench the door to the trailer from our hands every time we tried to go in or out.

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We watched the weather with rapt attention. The storms were severe. To the east of us hail and tornadoes were threatening and entire counties were on alert.

The storm actually hit after we were in bed and we lay listening to the thunder, rain and wind as it rocked the trailer. The lightning lit up the sky. Dakota hopped up on the bed for comfort. The storm lasted for hours. All I could think of was how much I wished we had a surge protector and vowed we would get one first chance.

We were spent and tired the next morning from a night of worry and suspense. All was well, however,  and we hitched up to head out with a sense of relief along with our fatigue.