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Published: October 16th 2021
The day started with me going down to the lobby to collect our breakfast boxes, while Mom stayed in the room. One unfortunate reality of coronavirus times was that those hot breakfast buffets, where you and all your fellow road warriors would chow down before getting back on the highways, were gone. In their place was a cold sterile cardboard box. Not even remotely good enough. We made due though and got a move on.
We were headed west to Tennessee. Ever since I was a kid I had wanted to see Great Smokey Mountains National Park. Now with international travel shutting down, I figured it was time to strike. To get there we would need to navigate the mountain passes of Southwestern Virginia. I remembered back to a January day seven years before when I had to leave in haste to avoid being stuck in them during a once in a decade snowstorm on my way down to a new life in Texas. The snowflakes ominously falling thicker and thicker still linger in my mind.
Across the Tennessee border we were greeted by pleasant temperatures, fireworks stores, and an eat-in Arby’s. The whole place seemed a little less
hurried and more relaxed, compared to the New York we had left a few days earlier. The sunshine and green grass would be our companions as we headed deeper into the state. As we closed in our destination, we could actually see the clouds hovering like smoke around the mountains. So that’s how they got their name!
I wasn’t sure what I expected Gatlinburg to be, but it managed to surprise me. Upon arrival, it felt a bit like a hidden resort town carved out amongst natural beauty. There wasn’t much going on around our hotel, but I could sense some action in the main street down below. We decided that after a nap, we would go out to dinner downtown to try to get a sense for the place.
That evening turning left onto the main street, we were left shocked. This place was packed. The sidewalks were positively bustling with hordes of happy people. I had to say that this Gatlinburg was pretty honky tonk and garish, but I was digging the vibe. It led me to thinking though, that no one should worry about tourists returning post-pandemic. This city block showed me that if the
country opened up fully, people would most definitely come.
The original restaurant we were aiming for was so crowded and would require an impossible left, that we gave it a miss and kept on driving. Eventually, in the back streets we came across Peddler’s Steakhouse. The parking lot seemed to be full, but we decided to chance it. As luck would have it, a car right in the front was pulling out and we wound up with best parking spot in the place. We wore our masks from the entrance to the table and then promptly took them off when we sat down.
The wood and stone interior was warm and inviting. From the looks of it, the people in Gatlinburg had embraced indoor dining far sooner than our native New Yorkers. Back home we would frequently find ourselves the only ones eating inside, while most everyone else crammed together eating outside. Here though, all the available tables inside had customers seated. The table that warmed my heart the most was a table of about twenty convivial young people, who seemed to be having some kind of belated graduation party. Signs of life resuming.
We were told
by our waiter that the salad bar was still closed. Not to worry my good man, we come not for your salad. We come here for your meat and sweets. I ordered a nice 12oz steak and Mom ordered the fillet mignon. The steak was so big, that I could not finish it, well at least not and still have room for dessert. I had my eye on the blonde brownie with pecans, chocolate sauce, and vanilla ice cream. Decadent and delicious. I had the steak wrapped up to supplement tomorrow’s breakfast box.
We were glad that we had arrived early, because when we left we saw a multitude of people hanging out in the parking lot waiting to get in. Everyone there just wanted to have fun and enjoy life again after the events of the spring. It was a mountain cold night and many people had thrown on heavy jackets. We slow cruised back to the hotel taking in the scene. We had been warned about black bears in the hotel parking lot. The way we were feeling, not even bears could get us down.
* * *
The next day I scarfed
down my yogurt, steak, and muffin breakfast. The morning was chilled and frosty as the two of us piled back into the car eager to enter Great Smoky Mountains National Park for the first time. It was certainly a slow crawl into the park and from the entrance to the visitor center. Everyone and their mother seemed to be here today.
Things had changed in the national parks for coronavirus times. This was mostly felt at the visitor centers. There was a limited capacity for going inside and they asked that only one party member go in at a time, if possible. We did manage to get in to the gift shop and buy some souvenirs, but I was disappointed that they weren’t showing the traditional introduction movie. Those movies had always helped me start my national park visits by getting me into the spirit of each particular place.
Outside however, the rangers had set up information stations. I waited in line and was able to get directions and all my questions answered. I was also able get my National Parks Passport stamped. It is a great little blue book created by the national parks system, where you
can get a date stamp from each site you visit. My father bought one for me on our family visit to Mammoth Cave National Park. April 1, 1991, according to my cherished passport. Many a park have I visited, that I never would have otherwise, simply because I wanted a stamp.
We had two full days to explore the park. Today’s destination was Cades Cove on the western side of the park. It was a cleared valley where many settlers had lived before it was designated as part of the national park. On the drive down we had been listening to a Nitty Gritty Dirt Band album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken
. The style can best be described as old country and bluegrass. It didn’t quite fit on the highways, but here in the wooded hollers of Tennessee it all made sense. Oh, the storm and its fury broke today, Crushing hopes that we cherish so dear. Clouds and storms will in time pass away. The sun again will shine bright and clear. Keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side, Keep on the sunny side of life. It will
help us every day, it will brighten all the way. If we'll keep on the sunny side of life.
The circular route around the valley was slow driving and I mean SLOW, but we didn’t care. This allowed the driver, me, a chance to really appreciate the scenery and even take pictures at the same time. The day had turned sunny and warm. We decided to stop and get out when we came across a small white missionary baptist church. The building was built in 1915, but people had been worshiping on this patch of ground since 1839. There was a small cemetery out back. We wandered around and then went inside.
While sitting in a wooden pew in the reverent old building, Mom happened on a prayer card. It had been purposefully left there by some woman. On the back of the card she explained how much her Grandma loved the Great Smoky Mountains and had grown up nearby. It had been her wish to have her ashes sprinkled all around Cade’s Cove. It was then that it hit me. People had been living peaceful simple lives here until they were forced out in the 1930s,
even though they had been assured by the government that this would not be the case.
Further on along the scenic loop we came to a wide open area with many old wooden structures: cabins, barns and the like. We got out again to poke around. What was great about this place were the big multi-generational families all exploring the park together. Instead of being isolated from each other, they were all here sharing space and love. An enduring image I have is an older woman with an air of absolute contentedness holding the hands of two little girls. On her back was a pink t-shirt that read “The greatest things in the world call me Grandma.”
And they were all so kind and friendly. I returned from a quick jaunt around a farther field to see a random woman lacing up Mom’s sneaker in the distance. I later asked Mom how that came about and she said the woman had just walked up to her and offered to tie it for her. The world outside with its anger and division felt a million miles away at that point.
Cades Cove had been a center of moonshine
production during the Prohibition era. Bootleggers had run elicit booze all throughout these hills and into the surrounding area. And that’s exactly what it felt like now. But instead of elicit booze; we had all escaped lockdown and the land of social distancing. It was joy that we were producing and running now in these hills.
It wasn’t until 4pm that we actually got around to lunch; bananas from our breakfast boxes. We stopped and ate them next to a roaring waterfall. After that we made the inch-a-minute journey out of the park and back into Gatlinburg. All day we had kept our eyes peeled for the promised black bears. Well, the bears might have seen us, but we certainly did not see them.
We were too tired to eat at a restaurant. So, after a well-earned rest at the hotel I walked into downtown Gatlinburg to purchase some barbeque for our dinner. I bought so much that there would definitely be leftovers: sausage, brisket, half-chicken, hush puppies and a big container of apple sauce. The neon night of Gatlinburg hummed with the excitement of so many visitors. These were my kind of people. Time was fleeting and there were lives that needed living. The time for alone together was over. It was now time to reconnect with fun.
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