Smoky Mountains I: Snakes on a Vacation
Here it is, the splendor of the South. Actually, I don’t think it’s really the ‘South’ as it was only Tennessee; Mississippians would probably fight me on the capital S. I’ve only been as far down as Knoxville, but I can affirm a few truisms about the lower US of A: it’s hot. It’s muggy. There are bugs bigger than chickens, and they like your hair product a lot. The people are friendly. These people talk funny. And if you’re not careful, the wilderness will eat you alive.
Day one was spent hiking a trail along Great Smoky Mountains Nat’l Park. My mother assured us all that the trail (listed as ‘moderate’ in our handy guidebook) was only 2.7 miles long and ended at the source of a beautiful waterfall. Now, I’m in pretty good shape (I’m not gloating; if you work out five times a week, you had at least be in good shape medically, despite however you look physically); my parents are average middle-aged people; my little sister, a college sophomore with tachycardia. I appointed myself the group’s Saint Bernard in case any first aid was needed. Unfortunately, when people pass out or otherwise need medical attention, my first instinct is to slap them awake, followed by forcing water down / on them. I warned the party that if any of them lost consciousness, they did so at their own risk, lest I get overzealous with their re-hydration and drown them on dry land. We set out laden with canteens (a total of 6 litres of water), granola bars, a Gatorade and plenty of gorp; the mood nothing but optimistic.
These woods have pythons.
What you may not be able to tell from this picture is that the trail goes more or less at a 45 degree incline, turning a 2.7 mile track that walking level would take about a half-hour into more of a stair-stepping workout from hell. In the third hour, we began to pass people descending the trail, each assuring us that we were “getting closer”. We had no energy to hit these people. At two points, there were log bridges over the ravines, which I had mini-panic attacks about crossing. I am no fan of heights, even when my blood sugar is where it’s supposed to be; crossing a log over a leafy crevasse when I’m running solely on breakfast raisins is just too much to ask. After my mother made it across, however, I had to follow, or die of shame. Like everything in life, she makes it look so damn easy.
My mother, in her natural habitat. (A Studebaker.)
Many pictures were not taken of the journey, as they would have comprised a giant flipbook of trees, rocks and trail that would have looked remarkably similar to the next set of trees, rocks and trail. For five hours. At first, we sang songs. We played the alphabet game. Then for long stretches, there was no speaking, no sound, silence punctuated only by panting and the occasional “wait up.” The party was holding up well--despite God knows how many miles, calories and trips over lichen-slimed logs--but morale was beginning to sag. Suddenly, we broke through the canopy.
Which was fantastic, because it meant we might actually see the end of this thing—but harrowing, since it was about fifteen degrees cooler beneath the foliage than above it, and the resulting increase in heat drove us to upend our canteens, return trip be damned. After oh, another hour, we reach the waterfall, which has become a picnic spot for all the hikers. Who can blame them? You’ll need at least three courses to make the first mile back alone, and I very much doubt gravity’s going to be much of a boon when your leg muscles are all either seizing or on strike. Still, waterfall. My little sister and I clambered up the rocks for a picture and a slight drench, in an effort to make the journey back a bit cooler.
She’s adorable, I’m… flexing. Or constipated.
The surrounding tidepools gave us our first taste of wildlife; in the coming days we would see coyotes, field mice, wild turkeys and other sundry fauna too fast-moving for our cameras to capture. Luckily, the mudpuppies were disinclined to move from their comfy puddles.
“It’s Muuuddy! Mudskipper, It’s Mudddy!” (You’re welcome).
The salamanders were everywhere, scampering around people’s feet and discarded footwear (not mine, see, ‘cuz disease) and were adorably harmless. Much better mood all around as we started down the mountain, and it continued as long as we kept our minds distracted from the pain in our protesting bodies… which this next event did quite nicely.
Nature… is no joke.
That? Is a rattlesnake. It’s not a very good picture—because I didn’t want my little sister to get bit by a poisonous reptile IN THE EYE, banking a win on America’s Stupidest Yankee Home Videos—but if you look from lower left and follow the stripes upward, you can just about make out the head of a snake who doesn’t understand why people can’t mind their own damn bidness or like, go to a zoo, or something. The leaf blocks the expression, but I assure you the face is one incredulous annoyance. With fangs. The snake also has no intent to move from its position on the slope, so to pass we must all slide sideways, single file, FACING THE RATTLING SNAKE with our HEELS to the PRECIPICE. No one spoke, no one was bitten, nobody died. A half-mile later, my little sister feels like a bad-ass; I smack her upside the head with a Respect Nature lecture loud enough for Adam Sandler to hear and make notes.
On the way down we began to sing again, with the giddiness of the drunk, taking care not to stop walking for fear our trembling muscles would pitch us into the underbrush. My little sister is convinced we’re now in Maine. My mother suggests that we’re actually on a treadmill, and are passing the same scenery over and over as some sort of military experiment. My father either has no opinion, or cannot afford the breath for conversation. At one point, my mother says “Now, on the way up I saw some really cool roots that were all twisted so they looked like a dragon. Keep an eye out for it so we can take a picture.”
“Um,” I say, “Where?”
“Around here somewhere—I think it was around here that I saw it.”
“Here, like by these trees? Or by those trees? Or by this ubiquitous log?”
“I think you’ll have a better chance of finding it if you’re not talking.”
Jeez--one wrong turn, and you’re in Rivendell.
This is where my mother astounds me. The woman has three pair of reading glasses—and loses each of them, several times, daily—but can find a funny-shaped root among billions of other funny-shaped roots along a three-mile path because she recognized the trees. My mom’s a witch, y’all. Check it.
After many successive mirages that are not, in fact, the parking lot, we find our (beautiful rental) car, and sit in pale, shaky silence. We smell terrible, we’re soaking wet with six-hours’ sweat, and must eat lunch or we die. To his credit, my father had the foresight to bring a fresh t-shirt, so Applebee’s only had to deal with ¾ of our party’s stench as they brought plate after plate of carb-loaded nosh, which we ate down to the tablecloth. When I regained the ability to speak, I made a motion that the rest of the evening be spent eating s’mores and chilling in the hot tub, getting some quality time out of our rental cabin. Hands shot up to the point of injury, and the motion was joyfully carried.
Interior cabin, as seen by Beedoo’s feet.