There’s a bear in there: Great Smoky Mountains, Tennessee, USA

16 May

Our initial idea had been to continue on east from New Orleans to Florida and South Carolina before looping back up to Atlanta and the flight to London. The car however had other ideas. It was performing better but there are only a few Sixt car rental offices in the Southeastern US states and none in Louisiana, Mississippi or Tennessee should we need to change vehicles. Add to that the several hundred more miles we’d be adding to our circuit and we began to rethink our return route.

Earlier in the trip Stuart talked to a young couple from the Smoky Mountains. Their enthusiasm for their region, its natural beauty and wildlife, got him excited to see it. Great Smoky Mountains National Park here we come! Secretly I was pleased to drive into the heart of Dolly Parton country. I had no intention of visiting Dollywood but I was curious about the place she was born and where she has invested so heavily.

I can’t recommend anywhere in Alabama en route to Gatlinberg, Tennessee, our base for the three days in the Great Smoky Mountains (GSM). It seemed to be just a lot more fireworks superstores, gun shops and fast food joints.

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I see these three things as emblematic of what seems so wrong about the United States of America. And bear in mind we lived here for four years. The two young men who blew up the Boston Marathon made their bombs from firecrackers. Both lived in the US for years but were so alienated from their fellow man they were able to kill indiscriminately. Gun control legislation personally sponsored by Barack Obama in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass murders was effectively neutered and while legislators dithered sales of guns, especially semiautomatic weapons, skyrocketed. Somehow freedom and fear have got bound up in guns and national identity and there seems no way back.

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The third problem is just as intractable. Fast food consumption is rife in Australia but the US is still way ahead in ways and means to shovel food and sweet drinks into your body that ruin your life. I noticed so many renal dialysis facilities in towns we drove through I checked the US health stats to figure out why kidney failure was such a problem. Answer – hypertension and adult onset diabetes. What causes these? Life choices, specifically a high calorie diet of animal fats and simple sugars – Maccas and the like. Death comes in many forms but this slow suicide by adults and child abuse by parents who feed them crap saddens me.

When we refueled somewhere in ‘Sweet home Alabama’ the gas station had three kinds of coffee, never heard of tea, and sold a nice line in redneck licence plates while the real ones outside gave pause for thought.

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Chattanooga is a pleasant town on a wide river but our worst ever lunch experience at the Boathouse Rotisserie and Raw Bar overlooking the river soured it for us. They earned a review in Trip Advisor that day folks. First ever negative review I’ve written.

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The real weirdness started at Sevierville and got more surreal as we drove on through Pigeon Forge to Gatlinberg. It’s as though someone dumped the equivalent of ten tacky Disneylands alongside the three lane highway with a bunch of pancake cafes and cheap souvenir shops chucked in for good measure. They even have a Downunder Hotel with a facade of a hotel with palm trees upside down. Who are these people?

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I kept reassuring Stuart that we’d be staying in a lovely hotel as close to the Park entrance as you can get. Well it had looked nice in the website. I’d reserved a large room with balcony as an indulgence for the last leg of the road trip. The drive up to Park Vista Doubletree Hotel on their private road wound through leafy trees and I remained hopeful, however the round concrete tower block and massive asphalt car park that lay at the end of that road could have been built by the Soviets. And sure the view into the Park from our seventh floor balcony was an unbroken sea of green, but the balcony was so narrow you had to stand to see out.

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The hotel relies on conventions and groups. There was a fire chiefs’ convention on, moustached men in logo’d polo shirts and caps lounging in the lobby bar drinking beer. Women were a scarce commodity. The parking lot was full of every imaginable kind of fire truck and van. I half hoped there’d be a fire so we could watch them flash into action.

Chastened but not beaten we headed into the Park Information Centre to scope out some walks for the next two days. This World Heritage and and International Biosphere Site is one of the largest national parks in the US and has peaks over 2000 metres. It’s virtually impossible to see the best parts without a car. It must be gridlock in mid-summer with cars and campervans. The couple of cycle paths indicated share the road with cars.

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Reading the leaflets and signs we realised we needed to take a few precautions against the grizzly bears that thrive in this protected area so we left the picnic food locked in the car, found some likely sticks and honed up our bear wacking skills.

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I hope I haven’t put you off. The GSM are a natural wonderland of wildflowers, native trees, pristine streams and waterfalls and abundant birds, deer, bears and other wildlife.

We saw three bears in our time there, two live and one not. Poppa bear ambled through the woods stopping every few metres to grub out something tasty to eat and next day we saw a momma bear nursing her cub behind a tree. We felt brave enough to take photos and videos as we spotted them from the road and reasoned we could dash back to the car if they got within the prescribed safety zone of 50 yards.

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Bear number three was my new friend in the hotel lobby.

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On our final day we drove over the ridge to see where the Appalachian Trail runs through the park and then on down to the Cherokee Reservation bordering the park on the southeastern side. The seven Cherokee tribes were relocated in the Trail of Tears episode. The reservation main street was another kind of wierdness. Cherokee minigolf, a mechanical bull and endless shops peddling Indian jewelry, moccasins, Tshirts and tack. Where were the cafes and restaurants? I respect that they have no junk food chain cafes but only one cafe/restaurant open at 3pm?

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A family of twelve, white farmers, lived here. It’s one room downstsirs with a loft bedroom for the sons.

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Can you see the deer grazing?

On the way out of Gatlinberg we stopped at the post office to send postcards and I spied Dolly Parton. She was on a poster promoting her books and literary program. I asked the postal worker if she saw much of Dolly. She was coming to town to lead the parade in two days time. We would just miss her. Memorial Day weekend was a big event in the Dollywood calendar so they were gearing up for large crowds.

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The drive to Atlanta was uneventful. The mutual sigh of relief was a huge one when we turned into the Sixt parking lot at Atlanta airport. We’d put 2782.5 miles on the Mercedes’ odometer and a whole bunch of happy memories in our heads.

My lingering memory of US airports though is poignant. We always saw at least one crewcut, fit looking young man farewelling his family and knew immediately he was heading to boot camp or back to duty. In Atlanta it was a family of four in the cafe. Middle aged plump mum, dad and younger brother. I took their family portrait for them against a backdrop of strangers drinking coffee. They were being so brave I cried. After they left I checked for free wifi. One of the networks available was labelled FBI surveillance. I looked around and saw the 30ish white man in jeans and sweatshirt at the next table had a laptop open. When I casually walked by to deposit trash I saw his screen had a whole lot of moving coloured patterns and red dots. I had made him. Or maybe I was meant to……

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