I hope you folks enjoyed that last full week in October. I certainly did because I wasn’t gritting my teeth at the annual Georgia-Florida invasion.
Vonette and I evacuated Oct. 24-30 as we had earlier for Matthew and Irma — that’s Hurricane Matthew, not Matthew Stafford — so we weren’t around for the red-and-black clad throngs. Also, I wasn’t left to ponder that deep, philosophical question: How ‘bout them dawgs?
We decided to go see the fall leaves for the first time in years.
We first got into the highlands as my powerful Prius V groaned up Cullasaja Gorge on U.S. 64 so we could see waterfalls surrounded by radiant colors. Because of persistent drought, there was less water falling but leaves were still pretty at Cullasaja Falls and Dry Falls.
It was at Dry Falls that our knack for odd encounters asserted itself. We saw a young woman in a fancy blue dress carrying flowers toward the overlook and figured she just wanted a spectacular background for some pictures. A short distance down the walk, however, there were four more women in matching blue dresses and another in a white satiny dress wearing a veil. Brittany Still had come from Salisbury, N.C., to walk under Dry Falls and repeat her vows with her intended on the other side. The bridesmaids led the way down the steps and through a little mud to the other side. Brittany and her mother followed as the crowd of tourists, mostly, kept back so as to not interrupt.
There was more than a little irony, partly because it’s not often you see a marriage that starts out on the rocks, granite in this case. And secondly, she may have picked the wrong waterfall. Just up U.S. 64, Bridle Veil Falls was tumbling over the cliff and splashing onto the rocks. It just seemed more fitting.
We drove on to the Smokies that Monday and spent parts of three days there. The mountaintops were bare in places, partly because of the freeze but also because of the fires in November 2016 that devastated the dry forests in the national park and in Gatlinburg, Tenn. The trees have yet to grow back but replacement condos and houses are rising on the mountains overlooking Gatlinburg like kudzu in Eden. They stick out because there are no trees left to hide them.
We had a good day in Cade’s Cove in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where old farm cabins, houses, churches, barns, grist mills and other historic structures are preserved. It was on the 11-mile, one-way loop that we saw the worthless 20 mph speed limit signs. The limit may as well be 100 because the usual speed is about 5 mph but often dropping to zero as motorists lock down to look at tree stumps they are certain are black bear.
We saw one bear, a near adult that lounged in the leaves about 75 feet from the roadway at an entrance. We also saw only one deer, which was highly unusual. But we saw a lot of wild turkey and a good number of elk. Since their reintroduction a few years ago, the elk population has boomed in the park and elsewhere in the North Carolina mountains.
After two nights in the Smokies we decided to head south by way of the Blue Ridge Parkway, but we had an encounter that turned us around. As we sat looking through the windshield at an overlook in the Balsam Range, a man walked toward our car and was about to reach for the door handle when he saw us inside. That’s when he realized the silver Prius V was not the one he had parked about five spaces away.
He was Cola Vaughan from the Outer Banks where he and his wife manage vacation rentals in Nag’s Head, Kill Devils Hill and Kitty Hawk. Options include places with names like Wreckless Abandon, Yellow Submarine, The Cork, Sun of a Beach and Pointe of No Return.
He asked if we’d been to Cataloochee on the northeastern side of the Smokies. We had not, but he told us the story. Like Cade’s Cove, Cataloochee has a lot of historic structures and a lot of wildlife. The Park Service paved some of the interior roads and wanted to make it another Cade’s Cove but the access is from outside the park.
When the plan got out to improve rough and rocky Cove Creek Road, the populace staged an uprising so the secluded valley, surrounded by 6,000-foot peaks, is still hard to get to, especially in Priuses like ours and Cola’s.
We nonetheless turned around and carefully followed his directions except for making a 180-degree error at the first intersection and sending us 33 winding miles south along N.C. 215 to Rosman, N.C. When Vonette and I learned of our error – and by “our error” I mean the usual “my error” — we turned around and headed back up to Devil’s Courthouse and down the other side to Sunburst, Lake Logan and ultimately near Maggie Valley. Twilight was falling when we bucked and bounced up the steep climbs and around switchbacks until we made the park’s paved roads where we saw some old structures and a huge bull elk.
As I took pictures of the elk, Vonette calmly advised, “GET IN THE CAR. YOU’RE TOO CLOSE. GET IN THE CAR.” She was right of course, but I got some nice shots and lived through it. We bounced back down the road, followed U.S. 19 to the same hotel in Cherokee we had left that morning. The four Korean couples I had met a day earlier were still there and had tee times the next morning. They all live in Atlanta but had grown up in Korea, “South Korea,’’ one assured me.
Everything is better with South in front, I said, including Carolina, Korea, Vietnam and Dakota.
We finished up the next day with three waterfalls, Soco, Silver Run and Upper Whitewater. As we tried to get to Lower Whitewater, we encountered the frustrated hiking Davids, Owens, a retired coach, and Gress, a retired ER nurse. They had driven from Biloxi, Miss., to walk 33 miles of the Foothills Trail. They were standing by their truck wondering where their pre-arranged shuttle was. It was getting late, so we shifted luggage, cameras, snacks and other stuff out of the back seat, loaded their packs and drove them to their starting point at Oconee State Park. And of course, as we neared the park, the shuttle driver called Dave Owens saying she was at his truck and didn’t see him.
We left them at the park, wished them good hiking and headed down to Anderson, S.C., to visit family and their wonderful dogs.
The drive home Sunday was hard for me mostly because of what was behind us. Then on Halloween, I saw our grandchildren, Benjamin, aka Darth Vader, and Isabelle, aka Rapunzel, and was at last very glad to be home.