No Amount of Traffic or Instagrammers or Drunks Can Take the Magic Out of (Semi-) Wilderness
In which Wells Tower braves the rain, smog, and peak-weekend hordes of Great Smoky Mountains National Park to give his three-month-old son a first taste of nature’s sweetness
Throughout the pandemic, we'll keep publishing news to help you navigate the state of travel today (like whether travel insurance covers the coronavirus), as well as stories about places for you to put on your bucket list once it's safe to start going more far-flung.
The welcome sign is not entirely legible, because a large tourist stands in front of it with her selfie stick. The real tip-off is the river of brake lights past her shoulder. We have entered Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Park rangers meander through the traffic jam. To what purpose? To exact a foliage-season surcharge? To search the block-long motor homes for undocumented domestics? In fact, they are here to warn us that elk are visible in the field to our right. To prevent astounded drivers from crashing, the rangers have set up a pull-off area, where motorists are discovering what distant ruminants look like on a smartphone screen
The local elk count is lower than the minivan count, slightly higher than the roof-mounted-GoPro count, and, if the quantity of Florida license plates means anything, far short of the south-migrating-snowbird count. Though perhaps the plates mean nothing: we three are North Carolinians, from four hours east of here. I had reserved a Jeep for the trip, but the car-rental clerk had his own feelings about what is proper for a weekend in the Smoky Mountains and instead assigned us a Chrysler Town and Country minivan with Florida tags.
But to visit Great Smoky and complain that it’s choked with out-of-staters and Winnebagoists is like going to the Grand Canyon and complaining that it’s a large hole. Great Smoky is America’s most heavily trafficked (if not necessarily trodden) national park. Close to 11 million people come here annually—nearly twice the Grand Canyon’s tourist haul—and all the houseguests are taking their toll. The park’s fog-cloaked valleys resound with Harley pipes. Smog has cropped the ridgetop views. Acid rain has killed off brook trout in some high-elevation streams and is threatening red spruce. Thanks to industrial, vehicular, and coal-power emissions, air quality in Great Smoky has been among the worst in the eastern United States, though, fortunately, ground-level ozone has decreased in the past 15 years due to tighter air-quality regulations. For these reasons, although I’ve spent most of my life within a half-day’s drive of the park, I’ve never once been tempted to make the trip.
But then one day, life finds you with a three-month-old son who, so far, has practiced his enthrallment with trees mostly through windowpanes. Curating a child’s preferences is, of course, a doomed endeavor. Still, we’d like Jed to be fond of wood smoke and galaxies, to grow into a knowledge of books but also splitting mauls, the bowline, the taut-line hitch. Yet winter is on its way. Wait until spring to take him camping and he may already have become a version of his dad, a sluggish, indoorsy type who stores against his own father memories of Chef Boyardee warmed over Sternos and interstate-side KOAs, where firelit drunks at the next site over cast frightening shadows on the walls of the tent.
Now is the time to get him out-of-doors. But where? Somewhere lovely but close. (At about the four-hour mark in his car seat, our boy gets purple and loud.) Somewhere not too far from a 110-volt outlet to keep our breast pump humming. Somewhere with trees, mountains, online campsite booking, and enough human clamor to keep the bears at bay. No use resisting: Great Smoky is the place. You hate to add your family to the burdens of America’s most put-upon national park, but then it may be wise to let the boy tick Great Smoky off his list while there’s still park left to enjoy.
A mile into the park, the traffic thins. The dusk is upon us. The roadside is astrobe with foliage the color of goldfish, carrots, and scab. Our home for the next two days is Smokemont Campground (and RV dump site), near the park’s southern access at Cherokee, North Carolina. Yes, our campsite is smaller than our old New York City apartment and surrounded by about as many people, a proportion of whom are not our sort of folks. Two of our neighbors’ pickup trucks fly Confederate flags. Another bears a decal of an AR-15 under the antibiotic slogan Assault Life. But it is a handsome campground, in the deep shade of sycamores and tulip poplar fed stout by a chuckling brook. If there are toxins in the air, they are undetectable beneath the scent of damp earth and ferns.
My goal for our weekend is modest: to provide Jed with a camping experience less grubby and miscarried than those my old man arranged for me. Breakfast with him was peanut butter sucked off a spoon, dinner cold spaghetti between two slices of Roman Meal. His tent was a frail, magical device whose special power was to summon storms so that it could collapse beneath them. I remember few nights that did not end with a sudden flight to the station wagon, where mosquitoes expected us, whetting their swords.
Seeking to avoid my father’s organizational shortfalls, I have packed the Town and Country to the rafters with gear. Courtesy of corporate donors, we have: a Coleman tent that sleeps six, four different models of infant tents and sleeping pens from KidCo, a wearable sleeping bag from Selk’bag, another wearable sleeping bag from Poler, two camp chairs, and a compact wood-burning camp stove from BioLite that can cook food and charge an iPhone if not download kindling from the World Wide Web.
It falls to me to set up camp while Erin feeds the baby. Unpacking our tent and other equipment is a swift return to childhood. But the Christmas-morning ecstasy of uncrating new toys disintegrates under the problem of their assembly. In my defense, the tent is barn-size and best raised with a team of Amish powerlifters. For more than an hour, I bash stakes into a graveled earth whose revulsion for aluminum is vehement. At last I build something resembling two fat men in a nylon donkey suit. Then there is the rain fly to deal with. The problem of draping it does not drive me to tears—just wrathful, high-pitched squeals and a glossolalia of curse words. The tent keeps slipping the shroud. It’s like putting silk pajamas on a bull.
After a time, I repair to the Town and Country, panting and fuming. I venture the sullen claim that the tent is unusable due to factory defects and suggest we all sleep in the minivan. Erin, now soothing two babies at once, reaches out and wipes my brow. “It’s strange,” she says. “Generally, I feel like you handle stress really well, and then some little thing comes up and you just snap and can’t handle… dick.”
The campsite next door is home to a quartet of Australians, which we know because they speak to one another as though across a crowded stadium. Judging from their supply of beer, they’ll have no cause to stop yelling until 4 a.m.
Erin, a preternaturally sunny person, sighs grimly. “I love you,” she says, “and I mean this in the gentlest possible way, but this camping trip is bullshit. We get all this stuff and drive all this way so we can listen to these people party? We’d be more away-from-it-all if we’d pitched the tent in our yard.”
But the night is on us, and there’s nothing to be done. We put the baby in his crib inside the tent. We get the rain fly sitting right—or sort of right, given the rhomboidness of the thing beneath it. “It’ll be fine,” I say. “I don’t think it’s going to rain.” The darkness deepens. We bed down. The rain begins.
The rain fly reports for partial duty. Inside the tent, it’s not a downpour so much as a sifting Britishness. We position Jed’s crib in the driest corner. Except for the maternity ward, Jed has never passed a night anywhere but our house. Yet he settles easily into sleep, grunting over the depth of his slumber.
His mother and I are doing less well. We have brought a brand-new queen-size inflatable mattress. But the manufacturer forgot to label the box in giant, hazard-orange letters: “Pump not included but very much required! Mattress cannot be inflated orally! Unincluded pump is the difference between comfort and misery! Without pump, mattress will give your ass a Ph.D. in gravel! Without pump, you will lie awake wondering why you made your family leave your warm and pleasant house to spend a chilly night listening to RV generators and an Australian beer party! Without pump, you will pass eight moist, black hours conceiving the proper torment for the Coleman employee who left WARNING! PUMP REQUIRED off the mattress box! Habanero seeds tamped beneath the fingernails with an ice pick is what you’ll settle on around dawn or so!”
All night long, the rain falls outside and inside the tent. A cheerful little brook runs past my cheek, swells the butterflied diapers I’m using to cushion my pelvis, forms a pond near my toes. Just as the sky is bluing, it lets up. The baby is gurgling. His parents are sore and sad. We determine that some sort of stroll might lift our spirits and disperse the bruises on our hips. A campground official happens past. I ask her if she knows of any good trails around here. “To be honest, I don’t know,” she says. “I’m just up here from Florida.”
By 8 a.m. the rain is again pelting down. There is nothing to be done but drive to the nearest big-box store to buy a mattress pump. After, we loiter in the parking lot while the shower swells to grapeshot. The sky, an opaque whey, will not be running out of water anytime soon. If asked, I would have a hard time naming a place I’d less rather spend a rainy day than a Walmart parking lot, but it beats our wet tent by a mile. “I’m not often in a situation I’m really bummed about, but I don’t want to go back there,” Erin says. “I suppose it’s good for us, but I don’t see how. It’s like being forced to go to church.”
But we must go back. And what’s more, owing to the seasonal crush at Smokemont, I was unable to reserve the same site for two consecutive nights. We have to move the tent to new digs, some 300 yards away. Erin’s opinion is that the tent must be broken down, dried, repacked, and rebuilt. But pitching the tent was such a conniption-inducing experience that I am resolved against full dismantlement.
Over Erin’s prophesies of injury and failure, I collapse a few load-bearing members and hurl the wet, leggy mess onto the roof of the van. With Erin at the wheel and me standing on the running board while holding the thing in place, we manage the relocation. Tilting the tent upright takes me the better part of an hour. I am drenched beyond all caring, but it’s on its feet again. This time I get the fly taut enough to bounce a nickel. “Dry” would be overstating the condition of our shelter, but it is no longer raining within.
This is the trouble with Great Smoky: the park is so encrusted in its own celebrity that you come here not as a human creature encountering earthly terrain, but as a ticket holder to a spectacle annually endorsed and certified by 22 million eyes.
Under a tarp, calmly strung, I get a fire roaring. I scorch some burgers, boil some water, and sterilize a batch of bottles for the boy. We chow hastily and retreat to the tent, which now contains a mattress that doesn’t hurt to lie on. Jed finishes his dinner and does the postprandial performance that I love. He wobbles on his haunches and goes into a gourmandizing pantomime, sculpting in the air the ecstasy of milk enjoyed and recalled. His mouth works in O’s and beaklike shapes. It is a silent song and dance about the miracle of nourishment. In time he comes to the awareness that the milk he celebrates is milk that was, not is. This causes him to weep and sue for reapplication to the breast. He eats some more, grunting with a contentment that his mother and I are surprised to find we share. “Babe, I’m proud of you,” Erin says to me. “You got the camp all fixed up. You were totally the man of the family, and you had ideas that actually worked.”
On the face of it, car camping of this sort should deliver none of the pleasures of actual camping. It brings you among throngs, not away from them. You climb nothing, push no physical limits, interface with no wildlife that could not be seen in Central Park. Perhaps the car camper is a special sort of idiot. At considerable expense and inconvenience to himself, he contrives a burlesque in which the provision of food and shelter becomes a minor pain in the ass he can congratulate himself for coping with.
Or perhaps the car camper is a practical genius. He understands that adventure’s pleasure principle is scalable, that one need not lose his nose to frostbite to taste the joy of survival. Tonight, in the crowded Smokemont campground, I am as satisfied with life as I lately have been. We are dry and full of beef. Our delight with our inflated mattress is worth the night we spent on rocks. In a puny sort of way, I’ve spent today being necessary. I cannot recall a day apart from the birth of my son that I have glanced less at my phone.
All across the campground, amid the RVs, travel trailers, and multi-room nylon chateaux, scores of campfires spark and crackle in the dusk. The night gives off the congregational feeling of cigarette lighters at concerts or paper lanterns set afloat. We have, of course, done nothing very great in coming here. In fact, given the air-quality issues in Great Smoky, one wonders if shuttering the campground wouldn’t be the best thing for the park. But it’s somehow moving that with so much to do indoors these days, people still believe that existence may be enriched simply by sleeping in a wet and crowded stretch of woods.
By morning the clouds have left a sky of propane blue. We can finally get out into the park. A helpful fellow at the rangers’ shanty gives his recommendations of spectacles that are accessible to people encumbered with babies and diaper bags. Clingmans Dome, the park’s highest point, is the main thing to see. This we already know by the steady stream of automobiles flowing that way. The drive winds through vistas whose beauty is nearly grandiose. Red and orange bosk-oramas. Lemonscapes mallow-topped with roiling mist. Announcing every scenic overlook is a queue of folk bearing iPads, tripods, and Nikons with bazooka zooms.
Perhaps the car camper is a special sort of idiot. At considerable expense and inconvenience to himself, he contrives a burlesque in which the provision of food and shelter becomes a minor pain in the ass he can congratulate himself for coping with.
The scene at Clingmans Dome confirms Great Smoky’s transformation from an actual place to an abstract pop phenomenon. Up at the summit, dense fog has shrunk the valley view to about four feet. But here, too, dozens stand with selfie tackle, though the vista could be perfectly reproduced by a gray flannel bedsheet. The park, it seems, now shares a status with the Statue of Liberty or the Mona Lisa. Sheer numbers insist it is a thing to be experienced before we die. One need not climb it, touch it, or even see it necessarily. A picture of a grinning head before a white monotony still serves its purpose in a photo album so long as the location tag reads Clingmans Dome.
Away, away from Clingmans Dome, through the calico mutt-pelt hills, out through Cherokee, past the moccasin dealers, the gem flumes, the retailers of “moonshine souvenirs,” past the minigolf courses and go-kart tracks, past the Teddy Bear Motel, the Hiawatha Park and Cabins, and the Gear Head Inn (Welcome BangShift Forum Freaks), and onward to our first actual hike in the park: the Juney Whank Loop Trail, near Bryson City.
The Juney Whank, we’ve been told, offers three separate waterfalls, all easily accessible to the infant-laden and infirm. We are not the only people come to savor the trail’s convenient wonders. The parking lot is full, but after a ten-minute wait a spot opens up.
“Where you from in Florida? We’re from Bradenton,” a genial lady tells me as I’m fitting Jed into our ventral baby holster. I explain that the Town and Country is the only Floridian among us, with apologies that she drove so far to be confronted with such crowds. “This is nothing,” she says. “The other side of the park? Gatlinburg? It’s bumper-to-bumper for miles. And this isn’t even the real foliage season. This ain’t even peak.”
Say what? This ain’t peak? The newspaper told me that this would be peak. In some abstract sense, I do understand that the Great Smoky Mountains are not the same thing as the Gregg Allman show at the Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, yet I do feel as though I’ve learned, after shelling out for my ticket, that he will not play “Ramblin’ Man.” This is the trouble with Great Smoky: the park is so encrusted in its own celebrity that you come here not as a human creature encountering earthly terrain, but as a ticket holder to a spectacle annually endorsed and certified by 22 million eyes. You feel cheated when the flora isn’t turning in the performance of its life.
Up we go to Waterfall Number One. Humanity on the foot trail is no less dense or international than on a moving sidewalk at LaGuardia. Ahead of us is a pair of young Chinese aristocrats, he in Prada shoes and a lustrous pompadour, she in a red floral dress with a Coach purse and a Borsalino hat. Behind us is a South Asian American family whose vanguard is a boy of nine or ten in a Duck Dynasty T-shirt, rapping fiercely and treading on my heels when my pace flags.
Ten minutes later, we’re standing on a bridge beneath which the waterfall spills into a steep, gold-greenness of mountain laurel, tulip poplar, and fern. The landscape seems no uglier or realer than a painting by Bob Ross. Beside the falls is a big mossy rock. By some undeclared agreement, we all understand that we have not really fulfilled a visit to Waterfall Number One unless we have been photographed sitting on that rock, our smiles suspended by invisible hooks.
The photo boulder is a close relative, I think, of the section of plastic log, bolted to a chair, on which we were told to fold our arms by the man who snapped our senior portraits back at Chapel Hill High School.
Honestly, I am not trying to be a snoot about those of us who cannot see the park but through a viewfinder or a screen. The general problem of how to experience nature’s seasonal beauty is not easily solved. What to do with the spasm of desire and memory that dying leaves summon in the human beast? They have me thinking of a bygone fall when I was seven. Under the season’s influence, my brother and I broke into our friend’s house and burgled his toys. Our thinking was that he was better off than us and would get new stuff for Christmas. When, fleeing with the loot, we bumped into our pal and his mother coming up the street, we threw his things into a leaf-strewn ditch and said, “What toys?” I am thinking, too, of a pretty girl at an autumn yard party many years ago. She was chilly. I draped my corduroy jacket around her, and she fell into the bonfire. Steal stuff. Be horny. Get your last licks in, says October. Get on in years and the purchase of an overpriced leaf blower is how you answer the season’s call. Or you take up splitting firewood by hand. Or you come out to Great Smoky for the plenary experience of autumn, just as shivering in Times Square is the plenary experience of New Year’s Eve. But getting close to autumn’s soul is tough spiritual work. Gaping at a ripening leafscape, one is haunted by the question: Am I getting it? Am I feeling enough? How does one consummate the beauty of the natural world? A big Nikon kills these questions. Take a picture of the mossy rock. File the photographic evidence in its megapixel envelope and decode it later.
But, to be fair, the photomaniacal family ahead of us is having a lot of fun. They bustle along the path with all the purpose of a media gaggle, logging a snapshot every ten feet or so. The duties of model, photographer, and editor circulate among them. It appears to be good for the parents’ marriage. Their favored pose is an open-mouthed makeout, reenacted with equal ardor whenever the path winds past a suitable backdrop.
Down the grade to get a gander at Waterfall Number Two, the Tom Branch Falls. A steep blackness, silvered with falling water. A flotilla of young people in tanks and cutoffs are gamely trying to tube the brook while holding coozied beers. The water depth is about nine inches in many places, so tubing involves a close, scooching survey of the creekbed with one’s butt. The operation looks more painful than pleasurable, but one nonetheless envies the tubers. They are the only people along the Juney Whank, myself included, who seem to be experiencing the park as mammals and not as clientele.
Correction: my son seems to get the place. His eyes blink and swivel at a canopy the color of blood and Gatorade. The strangeness of it thrills him. His tiny heart beats pertly against my ribs. I kiss and sniff his fontanel. He squeaks and biffs me in the jaw. I’m spoiling the view.
To reward my family for two nights spent in the woods, and because Jed is in need of a scrub, I have booked for this evening an electrified and climate-controlled accommodation at a place I will call the Very Adorable Kuntry Kabin, a short drive from the park. At the main house, a stolid woman greets me through a screen door, parted no wider than necessary to transmit the Kabin key.
The Kabin, one of six identical twins, is nice. Or rather it is “nice,” a modern, modular cottage to be appreciated by that guy with the Assault Life sticker on his truck. It is made 100 percent of chemicals: plastic flooring, enameled-tin doors, marble-print wallpaper, nylon window bustles, etc. An apple-spice Air Wick so powerfully suffuses its interior that in two breaths flat your insides are coated with a holiday glaze. Other amenities include three TVs, a cornsilk scarecrow, an earthenware cartoon frog, and a guest book with kitties on the front. It is the sort of mountain getaway where salesmen of puffy stickers come to break their marriage vows.
A note from the proprietress tells us that the scarecrow, the frog, and the rest of it have been inventoried against theft. A numbered list of Kabin facts advises that “breakfast does not come with a cabin stay.” Also: “Do not feed the ducks” and, the last commandment, “Have a good time and enjoy the mountains as we do.”
“This place is so much worse than camping in the rain with no mattress,” Erin observes. We put the Air Wick on the porch, probably risking a serious fine. Then we sleep as quickly as we’re able and lead-foot it for home with the rising sun.
So that was it. That was Great Smoky Mountains National Park. That was our first family trip. What did we really do? We pitched a tent, moved a tent, saw some traffic jams, some water, and some pretty leaves, and milled about with the past the roadside corpses of washing machines, pickups, and excavators, past a country church whose sign this week reads Fall Leaves, Jesus Does Not.
No one is on the trail this morning. The Cataloochee doesn’t lead to the park’s uppermost vista or greatest quantity of waterfalls. It simply goes into the woods. The forest is dark, belichened, wetly ticking. Other sounds are the lowing of an owl and the howling of a dog that, if Jed were older, he would insist was a coyote or wolf. The park’s air may be more polluted than in some cities, but here it feels better, cleaner, unbreathed by other human lungs. In spots the trail hits the ridge, but unpruned brush obscures the views, and anyway the opposing mountainsides are too far off to show their colors to advantage.
By silent assent, Erin and I tromp along without speaking. I jot no notes. She takes no photographs. There are no marquee attractions for the Instagram feed. No cataracts or geysers or faces in the rock, just tall hardwoods with no people around. But after three days of hordes, traffic, and spectacle hunting, we are stunned mute to find a beautiful semiwilderness free of selfie-ists and three-wheel Gold Wing motorbikes.
In the end, what do we want from the woods? Primitively put, we want the woods to put in us a feeling that doesn’t happen indoors. Its symptoms are looking around, shutting up, and greedy respiration. It’s a feeling that has something to do with our helplessness before nonhuman splendor and geologic time, a feeling one can’t describe without risking language best left to the druid grove or the kitty guest book back at the Very Adorable Kuntry Kabin. To profess registering this feeling while not 20 minutes down a path a mile from the blacktop may strike the reader as meretricious and unearned. That’s OK. Whatever it is, we are glad to stay dumb with it for ten full minutes more, until the baby starts to cry and we head back to the car.