Day 3 –
After spending yesterday in Cades Cove, I woke up on the third day in no rush to go back to the valley. The deers reluctance to jump fences made me reluctant to go back and watch them eat grass. Instead, hiking and visiting the old buildings in the park later in the day sounded more interesting; the first matter of business though was freshening up. If you’ve never gone winter camping before, or spent long amounts of time in base layers, let me remove a little bit of the glamor. While the cold can negate bad odors, the moment you warm up that clothing it will knock back skunks with the smell. After long arctic expeditions, usually they celebrate their return to civilization by burning the base layers they had worn constantly for months. While not as extreme, to live with myself I decided I needed to shock the smell off of my body by jumping in the frigid water of the Little Pigeon River. While I would not suggest doing this in a wilderness setting, (snow baths are much more appropriate), other than forgetting my gender it worked perfectly for me.
After drying off and putting on clean base layers, we loaded our gear into the car and headed to hike on one of the side trails. We started with the mindset of hiking to a waterfall that was 3 miles down the trail, but ended up stopping at a small creek that was filled with all sorts of fantastic ice shapes. It reached the point that, after an hour of walking up this tiny creek, we decided to go back to the car for lunch.
Sandwiches and Clif bars consumed, we drove over to the side road that led up to the Greenbriar school-house to find out it’s closed for the winter. Closed roads have never really stopped me from walking up them and this was no different; while on an incline, the road was only 3/4s of a mile so it wouldn’t be so bad. After cursing my failure to notice that the topographic lines were so close together that they blended in to the point of appearing non-existent. Cursing our poor cardio, both of us finally reached the top and the small dell where the old school rested. Hewn from boards 30’ long, 12” thick, and 24-36” wide, the entire school was built like an enormous jewelry box complete with dovetailed corners. Inside, the benches and desks were made with the same improbably huge boards. Marring all of it though was every spare inch of the walls, floor, ceiling, and benches were covered in graffiti and carvings. I’ve heard several extreme things to do to offenders, but I’m of the school that if they’re willing to put something on a national monument they should be willing to have it tattooed on their bodies. The tattoo won’t last as long as the damage, but maybe it would make them think twice.
2pm found us back at the cabin for a short nap and deciding we had no other use for the beautiful light we went back to Cade’s Cove that afternoon. Nothing new caught our eye as we were driving around the park; most of the wildlife was scared into hiding from a helicopter landing in the valley. Someone had fallen and broke their hip, gridlocking all the traffic in the park until it took off towards the hospital. We finally took a few pictures of ourselves in the valley, and in the fading light drove back to the cabin for our last day in the park.
Day 4 –
Dawn broke to find us packing all of our gear back into the storage bags, cursing the immortal law that all gear must expand 25% after you unpack it away from home. Whether you pack light or heavy, it will never go back into its original bag without a fight. We shove the gear into every nook and cranny and hit the road for our destination for the next 2 days: Cataloochee valley and the elk that live there. I had checked with rangers beforehand to make sure the long, treacherous gravel road would actually be open in the winter and not waste a trip. It was on the opposite end of the park, and with the rain on a busy Saturday, instead of driving across the park I decide to take the longer but faster interstate. I went back through Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, and after 2 hours of driving I start-up the wet gravel road that winds like an angry snake up to the valley. After 40 minutes of climbing, I finally reach the saddle that leads down to the valley and find a veritable parking lot of cars sitting in front of a locked gate. Apparently, the ranger was mistaken, so now our plans shifted. We could either drive 2 hours back to Cades Cove, stay in Cherokee and go gambling, or drive an hour and a half to my folk’s house where we’d have a warm meal waiting for us and good company to share. While we would have stayed for the elk, the promise of food and family was enough for us to head back a day early and avoid throwing away money at the slot machines.