Eastern Vacation Journal, Sunday, July 15 July 17, 2007

The route for day 2 took us into the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. I’d decided, like a typical male, that if we were going to see one thing, we should go to the highest point. This turned out to be a good call, as it’s one of the most notable points in the park: Clingman’s Dome.. There’s a nice parking lot at the bottom of about a half mile paved path, leading to the most curious structure I’ve ever seen in a national park.

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I’m still not exactly sure how I feel about it – it’s as if the park service was taking design cues from Disney’s Tomorrowland. You will not be shocked to find that this was, in fact, designed and built in the 1960’s. Pretty much everywhere else I’ve traveled, an effort has been made to keep things natural, perhaps inspired by Native American Culture. This, however, is a pure work of abstract art in concrete. It does have a kind of sparse elegance, and it’s really impossible to see until you’re right on it, so does not form much of an eyesore.

Overall, the Smokies were a bit sad. The texture of the place is gorgeous – green, shady hollows, beautiful mossy rocks, and the day we were there it felt as if we had the place to ourselves. However, the sweeping views are no more (at least not very often) due to increased pollution. The hills used to be draped in a natural ethereal mist – now, as you look off the peaks, it just fades into blank whiteness after a few hundred yards. Views notwithstanding, it is a beautiful place “up close”. img

One highlight for me was getting to walk a few steps on the Appalachian Trail. At least some of my route planning on this trip was inspired by Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods – a funny, touching, and informative tale that inspired me to strap back on my hiking boots after a 10 year hiatus. I’ll never hike it – if I ever do a large-scale “through hike” it’ll be the Pacific Crest Trail. It was nice to be able to see it, and get a sense for what it would be like to hike it.

Our next real stop was another section of the “AT” – Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park. However, before we could get there, we had to leave. The ever-helpful GPS (seriously, a fantastic device, I’ll probably write a whole article on it) directed us out of the park and through the complete mind-trip that is Pigeon Forge, TN.

Imagine the Las Vegas Strip – that many cars, that much traffic, that kind of vibe going on up and down each side of the street. Now take the hotels and turn them way, way down – Days Inn style. Now take every carnival you’ve ever seen, blow it up 10 times bigger, and sprinkle it down the street. It’s insanity – Mini Golf course after Mini Golf course, 35 lasertags, several of these 5-story-high go cart courses that look straight out of Mario Kart, store after store selling worthless low-priced crap, and let’s not forget (I am not making this up) Dollywood. Some moments worth capturing from the car:

img 45 types? Really?

img Kids today with their “internet”. I’m a sucker for “useless” “use” of “quotes”.

img You may feel bad for having seen this, but at least I didn’t shoot video. The jiggle factor really made this moment special.

I realize that I sound like some kind of insufferable LA snob in writing all of this, but it’s very hard not to. I’ve determined that I’m not a racist in the slightest, but I am pretty clearly a “culturist” in some form. I can find things to respect and appreciate from pretty much any culture, but man do I struggle with whatever this one is. (Redneck, perhaps?)

Anyway, enough with the semi-negativity. Once we made it out of the Pigeon Forge Traffic Jam, we whisked ourselves North and West to Shenandoah. Skyline Drive is a pretty amazing experience. It’s over 100 miles long, and runs basically along the top of a mountain ridge, so there are great views to both the left and the right. We got out of our cars a few times to stretch our legs and enjoy the view, and did a few miles of hiking as well. The wildlife sightings were fantastic!

img We saw this lovely deer ahead of us on the trail. It was certainly concerned about us, but it didn’t make a break and run for it. It did the “deer tiptoe” around us through the brush. We saw (and managed to photograph) several more deer as we were driving.

The most exciting moment I’ll have to simulate, as we weren’t able to get a good shot. (According to flickr, this was taken within 3 miles of our sighting anyway:) img

It’s been a long time since I’d seen a bear in person and up close. We were driving through a little valley-shaped section, and he came barreling down the hill behind us, crossed the road, and up the hill on the other side. Awesome.

We finished the day (having driven about 80% of Skyline Drive) by heading down to Luray, VA. We had a great dinner at a local place called “Uncle Buck’s” – we forgot to ask if it was named after the John Candy film or not. I have to remember that in Rural America 9PM is a weird time to be looking for food, we had to try 4 places before we found this one to be open. Amber and I shared a half chicken with sides for a whopping $7.99. NICE.

Thus closed another day on the road. Next up, the Caverns of Luray and the fascinating city of Baltimore.