Friday, August 20, 2010

Oh Shenandoah, I long to hear you

Well obviously, I'm no professional blogger, which is why three weeks later I'm posting about my vacation. But I need to wrap this up, since so many exciting things are going on back here in Boston.

We spent two more days in the Smokies - hot and humid, without a shower, I really felt like we were roughing it, until you end up sitting in traffic on Newfound Gap Road with all the day tourists. Off the roads and in the woods, you could still feel like you were alone, one of the first settlers, or a Cherokee, for that matter.

We made sure to get some more local beer in in Bryson City - Nantahala Brewing Company - and headed North again on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Our next stop was Shenandoah, a place of fond childhood memories. (Though when I asked my mom what she remembered about the park she said, "Rain, lots and lots of rain.") But while we heard NPR reports of massive lightening storms and tornadoes in the DC area, we were blissfully unaware of any disturbance up in the high-elevation meadows of Shenandoah.

While the views weren't amazing, it was the minutiae that drew us in. Our campground at Big Meadows was surrounded by dozens of hiking trails. Within ten minutes of arriving to the park we saw a bear (and ended up seeing 5 on our stay). Our camping site was a 'walk-to' meaning that you had a several yard walk back to the site, which left us blissfully secluded. (Unlike being next to giant RVs with generators in the Smokies.)

I also loved that we had a touch of civilization. Shenandoah was a resort area back in the early 1900's and wasn't made into a park until FDR. So the lodge is still there, it may be run by Aramark, but it has charm.

A big window overlooking the valley is lined with rocking chairs. A bar downstairs featured local musicians at night. And, best of all - wifi. My favorite part was seeing the rows of backpacks outside the fancy restaurant on the ground. This must have been the first nice meal and shower folks who've been hiking the Appalachian trail had for a long time. Part of me wanted to hike the trail, but a bigger part of me wants to use my vacation days in Europe.

We took advantage of the ranger-led hikes, doing three of them. We spent a good time grilling the twenty-something ranger about life in the Service on the way down Hawksbill Mountain. Turns out it's not too unlike canvass directing. Low pay, you have the freedom to get transferred each season, you become an expert in each park you work in, you work outside. It might have been another good career path for me.

Even when leaving, the park charmed us with one last baby bear along the road.

So long, Shenandoah!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Through the Smokies

Leaving the urban sprawl behind, but not the heat we arrived in Appalachia. First stop was Sylva. A cute little town in the foothills. Destination: brewery. Heizelmachen was our first. Located in a small store front, the husband and wife team, the former from the Black Forest of Germany, own this tiny operation. Perhaps the tiniest brewery I've ever seen, a chill college student poured our eight brews and furnished us with great Bavarian pretzels. Filling our keg would be tempting, but we already have learned that beer doesn't keep too well in our trunk.

Sylva is apparently a budding brewery town. We also got a chance to try to new brews at Sapphire Brewing Company, which has the cutest setup that feels like you're hanging out at someone's house. (It probably is.)

Leaving our empty mugs, we headed into the park. First hurdle was the Cherokee Indian Reservation. No casinos here, just Bingo night, and a ton of tourist stands selling moccasins, tomahawks, and dream catchers.

You enter the southern end of the Smokies through a meadow, in a valley surrounded by lush, high mountain slopes. Our campground was just a few miles in. We realized we were back in the South with the number of trailers and RVs parked around our site. Gangs of children cruised the streets on bikes and generators hummed. Almost every license plate was from North Carolina. Cooking that night the neighbors, who were rarely seen outside of their RV, were super-friendly and gave us a whole plate of fried potatoes, hush puppies and catfish. How Christian of them!

Chris put it best when he said that Smokies was best on the macro level (and Shenandoah on the micro level). Drives can be long through the park, and sometimes you even sit in traffic, but the views are gorgeous. The first night we try to go to a ranger program in Cades Cove, which ends up being an hour and a half through the park. We give up half-way on the drive and just stop to watch the most gorgeous sunset I've ever seen that hasn't been over an ocean.

Afterwards we decide to keep going to Gatlinburg. Imagine: you drive for over an hour through complete wilderness. You look out on either side of the road and see nothing for as far as you can see. Then all of a sudden - boom - you're right in the middle of Hick-ville Disneyland. Stand-still traffic, neon signs, fat people in fanny packs strolling down the street, tourist traps like a wax museum and house of horrors. We park as soon as possible and started over to the one place that might be the one tolerable place in town: the Smoky Mountain Brewery. I get distracted by an outdoor bluegrass band accompanied by the chickenman.

I didn't get this one on tape, but we also saw the four curly-haired, pig-tailed, gingham-dressed tap-dancing children. But we finally did make it in. The sampler was $8 and an astounding 10 very creative beers. We walked off the buzz afterwards through the neon-lights and slowly made our way back to the other end of the park.

Our next day would include even more miles in the car, but a bit more adventure.