I came for the bears. I found many people.
A stunning drive from Mammoth Cave to the Great Smokies sadly ended in Pigeon Forge. To my surprise, the Great Smokies claim to be the most visited park with 9 million people annually and many of them enter through Pigeon Forge, which has made the most of it. It looks like a bad mash up of Jersey Shore and Las Vegas with the miles of carnival rides and gaudy attractions. I apologize to Ms. Parton and her fans but it shocked the system after the solitude of Mammoth Cave. I scampered out of there as quickly as possible but, unfortunately after getting their cotton candy fix, everyone followed for a drive through the park. There are several stunning drives in the area and, as one guidebook put it, for better or worse, most people stick to the roads.
So there I found myself at 7:30 in the morning stuck in a long line of cars headed into Cades Coves, a drive known for its historic buildings and wildlife. It did not disappoint with its plethora of wild turkeys and deer. While creeping along at 4-5 mph, I became frustrated that I had not chosen to just run through. As some know well, my patience to sit and take a leisurely drive is infinitely greater after a 2 or 3 hour run. Thus, disregarding the advice of the ranger who pointed out the best running trails, I pulled over and picked one that seemed like a good idea on paper.
It seems relevant to point out that even well known and frequently visited trails have their risks. My experience on Pike’s Peak would certainly be proof of that. My conclusion in choosing this particular hike is that it was likely to have heavy traffic at each end of the trail and I would simply connect them to make a loop. In between I figured that I might end up venturing far enough away from the crowds to see some wildlife. As expected, I passed several people hiking before arriving at Abram Falls, taking a few pictures and moving on.
Here the underbrush got thicker and the trail was obvious but clearly less utilized. There were definitely no people. I was not as sure about bears. So far threatening wild animals had not been a consideration on my trip but it can’t escape consideration here where signs are posted at every corner to not feed the bears. I signed a document at the campground check-in acknowledging I would not leave any food out. All the trash cans have heavy, cumbersome locks. I expect the gift shop sells bear bells where I am not sure if they serve as a warning so much as a dinner bell.
I, like many, have a conflicted relationship with these animals. I love to see them but I prefer it on my own terms, from a distance and without any teeth. I am aware of the dangers of bears but I am equally aware that they really have no interest in being seen. In spite of this my paranoia grew. Every stump grew a muzzle and fuzzy round ears. Finally before every corner and at the sight of scat, I would call out, “Hello, coming through!” as if the bears would politely step aside allowing a colorfully dressed woman to pass on by when in reality I’m probably the bear equivalent of a happy meal. “Look, mom, it comes with a free backpack if you can catch it!”
I made it to the half way point with some relief. I expected the trail to be fairly benign and a little more heavily traveled as I headed back to the trailhead. And I was wrong. The climbs and descents were steeper and complicated by slick mud. Clearly it had been a while since anyone other than me had been there. I didn’t even look for bear prints at that point. There was no question in my overactive imagination that they were there and I didn’t need confirmation.
It was with some glee that I saw another hiker about 2.5 miles from the trailhead. I convinced myself he had rid the rest of the trail of bears with his presence and cruised back to the car carefree. But back at the campground, safe and sound, I wished I had seen a bear. I consoled myself with chocolate and reconsidered. Perhaps I would see one tomorrow. I ate more chocolate and worried again about running into a bear. What if it had cubs? I reached for more chocolate but it was gone. Great sadness but at least now I will be tastier bear bait.