Under cover of a thin ribbon of mist, I could make out the outline of a buck, his antlers branching off the top of his head. In the foreground, a solitary photographer, respectfully watching from a safe distance. The quiet of this early morning was quickly disrupted when I heard several car doors slamming behind me. iPhone in hand, a group of women squeezed beneath the wire fence and marched directly up to the deer.
“I just love deer,” said one of the women as they tramped across the wet grass and back to the car. The deer, while mostly used to such intrusion, moved quickly across the field and high tailed it to the other side of the road, leaping effortlessly over the fence.
This was to be one of many such encounters as Barry and I wandered through Cades Cove in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Inching forward at 10 miles an hour along the 11-mile conveyor belt loop circumnavigating the broad valley, you are guaranteed to see wildlife if you peer beyond the bumper-to-bumper line of cars.
“Hey Bear, over here, check these guys out.” I say to Barry who I rarely call Barry.
“What? Bear? Where?” asks a stranger from across the street.
“Oh no, just a bunch of turkeys. I call my husband Bear!” That really cracks me up, but when the stakes are high, this is no laughing matter.
Animal encounters in National Parks are what people come for – in this case, everyone wants to see a bear, and it’s obvious when there’s a sighting. At an already crawling pace, traffic comes to slow halt, each car edging forward to try to get a glimpse. It doesn’t help matters when people abandon their cars in the middle of the road – doors wide-open, engines running, to get a closer look at the animals.
Of course, not all encounters end amicably for either the people or the animals. At another part of the park, volunteers tell me about people getting close enough to pet the elk. In another incident at Yellowstone, a tourist put a bison calf in their back seat because they thought it was cold. Unfortunately, that bison was rejected by the heard and was euthanized.
With iPhones acting as a magical protective shield, people approach the wilderness through a rectangular screen, once removed from harm and inches away from the animals. The animals, for their part, either reluctantly move deeper into the bush or bolt across the road to escape. Some of them are clearly agitated, but being outnumbered, they cower away.
I have slowly learned to abandon travel agendas and checklists of ‘Must Sees’ or ‘Top 10 Must Dos’, their authoritarian tone causing me an alarming level of anxiety. In a time where people are embracing so-called minimalist lifestyles and moving away from accumulating things in preference to acquiring experiences, there is the proliferation of bucket lists that turn these experiences into a commodity. The rush to tick off all the boxes leaves little time to linger, where is the pleasure in that?
Now, if everyone turns to go left, we turn right, and in spite of these traffic jams, we pull off the road several times and lose ourselves in the bush. Our favorite time is early in the morning, just before the sun burns off the dense mist, slowly, patiently peeling away the layers of fog revealing the distant hardwood forests and ancient mountains.
We hop back onto the conveyor belt and drive a mile before Barry spots a black bear. I let him out and park off the side of the road. By the time I join him the bear, a large male, has moved into the trees. A group had come up behind me, and in their excitement at seeing a bear, scared him off.
Later in the day, we decide to hike a trail that follows Abrams River to the falls. As we begin our hike, the mass exodus of people streaming out surprises us.
“You planning on camping overnight? It’ll be dark by the time you come out,” offers one hiker.
Undeterred, we enjoy the solitude as we walk deeper and higher up the valley, the river getting father away beneath us. We round the bend and start our decline toward the river, and eventually to the falls. We’re not the last ones in and a few fishermen follow behind us – it looks like a favorite place to catch trout. We do make it out before dark and just in time to join another line of cars leaving the park.
The next day we explore several homesteads scattered around the valley, their isolation a testament to the tenacity of the early settlers who carved out a living in this remote region that was once part of the Cherokee nation. A walk through some of the cemeteries reveals the story of nature’s indifference to people’s resolve. There are numerous children’s graves, some with pennies left atop gravestones as remembrance.
“Bear, bear,” I hear myself saying as I try to get Barry’s attention, trying to conceal the panic in my voice. Barry was walking deeper into the woods, but the bear that had previously disappeared into the bush had doubled back and was hunched on a branch behind me, looking even more nervous than me. The small yearling eventually crossed the road safely, appearing to pause for the numerous paparazzi before rambling into the bush.
We were reluctant to leave the park, having become familiar with the trails, anticipating what is around the next bend and predicting where the bears are likely to be foraging. It is easy to understand why Smoky Mountain is the most visited National Park, averaging more than 10 million visitors annually. But if you do go, a few steps into the woods will uncover solitude readily found within the layers of mountains.