Lost: Deep in the Great Smoky Mountains

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park holds a special place in my heart. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of adventures in the Smokies with my family or friends. I grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, which is about an hour and a half south of the national park, so the Smokies provided a weekend getaway on many occasions. The amount of relaxing activities available is endless: hiking, fishing, camping, intertubing, horseback riding, and even shopping. The Smokies, to me, represent freedom and stress relief from the busy real world. The remoteness and peaceful sounds of nature are therapeutic in ways that most places cannot achieve. Until the fall of 2000, I did not think anything could go wrong in the Smokies. But that autumn I somehow managed to create the one memory from the Smokies that did not make me feel warm and fuzzy inside…

I was in the fourth grade, and my best friend, Hudson, had invited me to take a trip to the Smokies with his family for fall break. I was so excited for my first trip out of town without my parents. We packed up Hudson’s dad’s SUV, and Hudson, his parents, his sister, Meredith, and I began our journey to the cabin in the mountains that we would call home for the next four days. The drive felt like it took so much longer back then than it does now, but we made the most of it. We took turns playing Donkey Kong on Hudson’s new Gameboy and discussed the exciting itinerary in store for the weekend. Hudson and I agreed that we were most excited for Saturday, when we would spend the day riding bikes through Cades Cove. If only we knew that this time Cades Cove was going to be a much different experience than the previous times either of us had been there.

Cades Cove is located in a valley of the mountains and was full of settlers before the Smokies became a national park. Cades Cove is a magical place with breathtaking views, especially in the autumn when the leaves are changing colors. It is a calming, wowing beauty that I think everyone needs to see.

There is an 11 mile paved loop through Cades Cove that visitors can drive, walk, bike, or even horseback ride. The loop passes well preserved houses, churches, mills, and barns from the first settlers in the area. Stopping at these structures and exploring how those people lived compared to how we live today is truly mind blowing. During a journey through Cades Cove, the odds are very high that you will encounter a black bear if you try to spot one, and it is guaranteed that you will see at least five whitetailed deer. It is easy to understand why Hudson and I were so excited about our 11 mile adventure through Cades Cove via our prized method of transportation at that age: our mountain bikes.

We finally arrived at our cabin and settled in. Hudson and I struggled to get any sleep as we anticipated crazy situations that we might run into at Cades Cove the next day, most of which involved ferocious black bear attacks. We were still up at the crack of dawn on that Saturday, and we were immediately pestering his entire family to wake up earlier than they desired on the first day of vacation. I wish I could still pop out of bed with just a fraction of the energy and excitement that I woke up with on that morning. It didn’t take us too long to get everyone up and moving, and we arrived at Cades Cove around ten in the morning.

The weather was perfect, the colors were perfect, and everyone was in a fabulous mood as we set off on our bikes to conquer whatever the loop might have in store for us. By the end of the day, however, the Cades Cove loop would be the true conqueror of Hudson and me.

We stopped and explored some of the old houses and ate lunch by a small stream. Hudson and I caught salamanders in the creek and chased Meredith around attempting to drop the poor, squirming creatures in her hair. After lunch we got back on our bikes and hadn’t made it far before we saw a large group of people looking down a hill and into the thick of the woods. We stopped to see if whatever was attracting so much attention was worth ours. Hudson’s dad spotted the large mother black bear and her two cute, cuddly cubs first. They were wrestling around lazily at the bottom of the hill, which was normal behavior for the bears, but an incredible show to the spectators in awe viewing safely from the road. Although seeing this little black bear family wasn’t quite as extreme as our imaginations had predicted the night before, Hudson and I agreed that it was still quite the sight to see bears in their natural habitat.

The bears finished entertaining and headed further away from the road, and their crowd dispersed back into the loop. We were a little ways past the halfway point by now, and Meredith had become irritable… and a nuisance to Hudson and me. At this point in our bike ride, the stars aligned to sabotage the rest of the day for us.

Right when Hudson and I had taken all that we could muster of his whining little sister, we came upon a hiking trail, marked with a sign and a map, called Abrams Falls Trail which left the paved loop. A brief examination of the map informed me that this trail led away from Cades Cove but eventually spilled back into the loop closer to the end. Hudson and I looked at each other and instantly agreed without speaking that this was our chance to ditch Meredith. We quickly told his parents our plan, and we all agreed to rendezvous at the point where Abrams Falls Trail came back into Cades Cove. Hudson and I set off down this somewhat rough trail, and we were instantly relieved to be on our own. We would eventually regret making such a hasty decision.

Abrams Falls Trail really put our mountain bikes to work compared to the smooth riding we had grown accustomed to that day. The trail would not seem to flatten out either; we just kept climbing hills and riding down the other side, only to reach the bottom of the next hill. We were young, though, and the change of pace made us feel extreme. As we rode, we discussed options for how we were going to scare his family somehow when we reunited. After about four miles on the new trail, Hudson jokingly asked me if I was positive that we would end up spitting back out into Cades Cove. We laughed and talked about how funny that situation would be and how we would handle it.

By the time we had made it close to ten miles, I began to noticed that the trail had still not started turning back toward Cades Cove. I was starting to get exhausted, and the trail was still just constant hills. I realized that Hudson had asked me earlier if I was sure that the trail came back out into Cades Cove, which made me wonder if it would be my fault if we had read the map wrong. I brushed it off and didn’t voice my concern. I just kept telling myself that we would be back into Cades Cove right after the next hill. With each hill there was more fatigue, but still no sign of being on the right route towards Cades Cove. Hudson and I weren’t laughing and chatting anymore. I think we were both thinking the same thing but almost in denial about it since we had probably made it 13 or 14 miles down Abrams Falls Trail. We were too stubborn and too far in to give up. We kept pushing it.

I really started to worry when it started to get a bit darker outside. “How long have we been on this trail?” I thought to myself. Right as I had that thought, Hudson, as if he read my mind, said, “We should have been back to Cades Cove by now.” Uh oh. We stopped our bikes for the first time since we had began this cursed route. We discussed our options as if we had a choice besides continuing to deny the fact that we weren’t on our way back to the comfortable paved loop and keep on trucking, or we could turn back and repeat the hilly process until we got back to where we started. Our grim options and fatigue, not to mention our thirst and hunger, had turned us into two very discouraged young boys. We had taken this path to get a break from Meredith and her whining, but Abrams Falls Trail was beginning to make us start to act like his little sister was acting when we parted ways with his family. How ironic…

As we sat there in the crunchy leaves on the side of the trail, our bikes thrown down carelessly in the middle of the path, we heard voices other than our own for the first time in hours. It was shocking, and I felt a sense of relief at first, but as the voices approached, my mind began to worry. We were lost and alone in an unfamiliar area, and voices of strangers were getting closer and closer to us. These voices could be our saviors, but they could also be our worst enemies. We had no idea. Before we could even discuss our options on this new dilemma, the owners of these new voices appeared at the top of the hill that we sat at the foot of. The voices now became clearer and we had faces to associate with them. I was scared.

The accents of the new hikers was very thick. Even at our young age, we could pick up that the accent was French. My knowledge of French people in fourth grade was quite limited, so I had no idea how to stereotype these hikers. They spotted us pretty quickly after we had seen them. They waved and smiled. I leaned toward Hudson and whispered, “We can’t let these people fool us.” For some reason I was skeptical about these strangers, even though they were probably just tourists hiking through the Smoky Mountains, and they probably weren’t stupid and lost like Hudson and I were. They neared the bottom of the hill, and Hudson and I stood up to greet them, ready for anything.

Hudson did the talking with the French hikers, while I stood and observed and made sure that they couldn’t surprise us. They asked where we were headed, and they seemed to look somewhat worried when Hudson told them that we were on our way back to Cades Cove and had just used this trail as a chance to separate from his family for a while. They looked at one another with sympathy and pulled out a map. These hikers, unlike us, knew exactly where we were. They informed us that we were just a couple miles from crossing the state line from Tennessee to North Carolina, and there was no route back to Cades Cove unless we turned around. They also informed us that Cades Cove park hours ended at 5:30, which was very soon. My heart sank. I was already so tired, and our only option was to race back over the hills until we finally got back to Cades Cove. Then, we still had a few miles before the end of the loop. I seriously considered whether or not I was going to be able to make this journey, but we had absolutely no choice.

The French hikers turned out to be kind and helpful. They offered us some of their orange juice before we parted ways. We were so thirsty, but I was paranoid about these people. I respectfully declined their “orange juice,” and I gave Hudson a glance that convinced him to do the same. The rest of our day was going to be tough enough, so it was best to play it safe and not take any chances that could make it much worse. We began our treacherous ride back over the hills towards the entrance of the trail thirsty, hungry, tired, and scared. 

We finally arrived back at Cades Cove right after the park closed. The crowded loop was vacated. It made the whole place look very different and intimidating. “What do we do now?” Hudson asked me, as if I was supposed to know. We had no idea where his family was, because the park was closed now, and they had probably realized that the rendezvous we decided on did not even exist. I was shocked that they were not waiting for us at the trail head or down the trail looking for us already. I made another hasty decision: “Alright, Hudson, we are going to split up. You go right, toward the end of the loop, and I am going to go left. We will find a ranger or something and meet up at the end of the loop. When you get there, send someone my way to pick me up.” I have absolutely no idea what I was thinking. Why would I go back into the loop looking for help, when clearly everything we needed was going to be at the end of the loop. His parents were probably at the end of the loop waiting for us as well. For some reason Hudson agreed with my idiotic plan, and we split up.

I rode for about a mile before I realized that there was not a soul left in Cades Cove. Now I was alone, and the fear really started to take hold. “What if they leave me here? What if a bear eats me? What if I have to sleep here?” The thoughts started to overwhelm me, and I threw down my bike, almost angrily, and collapsed on the side of the road and started crying.

I didn’t cry for very long, because I heard a truck in approaching me. I quickly wiped my tears away, because I couldn’t have strangers seeing me like this. I jumped to my feet and got in the middle of the road, waving my hands frantically, like I had been stranded on an island for years and finally saw my potential rescuers. They stopped, because they didn’t have a choice, and they told me to hop in the back with my bike. I was not skeptical about these folks like I was with the French hikers, because at this point I did not even care. I was ready to get out of Cades Cove no matter what the circumstances. I asked the people in the back of the truck how they were still in the loop after hours through the back window. They told me that they had gotten lost on a hiking trail as well, so they were heading out a little later than the park hours suggested. We agreed that the signs for the hiking trails in Cades Cove were at fault in both of our situations, because that made everyone feel better.

I finally got out of the loop, and Hudson and his family were there waiting for me. The relief I felt as we headed back to the cabin laughing about this accidental adventure was like a high. I was exhausted and so happy to be back with the whole group. Right then and there, in fourth grade, I promised myself I would never make another impulse decision again. Sadly enough, that hasn’t gone very well.

 

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