Well, I’m off. I’m still not completely at peace with the decision, but nevertheless a move to California is in motion. The acute reason is that I can get my professional engineering license there a year earlier than any other state. The more obtuse reason is that I’ve wondered about living on the west coast for years now, and I already have some good friends in San Francisco, so why not?
The car is loaded with surprisingly little: 3 bags of clothes, a trashcan full of shoes, one box of kitchen things, a small plastic thingy with three drawers for toiletries, first aid kit, etc, my favorite 2 framed pictures, one box of books, and then all of my gear. Actually not even all of my gear, just camping stuff, backpacking stuff, snowboarding stuff, climbing stuff, and most importantly for this trip, my mountain bike (and accompanying stuff).
The days leading up to departure felt like one error after another, all with me in a crummy mood, and I still can’t decide whether the universe was making me work for something good, or whether I’m being told not to go in the first place. But me and my stubbornness, away I went with lots of tears and little sleep. (DidI mention I have no job nor housing lined up, and the big exam only one month away?)
The first night I spent at my Dad’s house in West Virginia which was the perfect place to organize the trip further and deal with getting all of the necessary parts and pieces to convert my mountain bike to an off road touring bike. (2 bike shops and 5 trips to Home Depot later…)
And then my real first night out was in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. I got off the interstate just about rush hour and let me just tell you-the drive to the park is my nightmare. Miles and miles of bad tourist shops, fast food over and over, hotels and faux amusement parks. And so much traffic, it was unbelievable. I got so frustrated that I ducked out of traffic onto a small state road and entered the park the back way. But even there the narrow densely wooded roads were literally lined with cars. I was thinking it must be one of the top 5 most visited parks and have since read that it is THE most visited park in the nation. I had no idea.
Traffic aside, it really is a special place. I’m curious what it would be like in the summer but right now the forest is dense with tall trees and has a magical understory of rhododendrons. I didn’t think that they were native but I think they are. It was refreshing to have all of that dark eternal green.
I got there in time for one of the last campsites and had nice chats with both of my neighbors before the rain. Actually it was raining when I got there but the heavy stuff held off until nightfall. I discovered that my trusty hand-me-down REI backpacking tent has developed two weep holes in the rain fly. One I was able to manage with tactical raincoat placement, but the other half soaked my pillow.
Regardless it was nice to be out and of course in the middle of it I realized that this was Giant Salamander territory! (It is an actual endemic species, google it.) And I figured they must like the rain, so it was alright with me.
Anyway, all of this before the good stuff. I got up before sunrise to make some last adjustments to the bike (which triggered another lovely conversation with a passer-by) and then I took off to try out the new set-up, loaded saddlebags and all. I had camped in Cade’s Cove which is a valley famous for wildlife watching and biking! I flew through the first 6 miles in less than an hour even stopping to take some pictures and even a timed selfie.
The last 5 miles were more painful but I still managed to do the whole loop in less than 2 hours including a stop at the old gristmill and a chat with the ancient miller that works there (who responded to everything I asked with a strong and drawn out “maaam,” as if he didn’t hear me and peered through his thick glasses before answering my every question perfectly. He also wore a belt and suspenders.)
So my take-away: busiest park I’ve ever experienced, but even so there is something really beautiful there. And even the mob is made up of some pretty great people.