MAYBE IT'S THE wannabe rugged outdoorsman in me; maybe it's the penny pincher; or maybe I've just spent one too many nights flipping the remote while at one too many Days Inn; but when an opportunity arises to break out the old tent and get back to nature -- in moderation, of course -- I will leap at it, or at least give it some thought.
Take last month. I had an obligation in North Carolina, another a few days later in Alabama. Between the two lay the Great Smoky Mountains, an area whose green and misty beauty -- while I had passed through several times -- I had never truly explored.
Why not rough it for a couple of days, I reasoned, avoiding the hassle of finding a motel that would accept my dog, who was coming along for the trip, and instead camping under the stars, seeing some early fall colors, possibly some waterfalls and maybe even some black bears.
With a little Internet research, I found a not-too-far-from-civilization, not-too-far-off-my-route campsite in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles North Carolina and Tennessee. I printed out some information on horseback riding, hiking, rafting and other activities in the area, and Mapquested my course.
Then, modest checklist in hand, I trekked down to the wet, moldy, cobweb-cluttered wilds of my basement to find my camping gear.
The old tent? Check. Well, actually, it's almost brand new, and has been gathering dust since the only other time I used it -- to camp with my son (and thereby save $200 in hotel costs) in the most remote reaches of my cousin's backyard during a three-day family reunion in Zanesville, Ohio.
Sleeping bag? Check. Bug spray? Check. First aid kit, circa 1988? Check. Bottle of wine, circa 2005? Check. Flashlight? Check. Battery-operated lamp I picked up at a yard sale? Check.
My gear was in order, which is how gear should be. I like gear. I like the very word. "Let me get my gear." "My gear is in the truck." "I'll be right there, but first I have to stow my gear." People who have gear generally know what they're doing, or have a lot of money to waste -- neither of which is true of me, which explains my somewhat minimal gear.
I had no self-inflating air mattress, no hand-held waterproof GPS device, no Starbucks campfire coffee kit. In fact, I had no camping cookware at all, which required that I bring along a couple of my everyday pots and pans from the kitchen, some of which would end up having their handles melted on the campfire.
With everything laid out for the camping trip, and the other two side trips as well, I realized there was no way it, the dog, and my traveling companion were going to fit in the car. Something would have to be stowed on the roof, and it was clear it should be the gear -- it being both the most expendable and the least likely to object.
Packed up, I took off, too preoccupied with checking to see whether the gear was sliding off the roof to realize that I was forgetting several key items. But I had my dog, and some wine, and a corkscrew, and I had a good friend along who brought the coffeepot. What more could a person possibly need?
No. 1 item
Firewood. Lots of firewood. The amount of firewood you think you need, times four. Firewood, I learned, was even more important than gear.
We had arrived at the park's Deep Creek Tube Center and Campground, near Cherokee, N.C., in late afternoon, and were greeted not by a smiling park ranger, but by an automated kiosk with a slot to swipe your credit card through and buttons to push. In this, the first test of my survival skills, I fared well, securing a campsite along the river for two nights (at $17 per night).
We unloaded our gear and gathered fallen twigs and branches to start a fire -- for fire is the single most important ingredient in the camping experience. It, more than anything else, more even than tent and gear, creates the camping ambience. Without fire, you're not camping; you're merely sleeping out.
Next came assembling the tent, which went more quickly than I had imagined. The last time I did it took an hour, even with my son and a good portion of my extended family helping. This time, I pitched it by myself in 15 minutes and, having passed survival test No. 2, went in search of more firewood.
Fortunately, two stores outside the national park, though closed, had stacks of it out, available on the honor system, and I loaded up the back of my car, tossed a $10 bill in the rusty coffee can and returned to the campsite feeling like a regular Paul Bunyan, handling with ease every challenge nature threw at me.
Our fire roaring, we made dinner atop a grated fire pit -- steaks, potatoes and squash we had picked up at a grocery store along the way. Drinking coffee under the stars, we decided to go horseback riding the next morning, and hike in the afternoon to three nearby waterfalls -- all less than a mile from our campsite. Because the national park doesn't allow dogs on the trails, I had lined up doggie day care at a nearby -- or so I thought -- kennel.
Having polished off our wine and coffee, we turned in early after taking bear precautions, removing all food from our tent as the campground pamphlet advised. Some 1,500 bears roam the park, and human-bear contacts are increasing. Over the summer, at the other end of the 800-square-mile park, near Gatlinburg, Tenn., a man was clawed by a bear while trying to rescue his dachshund from it.
Most literature advises hoisting food up in a tree, but putting it in my car, about 75 yards away, seemed far easier and less like bear taunting. I'm not Daniel Boone, but wouldn't hanging food just out of a bear's reach make him angry and more likely to eat you to get even?
We settled down for what would be less than a good night's sleep. The raised platforms the campground provides to pitch your tent on probably help you stay dry, but they are filled with gravel -- not my cushion of choice. I made a mental note to buy sleeping pads the next time I camp. To make matters worse, my dog Ace, a bit freaked out by this sleeping outside stuff, insisted on sleeping with his 100-pound frame all but on top of us, and seemed to want to be in a sleeping bag as well.
I had pictured him in the role of fierce protector in the wilds, but realized that, with him wimping out, it would be up to me to ward off any threats during the night. I realized, too, that I had forgotten my rusty and scary-looking hunting knife. I slept instead with my fold-out corkscrew by my side, prepared for bears, hillbillies or whatever else might try to intrude on the zipped-up solitude of our tent.
"I've got a corkscrew in here," I was prepared to say at the slightest rustling outside, "and I'm not afraid to use it."
Between the dog, a sinus headache and the not-so-gently massaging pebbles, I awoke feeling less than refreshed, and shuffled sorely the 25 yards to the campground's bathroom, which, while it didn't have hot water or showers, was pleasantly clean.
After a few cups of coffee, we headed for Rippling Waters Kennel to drop off the dog. It cost $15, was 30 minutes away, and was at the end of a dirt road that seemed to stretch on for eternity. Still, it was far cheaper than the $50 fine if park rangers catch you on a trail with your dog or anywhere with your dog off its leash.
We called one outfit that offered horseback riding, and stopped by another, but both were closed for the day. The end of September -- after school starts and before the fall colors come out -- is a quiet period in the Smoky Mountains. On the plus side, that means smaller crowds. But, with those in the tourism industry taking a breather, it's harder to line up activities.
We settled for breakfast on a porch overlooking the river at a restaurant at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, which offers rafting and a variety of other activities, none of which fit into our schedule.
Then we drove back through the lush greenery of Nantahala National Forest -- one of those President Bush has proposed auctioning off pieces of. Bush's plan to sell 300,000 acres of national forest to provide money for rural schools includes nearly 3,800 acres of Nantahala.
Only national forest lands -- which in addition to providing camping and recreation, are also used for mining, logging and grazing, would be affected by the proposal. National parks, which are all about protecting and preserving natural and historic features, would not.
Those lands face threats, too, including the balsam woolly adelgid, a non-native insect that has killed all but a few fraser firs -- some of the last remnants of which are on nearby Balsam Mountain in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The hemlock woolly adelgid, meanwhile, has wiped out 80 percent of the hemlocks in Shenandoah National Forest, according to the National Park Service.
Putting woolly bugs and presidents out of mind, I enjoyed the scenery -- by early fall, the trees were giving a slight hint of the vivid colors to come. The U.S. Forest Service says colors will be at their most vibrant in North Carolina's mountains Oct. 22-28. (For more up-to-the-minute information, call the U.S. Forest Service's Fall Foliage Hotline. It is brought to you by the same folks who are selling off the trees.)
Back in Bryson City, we strolled the small-town main street, visited shops and, later, stopped for lunch at a riverside drive-in restaurant called Naber's. Here -- if you get tired of roughing it -- you can sit in your car, look at the river, and have $1.85 hamburgers served to you on a tray that the waitress attaches to your car door.
Bryson City is also the home of the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, which winds spectacularly through 53 miles of mountains, is open year round, and offers excursions that include a gourmet dinner train, a beer train, and raft and rail combination packages. None fit in with our schedule though. Besides, we had waterfalls to see.
Take a hike
Credit card kiosks. Drive-in restaurants. Pre-chopped wood by the bundle. Not exactly the conditions our pioneer forefathers faced, but close enough for me. The hiking, though, was still ahead.
The shortest, it turned out, was the hardest. While less than half a mile, the walk to Juney Whank Falls was steep. Juney Whank, according to a Park Service brochure, is a Cherokee phrase that means, "place where the bear passes." It didn't specify exactly what the bear passes, but I watched my step anyway and, taking deep breaths, was pleased to arrive at the 80-foot cascade and find not just a footbridge, but some benches at the bottom.
The next falls were a longer hike, about 1.2 miles, but mostly on level ground, with Indian Creek being the most impressive and well worth the walk.
Back at the campsite, after a traditional camping dinner of beanie-weenies, we again turned in early. I slept better the second night -- probably a combination of being worn out from hiking and the nighttime sinus medicine I took. I only woke up once, and then it was because of an early morning rain that lulled me back to sleep as it gently pelted the tent.
Around sunrise, the rain let up, leaving us just enough time to pack up and pull out, but not before a stop in Cherokee country. We visited souvenir shops, one of which normally has a genuine Native American available to pose for photos in front of a teepee.
Alas, our timing was off again, and he had the day off.
There is one place in Cherokee that's always open -- Harrah's Cherokee Casino & Hotel, open 24 hours a day, with 3,500 video gaming machines, restaurants, live entertainment and gift shops. Maybe it was the rugged outdoorsman in me, or maybe it was the penny-pincher, but it was the last place I wanted to go.
IF YOU GO
Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina is about a nine-hour drive from Baltimore.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park -- There are 10 park service campgrounds in the park, which stays open all year. Most campgrounds close by the end of October, but a few stay open longer, or year-round. Fees are $14-$23 a night. For more information, or to make a reservation, go to the National Park Service Web site at nps.gov/grsm.
For the latest information on fall colors nationwide, call the U.S. Forest Service's Fall Foliage Hotline, 800-354-4595, or go to its Web site, www.fs.fed.us/news/fallcolors/index.shtml.
Fall color updates are also available through the Weather Channel's Web site at weather.com/maps/activity/fallfoliage/index_large.html.
Cherokee Indian reservation -- Museums, cultural performances, arts and crafts, outdoor activities, village center, gaming and more can be found in this Native American community. For information, go to cherokee-nc.com.
Great Smoky Mountains Railroad -- Fifty-three miles of track, two tunnels and 25 bridges. Various themed excursions are available, including a Gourmet Dinner Train featuring a four-course meal, and a Polar Express Train for kids. Trains depart from Dillboro or Bryson City in North Carolina. Discounts available for AAA members. Coach tickets start at $29 for some excursions, but price varies. To reserve tickets, go to gsmr.com or call 800-872-4681.
Nantahala Outdoor Center -- Rafting, biking and other adventure activities near Bryson City. For information, go to noc.com or call 888-662-2199.