Monday, December 24, 2012

What I Did On My Thanksgiving Vacation Part 1

For the past few years my parents and sister's family have been engaging in a new Thanksgiving tradition: The Holiday Vacation.

They always invite me, but so far I've never been able to go with them for various reasons. I was either working, didn't have a job, had no money or my personal astrologist advised me against traveling.

This year though the stars lined up and I could actually go, so I accompanied my family to Gatlinburg, Tennessee for Thanksgiving.

It's been a long time since I've been on a real vacation, and a very, very long time since I've taken any kind of trip with my parents. Not since high school in fact. And I've never been on any extended trip with my sister's family. I was a little curious as to how many days it would take before I decided to fly home by myself.

It's not that I'm antisocial you understand, but I live alone. In a house by myself. Just me. I'm used to peace and quiet. To suddenly be thrust into a cabin with six other humans like I was on some half-baked reality show would be a big adjustment for me. 

We would be staying in what everyone kept referring to as a "cabin" for five days. A cabin. In the woods. Seven people. In a cabin. In a remote area. For five days. Seven. Did I mention there would be seven of us living in this cabin? For five days?

After driving for six or seven hours we arrived in the kudzu-choked environs of Gatlinburg. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the "cabin" was actually a house. A fairly large house to boot. 

I was assuming we'd be staying in a small wooden shack in the middle of the woods, far from civilized living. I brought a book and a sketchpad, thinking there'd be nothing to do in this remote location. Imagine my surprise when I found out the house had cable TV and WiFi! Although it did have an old school "picture tube" non-HD television set. Roughing it indeed!

There were even two bathrooms, which was a godsend. Seven bathrooms would have been nicer, but that's probably not realistic.

Here's the view from the second floor of the house, looking out over the living room and out the large bank of windows into the forest beyond.

And here's the reverse view, from the living room looking up at the second floor. I ended up sleeping on a bed in a small alcove visible in the upper right in this photo.

A shot of the house's vaulted wood-paneled ceiling. Hey, I'd hate to have to dust that thing, eh? Amirite ladies? Eh?

That's my nephew François in the green shirt, watching the primitive non-HD television machine. That's my brother-in-law at the right. François brought his laptop with him and rarely looked up from it the entire week.

We took two cars to the house, so when I first arrived I found my sister's family was already there. My nephew Alphonse was upstairs playing Playstation 2 games (again, how deliciously primitive!) and proudly wearing a cardboard Burger King crown. Alphonse is 14 years old, by the way. I vowed I would get a photo of him in his stylish crown before the week was over. Alas, this is as close as I got.

Here's a view from the deck, looking out at the neighbor's house. We could monitor their activities quite well from this vantage point. You can't see it but just to the left was a hot tub on our deck. Roughing it!

No, I did not get into the hot tub. I wasn't expecting such an amenity and didn't bring any swim trunks.

Here's a shot of some of the neighboring homes, hundreds of feet above us. Pretty much every home I could see was either hundreds of feet above or below. There's no such thing as level ground in this neighborhood!  

How many houses can you spot in this photo? Hint: There are at least five. You wont be able to spot them; I could only see them at nighttime when their lights were on.

Here's the road above our "yard." Our house was about halfway up a mountain, accessible only by an incredibly steep, curving and narrow road. Think of the steepest, curviest and narrowest road you can imagine, and then double or triple that.

At certain points on the road you could look down and see nothing but an abyss plunging downward for hundreds, possibly thousands of feet. It would not surprise me if there are 1950s model cars full of dessicated skeletons at the bottoms of some of those ravines.

There were very few guardrails along the road. My suspicion is that they install rails on an "as-needed" basis. Wherever some unfortunate soul flew off the road, that's where the Tennessee Department Of Transportation decided a guardrail was necessary.

I have to wonder why anyone ever looked at this mountain and thought, "Say, this would be a perfect place to construct luxury housing!" Sure it's a scenic location, but it ain't exactly easy to live there.

If you buy one of these homes, you get a house and a driveway. That's it. At the home in which we were staying the "yard" was actually a forest floor that sloped away at a 45º angle. The lot contained absolutely no usable land whatsoever.

And god forbid it should ever snow in the area. Even a light dusting would trap you at the top or bottom of the mountain. They're nice homes to visit, but I wouldn't wanna live there.

While I was out front taking these photos I heard a voice from above. It was one of the neighbors a hundred feet above me. He called down to warn me that earlier that morning he'd seen a bear nosing around on the front porch of our house. Gulp! As I looked around I noticed that everyone's trash barrels were kept inside large steel mesh cages.

The day after we arrived my sister, brother-in-law and I decided to visit Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the Smoky Mountains. I tried to get my nephews Alphonse and François to go with us, but they couldn't pull their attention away from their electronic teats and stayed home. Kids today! Ah well, it's their loss.

We passed a multitude of spectacular scenery as we made our way up the winding mountain road.

I thought the road leading up to our vacation house was curvy, but the road leading to Clingmans Dome was even worse. Switchbacks, hairpin curves (quite literally), corkscrews... it was something to see. 

We were using a GPS device and at one point it just gave up, refusing to even try to display the road, leaving the onscreen car floating in a formless green void.

I'm from an extremely flat land where even a ten foot high mound is considered a hill, so vistas like these were completely foreign to me.

The temperature in Tennessee during Thanksgiving week was a balmy 60 - 70 degrees. Thanks, global warming! But as we continued climbing higher and higher up the mountain we started seeing snow at the side of the road.

After about an hour of driving we finally reached the Clingmans Dome trail. Here's a shot of the parking lot, complete with large snow bank. I took this photo mere seconds before a snowball fight broke out between the subjects in the background.

Boulders! Look at those boulders in the background! That's another thing we don't have where I'm from. I live in a 100% boulder free area.

The temperature was a bit cooler at this altitude, probably in the 50s.

Here are some shots from the Clingmans Dome parking lot. Note that we're actually higher than the large, flat  cloud bank at the left!

Here's a shot of the trail leading up to the Clingmans Dome Observation Post. That's the paved trail just above the ranger's hat. If you look closely at the left you may be able to glimpse some tiny people on the trail in the distance.

Eventually we began walking up the trail to the Observation Post. After about 5 minutes I started breathing much harder than normal. After 10 minutes I honestly felt like I was going to die. I had to sit down on a convenient boulder and rest for a minute.

I couldn't figure out what was wrong. Sure, the trail was steep, but it wasn't that steep. I walk all the time back home; every morning before work in fact. I walk a lot. I thought I was in decent shape, but the fact that I was gasping like a fish out of water seemed to indicate otherwise. I couldn't figure out what was wrong. My sister and brother in law were wheezing like bellows as well.

Then it finally hit me-- of course we were all gasping and wheezing! We were over a mile up the side of a mountain! Clingman's Dome is over 6,600 feet high. No wonder I was having trouble breathing-- there wasn't any air up there!

Another view of a cloud bank below us, which is definitely not something you see often outside of an airplane.

After much wheezing and struggling, we finally reached the Observation Post located at the top of Clingmans Dome, in all its Googie-design glory.

The Observation Post is accessible by a long curving ramp, seen here at the bottom of the frame. The ramp was an unexpectedly dangerous affair as it was covered in a smooth sheet of ice.

A view of the treacherous ramp and the clouds below.

Here's the spectacular view from the Observation Post at the top of Clingmans Dome. I guess all the gasping and crawling was worth it.

While catching my breath at the top of the mountain I had a morbid thought. The thin air at this altitude definitely makes climbing the trail a strenuous affair. So what would happen if anyone ever had a heart attack while climbing it? It took us at least an hour to drive up the mountain road. An ambulance might take a little less time, but not much. Then you'd have at least an hour drive back down to get to the hospital. It's unlikely you'd survive a two hour trip to the ER. 

Most likely they'd have to call in an emergency helicopter. Still, to anyone climbing the trail, my advice is to simply avoid having a heart attack in the first place.

Looking down from the Observation Post at the forest far below. Note the snow on the ground.

As the caption says, that's either Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge off in the misty (or would that be smoky?) distance. You know, this view reminds me of something, but I can't quite remember what...

Oh yeah, now I remember. "Mos Eisley Spaceport. You will never find a more wretched hive of scum, and villainy. We must be cautious."

More amazing views from the Observation Post.

Here's a shot of people gingerly tiptoeing up the icy ramp, trying not to fall and slide all the way back down the trail to the parking lot.

That's me proving I was there.

Here we are walking back down the trail. We thought the walk back down would be much easier, but oddly enough it wasn't. 

Oh sure, it wasn't as hard as walking up, but on the way down you had to constantly "put on the brakes" so to speak, lest you get going too fast and topple over the side of a cliff, so by the time we got back to the parking lot our calves were killing us.

Haw! Christmas came early for me as I just found my brand new cuss word for 2013! I think I'll try it out right now. "Get out of my way, you stupid hotards!"

Here I am doing a pretty darn good job of blocking out the Smoky Mountains with my giant head.

Coming up in What I Did On My Thanksgiving Vacation Part 2: Another trail, and a near disaster as I almost topple off a cliff!

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