Tuesday 10 November
Today is a day off: A whole day to myself, to do what I like with. Sometimes it is quite difficult to break the routine of the tour – every day is carefully planned for me and I get used to that sense of order. Today however should be easy to fill because I am on the edge of the Smoky Mountains and I have a little terrier of a car to play with.
The breakfast room is very busy this morning and once again plenty of people come to chat about the shows and to wish me safe travels. Dutifully I have another large plate of fruit, and today I treat myself to a waffle (but with no butter, naturally).
Although the breakfast room is full, it seems very empty to me, for the stage has gone and my ‘theatre’ is just another hotel function room once more. As I look at all of the guests eating and talking, it is as if none of those magical moments actually occurred here.
As we said goodbye yesterday Kristy had asked if I would sign a few more books for her, and she would leave them in the office for me. The office being on the same floor as the breakfast room it makes sense to get the signing done straight away. Unfortunately the board room is in use so I can’t spread the books out on the nice large table there, but Cindy, who runs the office reception, sets me up in a comfy armchair, and brings the boxes of books to me. I sign sixty copies of A Christmas Carol and Cindy re-boxes them as I go, making the whole operation very simple.
Signing done I get ready for my day’s adventure. My little Jeep – Ethie Burn – is sat dutifully where I left him two days ago, and together we head for Gatlinburg. The first part of the journey sees us pass a seemingly endless strip of adventure golf courses, go-kart tracks, dinner theatres, souvenir shops, motels and food outlets, but eventually I leave Pigeon Forge (marked by a sign declaring ‘Y’all Come Back!’) and take the road into the Smoky Mountains National Park.
As I drive towards Gatlinburg I notice a small road on my left, which looks as if it might be interesting, so I take it. I have no idea where it will lead to, but it seems to going uphill and that is good enough for me at the moment. I keep following my nose, turning up this lane and that (often just because the name is quirky). Sometimes it leads to a dead end or somebody’s driveway, but it is great fun. My SatNav is still on, and the poor lady is desperate for me to turn onto Ski View Lane. I think that Ski View Lane is the only road she knows here, because her dialogue consists of ‘turn right onto Ski View Lane’, followed by ‘turn left into Ski View Lane’.
The views as I get higher are beautiful, with the final vestiges of fall colour clinging to the trees. At one point the road pass through a RV ground, which has a strict speed limit of 8 ½ mph, which seems VERY precise. I know that there are bears in these woods, but sadly I don’t see any. Perhaps they are skiing. Or running in front of me at 10mph.
There are wooden cabins scattered along the route, mostly for rental, and mercifully they blend into the scenery perfectly. There are little hamlets boasting various businesses, including a tiny wedding chapel in the depths of some woods, and ‘The Ship Inn, Genuine English Pub’, complete with a portrait of Admiral Lord Nelson.
Eventually I find myself back on a main road, somewhere near Gatlinburg, so I decide to turn left and follow it until something else occurs to me. The road is a more major one that I really like, and soon I see what looks to be little track running by the side of a rapid river, so I take that.
I follow the lane for a while and arrive at a ranger’s station, where I purchase a map of the park for $1 (placed in the honesty box), and for the first time since turning off the Gatlinburg Road I discover where I am. I work out that if I follow the main road for a little bit longer, I will come to a small town called Cosby, from where I can take what looks like a switchback road called the Foothills Parkway. The map mentions that the Parkway is closed in the winter, which makes it sound even more appealing.
The road is magnificent with panoramic views across the wooded slopes of the mountains. We climb ever higher, before plunging down the other side towards the Cherokee National Forest.
The Parkway terminates at the I40 and I head South past Waterville and Big Creek. After another twenty miles I leave the main road again, and find myself driving through the Jonathan Valley, which is like a high Alpine plateau. The pastures are green and are grazed by cattle and horses. The lower slopes are gentle folds in the terrain as opposed to the towering hills above.
The businesses here are predominantly tourist based, but in a very local and natural way – there are plenty of wood carvers, artists and potters (Pitter the Potter!). Hospitality for the hungry traveller is offered at countless BBQ shacks and diners. Even the road signs seem to have a local dialect: ‘Burn headlights when using windshield wipers’ is one I particularly like.
As I approach the town of Soco I see a sign for the Blue Ridge Parkway, which I take and what a road it is: what a remarkable road. The corners are long and flowing, and with each one a new vista opens up giving a yet more impressive view. It is the sort of road that would feature on the Top Gear TV programme.
The Blue Ridge Parkway swoops and curls and rises and dives before it reaches its junction with Route 441. There are more treats in store, however as this North-South highway takes me high again and over the Newfound Gap, which is at the very summit of the National Park. I stop at an overlook site and just stand entranced by the sheer majesty of what is spread before me. It is not only the view that is impressive, but the absolute silence that surrounds me. There isn’t a plane in the sky, or (for a brief moment), not a car on the road.
A little further on and there is the official Newfound Gap viewpoint, where the car park is full, and crowds of people stand at the fence. I am glad that I stopped where I did and saw the same view unencumbered by the modern world.
The 441 winds on and It is strange to think that this is the same road that will lead me back to Pigeon Forge, with all of its trappings of modernity.
Ethie and I drop steeply now and I keep him on a tight leash, by staying in low gear. A swollen fast-running stream cascades over rocks alongside us – racing us, it seems. The road is narrow, and at one corner loops through 360 degrees, passing under itself as an expedient way of losing altitude. The stream plunges over a mini cataract to keep up with us.
Eventually the road flattens out and I reach Galtinburg, almost four hours after taking the interesting looking lane, which started my adventures.
I return to the hotel, where the rest of my day is spent doing laundry and packing, but that is far too mundane to describe. So I will leave you with the most amazing views of a truly spectacular part of the world.