In the last week of October we drove up to the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee. It was a 11-hour drive, mostly on I-95 North. A straight highway with regular cars making their way up North somewhere. Towards the end of day I dozed off for what must have been thirty minutes. I woke up suddenly and found myself in the colorful mountains. The winding road had bursts of color popping up at every bend, the evening sun throwing spotlights on the mountain slopes. Breathtaking, enchanting are merely feeble words to describe what I saw. Whoever included “great” when naming these mountains knew exactly what they were doing.
I was ecstatic and I broke into a song – The Hills are Alive. For four years I hadn’t set foot on the mountains. For four years I hadn’t filled my lungs with the crisp and fragrant autumn air. For four years I hadn’t witnessed the awe-inspiring season that is fall. Unquestionably, my most favorite season of all. We stopped by a river right by the road, walked over the pebbled and rocky banks and touched the freezing water. My son picked up some rocks to add to our river rock collection. It reminded us of summers spent by the Deerfield river in Mohawk Trail, Massachusetts.
That evening, we reached our hotel, nestled in the mountains. The next day we headed off to the Great Smoky Mountains known for their permanently cloud-capped peaks. God bless the visionaries who fought hard to preserve these scenic places as National Parks for future generations. We drove all the way to Clingman’s Dome which is the highest point in the Smoky Mountains at about 6,600 feet. Shrouded in fog and freezing cold (at least for us Floridians), we skipped the 30 minute hike to the observatory/dome for the warm and toasty gift shop. After warming up by the fire we headed off to the Cherokee Indian Reservation on the North Carolina side of the park. It boasted the biggest waterfall in the area and it was a short hike to reach it. Doable by our family of kids, elderly parents and us – middle-aged adults. The Mingo falls could be reached after climbing 170 steps and a small stretch of rocky mountain path. It was well worth the hike to see it.
On the way back my husband was compelled to stop at an Indian gift shop to buy a dream catcher. The one we got from Mohawk Trail years ago was falling apart and he wanted to replace it. Dream catcher in hand we headed off for lunch and some more tree ogling, oohing and aahing, and trying to take pictures of tunnels and trickling rivers. On the way we were forced to stop on a narrow road as cars in front of us slowed down and came to a stop. People were jumping out of the cars and heading to the edge of the road overlooking the forest. We were wondering what all the fuss was about and found a big group of people gazing up at the treetops, cameras and phones clicking away furiously. We too looked up in the trees and saw a black bear climbing up a tree.
Now in all my years in the U.S. I had never seen a black bear in the wild. I had always wanted to see one (hop across the road while we were driving or take a drink in the river while we watched from yonder!) My husband (the ever practical one) warned me of the dangers of encountering a bear in the wild. So this was just perfect. We were far enough to be safe but not too far to miss all the action. We simply had to get off and take pictures. One excited person yelled – there’s four of them. But we only spotted three and they looked like cubs. My husband joked that we should be on our way before “Mama Bear” made a grisly appearance.
Next day we packed up and checked out of our beautiful hotel and made our way to Ober, Gatlinburg to board the aerial tramway for a view from way above. It was like seeing the mountains for the first time ever. We took the tramway up and down four times and each time the mountains and the colors looked different because of the light and the position of the sun. We then took a chair lift to a ride called the Alpine slide where you squat in a little car with a hand pedal to go forward or slow down. Our little cars took us down a winding concrete track. The kids loved it and wanted to do it again and again but we had to leave. I wished we could have spent another day in the mountains but we had to say goodbye and reach Atlanta, Georgia by 4.30 p.m.
P’s Dad loves elephants. When he was a young boy growing up in Kerala, many families owned elephants and some used to turn up in his backyard for a treat of bananas by the bunches. He loves telling my kids about elephants and stories from when he was a child. But in his 80 years he had never seen an African Elephant. So P and I were determined to show him one on this trip. Zoo Atlanta boasted not one but two such elephants. But we had to get there in time for the last admission which was at 4.30.
We drove for 3 hours without a break. Not stopping for food or drink. We made it in time to see these magnificent elephants. One was swaying away happily and the other was moving around. We also saw a very restless lion that was growling and pacing around and two hungry pandas munching on bamboo shoots. In an hour the zoo closed and we headed off to our hotel for much needed R & R.
The next day we left early to see Martin Luther King’s house and the Freedom Walkway. We then stopped by the Georgia Aquarium and spent the morning there before heading back to Florida. The sights of the city and aquarium held no magic for me for my heart was still in the mountains. I simply had to close my eyes and I was there in the midst of the trees in their glorious hues, feeling alive, feeling surprisingly healthy and happy, the melody in my heart rising to my lips until I could hold it in no more and I burst into song…The Hills are Alive.