A band of cicadas serenaded us as we got off our Outback Subaru. Their singing seemed to intensify as we hopped off the car, me casting nervous glances at the cliffs and trees around us, the thought running through my mind that a welcome committee of bears might be awaiting us in the dark.
The drive from North Carolina to this chalet in Tennessee, built into the hills of the Great Smoky Mountains, had been one of unimaginable beauty. The sky, riddled with billowing clouds earlier on in the afternoon in Winston-Salem, was suffused now with a crimson glow that continued to intensify till it dissipated in pastel hues. The hills loomed large in front of us in the gathering gloom, clouds rushing in to envelop us at intervals. At others, they rose from the silhouettes of trees in wraiths of wispy white.
And then the spell was broken. We had reached Gatlinburg. Rows of flashy souvenir shops, ‘wine-tasting’ kiosks that doled out free fruity wines guaranteed to give one an unbearable insulin rush, barbecue diners, the crowds …I wanted to think, but I could not. Adi helpfully supplied the words, ‘It’s like Skegness on steroids?’ Skegness is a seaside resort town on the east coast of England – the lesser said about it, the better.
Gatlinburg’s flashiness evaporated as we drove higher and higher up into the mountains. How impenetrable the darkness seems in the hills. It presses in upon the mind. The desolate hairpin bends brought us at the foot of a road that shot up at a 35° incline, and lo and behold, there stood our rented chalet. No curtains inside to draw across the bay windows in the living room? I was unsettled. But there was nothing to do but stash my paranoia away.
The chalet was a two-bedroom affair built in wood — to withstand the winds that sweep through these mountains. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had rhapsodised about ‘the winds that blow through the wide sky in these mountains, the winds that sweep from Canada to Mexico, from the Pacific to the Atlantic’ to ‘have always blown on free men’ at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that he declared open for the public in 1940.
Where Nature gives, she takes too. And man, he survives despite the odds. The cabin being proof of this indomitable spirit. The previous chalet had been gutted in wildfires towards the end of 2016. Yet here it stood, well-stocked and utterly homey with its rocking chair, hot tub and wraparound porch, rebuilt after the fires. There were pots and pans and everything we could hope for if we wanted to rustle up our own meals (how cosy it must be to hunker down within its warmth during the cold months).
In the morning, we woke up to views. The windows, which in the dark hours had given me the heebie jeebies, in the early morning hours opened up to a vision of smoky blue mountains and clouds rolling off their peaks (there are photos below to confirm that I do not exaggerate).
We did what any sane person would do — tuck into a huge breakfast and sit staring at the drama of the clouds and the mountains, wondering if mamma bear (previous visitors to the cabin had mentioned her repeated visits in the logbook) would eventually turn up with her cubs. But were we to be so lucky? Naturally, we decided to do what could be done next. We headed out, chasing bears and clouds in the Great Smoky Mountains.