[I am very tardy making these posts…my apologies.]
Friend Mary McCord and I decide a late May stay in the mountains is just what we both need. I book three nights in Cataloochee, two in the campground and one at campsite #41, and she books a night’s stay in Waynesville in between. Such plans are always a leap of faith regarding weather, trail conditions, or wildlife activity. You just never know how things will shake out. It’s all part of the journey.
This trip marks my first attempt at tent camping with my new gear. After much research and consultation, I buy the two-person MSR Hubba Hubba for car camping and the one-person version (MSR Hubba) for backpacking. I practice setting up the smaller tent at home. It’s fast, easy, fun, and surprisingly roomy. My cat Tucker joins me inside. Despite this whole hiking the Smokies’ trails business, I’m not a person who thrives on adventure. In fact, I’m a bit of a chicken at heart, especially when trying something new. So it’s no surprise to feel a certain level of anxiety around this trip. Will my tents hold up? What if the weather is bad at night? Can I carry all the gear necessary for a backcountry overnight?
In the days leading up to the trip, I am constantly checking the weather forecast. Dry, sunny conditions melt into chances for scattered thunderstorms ranging from 30 to 60 percent each day. Staying dry is looking less likely. If you want to hike the Smokies, though, you cannot be deterred by rain. My outlook must be, “Well, it will make a great a story once it is over.” I take a variety of clothing for temperature conditions ranging from hot hiking to cool sleeping, plus both the three-season sleeping bag and the lightweight travel sack. Better safe than sorry.
We’ve planned five trails in four days – Cataloochee Divide, McKee Branch, Caldwell Fork, Big Fork, and Boogerman. The Cataloochee area was heavily settled and farmed. The floor of the valley is a small but lovely meadow where the National Park Service has successfully reintroduced elk. It is a popular visitor destination to view these magnificent animals, who spend much of their day in the forest and emerge in early evening to find an eager audience in attendance. There are also historic buildings – the Caldwell Place and Palmer Chapel, both built in 1903, an old barn, and a school. The roads into and through Cataloochee are narrow, twisting, choking with dust in dry weather, and heavily traveled in season. To encounter an enormous RV or a huge truck hauling a horse trailer along these roads is quite an experience.
It takes all morning to get my butt on the highway, and the drive to Cataloochee is nearly five hours. When I finally roll in to the campground, Mary has her tent and tarp up and is relaxing with a good book. My Hubba Hubba goes up in a snap, and Mary has a delicious dinner prepared. By the time we get our packs ready for an early start on the trails, it is getting dark. I toss the travel sack in my tent and head to bed. The night is still and quiet. The campground is not half occupied. I start out quite comfortable, but as the night wears on, I get colder and colder, adding more layers of clothes and wrapping up tightly to stay warm. My down sleeping bag is definitely coming out tomorrow night.