Hike 8: Appalachian Trail

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I did it, folks! I finally started hiking the Appalachian Trail! I just decided there wasn’t anything to do but to do it and started out!

That’s a total lie. There’s not a bone in my body with enough spontaneity to ever seriously utter those words about anything except ripping off a Band-Aid.

But I did – FINALLY – knock out my first section hike.

It was about a 100-feet-long section – but it was still a section so shut your mouth. Also, I did it without oxygen. Yes, it was 100 feet on a road atop Fontana Dam, but I DID IT, darn you.

So saying I completed a section hike might be a bit of a stretch.

I read somewhere once that if the water levels in Fontana Lake are low enough, you can see the old roads that were flooded over. We didn't find them.

I read somewhere once that if the water levels in Fontana Lake are low enough, you can see the old roads that were flooded over. The water was still quite low, but we didn’t find anything but dirt.

My Hike Eight is a bit of a cheat, but I couldn’t help but throw this in here. The day we hit Juney Whank Falls, we kept driving around the area. I’m not really sure how or why, but we ended up at Fontana Dam.

Last year we came close to it when we visited the Road to Nowhere. We drove up hoping the water level would still be low enough for us to see some of the old road that was flooded out, but we either weren’t in the right spot or the water was already over it. Nevertheless, I checked out the giant Appalachian Trail board outside their visitor’s center and we all walked around the dam.

100 feet down. 11,447,040 to go.

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Hike 7: Juney Whank Falls

And now, for a hike outside the Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana tri-state area! Its been a while since I hiked more than 50 or so miles from home, but on my family’s annual spring trek to the Smokies I managed to talk them into a hike – however short it was.

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It was mother/daughter selfie time with a quilt about one of our favorite movies!

Every year there is a quilt show in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, for which Mom basically offers my brother and me a free trip. I go with Mom to the quilt show and Cory (my little brother) goes with Dad to do manly-man things. Everyone wins – including me because I get to look at something pretty and say, “Mom! Make me that!” Usually, she will.

Last year, the boys hiked somewhere and found and old, forgotten graveyard. When I tried to get them to take me to it the next day, they claimed they couldn’t remember where it was. This year, while Mom and I wandered through convention center displays, they bought tools and then went back to the hotel to sleep. Basically, it was their usual Friday.

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So now you know where I get my goofiness from. Dad was feeling rather victorious after tackling the switchbacks of the quarter-mile trail.

Saturday broke a rainy, gross, cloudy day. But by the time we got through a hearty, southern breakfast, the sun was chasing the clouds away and I managed to talk everyone into going waterfall hunting. I thought I found a relatively easy hike, even for my broken lungs and my parents’ old knees. But like everything in the mountains, looks can be deceiving.

Mom found a copy of The “Smokies Guide,” the self-proclaimed official newspaper of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, somewhere and the “Places to go” section listed a couple of places I haven’t been before. We decided to choose a place none of us have been, and headed to Bryson City, N.C. to pick up the road to Deep Creek.

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The Deep Creek area is full of waterfalls. This Barbie-doll sized set of rapids is the first one you’ll see when you leave the parking lot.

I’ve been to the Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge area of the Smokies more times than I can count. The mountains in that area haven’t lost their majesty, but the traffic and the crowds certainly have. The last few times I’ve gone down, I’ve spent most of my time on the North Carolina side things. It’s not necessarily always less busy, but there at least seems to be more places that aren’t completely overrun with tourists.

 

The “Smokies Guide” calls Deep Creek off-the-beaten-path – and it definitely was. We passed through a holler outside Bryson City that looked like the kind you didn’t want to break down in, if you know what I mean. Right about the time my parents pointed this out, I realized this was just the kind of spot I wanted.

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This always makes me sad.

Although the Park Service advertises Deep Creek as one of the few areas in which mountain bikers are welcome, we didn’t see anyone on bikes. Just a mostly-full parking lot and several off-season couples and families wandering about. I’d say that even though the area is a bit off the main drag, it still gets very busy in the warmer months.

There are several trails of varying length and intensity in the Deep Creek area, and we chose the shortest one because no one enjoys being outside as much as I do, and my parents have old joints. Juney Whank Falls is the easiest to reach, but you climb about a quarter-mile of switchbacks to reach her. Once you reach the falls, the trail divides to go above and below the falls. You can either take the trail past the falls further uphill to loop back around to the parking lot, or you can turn around and take the devil you know back down to the car. We took the devil we knew and went directly back downhill.

 

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I’m giving this trail a solid middle ranking. It’s a very short, very clear and well-kept trail. By that I mean you won’t be tripping over rocks and roots. But it is almost entirely uphill, so be prepared for your cardio when you hike this trail.

The hike was short, but pretty. It was also not a hike I should have tried without Gus; my oxygen level dropped to 78 before I sucked it up and plugged in. After that, my rest breaks got farther apart than about every 15 feet.

If you want to go farther on the hikes, the North Carolina Waterfalls site has a lovely post that takes you farther along the Juney Whank Trail to show you the other two waterfalls in the Deep Creek area: Tom Branch Falls and Indian Creek Falls.

Abandoned motel finds new life

The Warrior Motel is one of the abandoned motor courts around Bryson City and Cherokee, NC.  Now, a local shop owner has purchased the property and operates out of the front of the motel.

The Warrior Motel is one of the abandoned motor courts around Bryson City and Cherokee, NC. Now, a local shop owner has purchased the property and operates out of the former front office of the motel.

There is something about roadside motor courts that call to me. I’m not talking about motels, your Best Westerns or your Holiday Inn Expresses. I’m talking about a motor court. The kinds of places that had neon signs shouting at passing travelers to stay the night. The kind of place that advertised their water gardens and had a family-run diner on the lot. The kind of place you stopped when you were driving your spanking-new Mustang along Route 66 on your way to California.

If you want to see these today, you have to get off the interstates and hit the blue highways. Many of the remaining motor courts left standing are abandoned and in disrepair. But if you listen closely, you’ll hear them. They whisper, “I used to be a cool cat. People had a groovy time in my water garden.”

So I’m a little rusty on my 1960s slang. But you get the idea. Beyond the cracked pavement and busted gutters, you can see it: An old-school muscle car roars into the lot, chrome gleaming in the sun. A mother in her cat-eye sunglasses slathers on oil poolside while Junior and Joanie splash around. A road-weary salesman in a rumpled suit slurps coffee in the diner. The glory of the American Road trip at its height.

They just don't make signs like this anymore.

The sign for the Warrior Motel will get your attention. It features a brave holding a tomahawk that used to move back and forth. Behind that, you’ll see where the water garden used to be. There is still an umbrella shrouded in weeds marking its place. The pavement is cracked and growing a weed garden now.

For an abandoned motel, the entire property is really in remarkable condition. Although, to be fair, the motel is no longer abandoned. It is also no longer a motel. A local shop owner has set up in what used to be the front office. She carries antiques and random wares – including some nice pieces of furniture and a fantastic chandelier I would have bought if I had somewhere to hang it.

My picture isn't great, but if you look closely, can you can see that white spot on the right? That's the remaining umbrella where the pool used to be.

My picture isn’t great, but if you look closely, you can see that white spot on the right. That’s the remaining umbrella where the pool used to be.

According to one blogger who visited the Warrior Motel in 2010, it was abandoned in 2006. But even looking at another visitor’s photos from November 2014, the property still wasn’t in as bad condition as I would expect. You could tell that animals were coming in and out of the open doors, but overall damage really wasn’t that bad.

Comparing my photos with the November visitor’s, I can tell that there has been a hefty amount of cleanup. Some of the rooms are still full of beds, but some of them have been cleared. I’m curious to see how the current owner of the Warrior Motel continues its restoration. I didn’t ask what her plans were for the place, but I hope whatever she does, she leaves its character in tact.

What’s this Road to Nowhere?

Popularly called "The Road to Nowhere," North Carolina Highway 228 construction was halted in the 1970s due to environmental concerns. Residents of the state fought with the Federal Government until 2010 to receive compensation for the unfinished road.

Popularly called “The Road to Nowhere,” North Carolina Highway 228 construction was halted in the 1970s due to environmental concerns. Residents of the state fought with the Federal Government until 2010 to receive compensation for the unfinished road.

In a complete coincidence, I’m bringing you another tale of controversy in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s history. Or maybe it isn’t really a coincidence, its just a throw back to my days of being a newsie. I don’t remember ever actually running around the newsroom screaming, “If it BLEEDS, it LEADS!!!” but knowing me, its entirely within the realm of possibility. Not that I seek out controversy for the sake of it; but it does make for a more interesting plot.

Scene: Another tranquil place in the Smokies. Its late March, around 60 degrees and sunny. Not many birds are out yet, so the only sounds you hear are leaves underfoot and, of course, my breathing. A gentle breeze tickles your arms and makes you grateful for the sun’s warm rays beaming on your scalp. A short walk up a slight incline will take you to the deceptively-long tunnel. I didn’t think there was much to the tunnel, until I was in its belly. Devoid of sunlight, the center of the tunnel swallows any light – including the flashlight on my iPhone that seems so bright when I’m looking for a dropped earring. And remember that gentle breeze? Its turned into a downright cold wind.

I’m visiting Gatlinburg for the second time this year – already more than I’ve been in the last few years. This time around, Mom wanted to go to a quilt show and did not want to go alone. Will I walk around a quilt show with my beloved mother for a nearly-free-for-me trip to Tennessee? Absolutely!

My reward was a day trip into North Carolina the following day. If you go to Bryson City and follow Everett Street out of town, it will dead end eight miles out in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

So, why is there this random road that literally goes nowhere? The answer lies some 50 years ago in the mountains.

The players in this drama are The Aluminum Company of America, who had been building dams in the area to provide power to their plants nearby in Tennessee; the Tennessee Valley Authority, who was concerned about the effects of flooding along the Little Tennessee River; and the United States Department of the Interior, the Big Daddy of the Park Service.

DSC_4164When the Department of the Interior was putting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park together in the 1930s and 40s, it acquired vast tracts of land from Swain County, North Carolina. Part of this tract of land included Highway 288, which connected Bryson City with Deals Gap. This road was left alone – until World War II when growing electricity demands gave someone the bright idea of harnessing the power of the Little Tennessee River. Added bonus: creating a hydroelectric dam would also help produce aluminum for the war effort.

By 1935, when the Tennessee Valley Authority got involved, the Aluminum Company of America was working on the Fontana Dam project. The TVA wanted in on the action, but couldn’t get enough funding to complete the dam until World War II broke out and aluminum was in high demand. Once funding was secured, ALCOA signed their land over to the TVA in exchange for the rights to the output of the dam.

DSC_4141To create the hydroelectric power for the factory, a reservoir would need to be created – present-day Fontana Lake. To accomplish this, 1,311 families, 1,047 graves and over 60 miles of roads had to be relocated – including Highway 288. Four towns – Fontana, Bushnell, Forney and Jusdson – would be covered with water. In exchange, the Department of Interior agreed to create a road – or rather, move Highway 288 – that would allow displaced residents passage to the cemetery on the other side of the lake. This road would also grant access to some of the more remote areas of the Park.

The dam was completed in late November 1944, in time for the closing months of the war. Construction of the new Highway 288 was intermittent until the 1970s when it was halted for good. I’m not entirely clear about what, exactly, the environmental concerns were that halted work 40-odd years ago. I read something about construction releasing toxins from the soil and contaminating water supplies, but that was a comment on a road trip website.

With construction stopped, residents became bitter about what they considered a broken promise and the topic became popular fodder for local politicians. Those who wanted construction to continue said the environmental concerns were exaggerated. Opinions are rampant, even among people with no ties to the region except taking a vacation there once.

DSC_4162It looked like construction could resume after funding was secured for the road in 2000 by a North Carolina Senator, but an environmental study released seven years later said that completing construction would cause too much damage to the area. The controversy reached its end when Swain County agreed to take a cash settlement from the National Park Service in exchange for the road.

Today, the road exists as another testament to the evolution of our national park systems and sacrifices that were made to create our public lands. The Park Service operates a boat in the summer that ferries visitors to the old cemetery and trail heads on the far side of the lake. In winter, lowered lake levels allow hiking in the reservoir basin along the ghost of Highway 288.


I rate my adventures based on oxygen tanks, ranking from one to five based on how taxing the activity is on my pulmonaries.

I rate my adventures based on oxygen tanks, ranking from one to five based on how taxing the activity is on my pulmonaries.

The Gus Scale 

I’m rating this attraction a three because even though its a short hike, there is a slight, extended incline. The road continues past the tunnel and connects to several trails, none of which I explored. There are also opportunities to climb some hills around the tunnel to get to the top.