By Pat Foster-Turley Ph.D.
November 4, 2021
I recently took a road trip to see the changing fall leaves in the mountains with my friend, Betty Duckworth, who has a very different way of exploring than I do. When I travel I like to spend hours beforehand checking on possible destinations, researching hotels and roadside attractions, looking up restaurant menus and pre-booking hotels to mark the endpoint of each day. Although there is room for spontaneity in my travels, I am a “thumbtack person”—I always aim for a predetermined spot on a map at the end of the day. But, to my surprise, Betty is not.
This trip I went along with Betty’s mode of travel. She travels without a map in her car and calls spur of the moment destinations to her Bluetooth GPS and off we head to parts unknown, ever changing the “thumbtack” we are aiming for with no plans on where or when to spend the night. Sometimes this technique provides some interesting sights, for sure, but when it fails, it does so in a major way. Take our sojourn into the Great Smokey Mountains for instance.
We were happily driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway when we needed to get gas. We were just about at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center at the beginning of Great Smokey Mountains National Park when we had to drive down the mountainside to a distant town to find fuel. We drove around for a while in the foothills but Betty wanted to see the Smokey Mountains. So, without any map-reading or directions she said to her GPS “nearest entrance to Great Smokey Mountains” and off we went. It was already getting to be late afternoon.
The route took us to a road with a sign saying Great Smokey Mountains National Park, but nothing else. To our dismay this road soon turned into a single serpentine lane along the edge of a steep bank on a hillside and getting narrower and narrower with more and more switchbacks. At some point we expected a ranger station, but no such luck. Instead we had to negotiate passing space with hunters and their pickup trucks and hunting dogs heading back the other way. We tried to question one hunter that was squeezing past us, but he had no interest in helping two lost senior ladies and just kept on going without answering our question about where this road ended up. We thought we heard banjo music in the background.
With no other clear choice we just kept going, and the road kept getting more treacherous and the day was getting later. At one point there was a small pull-off on the road where many people apparently have stopped before us. Three horses were positioned at the edge of their pasture, right beside this spot and a sign that said “Do not Feed.” Obviously this sign was largely ignored and the horses were waiting for handouts.
A bit further along we passed a giant statue carved from a tree trunk and a sign for “Bigfoot Trails” and we knew we were getting deeper and deeper in trouble. But it was difficult to even attempt a U-turn on this narrow road perched on the edge of a mountainside. So, on we went, expecting something, I’m not sure what, at the end of the road. Luckily at last a ranger headed toward us and we flagged him down. It’s a good thing we did. It turns out that this road continues on for another eight miles or so and then it dead ends except for an even more treacherous 30 mile long road leading to Tennessee. At our rate of travel, it would be dark before we found the end of the road and got back out again. At long last we managed a U-turn and crept back down the long windy road again, happy to once again be back in civilization.
Back safely at home a few days later I perused the Great Smokey Mountains National Park website and found this interesting tidbit, “Vehicle Navigation Systems and GPS units may provide inaccurate information in the mountains—sending drivers the wrong way on one-way roads or leading them to dead ends in remote areas.” It would have been good to know this beforehand. And it also would have been good to have a road map.
I’m sticking to my “thumbtack” way of travelling. Maybe I will not have as exciting adventures but at least I know I won’t end up at the end of the day on a dead end road in the middle of Bigfoot Country!
Pat Foster-Turley is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. email@example.com