Now, I had found myself walking through worse valleys in worse places before I made my way into this one. And you can be damned sure they weren’t as peaceful as the Cataloochee.
This here story I’m about to unfold took place in the early summer of 2012. I had set myself to make a pilgrimage of sorts from my home in west Tennessee, across the expanse of the Appalachian Mountains and into North Carolina...and regrettably back again. The trip would clock in at just over a thousand miles and amounted to a big loop across the state. I knew I had a hard drive just to get to North Carolina and after that I really had no idea how exactly to get into the valley. Still, it was one king hell bastard of a challenge and I was not going to let it get the better of The Moose.
Before I stitch in the particulars, aside from the inherent juvenile humor that comes from just saying “Cataloochee”, let me tell you a little bit about the place that was the aim of this particular trip. Firstly, its not big...at all. It’s just a little corner of ground that for one reason or another became carved out from the granite of the mountains. It had been a settlement for...well, settlers going back to the 1700’s and is fairly comparable to the Cade’s Cove settlement in Tennessee that holds onto my recollection so tightly. It is in fact called the “Cade’s Cove of the Carolinas. The great thing about it is that because it’s so hard to reach, the tourists haven’t got their filthy feet onto it yet. It’s literally just as it was when the last of the farmers left as late as the early 1930’s. It’s so remote that it was chosen for the first reintroduction of Elk into the Park as well as wolves. It’s peaceful. And peaceful is always what I try to find. So I went.
Here’s the story of before I made to the valley. I drove. And then drove some more. The end.
After I crossed into NC I was almost completely sure I was lost and I mean Moses in th By God desert lost. Of course I was alone, as usual(with rare and usually futile exception). Even for me, as a proud shunner of most devices that put me in contact with other people(but I have a blog...hmmmm) when you first realize your cellular has lost it’s signal for good it’s somewhat of a jolt. You’re on your own and it takes a few hours to get used to it no matter what the so called bad asses might say. I drove around in circles on this little paved road through what I guess would be called a neighborhood. They were really just little houses dotted along the steep green hills and I couldn’t help but expect some Hobbit-like creature to wobble out from behind one of the buildings. I consulted the map and remembered that that I was not in fact a pussy and that I hadn’t came all this for for not. I picked a direction and started driving. Soon enough the pavement gave way to gravel and then the gravel to mud. I knew I was headed the right direction when I saw this sign.
It was indeed the right direction, but it definitely was not the best route. Unknowingly, I had chosen to take my truck up the ass-crack of one of the shittiest roads that one can find in the Smoky Mountains. It was winding, and steep, and muddy, and winding, and steep...and muddy...and steep...and shitty.
Not that I minded it but there was still the lingering anxiety that I was driving into nothingness with daylight quickly dropping below the horizon.
Fast forward about an hours worth of four-wheel drive. There is a fresh sheen of grey mud covering my truck but I’m finally in the Cataloochee Valley. I locate the campground and of course blow right past the ranger station to find my campsite along the river. I’m planning on getting up before daylight so I saunter on over to the “ranger station” to get some information and claim my reservation. I am, for the most part, politely informed that I had committed a campground sin by not stopping before going to my campsite. So with the humbleness of a crippled nun I apologize for my misdeed. “I need these people” I remind myself. You see even in these types of places there is an open and closed mentality. Usually they unlock the gate at sunrise and lock it again at sunset. Which is fine...for normal folk. But I am here to make photographs of the valley and I need to be in there before the sun comes up. So, I limber up my words and harang the ranger with phrases like “I’m a photographer” and “natural grandeur” and “I’ll pay you to let me in”. Luckily, they settled for “I’m a photographer” and said they would leave the gate dummy locked and I should help myself. Which was a good thing because I was nearly as penniless then as I am now.
I make camp and sleep relatively rock-like to the sound of the river. I had my phone set for 4:30am and up there an alarm clock is all they’re good for. I break camp in a blur, shatter the globe to my luxury lantern, and then make a bee line to the gate. And what do you know, they actually left it unlocked. It’s overcast and the sun has just started creeping over the mountains. I was actually a little late because it was already light enough to see which I still regret. There were some elk grazing in the early morning sun and I made some less than great photos. Of course, the overcast sky began to turn stormy. So I made my way along.
The place still sports old houses, churches, and a school house. They all, for the most part, look like the people just got up and left. I navigate my way through the valley making pictures and enjoying the absolute quietness of the place. Nobody else is here. That’s something that I’ve always revelled in when I find myself in these kinds of places. I don’t expect you to understand what exactly I mean but that’s where I finally find my peace.
So, I begin to duck into these old houses and churches and the old school. I’m not ashamed to admit it...I was thoroughly scared. It’s hard to explain and maybe it was because of the sheer remoteness, but it was downright creepy. It felt like I was trespassing if that makes any sense. Still, it was extraordinary and despite that fact that I went from zero to sissie in about three seconds when I heard a “bump” in the attic of one of the houses, I had a fine time exploring the expanse of the old settlements. And I’m not saying that the houses are haunted...but they’re haunted.
I struck out of the valley in the late evening. I found an easier road and made a quick passage back into Tennessee and on to Townsend for a much needed three day escape.
I’ll find my way back eventually.