Monday, October 10, 2011

third and final part: elk at Cattaloochee

 No longer less traveled       Although I was tempted to take a few more pictures of Cattaloochee elk before leaving their mountain plateau, I resisted. Saving my last few shots on a roll of film (I don’t use a digital camera) has been my policy for decades. What if, I reason, I find one last shot before daylight fades to dark?
That’s why I pulled off the road just a few miles from where I’d last seen the compact herd. Across the two lane highway were a group of wild turkeys. With luck, I’d be able to get close enough to capture them full frame with my macro lens.
And I did! To my surprise, they didn’t flee; I’ve seen many that did.
Catching them completed my feast of images; my day had been a success. As hurried as I’d been to get to Cattaloochee, I glided slowly down the mountain trail as if names of paths there, Tater Patch, Coldwater Creek, and Rough Creek, were lines from a familiar poem I wanted to savor.  Even the five miles per hour sign ahead of its U-turns seemed the right pace for the end of that clear fall day.
When I saw the Cove Creek Road, I turned toward Asheville rather than Cade’s Cove. Although home was still five hours away, I wanted to try to make the trip. Only one thing stopped me: an exit sign that read, Lake Junaluska and Hot Springs. Although I’d passed that same exit many times before, never had Hot Springs seemed such an inviting destination. Never before had it seemed so irresistible. 
Getting there meant traveling a road that announced to truckers that it wasn’t recommended for them. As it wound through unspoiled countryside, the two lane highway climbed straight up and straight down for miles. There were no places to stop, no shoulders to rest on, no gas stations for brief respites. A sports car would have been gleeful there.
And there were no mile markers; Hot Springs seemed like an unattainable wish. When I finally spotted an advertisement for Hot Springs with an arrow that pointed to the right, I didn’t hesitate to turn onto the parking lot of a convenience store just across from the Route 209 sign.
“That goes to Hot Springs?” I asked the man behind the counter.
“Yep,” he smiled, then said, “24 miles, and about 295 turns.”
“Have you been there?” I asked.
“I been meaning to,” he said, “but the curves, and my business,” he said, pointing toward a half dozen customers with no where else to go for sundries. Then he answered my other question. “Interstate 40 is that way.”
The opposite direction from 209.
But that was the route I chose; all 295 curves of it. There may have been more; I stopped counting when it became obvious that he had estimated the number, that it may have been much higher.
And it was 25 miles, more than enough to convince me that going anywhere else that night was impossible. Literally, I felt that I couldn’t see straight. But I could see the billboard sized sign on the other side of the railroad tracks that pointed to the gated entrance, still open, to Hot Springs Resort.
“Fed by the hot springs?” I asked.
One of the two men behind the counter handed me a price list. The other said, “Yes, we have fourteen hot tubs that are heated by the springs. And we only have one available. That’ll be in about 90 minutes.”
Quickly I glanced at the price list, It read, “$13.50 for an hour.” All I could imagine was an hour long soak, a watery salve for every ache I’d accumulated on the many mountain roads I’d travelled that day. I handed one of the men my credit card.
“That’ll be $32.50,” he said, without looking up.
“But it says here that it’s only $13.50.”
“That’s right. Before six. Goes up after that,” he said, pointing to his watch.
“Why so much?” I asked.
“Because we can,” he answered sarcastically.
Perhaps I should have left, and might have had I not been so tired. Instead, I asked about rooms, dreading what Mr. Because We Can might quote.
“$100.” He paused. “Or you could stay in a cabin across the street. But we don’t provide the bedding. 45 bucks.”
Fortunately, I had my sleeping bag. After soaking in the hot tub, I knew it wouldn’t matter where I slept. I paid the man, left to find my cabin, then enjoyed sweet potato fries and kale at a restaurant on the other side of the tracks, less than 100 yards from the resort. A guitar and harmonica duo played old folk songs.
When I slipped into the hot tub, hidden behind a wooden enclosure, I let all of its jets do their work. After forty minutes, I felt like a rag doll. Five minutes later, I landed on my sleeping bag; it felt like a cloud.
For five hours, I slept as if the feel of every turn and every bend I’d ridden had been connected to create a lullaby’s rhythm. At 3:30 a.m. I left Hot Springs.
And I didn’t take 209. Instead, I traveled a straighter road back to I-40. By daylight, I’d lost sight of the mountains to my back, home to the elk I’d left behind.
                  B. Koplen  10/10/11

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