Please don’t try this on your own... ...at least not without me. Had my dear friend Bill told me D-74 or B-74? I couldn’t remember, and I had forgotten the notes that had listed the number of his campsite at Cade’s Cove in the Smoky Mountains National Park.
“On Tuesday, we’re going to Cattaloochee to see the elk herd during rut, to hear them bugling.” Bugling.That part I recalled exactly as he’d said it. Accustomed as I’d been to photographing deer with Bill for more than 20 years at Cade’s Cove, I was determined to join him to take shots at much larger elk.
“Where is it?” I asked.
“Just off I-40, the Cattaloochee exit.”
I started my trip at 11:00 p.m. Monday night. By 5:00 a.m., under a solid black sky, I began my unsuccessful search for Bill’s campsite. After twenty minutes, frustrated and beyond sleepy, I decided to rest in the Cove parking lot. Around 8:00 a.m., I checked with the ranger in the office.
“It’s B-74,” she confirmed, “and the best way to Cattaloochee is here,” she told me as she pointed to a map she’d given me. “There’s the exit, number 20 on Cove Creek Road, off I-40, almost three hours from here.”
I grimaced. Not only had I not found my friends, but I’d also passed that exit on my way to meet them. Hurriedly, in hope of catching them, I drove to their campsite, now easily recognizable on that clear and bright sunny morning. All the gear was there, lantern, cookstove, and pop-up sleeper, now unhitched from its SUV. They’d left for Cattaloochee.
I returned to the guard post. “You might try taking 321 out of Townsend, seven miles from here. That’s easier than heading back to Gatlinburg, quicker too, I think.”
It was. Instead of three hours, I spent two hours and forty five minutes retracing my route, most of it on I-40 East.
“Yes, you missed it,” said the friendly clerk at the convenience store less than half mile on the two laner after I’d taken exit 20. “You want to see the elk, don’t ya?” he asked.
“Yes. My friends are there already.”
“Well, you’ll take that winding road up the mountain, then get on a narrow dirt and gravel trail that’s just as crooked. You’ll see signs. Can’t miss it.”
He was right. It may have taken another thirty minutes, but I didn’t care. Occasionally I stopped to take a picture of the breathtaking views; I felt embraced by the calm sun. I was in no hurry to race up the steady climbing road. Eventually, I passed a campsite by a stream. After a few more miles, I spotted a short truck sporting two antlers as cargo. Written on the tailgate twice were the words, Elk Bugle Corps.
“They’ll be in the fields, a little farther down the road,” said one of the two rangers in charge of the truck. They were volunteers charged with keeping people on the dirt roads alongside the field, away from the elk. “They can be dangerous,” he said, as he pointed to the antlers. “We caught a poacher with this one,” he said, as he picked up one of the almost four feet long antlers. “Saved these after the autopsy.”
“They’ll be out when it cools down,” he assured me.
I drove a little further until I spotted a very old barn and a string of vehicles parked just beyond it. On my right was a flat, almost amber field, its dry grass six to eight inches high. Beyond that were the mountains, thick with vegetation and tall trees just beginning to show their fall colors. On my left was a twelve foot wide stream.
I pulled onto the well worn dirt area by the wooden barn. At first, I was distracted by the barn’s uneven planks, some wide, some narrow, all uneven, its loft, two stories high. Lots of shade was inside. Someone was sound asleep where hay might have been more than 100 years earlier.
Less than a minute later, after I stopped and slowly stretched out of my car, I spotted Bill and my other buddies, Jack and Lewis. I’d come to the right place; their smiles told me that.
I forgot how long it had taken me to get there.
B. Koplen 10/6/11