Monday, May 25, 2009

A loong looong drive

It took another long drive and another trip to make me start writing this one. I had thought about writing a log for my camping trip to the Smoky Mountains. But I inadvertently mentioned it to Dana on Facebook, and then suddenly half the world knew about it. And expected me to write this brilliant piece. And this put me off from writing it. Until, I had to go to Jupiter, Florida for a conference. The trip there, with my advisor and lab-mates, reminded me how I had made notes to myself while going to the Smokies and got me back to wanting to write about it. I almost was gonna write it at the hotel the night before I was supposed to present my paper.

So, the grand plan was that 17 of us (initially there were 24, but many chickened out... they missed out on something real cool) would camp out in the Smokies, at the Deep Creek Campground in Bryson City, NC, hike around to the nearby waterfalls and hike up to Mt LeConte, one of the highest mountains east of the Mississippi. I have camped 3 times previously and I know that a large group does not necessarily mean a fun group while camping. I was extremely wary of this trip. But, I realised that the one time when I did not enjoy the experience, the people in the group had been forced to come since they had been told that camping is fun. All of them did not want to camp, but since it was supposed to be fun, and since the others were doing it, they trudged along. And complained.

This time around everyone had come in on their own volition. Also, Dana had taken the role of the trip-mom. Well, she calls us her kids anyway and does a heck of a job doing that. Vikas and I were gonna drive the bunch up and I decided to not involve in the decision and planning process too much. Well, too many cooks... you know the rest. Dana almost single-handedly got all the stuff needed, and Sanketh helped her quite a bit.

The point is, on 11th May 2009, 13 of us managed to wake up and get ready by 5 am and leave for the Smokies. We left an hour late, at 6 am but that wasn't too terrible. Early morning driving is difficult. There are still very few people on the road, the ones in the car, including me, are sleepy. Add to that the fact that the occupants in the car have to warm up to each other. If its close friends, you hit the right note quickly, but otherwise you just poke around for sometime till you figure out what to talk. An 8 hour drive is a long one, and you better have common things of interest.

Our first stop was at Waffle House, just a few miles into Georgia on the I-75. I needed coffee. And coke... Turns out that if you take coffee and Coca Cola, the sugar-caffeine blast kicks in fast. Varun decided that he was hungrier than us and got a to-go breakfast that he ate in the car. The coffe-coke worked and I was back to driving safely. The first music cd had done its loop once and we had decided that it sucked. All boring, sad songs. The second CD had a couple of good songs, but we soon realised that every alternate song was "Mitva" from the movie Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna. Its a good song.. but not when you hear it so many times. And when the CD starts to skip tracks.

Thats when we started slowly getting tipped over to the crazy side. Though we were still a bit too hungry to do anything. So around 11ish, after a series of phone calls between the three different cars, we decided to take the first exit where we could find a Subway. Exit 187 it was, and there we say Waffle House again. So except for a few, who went to Subway as decided, all of us trudged into Waffle house. In between the general banter about how boring driving on the interstate is, we decided to take a scenic route. The exit 187 is the exit to highway US 83 (or SR 83, I'm not sure), which goes up to Athens, GA (home of the Georgia Bulldogs). This road goes via towns like Monticello and others with funny names like Shady Dale (Trust me, a sign that says Bank of Shady Dale is eerily similar to Bank of Shady Deal).

The road is a bit narrow, winding and has beautiful houses on both sides. The maps shows me that all that greenery and scenic views are because the road goes through Oconee National Forest and is next to Piedmont Wildlife Refuge. Just before starting this leg of the journey, we had got some more CDs from the other car. And with food in our bellies, awesome scenic views, and a new CD with all songs supporting Obama, we just went crazy. Singing, dancing, screaming, clapping, random photo-clicking, hitting the cushions of the driver's seat, beat-boxing - all those things happened. And that kept me awake. Somewhere before Athens, we joined on to US 441, which goes all the way into Smokies, and beyond. I think I have a love-hate relationship with that road. On almost all trips I have been on, except the one to California, I have driven past or on that road. Its like everwhere! This angers and pleases me simultaneously.

Anyway, we stopped at a mall/ store called Ingles.. something like Walgreens or Publix or similar for a small break. We knew that the "Destination" was about an hour away. With everyone in high spirits, munching on popcorn and other snacks bought at Ingles, we drove ahead. We played catch up with the other car, occasionally breaking our "Follow the white car" rule. We reached Deep Creek Campground at around 5 or 6 pm, I do not recall. But we had enough sunlight and time to set up tent and plan for a small hike to a nearby waterfall. I discovered here that I have been setting up a tent the wrong way for the past 1.5 years. Interestingly, none of the other times did we have a problem. So its not all that bad.

We went to the Juney Whank Waterfalls. Its less than a mile for the campground and is pretty beautiful. There is a small bridge that goes over the stream and a trail takes you ahead to the other waterfalls and points of interest. We did not go ahead. An extended photo session commenced with some of us going to extreme spots to get that perfect photo. As light started fading, we walked back to camp, and prepared dinner. Beans, rice (cooked the previous night), tortillas, carrots with hummus, salsa and such came to the rescue. The long drive had me exhausted, and by 9.30 pm I was ready to fall down. The others were setting up a campfire as I crashed. I do not know how many stayed up that night and for how long.

All I know was that it was getting chilly, and I was awake enough to decide to wear layers, a beanie and slip into my nice, warm cozy sleeping bag for a night that was gonna have temperatures of around 5 Celsius (41 F).