Great Smoky Mountains National Park, NORTH CAROLINA

The lower and greener side of Great Smoky Mountains NP

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“When the rain comes
They run and hide their heads
They might as well be dead”
—John Lennon

Water, moistness, cool air. This is the story of a remarkable time spent over two days in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Park showed us some of its best, diabetes did some interesting things that I managed pretty well (with exceptions), and there were some unexpected wildlife encounters that made it all that much more special.

And thanks to the misty clouds Masayo and I didn’t even get to see the famous views over mountain ridges of varying purples and greys. But we hardly had time to fret about that.

After visiting family for several days I was itching to get back on the road, and Great Smoky Mountains NP was the first stop for Masayo and I after the break. And what a spectacular visit it was – only another dumb and unforgivable diabetes mistake marred the trip.

It began on Day 37 when we made it to Oconaluftee Visitor Center in North Carolina shortly before their 6:00 pm closing time. Always late for everything – that’s us. But the ranger was really nice there, and advised us about some waterfalls we might be able to check out tomorrow.

From there it was a ninety-minute drive to Cataloochee Campsite, where I’d made a reservation. It was raining and the mountains were misty; we’d gotten the last available space on recreation.gov and I wondered if some of the other people might not show up due to the weather.

But they mostly all seemed to be there, despite the soggy rain. The campsite was nice – quiet, unlike some others, due perhaps to the somber and humbling wetness of the jungle dusk.

After setting up our brand new tent – Masayo hates the original one we were using – for the first time ever we sat down for dinner. It wasn’t raining at the moment so we heated up soup and had chicken salad sandwiches my mom had given us. It was all delicious – every kind of food tastes a thousand times better in a camping situation. That’s just how it is.

The new tent was great; it kept the rain off when it did fall and is quite a bit more spacious than the first one. Unfortunately, my blood sugar, which had been 69 before eating, was high after dinner: 241. Disappointed, I thought back to dinner and realized I’d forgotten to factor in the sandwich when I shot up the Humalog. What a stupid mistake. But at least the 241 was righteous: indeed, that’s what it should have been.

I sighed and had a couple more units and we went to sleep, listening to the rain hitting the tent outside and the roar of the nearby creek, and nothing else whatsoever.

The next morning we set up the rain fly with tent poles and prepared breakfast while the rain fell: oatmeal with dried fruit, plus a cereal bar each, and hot coffee. My BG was still high but I blamed the sandwich nonsense plus the excitement of sleeping outside.

One Drop says 234, but who can complain when coffee and oatmeal are on their way?

Masayo got out of the tent at one point and some water that had pooled on the rainfly spilled onto her. That would have grave consequences later.

We drove to a nearby campsite called Big Creek to start a two-mile hike. Masayo wasn’t sure she wanted to go in the rain but I assured her it would be stopping soon. (The weather report said so.) As we began to walk, however, I suddenly realized I’d forgotten to eat the cereal bar at breakfast, though I had taken insulin for it. That’s no way to start a long hike through the forest.

I ate two cereal bars, just to give my BG a boost for the work I was going to be doing, and we hit the trail. It was quite a place: a nice wide dirt trail, wet leaves flinching under the falling raindrops all around us and thick green as far as you can see. Nearby a creek hissed loudly. Having seen several bear signs (and even a pamphlet at the campsite) I scanned the sides of the trail, trying to talk unnaturally loudly to scare any would-be ursine attackers off before trouble began.

After a few minutes I checked and was a mere 64. Figures. I had about seven glucose tables, aiming for a reading of about 200 since I knew the exertion of the walk would be tugging it down anyway.

Masayo had noticed that her iPhone was acting funny – half the screen was dark, it wasn’t responding to touch, then it seemed to die altogether. We realized that the water that had spilled on her from the tent must have splashed her phone. She was in a mild state of shock much of the rest of the day. But here in the middle of the woods there was nothing to do. She used my phone to take pictures as we talked about what data might be lost forever on hers.

Mouse Creek Falls.

On we pressed. After about ninety minutes we arrived at Mouse Creek Falls, a lovely and tall (and unmarked) waterfall to the left of the trail. We pulled up, took our photos, and relaxed a few minutes, chatting with the one other person there, a guy who had hiked in and was rifling through plastic bags of beef jerky for his own mid-morning snack.

My BG felt fine by now and I didn’t even bother to check it as we started back towards the car. Stopping to take photos less often we made it back within an hour and sat down for a creekside picnic lunch. My BG was 73 – as if I’d never had the glucose or the walk at all. Excellent balance, if I do say so myself.

BG 73 after hiking for three hours.

After the picnic we headed by car over the state line into Tennessee, bound for a scenic drive and another hike to another waterfall, Grotto Falls. By now it was indeed sunny and nice; the trail was rather muddy in places but that’s just how it goes. Neither of us cared; normally in ones citified life getting mud all over your shoes is a major hassle. Suddenly for us, it’s a mundane afternoon if not a badge of honor.

At the end of the winding 1.4-mile hike over the mud and bumpy exposed roots stood Grotto Falls, and impressively forceful spectacle that bows so far out from the rock above that you can walk behind it and see Great Smoky Mountains National Park from a waterfall’s perspective. The water was cold and the mist inescapable as we bounded around the rocks and I kept trying to take photos but not get the camera wet.

Majestic Grotto Falls.

There are scenic drives one can take in Great Smoky Mountains from which you can see the views over the mountaintops. But I’ve seen it several times; living in northern Georgia and being struck by wanderlust for so long, I’ve motored up to the Park many a weekend, with friends or alone, and driven around. This time I wanted to see something different, and the ranger’s suggestion about waterfalls (“less busy,” he, after a long day’s working the desk at the visitor center, noted with a touch of longing) had been excellent.

Many visitors – and it’s the most-visited Park in the United States – spend their Saturdays at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in traffic jams, waiting for others to move so they can get photos at pull-outs, and looking for parking spaces at the visitor center. We spent our Saturday here strolling through light rain and then clear sunshine, rarely seeing others and discovering waterfalls with almost nobody else around.

My old life, spent largely in coffee shops, on the internet, and in traffic, is starting to seem sillier and sillier out here.

Everyone’s experience at a given Park is different, and I’ve never felt that so dramatically as I did at GSM. I know what the Park has to offer but still managed to learn a whole set of new things on this trip there. And that goes for anyone – if you visit this Park ten times you can have ten different, unrelated experiences. It’s big, and it’s varied, and there is a lifetime of things to see within its fertile green boundaries.

R.I.P. Masayo’s iPhone

We went to an Apple store the next day and Masayo had to buy a whole new phone. She recovered some but not all of her photos. She is slowly recovering her sanity after the ordeal.

Be careful when camping and having phones around, especially in the rain. It can be an expensive mishap, damaging a phone out in the wild.

When is the last time you were outside in the rain getting wet?
Share your travel stories, give advice, or ask a question in the comments section.

Next page: Day 40: A tour of Mammoth Cave without a blood sugar check

“I was worried how my blood sugar would behave on a tour of Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. Help was eight hours away but it all went pretty smoothly.”

About the author

Jeremy has traveled to over 40 countries, taken several road trips across the United States (and Canada), and lived on and off in Japan for several years. He was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 1982 but doesn't let a little thing like that stop him from exploring the world.

Jeremy writes about his travels with diabetes on 70-130.com as a way of logging his excursions and of inspiring others who might be feeling hesitant to take their own big bite out of life.

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