The motivation for this trip began with a desire to visit Ruby Falls over 400 miles from home. I knew it would not be an all day venture and couldn’t guarantee that this one place would be worth the gas money alone. Nothing like a promise of sleeping on rocks and hanging with bugs all day to get me excited for a weekend getaway; off to camping in the Great Smoky Mountains.
The first stop would be Ninety Six National Historic Site with a full cicada chorus in mid-performance upon our arrival. There were live ones, dead ones, empty exoskeletons, photo-friendly ones, and ones eaten by Piggy to ensure she wouldn’t become malnourished on this short trek over already proven battlegrounds. We would drive through North Carolina and arrive in Gatlinburg overrun with tourists making up for some bad-weather days, and stop for some Mellow Mushroom pizza to-go. We set up tent and headed into the woods. I’m looking for bears or alligators or bobcats; we find flowers, waterfalls, and sooner than we thought – darkness. The bridges we cross on foot are as wide as one dog; Piggy would appreciate her harness keeping her from taking a plunge.
We would return to camp and Caleb would succeed in building the smallest fire, with wet wood, out of the other two near us. We would roast some marshmallows and burn others. We put the remaining pizza in the car along with the rest of the sticky, sugary treats to keep them from late-night visitors and crawled into the tent. Around 2:00 am I am woken to the sound of ‘scratch, scratch, shake, shake’ and then repeat. I wake Caleb to tell him that we are possibly being robbed of the dogs food by raccoons.
The noise didn’t wake him and he would have been just fine waking up without the dog food available in the morning. He makes a bit of noise, in hopes to scare them off and not get scratched or get rabies, and stumbles in the dark until he finds the dog-food dish half-shoved in the dirt. He comes back to the tent and with the dish still intact, tosses it near our feet and goes back to sleep. The sound will still be fresh in my mind in the morning and make me wish that I had an infrared camera for such moments.
We see plenty of trillium, mountain laurel, goslings, wild turkey, and hungry deer before lunch. There will be cyclists on steep grades, horseback riders running around hairpin turns, and a seniors day special at the visitor center with music, arts, crafts, and an ambulance – just in case. We take in the sounds and splendor and then decide it’s time for our car to take a trip down Parsons Branch Primitive road. One sign tells us the eight miles will take an hour, I’m excited. Another sign warns of limited emergency services and I worry more about the car’s undercarriage than I do the health of the eight curious eyes riding in the security of this steel cage.
Lucky for us, there are windows on this entrapment to get a better peek at the world around us. This is a one-way road with vertical embankments, sharp curves, steep climbs, a few ditches, and many potholes but only some worthy of attempting to get our car stuck until towed or send us smashing into the beautiful earth and leaving our vehicle useless. Fortunately, I am able to slam on the gas just right to get us uphill without sliding on the gravel and downhill I ride the brakes to keep us moving forward, but not too fast.
We arrive at Ruby Falls in time for the 1 o’clock tour. There are kennels available and we get a key in exchange for Caleb’s ID. An employee walked us to the area where they have four 7-foot tall chain-link metal kennels set next to each other. Three of the kennels are full and our dogs don’t get along well with others (they have both been bit) so we put them into carriers that are in the last kennel. I believe the carriers are for smaller breeds so they won’t escape. When we return our dogs will be the only ones there; and they will be out of the tight, moist box of deprivation and enjoying the shade.
As miserable as it seems the dogs might have been we were busy in the cool temperatures of the underground enjoying ourselves. I should’ve known with all the publicity that the place would be packed with tourists, but I thought they may have some restrictions for the protection of the cave. There are big welcoming TVs set in the rocks, lots of kids touching all the walls, group photos to be taken and overpriced, and signs under each formation of what someone else thought you might see. I prefer a cave of wonder that allows me to use my imagination.
Regardless, the cave has a rich history and plenty of places left unexplored. We get to see where the first explorers wrote their names and where they put dynamite to gain better access to the larger areas. There are stalactites and stalagmites that you always expect to find in a cave, but also found here are mini-landscapes, a small wishing pond, bacon and soda straws, and animals of all sizes covered in different amounts of calcite which gave the appearance of leaking milk.
When we actually arrive to the waterfall all is dark. When the guide is sure the group is caught up they give a big introduction with a musical light show. Then you are allowed to walk around the waterfall and look up into the droplets as they hit your face. After the finale it seems it is a quick left to the exit. We make a detour to one of the many spots dedicated to monuments of the Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park – Lookout Mountain Battlefield where we will see a squirrel posing for photos, an Eastern Towhee, and too many ticks for comfort; a sign for us to leave.
We would spend the rest of the evening at Little River Canyon National Preserve witnessing horses farting on llamas and a caterpillar inching its way to the other side of the trail. After a day of adventure the dogs have no problem going to sleep on the soft bed in the quiet Econo Lodge Motel while Caleb and I relax. There is plenty more to see of the Canyon in the morning. We are up early for waterfalls, mushrooms, and a symbiotic relationship between a rock and a tree.
To finish off this weekend adventure we head to Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site to remind ourselves of the progress a well-spoken reverend made many years ago that some choose to respect and celebrate and that others choose to discredit by defiling areas with his namesake. Outside we stood in partial fear and amazement at the scene unfolding. It started out as any other American Robin would and then before our eyes plucked a beetle and a worm right out of the dirt to enjoy a combo of crunch and slime. Time for us to get some lunch of our own and head home.