And bears trump everything else – except wolves.
But it’s been a great day even without the bear (and there was a bear!).
I was back on Route 178 heading northwest at 0640 – which made me feel good. 178 and I had spent some good time together yesterday evening and now I left Batesburg/Leesville and headed up the road. It’s a nice road the 178 – easy to drive, nice scenery (grass fields and woods) and little traffic.
I passed several large bright yellow school buses picking up children. There’s a very nice rule that says that you can’t pass these buses while they are stopped and picking up – makes a lot of sense and says something about how America respects its children. So, when the school bus stops a ‘Stop’ sign emerges from its side, its lights flash and everyone stops – even traffic on the other side of the road – and even when it’s in the middle of the countryside with no other children in sight.
And I passed gourds hung up in groups on posts for purple martins to use as nests. This is something, I learned later in the day, that the Cherokee had done as an early form of pest control – those martins can gobble up insects.
And 178 showed me a sign ‘Cheerleader recruitment this Saturday’ which looked interesting.
Some of the bridges had signs warning that the ‘Bridge ices up before the road’ which seemed like a very paternal road sign for the land of free enterprise and the individual – but interesting nonetheless, although it was a lovely sunny day today.
178 occasionally tried to give me the slip – maybe I’m unkind – maybe it wasn’t intentional. Sometimes a little road like 178 goes hand in hand with a bigger road (like 25 thru’ Greenwood; general rule, big road=small number, big number=small road) and when that happens the little road gets second billing and you have to watch out for the signs for when the little road becomes its own man or woman again. But we stuck together.
North of Greenwood I found what I had been looking for – somewhere for breakfast that didn’t have neon lights, plastic seats or plastic food. 178 brought me to Lou and Perry’s restaurant which looked small, run-down and promising from the road but also looked busy – so I stopped.
It was vintage South. About 20 southerners having breakfast, coffee and conversation. I sat quietly by the window and pretended to read the Field Guide when I was really listening to the accents and the talk.
There were two waitresses, the young one (YO) and the not so young one (NSYO). Neither ‘honeyed’ me but NSYO ‘babyed’ me instead – I can take ‘babying’ but I think I prefer ‘honeying’.
YO explained with a smile that I couldn’t have my eggs sunny side up and medium as these are two mutually exclusive options – serves me right for thinking I’d learned the lingo. So I opted for 2 eggs (medium), hash browns and bacon, OJ and coffee.
Then I could listen to the conversation. Clearly, all but me were used to each others’ company and probably met up here most days. NSYO was on top of the banter, on top of the coffee refills and on top of the till. YO asked where I was from and what I was doing – she couldn’t quite imagine why anyone would vacation in South Carolina and I didn’t tell her that this breakfast was part of the authentic American experience that I wanted.
A large man in large dungarees and a large beard, who looked as though he tore up trees with his bare hands, paid, left and on exiting tossed a ‘Love you all’ over his shoulder. Who was I to argue but he was greeted with a chorus of ‘Love you too’s from the breakfasters.
YO asked me whether I’d been to Charleston and I said yes and that it was very old and attractive – she said she’d never been but had heard it was nice. She’d been to Myrtle Beach though. I’d driven through the strip of Myrtle Beach on Sunday and had hated it – but it must have seemed like a different world from Lou and Perry’s restaurant.
Now it would be easy for me to write that YO had a wistful look and was obviously longing to get away and see the world – but I don ‘t think she was. She seemed happy enough. And why not? I know nothing about her personal circumstances but what I saw at Lou and Perry’s demonstrated a greater sense of community than is common in many parts, even rural parts, of the UK.
Everyone who entered said hello to everyone else – everyone who left said goodbye. Two ladies breakfasting complimented NSYO on her new sandals and told her they made her feet look pretty. One customer asked another how she was feeling today and the second responded she was feeling ‘straight’ now – and several customers said that was good.
I was beginning to feel the pull of 178 and also that I was not an observer but an intruder – so I paid, tipped and left. I can’t imagine that I’ll ever pass that way again but the memory of that half an hour will last longer than many bird sightings on this trip.
So 178 and I continued our journey and through the prettiest part yet – the Sassafras Mountains. Great name – pretty place. At one point there was a wet patch of soil by the side of the road with about 200 American swallowtail butterflies on it – presumably licking salt. I don’t actually know what species they were but they look very like our swallowtails except they are – guess what? – yep, they’re bigger! And there were fewer of a large black and blue butterfly too.
But then we came to Rosman and 178 just stopped. The only options were 64 East or West. I looked up and down the map to look for where 178 might emerge from under 64’s shadow but that was it. I chose West knowing that that is the nature of road trips – you have to leave the good roads and non-wistful waitresses behind you and move on.
And we still haven’t got to the bear. Do you remember the bear? Are you even still with me?
A succession of roads whose numbers I can’t remember, I was still thinking of 178, brought me to Cherokee on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park where there are 1600 Black Bears – that’s apparently 2 bears each square mile of Park.
But before looking for a bear I visited the Museum of the Cherokee Indian – a great museum. I thoroughly recommend it. Learn about how a water beetle created the world, a buzzard created the hills and valleys and a water spider brought fire to the Cherokee.
I stopped at the Park entrance and got some information from a helpful young man and headed into the Park. It’s the busiest National Park in the USA and it was quite busy today – although I guess I don’t know the half of it.
I drove and then walked up to the highest point – over 6000ft – at Clingman’s Dome. And saw some birds – remember birds? And hold on for bear!
It was mid-afternoon by now – the worst time of day but I got brilliant views of Chestnut-sided Warbler (which I’d heard well and seen badly at the Maintenance Yard at Rock Creek Park), Hooded Warbler and Canada Warbler. All stunning views of stunningly beautiful birds – these American warblers get a grip of you – they have got a grip of me. I can see why Wallace is back at Rock Creek Park every morning in spring.
There was another birder – Justin – who was taking a 6 month trip and whose Sibley I borrowed to ID the Canada Warbler – although it was gratifying that when I described it he said that it was a Canada and that he’d only seen one so far this year. We spoke briefly about birds, as birders do, and then went our own ways.
My way took me into the Tennessee side of the Park and at another visitor centre I checked my strategy with a young lady ranger. She told me that I might well find accommodation in Townsend and that’s how I got to the Riverstone Lodge where I am writing this blog.
How careless – I missed out the bear! On my way to Townsend I was just pondering on the odds of seeing a bear if there is one every half a square mile – how many square miles of forest had I looked at already for heaven’s sake? But ahead of me a fat man was pointing a camera into the woods. Now it didn’t look like a particularly special view so I guessed ‘bear’ – and as I pulled in I could see the bear in the woods – moving slowly from left to right.
It was a young black bear – and it was lovely. We watched it for a few minutes before it shambled out of our sight. A bear! Never seen one of those before.
Breakfast, butterflies, bear or birds – which is best? For me, it’s the combination. Enjoying what’s different and what’s the same, and accepting either as an interesting part of the jigsaw of how things fit together. Too many birders are blinkered to the people around them and too many people are blinkered to nature. I have plenty of blindspots but on this trip I am trying to keep my eyes and ears open to people and nature.
And today’s soundtrack was the great Roy Orbison: tracks like Pretty Woman, Running Scared and Southern Man. What a voice.