When I asked biologist Drew Crain and his son Jared, 19, what constitutes the ideal camping experience, Drew said good food—and Jared, who first said there was no ideal, added that adversity makes a trip better.
We had just pitched our tents at Abrams Creek Campground on the Blount County side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We were on Cooper Road Trail, on our way to Little Bottoms Trail. We planned on hiking up Abrams Creek until we got to the place where, in 2011, an EF4 tornado laid waste to a 13-mile long swath of the Smokies.
I wasn’t hoping for adversity, especially not a tornado, but I knew what Jared meant. A little hardship, testing, or adventure—whether it came from weather, wildlife, or humans—always made a better story than the trip with perfect weather, convivial companionship, digestible food, and non-threatening wildlife sightings.
One ominous note that we avoided speaking of: The last time Jared had been here, in May, the campground was closed because of bear activity.
Nearing our destination on the hike, we climbed away and above the flowing creek and the shady, fragrant forest of towering hemlock and pine to a sun-parched landscape of scrubby new growth and ravaged timber, gray and rotting for hundreds of acres.
If anyone had been backcountry camping near here or at the campground on April 27, 2011, he or she would have had a story to tell, for tornadoes are rare in the Smokies, and this one had left its mark.
Back at the campsite, we collapsed into a slack water section of the creek to cool off. In the valley, the temperature was in the mid 90s, far from ideal for camping, but here the creek, the forest, the breeze, and the elevation—1,125 feet—made it perfect for lounging around camp.
Most less-than-ideal camping trips, we agreed, came not from weather, wildlife, or camping ineptitude. Misery in the outdoors came from other people.
Across the way from us, a lone camper with two dogs had set up such a compound that it looked like he had taken up permanent residence. He had a dark green, militaristic-looking RV and a canopy extending from it that was half the size of a tennis court. One of his dogs, lap-sized with wispy, combed-out fur, sounded a shrill and angry alarm every time I went to my car for something. The other one would join in just to add to the merriment.
Drew said that on one Abrams Creek overnighter they had to listen to camping neighbors play a kind of truth/lie game called “I ain’t never!” long past the 10 p.m. quiet time.
The latter seemed like great entertainment to me, and the guy with the dogs, who was minding his own business, made me feel safer, given the bear activity in May.
I told Jared and Drew about my stay at Folsom State Park near Sacramento, on a 2008 car-camping loop around the states—it was there that I had settled among the most unhappy and potentially dangerous collection of neighbors ever assembled. First I met a down-on-his-luck TV producer camping out of a van that he insisted was “not his life.” On the other side was the most beautiful family I have ever seen—wife, husband, two boys, and a girl—who would make the families on Dr. Phil seem highly functional. And down the way, a trio—two men and a woman—argued and wrestled drunkenly deep into the night.
“Don’t even look that way,” the producer hissed when I expressed some concern. “If they see you use your phone, they will shoot your ass.”
I spent an uneasy night at Folsom, but the next morning, everyone was still alive, and on a jog, I saw the only mountain lion I’ve ever seen in the wild. The lion sighting, I thought, was a sort of payback for the uneasy night, though I felt sorry for him, too.
While we were treading water in the Abrams Creek, two boys who resembled Sumo wrestlers joined us in the water. Their parents had brought them here for an after-school picnic at one of the campsites. Never have I seen such an exhibition of joy in the water: splashing, yelling, skipping rocks. “Someday I’m gonna climb that mountain!” said the biggest boy, pointing at the nearly vertical, rhododendron-clogged bank rising 500 feet above the far side of the creek.
He looked at our site with the three hammocks, two tents, and the picnic table full of gadgets and cooking implements, and asked, “How long you staying?”
“Only one night,” Drew said. “But you have to put up the tents or it will rain.”
Drew started a stew of andouille sausage, onions, tomatoes, okra, and potatoes in a cast-iron Dutch oven that he nestled in a bed of white-hot charcoal. I replicated this recipe the next evening, and it didn’t taste nearly as good prepared and consumed indoors.
We fished for a while, with no luck, and retired to the fire ring as the day dimmed and the hikers and picnickers and swimmers left. The only sounds were our stories of good and bad camping trips, punctuated by an American toad’s bellicose commentary and the distressed remarks of a whip-poor-will. The dogs were quiet.
In the hammock, I fell asleep after a bit and awoke once to some splashing in the creek. I was so comfortable in a light sleeping bag—the creek shoals murmuring several yards upstream—that I didn’t even care what it was. The next morning, Drew, armed with bear repellent in his hammock, a few feet away from me, said he thought he heard a bear arising from the creek and shaking off water, but he didn’t get up either.
Rarely do I sleep much on campouts, but this time I awoke rested, and other than a bee sting and running out of water the last mile of our hike, I was unable to conjure any adversity on this trip. Oh yeah, somebody forgot the s’mores.
Still, I highly recommend Abrams Creek Campground, with its 16 sites, more than half of them right next to the water. Drew and Jared said they had never seen it full, even on weekends. There are restrooms with flush toilets and at each site fire rings and picnic tables, no electrical hookups or showers. An overnight stay costs $14, and it’s only about a 25-minute drive from Maryville on Montvale Road, which turns into Happy Valley Road.
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