This rally evolved a year ago when Tom and I went to Smokemont Campground in Great Smokey Mountains National Park for “The Rut”. We vowed to come back . . . and bring friends. In the early spring of ’21 I posted the “What the Rut” rally on Camp NOVA website, and early in April the window opened to make reservations . . . 6 Airstreams/11 people signed on. Later, more people would want to attend, but those Smokemont Campground reservations were all gone!
Elk had been absent from the Southern Appalachian Mountains for over 200 years when 25 were reintroduced in the Cataloochee area of the Great Smoky Mts. National Park in 2001. Later another 25 were introduced, and now there is a herd of about 200. They all seem to have stayed in the area near the Cherokee Indian Reservation.
Each year in September and October the males call their ladies and gather them into the low meadows and patiently watch over them as they come into season. Occasionally the big blokes fight off other mature guys and sometimes the younger boys lock horns and scuffle with each other. The cows lie around in the meadow resting and grazing and answering the Chief Elk’s commands to get on their feet and move around the field.
All of this takes place within 5 miles of Smokemont Campground! Action is at its best just before dusk or in the early morning.
This rally began with guests in our driveway Tuesday, October 6th – Larry & Mary. They joined us for dinner & a sleep-over, and at 8:00 this morning we paraded out of the driveway -- destination Cherokee, NC. Far on the South side of the GSMNP, there is just no easy way to get to Cherokee and Smokemont Campground.
I was able to sneak a picture of Larry and Mary behind us in our rear-view mirror as we approached Smokemont Campground.
Our site was on a wide end corner of the loop, and in the open with nice grass on either side. There was a narrow asphalt pad and no hookups! Across the street was a rushing river that I could hear through my bedroom window.
Larry and Mary had landed in their site down the road from us in a bit more woodsy setting. They brought their supper down to share our grill. At 7:30 it was completely dark and we settled into the Silvermine, tired from a long day’s drive.
Thursday, October 7
Thursday we woke up with a mission to scope out the details of the elk herd. We learned that it had gathered in the large field beside the Oconaluftee Visitor Center about two weeks ago. Since that time the bucks have been claiming does and herding them into smaller groups.
During the early morning buck and does were amazingly strung out along the main road where they posed for photos and caused a jostling of cars as people slowed down and pulled off the road. Park volunteers had the thankless job of motivating cars to keep moving our pull off and park – but lengthy traffic jams often occurred.
In the evening the elk hung out in two large fields off of the main road back by the Job Corps facility. The males bugled loudly and strutted possessively through their selection of does. We did not see any does that were interested! Sometimes the herds would be close to where we watched, and sometimes they were across the field in the tree-line.
This was the daily timetable for the 10 days that we were there. Sometimes we headed out as one group with 11 people/four trucks, and sometimes individuals and small groups went on their own. Here are some of the pictures that I was able to get.
Over the next few days Larry, Mary, Tom and I were joined by John and Suzie, Mike and Sue, Gary, and Jim and Alexa. By Sunday night we were all in place for a welcome dinner of Elk brats, Roosevelt beans, watermelon, cornbread (thank you Sue) and Lemon Cheesecake with blueberry topping (thank you Suzie!) The elk brats had a nice flavor, but were a bit "dense."
We finished our dinner and left for our first elk viewing at 6:45. It was very successful, and Gary promptly scored this video of a large bull elk welcoming us with a bugle! We were all blown away by that -- especially Gary!
All eleven trekked 10 miles to Bryson City for a shopping trip and dinner at a local brewery, where we managed to get a picture of the whole group.
One morning I served sausage gravy and biscuits to everyone, and 5 left for a hike to a cascade waterfall.
Another morning we drove into Cherokee for a Pancake House breakfast buffet. By 10:00 we were at the Cherokee Museum – touted to be one of the best “museum experiences” anywhere. It was good – but not THAT good! It was a lengthy, winding pathway with mostly exhibits on the walls to stop and read, and recordings to listen to.
Most evenings we gathered for dinner, each in charge of their own meal, sharing grills, food, and our day's activities. Around a campfire we made tentative plans for the next day.
On Thursday we all chipped in for a big breakfast and in the evening we had a pot-luck dinner with Tom cooking elk burgers. I had read the elk meat being so very lean, needed to have a little bit of fat worked into it. The suggestion was to make 1/4lb patties with a slice of butter in the middle.
At that point, the rally was essentially over. Mike and Sue had left after breakfast and the rest were leaving in the morning, except for Larry/Mary who would be staying one more night. Many of us would be meeting up again at the upcoming Alumalina . . . in less than a week!
We arrived home by 5:00 Friday, ready to spend 3 days restocking and cleaning for our last big rally of the season. . . . Alumalina. My only regrets about "What the Rut" is that I did not spend more time documenting the 10 days with more written details . . . and lots more pictures!
Sept 21, Tuesday
Heading for Land Between the Lakes in Western Tennessee/Kentucky, we realize that this is our last stop on the way home. Over the years we have toured some of the Tennessee western battle fronts of the Civil War (Shilo, Chickamauga, Vicksburg, Nashville) and there are two in this area that we wanted to add to our list . . . Fort Donaldson and Fort Henry. Unfortunately, Fort Henry is now underwater in the Land Between the Lakes!
Our campground is Paris Landing State Park. We arrived at 1:00 p.m. and it is well-maintained and only 3 other campers in residence – it seems to be a little bit past prime camping season! During the afternoon we did something we have not done this whole camping trip – we sat under the awning and enjoyed thunderstorms as they moved in and out of the area and cooled everything down.
Sept 22, Wednesday
Tom fixed a big breakfast, and by 9:00 we were off to tour Fort Donelson Battlefield. This battle (February 1862) marked the first big win for the Union in the Civil War, and it marked the rise of General Grant. The battlefield Visitor Center was under renovation, and a double-wide trailer served the limited purpose of getting us started on the battlefield tour. The map was marked with 10 informative stops along a circular route. It was a surprisingly short hold-out of 14,000 Confederate soldiers defending their riverway supply pipeline, and when it was over 13,000 Confederate soldiers surrendered and were sent off to Union prison camps.
Finished with the battlefield at 11:30, we headed back to the campground, hooked up, and headed for home! We drove through rain most of the time, arriving home at 9:30 p.m. Pippa has never been gone from home for so long, and she was one excited girl as she ran around the yard, through the house, and then back around the yard! Honestly, I think that is how Tom and I both felt, too!
Sept 20, Monday
At 10:00 we were off to discover some other delights of Memphis. Our first shock was driving through downtown with no traffic, and no people! ZERO! It was almost like a ghost town. Even around Memphis University, we saw no students hustling around!
.Thirty years ago, we attended a Spina Bifida Conference in Memphis, and remember how we enjoyed the recreation of the entire length of the Mississippi River on Mud Island. As we drove through the empty downtown streets to the parking spot to walk the pedestrian bridge over to the island, it was almost eerie with the lack of any people. It was cool and breezy on the long, covered bridge, and there were lots of places to stop for pictures.
We reached Mud Island at the top of a a large 5-story building labeled with different amenities on each level – still no people! From the top level, we could look down at the recreation of the Mississippi River – it was still there, but had no water flowing in it!
The entire length of the man-made river-in-miniature, was documented with signs that marked your location on a map (and according to mile #) and described details of that area. Large towns were also drawn on the pathway and state lines were marked. There were bridges so that you could cross back and forth from one side of the river to the other, but these were not necessary as we were able to hop right across!
During are walk, we saw less than 10 other people, and we saw a sign that indicated there was some renovation going on.But, we didn’t see much evidence of construction. It is a fascinating river walk, and I would be anxious to see it again in full-blown OPEN mode!
One little girl conked out immediately when we reached the car! She had forded the Mississippi a dozen times on the walk!
We had one more point of interest we wanted to see: Sun Studio. Two years ago we saw a live performance of The Million Dollar Quartet, and also one TV season about the famous Sun Studio.
For dinner we had in mind to go back to Beale Street and try another restaurant. At 6:30 we were checking them out. But the atmosphere and the crowd were different tonight and absolutely nothing grabbed our attention. We walked the street and headed back to our truck where we promptly asked Siri for directions to a Mexican Restaurant. We found Frida’s – a really nice restaurant (5*) with great food. Happy with our choice we were back at the Silvermine at 7:30 where we had showers and spent time getting ready to leave in the morning.
Sept 19, Sunday
Only 200 miles today and heading for Memphis! We had reservations for a State Park, but the closer we got, the less we liked it! The neighborhood leading up to the park was pretty bad, and the park itself was run down and somewhat dirty. We passed it by and searched out the Graceland RV Park just 6 miles away on Elvis Presley Blvd. It was better, although it has seen better days!
I don’t like it when I hear that an RV park has restrictions about how old your camper can be – but now I get it! There are some here that are run down, very decrepit and dirty. This Park needs to set a few limits! Next to us is an Avion (I am so glad it is not an Airstream!) that is old and almost green with mold!
We pulled in, set up, and established TV connection for the IndyCar race this afternoon! While Tom watched the race, I researched restaurants on Beale Street. Of course, the final decision would be made while walking up and down this magical blues music way, but I had narrowed it down to two: Jerry Lee Lewis Café & Honky Tonk or BB King Blues Club. We shall see!
At 5:30 we were off on the 12-miles trek to Beale Street. It was a Sunday night, and while we didn’t expect much night-life, we were pleasantly surprised at how many people were there. All of the restaurants were open and busy, although most of the stores were closed. The throughfare was blocked off by police and pedestrians spilled from the sidewalks into the streets, and the whole atmosphere was not congested. We walked the length down and back, and checked out restaurants on the way, deciding on BB King for dinner.
Live music, great atmosphere, and award-winning BBQ Memphis Ribs; the restaurant was over half full on a Sunday night!
After eating, we walked the entire street again to see the signs that had lit up while we were inside.
This was so nice, I am going to ask Tom to bring be back down again tomorrow night . . . . TOM?
Sept 17, Friday
Our destination is one of our very favorite campgrounds in the USA . . . Gulpha Gorge in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Aside from the campground, we love the town with all of it’s turn-of-the-century bath houses, and the lovely promenade walk that runs behind them.
With over 350 miles to drive, we started a new audio book: “The Grapes of Wrath.” Very appropriate as we drive the northern length of Oklahoma! That first chapter describing the dust bowl is always mesmerizing, but more-so when you are driving the route!
We turned off Interstate 40 and onto Arkansas 7 Scenic Byway with 60 miles to go until Hot Springs. The big question – would we be able to get a camping site? It is a walk-in campground only, and it was 2:00 and the start of a weekend! We scored, and had our choice of three. Also encouraging was that there were 4 other Airstreams in residence!
I did an inventory of clothes, and found that doing laundry would be necessary to see us all the way home. We left Pippa in the camper and found a laundry and a BBQ restaurant right next to each other; we did two loads of laundry while eating!
Back at the campground we walked with Pippa and talked to another Airstream couple that had just come from Alumapalooza. They had also been at International this year, and Ann had entered projects in the craft show at International. We had a lot to talk about!
Sept 18, Saturday
Pancakes and bacon for breakfast, cooked by Tom outside at the picnic table, started the day. As we drove into town tried to think of something different for the blog – I have covered downtown Hot Springs at least 3 different times with pictures of the bath houses and the promenade walkway. This time, Tom drove through town very slowly while I took a video of the entire bathhouse row!
We got out and walked alongside the bath houses, and then crossed the street and walked the stores and attractions and shops. We got pictures of several of the hot spring openings, and the majestic Arlington Hotel. We navigated around the Hot Spring Duck (bus/boat) solicitors, and past many very good street musicians and a magician. The town was lively, but not overly crowded.
I have to mention my recollections when we first visited Hot Springs over 30 years ago when the boys were young. The bath houses were in wreck and ruin and closed, except for the Buckstaff (continuously serving baths since 1912!) and the Fordyce which had been renovated in 1989 as the National Park show-off headquarters. That was the beginning of a major restoration project on Bathhouse Row, and now most of the houses are fully function as bath houses or re-purposed as boutiques and little eateries. They are magnificent.
We returned to the campground in plenty of time for Tom to settle in to listen to the Buckeye game against Tulsa. It was surprising that the campground was 100% full last night, and only 50% full on this Saturday afternoon! Pippa promptly found a nasty spot in the grass and rolled in it – bad enough to come up covered in . . . something . . . and to deserve a little bath.
After supper we headed back downtown to walk a portion of the promenade, and see the bath houses in lights. There were remarkably few people, and all the shops were closed.
Sept 16, Thursday
No moving today, and no need to rush in the morning! Our campsite was beautiful for sitting outside to cook breakfast and drink coffee. We walked another portion of the campground road, and soon realized the place was really very big; we got in the truck to explore the whole length in more detail.
The narrow park is paralleled by the vertical red cliffs on both sides, but is quite long and widens a bit at the end. There are several RV camping sections, in addition to tent sections, picnic areas, and rock-climbing areas. It is so surprising to see so much grass and shade, and all is very nicely maintained. What a great job the little town of Hinton has done in keeping this former Oklahoma State Park alive!
We drove into the town of Hinton – just 2 miles away. It is a small “working town” – nothing like the tourist towns we have been in. It has a very wide main street with parking right down the middle, and parking on each side! There were antique and junk stores, but nothing approaching a boutique or gift shop. Many of the stores were closed, even at 11:00 A.M. It looked like they might open . . . if they got around to it!
None of the store fronts were fixed up much . . . except for this little cafe!
We were back in the canyon by 11:30 with nothing to do but enjoy a lazy camping experience for the day. I finished one book and started another, and Tom started Gone With the Wind! For supper we had two more pieces of chicken to eat, and I fixed some sausage queso/chips to go with. There were a few chores to do inside and outside to get ready for a quick departure in the morning.
On yesterday's blog I forgot that I had taken a video of The Devil Went Down to Georgia last night! I'll start with it this morning! Enjoy!
I am convinced that it takes more time to move in and out of a hotel room than it does to set up camp! We were on the road by 8:30 this morning with just 250 miles to travel straight east on Interstate 40 (just alongside Route 66) to Red Rock Canyon. We entered Oklahoma and stopped at a Super Walmart to restock groceries and then there was just 40 miles on to Red Rock Canyon, at Hinton, Oklahoma.
We did make one more drive-thru of the little town of McLean, and learned this interesting fact! I love stories about the Titanic and it was surprising to run into this one in Oklahoma!
Tom was at RRC as a child over 60 years ago, and we were here with our boys 35 years ago! We have vivid memories of the steep, switchback, downhill descent on the very narrow (honk hard before approaching each corner) road. It was an Oklahoma State Park, and just recently was leased to the town of Hinton, who runs it as a campground and adventure park! Yes, the road was as precipitous and sharp as we had remembered – but it didn’t seem as long! Tom honked going into the corners, and luckily nobody was climbing out! The bottom of the canyon and campground was also just as we had remembered, narrow with well-developed trees and lots of green grass. Rising on both sides of the gorge were sheer, red, rock walls.
It didn’t take long to get set up, and by 2:30 we were sitting in chairs outside under those wonderful shade trees, enjoying a lazy afternoon at the campsite! That has not happened very often during this trip! We also walked the campground road, passing the swimming pool (closed now) and several rappelling walls. This canyon is a haven for rock climbing and rappelling!
We cooked BBQ chicken on the grill and walked the campground road down through the canyon, then both sank into books until bedtime.
Sept 14, Tuesday
Moving day . . . leaving Santa Fe and heading east for the first time! Our destination today is only 275 miles away – Amarillo, Texas. We started on famous Route 66 for about 10 miles! It didn’t take us long to drive out of the mountains and onto high grassland plains, with visions of the peaks diminishing in the rear-view mirror. At some point we realized we were on a tall, flat mesa as we reached the edge and came off a steep, curving, road down into a valley.
Today marks the 14th day that we have been away, and we have about 10 days left in our trip! There are still many hot spots that we are excited to visit! At 2:00 we crossed a time zone into the State of Texas. The time zone changes going home take an hour off our day!
Off and on we followed along beside US Route 66; it is not a straight-thru route any more and just bits and pieces of it exist out here. But, we did veer off Interstate 40 long enough to get a few pictures of MIDPOINT -- the half-way point of Route 66 from start to end . . . Chicago to LA. The location of this mid-point is pretty desolate.
The scenery really flattened out as we approached Amarillo – talk about a “big sky!” We pulled into our campground, The Big Texan RV Ranch, at 3:00. Right beside the highway, basically a graveled campsite with no shade. With temperatures at 92 we knew that it would take hours for the trailer to cool off . . . and there was not even a piece of shade to sit comfortably outside while we waited. We “whined” a bit at the front office and got a full refund, and went to a hotel less than a mile away. Just a few dollars more!
Well, the hotel was not an easy alternative – you have to pack up whatever you want to take into the room . . . in plastic bags! Otherwise, the room was comfortable, and we were able to adjust our plans. We had planned to stay in Amarillo two nights, but we only thought we could stand one in a hotel! We looked ahead to our next stop at Red Rock Canyon, and were able to book our same campsite . . . a day early!
We settled into the hotel and headed for dinner at The Big Texan. More than just a restaurant, it is just a fun place, and it was already hopping with a 30 minute wait at 6:00! It is most famous for it’s FREE steak dinner . . . if you eat the whole meal and 72oz steak! Tom managed the 12 oz ribeye and I had ribs.
Two roving singers came up to our table and asked us for a request. One of them played the fiddle, and I asked for “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” thinking they would have to decline that one! What a treat when they lit into their own arrangement complete with the great fiddle dual with the devill!
Back at the hotel we had to make a couple more trips to get everything out of the Silvermine that we needed . . . note to self: pack an empty duffle bag in the Silvermine for times like this! The best thing about the hotel was being able to give Pippa Joy a bath. It has been two weeks, and at the last campground she had accumulated a layer of fine dirt.
Sept 13, Monday
Our 45-mile jaunt today landed us in Bandelier National Monument. “Discovered” by Anthropologist Adolph Bandelier in 1880, it has been a home to ancestral Pueblo people from 1150 CE to 1550 CE and has shown human presence going back 11,000 years. Their culture was remarkable with farming, hunting, pottery-making, textile-making from yucca-fiber and turkey feathers, and weaving. Their homes were built in the Frijoles Canyon valley with adobe walls that are very visible today and/or up in the sheer cliffs where they carved sleeping and storage rooms. They were occupied at the same time and the choice to live in the caves or in the canyon bottom may have been based on family, clan customs, or simply individual preference!
The charge at the gate to enter was $25 . . . our Golden Passport passes made it free! The Visitor’s Center was shut down (due to Covid), but rangers stood outside to answer questions and sell a $2 tour map of the 1 ¼ mile Main Loop Trail and the 21 informative stops along the way.
The hiking started out nicely paved with a gradual incline, followed by more strenuous ascent, a dirt path, a wooden-plank bridge, narrow stone stairs leading up to the cliff dwellings, and ladders that give access to some of the rooms.
This Kiva was probably the center of the community for religious activities, education, and decision-making. It was covered by a roof made of earth and wood.
The walls of homes could be seen and at one time there were over 400 rooms for about 100 people. The walls were plastered on the outside over the adobe brick. Access to all of this was through a single ground-level opening and the "apartment" complex was 2 stories high! Surrounding the whole structure was a stone wall covered with smooth-plastered mud. The construction techniques are thought to show knowledge brought from distant places.
At some point the nice walking path turned into a series of steep stone stairs that curled up and around the rock cliffs and chasms.
Once up, we reached the rooms that had been carved out of the mountain face. The cliffside itself, due to the soft rock called Tuff, was full of honeycombed holes that simply needed enlarging! There are ladders going up to several of the rooms that can be climbed to see the interior. Tom reported that the room had a hole in the center and a smoke-charred roof. Some of the rooms could be viewed from the walking-path level; they were not especially big, but several seemed to have doors inside the outside opening.
At this high-point of the carved rooms, we walked along a cliff that had many carved petroglyphs. Some of them were so high that it was hard to lean back and take a picture – but we did manage a few. This first petroglyph was labeled as a "Macaw (parrot)" in the tour guide (really???) Other than that, the interpretation of the other petroglyphs was left up to our own imaginations.
The walk wound down back onto the valley floor and we ended up at the Visitor’s Center again, completely amazed with what all we had seen at Bandelier National Monument. We stopped at a Sonic drive-in for a quick bite to eat, and were back at the Silvermine by 1:30. We spent time cleaning up the trailer, and ourselves before heading back down to the Plaza for one more evening.
We had enjoyed our outdoor restaurant (on Burro Alley) so much that we headed back there for supper. On a Monday night who would have thought it would be busy and the there would be a guitarist performing!
Those that know us will agree that it is not often we are out on the town after dark . . . . but we were still there as the Plaza lit up!
Sept 12, Monday
We had a plan this morning: go back down to the Loretto Chapel area and take a tram tour around the town. There are no reservations required and the tours leave 3 times a day; we made the 10:00 tour!
I did not get a picture of the tour bus, but found this one on the internet. The busses are 60 years old, have gone through 4 engines and give the drivers a few "hallelujah" moments when they behave.
The tour covers an eight-mile loop in an open-air tram around this oldest capital city in the United States! It includes the most important historical areas in Santa Fe, including Canyon Road and its colorful art galleries, Santa Fe's Museum Hill area, the historic Santa Fe Plaza and the Palace of the Governors.
We crossed our first hurdle when Pippa Joy was allowed on the tram! We were ushered to the front bench seat of the tram – right behind the driver. Our tour guide was talking as we got on the tram, and he never quit talking the whole 2 hours! He was knowledgeable about the history and sites of Santa Fe, and especially about the architectural details and styles.
We drove on several famous highways: The Old Pecos Trail, The original Santa Fe Trail (from cowboy days Rawhide -- Wagon Train) and Route 66! As we drove through the neighborhoods that lined these routes, the drive pointed out many alleys between the homes that are not paved, and look basically like they did in the late 1800’s!
All of the buildings we saw were stucco, or adobe brick covered in stucco. The building codes are very strict in the downtown historical area, and there was not a timber-sided (much less aluminum sided) or traditional brick structure anywhere.
The tour was excellent, but it was really hard to get good pictures out the sides of the moving tram. We managed a few, but mostly just listened and absorbed the history of our surroundings.
Afterwards we ate lunch in the car as we headed for a mountain-driving expedition that would take us beyond Santa Fe and reveal all the raw natural beauty of the area. We took the 70-mile back-road route to a small mountain village called Angel Fire – home of a thriving, popular ski resort.
The drive getting there was though many small settlements and Angel Fire itself is home to only 1,048 people. As we came down out of the mountains, the whole village of Angel Fire was visible as if nestled down in a mountain nest. At this time of year there was no seasonal skiing activity or even a touristy-occupied, shopping-oriented, downtown district. But it was a beautiful little village that is at its peak during mountain winter sports months.
From Angel Fire we drove a quick 25 miles into the town of Taos. Beginning in 1899 artists began to settle in Taos, and today it is a bona fide art colony with a high concentration of artist homes and studios. In the winter months people flock to the town to ski the world-class trails; in the summer/fall fly fishing, horseback riding, golfing, llama trekking, rafting and mountain biking keep the town occupied.
At one point in the day we became a bit lost and had to stop and ask two cowboys on horses how to get back not the main road. We had not gone too far off the beaten path, and by very good chance we drove past this Church!
That little side-trip up into the mountains around Santa Fe took a lot longer than we had planned, and we didn’t get back to the Silvermine until after 5:30, where we cooked hamburgers for supper. We had planned to go back into town to eat, but . . . .
We don’t go camping any more . . . we go ‘streamin’ ! The “SIlvermine and His” is our 2018 25' Airstream Serenity with Salsa interior and front twin beds., and ‘streamin’ is the name we use to describe our adventures. Stream along as we document everything from weekend trips to longer summer excursions and full-blown vacations. You know what they say: if you’re not in an Airstream – you’re just camping!
Tom & Ella Brown