Your leaking thatched hut during the restoration of a pre-Enlightenment state.


Hello, my name is Judas Gutenberg and this is my blaag (pronounced as you would the vomit noise "hyroop-bleuach").


decay & ruin
Biosphere II
dead malls
Irving housing

got that wrong

appropriate tech
Arduino μcontrollers
Backwoods Home
Fractal antenna

fun social media stuff

(nobody does!)

Like my brownhouse:
   over the Great Smoky Mountains
Sunday, May 10 2015

location: AirBnB in a basement in West Asheville, North Carolina

I made my last bird identification from the AirBnB this morning when I saw Mockinbird down in the gulch below the house. That brought the itemized bird count up to 17. They'd all been common birds, and in the process I'd learned to distinguish a Downy from a Hairy woodpecker using Birds of the Carolinas, the crappiest bird field guide I'd ever encountered (loaned to me by the house's owner). Whoever decided to break up black & white woodpeckers with a few pages about shorebirds should be assigned to write a field guide to the birds of northwestern Iraq.
We'd be leaving Asheville today to spend the night north of the Great Smoky Mountains, so after packing up our stuff and leaving our beautiful AirBnB behind, we stopped at the West End Bakery so I could get another big greasy biscuit with a veggie sausage inside. When I ordered it, though, Gretchen made the mistake of saying that we're vegan, at which point the cashier told us that the biscuits are full of butter, thereby destroying any plausible deniability I had about the veganness of the biscuits. So I had to settle for a sandwich made with french bread instead. It just wasn't the same. The West End Bakery was very busy at the time, and as we waited, Gretchen and I kept shooting dirty looks at each other because of the presence of a hideous baby in the arms of one of the adults. There was also a little four or five year old who'd holed up in the women's room, and when Gretchen found him, he denied he was there with any adults. It soon turned out, of course, that his parents had been looking for him.
Heading west from Asheville, we decided to take US 19 to Cherokee and then go through the park on US 441, the only highway crossing the Great Smoky Mountains. The only other time I'd been to the Smokies was in the early 70s (1972?), when my whole family stayed for a time in a cabin on Lake Fontana. I don't remember much except for a friendly dog that came through camp who ended up doing something requiring him to be taken away by the dog warden. I still remember my father being honest about the near-term prospects for that dog, and how sad I found it.
It will come as no surprise that the Smokies are stately and sublime, and that the roads near the park are sclerotic with tourist-related businesses: hotels, restaurants, put-put golf and, on the grounds of the Cherokee reservation, various forms of gambling. The Harrah's Casino in Cherokee is something of a skyscraper, completely out of scale with the rustic single-or-dual-story look of most of the Smokies.
On Route 441 as it approached the park, we passed several Cherokee-related tourist attractions, including two that featured actual costumed Indians dancing on the side of the road. Come for the stereotype-fulfilling Indians, stay for the gambling.
All the visual clutter vanished once we entered the park. We stopped at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, where we walked around inside a reconstructed homestead featuring a cabin, a barn, a chicken house, a corn crip, a sorghum mill, a spring house, and a garden. There were also a number of off-leash Plymouth Rock hens scratching around in the dirt. Aside from yesterday's visit to relatively thinly-visited Mt. Mitchell, this was our first major encounter with North Carolinians from places other than Asheville. We were dismayed by the levels of obesity on display; indeed, it's rare that I see such large concentrations of non-photogenic people, and I'm a regular shopper at the Uptown Kingston Hannaford. Another indication of the sorry state of Appalachia was a middle-aged man walking around with a pistol strapped to his hip. What kind of sad little man do you have to be to parade around like that in a public park? Meanwhile, Gretchen was sort of staggering around, unable to get comfortable and feeling alternately cold than hot (temperatures were in the low 80s). I felt her forehead and she seemed to have a low-grade fever.
After sitting for awhile on some rocking chairs on a porch, we relocated to near the car and drank fruit juices in the shade.
Route 441 crossed the backbone of the Smokies at Newfound Gap, a full 5049 feet above sea level (high enough for there to be a few spruce and perhaps fir trees, though temperatures were in the 70s). We parked at the rest area, where the winds blowing through the gap were concentrated. From there, we followed the Applachian Trail southward roughly along a contour. While there had been lots of people (many of them obscenely overweight) at the rest area, it was awhile before we came upon anyone else on the trail. Had we continued, we could have walked all the way to Clingmans Dome (the highest point in Tennessee and only a little lower than Mt. Mitchell), but we turned around after only about a half mile.
After a long descent behind cars that stunk of burning brake shoes, we stopped at the Sugarlands Visitor Center, where Gretchen thought it might be fun to watch a 20 minute documentary about he park. We entered the darkened theatre when the film was about half way done. It looked as if it had been made in the late 80s, and one telling anachronism was its matter-of-fact use of the word "evolution," something that would have been edited out had the film been made today (because America has been so bullied by the religious right). Perhaps controversy over evolution was the reason the visitor center had created a "first amendment zone" near the front of the building.
I'd been smelling my feet all day and at this point I felt the need to wash them (and my shoes, sandal-like Keens), so we went on a short walk down a trail behind the visitor center, passing through the lush lowland vegetation that makes the Great Smokies such an important biological reserve. Along the way, we passed Umbrella Magnolias and Paw Paw, as well as more prosaic lowland plants such as Tuliptree, Basswood, and Spice Bush. There were some kids playing in the little brook when I arrived, and I just tossed my shoes in nearby and began stomping on them like they were wine grapes. I would remain barefoot until we got to our next destination, Pigeon Forge.
Coming out of the Smokies, we passed through touristy Gatlinburg, drove through a largely undeveloped valley, and arrived in Pigeon Forge. We'd come there because it is home to Dollywood (Dolly Parton's personal theme park), but it's also home to at least a dozen other tourist attractions. Tonight we'd be staying at the Clarion Inn, a tall hotel in Pigeon Forge. Though only $70/night, it feels fancy, and seems to have been designed to make hillbillies feel like they are living large when they come to visit Dollywood (or the Smoky Mountain Opry or the Annual Smoky Mountain Classic Chevy Roundup). We immediately climbed into separate beds and Gretchen quickly found a pair of Paul Rudd movies to switch between on separate basic cable channels. One of these was a Gretchen favorite called Role Models. We'd dragged a big unopened 1.5 litre bottle of white wine with us from Asheville, and I had poured myself a tall glass of it. I was half-watching the Paul Rudd movies and half-reading web articles on my laptop.
For dinner, the plan was to go to a Thai restaurant Gretchen had managed to find in Pigeon Forge. But on our way there, we discovered that the town also has a Mellow Mushroom, an Atlanta-based pizza franchise Gretchen knew about that has tempeh as an available topping. We immediately changed plans and went there, parking alongside a large and very fake-looking castle. Though we ordered it with vegan Daiya cheese and tempeh, the cooks in the back reflexively dusted it with parmesan cheese, perhaps because they had never in their lives met anyone who did not like this puke-flavored condiment. Though disappointed (and unable to post pictures of it to Facebook, which the ever-vigilant vegan police monitor continuously), we weren't going to send it back, so we cut it up and ate it. It was amazing. Something about the thick (non-New-York) crust and high temperature of the oven it was baked in made the Daiya pop in a way that it seldom does. As we ate, Gretchen explained the difference between Chuck-E-Cheese and Mellow Mushroom. While the former caters to children (particularly their disgusting meltdown-rich birthday parties), the latter has a not-so-subtle drug-friendly vibe. Indeed, many of the employees at the Pigeon Forge Mellow Mushroom had the greasy hair and vacant eyes of total burnouts (if not regular stoners).
Back in our hotel room, we had HBO, so Gretchen tried to watch the fifth episode of this fifth season of Game of Thrones with me. Over pizza, I'd given her a quick backstory of all the important threads, but I'd forgotten four or five important threads, all of which were important in this episode. Gretchen was quickly lost in the action, and decided to go off and try out the Clarion's pool. Before long she'd returned, saying the jacuzzi (the only part I cared about) was too cold. Gretchen found tonight's episode of Silicon Valley much more watchable, and then we watched John Oliver skewer America's gross hypocrisy regarding mothers. (Today being Mothers' Day.) Between Bittorrent and the HuffingtonPost, it's mostly stuff I could've/would've watched anyway, but something about just having HBO available makes it easier and friction-free.

Gretchen and me along the Appalachian Trail on the way from Newfound Gap to Clingman's Dome.

Me enjoying vegan (well, almost vegan) pizza at the Mellow Mushroom in Pigeon Forge.

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