28,500 miles in 10 months and 1 week. The bike is now with the shipping company and we’re preparing for our preliminary visit to Hong Kong.
So after much doubt and hassle, we finally made it to the Great Smoky Mountains. We were rained off here last August and it felt like unfinished business, plus this is one of the best places in the country to see black bears. So it was worth a visit and a last attempt to see bears before we leave. Dave managed to fix the surging problem with the bike, although it was touch and go and we nearly turned back towards Houston. We passed very near the other Birmingham (Alabama) on the way, which felt strange.
It has been a busy weekend, due to Mother’s Day but we had booked the campsite in advance and they gave us by far the best spot, right on the river. Although all the gushing did keep us awake at night.
Although the mountains here are pretty small, I cannot remember ever having been anywhere greener (and that includes North Wales).
The mountains are impressively forested.
So what you all want to know is did we see a bear? The answer is no. We saw 7!! We waited till after the weekend rush and rode up into the national park this morning. As we approached the car park at Cades Cove, there was a crowd of people on the grass verge, all looking into the forest. I jumped off the bike and joined them. I saw three bears, two climbing a tree about 50m away. Three rangers were trying to keep the people at a safe distance and sounding horns to scare the bears away. The bears were quite small and very black. We rode on, scanning the meadows (seen in the photo above). We saw a few wild turkeys. Two or three cars in front of us then stopped and seemed to be pointing to the right. I couldn’t see anything and we nearly drove on when Dave pointed to the undergrowth on the left, literally only 5 feet away from the bike, there was a small, brownish bear, tucking into what looked like clover. He was so intent on what he was doing and did not seem to notice us.
He looked just like Paddington (I know he is a Spectacled Bear from Peru), with very tiny eyes, that made him look quite vulnerable. It was really thrilling.We followed the same three cars for the next 8 miles, painfully slowly, scanning the meadows and trees. We saw some deer.
Just before we arrived at the end of the loop we saw a group of cars parked along the road and people with cameras. There in the forest about 20m away was another group of three bears, what looked like a mother and two large cubs. They were walking towards us. We were safe in the knowledge that we could ride away on the bike but everyone else was on foot, probably stupidly close (all the signs tell you to stand at least 50 yards away).
So we were really lucky. After several near bear encounters last year, we finally saw bears in our last few days. I remember the day I saw a wild tiger in India, like it was yesterday and I know I will remember this day forever.
It has been an odd week with little achieved, due to problems with the bike and the weather. We ended up in Jackson, Mississippi for 4 nights while Dave sorted out a change of the steering head bearings and we waited for thunderstorms to pass. We moved from the scary downtown area to a posh part of town to the north and got a good deal on a hotel suite where we could cook. We watched lots of TV and cooked lots of curries and got a lot of sleep.
Dave did well with the bearings, sourcing a similar bearing that is used in a Toyota car from AutoZone and changing it on the carpark in the pouring rain. He managed to get it in with the help of a shed load of grease.
We moved on to a wonderful campsite on a lake in the middle of nowhere, somewhere in northern Mississippi.
This must be the furthest away from traffic we have camped the whole trip. There was no distant car noise and at night the place was truly magical with only the sounds of owls in the trees and fish jumping in the lake.
It was also a great place for yoga.
We managed out cheapest day of the trip at $37, including the cost of doing the laundry.
The next day we travelled via Tupelo to visit Elvis’s birthplace. Tupelo is now a huge town and it was hard to get a feeling for what the area would have been like when Elvis lived there but is was good to see the shack he grew up in and get a feel for what his life was like as a child.
I particularly enjoyed reading accounts of people who knew him back then, describing him as shy and also recounting how, when he received his first guitar for his birthday, he really wanted an air rifle. We both got to sit on the swing on the porch. I am sure it is not the same swing but it was still fun.
Unfortunately, the weather turned bad again and we had to seek refuge in a hotel for the night in Huntsville, Alabama. The rain poured down, in a tropical fashion, while we stayed cosy indoors and ordered takeout food from the local Chinese restaurant. I love the fact that it is the normal thing here to order food into your hotel room. All rooms also have microwaves for heating leftovers.
Yesterday we left on the final leg of the journey to the Great Smoky Mountains. The bike has been “surging” for a few days and Dave has been trying to sort it out (suspected transmission problem of some kind). After 40 minutes on the road, he decided it was too serious to continue and we had to head back to Huntsville and check into another hotel. Another takeaway meal, a few episodes of Masterchef and a bottle of wine helped to ease the disappointment. So today, we have to make a decision about whether we are going to make it to the mountains or not. The journey back to Houston (where both us and the bike depart from), via New Orleans, is about 800 miles but if we head to the mountains and then back it is 1600 miles. The weather is set to be great for the next few days and whatever decision we make we will try to make the most of it. Just 17 days till we fly out.