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A fall foliage nightmare: Gatlinburg gridlock in an overheating pickup

Jeff Bobo • Nov 13, 2018 at 11:24 AM

It would be out of character for me to make a special trip somewhere for the sole purpose of admiring fall foliage.

Not that I'm opposed to fall foliage, but I drive through Hawkins County almost every day.

That ride on Highway 11-W between Church Hill and Rogersville is beautiful any time of the year, but when fall colors hit, it goes completely off the charts.

Then there's Laurel Run Park, Clinch Valley, Amis Mill and any number of other Hawkins County locations I see on a regular basis where fall colors are outstanding.

Plus, we live on top of a hill on the extreme west end of Bloomingdale that gives us a bird’s eye view of Bays Mountain. In other words, we're already up to our ears in fall foliage.

So the fact that our attempt to visit the Great Smoky Mountains last weekend coincided with peak fall colors was a total coincidence.

Unlike 8 million other people who crammed themselves into Gatlinburg the weekend of Nov. 2-4, fall foliage was the last thing on my mind.

The second to last thing on my mind was the possibility that my pickup would start overheating while we sat in a 90-minute traffic jam in Gatlinburg trying to get to the mountain.

The weekend of Nov. 2-4 we decided to join Lynn's brother/sister-in-law Jerry and Nikki on one last camping excursion for the year to get our camper cleaned up before I winterized it.

The only campground with a vacancy within a 100-mile radius was the KOA next to I-40 in Newport.

It wasn't a bad place. We were close enough to the interstate to hit passing tractor-trailers with a rock if we so desired, and after a while the traffic noise was so deafening you barely noticed it.

Saturday night, we ate supper at a little mom-and-pop diner in Newport, and I recall seeing a Knoxville news show on TV pointing out the fact that it was "the peak weekend for fall foliage."

It didn't really sink in at the moment what "peak fall foliage" would mean to the population of Gatlinburg the next day.

Lynn, Maggie and I were staying an extra day, and Sunday morning after Jerry and Nikki pulled out, we decided to take a ride and look at pretty scenery.

Again, fall foliage wasn't the primary motivation. We like to look at pretty scenery any time of the year.

My first instinct was to take I-40 south to the Camden, North Carolina, exit where there's a pretty back door road into the Blue Ridge Parkway. From there we would take the parkway to Cherokee, and then over the mountain to Gatlinburg, hitting the bypass of course, and then take the old road back to Newport.

A bit of advice. Your first instinct is usually correct.

Instead, I made a last-second decision to do something different and take the old road from Newport to Gatlinburg. From there the idea was to cross the mountain and maybe come back through Maggie Valley.

I had a dumb idea to stop and take a picture of our dog Maggie with a Maggie Valley sign in the background. It was not to be.

About halfway between Newport and Gatlinburg we passed the entrance to a place called "Foothills Parkway," which neither Lynn nor I had heard of.

My first instinct was to turn and see where that road took us. But by the time I had noticed the Foothills Parkway sign we were passing it, and I was literally too lazy to stop somewhere and turn around.

Laziness is often my second instinct. My first instinct is usually correct.

So we arrived in Gatlinburg, and even before we turned onto the main drag that leads to the National Park entrance we were stuck in gridlock traffic.

It took about 30 minutes to actually make the left turn onto the main drag, and the drive through Gatlinburg literally look an hour.

I've lived in Chicago. I've been to Los Angeles. I've been to Atlanta. I've seen some gridlock traffic in my day. I have never seen gridlock like what was present in Gatlinburg on Nov. 4 around 11 a.m.

Wall to wall people and vehicles unable to move in any direction.

Still, we were having an OK time. I figured traffic would be slow, and we enjoyed that time together, relaxing in a comfy pickup, people watching and making fun of tourists. It wasn't terrible.

It only became terrible when I happened to glance down at the gauges and notice the truck was overheating.

This was about the halfway point, somewhere around the Chocolate Monkey.

The water gauge "normal" position is just a smidge on the cold side of halfway. Not one time in the four years I've owned this truck has it ever gotten hotter than that.

So imagine my distress when I looked down and the needle was halfway between "normal" and the red line. I call that the "not good" zone.

A couple of times it got mad at me and bobbled over to about 7/8ths of the way to the red line for a minute or two, which I call the "time to panic” zone.

Then it would return to "not good."

It's not good when you're relieved to be in the "not good" zone. As it turns out, the water pump in my truck was going bad and has since been replaced. 

So we're trapped in the Gatlinburg gridlock traffic jam of all time, the truck is overheating and there's no turning back, no escape and nowhere to stop and park. We had no choice but to keep slowly creeping forward.

I just remember saying over and over, "This is a nightmare, this is a nightmare, this is a nightmare" until we finally reached the Smoky Mountain National Park visitor center after about 45 minutes in the "not good" zone.

I illegally parked at the visitor center, which was packed about 10 times over capacity, let Maggie out to pee and assessed my options.

Actually, there was only one option. The road up the mountain was gridlock. The road back through Gatlinburg was gridlock.

The only escape was to take the westbound road from the visitor center toward Townsend, which we did.

Fortunately there was almost no traffic in our lane, only a steady stream of oncoming vehicles filled with unsuspecting fall foliage seekers heading into the hell we had just escaped.

Once we got moving the truck cooled down to "normal." That was a blessing.

But that route was also a blessing because it provided some of the most eye-popping fall colors I've ever seen.

There’s nothing like a near death (of your truck) experience to help you start appreciating fall colors.

In some spots, the trees on both sides of the road overlapped, and it was like we were driving through a foliage tunnel.

Lynn and I snapped some photos out the window while I was driving.

I guess I'm a fall foliage fan after all.

The next time I say, "Let's drive through Gatlinburg and go over the mountain," I've already instructed Lynn to smack me upside the head.

That's her first instinct anyway, and her first instinct is usually correct.

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