Small towns in Eastern Tennessee abound in pumpkins and scarecrows in October. Cornstalks and bales of hay adorned with witches’ hats and cut-out black cats decorate store fronts and residential front porches, reminding local citizens and tourists alike that Halloween is fast approaching, that ghosts and goblins lurk in the shadows, awaiting their designated night to prowl.I traveled with my sister Judy and her husband, David, who had invited me to share their rented vacation cabin in Sevierville, Tennessee. We arrived at our destination late in the afternoon, guided by the detailed directions in the cabin owner’s email. She had warned us to take care on the steep, graveled driveway, but we made it just fine the first time. We dropped off our luggage, explored and admired the cabin and the colorful fall foliage surrounding it, then set out to find dinner.
We drove to a nearby Mexican restaurant the owner had recommended, but it was closed that Sunday evening. So was the cafe across the street. Confident we’d find an open restaurant in an area that caters to tourists, we headed toward the main road that runs from north to south, from Sevierville to Pigeon Forge to Gatlinburg, with nothing but road signs to distinguish one town from another. We started in Sevierville that night but didn’t find dinner until Pigeon Forge.
We settled on a Cracker Barrel exactly like the one here at home. It was crowded; we had a long wait. We finished our meal after eight o’clock and were eager to get back to the cabin for some much needed rest. Judy pulled up the cabin’s address on the GPS. We’d expected to drive north on the main road back to Sevierville, but the disembodied voice of the GPS lady had other ideas; she wanted us to drive south toward Gatlinburg. That didn’t seem logical, so Judy made a U-turn and drove north for a distance while the three of us debated what to do. Should we follow the GPS instructions or strike out on our own to try to find the cabin? Logic reigned over boldness; we made a second U-turn and listened to the GPS lady.
She took us almost all the way to Gatlinburg before instructing us to turn left and then turn left again immediately. In other words, we made a third U-turn. This one took us off the main road and onto a backroad that ran through a thick forest on the side of a mountain. The road was barely wide enough for two cars to pass, but no center line was painted on it, nor were white lines painted on the edges, even where the ground dropped off precipitously on one side or the other. Worst of all, we were surrounded by blackness.
The light of the full harvest moon we’d noticed earlier didn’t penetrate the broad canopy of treetops. My sister’s SUV has headlights that switch automatically between normal and bright when they sense another vehicle nearby. That feature didn’t work in the forest. The headlight sensor must have interpreted the trees or the mountainside as traffic. The lights stayed on low-beam, never shining higher than two feet above the ground or farther than two car-lengths ahead of us.
Did you know that a mountain road can turn sharply in either direction in the distance of two car-lengths? Did you know that the blackness at the far end of the lights can disguise a wall of rock or wood as well as a sudden steep drop downward? Can you imagine how frightening it is to find yourself in the middle of an unfamiliar forest on a curvy, hilly road on a pitch dark night with no one in the vehicle both fit enough and brave enough to hike for help if necessary?
About the time we started wondering aloud what kinds of creatures hid themselves in those woods, a mist started rising from the road. Its long, white streaks curled upward, waving like cheerleaders’ spirit fingers, further obscuring the roadway. That’s all we needed. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. Practical concerns about local black bears gave way to eerie thoughts and faux-jokes about mythical vampires and werewolves.
My sister was a trouper. She gasped a few times (we all did when the road surprised us), but she maintained a slow, safe speed and steered precisely along roads with similar-sounding names: Bird Ridge Road, Bird Creek Road, Old Birds Creek Road, Bird Hill Road. Who would have guessed that Old Birds Creek Road loops around and crosses Bird Creek Road in two different places? Each time the GPS lady said to turn onto a road we believed we were already on, Judy would make the next possible turn, then stop and wait while the GPS recalculated the route. If we were directed to turn right in half a mile, if Judy couldn’t take her eyes off the road long enough to check the odometer, if we didn’t know how to estimate half a mile in near total darkness and there turned out to be two possible right turns before we reached the correct one, it was easy to make a wrong guess.
Finally, we made our way from Old Birds Creek Road to the location of the cabin. I forgot to mention earlier that the cabin’s steep driveway had a sharp left turn halfway up. The headlights shone up the hill and dispersed into the trees, leaving the turn in deep shadow. Judy glimpsed the turn at the last moment and steered hard into it, kicking up gravel and making the tires spin. We were stuck. On a hill. Sort of sideways, with a drop-off behind us. The tires or the transmission or some kind of car thing was making a horrible squealing, groaning noise, while David was yelling from the backseat, “Don’t back up! Don’t back up whatever you do!” David told Judy to put the car in low gear, but low gear wasn’t identified on the shift indicator. He told her where low gear should be; she moved the shift lever next to that tiny embossed dash and gamely tried again. The car lurched once, twice, then the tires found a grip and we eased forward to park right next to the cabin.
We made a decision that night that for the rest of our stay we’d get home before dark.
In the daylight hours we felt privileged to travel the GPS lady’s same suggested, circuitous route. We admired the way the hills and curves hugged the mountain. We were awed by the vivid, translucent red and yellow leaves on the same trees that had hovered menacingly over us in the first night’s darkness. In the daylight we marveled at the splendid array Mother Nature had laid across the hills of Tennessee, and we thanked God for keeping us healthy enough to travel to such a beautiful place.
In the daylight we gave no thought to night creatures that rest in caves and hollow logs until the sun goes down.
Have a safe, happy Halloween, everybody!