I'll jump right in and throw chronology to the wind. There were enough interesting interactions with people during the trip to fill two books, and they were definitely one of the highlights. Well, they were at least one of the aspects over which we most laughed, and laughed the hardest.
Our campsite was situated right on the Little River which, at that time, was running unusually high and was swollen into a raging, rushing, rapid that sung us to sleep each night. Our campsite was also located next to another campsite; it was also swollen beyond capacity, but not with beautiful Brown and Rainbow-laden whitewater. A large group of very loud, very foreign and very messy campers were at site B9.
It's worth mentioning one instance when the group pulled up in their minivans, opened the side door, and out came some very Arabic, very loud, and very surprising music. What normally would have been Godsmack, Nelly or 50cent was, in this case, Azam Ali or something like it. Chris and I glanced at each other with the same look--"huh, now this is new. Can't wait to see where this ends up..."
I'm accustomed to camping with loud families--hoosiers and rednecks, or at least college students--but what really set this group apart from all the rest I've known was their messiness. The first sign that greets you when entering the campground is one reporting "Bear Habitat--Food Storage Regulations Enforced." (The first sign to greet us was actually "Road Closed," but that's a different story.) While sitting around the campfire, Chris and I told old fish stories, mostly from when we were kids, and with each hoot and holler from next door, he and I came closer to paying the Arabs a visit and asking them to settle down. I'm not sure if it was the Scotch or a particularly captivating story, but we failed to notice them leaving (that would be difficult to miss, there were upwards of 8 of them in two vans), but did later notice they were quiet...and gone.
The next morning, we awoke to the scene they left behind. Food. Beer. Boxes. Trash. More food. More beer. Garbage. Half-empty pots of food. Coolers of food. FOOD AND BEER EVERYWHERE! I've never seen a campsite destroyed like that, regardless of campers or group size. Between the piles of food and our campsite was a park ranger asking Chris if we were "with them over there."
An emphatic "no" led right into the perfectly phrased question from the ranger, "What's up with that?" Well, we knew perfectly well what was up with that--a bunch of foreigners in the mountains having fun...not able to speak or read English well enough to know to keep their food locked up. The one ranger turned to three, and added another ranger cruiser, and one really sweet ranger dually truck. They set to the task of cleaning up the food and trash, packing it all into the back of the truck and cars. We offered to help, but they pretty much had it done in 30 minutes or so. We were asked more questions about who the campers were, when they left, what they were doing, and at the end heard two comments from the rangers that confirmed our fears about what was really going on over there.
No, they weren't criminals, but almost as bad. One ranger commented, "They (I think he meant US, but didn't want to say it) were really lucky they didn't draw in a bear with all that." He actually said that three times throughout the cleanup. Another ranger added, "In 10 years here, I have never seen a campsite trashed like that one." They were quite the neighbours to have.
We spent a lot of time driving around, probably way too much time that we could have spent fishing or used the gas money to buy flies or some tippet later on. We drove, though, through and around and in the park on those winding, curvy, steep roads for a least an hour each day. That introduced us to a lot of people.
There were the people we'd pass who were also wasting time driving, and we'd wave. And wave. And wave. It wasn't until the 100th car and Chris practically hanging out his window waving both arms that we got a wave back. After that, we figured that we'd found a challenge and a mission--bring some damn friendliness to the park! So we'd usually wave, but we'd always let out two hello-honks at the people stopped on the road taking some touristy photo of the mountains. One drive, there was a family having a snowball fight. My honk was crucial in that battle--I let out two quick ones at the very moment the daughter was loosing from her hand a softball-sized ball and it distracted the dad long enough such that he didn't see it heading straight for his head. Honk-honk...look away...BLASH! Nicely done. By the time we left Sunday, we heard cars everywhere honking at stop-on-the-side-of-the-road-and-take-a-picture people. Mission accomplished; you're welcome, O great Park.
The hardest and longest laughter came unexpectedly, though, as they often do. We had just left the hell of downtown Gatlinburg on some sort of necessary expedition into town. As we were ascending into the park, I realized I needed to call my wife and wish her goodnight before I lost cell signal. It was pretty dark, but I spotted a good pull-off on the other side of the road that would probably be my last opportunity to get a call in. I whipped the 4Runner into the gravel area, but didn't notice I wasn't the only car to be there until I saw a green Honda Civic a foot in front of us....parked. I killed my lights and began my call. The fun unfolded as I talked to Cheryl on the phone, while Chris and I watched with childish delight.
That little Civic and its two (or three, we still aren't sure) occupants were up to romance. I carried on my conversation with general innocence and unawareness, but to those two up front I was anything but harmless. They had been caught, suddenly and without warning. Thinking back, I did pull in behind them pretty quickly, and pretty closely. After they figured I wasn't a cop, they flashed their reverse lights a few times at me. I'm still at a loss as to what that was supposed to do. Well, I was just talking away on the phone and didn't budge. That didn't sit well with them; they jostled around nervously in the front seats doing all sorts of things without trying to appear to be doing anything. At one point, the driver reinstalled the GPS screen on the dash and fooled with that. They probably wanted to broadcast "We're a little lost and have pulled over to find out where we are" and impress that image on the cop/ranger/stalker/whoever behind them. Since we weren't any of those, just a guy on the phone with his wife, we stayed put a while longer.
Finally, I finished my conversation and turned my lights back on to leave. My lights, when I turned them off, were on high-beams and returned to high-beams the instant I turned them back on. I blasted the cabin of the little Civic with some serious light, surprising both me and them (all over again), and I saw one very fogged up set of windows. The back window had just a hint of defogger lines crossing it, though, as if they realized a few moments before that they probably should start taking care of the giveaway-condition of what they'd really been up to in there. Not lost...just necking. I dimmed my lights, but as I backed away for an exit, two ranger cars with lights flashing and sirens screaming came barreling up the hill. Panicked for sure, from either the cops coming or us and my high-beams, they pulled halfway into the road in front of the first ranger. Nearly getting hit wasn't enough to keep them from pulling out even further into the road in front of the second blaring ranger. They backed back into the pulloff barely enough to avoid being creamed. After that, I went my way and they went theirs. We were dying of laughter, and they were, we imagined, dying of other things.
There are other people, other stories. The Eddie Bauer couple walking through the campground carrying their tent down the road. The guy who slept in his car at the campground because the park opened a day later than published. The park ranger who followed us back to the campsite to check a fishing license. The creepy pair of girls at the ridiculous diner who gave Chris a smile...and left him with a weirded-out look on his face. The waiter at the restaurant who, when bringing my coffee, heard, "Actually, we're just gonna leave. We're burning daylight and there's something we need to do." I may get to those people later, but if not, well maybe you can ask Chris or me about them on the water some day.