published Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

Cook: Nice to meet you, Mrs. Bear

It was the middle of summer, and we were headed on vacation to the Smokies. Apparently, so was everybody else.

The road in from Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg was bumper-to-bumper, a smelting of Toyota and taffy. Each red light an epoch.

Did I mention it was hot? In the Buick next to me, the guy's face was starting to melt, like that lispy Nazi in "Raiders."

Hot. That hot. Believe it, or not.

There is a intoxicating and seductive part of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg -- Pigeonburg? -- that holds on and doesn't let go. All the bells and whistles, sirens and sounds.

It's as if Mother America is saying: this is your last stop before the wilderness and woods, where your debit card means nothing, so get it out of your system. Like a Vegas weekend, just before Betty Ford.

Then, without any transition, Gatlinburg ends and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park begins. There is a clear line of demarcation between the two. You could stand with one foot in a taffy shop, the other in rhododendrons.

Into the park, and everywhere, green. Like Joyce Kilmer wrote: trees really are the loveliest things.

The first half-day of being in the woods feels like detox; I find myself shuddering like those Matrix villains, just before they revert back to the suit-and-tie-"Mr. Anderson"-creep. Something happens in the woods, and I'm still not sure exactly how to say it -- maybe you can help me -- other than you get stripped. All of our iLife fades away, and we're left with our bare bones and the bark.

The first night, we'd just finished eating; camp meals are always Zagat-good. The campfire was just the right size, sort of eternal-flame-ish, and the kids ran off to play and my wife to wash out the dishes (I don't mean that in a sexist way, it's just what happened) and I stayed in a camping chair.

A few minutes later, I looked up. There she was.

A mama.

And her cubs.

Not 100 yards away, an 8-iron for me, was a big black bear and her three cubs. They were halfway up on the hillside across from the campground, waltzing through the forest like they owned the place.

"Bear!" I half-hollered, half-whispered.

My wife and our two cubs came running. We stood wide-eyed, holding hands.

I'd always heard that with black bears, you're supposed to stand your ground and intimidate. So I start yelling -- in a Brooklyn, hey-bear-you-talkin'-to-me accent -- and banging pots and pans, you know, just to warn them.

Mrs. Bear didn't bat an eye. Never even turned an ear. She was face down in a rotten log, awash in grubs.

So I ran to the ranger station, and breathlessly told what was happening across from campsite E16.

The ranger barely looked up from her Grisham.

(This would happen again the next day; I saw another bear -- this one, just a sand wedge away -- ran to the rangers, who blinked very slowly, as if I told them I'd just seen a wild squirrel. Apparently, free-roaming bears are rather common in the Smokies, and rather non-threatening).

Perhaps to appease me, she radioed another ranger and they came for a look-see. By then, Big Mama was gone, but not the moment. Seeing a bear in the woods had always been a bucket-lister for me. That bear was so Other, a big hairy symbol of all we cannot tame, of all we cannot download.

I was aglow and in awe.

It also scared the poo-pah out of me.

"Just remember," the ranger said, leaning in close. "Keep all your food in your car. Bears come into your camp when they smell food."

I spent the next hour like our family's TSA agent, in close scrutiny of every corner of our tent and campground, searching for anything that might waft up nearby bear nostrils. A crumb-cake, suddenly my greatest fear in the world.

(Don't miss the Lifetime Original Movie about the columnist mauled by a rogue black bear after he left the toothpaste cap under his pillow. Starring Ricky Schroder as the columnist.)

By the end of the trip, I was reminded how perfect the Smokies can be. We'd seen more bears, gone creek swimming, trout fishing, horse riding and tent snoring, all of which seemed to bring out our better selves.

Once, we went walking through the park, with our kids trailing behind us, roaming around, maybe looking under logs.

Huh.

Reminds me of somebody else, I thought.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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