We'd planned our trip for about six months. My Girl Scout training of 10 years taught me to "Be Prepared." In any case, reservations at a national park can only be made six months out.
The Great Smoky Mountain National Park is a feast for the senses. October is our favorite month to camp. Crisp sweet-scented air, cold nights, rustling leaves underfoot, fewer campers and mostly the older set, like us, who are ready for conversation at any time and respectful as to when to interrupt others to engage in that chat.
Campfires are welcome as the temperature dips throughout the day and we get a lot of reading done while listening to the rushing creek.
We arrived on Sunday, Sept. 29 and planned to stay two weeks. Our campsite was all set and, a little weary from a long drive and the work, we were about to claim our chairs to relax. Before that, we walked to get a newspaper at the camp store. That's when we read the headline that the government might shut down at midnight. If that happened, all the more than 400 national parks would close.
Tuesday morning the park ranger confirmed the outcome. We were told to pack up and go home; or wherever your next visit was to be. Home for us.
We headed to town for a cell phone signal only to be met with rangers at the visitor center setting up the orange cones, yellow tape -- it felt like a crime scene actually -- and we made sure we could get back into the park to retrieve our gear.
"Yes, but make your arrangements and be out by Thursday noon," he said.
So the task of taking down what we had just put in place began. Campers started to vacate quickly. The local news station came through the park to get on-camera interviews asking the question our lawmakers should be asking, "How does this affect you?"
We enjoyed our last day as much as possible and when we drove out Wednesday morning, only four trailers were left in our area. To see the rows of vacant campsites was eerie at best. As we left the park, roads were blocked and when we got to one point, we had to open a metal gate and shut it after we passed through.
We didn't see another car until we hit town, about 10 minutes or more out of the park. Not the usual occurrence.
While we were packing our campsite, it brought to mind what I'd heard over the years; different versions of, "If you had to leave your home quickly, what would you take?" The thought being, if you were to never return or if the house was on fire, what would you deem most important or irreplaceable? As long as my family was safe, the things don't matter, in the long run.
Would I pack a suitcase full of the things of my life? Could I really do that? Pack the important things in a case or box? Not really. It's the people and memories that matter.
While I sat by the rushing creek at our campsite, I was surrounded by memories we had made in the Smokies since 1977. I was sad we had to leave so quickly and 12 days before planned.
The sadness also came on another level that is difficult to put in words. I could almost see the people who carved out this particular national park so many years ago. In my mind's eye, it was in black and white like a documentary. Then I realized if the park were to never reopen, the forest would reclaim all that man had made for access to this natural wonder.
The few campers still remaining on Tuesday milled around and talked. One couple from Arkansas were traveling all around the country visiting national parks for another few weeks and would have to figure out whether to go home or find a state park.
A couple from Illinois came to enjoy the sound of the creek. He had gradually lost most of his hearing but five years ago got a cochlear implant. A man from North Carolina had questions on details about leaving and said, "I don't want to get political but ..."
How could we not get political when the whole mess was just that? We all agreed, shook our heads and kept packing.
Will we return again? The Good Lord willing and the creek don't rise, yes.
Local author Liz Thompson writes the Day by day column for ThisWeek News.