Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a series written during Railback’s stay in the park from June 22 to August 4, 2023.
Afternoons here are for looping. July days are hot and humid. I stick a water bottle in my pocket, put sunscreen on, strap on the helmet, and ride my bike from the front door of Second Acts. The road behind the ranger station often has a few does standing by or a neighborly buck who likes to tuck himself under a shrub to nap. I pedal onto the path through the woods that leads to the entrance of Cades Cove Loop Road.
It’s a Wednesday in summer, so today no motor vehicles allowed. I see cyclists of all kinds, from the sleek road bike speedsters to the slow-moving families with kiddos wobbling on tiny single speeds, their parents introducing them to the wonderful (and tiring) world of cycling.
This is a good day for looping.
Before I start, however, I like to stop and watch the action at the Cades Cove Riding Stables where people sign up to ride a horse or be pulled in a carriage, under the expert supervision of trail guides. I confess this activity is not for me.
I do not like riding animals. In my Los Angeles neighborhood, an old cowboy used to bring a string of ponies to ride. Twenty-five cents to clomp around the city streets. One of his ponies bit me. That settled it.
Many years later in Morocco, I rode a camel with a group to watch the March sunset over the dunes. The huge beast comfortably glided up and down hills of sand, but his tremendous heat somehow unsettled me. With permission of the baffled guide, I walked back to our distant tent camp alone and discovered the wonderful, absolute silence of hiking between tall sand dunes in the Sahara Desert.
Biking is my favorite way to go. With my childhood gang in Los Angeles, on our spiffy “chopper” bikes (Schwinns with sissy bars, banana seats, and tassels on the handlebars), we had the freedom to roam for miles. I’ve commuted to and from work on a bike. I’ve done scholarship fundraising rides for Western Carolina University, once cycling from Cullowhee to Raleigh to meet with Governor Roy Cooper in his office. I’ve ridden across the Golden Gate Bridge or along the edges of the Grand Canyon.
But there is nothing like the Cades Cove Loop Road.
From the entrance, you start a long descent, with horses resting from their stable work in a field off to the left. Then you pedal through a flat stretch in the middle of fields with swaths of black-eyed Susans and bright orange butterfly weed. Up a hill, wild turkeys or deer regularly come into view.
At the parking lot for the Native Plant Demonstration Plot, you take in a long view of the cove and surrounding mountains. Then steep down the hill, past the turn for Abrams Falls, toward the Cades Cove Visitor Center. Just before the center, I once came upon five coyote pups and their unseen mother, who called to them in some way I could not hear. They scurried into the woods, running in line along the top of a fallen log.
On the southern side of the loop the going tends to be stiffer, up and down hills, but cooler in the woods. Finally come the last fields to the left just before pedaling along Abrams Creek to the exit.
Almost there, huffing and sweating, I discover that the bikers ahead are stopped at Lone Grove, overlooking Ike Lequire Cemetery. I dismount, walking up to the group. No one says a word. Watching in awe, we see a sow digging up roots by the road, showing her two cubs how to forage.
She stops her work and gently ambles in our direction, so we ease back to give her more room. Then three bucks strut into the meadow (one an eight-point, one six, and one four). They act like they own the field. But the mother’s cubs are between her and the bucks. Satisfied she has dealt with us, she rushes them, and their swagger disappears, replaced by wagging white-flag tails as they flee.
“This is what you come here for,” one man near me whispers. “This is what you hope to see.”
I think what we come here for is assurance that the world is still right. To watch the turkey, deer, coyote, or bear naturally get along with the business of living.
I am reminded of the recent Holocene epoch, when it seemed every aspect of the environment, from the cycle of seasons down to the bees and butterflies pollinating the flowers, worked together in a way that perfectly suited our species. For a moment we might forget we are unwilling pioneers in the new and unpredictable Anthropocene.
A day of good looping assures me that some of the old feedbacks still work for us: snow and ice reflect heat, the trees bank carbon, the plants expel oxygen, the summer will give way to fall, and out there still a mother bear does the hard work of protecting her cubs from all comers, including us.
The great naturalist and writer Peter Matthiessen, overcome by the beauty of the Himalayas, wrote in The Snow Leopard: “I ring with life, and the mountains ring, and when I can hear it, there is a ringing that we share.”
On a day of good looping at Cades Cove, Matthiessen’s words simply ring true.