CHEOA POINT, N.C. – Disaster.
It had been such a lovely day and now as night quickly sliced across the Nantahala National Forest, which is like the adjacent Smokey Mountain National Park except that it is strikingly more beautiful and generally free of tourists, I anticipated a wonderful night's sleep.
As night fell, fresh and clear mountain breezes swept through tall trees under a crystalline mountain sky. A wave of contentment rolled over me as I made my way up the hill to my campsite, roughly 50 yards from the one where I had just had a wonderful meal with my son, Boy Wonder, and his rambunctious crew.
Just getting there had been lovely, thanks to a 2022 Toyota Sienna Woodland Edition XLE AWD ($46,075). This was when gas was pushing $5 a gallon. All Siennas are hybrids, with four-cylinder, 2.5-L engines that are supplanted by electric motors. The Woodland edition has a second electric motor at the rear which gives it all-wheel drive. It also sits about a half-inch higher, which makes it perfect for the Forest Service roads I love to explore.
Like most hybrids, the Sienna is remarkably torquey. It is smooth and powerful on take-off as well as when accelerating around lane-blocking 18-wheelers who turn Interstate 30 into another version of Mad Max.
What high gas prices?
I topped off with regular unleaded in Texarkana just before dawn and battled the truckers across Arkansas and into Eastern Tennessee. I was well past Nashville when I refilled Sienna's 18-gallon tank. When I got to the campground, some 720 miles from home, I had nearly ¾-gallon still in the tank.
For the day, the cavernous seven-seater exceeded its advertised 36-mpg fuel economy, despite being driven somewhat above posted speeds. Indeed, I would fill it only once to complete the round trip.
In the meantime, the Sienna's big, wide front seat with lumbar control and a hushed interior made for a pleasant, i.e., non-tiring ride. Its infotainment system synced perfectly with my iPhone, so I had all my apps and information at my fingertips. I was able to play my favorite Spotify lists through a 12-speaker, JBL® sound system.
Like all Toyotas, the Sienna comes with a well-developed driver assistance system, which includes lane-keeping assistance and adaptive cruise control that keeps it a safe distance from vehicles ahead and applies the brakes when needed. It also has an attention monitoring system that reminds drivers not to rely completely on the computerized copilot, which always pays attention.
The system, plus goodies like blind-spot monitoring, takes a lot of stress out of driving. The only problem comes when the system maintains a safe distance from the vehicle ahead and a trucker sees that as an invitation to cut in front and slow everyone down.
Tailgate or get cut off, those or the options on today's interstates. How can truckers swerve into the fast lane in less than two seconds, but after – finally – overtaking whatever they felt they needed to overtake require two lifetimes of a turtle to get back into their lanes?
I have digressed. The point here is that the Sienna may not be sexy, but you will be hard-pressed to find a better companion on the open road.
The real surprise came in deep east Tennessee when I hit U.S. 129 and the wicked set of twists and turns that leads to Deals Gap, N.C., the gateway to the Nantahala. Known as Tail of the Dragon, the road has 318 curves in 11 miles and no side roads. This encourages some people to exceed the posted limits.
I'm not sure if that's me, because I don't recall noticing a speed limit sign.
It attracts thousands of bikers and sports-car enthusiasts and is the site of multiple fatalities every year.
I arrived in the middle of the afternoon, and traffic was moderate to light. The Sienna surprised me with its grace and sure-footedness through the many turns. Body lean was minimal, and the all-wheel drive gave it a marvelous ability to accelerate through the curves.
To be sure, I kept an eye on the mirrors and pulled over for a supercar and some quite talented folks on sports bikes.
On the other hand, I had to brake to keep from running over fellow Baby Boomers riding their thundering Hogs. The Viagra Patrol, I call them. These boys know how to look cool but, with two wheels or four, they still don't know how to drive in the mountains. They seemed perturbed to see a minivan filling their mirrors.
Perhaps it was my grin.
Knowing their pride would never allow them to pull over, I just slowed down and enjoyed the view.
Saved by the Sienna
After a pastoral drive up Santeetlah Creek, I was soon at Cheoah Point Campground, which lies on a peninsula of the vast Lake Santeetlah, created by one of the uppermost dams of the Tennessee River Valley Authority.
The lake sits amid the 1.3-million acres of mountain lands that comprise the Nantahala National Forest, due south of the Great Smokey Mountain National Park. Once a midpoint of the Cherokee nation, Nantahala means land of early sunset because of its steep terrain and deep canyons. Sunsets are quick.
I ran across the place while a college student half a century ago. Since I went to school in Florida, on spring break I headed north. I was on my way to nearby Gatlinburg, Tenn, but never got there. Instead, I spent the week exploring the Nantahala. The beauty of the land captivated me, and the absence of tourists gave my soul the solitude and salve it sought.
It would be another 20 years before Boy Wonder joined this life and often I had told him of this place; yet, this year presented the first occasion we could go. He and Tabitha and the kids got there a day before I did. When I arrived, my jaw dropped when I discovered that Cheoah Point was still largely undiscovered.
On one of the busiest weekends of the year, half the campsites were vacant, and the place was refreshingly quiet, though little Tamra, J.D., and Charles certainly did their best to overcome that.
After a fine meal, we walked down to the water's edge. There are no towns or major highways nearby, so nighttime in the Nantahala is quiet as a monastery and dark as a raven's back. An ocean of brilliant stars was perfectly reflected in the still water of the deep mountain lake.
Soon, I was ready to crawl into my hammock tent and fall into the comforting embrace of nighttime mountain air.
As I slid in, I twisted to find that perfect spot and, darn! My left foot punched through the bottom of the hammock, which instantly ripped wide open and dropped me on my derriere amid a puff of forest floor detritus.
A nearby owl hooted at my indignity.
As I stood, wiping the leaves from me and my sleeping bag, I pondered my next move.
I could either sleep on the ground, with neither mattress nor bug netting, or I could climb into the back of the Sienna. I chose the latter and it was pure serendipity.
The Woodland Edition has second-row captains' seats which are neither foldable nor removable. The space between them, however, was perfect for my pillow. I had already folded away the third-row seats, which left a perfectly flat, carpeted space on which to lie. I could not have been more comfortable.
Wait, yes, I could. Here's the thing, I am supposed to use a CPAP machine, a device that overcomes sleep apnea. I've lost a lot of weight this year and don't need it as much, so I felt I could camp without it for a few nights, but I had packed it, just in case.
The Woodland Edition, it turns out, comes standard with a 15-watt converter and two 120-volt outlets. I was able to plug in the machine. For most of the night, the van's hybrid batteries ran the machine. When it sensed its charge getting low, the gasoline engine came on for a few moments.
Nobody else in the campground could hear it. When I went to bed, the van said it had a range of 413 miles. When I awoke, it said 410.
I'd salvaged the bug netting and draped it over a couple of open windows to allow in that delicious, crisp air. With my phone plugged into one of the van's seven USB ports and the sound system softly playing my favorite slumber music, I slept the sleep of the just.
Do you think a big ole Harley-Davidson is cool? Not as cool as Toyota's minivan.