Thursday, March 22, 2012

Mention the Smoky Mountains, especially Gatlinburg, Tenn., and bears are probably the first thing that you’ll hear about.

Black bears, to be exact. The nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the last remaining places in the eastern United States where they can be found in the wild.

By the time you’ve visited enough “Beartown U.S.A.s,” you roll your eyes when you see yet another place that claims to have bears. Or so we thought when we pulled up to our week-long vacation rental in Gatlinburg.

If they have bears, I thought, show us.

We remained skeptical even as we road construction signs that read, “Please bear with us.” (Bear with us — get it?) And I shook my head as I saw row after row of carved wooden bears doing all kinds of things. My favorite: The carved wooden bear cub toilet-paper dispenser. Classy.

But there’s one thing Gatlinburg has going for it that Las Vegas, Reno and Branson, Mo., don’t — and that’s bears. We wouldn’t have believed it unless we saw it ourselves, but on the second morning of our stay, we noticed three dark shapes moving on the steep hill just beyond our balcony.

And there they were: two yearlings playing in the rain under their mother’s watchful eye.

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