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Disappointment Turns Into a Positive Conclusion

My wife and I recently took a short trip to relax and celebrate our wedding anniversary. We went to the Smoky Mountains, where we frequently took our girls camping when they were growing up. We especially were interested in driving the Cades Cove Loop after so many years away, hoping to see the wildlife for which the Loop is famous: bears, deer, turkeys, and maybe even elk, which were reintroduced in the park several years ago.

But we were in for a series of disappointments. No sooner had we turned onto Little River Road at the Sugarlands Visitors Center and headed toward the Cove than we saw the sign: Cades Cove Loop was closed to vehicle traffic on Wednesdays. It was Wednesday. The itinerary and schedule for our entire two-day visit was turned on its head. We salvaged part of the day’s activities by having our scheduled picnic lunch at Metcalf Bottoms, but our drive around the Loop would have to wait until Thursday.

So we returned to Sevierville via Pigeon Forge with all its traffic, which was surprisingly heavy in spite of the Covid restrictions, including wearing suffocating masks in 97-degree temps with 90 percent humidity. We tried to make the best of our topsy-turvy plans by stopping to play a round of putt-putt. Without a cap, I got sunburned even along the part in my hair.

Learning from the motel clerk that cars began lining up at the Loop entrance as early as 5:00 a.m., we rose early, before the continental breakfast or even the grab-and-go bags were ready, and headed back to the Cove. We kept a sharp lookout for wildlife once again, knowing that the critters would be apt to appear in the near-dawn dimness.

Arriving at the Cove a little before the 8:00 a.m. opening time, we found cars already lined up for a half mile or so. A few minutes later, the line of vehicles began to move at a snail’s pace as other visitors like us searched for wildlife. Other than a few crows, we again were disappointed. Our short vacation was fast drawing to a close, and we still had seen little wildlife except a few wild turkeys and those old crows.

We were topping the Gatlinburg Bypass when all that changed. The driver in front of us suddenly slammed on his brakes. A mother bear was ambling nonchalantly across the road as though she had all the time and not a worry in the world. She climbed over the timber guardrail and then turned and looked back toward the other side, finally placing her front paws on the guardrail and lifting herself upright as though to get a better look.

That’s when I saw a tiny, Teddy bear-sized cub scamper across the road, obviously frightened by the cars in both lanes but eager to get back to Mama’s side. Arriving safely beside her, the cub followed Mama Bear into the underbrush.

Our vacation wildlife search had not been in vain! (Unfortunately, I couldn’t get a focused photo of the big event.) But we were in for yet another pleasant discovery.

I had long heard about the Tennessee Museum of Aviation but had never had the opportunity to visit it. This time, we had planned it as part of our itinerary.

The museum is housed in a 50,000 square foot facility at the Gatlinburg-Sevierville Airport, 135 Air Museum Way, Sevierville, TN 37862. We saw no signs directing us to it other than a sign with a jet symbol and an arrow. We drove up a hill and a long, nondescript metal building and nearly to a chain-link fence separating the parking lot from the tarmac before we saw the unassuming entrance to the museum.

The entry fee of $12.75 per person seemed a bit steep for my wallet, but the senior discount brought that down to a more manageable $9.75. (Military veterans and active military personnel can visit for $8.75 with proper ID, and kids under 6 are free.)

Inside were numerous interesting displays of air history, from the pre-Wright Brothers era to the modern era, with a special emphasis on military flight from World War I to the Cold War and Gulf Wars. Several displays were devoted to the work of military chaplains. It was in this part of the museum that we met a docent who made our entire visit worthwhile. Being a fledgling docent myself, I am always eager to observe good docents in action and “pick their brains” about how they do things.

Jerry Hixson (photo courtesy of Tennessee Museum of Aviation) was a thin, slight, graying gentleman with a soft voice and calm demeanor. It didn’t take long to realize that he is both knowledgeable and eager to share with anyone willing and eager to learn. We chatted with him a good while before other guests entered the room, and we excused ourselves so he could greet them. We continued our self-guided tour.

About 35,000 square feet of the museum, well over half of its space, is the hangar where are displayed numerous full and partial planes of various sorts, from a P-47 Thunderbolt to an A-1H Skyraider to a MiG 17 and MiG 21 and other vintage aircraft. It’s not the Mighty 8th Air Force Museum, but it comes close.

But what made it most impressive was our docent. We were only a few exhibits into the tour of the planes in the hangar when Jerry, having finished with his other guests, tracked us down and resumed our conversation. In the process, I learned that he had spent three years in the Army, 4th Armored Division, as an aircraft mechanic. His knowledge of the aircraft on display (and others that weren’t) was extensive. He gave us an informative and entertaining personal tour of the rest of the displays, turning a self-guided tour into a truly memorable experience.

On our way out of the hanger, just before the door entering the gift shop, I paused at a wall decorated by numerous 8 x 10 portraits of people who had played instrumental roles in the operation of the museum. Whose photo should catch my eye right at the end? Jerry Hixson!

If you are ever in the Sevierville-Pigeon Forge area, you might not see a lot of wildlife, but you won’t go wrong visiting the Tennessee Museum of Aviation. Especially if you happen to run into Jerry Hixson serving as docent!

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