A Man, a Plan, a Bear: Ethan and Gloria's Proposal at Cades Cove

Okay, sit down - this one is a story to be told.

Ethan contacted me several weeks ago to arrange for me to photograph his proposal to Gloria. As per my usual way of handling these requests, he and I exchanged emails to talk about the timing, the location, and all the details therein. Gloria is down here, in Knoxville. Ethan is up there, in Michigan. The plan was that her friend, Natalie, would find an excuse to bring Gloria to the Overlook in Cades Cove, walk her into the field away from the parking lot, and Ethan would come up behind her, surprise her, and propose. It even worked out that Ethan had driven down to Tennessee the night before, so I would pick him up at his hotel in Townsend, and he and I would drive to the spot and wait. My car has tinted windows so Ethan could sit in the back seat and not be seen.

Easy peasy, right?

The plan was that Gloria would be at the designated spot around 2:30 pm. I told Ethan, do not worry - we are NOT driving away at 2:45 pm because I know sometimes the drive is easy and sometimes it is hard, especially if you hit a bear jam. For those unfamiliar with the term, a bear jam occurs on the Cades Cove loop road when someone spots a bear. And everyone loses their mind, forgetting to pull off onto the side of the road, or sloooooowing way down to see the bear because people ahead of them have already pulled over and they would have to park a quarter of a mile head and walk back, thus possibly missing the bear. Let’s face it, for many tourists, they drive a day to get to the Smokies and the #1 thing they want to see is one of our black bears.

So Ethan and I sat, watching as the parking lot filled, then emptied, then filled, then emptied, all the while remarking how predictable people’s behavior is. What happens is that people park and maybe walk a few feet past the fence to take a picture - but no further. In fact, some people never even get out of their car, just take a picture of the scenery from the window. That was something I had said to Ethan when he worried about having people around and possibly proposing in the midst of a crowd - and sure enough, that was what was happening.

We also talked about the psychological phenomenon where a person can go unrecognized by a friend or relative because the friend or relative is seeing them in a context or setting that they normally would not imagine the person to be in. It’s as if you are walking down a street in Dubrovnik and your mother, who lives in Illinois, walks towards you - you may walk by never seeing them or, if you do, thinking, “Well, that can’t be my mother, my mother is home in Illinois!”

We also had this conversation:

“Do you know what Natalie’s car looks like?”


“Okay . . . do you know what Natalie looks like?”


No worries, I would get out now and then and scan the parking lot, figuring I would see two young women in a compact car. Remember, we are in Cades Cove - there is NO cell service. That is why plans are made when orchestrating a proposal in the Smokies.

And we waited. And waited. And still waited.

We are sitting in the car, me up front, and Ethan in the back seat, when he blurts, “Oh s**t, it’s them!”

Two girls walked by my car.. While Gloria’s back was turned, I motioned to Natalie, mouthing “Take her out” and pointing towards the field. From reading body language, I could tell Gloria was more attuned to “Okay, we saw this - let’s move on.” I watched across the parking lot as her friend tried to get her to walk down into the field. No dice. They got in the car and drove off.

Ethan asked from his position on the floor of my back seat, “What’s happening.”
”They’re moving,” I said, throwing my car into reverse. “Don’t worry, I am right behind them. They have to stop sometime and when they do, it’s go time!”

Fortunately, they did not go far. Natalie pulled into the smaller parking lot down the hill from the Overlook and I pulled in as well. Thinking fast, I motioned to Natalie to roll down her window.

“Hey, I was trying to tell you back there - your tail light is busted.”

”Oh no, really?”

“Yeah, it looks like someone busted the glass.”

“Well, I better get out and look at it.”

Natalie moved to the back. I said, “See it? She said, “Yeah - holy cow, when did that happen?! Gloria, you should GET OUT OF THE CAR AND COME SEE THIS.”

Gloria stepped out, walked to the back of Natale’s car, looked down, and then shot me a dirty look.

“I don’t see anything! What are you talking about?!” Later she admitted to me, she thought I would next come out with a gun to rob her and Natalie.

I quietly said to Ethan in my back seat, “It’s go time,” and got out.

“Well, if you can’t see it . . . let my expert show you where it is@!” I gestured behind me without turning around, hoping Ethan was out of the car.

And he was.

Remember what I said about not recognizing someone in an unfamiliar setting? The look on Gloria’s face was priceless. And she was speechless. You could see her looking at her boyfriend with a whole lot of confusion, until finally breaking into a broad grin.

And then this happened . . .

And, of course, she said “yes!” (Come on, would I be telling this story if she didn’t?!)

Ethan and Gloria jumped in my car and off we went to make some images of them in their post-proposal glow, so they could always remember this day. That included some images of that very fine sparkler Ethan placed on Gloria’s finger (note” photos of the ring are handy to keep for insurance purposes . . . just saying . . .)!

Wait, did I mention bears?

As it happened, this was Ethan and Gloria’s first trip to Cades Cove . . . sort of. It seems they had visited before but due to traffic, quit the loop early and never got to see it. Anticipating increasing crowds on a Friday afternoon, I took them for photos to places I know do not attract crowds.

And while Ethan and I were waiting at the Overlook, we saw a crow. And then, way off in the distance, a doe. Ethan said, “What are the chances of seeing a bear?” I was truthful. “Mmmm, not good - this time of day they like to find someplace to nap in the midday heat.”

So, we had just finished up some photography at the Carter Shields cabin. Remarkably, as we drove the loop I could see no cars in my rearview mirror: it was as if someone or something was holding back any traffic behind us.

We rounded a corner - and this fellow came sauntering out of the woods onto the road right in front of us.

Can I tell you how thrilled Ethan and Gloria were?

He casually wandered off into the fields. I kept checking my rearview mirror and still, no cars. The three of use were alone to enjoy this opportunity.

I said to them, “Guys - this is a good omen of things to come. I can’t begin to tell you how rare it is to see a bear this close, with no one else around - ON YOUR FIRST VISIT?!”

We finished up at Lequire Cemetery. By that time, Mr. Bear had attracted attention, so with a bear jam forming behind us - and growing - it was time to go.

Do things always go to plan smoothly? No, of course not. And as Ethan said, “Now we have a story to tell.” Personally, I think Gloria and Ethan’s story is going to be a long one, one of a lifetime together. And I am honored that I got to be there at the beginning.

And who knows? Maybe the bear is, too!

Are you getting ready to ask someone you love to spend the rest of your lives together? Give me a call and let’s make it the start of your own family history!

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