Since the Smoky Mountains drifted in from Africa 250 million years ago, erosion has taken its toll. The peaks look cool, shrouded in mist, receding layer after layer toward the horizon, but they don’t look very tall.
That they’re still rugged can be affirmed by the fact that loggers have been kept at bay to some extent. The guidebooks tell us that “only” 20 percent of the Smokey’s old grown timber remains. It sounds like a remarkable preservation rate to me, considering how long folks have been living in the vicinity. (Less than one percent of Minnesota’s old growth is still standing.)
For every tourist who makes the trek to the Grand Canyon, two visit the Smokies. They’re a lot closer and probably more manageable for many, though they’re a lot more difficult to encompass in a glance—and also, I think, less “grand.”
Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg have become legendary in their sprawling tackiness. Smog and acid rain run rampant. And the crowds are so thick in the height of the summer and fall seasons, you can walk the eight-mile Cades Cove loop faster than you can drive it.
In April, however, the air is clear and crowds aren’t much of a problem. We booked a mountain cabin for the night by phone while driving east from Nashville in a steady drizzle, downloaded the entry code from a McDonald’s parking lot an hour later down the freeway, and were comfortably ensconced on a rustic porch outside of Townsend, Tennessee, looking out over the mountains, well before dinner-time.
The Smokies have been inhabited by Anglos since before the Revolutionary War, and viewing them from a rocking chair seemed entirely fitting. When the full moon rose, big and orange, it appeared to be coming from just the other side of the hill.
The morning broke clear and bright, and before long we were winding our way up Laurel Creek toward Cades Cove. The Cove is really a vast, open valley surrounded by hills and dotted with log and frame structures from the nineteenth century. Wild turkeys and diminutive deer abound, and three or four photographers with tripods were wandering around out in the valley looking for the perfect angle to catch the fast-vanishing mist—or for a bear sleeping in a tree.
The cabins along the one-way driving tour are lovely—rugged yet newly chinked. The first one we visited was built in 1810, though its antique atmosphere was undermined to some degree by the park service worker with a leaf blower who was cleaning up the site.
A half-mile down the road we entered a white frame Baptist church to find a woman banging out a hymn on an out-of-tune piano near the altar. She was just a tourist passing through, I’m sure, but it added a nice touch to the hallowed atmosphere of the long-since-deconsecrated building. We wandered the graveyard on the hill above the church and followed a path a little further up into the hills.
At the far end of the Cove an ensemble of buildings are clustered around a flour mill at the edge of a stream. It can still grind corn to this day, and there’s a sorghum threshing tub sitting under a tree out in the yard, too. A sturdy cantilevered barn and a couple of frame houses complete the scene.
To tell you the truth, I find it difficult generating enthusiasm for such pioneer stuff. Though the construction techniques are interesting, things haven’t really changed that much in two hundred years. Four walls and a roof. A chimney, some windows….. For me, the vegetation in the Cove, moist and fresh after the rains of the previous day, was the star attraction. The dogwoods were in bloom; streams were rushing down from the hillsides; rhododendrons grew wild to fifteen feet in height; the pine forests were fragrant and rich with moss; dwarf iris, phlox, and other less familiar wildflowers were blooming underfoot; and birds twittered and darted through the scrub willows at the forest margins.
At one point along the loop we stopped to have a picnic before retracing our route along the northern edge of the park, continuing on to the Elkhorn region, where we spent the afternoon touring some early-twentieth-century vacation cabins and resort buildings, most of them abandoned, many of them overgrown and falling into disrepair.
But how to you really get to know the Smokies? The answer we arrived at, back on our comfortable porch looking out across the hills (making the most of our “pioneer” sojourn), was a simple one—on foot. The hot tub, too, was nice. But the answer remained the same—on foot.
Yes, but hiking takes time. And we knew that a serious sheet of bad weather was moving northeast toward us from the Gulf. In the single day of sunshine remaining, we did what many first-time visitors to the Smokies do—we took the short, 1.5-mile hike to Laurel Falls and then drove up to Clingman’s Dome.
Nice, nice, nice. All the way around, nice. Hiking trail in shadow, morning cold, bright sun on the opposite hillside stretching off into the distance. A scarlet tanager in the treetops, but down the face of the mountain, putting it not much above eye level.
I pointed it out to a volunteer who was picking up trash in the underbrush and Hilary offered him her binoculars. After taking a brief look, he returned them and shook his head. “I wouldn’t have seen that in a million years…You really gotta be into it.”
The drive up to Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in the park, was gorgeous. From Cove Hardwood forests we rose into alpine woods that look a lot like northern Minnesota. At one point we even passed a “bog walk,” though we didn’t stop. The air was unusually clear, and from the peak—a quarter-mile climb up a broad asphalt trail—we could see Mt. Mitchell, seventy-three miles away. We could also see the outline of Fontana Reservoir, like a long and alluring turquoise gash in the forest carpet, and nearer at hand, the bleached trunks of countless Fraser firs sticking up through the greenery—uniformly striken by an infestation of stray European insects.
The trail to the dome crosses the Appalachian Trail, and we hiked a stretch of it—maybe a hundred feet, there and back. Not a cloud in the sky. Then we made our winding way back to the natural history museum in the visitor center just outside Gatlinburg to get a better handle on the local flora.
The gray skies had arrived in earnest by the time we got to the relatively remote campground south of Cosby, on the east side of the park, and set up camp. Perhaps the low clouds added to the richness of the atmosphere along the one-mile nature trail that winds its way through the verdant valley of Cosby Creek. Rhododendrons were everywhere, the rocks in the creek bed were covered with moss, vines twisted down like broken power lines from the treetops, and wildflowers of several hues peppered the woods. Once we’d traversed this enchanted jungle circuit we drove into the town of Cosby, a vaguely defined settlement that stretches for a mile or more along Tennessee Highway 321.
We were headed for the Front Porch, a Mexican restaurant featured in our guide book, said to have live bluegrass on the weekends. There were plenty of cars in the lot by the time we arrived—but no musicians or Mexican food in sight.
“I thought there was music here on Friday nights,” I said to the friendly waitress who took our order.
She shook her head. “No. At this time of year we only have music on Saturday nights.”
“Who’s playing tomorrow?” (I thought maybe we’d stick around.)
“She’s a local gal. Does a little blues, a little folk...”
The restaurant didn’t serve beer, either. Too close to the local church, we were told. Nevertheless it was a warm, friendly place, bustling with good cheer, and the food was somewhat better than average. My shrimp-and-grits was a little on the salty side and Hilary’s chicken-and-dumplings was a gooey mess, but the fried green tomatoes were topnotch. The bourbon pie was also tempting.
A faint drizzle had set in by the next morning, and we broke camp at dawn, removing ourselves to the picnic area to make our morning coffee. As the day warmed the drizzle became a mist, and we headed off into the woods toward Mount Cammerer. We had trouble finding the trailhead, however—it was located a few hundred yards up the road past the group camp—and hiked most of the nature trail a second time before we finally came upon it. It was nice climbing up into the mountains at last, on a dirt (rather than asphalt) trail, with no one else within earshot. Mist shrouded the valleys, and tulip trees rose to great heights all around us.
We took a spur up to an overlook and came upon a couple about our age who had backpacked in the previous day and spent the night at a campsite a few miles further up the trail. They were from Indiana, but often made the exhausting all-day drive down to the Smokies. In fact, they loved the area so much they’d bought a house in Cosby.
“You’re in the best part of the park,” the man told us. “And Cosby is the best campground. Have you gone to Snake Den Ridge yet? And you’ve got to take the hike up to Ramsey Cascade!”
Indeed, that would have been the best way to get to know the park: on foot, with a pack on your back. But it was not in the cards. We had other fish to fry. The weather was turning sour, and Cherokee, Asheville, and the Blue Ridge Parkway still lay ahead.
The Blue Ridge Parkway runs from Cherokee, N.C. northeast for 470-odd miles through the mountains and hills to Shenandoah National Park in northern Virginia. It’s a well-groomed route largely devoid of signage, commercial development, or cross-traffic. In fact, it can get a little lonely up there on the Blue Ridge on a foggy day in April. The route also tends to generate anxiety. It’s loaded with pullouts from which you can look down across the landscape below, but they’re frequent and it’s hard to tell one from the next. It would take forever to stop at them all, but there are times when the one you decide to skip suddenly looks spectacular in the rear view mirror.
The most beautiful thing I saw on our entire two-week trip was the forest passing by us along the parkway between Cherokee and Asheville. It was foggy and the forest was wet. The serviceberry trees were flowering and their leaves, which were hardly out, were still a rusty red. The silver bell trees were also flowering, and the blue-green lichen on the tree trunks was luminescent. The intricacy of the crossing branches receding down the hillsides in the largely leafless forest, with touches of white and red here and there, was nothing short of sublime.
All the same, we were happy to arrive in Ashville, where a cozy eighth-floor room downtown overlooking the city awaited us. The lobby of the hotel was full of twenty-somethings in glamorous attire.
“We’ve had weddings here all week,” the receptionist informed us excitedly.
After scrutinizing a few restaurant websites we headed out, wandering the streets of the city in the drizzle, and ended up at an Irish Restaurant called Jack-o-the-Wood where a “session” was underway. The music was nothing special, but it was free. The atmosphere was casual, the beer was fine (brewed on-site), the kale chips were marvelous, and the rabbit ragout was the best meal I had on the trip. Yes, city life is good.
The air had grown lighter by the time we emerge again into the evening, and we were tempted by a wine bar we passed on our way back to the hotel where a piano-trumpet duo was playing. The crowd was a little too hip, or maybe we were a little too tired. We returning to the hotel past Thomas Wolfe’s childhood home (another writer I’ve never read) and settled ourselves in front of the huge TV, where we lucked upon the perfect film for the evening: The Rare Breed, a Western starring Jimmy Stewart and Maureen O’Hara.
We’d been looking at the countryside of Kentucky and Tennessee for quite a while, and now we got to take a good look at a recreation of early Texas shot on location in the Coachella Valley of California.
We continued north on the parkway the next day, at one point following a spur to Mount Mitchell, the highest point east of the Mississippi. An hour further up the parkway we took a twenty-minute hike out to Linville Falls. The falls was lovely but I was more impressed with what we saw along the way: first, two Carolina wrens chattering away on the railing of a footbridge; then a worm-eating warbler scrounging in the underbrush at the base of a mountain laurel bush; and flinally, on our way back from the falls, three black-throated-blue warblers singing in the middle story of the forest.
We’d never seen any of those species before.