Nov 14, 2008
|Smoky Mountain history made easy - Thursday, November 13
We woke to a steady rain that showed no signs of letting up so we turned on the Weather Channel. Big mistake. You only want to turn on the Weather Channel if you’re looking for an excuse to not do something. You’ll find plenty of excuses on the Weather Channel as a pretty girl points out all the storms that are headed your way, and a smiling guy tells you how each one is going to ruin your day.
Icy snowstorms are sweeping down from the north, and hurricane warnings are posted in the east, severe thunderstorms in the west may bring 'golf ball sized' hail stones and tornado warnings are issued for the south. All these catastrophes are converging on your little dot on the map, and it looks like you’re going to be
It’s because they know as well as we do that it’s all a lot of nonsense. Seldom does what they predict come true, and when it does it’s probably something we could have figured out for ourselves if we’d just stepped to the door and looked out at the sky. That’s what the old timers used to do, and they were probably right as often as today’s meteorologists.
So after watching the same Doppler green patch swoop down on our little dot over and over again, we opened the door and looked outside. Lo and behold it had stopped raining! Time to un-circle the wagons and get out of Dodge - or in this case, Pigeon Forge. A half hour later we were headed back through Gatlinburg to Smoky Mountains National Park.
Our destination today was Cades Cove, the site of a once thriving community that existed in the northern foothills of the Smokies. There’s a campground there, and a road that takes you back two centuries in time. We found the campground and the road, and we spent the rest of the afternoon in country so sweet it makes you want to cry. This is Appalachian heartland at it’s best - a landscape that will haunt you forever once you’ve seen it.
Cades Cove was founded at the turn of the eighteenth century, and there were people living here who fought in the American Revolution. It is estimated that at one time there were 800 people living in the cove, so named because it is a curved valley carved into the range of mountains. The cove is accessed today by an eleven mile loop road that begins and ends at the campground entrance.
In summer the road is closed to automobiles for part of each day so that bicyclists can ride the narrow road undisturbed by cars and traffic. You can rent a bike at the campground store. This time of year it is open to car traffic all day though, and while we saw very few bikers, it’s surprising to see the steady flow of cars and trucks and church busses that line the road even on an off-season weekday.
The entire loop is a one way road, but there are two, two way cross roads where you can exit short of the end, or return to repeat a section if you want to. On the one way section there are a number of turnouts where you can stop to take pictures or park while you hike in to see a cabin or church. One side road takes you out to a church and the road is so narrow that we barely had room to pass the few cars coming the other way. Turns are often tight, and there were a couple of grade changes where we dragged the rear end momentarily, but everyone is cooperative and we managed as well with the motorhome as we would have with a car.
The cabins and buildings on the loop have a mixture of origins. Some are original with very little restoration, some are original with a lot of restoration, and some have been moved in from other locations and restored as necessary to give the visitor a good look at what life here must have been like. In some cases whole farms are in place, complete with spring houses, smoke houses, corn cribs, barns and other outbuildings. There are also three beautifully preserved churches, with their cemeteries gone just wild enough to fit the time and place.
By dark we’d done less than half of the eleven mile loop, so we called it a day and took a shortcut back to camp. The campground makes it clear that we’re in bear country, but so far we’ve seen only white tailed deer and one sleek coyote.
Friday, November 14
We paid up for another night at the Cades Cove campground and set out to see the rest of the community. The first five miles took us past the cabins and churches we’d stopped at yesterday, then we started on the part of the loop we hadn’t seen. Our first stop was the Baptist Church. Yesterday we saw the Primitive Baptist Church and the Methodist Church. Walking the paths of the cemeteries you see the same family names show up in all three of the graveyards. There are headstones of veterans of both the Revolution and the Civil War, and there are many headstones of children who died in the first year of their lives.
We toured another farm a half a mile off the road, and at the far end of the loop we stopped at the Visitor Center and toured the buildings there. They have a grist mill and several homes and barns, and one of the most interesting things was a demonstration of how they make sorghum molasses.
They had a press and a cooker set up, and a man was feeding sorghum cane into the press while a mule walked around a circle turning the rollers. Crushed cane was coming out the other side of the press and green juice was running out the bottom into a pail. Several gallons of green juice were cooking in the vat, and there was a tent set up where two women were selling jars of the heavy brown molasses. I asked them how it gets from green to brown, and they said the green juice on the top of the vat was chlorophyll juice that cooks off and rises to the top, and is then skimmed off to leave the brown molasses at the bottom.
It takes ten gallons of juice to make a gallon of molasses, and the molasses can not be further processed into sugar like sugar cane or maple syrups can. The molasses has a strong but pleasant taste. It’s used as a topping on biscuits, pancakes or bread, and as an ingredient in various syrups and barbeque sauces. We might have bought a jar, but this trip is winding down and we are trying to lighten our load, not increase it.
We toured another farm and on the road back we had two wildlife encounters. The first one was in the woods where a coyote ran across the road in front of us. Actually there were two, and a man who’d stopped to photograph them told us to watch for the second one. Eventually they re-crossed the road and we got a good look at them. They are sleek and look well fed, probably on a diet of gray squirrels that inhabit the woods and seem to be everywhere.
A few miles farther we came to a line of cars pulled over in a bunch, and out in a field we saw a mama black bear and her cub foraging for acorns under an oak tree. We managed to squeeze our motorhome into a parking space far enough off the road to let traffic by, and we proceeded to take a lot of pictures ourselves. The park service volunteer helping with the traffic told us the female is very aggressive and she has ‘bluff charged’ several people recently. She was far too far away to be a danger to us, but the man told one woman that she’d better be careful because her pink shirt would look like a gumdrop to the bear. She was off one of the church busses and she actually believed him until he told her he was just kidding.
At the end of the loop road stands the campground store, and we ended our day with two big ice cream cones. There is supposed to be a cold front moving in with rain predicted to turn to snow, but at midnight it was still 60 degrees outside and we actually had to take blankets off of the bed. See what I mean about the Weather Channel? Nothing but a lot of white noise!