Trans America Part III -- The South-1

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Continued from Part II - the Rocky Mountains and the Central.

Leaving St. Louis, I’ve entered The South.

In the United States, “the South” seems to be more of a cultural rather than a geographic concept. It roughly refers to a cluster of states at the southeast corner of the country. Southwestern states such as California, Arizona, and New Mexico, though at approximately the same latitude, are decidedly not “Southern.” On the Atlantic coast, the “South” reaches as far north as the Virginias, and arguably Delaware, Washington DC, and Maryland, totaling some 2/3 of the coastline. Instead of latitude or the Mason-Dixon line, what more accurately defines the South is a strong sense of self-identity (of a separate nation, some say) forged from its unique history that sets it apart from the rest of the country. Originated from a historically plantation-dominated agricultural economy built on slavery, the South seems always radiate an intentional or unintentional nostalgia of a romanticized antebellum “Old South.” The Southerners speak with a distinct slow and twangy accent (which I suppose was brewed in a slow life in the plantations), drink Mint Julips (bourbon, mint, syrup, and ice – strong stuff), chow on a gooey substance they called grits (grounded corn), practice strict courtesy and manner, and preserve a strong sense of community and rootedness.

I’ve developed a fascination with the South ever since I took an English class with a Dixie theme over twenty years ago. In the class we watched Gone with the Wind (1939), A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), and Fried Green Tomatoes (1991). We read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Fredric Douglas’s Narrative, and Mark Twain. We even had a field trip to a local Southern restaurant, where I felt in love with the exotic and zesty Gumbo stew. In fact, one wish I made in this trip is to taste as many styles of Gumbo as possible, whenever and wherever I spot it on the menu.

And here are some of them, from Tennessee to Georgia to Louisiana. Apparently, there were a million variations of this West Africa-originated stew recipe across the Dixie land, and there were a wide range of ingredients, shades, and textures, but all of them share a piquant and appetizing flavor. It was an invigorating and masculine dish; I never got tired of it.



Now back on the road. Continue eastward on Interstate 65, I crossed the state line into the southern tip of Illinois. Although Illinois is generally considered a Midwest state, downstate Illinois seemed to be as southern as any Dixie state. The highway went through lush woods and crossed expansive rivers. In one roadside restaurant, I was delighted by the most tender southern fried catfish I ever had.


Late in the afternoon I arrived at Bowling Green, KY, a quiet, innocuous little southern town. The only thing that put it on the map (aside from the farcical Kellyanne Conway “Bowling Green Massacre”), was a GM assembly plant for the most celebrated of all American sport cars, the Chevrolet Corvette.

In the rain, I stopped right in front of the National Corvette Museum. If there’s ever an American car that deserves a dedicated museum, it’s the Chevrolet Corvette. In the last 64 years, it has been the very definition of American sports car, which, if you look it up in the dictionary, means giving its European competitors a good spanking at a fraction of the cost, plus a clean and unassuming American good look. Here in the museum was a comprehensive collection of all seven generations of Corvette since 1953, plus many rare editions and concepts. No other sports car in the world possesses such a long and respectable lineage (only Porsche 911 comes close). While most American performance cars have been stereotyped as straight-line brutes with clumsy bodies, thirsty engines, and cheesy adornments, the ridicule stopped here. All around me were graceful lines and mighty machines that rivaled any European big boys of their age. Americans are capable of building world-beating cars, I thought, if we care to.


Let me end with a story in the Corvette Museum as a prelude for my next destination. In the morning of Feb. 12th, 2014, a sinkhole cracked open under the sky dome in the museum and swallowed 8 cars on display. Fortunately, the sinkhole, reported to be 25 ft deep and 30 to 40 ft in diameter, did not caused any injury. The 8 costly specimen were recovered and some were on-display. The damages, however, were unfortunately irreparable.


As it happens, such sinkhole incidents are not uncommon in Kentucky. In the past a few decades, there have been reports of sinkhole sucking up lands, trapping livestock, and biting off part of highways. The reason is that Kentucky sits on a karst region, where the rocky ground is littered with underground cave, streams, and natural springs. Many of the caves are constantly being eroded and expanding. At some point when the top soil cannot hold the weight above, a sinkhole opens. How do you like to live in a place where your house could be swallowed by the ground at any time?


We shall explore that in the next destination. After spending the night in Bowling Green, I drove about 30 miles northeast in the morning through steamy and densely wooded byways. At the end of road was the main entrance to the mother of all caverns, the Mammoth Cave. It was now part of Mammoth Cave National Park, a World Heritage Site and international Biosphere Reserve. Some 400 feet underneath me was a labyrinth of more than 405 miles (405 miles!) of intertwining passage ways (the mileage grows every year with further exploration), the longest known cave system in the world. In fact, the name “mammoth” had nothing to do with the extinct prehistoric behemoth, but instead was borrowed to describe the vast interior space and unmatched length of the passages.


About 350 million years ago, what we call south-central Kentucky today was under warm and shallow sea water. Sediments such as sea shells was compressed into a 1,400-feet layer of limestone on the seafloor, while deposits from rivers added some 100 feet of sandstone and shale on top. As the sea level dropped some 280 million years ago, the limestone layer underneath began to be eroded by water seeping underground, but the sandstone cap, insoluble to water, was intact. Eventually, continuously receding water level left a complicated honeycomb of passage ways. Today, while the top layers of passages have completely dried, the deepest layers is still water-filled and growing.


To fully explore the assessable sections of the cave, guided tours were required given the complexity of the passage ways. The most popular and comprehensive of them all was the Historic Tour, which I had to reserve a few days in advance.

I stood right in front of the gaping entrance now. It looked like a sinkhole, with stairs leading underground. Leaving the suffocating heat outside, I entered a completely different world. The temperature inside the cave was always a refreshing 54 degree, regardless how steamy it was out there. Whenever I emerged from the cave and trudged back to the sultriness outside, my glasses and the camera lens would fog up immediately. Whenever the cool air inside the cave flow out, the moisture will immediately condense into a thin mist that haunted the entrance.


Just a week ago, I was rather impressed by the exquisite 2-mile-long Lehman Cave in the Big Basin National Park; but I soon realized that the Mammoth Cave was in a completely different league, both in volume and length. It was not an easy task to articulate the vastness of the interior in words, and I don’t think my photos below did the cave justice. You just had to be there in person to appreciate the depth of its tranquility and emptiness. Consider the largest chamber in the cave, which was about 2 acres in area and some 100 feet high – large enough to comfortably accommodate a couple thousand people as an assembly hall. Legend has it, a local church traditionally held Sunday service right in the cave in early 19th century, which I imagined must have been a transcendental experience. During the Historic Tour, the guide gathered us in one of the large, echoing chambers much too spacious for the tour group, and asked all of us to quiet down and kill our flash light, in order to have a feel of the cave in its natural state. For a minute or so, we were surrounded by the deepest, boundless, bottomless darkness. The air was still, the only sound I could hear was the slight shuffling of the clothes of the person next to me. It was almost like in a coma, except that I was perfectly conscious. It was one of the more unnerving moments of my life.


In the Mammoth Cave, only the shallower upper-level passage ways were assessable by tourists. Interestingly, most of these upper passages in the Historic Tour didn’t have the usual elaborated stalactite / stalagmite formations found in underground caves, presumably because the water level was receding so rapidly that the cave dried up before water could perform its tricks. It wasn’t really a bad thing, as the lack of delicate adornments gave the cave a rugged feel, which I personally think was more suitable for its spectacular scale. Of course, it was not just gigantic empty spaces inside. During the Historic Tour we had to trudge through extremely tight passages, which were appropriately named “Fat Man’s Misery” or “Tall Man’s Misery.” I was neither fat or tall, but still didn’t have an easy time squeezing through. Just imagine how much fun a full-size, Kentucky Fried Chicken-fed American would have. To make sure everyone make it through, there had to be two tour guides for each group. One led in the front, while the other whistled leisurely in the back, shoving some of our jumbo-size friends through the crevices from time to time.


One advantage of traveling alone, was that I could easily crash into many of the guided or self-guided tours without reservations, whenever someone failed to show up. After the Historic Tour, I was able to secured a spot in the self-guided tour (with limited assess area), during which I could leisurely take photos with long exposure.


It was during the Dome and Dripstone Tour when I finally descended deep enough (about 3/5 of the total depth) to reach some limestone formations that I’ve been pondering all along. Actually, we were greeted by not just some, but a whole cliff of them, glittering in the dim lighting. It was like a snap shot of an imposing waterfall splashing down into a bottomless abyss. It was called the Frozen Niagara – the name said it all.


Late in the afternoon, I emerged from the last tour, tired and overwhelmed. I waited a few minutes for the fog on my glasses and lens to dissipate, and surveyed the surrounding sub-tropical forest. I’ve heard that the heavily wooded trails and kayaking on Green River were worth exploring, but I didn’t think I could last very long in such sultriness. So, I just had a leisure drive around the lush south Kentucky back country around the park, which was rather agreeable as long as the car was air conditioned.


Before it gets late, I pressed on towards Nashville. Along the way, I could see that Kentucky was quite a cave-ridden state. There were numerous signs touting their local cave attractions on roadside. I imagined myself driving on a huge slab of spongy cake, haunted by the thought that the hollow ground beneath could suddenly gape into a huge sinkhole and swallow the car whole with me in it. But at the end, I safely arrive at a hotel in the suburb of Nashville. With a sigh of relieve, I wandered off for dinner and a night walk.


As far as the culinary scene goes, in this part of the South, people seemed to dip and fry everything – chicken, fish, clam strips, country steak, okra, green tomatoes, hushpuppies, and if you have the nerve and stomach, squirrel’s brain (though less popular after the Mad Cow’s Diseases outbreak). Whatever they don’t fry, they BBQ. Smelling fried food, I walked into a Southern-looking fast food restaurant called Captain D’s. It was a mistake. Captain D’s absolutely failed to grasp the art of southern cuisine. The grilled cat fish fillet was over-cooked and too salty, the seafood cake was burnt, and the biscuit was dried and stony. It was such a drag, that I promised to make it up to myself tomorrow in the city.


The next morning, I headed into Nashville. In the slow lane, some dude was hauling his trailer queen Studebaker into town, which reminded me that it was Saturday. That explained the sparse morning traffic. As the skyline of Nashville looming in front of me, I couldn’t take my eyes off the AT&T building, whose two spires protruding into the sky from opposite sides like the ears of an owl. Most people call it the Batman Building, as the whole thing resembles the mask of Batman. It’s the tallest (at 617 feet), probably the most famous, and arguably the cutest building in Tennessee.


Nashville is known as the “Music City, USA.” It’s the cradle of American country music in the 1920’s, and the midwife of rock and roll in the 1940s (Memphis, the birth place of rock and roll, is 200 miles due west). It should be emphasized that Nashville the Music City, USA, is not to be mixed up with the “City of Music” Vienna. In fact, the two cannot be any more different. Consider the fact that country music was originally called “hillbilly music” and was rooted in Appalachian folk music and the blues – it’s at the exact opposite end of the social spectrum from the Viennese classicism.

Nothing capture the spirit of American country music better than the “Silver Dollar Convertible” of Webb Pierce, a honky tonk singer, displayed in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Pierce bought a monstrous 1962 Pontiac Bonneville convertible, and poured about five times over the base cost to pimp it up to a ridiculous show boat. He stuck a long horn in front of the bumper, mounted about a dozen hand guns, revolvers, machine guns, and horses all over the hoods and doors; he glued a pair of horse shoes on the gas and brake pedals; he fitted a horse saddle in the middle console; he upgraded the entire upholstery to showy patterned leather and slapped over a thousand silver dollars onto it. The whole thing pretty much covered what country music’s all about – rural life, longing for wealth, violence, adventure, and wild romance (Well, in Pierce’s days anyway). It was not just a car, it was the ultimate “if I have the money” daydream of a cowboy turn into reality. It was so ludicrously vulgar that it was, strangely, kind of likable.


Oh, I’m getting ahead of myself. The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum was one of Nashville’s top attractions, and to me something not to be missed. For years, my impression upon country music was limited to the pleasant and innocuous odes by John Denver, James Taylor and the like, which were mostly about pleasant rural scenes and patriotism. That was, until recently, I found out that before gangsta rap flourished on the street as the facia of violence, crime, drug, and sex, country music WAS the gangsta rap. The afore-mentioned “Silver Dollar Convertible” was a perfect specimen. Another example was Johnny Cash, one the biggest names. If you pay attention, his songs were ridden with violence, crime, drug, and sex (Folsom Prison Blues, Cocaine Blues, Delia’s gone, and Don’t Take Your Guns to Town, just to give a few examples). “But I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die” (Folsom Prison Blues) was probably his most famous and memorable line. Willie Nelson, another big name, wasn’t any better. His entire 1975 album Red Headed Stranger was pretty much a long account of a series of murders. In addition, a study published by earlier this year (2017) reported that country music lyric refers to drug more than any other genre (on average 1.6 times per song) – yes, more than jazz, rock, and rap (surprisingly, the least among all genre with less than 1 time per song). Is this fascinating or what?


With all that stirring in my mind, I walked into the museum with certain expectations. What greeted me up front, however, was a Taylor Swift Educational Center. I was a bit baffled – I knew Ms. Swift was the hottest potato out there these days; and OK, she started as a country singer in Nashville; but was her pathetically moanful “mainstream” music in recent years even considered country anymore? (For what it’s worth, the answer was yes, because Nashville needed her to be, for country music's sake) Well, either way, that wasn’t a question that interested me, so I moved on to the main hall.


The country music instruments were far more enticing if you ask me. Besides the usual banjos, fiddles, acoustic, electric, steel guitars of all sorts, there were odd ball items such as this triple-neck hybrid of guitar and mandola. Honestly, I think any guitar with more than two necks is plainly pretentious. Most of the time the players use only two, and only tease the third one symbolically for show – so why you risk your back to carry all that extra weight?


Now speaking of pretentious, can anyone top the glaring 24K gold-plated piano played by Elvis Presley? While we’re at it, right next to the piano was the King’s “Solid Gold” Cadillac, which was fitted with 24K gold plates inside and out, complemented by a lustrous 40-layer paint job of “translucent mixture of crushed diamonds and fish scales.” Doesn’t it remind you of those pimped-out gangsta Cadillac Escalate on L. A. streets? I guess most people consider Elvis a rock star, but nowadays rock stars have moved on to classier stuffs like Porsches and vintage cars, leaving the King here in the company of Snoop Dogg and P. Diddy.


To me, most names in the Hall of Fame didn’t ring a bell; while many that did surprised me for being even considered as country musicians – Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan... I mean Dylan? Really? Flirting briefly with a certain music style and recording a handful of songs in Nashville hardly qualified him as a country musician. But then Nashville was probably in desperate need of some halo effect, given the decline of country music sales in recent years.


Now this one I had no problem with. Dolly Parton, the daughter of the Appalachian, the hillbilly goddess, was represented by a glittering overcoat that was clearly designed to emphasize her majestic bosom. But no, she’s not merely a million-dollar boob job and a wig. First hit the chart in 1967 with “Dumb Blonde,” she was anything but. She’s a gifted and prolific song writer (I Will Always Love You, immortalized by Whitney Houston, was her work), an accomplished guitarist, and a versatile singer who was not timid to cross into other genre (just listen to her rendition of Stairway to Heaven). She’s sweet, honest, witty, and funny. What’s not to love about her?


Darker items among the exhibits.


I spent hours in the museum browsing through a plethora of memorabilia that was the spirit and heritage of rural South. At the end, I walked pass an imposing wall inlayed with thousands of Gold and Platinum records, and thought, I am ready for some live music.


The lower Broadway of Nashville, also known as the honky tonk highway, was one giant perpetual country music party. Every morning, by that I mean every single morning, a hundred of these live music establishments known as honky tonk would start blaring with live performance starting about 10am, all the way to about 3am the next morning. Many of the big names in the Hall of Fame started their career here. I walked into some of the loudest ones. The performers there were reasonably good, though none of them were inviting enough for me to settle down for a drink. Seemed like they were a bit drained of juice and enthusiasm after playing all morning (and possibly the entire night before that), plus it’s approaching lunch time.


That reminded me that I had a promised to keep. I picked a restaurant that had good Yelp rating, and appeared to be favored by the locals (who were in more appropriate apparels). There I had the best dozen of raw oysters in the entire trip, and a reinvigorating bowl of gumbo.


After lunch, I pressed on along the honky tonk highway, which was pretty much the tourist district nowadays. Along the street were as many souvenir and cowboy apparel stores as honky tonks. A pedal tavern passed me by. It was a 4-wheel bike pedaled by a group of intoxicated tourists siting in a circle. A bar tender in the middle served everybody more alcohol as they tottered along. I supposed for some there’s no better way to spend a Saturday afternoon in Nashville than getting publicly drunk. Some went as far as passing out awkwardly in someone else’s doorway, unconscious in the summer heat.


Here is probably a good spot to squeeze in a side note on country music’s fan base and politics. Country is the most conservative-leaning music genre, and the most appealing to working-class Trump supporters, presumably represented by the intoxicated pilgrims I saw above. That put Nashville, an intensely blue but very lonely liberal island in a red ocean, in a very difficult position. Inside the studio, the opinions have been divided, often bitterly so. Some musicians (such as Lee Greenwood) voiced their support to the president and perform in Trump rallies and inauguration, while others (such as Willie Nelson, still going strong at 83) openly denounced Trump in his music, despite the risk of alienating the fan base. Most musicians, however, chose to “shut up and play,” avoiding politics like a plague. In country, more than any genre, going political is simply bad for business.

Near the intersection with 5th Ave, I walked pass the Ryman Auditorium, the “Mother Church of Country Music,” all country musician’s dream venue. It didn’t look like much, just a large, plain red-brick building, but for over 120 years, it has been the religious and cultural center of Nashville, and arguably the South. It earned the nicknamed “Carnegie Hall of the South” for regularly hosting a variety of performance and cultural events including concerts, plays, lectures, inaugurations, and even boxing matches. Of course, most notably, it’s the home of the Grand Ole Opry, a music concert that is country music’s premier event.


At 4th Street there was a Johnny Cash Museum, with Cash’s menacing face and his cold eyes staring out from the window. I don’t like that guy much. He was just too dark, too cold, and too heavy for me. There was always a thread of the most profound sorrow, like that of a traumatized child (which he was), in those deep black eyes. It made me rather uncomfortable. I just took a quick look at the memorabilia displayed in the front and left.


The Broadway ended in front of the Cumberland River, a modest and sedated green waterway. The city thoughtfully put up a pedestrian bridge over it, on which I had a pleasant view of the cityscape in the breeze. Across the river were the Nissan Stadium, home of the Tennessee Titan.


There were still more to visit in Nashville, such as the knock-off Parthenon in the Centennial Park, reportedly a full-scaled replica of the original one in Athens. I weighted my options, but decided against going. It’ll be more worthwhile to spend the time in the next stop, the Great Smokey Mountain, I reasoned, than dwelling on a counterfeit concrete-steel structure (which houses a giant knock-off golden Athena statue as well, if you can bear it).


So, I continued east on Interstate 40, stretching along dense woods. After some three hours, I reached Pigeon Fork, a small mountain resort towns. As I was approaching, the roadside attraction got more and more interesting. There was the “Old McDonald’s Farm Mini Golf,” a giant Titanic stranded on the road side, and a Hollywood Mt. Rushmore, with giant faces of John Wayne, Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, and Charlie Chaplin beaming towards the incoming traffic. There was even a “Dollywood,” an amusement park opened by the ever so astute Dolly Parton. Better than Disneyland! Some touted.


I didn’t stop, but drove directly into the Great Smokey Mountain. According to my calculation I still had enough time to make a circle around the idyllic Cades Cove in the park’s northwest corner. I stopped at the Sugarlands Visitor Center, largely because the name sounded tempting. It did offer me the information about Cades Cove scenic loop, a giant topo map of the park, as well as scores of amusing exhibits of wildlife in the Great Smokey.


In case you don’t know already, the Great Smokey is the most popular national park in the country, with over 11.3 million visitors in 2016 (comfortably ahead of the 2nd place Grand Canyon at 6.0 million). I suppose the fact that the park doesn’t charge an entrance fee helps. Along the way, I could see that the mountains seemed to be eternally shrouded in a bluish mist – that’s where the name Smokey came from. I was a bit surprised to learned in the visitor center that the mist actually comprises of the vapor released from the dense conifer forests on the mountains. It was that pleasant piney scent that we enjoy when walking through the woods. When mixed with moisture, it condenses into a natural haze trapped within the mountain ranges. Incidentally, the same chemicals are also very good at scattering blue light from the sky, which masks the landscape with a celestial blue tint.


The Cades Cove was an isolated valley, where a chunk of softer sandstone was eroded away to exposed the limestone beneath. After miles of meandering mountain passage, I was greeted with its far-stretching meadows and distant rolling green hills, which immediately brightened me up. I didn’t know if anyone can improve over such bucolic perfection. Gorgeous horses grazed on the meadow; Turkey strolled lazily on the meadow; white-tailed deer peeked from the thicket; a Black Bear, hiding between tree branches, caused a huge traffic jam. One could clearly see why the Cherokee Indians have treasured the cove as a hunting ground since time immemorial.


Since mid-18th century, European (mostly Scots-Irish) homesteaders and loggers had settled here. In the 1920s, when the US National Park Service wanted to establish a park in the Great Smokey Mountains, there was already a substantial community in the cove. Determined to integrate the cove into the park, the Park Commission ordered all homesteaders leave their lands, which was understandably a highly unpopular decision. It took the commission over a decade and much legal troubles (had to resolve to eminent domain) to force the disgruntled hillbillies out. Today, some of the primitive cabins and barns were carefully preserved as exhibits of early pioneer life.


One has to understand that these Scots-Irish settlers, supposedly the spiritual descendants of “Brave Heart” William Wallace, came all the way from the other side of the ocean to escape persecutions and to search for freedom. But instead, the cottages and barns they built with their own hands, together with such splendid views from the front porch and the bedroom windows, were arbitrarily taken away from them. No wonder they were so bitter. To me it’s a strange notion that in order for the public to learn about early pioneer life, you had to first destroy it by driving the pioneers off.


I stayed in Gatlinburg, the nearest mountain resort town, for the night. It was a small community built along US-441, with a population of just 4,000. But at night, it magically turned into a hillbilly heaven. Along US-441 were hundreds of riveting museums (the Ripley’s franchise alone had five), theaters, specialty stores (bootlegger wine and moonshine, anyone?), souvenir shops, live-music bars, and restaurants, all filled with clamor deep into the night.


The next morning, I was back to the park via US-441. The first challenge of the day would be a hike up the popular Chimney Tops, which a road sign advised “climb at your own risk.” The 2-mile hike through dense woods and murmuring creek was quite agreeable, until I reached the rocky end of the trail at the summit, presumably the tip of the chimney. What lied ahead was a rocky, steep, and slick ridge, which was a rare sight in the heavily vegetated Great Smokey Mountains. With no stairs, no handrail, the climb was even more strenuous than it looked. I tucked the camera back to the pocket, resourced to both hands and feet, and inched along the perilous slope. It was worth the effort though. At the end, I was rewarded with one of the most breath-taking panoramic view of the park.


A few miles down, US-441 intersected with the formidable Appalachian Trial in New Found Gap. Stretching 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine, the Appalachian Trail is the longest foot trail in the world. If you’re crazy enough (apparently, many were), you can spend months backpacking from end to end. Here in Clingmans Dome, the trail reaches its highest elevation at 6,643 ft (also the highest point of the park) and meanders its way back to the deep woods of the Great Smokey.


In Clingmans Dome, the park built an observation tower to provide a commanding view of the entire park. Unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate, and I could only take intermittent glimpses of the distant scene through the mist.


On my way back to the car, I bumped into a family of Amish, who stood out among the tourists with their bright blue outfits, Abe Lincoln-style Shenandoah, and peculiar bowl cut. I didn’t know how materialistic a world view this particular clan had, but they apparently considered a Ford cargo van a better transportation than horse-drawn buggies in the Great Smokey.


Another traffic jam along the way; an elk jam this time. These graceful creatures were once hunted to extinction in the Appalachian in the mid-1800s. The park had to re-introduce 25 of them back to the park in 2001, after one and a half century of absence.


Moving along another 10 miles or so, I reached the southeast edge of the park, where there was a Mountain Farm Museum. Here was another property that was seized from the homesteaders to become an exhibit. But apparently, the occupants here were more prosperous and possessed a somewhat more refine tastes (I was surprised to see an organ in the living room) compared to the crude log cabins in Cades Cove.


In addition, the park collected a number of farmhouses from all around the park and relocated them here. Today, this idealized farm has a number of barns, an apple house, a spring house, a smoke house, a sorghum mill and furnace, and a blacksmith shop, which gave the impression of a perfectly rich, abundant, and highly self-sufficient rustic life. It looked rather tempting to me. If life could ever be so plain and simple…


Out of the park, take a left turn, I got on the much-extoled Blue Ridge Parkway, which connects the Big Smokey with the Shenandoah 469 miles away. This is the country road through mountain mama that John Denver was chanting endlessly about (though in fact the parkway never passes West Virginia). It just meandered on and on into layers upon layers of endless bluish ranges and crests. Occasionally, when the altitude was high enough, the car penetrated into the haze and the path became slightly misty. That switched the whole scene into a dreamy mood yet not excessively blurry to turn the road hazardous. Yes, Mr. Denver, it was almost heaven.


A hike up the ridge. If you dare to try them, the wild mulberries were juicy and sweet.


It was such a pleasant drive that I started to entertain the idea of pushing on all the way to Shenandoah. But after careful caculation, I realized that it would take more than a day and led my path way up north, which would put my plan of reaching the Atlantic coast and back at serious risk. Well, some day, some day... With a silent sigh, I made a right turn in Highway 74, passed Sylva, a likable little town, and made a large circle back to Gatlinburg.


Next stop, The Atlantic Coast and the Deep South.


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