The Great Smoky Mountains, USA

Ever wondered what it is like to visit the great wilderness of the Smokies? Two British Idiots did, and this is what they found.

Look below for an English idiot’s view of the Smokies, including a stay in the deep forests, and visits to Clingman’s Dome, Elkmont, and Pigeon Forge. If you are travelling here, this is a must-read before you go.

Pelting rainfall followed by swift summer heat, incredible panoramas of mirror-still lakes, verdant trees and winding roads as far as the eye can see, slipping like gloves into thick cloud coverage. A Vegas-style town dumped in the middle of the wilderness—lights, music and alpine rollercoasters. Ghost towns nestled in the trees, a still image of times long gone. These are the most intense memories of a place beyond splendid.

The dream was a wooden cabin in the thick of the woods, quaint and secluded in trees, and fifteen miles from the nearest town. Branches hung thick over what might be described more accurately as a tree house; the perfect location—we thought. The reality was actually two English idiots living in the wilderness, frightened by the calls of wild animals and the worrisome nightly noses that seemed to close in after dark. Insects threw themselves wildly at the windows, yowls and barks filled the silence. We soon realised we were very poorly prepared to deal with the real American outdoors. The dark was a complete dark, open eyes or closed eyes made no difference. We made sure we had everything ready for the night to come before the sun fell. Feeling vulnerable was an understatement. In reality, we found, the thick of the wilderness was a daunting place to stay. Even during the day we didn’t stray far on foot and kept our eyes about us. We carried walking sticks, not really knowing what we would do with them, but they did offer a little comfort.

Clingman’s Dome is a major tourist attraction; the highest mountain in the Smokies, and therefore presumably, boasting the very best views. We looked forward to a secluded, possibly romantic spot, to look out over the clear horizon, over heads of trees and blue waters, and soak in nature at its finest. The reality, when we got there, was insufficient parking, thick crowds of people and a foggy outlook. We circled the inadequate parking lot for nearly half an hour before admitting defeat. Jumping out a short photo session was possible, only to realise the low cloud coverage had all but obscured what would have been an incredible view. Even at 2000 metres, the humidity was stifling, so I was glad to recline back into our air-conditioned vehicle. This is probably best visited on off-peak times of the year, or if this is not an option, early in the morning, before the crowds.

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Elkmont ghost town is also a stop worth seeing for most tourists. It is situated in the Little River Valley of the Smokies, in the state of Tennessee. In the early 20th century, it was the base for logging, providing nearby places with their building needs. Now it is deserted. The wooden cabins stand hauntingly like statues of times passed by. Being English idiots, we assumed an abandoned village would have hundreds of years of history; we were surprised to find that the buildings were just over 100 years old. This is old, perhaps, for America, but is barely scratching the history books for an English country couple; I was raised in a black and white cottage, in the English countryside, with a plaque over the fireplace reading ‘1601’, where my mum often digs up little medicine bottles from the 1800s, and arrowheads from the Stone Age in the back garden. Despite this, Elkmont had an awful lot of charm and told an enchanting story of a life and a time that is nearly forgotten. It was only a snapshot of what life must have been like, and undeniably immersive.

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Pigeon Forge was a town that immediately struck us as tourist central—it was Dolly Parton’s Vegas. A seaside resort, slash theme park, dumped in the thick of the forest. We enjoyed the ‘only in America’ feel of the area with its bright lights, and attractions in an onslaught of colour. There are all manner of entertainments to be found: alpine rollercoasters, go carts, mirror mazes, out-of-this-world crazy golf courses and a choice of excellent night time horse shows. It is a shame a lot of people might go here thinking they had seen the Smokies, when in fact there is a lot more to offer. It is in stark contrast to the tranquil hills and treetops half an hour’s drive outside town.

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Of the more ‘different’ attractions included ‘Goats on a Roof’. Which, surprise it or not, is exactly what it says on the tin; The goats live between a hilarious inter-network of platforms between the buildings, and can be fed by tourists by a pedal-powered conveyor-style device which lifts a cup of food to the storey above; the goats are well accustomed to this. Often, the goats allow the food to comically fall over their heads before devouring it. The best view for this is an upstairs window overlook, which can be entered from the ground floor shop. The goats seemed to worship this contraption, rubbing their head against the still mechanism, waiting for it to move.

One of several shows available is the Dixie Stampede—which seems to get the best reviews of the area. It is a dinner show, with fantastically behaved animals. I was brought to tears by the beautiful bond the riders had with their horses, and there is the chance to pet them if you get there in good time before the show. You can see herded buffalo, ludicrous little racing Shetlands and baby pigs. If you are an animal-lover then this is a must-see! It was a powerful and entertaining show with a patriotic ending. I left with a feeling that I knew more of what America is really all about by the end of it.

The meal that came with it was more than sufficient—but that might be coming from an English girl with a very small appetite. I was saddened to see the waste at the end—whole chickens left uneaten—especially when there was the choice of a doggy bag to take the food home. Being that we were travelling, we took all our excess food back, and it lasted us two days and was superbly good. When booking seating, we didn’t understand—being English idiots—that you get to choose North or South, and on the night it determines whether you are on the North or South side of the civil war.

 

See USA- The Amish in Tennessee

If you have ever wondered about the Amish, this is a post to read!

The Amish are a people that have always been of a fascination for me. We see limited snippets, living in England, in film or perhaps on TV, and always a stereotypical version of what I expected. I wanted to live as close to their community as possible, and learn as much from them as I could in the real world.

Fields ploughed in pleats; fat tomatoes tug heavily on limbs of living green, all tucked up tight in military parade; fields undulate into the horizon with perfect stripes into the distance. Wooden stalls packed with home-grown goods, and open spaces teeming with the well-known cogs of a close-knit community. Everyone assists: men in the back lifting crates of all things to sell—jams, candles, potatoes, watermelons; women on stands selling produce; boys in old-fashioned wagons shifting produce from place to place. An 1800s flashback of movement and simplicity.

At the stalls, the women stand passive in lengthy pastel dresses, white hats hide long hair, never cut. Men wear solid colours and straight-cut suits, and teeth in the young oft look far-gone from a dentist’s arm. Farmsteads with sheds full of scythes and sickles, and horse drawn ploughs, belonging well before our time.

 But still—they are not a ‘strict’ Amish community.

The Amish reside, amongst other places, in Tennessee, Lobelville. There is a very useful place to stay using AirBNB, with Krissie. She lives in Lobelville, in the heart of the Amish community, in a stilted cabin overlooking the beautiful and unspoiled Buffalo River. Our host was a bright personality, brimming with energy and filled with exciting views. We chilled out by the river that afternoon, sharing our beer, and talking the light to bed. Her freckles bunch about her nose as her face pleats into laughter at a joke. She is an amazing woman, full of life and energy, with many fascinating stories: a pleasure to meet.

Krissie has a duck ranch and tries to live entirely from her own land—a fairy-tale dream for many of us. When she isn’t growing crops or harvesting eggs she uses the river for recreation, and is happy to rent kayaks for you to drift down the river back to her personal jetty.

It is worth contacting her about the time you wish to stay, as there is flooding from time to time, hence her keeping ducks rather than any other creatures.

Her AirBnB accommodation is an old RV, and by her own admission is not by any means a five star accommodation. It is simple and sufficed very well. She is keen to meet new people and travellers who share their stories from anywhere. Her cabin and location is enchanting, especially being only about a fifteen-minute walk from the Amish community. Waking in the morning with the wild noises and scuffles of ducks is a beautiful way to be tempted out of dawn’s slumber. There are other more comfortable places to stay in Lobelville, but not in the heart of Amish country here. Afternote:  having been in touch with Krissie, she has mentioned taking down her AirBnB listing in favour of an enduring structure, so I do not know how long this lovely area will be available to stay in.

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The people, as you wold imagine, are simple folk. You are guaranteed to see the black cloth wagons and rustic wooden accommodation in which they live. Many do not have electricity and suffice with old-fashioned outhouses as a toilet. However, they are not a ‘strict’ Amish community, compared to some.

The clothes are very unrevealing despite the incredible summer heat. All the women wear long dresses in simple colours and plain white aprons. They wear basic caps on their heads and never cut their hair, although it was not visible as they wear it tied up. Men wear straight-cut suits or opt for the lighter shirts with braces in summer, and everyone in solid colours. No jewellery in sight.

The timber houses and barns are rudimentary; there are no modern-day amenities to be seen. I would imagine generation after generation live in the same accommodations.  Barns are ubiquitous, with spare metal wagon wheels and antiquated farming equipment—sickles and similar. Nothing electric. Unused bird houses hang from the rafters, ready to be populated. A ginger cat who had lost his tail wonders past, unknowing, but well fed.

They grow their own food, as much as possible. They sell melons, fruit, veg, jams and candles. Many are ‘serve yourself’ honesty stalls, which I felt speaks volumes about the people. The money made from superfluous produce goes towards what they cannot make themselves, but need to survive, such as rice and beans.

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I managed to speak to a number of the locals; some seemed very unwilling to converse with outsiders. I hope I did not break any rules of their community. I learned it is best to enquire first before asking questions, and most certainly before taking photos.

A girl, all in restrained blue and no older than fourteen, mans an ice cream stall. Her light blonde hair wisps about her face as it escapes from her bonnet in the resilient midday heat. “Coffee or peach”, she asks timorously, unknowing how to react to people with strange accents, I guessed. I wonder if the English rarely venture this far, if ever. She was very unwilling to participate in conversation; she answered my questions in monotone, as her eyes wondered purposefully towards the table and her task before her. She looked happier to be engaged in her work than to engage with me in conversation. She watched, with head askew, as we doused ourselves in insect repellent. I suppose they do not have such luxuries, or they learn to live without them. Do you become immune to their bites after a while, or just suffer in silence? She revealed that she was part of an eight-child family and is schooled in the Amish community, but most answers were a very reluctant, ‘umm’, ‘ah-ha’, or straight ‘no’. I didn’t wish to make her feel more uncomfortable so I said ‘thank you’ and left her to man the stall.  The ice cream was fantastic and a release from the incessant heat and humidity during the summer months.

Two young boys were driving a horse wagon nearby. I decided to apprehend them. They were far more open. They were no older than sixteen. They mentioned their job was to ‘raise food’. Their long vowels drew out sentences in an arable stereotype—it was beautifully lyrical to hear them talk as they spoke about their lives as part of the Amish community. Despite their hard work, they took just one trip a day in the evening to ‘cool off’ at the river. It is fairly certain their teeth had never seen a dentist.

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Farther down the road, we met a seller at an organic stall. The farm was enormous, fields must have spanned over a mile as we made our way towards it. She was far more willing to speak, and more open about life in the community. This might be because she was not native to the Amish life, but joined it afterwards as a desirably simple way of living. Her arms folded tight as she spoke, despite her verbal acquiescence—perhaps a sign to the community in which she lived.  She described the waterwheel as a ‘labour-saving machine’, and explained how they have no modern-day equipment such as washer. Instead, they washed clothes by hand using wringer-washers, with no motor, which could take an entire day. She did not seemed phased by the extra work this caused. Her family makes Maple Syrup from the sap of the nearby Maple trees and they keep animals. Much of the produce is shared internally around the community.

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All the women in the community aim to have their babies at home, and she is the midwife with her background in medicine, even though that was not her speciality.  Originally, her history is medical, and she serves the needs of the community in this manner. She mentioned that they have a communal vehicle, which is used for medical emergencies and travelling to family, as far as New York State. They travel locally using ‘buggies’. They are an hour away from the nearest hospital and they have, on average, fourteen babies a year in the community, but the C-section rate is far lower than the country’s average (3% rather than 25%). She felt this was due to the people being in good health, but mentioned ‘it is nice to have a hospital there if you need it’.

Generally, she mentioned, the people there have large families; she has five children, and more than 50 acres to tend to grow crops; it made me wonder the ratio of farming to schooling the children had in the community, but I felt it would be inappropriate to ask.

Interestingly, the people we met who were not part of the Amish community, all seemed to adopt a similar way of life; growing their own food, living away from the hum-drum of modern society, and home-schooling their children.

The area we were staying by the river felt very tranquil, but in the late afternoon, we heard a number of gunshots. We did not know whether this was normal, being that the gun laws in the USA are far more lax than in the United Kingdom. It was frightening not knowing which directions the shots at wildlife were being fired. Krissie, thankfully, shared our views, and was keen to stop the shooter.  Two sheriffs greeted us in Krissie’s residence to find out more information about the anonymous shooter. It was a pleasure to meet them, and they made us feel far safer. The sheriffs gave us a hug and a picture and went to deal with the person shooting wildlife. It is good to know the law is so strict in the area, and that the vicinity was well protected.

It was incredibly refreshing to see a community where everyone knows one another, and everyone has their place. I compare it to England, where, in most cases people all have their flat screen TVs and two storey brick semis—or similar— with square back gardens, filled with flowers and green grassy areas, ever so slightly overlooking next door’s sitting area. We all have food enough to feed our family, no matter what happens. People do not depend on one another as they once did, they do not need to, but that is not a reason for community to be lost. Does need drive the neighbourhood-ly bond? This bond, to me, seems part-and-parcel to human existence, and it worries me what will happen if people learn to live without this love for others around them.

All photos taken with Lumix TZ80.