Recently, in a desire to find some peace and solitude and to avoid the ever-increasing prices of even a modest hotel room, I spent a week in the mountains of eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina.
I rented small cabins in each place for about $65 a night on AirBnB, a steal given that even a low budget Econo Lodge or Quality Inn with 1 star Tripadvisor reviews that mention bedbugs or drug use in stair wells are asking as much as $150 a night in some places! I looked forward to spending an extended amount of time in a part of the country that I had previously only passed through en-route to some other destination.
My first stay was in a remote area of Tennessee northwest of Knoxville, and the closest town of any substance was the thriving metropolis of Jellico, about 15 minutes away, population 2500. The cabin was off the main road, down a long, steep driveway and I was greeted by three friendly golden retrievers as I parked in front of the place. In the AirBnb listing for the cabin the owner and prior guests had mentioned the dogs, describing them as friendly companions that would accompany me on walks around the property. I love dogs, so I was excited by the prospect of their company. I would soon come to rethink that excitement, but more on that later.
The cabin was absolutely beautiful, and it reminded me of the kind of place where Dolly Parton might have lived as a child, though probably far more upscale. It consisted of one large, open space with a comfortable bed, a living area, a dining table, and a full kitchen. The air conditioning worked wonders, and there were a couple of rocking chairs on the porch from which to watch the firefly display that the owner promised would take place as soon as it got dark.
With a few hours to kill before the firefly show, I set out to get some groceries to stock my kitchen, and imagined getting some farm fresh eggs, local strawberries, cheese, and vegetables from a local farm stand. I literally drove about 50 miles in various directions and found nothing but a Dollar General and a shabby grocery store in Jellico. Disappointed, I returned to the cabin and sat out on the porch and when the owner of the property passed by while doing his farm chores, I asked him about the dearth of any farm stands in the area. He paused, seeming to gather his thoughts and choose his words carefully, and then said, “Well, you have to understand that this isn’t the Smoky Mountains. This is Appalachia. If you wanted to find opiates, fentanyl or methamphetamines, you could probably buy any of them within a couple miles’ radius. But because of the drug problems, people in this area don’t produce much. If you want any kind of farm products or foodstuffs, you need to find an Amish farm.” It was an interesting perspective that caught me a bit off guard, but ultimately made a lot of sense.
Sure enough, the following day I ventured into neighboring Kentucky and found Amish farm stores offering strawberries, sweet corn, cheese and eggs. I had a particularly good lunch at Durham’s Pit Barbecue and some excellent cookies and cupcakes from Bluegrass Bakers, both in London, Kentucky. I also took a beautiful hike on the Scuttle Hole Trailhead, which I had entirely to myself for a 90 minute hike. The trail offered beautiful views of the nearby Cumberland River, as well as a dramatic descent down a wooden staircase wedged between rock ledges which I presume is what gave the trail the name scuttle hole, like a rickety ladder or staircase leading to an attic.
Back at the cabin, the dogs, I am sad to say, were seriously beginning to get on my nerves. As soon as I drove up to the cabin, or any time I ventured out onto my porch, I was greeted exuberantly by the three pooches. It sounds heartwarming, but often they were wet and muddy from foraging around in the nearby pond and creek and they were pretty gross. One of them would begin to lick my fingers, then moving to my hand and then up my arm in a manner reminiscent of Gomez Addams romancing his wife Morticia in The Addams Family. Another apparently seemed to be in heat, and what started as an enthusiastic embrace soon degenerated into a vigorous humping of my leg. The owner, who lived directly next door, seemed deaf to my constant shouts of, “No!” “Get down!” “Stop!” “No!!!!!” At night I would creep quietly onto the porch to sit in the rocking chair, but before I could even accomplish even one simple rock, the dogs came bounding onto the porch from all directions, and the quiet of the night was replaced by my shouts and protestations. At one point I tried to videotape the fireflies and the sounds of the tree frogs to capture the moment, but the frogs were drowned out by the sound of three panting pups, and the video was ruined as the dogs tried to lick the camera, then the hand holding the camera, then my arm, leaving me to retreat into the cabin with a sigh of exasperation as my molesters plunked themselves down in front of the screen door.
After three days with my amorous Appalachian friends, I set out for North Carolina and my next mountain cabin adventure. As I drove through the touristy hotspots of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, Tennessee I began to wonder whether I in fact preferred the stark nothingness of “Appalachia” to these garish, over-the-top tourist traps. I remember these small towns 30 or 40 years ago, nestled beneath the dramatic Smoky Mountains, as being rustic and charming. Today there is simply a heavily trafficked,10-mile-long strip of hotels, chain restaurants, mini-golf courses, souvenir shops, and bizarre attractions like King Kong clinging to the Empire State Building in front of the Hollywood Wax Museum Entertainment Center or a seemingly life-sized model of the Titanic marking a museum to the great ship. I couldn’t wait to ascend into the green heights of the Smoky Mountains, which despite the incredible amount of traffic on the National Park’s roads, still manages to cling to its serene and simple beauty most of the time.
I arrived at my cabin in mid afternoon, and like my previous digs, this one was pretty remote, with the closest town being Franklin, North Carolina, about a 20 minute drive away. This cabin was smaller and more rustic, and did not have a kitchen. There was a microwave and mini-fridge outside on the screened in porch, which also featured a dining table and hammock. I’d packed some foods that could be heated in the microwave, some cereal and berries for breakfast, and what I needed to make sandwiches, so it felt more like I was “roughing it” here, though there was a mighty strong air-conditioner, a comfortable bed, and a hot shower inside the cabin itself.
I drove about a half an hour to have dinner at the aptly named River’s End Restaurant, where I sat by the window perched high above the Nantahala River. I dined on a hearty bowl of smoked trout chowder, followed by “sherpa rice”, a delicious and rather healthy blend of brown rice, barley, lentils, a slew of vegetables and curried chicken. What a find! By the time I got “home” to my cabin it was time for North Carolina’s rendition of the firefly show, which I enjoyed without a dog in sight.
I drove about 45 minutes to the town of Cherokee one morning for a late breakfast where I surrendered to my addiction… not to opiates or meth, but to a platter of hotcakes: golden brown, fluffy, slightly crispy around the edges pancakes, and bursting with blueberries at Peter’s Pancake’s. They were every bit worth the long drive. I sat at the counter where I had a clear view of the pancake baker who probably created another 100 of these beauties in the time it took me to devour my order. I joked with him that I imagine pancakes lose some of their appeal when one does nothing but make them for 4 hours a day, 7 days a week. He chuckled and agreed and I learned that he was in fact the owner, Eric (Peter was his father). I think he could tell that I was a real pancake aficionado, and we talked for a while. As I was about to pay my bill, Eric cautioned me not to leave yet, as he wanted me to try one of his special “Backpacker Pancakes”, a combination multi-grain/buttemilk cake with three types of nuts. I was absolutely stuffed already, but there was no way this boy was going to turn down a pancake made especially for him by the owner of the hottest pancake house in the Smokies! And I don’t even like nuts! But of course, this pancake, like its predecessors, was pure Heaven on a plate. Thank you Eric for a fun and filling breakfast!
My time in North Carolina was lazy and carefree. I drove the partially unpaved Needmore Road which parallels the banks of the Little Tennessee River. I walked across an exciting pedestrian suspension bridge that crosses the river and made me feel a little like Indiana Jones. During the heat of the afternoon I found an inviting place to swim in the river, right where it is fed by the much colder waters of Tellico Creek. I got a bit of upper body exercise as I paddled to prevent myself from being pushed downstream, and I felt soothed by the constant sound of the rapidly flowing river. And because I was no longer in Appalachia, I found bountiful produce stands selling strawberries and blueberries, and refreshed myself with a delicious iced coffee and muffin at the Bent Willow Baking Company in Franklin.
Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities opens with the line, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” Well, in my short A Tale of Two Cabins, I’d have to say, “It was the best of times, it was the best of times…” It was a reminder of the abundance of natural beauty that this country is blessed with, a reminder of the importance of taking time out to watch the fireflies or soak in a mountain river, and a reminder of the rewards and surprises that travel invariably provides. And perhaps, just perhaps, it was a reminder that I may need to re-evaluate my desire to one day get a dog!