The Cove

February 6, 2023

East Tennessee always was a mystery for us, a vast chunk of the deep-green hard-edged Appalachian complex: fundamentalist religion, isolated small towns, the tourist traps of Gatlinburg, Sevierville, Pigeon Forge. The majestic wilderness of the Great Smokies then becomes an escape from all that.

We’ve done a couple of junkets in those parts, once a couple of nights in Gatlinburg after delivering daughter Marie to the University of Tennessee in Knoxville; a night just outside Sevierville on the way to Virginia from Nashville, a weekend in Greeneville. The drive to Sevierville along TN 66 is a hard slog through relentless retail. Greeneville, farther north near I-81, still carries on a love affair for the city’s native son, first-to-be impeached pro-Confederacy President Andrew Johnson. Marty Robbins sang it: some bad memories never die.  

Winter is not the time to be in the Smokies, but you can always hope. We headed for Wears Valley, about ten miles south of Pigeon Forge and maybe 15 west of Gatlinburg. The route is either I-26 to Asheville to I-40 toward Knoxville, then south on local roads, or a state road through the national park.

Exit 447 off I-40 leads into Hartford, Tenn. Lindsey Gap Road then winds through dark mountain canyons out of Bluffton, for a dozen or more miles of backholler country with all its hidden sadness: ramshackle mobile homes and prefab shacks emitting ribbons of wood-stove smoke, collapsing heaps of firewood, broken appliances, tireless pickups scattered just off the asphalt. Then too, the occasional multi-story log mansion.

We navigated one-lane bridges over rushing whitewater creeks and crossed from Cocke County into Sevier and hit camper rental paradise: Serendipity Falls, Wildwood Acres, Smoky Bear Campground and RV Park, Cosby Creek, Smoky Mountain Zipline, and on and on.

Sevierville, Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge grew through the history of tough settlers blazing trails through jagged mountains to farm, hunt, and trap, bloody Cherokee wars, border disputes. But if you come, you should like miniature golf, wax museums, and pancake houses. We came in from northwest, past Smoky Mountain Moonshine, Hollywood Stars Museum, Alcatraz East Crime Museum, Top-Jump Trampoline & Extreme Arena, Ghost Walk of Gatlinburg, Ripley’s Marvelous Mirror Maze, you get the picture.

We fought our way south past downtown Pigeon Forge. The dreck thins out to the occasional souvenir shop and BBQ place. The view along U.S. 321 then calms down as it enters Wears Valley, a stretch of farmland, pastures, and gentle terrain spread beneath the surrounding peaks.

We turned up the heat at the cabin as the mercury dipped into the teens. We were at the cusp of the Smokies, which when framed by dawn rose darkly in the east. Within the park is the pristine jewel of Cades Cove, just past the hamlet of Townsend, which is one of those inconspicuous places that sees tourists flow by and wants them to hang around and spend some money. Nearness to Cades Cove helps.

John Oliver cabin

I saw the Cove in its vernal June wonder more than 40 years ago, then spent those years planning to go back. The park road twists (they all twist in East Tennessee) along the fast-moving Little River. Countless small spring-fed waterfalls that run down the mountain walls were frozen, turned to icicles. The Cove is the lush, sweeping meadow laid out inside the ridge mountains, ringed by an 11-mile loop road.

Cherokee warriors blazed trails through the valley before the 1700s, hunting deer, elk, bison, and bear. Some of their trails still lead into the forests. Early Whites were fur traders who came and went. John Oliver and his wife, Lurena Frazier, who arrived in 1818, were the first permanent White settlers.

Their two-story, two-room cabin, built of thick rough-hewn boards held together without nails, the chinks insulated with mud, is the first stop along the loop. They grew corn and hay in the valley. At one early point the Cherokees gave them food to keep them alive.   

In time, other Whites trickled in. The Shields, the Whiteheads, the Tiptons, the Lawsons, all built homes that still stand facing the center of the Cove. Eventually John Oliver’s son Elijah built a cabin at the west end, adding a “stranger room” to host overnight guests. Hundreds of others settled deeper in the forest, cutting trees to create farmland and pastures. They built humble one-room churches.

An upright piano stands next to the rude lectern in the Methodist church. In the small cemetery outside sleep the souls of Cove people born in the 1830s, including children whose tiny, worn grave markers reveal lives of one or two years.

By around 1850 some 600 pioneers had arrived. Farming was the livelihood. Some of the more prosperous built corn cribs, barns, blacksmith shops, smokehouses, and sorghum mills. A man named John Cable built a water-powered grist mill. The Cove folks started schools that early on taught two or three months of the year, the kids were needed on the farms.

As we moved through the Cove the sun shone but the midwinter chill hung on. So did the visitors. Great Smokies National Park is by far the country’s most visited, with around 12 million each year. Two million come to experience the Cove. On this February day the line of vehicles built up, we moved well along the narrow loop road, but sometimes inched forward. Folks wore parkas and wool caps against the cold, but wanted to be in the place.

Around the loop road, the panoramic breadth of the Cove stretches out to the hazy winter heights of the Smokes that ring it on all sides. The impression is one of serenity, the golden meadow grass meshing with the brown mountain silhouettes. The view off the road is empty of humans. Silence rules.         

A year ago we gambled and lost on a weekend trip to Hilton Head. We thought the South Carolina coast would give us a touch of spring, but got wind, rain, cold. At the Wears Valley cabin we dithered, wondering whether to try the Cove or Gatlinburg’s Parade of Tourist Shlock. The forecast looked grim and storms swept up through the South. This time we got lucky.

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