Ramsey Cascades


Imagine the spray of Ramsey Cascades on your face, hot from hiking in the summer. Imagine the water hitting the dark rocks in the tallest waterfall Great Smoky Mountains National Park has to offer before falling into a pool and a creek flowing down below.

I hope you did a good job imagining that. Because I don’t have a single photograph of it from my trip August 6 this year.

A combination of wanting to shoot videos along the way, which still need editing, and my phone GPS draining itself led me to have my phone completely dead by the time I got there. Sorry. There’s probably far more professional shots of it you can look at. Like the ones on this page. But as with anything else, it’s nothing like being there anyway.

Ramsey Cascades
Okay, so this is breaking with my original joke but here’s a public domain image from the National Park Service. Still a pale imitation of being there.

The waterfall is the highest waterfall accessible by trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. While it’s not the tallest in East Tennessee (Fall Creek Falls) and especially not the United States (a quick web search shows that to be disputed but probably in Hawaii), it doesn’t matter what records it sets or doesn’t set when sitting in front of it. Watching, listening, and feeling the waterfall was worth the thirsty August walk.

I bring this up because I sometimes see people from out west, especially the Pacific Northwest put down what feels to me like the grandeur of our little-old-grandmother-rounded mountains in favor of bigger ones with sometimes bigger landmarks. Someone in the comments on another website describing Ramsey Cascade posted a waterfall in Oregon, as if to say “Mine is bigger!” Such Freudian waterfall idiocy isn’t the game I’m playing here. Nor should it be your game.

This is where I am: Tennessee. I’m here to explore the wonders of my state before gathering up the time and money to go to other ones. And Ramsey Cascade is one of them. I encourage anyone else to do the same. Maybe the Great Smoky Mountains aren’t your park. Maybe they are. They are, however, themselves.

The route to Ramsey Cascades is not the hardest in the Smokies. However, to out of shape people such as me, the near constant uphill route to the falls made my feet feel tired the next day. It’s eight miles round trip, mostly uphill on the way back.

The trail follows and crosses various streams and heads through an old-growth forest with tall trees untouched by saws.

The area below the falls is more a wading spot than a swimming spot, although there appeared to be a deeper pool just below that, earlier on the trail. In general, though, I still recommend it as a summer hike because the cool heavenly-feeling mist from the falls is the best thing on a hot, sweating face. Granted, as winter rolls in, it will look spectacular frozen, as shown here.

While a decent crowd showed up the day I hiked, many of them connected to the Great Smoky Mountains Hiking and Adventure Group, Ramsey Cascades thrives because of its reputation, not its location. The location isn’t out of the way per se, but the first time I tried to head here, I thought I’d made a wrong turn.

The Greenbriar entrance is accessible from a road on Gatlinburg’s outskirts, as described in many of the links above. The entrance from Gatlinburg, however, is not obvious. It’s gravel, as is the parking area, which is unusual for main entrances to the park, resembling a driveway. The gravel road isn’t in too bad of shape though; it’s driveable with my secondhand 2009 Prius bought from my mother, so most people shouldn’t have any problem.

 

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Eclipse near the Devil’s Step


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Yvonne Rogers, my other half, puts on her glasses to view the eclipse at Head of Sequachie.

I’m jealous of the eclipse. Why does it have to grab all the attention? Why? Did the moon spend years of its life writing a book called Wildly Strolling Along about the wonders of the Cumberland Trail State Park and the touching bonding experiences between an adult son and his amazing botanist father? Did the sun? Didn’t think so.

Anyway…

The sun wasn’t a blinding circle. For a moment, a black circle stood in its place, surrounded by white glowing loops, plasma in magnetic fields. For those few glasses-off minutes, the sky was a dim blue, neither day nor night. I was happy to be a rare member of the generation that saw it.

And in a few hours, I would feel jealous of that natural phenomenon, the total eclipse of the sun.

I was scheduled to speak at 3 p.m. The eclipse was at 1 p.m. While plenty of earlier events at Head of Sequachie got decent crowds, the ones afterwards? Not so much.

I remember standing there, looking at all these crowds, before the eclipse thinking: This has to be my big break. Who knows? Maybe they were here to see me. This was my chance.

Nope. It was the eclipse. Only a once in a lifetime event. Only the great dance of the Cosmos. Woop-de-do. I had a book! And a slideshow about the Cumberland Trail! Isn’t that more amazing?

Only five people came to my talk and only one person bought my book, Wildly Strolling Along. Which is an excellent work, but apparently did not grab any attention. I also had my books at the Cumberland Trails Conference table, but only one person bought one.
I don’t have any pictures of the eclipse. Why would I? So many people could do it better. But my day at Head of Sequachie was more than just those couple of minutes. The area is only open on a few days of the year.

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The head of the Sequachie River.

The area is, as its name implies at the head of the Sequachie River, as it leaves the ground in a channel that at one point was connected to a now nonexistent mill according to one of the rangers present, although the present walls along the channel are not the original ones.

On such a hot day it’s cool water was refreshing. I waded among children with their state park-service provided nets. They pulled in sculpins, crawdads and even a young, harmless water snake.

As a side note, crawdad is the scientifically accurate name. They are not craw or cray fish because they are not fish. They’re crustaceans. Happy to settle that debate.

A short trail, marked by bird glyph designs, leads to what signs stated was a sacred cave to the area’s ancient and modern indigenous peoples. The area is known as Devilstep Hollow Cave a name that seems like an insult to native beliefs, but one that seems pretty widespread, so I’m using it. The cave has various ancient carvings in its walls and drawings in charcoal and mud, none of it visible to the public. And that’s for the best, because no one really needs “Bob was here” or something more obscene next to some old, sacred carvings. But when the area’s open, you can still see the entrance, deep in a sinkhole.

Devilstep Hollow Cave
Devilstep Hollow Cave.

I hiked the trail twice, once with my mom, dad (who presented with me later) and girlfriend, and then as part of an interpretive trip with a ranger. While it was supposed to be a birding trip, we only spotted a distant vulture and a small hummingbird. A dung beetle grabbed the children’s attention, however. The area also had various summer wildflowers.
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Various other presenters had tents in the area as well. People shot arrows, made arrowheads, played old time music and engaged children in crafts.

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A beaver skin at center at the TWRA demonstration tent during the eclipse event.

I’ve just scraped the surface of history both human and natural of this area which is near Crossville. But I’ll be happy to return, with or without an eclipse. And the sun and moon can know I’ll get over my jealousy.  Some time.

Cades Cove


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Meadow in Cade’s Cove

With its fields surrounded by mountains, its trails, both very long and very short, its campground, its old buildings, including cemeteries, its bike shop and its sometimes wildlife, Cade’s Cove has lots going for it. It’s one of the few places with the kind of open scenery people crave, apart from the mountain tops.

What it doesn’t have is solitude.

Visitors to Cade’s Cove should expect crowds and traffic, even if my pictures don’t show it. Moving slow through a field amid mountains isn’t the worst thing on Earth though. Far from it. It’s actually amazing.  But people who want to get away from traffic jams and crowds? You’ve got the wrong place. Cade’s Cove isn’t an escape from other people, at least not in summer. It’s kind of like rush hour in Los Angeles, if Los Angeles was a field surrounded by lovely rounded mountains.

But that’s just it. Being stuck in beautiful scenery is glorious, at least to me. I may have just lost my Great Smoky Mountains hipster cred for loving a place that’s so well-traveled, but I still love it. There’s a part of me with restless legs that gets tired of being stuck in a car. But given how great my last trip there was in terms of scenery wildlife and just general beauty, I’m happy I went.

The area’s roads connect to many trails, some longer, some just short paths near cabins. As I was traveling with less long-walk inclined folks, my last trip there stuck entirely to the former.

Here are a few highlights of my last trip earlier this year. It’s not everything to see there, but I can always go back.

I will warn you the wildlife photos from the trip may not be the best. I’m the sort of person who will give wildlife a proper respectful distance. Unless it’s frogs. So just imagine what bear and turkeys look like. You probably know what bears and turkeys are.

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These distant birds are turkeys. Take my word for it. We saw them in May, and I’ve seen them on other trips in the Great Smoky Mountains and the Cumberlands.
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John Oliver Cabin

Above is the John Oliver cabin, no relation to the HBO comedian. John Oliver fought in the war of 1812, arrived in 1818 with the present cabin finished in 1820. The 1.4 mile fairly-level trail to this point is just the start of a far more foot-busting 8.5 mile hike, the 8.5 mile Rich Mountain Loop.

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As a short little stroll, the John Oliver Cabin route has much to recommend it, with an alternate route in the shade, shown below, and a route through a field, offering views of the surrounding mountains as in the first image on this blog.

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The shaded route to the John Oliver cabin.

The meadow was, in May, also a good place to spot butterflies.

Back in the car, we drove to Cade’s Cove Primitive Baptist Church, where John Oliver is buried. It’s on a bit of a side road.  We happened on good luck there, however, in that a bear was nearby.

Black bears often stop traffic in the Smokies in what are called “bear jams,” and this one was no exception. They’re the kind of cute, furry creatures that attract the kind of idiots who think they’re harmless and want to take selfies really close to them. Fortunately for me, I’m not one of those people. I prefer not to be torn to bloody bits. Unfortunately for you, that means you’ll have to make do with this mysterious shadow bear rather than something brighter. If you don’t know what a black bear looks like there’s always Google.

Black bear
This is a bear. Take my word for it.

Cade’s Cove is not a zoo. Animals don’t just show up to entertain you. So I suggest relaxing. You may see a bear. You may not. You may get a good picture. You may not. Enjoy what you see. Don’t expect it, and it may come.

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Primitive Baptist Church

I do not mean “Primitive” here as an insult. There are many kinds of Baptists and Primitive just means they consider themselves the original ones in their denomination as opposed to Missionary Baptists.
I appreciate Oliver’s grave’s honesty about John Oliver’s role and not ignoring the people who were in the area before him. It lists him as the “First permanent, white settler in the area, italics mine. Cemeteries like the one here make it clear how early people died back in those days too.
Here are some other cabins, barns and structures we saw while in Cade’s Cove.
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Big Ridge State Park


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Big Ridge State Park

They hopped on the forest floor as I climbed to the Loysdon Overlook. Small shapes like crickets or beetles, just as easily ignorable.

And yet something inspired m e to pick it up. And then I saw it: A frog!

Heart, brain, organs bones, all in such a tiny fingernail sized package. Why do we need to sprawl into big bodies anyway? Certainly not ones my absurdly gross size. All the forms of backboned animals: endless variations on a theme. Eyes, feet, heart yet each twisted in a shape suiting a particular purpose.

Fragility. I could crush the little fellow. I videoed him stammering around, trying to say something worthwhile. I couldn’t even guess the species. The frogs I know are larger. Did that matter to it? Does its little mind even know it is a species?

I wished I knew how to sex frogs. That came out wrong. I wish I knew how to judge a frog’s sex. “It” always feels like an insult to a living being. If only “they” could catch on.

Golden light flooded through trees like something that floods through trees as I climbed. A sign told me Norris Lake had covered the Town of Loysdon, reducing it to the Loysdon Sea as some nickname it. Green leaves everywhere blocked the view, preventing it from being a panorama rather than just a view through leaves. Also it prevented the hike from being worth recommending at this time of the year. But I still enjoyed coming.

There was something satisfying about Big Ridge State Park, beyond just coming eye to eye with the tiny frog. Even though it should not have been satisfying. The boat rental with all its pedaled and paddled crafts sat closed.

I did not take even a moment to swim at the inviting area with a raft that still was open or even to eat at any of the picnic spots. The trail, strewn with logs led to nothing but an overlook crowded by leaves. I did not pitch a tent at any campsite nor did I stay at any of the cabins I walked past.

So what was it that satisfied me? Simply this: newness. I had not seen these woods or this lake since a very small age when Dad remembered me failing to be impressed at an osprey grabbing a fish.

I get restless. I want to go somewhere if only for two hours. I want to drive through the countryside, past where gas stations no longer have card scanners and their numbers flip manually, not digitally, then find a place like Big Ridge State Park. It really strikes me after being stuck in the same office all day, how amazing being in a new place is.

It was near the summer solstice. That really made the difference.

Things to do at Big Ridge

Loysdon Point is 0.9 miles from a trailhead near a playground. The area has many other trails, some of which are

Even if you don’t want to rent a boat at Big Ridge, you can launch your private one from a boat ramp near the park’s entrance.

I later returned to go swimming there, the first time my girlfriend and I got to go swimming.

The park has a variety of depths for swimming and even a raft. Out of all the lake swimming areas, in East Tennessee, it’s one of the best with plenty of room for families to mess about. The one thing it’s lacking is a long dry sandy beach, like at some of the areas on Melton Hill Lake.

When we were there a wedding was in progress and rangers were announcing water balloons ready for the children to throw.

I love Gatlinburg! Come at me.


People call it tacky, a tourist trap, garish, overrated, commercial, lowest common denominatory. And I will nod my head and say, “Yeah. So?” I love it that way. And I hope it never leaves us, no matter how many fires it endures.

“This is a roadside attraction,’ said Wednesday. ‘One of the finest. Which means it is a place of power.’”

-Neil Gaiman, American Gods.

I’ve known it since I was young. We never really spent much time there. It was always a way into the park and a place to eat afterward, but never really our destination. My mother found Ober Gatlinburg’s ski resort to be overpriced for lessons which she wanted to offer me herself, although as an adult I’ve grown to appreciate that place’s slopes, terrain park and everything else more and more.

As for the rest of it, as a kid, I found the weird animatronics outside of a haunted attraction back then creepy and the other ones were just weird. The whole place generally surreal and foreign to me, with its airbrushed t-shirts and samurai swords. The aquarium though, which I encountered as a teenager, was beautiful, although not as original or unified an idea as the one in Chattanooga.

As an adult, I mock everything freely there in my head and to my girlfriend as I’ve walked by, especially on my last few visits. Tiny Gatlinburg Bible Museum with Arc of the Covenant? So that’s where they took it after that warehouse. Although that’s closed now, so I can’t make that joke anymore. Oh well. The World of Illusions? People don’t seem to like it, but at least it has Doc Brown with nipple clamps visible from outside.  Though, speaking of nipples, that exterior can’t compete with the one the Batman Forever Batmobile crashed into at Hollywood Star Cars, which apparently has cars from just about every blockbuster film ever. I should probably visit some time.

And while The Village features old world charm, it also features my lame attempts at making M. Night Shyamalan jokes.

“It’s perfectly simple,” said Wednesday. “In other countries, over the years, people recognized the places of power. Sometimes it would be a natural formation, sometimes it would just be a place that was, somehow, special. They knew that something important was happening there, that there was some focusing point, some channel, some window to the Immanent. And so they would build temples or cathedrals, or erect stone circles, or…well, you get the idea.” -Neil Gaiman American Gods.

Oh, and then there’s all the places selling corn liquor in all kinds of flavors and with tasting counters like in California’s wine country, rather ingeniously called “moonshine” for the tourists, even though it’s legal. Real moonshine, of course, has no health standards and sometimes includes dead pickled squirrels. This stuff doesn’t. But it is fun to get wasted beneath the mountains and there’s plenty of sidewalk room for walking back to avoid any DUI problems.

The place lacks a certain variety even of the kind typically seen at some tourist traps. It’s low on dance clubs, for example, and most of the larger amusement parks and attractions like Dollywood and the Great Smoky Mountains themselves are beyond its borders. But it’s Gatlinburg. It’s my land of delightful craziness beneath the rolling mountains. And I wish it will continue.

“In the USA, people still get the call, or some of them, and they feel themselves being called to from the transcendent void, and they respond to it by building a model out of beer bottles of somewhere they’ve never visited, or by erecting a gigantic bat house in some part of the country that bats have traditionally declined to visit. Roadside attractions: people feel themselves pulled to places where, in other parts of the world, they would recognize that part of themselves that is truly transcendent, and buy a hot dog, and walk around, feeling satisfied on a level they cannot truly describe, and profoundly dissatisfied on a level beneath that.” -Neil Gaiman, American Gods.

To all the Asheville folks who put it down: I prefer it to Biltmore Village and its overpriced estate to be honest. Much of Gatlinburg is silly stuff for the masses. But it never pretended to be anything else. And at the end of the day, I’m one of those masses, even if I pretend to be so ironically. So have at me, elites. Let me drop the irony and say, I love Gatlinburg. With all due respect to Neil Gaiman, I don’t feel profoundly dissatisfied beneath it.

It is more than a tourist place though. It’s where people, including both natives and immigrants call home and earn a living. And I feel sad for its recent loss and the second, smaller recent fire.

On my last trip, I saw a damaged resort by a stream flowing out of the park. I stood to contemplate the wreckage, the bravery of the firefighters who led rescue efforts, and the tragedy of the 14 lives lost.

But hearing the spooky music from the nearby Gatlinburg Mysterious Mansion, I felt another thing. Hope. And pride. Keep going, mountain strong. A place of power.

“Yesterday is gone, gone, but tomorrow is forever.”—Dolly Parton, in a quote I’m sorry to say Chattanooga Times Free Press has already used, but at least I’m the first with Neil Gaiman. Probably.

Nothing and Everything


I stayed at the house of a former SAF intern’s mother. The road leaving our neighborhood crossed with another road. That road means more to me every time I think about it. In one direction: The interstate, the city of Columbia, and the new offices of South Carolina Primary Health Care, where I volunteered for the Migrant Health Project. People sat at their desks there in suits, dresses, and ties. Bars, fitness clubs, restaurants, and music clubs were all in that direction.

Columbia was a place of power. The State House stood there, with long sets of steps and tall columns.

Along its sides stood monuments which told an official version of state history. There were monuments to the confederate dead, and to Strom Thurmond. Other monuments  showed African-Americans’ long history from slaves in the fields of indigo, to achievements in the present day. Our landlady, Jennet, told us that in the other direction was “nothing.” For her, as for most people in Columbia it was nothing. It was more suburbs.Then it was sprawling fields of peaches, corn, cucumbers, tomatoes, and plants city people couldn’t tell apart from each other.

The change was nowhere near as sudden as it sounds. The countryside was not a wasteland. Big farms had offices and receptionists. Farmers and ran their fields like factories, only with hotter and tougher work.

The country was more random than the city. Downtown for one town was an old-fashioned-looking block of brick buildings that happened to include a Mexican popsicle store. In another town, the “center” of town seemed to be a white Victorian-style house serving as the office for an IGA store.

It could rain one minute out there, the next minute dust could be blowing around. The workers lived just in just about every arrangement one could think of: trailers, cinder houses, even log cabins in one place.The land was flat, but by the end of that summer, I could not see it as “nothing.” For many of the people I met there, it was everything, or at least everything that they saw of South Carolina.

People who had come from far away to work the land often had no way to drive anywhere else and no reason to do so. To them, the lights of Columbia and the steps of the capital were a faint rumor, if they were anything.