The hunting grounds of the Cherokee people once, Cades Cove is an isolated valley of supreme beauty within the Great Smoky Mountains. The Cherokees called it Tsiya’hi. Translated, it means Otter Place, hinting at the fact that otters did abound here before European settlers arrived in the 1800s to dispossess the tribes of their land. They say that Cades Cove was named for the wife of a Cherokee chief, but no one really knows how it came about.
The road to the cove was straight out of my dreams. I have a weakness for those that curve through old forests, where the trees tower and look like they have a trove of stories, of the way the landscape has been moulded by the passage of time, of the generations of men that have come and gone. Limestone cliffs, creeks riddled with rocks, and from a sudden spell of shower, the roads gleaming green beneath the shadow of the trees. This had to be the naturalist’s definition of paradise.
At Cades Cove, the humidity was unbearable. We could not brook the thought of a hike despite the lure of seeing a bear. There are so many black bears in the area, roughly above 1,600, that you apparently could not, would not, miss a sighting. But here’s the thing, we did (no surprises). There are cherry trees and fields of blueberries, huckleberries and blackberries in the meadows. Plus there are people landing up with picnic hampers. Irresistible enough for bears to turn up from time to time.
As a result of this promise, every driver turns into an oaf on the 11-mile scenic loop that gently winds through the valley. It is a one-way paved road that follows an old logging railroad track. The traffic here crawls. We spent not less than 3 hours on the loop, well-stewed apples by the end of it if you will, wondering when we would be done with the sight of the driver ahead sticking his feet out of the window, and generally, behaving like a certified jackass.
The only way to let off steam was to take these off-road trails that led us into log cabins of the first settlers and ‘primitive’ churches as they called them in the 19th century. The white log frames of the churches with austere, dark wooden interiors suggesting that they existed to serve the basic purpose of disseminating faith among the few families who lived in and around them. They must have had dirt floors and fire pits inside to begin with.
Within an interval of a few minutes there were three Methodist and Baptist churches, emphasising that life in this Southern Appalachian community must have been harsh. A world where men and women would have needed the crutch of faith to carry on in the wilds. Their reality would have been made up of temperance societies and Sunday schools, of gatherings at general stores and swapping stories. Books have been written by the children and grandchildren of these settlers — they tell of a time when spotting a red ear of corn in a pile of husks was a prize for a young fella, a sign that he could kiss the woman he had been eyeing for some time; they talk of the mettle of children who kept themselves entertained by inventing their own toys, such as fashioning balloons from pig’s bladders. Not to distill (and dismiss) it in the matter of a sentence, but it seemed to me then that those folks paid the price for simplicity as much as we city folks pay the price for modernity.
When we finally left behind the last of those homesteads beneath its canopy of thick vegetation, I could not shake off the image that rose in my mind. Of a lachrymose man upon its porch, in his overalls of faded grey, a pipe stuck in his mouth, strumming a banjo that must have seen better days.