In July of 1997, following another successful conclusion of the Esri International User Conference, I prepared to take a week off and visit another corner of our great country. This time I headed for Appalachia, specifically eastern Kentucky, eastern Tennessee, and western North Carolina. My trip began with a very nice flight to Cincinnati in First Class on board a Delta Airlines L-1011. That evening I picked up my Hertz rental car and checked into the Airport Hilton in nearby Florence, Ky. (the Cincinnati International Airport is actually in northern Kentucky, across the Ohio River from the city!) Before retiring to my room for the night, I checked out the lobby bar where a couple of musicians were playing an unusual “duet” of music from Al Jarreau and Johnny Cash. Then I noticed a wonderful couple dancing, a young man and his mother – they were a real team of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
The next day, I headed southeast through the beautiful Bluegrass country around Lexington on my way into the Appalachian Mountains, following the backroads. Near the small town of Pineville, Kentucky I saw two old rusting junk cars sitting in the front yard of a house by the river, with a faded, broken sign standing between them. In big bold hand painted letters were the words “J & B Auto Sales”. Must be the neighborhood car dealership! Soon I was driving along narrow winding roads through heavy forest, occasionally passing through a small town on the banks of a river and surrounded on both sides by steep mountains. Continuing south, I came to a junction where I had a decision to make, turn right to the town of Eagan or left to Frakes. I chose to take the road to the left and discovered a beautiful, isolated valley (aka hollow) in the very southern part of Kentucky. As I entered the small town I saw a sign pointing the way to the “Henderson Settlement Work Camp”. I was very intrigued and spent two hours exploring the town and its log cabins and craft shops where local people were demonstrating the traditional work of Appalachian artisans. Apparently, as the history goes, a “Bill Henderson” (which just happened to be my father’s name) donated 150 acres of land in the early 1900’s to a Methodist minister for the establishment of a school and community center. Now it has become the largest mission of the United Methodist Church in the country, and I literally stumbled upon it by my decision at a junction in the road. Such is the joy of traveling without a pre-determined destination – just follow the open road.
Eventually I came to one of the most historic and geographically important places in all of Appalachia, the Cumberland Gap, which is located at the point where the borders of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia meet. The gap is a huge natural break in the Appalachian Mountains that was long used by Native Americans, as well as many species of migratory animals to travel east and west each year. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cumberland_Gap Beginning around 1775 it became a primary route for American settlers moving west into the Kentucky Territory, and by 1810 it’s estimated as many as 300,000 settlers had crossed over the Appalachian Mountains through the Cumberland Gap. The first group was lead by none other than the great frontiersman, Daniel Boone. Portions of the old wagon path, known as the “Wilderness Road”, remain today alongside US highway 25. That evening I was very fortunate to get the last room, a beautiful log cabin, at the Cumberland Falls Lodge.
The lodge restaurant had a huge dinner buffet that was a real bargain at just $9.95. As I left the restaurant to return to my cabin I spotted a large family of hungry racoons waiting anxiously below for handouts. That night the air was cool and still under the beautiful star studded sky. As I sat outside on the porch enjoying the peace and quiet of the surrounding forest, I suddenly became aware of a large striped skunk nosing around the edge of the cabin. He seemed preoccupied with searching for food and paid little attention to me.
The next morning, I drove to the scenic overlook on top of Cumberland Gap, from where I could see all three states and a gorgeous vista of the Cumberland Mountains. Just below the summit was an old, rundown motel that was boarded up and a dilapidated restaurant with a very old, faded sign that read “Come on in and try our famous Vinegar Pie”. Unfortunately, the place had seen better days and now was rapidly becoming a part of history – so no Vinegar Pie today.
As I looked around, I saw an elderly couple sitting beside their car under a small tree, enjoying their picnic lunch, which was neatly arranged on a small table. The strange thing about this scene was the fact that they were seated less than 10 feet from the busy 4-lane highway and facing it, rather than looking in the opposite direction at the spectacular view of the Cumberland Mountains! Once on the eastern side of the mountains, I was on my way into Tennessee, and the route would take me through the Iron Mountains to the popular tourist destination of Gatlinburg. However, after experiencing a beautiful journey through the forests and mountains of eastern Tennessee, I began feeling very claustrophobic upon entering Gatlinburg and began looking for an escape from the hideous, trashy environment known as the “Gatlinburg Strip”. (perhaps it was trying to be an eastern cousin of the Las Vegas Strip?) Any way that one looked at it, there was no doubt that it was a horrendous and obnoxious collection of cheap attractions that resembled a B grade carnival at best. Finally, I was able to escape the madness and make my way over New Found Gap and into the small town of Cherokee, North Carolina in the heart of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Here I found a very nice Comfort Suites Hotel on the edge of town, and for dinner it was recommended that I go to the Hungry Bear Café. I was rewarded with a delicious meal of thick pork chops grilled with a stunning peach and red pepper chutney! My server suggested the homemade pecan and chocolate chip pie for dessert, which finished off the evening wonderfully. My only regret was that no alcohol was served since the town was within the Cherokee Indian Reservation. But I had to respect the rules of the tribe.
The next morning, the hotel desk clerk recommended the breakfast buffet at “Bob’s Big Boy” across the street. The place was very crowded and unfortunately the only open table was next to a large family (both in number and size). I watched in amazement as each of the 3 young teenage boys put away three plates of food apiece, including a huge stack of pancakes! Beyond the first two plates it just became gross. After the family left their table it was a total disaster area – I felt so sorry for the young Cherokee boy who had to clean up the mess. Later, as I left the town of Cherokee I ran into a sudden torrential downpour – couldn’t see more than 30 feet in front of me – driving at 20 mph with the windshield wipers on maximum, madly whipping back and forth with little effect. Then the downpour ended just as suddenly as it had begun, and once again the highway appeared before me. It felt like the “thunderstorm from hell”. I stopped at the Smoky Mountains Visitor Center where I saw a fascinating exhibit on the history of logging in the mountains. Apparently, in the early 1900’s there were hundreds of miles of narrow gauge railroad tracks that extended into just about every major drainage (aka hollow). Towns like Edgemont, Tennessee literally sprung overnight and often swelled to a population of more than 10,000. These old logging towns were hastily erected, but many of them had theatres and concert halls. Now they have all but vanished, without much of a trace of their former glory. One of the National Park rangers recommended a drive up to Balsam Ridge, which was pretty far off the beaten path for tourists – just what I was looking for. The drive to Balsam Ridge took me along part of the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway, but when I arrived at the summit, it was pretty much socked in by heavy clouds. However, the trail to Flat Creek Falls was very beautiful, with hundreds of gorgeous pink Rhododendrons and white Dogwoods in full bloom.
Along the trail I came upon a couple of young Whitetail Deer – they stopped, looked at me for a long time, and then disappeared into the thick brush. The view of the falls was beautiful and worth the 3 mile hike, but when I returned to the car, I was drenched in sweat. It was at least 95 degrees and 95% humidity – really stifling! As I left the parking lot I hit a sharp granite stone curb that tore a large gash in the right front tire, which immediately went flat. So my only course of action was to change the tire using the “temporary use only” spare. (how temporary is temporary I wondered – 10 miles, 100 miles – who knows!) Back on the Blue Ridge Parkway, I drove to Waternock Knob and was rewarded with incredible views of the Great Smoky Mountains to the north. Beyond Waternock Knob along highway 25 was the small town of Sylva, nestled in the lush blue green forests of western North Carolina. As I drove through town I tried in vain to recognize something from my early childhood, some 48 years ago, when my father worked in the town as a labor representative for the United Mine Workers Union. Having been unable to find any “roots of my past” in Sylva, I headed south toward the small mining community of Franklin and a part of North Carolina known as “The Highlands” – a place that preserves the heritage of the original immigrants from Scotland and Ireland, both in culture, as well as arts and crafts. After exploring the Celtic culture of the region, I followed US 276 over a high summit and suddenly found myself in South Carolina, surrounded by steep forested mountains near the very southern end of the Appalachian Range. The mountainous terrain was far from my image of South Carolina, yet it was beautiful and a very nice surprise. Heading back into North Carolina I came upon a sign for “Flat Rock”, the home of the late great American poet laureate Carl Sandburg. The view of the large estate nestled in the beautiful eastern hardwood forest and overlooking the lake was gorgeous. However, it was now past the closing time for tours of the uniquely designed home and the life of the poet. So I had to be content with taking photos of the beautifully landscaped gardens. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Sandburg_Home_National_Historic_Site Continuing north I came to the small town of Hendersonville, and of course I had to see if there was any of my family history in the town. As I entered the town I was very disappointed to find it rather dilapidated and rundown, the only attractive features being the Henderson County Courthouse and the Henderson County Historical Society. Unfortunately, the historic old 1800’s “Waverly Inn” was in pretty bad shape – not very inviting for a night’s stay. So I continued on to Asheville, a town with a great deal of history, culture, and charm. The place to stay was most definitely the historic and famous “Grove Inn Park Hotel”, but I found it was fully booked. However, the hotel concierge recommended the Hayward Park Hotel downtown, and I discovered it to be a lavish renovation of the former Bon Marche department store – most unusual. Soon I was checking into a lovely suite overlooking a huge interior courtyard, and the suite had a gorgeous and very spacious bathroom/spa tiled in white marble. After a delicious dinner in the hotel restaurant I returned to my suite and found my bed had been turned down, fresh towels laid out in the bathroom, and the radio tuned to a local station featuring an evangelist preaching the second coming of Christ! That’s when I decided to head downstairs to the “Bier Garten” for a local brew called “Johnson’s Amber Ale” from The Highlands Brewery. I also sampled their “Highlands Celtic Ale” and found it to be quite good.
The next morning, a complimentary continental breakfast was delivered to my suite, after which I drove to the world famous Biltmore Estate, the largest home in America, at the foot of the mountains outside Asheville. The estate was enormous and it was a 3 mile drive from the gate house to the parking area below the mansion. The design was in the style of a classic 17th century French chateau, and the extensive gardens surrounding it were designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, the world renowned landscape architect who designed Central Park in New York.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biltmore_Estate The misty pine forests surrounding the gardens gave me a very primeval and mysterious feeling. As I toured the mansion, I found it was decorated in lavish European styles, with lots of priceless paintings, tapestries, sculptures, and other art work, as well as countless antiques imported from all over Europe. All in All, it was very impressive and opulent, which is how I’m sure the Vanderbilt’s intended it to be – a European Castle in America! One of the “rooms” that impressed me the most was the spectacular “Winter Garden” near the entrance to the mansion, with its enormous skylight and extensive collection of tropical plants. Also of great interest were the work areas in the basement to support the family and guests upstairs, which included several kitchens, laundry, and various pantries. In another part of the basement was a large indoor swimming pool, steam room and spa – there was even a full-size bowling alley as well. Needless to say, the mansion was immense and opulent in every sense – a true reflection of the world’s richest family. The massive laundry in the basement even included its own power supply to run the numerous washing machines, steam presses, and dryers, which was essential when the Vanderbilt family entertained several hundred guests on many occasions.
Today the estate covers 8,000 acres of the original 125,000 acres, and includes portions of the French Broad River. Construction of the mansion, known as “Waddesdon Manor”, began in 1889 and completed in 1896. The massive project required a woodworking factory and a brick kiln to be built on site – the kiln produced 32,000 bricks each day. In order to transport the building materials to the construction site, a 3 mile long railroad spur had to be built. During the seven years of construction, over 1,000 workers, including 60 Italian stone masons, labored to complete the extraordinary building. On Christmas Eve in 1895, George Vanderbilt opened his opulent estate to invited family and friends from all across the country. Over the next two decades, notable guests included Presidents, Royalty, and many famous writers, poets, and artists. Upon George Vanderbilt’s death in 1915, nearly 90,000 acres of the estate were sold to the federal government, which eventually became the heart of the Pisgah National Forest. During the Great Depression, the Vanderbilt family opened the estate for public tours, and to this day it remains the most important tourist destination in North Carolina.
As an interesting historical side note, during WWII many priceless paintings and sculptures were moved to the estate by train from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC to protect them in the event of a German attack on the Capitol.
Before leaving the estate, I tasted some of their wines that were once again being produced, and I found the Cabernet Sauvignon to be excellent. Then I drove north along the Blue Ridge Parkway near Mt Mitchell (6,684 ft), the highest point in North Carolina, as well as the entire eastern US. Back into Tennessee the drive through the Iron Mountains was particularly scenic with lots of Rhododendrons and Dogwoods showing off their brilliant colors.
That evening I stopped in Kingsport at a nice, new Marriott hotel that happened to be near an enormous Eastman-Kodak chemical plant. In the lobby bar, I sampled a local beer named “Fieldstone Ale” from the New Knoxville Brewery, and it was very respectable. For dinner, my server recommended the local trout in caramelized pecan sauce, stuffed with green bell peppers and shallots. It was outstanding, along with a chilled glass of Sauvignon Blanc from the Biltmore Estate winery.
The following morning, after a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon, pancakes, and fresh homemade biscuits and gravy, I headed north back into eastern Kentucky on my way to Richmond for a visit with my old army buddy, Pat. Just before crossing the state line in the tiny village of Kyle’s Ford, I spotted a large roadside sign saying “Whiskey, Beer, Gin – Last Chance. Dry Area Next 100 Miles”. At least it was a useful warning for some of us.
Before arriving in Richmond, I took some time to visit two of Kentucky’s most interesting and scenic geologic features – Natural Bridge State Park and Devil’s Gulch, both part of the Red River Gorge Natural Area. After hiking some of the trails in the park, I jumped on the beautiful Bluegrass Parkway at the classic old coal mining town of Hazard. Not far away was the small mining town of Lynch where I visited the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum with its extensive collection of old photographs and coal mining memorabilia from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.
That evening in Richmond, Pat and I shared many wonderful memories of our time in the army when we were stationed at a remote post in the Rhon Mountains of Germany. The next morning it was time to head for the Cincinnati airport to catch my flight back to California, loaded down with many photos and memorable experiences of my short visit to Appalachia – a most interesting and fascinating corner of our country. The Delta Airlines flight #49 from Cincinnati to Los Angeles was aboard an MD-11 aircraft that originated in London, so my seat in the international First Class cabin was a special treat! Of particular note was the dinner served on board – beginning with a fresh green salad with creamy sweet onion dressing and a smoked salmon appetizer. This was followed by a fantastic main dish of Maryland crab cakes, scalloped potatoes, and baby carrots smothered in lemon butter. And to top off the meal was an incredible cocoanut chocolate pecan pie for dessert! The dinner experience at 38,000 feet over the American Midwest was the perfect conclusion to another amazing vacation. I look forward to returning to Appalachia to discover more of the fascinating history and culture of a region that has preserved so much of its Celtic heritage.