Why are they the Great Smokies? Because the region is actually a rainforest! A rainforest that boasts the greatest concentration of salamanders in the world. Ken Voorhis photo from the National Park website.

Lately I’m fascinated with Appalachia. I’m supposed to be planning this trip, but somehow my planning keeps circling around Appalachia. Maybe it’s because, even with all the time I’ve spent on the East Coast, Appalachia is one of the few areas of the US I’ve never visited. Never even sped through it on my way somewhere else. Turns out The Great Smoky Mountains are the most visited national park in America. We’ve scheduled two days there.


Okay, stop with the Dueling Banjos song from Deliverance. I know for a fact the movie and book took place in Georgia. The Smoky Mountain National Park is in Tennessee. And my Appalachia is a kinder, gentler place. My Appalachia comes from movies like Where the Lillies Bloom, The Dollmaker and Coal Miner’s Daughter. You know, good folk who do a lot of quilting and making baskets out of willow switches, and certainly, lots of singing. It’s a place where Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, the entire Carter Family and Sgt. Alvin York are all neighbors.

Now those are hillbillies I’d like to “set with a spell”. But from my research on The Smoky Mountain National Park, it seems the federal government forced all the hillbillies out of the park, seizing their land by eminent domain. Then they kept all the buildings intact, so apparently places like Cades Cove, which had been settled since the 1700s, are now Hillbilly Ghost Towns.

With so big a park, the first step was finding a base of operations. Although I think Bill Bryson is just an unimaginative whining slob who deliberately seeks out the tackiest towns and greasiest spoons, he’s a good guide for what to avoid. So anyplace near Dollywood, the outlet malls of Gatlinburg or the Indian casinos at Cherokee were definitely out. When I found an area that advertised itself as “The Peaceful Side of the Smokies”, I realized I was getting warmer. When I found the website featured animated waving raccoons and bears, I knew this was our place.

Now to tracking down those hillbillies. At least according to his travelogue Blue Highways, William Least Heat-Moon had great luck. It seemed he had only to pull off to the side of the road and some interesting character was inviting him into a tidy shack for moonshine, pot likker and cornbread. All the while dispensing homespun wisdom like some suspendered Socrates.

n example of the mysterious Melungeons -- who are apparently not so mysterious any more. There are two websites about them: www.melungeons.com and www.melungeon.org. By contrast, the salamanders were pretty much confined to this site.

An example of the mysterious Melungeons -- who are apparently not so mysterious any more. There are two websites about them: www.melungeons.com and www.melungeon.org.

Anyway, the hillbillies I really want to meet are the mysterious Melungeons. Bill Bryson tried to track them down and felt he was inches away from being run out of the county with a load of buckshot. (Mind you, if Bill Bryson came nosing around my neighborhood, knowing the kind of sophomoric crap he’d put in his inevitable book, I’d meet him with firearms!) In any case, the Melungeons, are a greatly misunderstood and discriminated against people, thought to be a racial mixture of Indian, Black and maybe Portuguese, who moved up to the mountains and maintained a distinct and separate culture. Somewhere along the way, they become sort of the local boogiemen as the legends grew that they had six fingers and magic powers and still spoke Jacobean English. It would be great to set out on a hiking trail and stumble into a settlement of Melungeons. It could be like hanging out in the Elizabethan equivalent of the green room during the intermission of the premiere of Othello

It’s more likely we’ll meet salamanders. Seems there are more different species of salamanders in The Smoky Mountains than anywhere on earth. In fact, it’s called The Salamander Capitol of the World. Which is going to make it a little difficult to hike without worrying about squishing the little suckers with every step.

I think I’ll keep researching more about those hillbillies.


This is a golden oldie post from my first blog, RoadGals, which covered an epic cross-country roadtrip I took with my 24 year old niece two years ago. Since the original site was done with iWeb, I can’t automatically import the posts into this WordPress site. Which gives me a wonderful opportunity to recycle some of them into this site by hand whenever I’m too lazy to create a new post. Search on the Roadgals tag to find all the posts in the series.