It was a good winter in Tennessee. Earlier this year I was in Nashville, a city surrounded by ring after ring of droll little wooded hills, and I was teaching among the magnolias and mockingbirds of Vanderbilt University and counting the church towers and steeples of the Bible Belt.
There was hardly any rain and although the temperature was often below freezing and there was old ice in the gutters, there was none of the slushy, dirty snow that O. Henry spoke of a couple of generations ago when the soft coal smoke of the railway fogged and blackened the city. The railway has long been closed. No fog now; instead the sun shining in the beautifully vacant southern sky—a Londoner’s dream even if the icicles glittered on the trees.
Then in March there were signs of the rapturous Tennessee spring—the grass around the house we rented suddenly turned from straw to green and there were thousands of violets in the rough lawn, the honeysuckle came out in the hedge and, of all things, chives were growing on the grass verge of the pavements in our streets. Out came the waxy tulip tree and the redbud whose flowers grow out of the bark, and by April, the dogwood.
It was time “to light out for the territory,” as Huck Finn said, and to go to the Great Smoky and the Cherokee mountains, and see the Blue Ridge, the southern branch of the Appalachians, from what is now a national park—and to see my ghost talking to other ghosts. Fifty-five years ago, when I was twenty-five and in my Borrovian and “open road” period, I had been a sentimental traveler through these mountains, mainly on foot, over wagon roads and forest tracks, before the highways were built in the Thirties.
Tennessee is a small state, about the size of England, slotted between the mountains and the Mississippi plain, almost empty by European standards: four million people compared with the English forty-six and distances seem longer because they are empty. One understands why nostalgia is the deepest American feeling. We left at six in the morning for the six-hour drive to Knoxville where they are excavating in a rush to get ready for the World’s Fair next summer, on a bus which, unbelievably, had Los Angeles on its indicator. We had an hour’s wait in Knoxville and there I heard a driver telling another that his wife had just had a baby girl and they were going to call her Melody—the right Dixie touch in the South, where “you” becomes “you-all” or “y’all,” as if to fill up the country.
We changed buses for Gatlinburg at the foot of the stupendous mountain forest. The streams from the mountains give a gaiety to the little tourist town, with its funicular, its dozens of motels, candy shops, cafés, restaurants, and antique shops. “Horrible. Ruined. All faked up,” my students warned before we left.
So I too would have said when I was twenty-five. Now I am corrupted. I found it charming. Only my young ghost was shocked. We were staying at a pretty motel on one of the creeks, water tumbling below our balcony where we sat feeding the giddy ducks. We had mountain trout for dinner. On the main street was a store with a letter sign saying “Jesus is Lord. Livery Stable Supplies.” It sold the antique stable things, rough peasant-made doeskin gloves, and all those clumsy iron-y and wooden things the mountain people used to make.
They make them no more, for there are no mountain people in these stupendous mountains. The vast and loveliest mountain scene in the southern states is almost empty. The people I knew who gave me a bed and food for the night fifty-five years ago when I knocked on the doors of their poor shacks had been bought out in the Thirties when the place became a national park. They had been rescued from poverty, perhaps, but they had been stripped of their curious history.
A few of the watermills they built, an occasional farmhouse built of the wood they had hewed and standing on stilts so that the long porch sagged, remain as museum pieces in the woods. The old magazines and papers which often covered the walls to keep out the wind in the gaps between the timbers had been stripped off.
The long wooden oak fences of interlocking logs that kept the cattle from straying are still there. So are one or two little Baptist churches, often with two doors: one for men, the other for women; and their graveyards of Robertses, Olivers, Butchfields, and Le Quires, each with stones marked on the top with the words “son,” “mother,” “sister,” “father” to evoke the sorrows of a clan. On one near Cades Cove, where we were to see deer flashing their white tails in the trees, groundhogs burrowing in the meadows, and a wild turkey galumphing in outrage through the grasses, we marked a gravestone which simply said, after the name, “murdered,” and the date. We drove slowly up the mountains and, this being the spring, one could see deeply into the tall trees and near the road sometimes a clump of daffodils—the sign there had been a house there once—or a pattern of small black rocks, marking the graves of an isolated family.
In the next few days we were up 5,000 feet on Newfound Gap—Tennessee on one side of us, North Carolina on the other; and up on Clingmans Dome, looking down on ravines and ridges rolling like an ocean into the distant Blue Ridge. The superb ringing name of that mountain seemed heroic to me when I was young. The Smokies have been called by that name because of the clouds that caught them or lay across the ravines below, and I walked through a district called Cloudland in those years. Clingmans Dome was Old Smoky in person, “all covered with snow” in that wry love song. Indeed here I was close to my old tracks. The driver pointed out the distant glitter of a window twenty miles away where my early journey ended at a little chattering town named Bryson City and I remembered the drawling sheriff there, who had been up Old Smoky four times, telling me of one Pete Hughes who had gone up to cut lumber and got into trouble. I found his words in an old notebook:
He fell into a bear wallow on the way up to the Dome plum on top of the greatest old bear he ever seed and kinda got into a regular spat with him.
The “walkways” are all marked in the mountains now; there are wardens and refuge huts and some of my hiking students go climbing and stay there. In my day, as we old chaps say, no stranger went there unless he had a job in a lumber company or the iron mine in the Cherokee. Soon after you enter the park you pass a deserted copse at a turn of the river called Fighting Creek, celebrating some lumberjacks’ quarrel, a wild lot.
Why fifty-five years ago did I go to these mountains? I went because I had read a book which said the people there were the forgotten remnant of the pioneers who left North Carolina at the end of the eighteenth century but who did not press on like the later generations to the opening up of the West. Cecil Sharp and other folklorists had spread the rumor that these “Scotch-Irish” or mixed Ulstermen and British Protestants had preserved Elizabethan ballads and Elizabethan speech, even if they had sunk to the level of simpletons and inbred hillbillies. (They were not poor whites, who belong to the plains.)
This talk of Elizabethan English is a myth: they spoke rustic or Cockney English—except for the drawl—said “hit” for “it” and “haint” for “aint,” used nouns as verbs and invented odd superlatives: “travelingest,” “talkingest,” “workingest.” They thought England might be in Kentucky but some “allowed” it was a “scandalous long ways over the waters.” One man put the question “Where are you going to?” to me as “Where do you all expectation to end?” The overtones were Mark Twainish.
The only travelers who passed the settlements in the creeks were peddlers and one was legendary: Gashry Allison, who “allowed” he’d been born in Turkey and had seen Jerusalem but also claimed to be Irish. I was always hearing of Gashry. The only Elizabethan echo was in some of the Christian names: Apollo, Leander, or Beaumont Star, which seemed to carry echoes of Raleigh’s time—in Nashville a taxi driver said he was descended from him! But I did hear a girl tell her brother to go to bed with the words, “Git ye to yer pallet.” That is an old lost word.
I started my now ghostly journey in 1925 from a different end of the mountains—from Johnson City, going up from there at first by a little mountain railway built for the lumbermen and iron mine workers. At Vanderbilt this year I became a curiosity: I had traveled on the comic line affectionately called the Tweetsie, because of its noisy little engine. It replaced the mule as the mountain carrier but has long ago stopped, though I believe some rich man bought it to play with on a bit of line three miles long.
I remember the clattering journey round the precipices and arriving at a depot which was no more than a lumber shed, where I saw my first mountain men. Half a dozen tall, thin, longnosed, blue-eyed figures in boiler suits and wide black hats, each one carrying a gun as casually as I carried a walking stick. I was never so silently stared at in my life. I was soon carried off to a shack where I was fed on what was to be my daily diet for the next few weeks: a chunk of Tennessee salt ham, fried hard, with red-eye gravy made by pouring coffee into the frying pan and drunk by the cup, cornbread, jam, and apple butter. (I can’t get my teeth into Tennessee hard salt ham today.)
After that day, helped by an American army map, I went on. The time was late September, the laurels were thick and dark in the woods. There was often rain. I climbed up forest paths to the “balds” at the top and down to the next creek. There were no inns. I simply knocked on the doors of the poor shacks and no one ever refused me; very rarely would they take money. Flies infested the food in the poorest places and you could see the stars through the gaps in the walls. The family might have a patch of maize on their steep farm. They passed the sugar cane through rollers and drained the molasses into a bucket and sometimes had a mule on a pole stirring something in a cauldron over a stick fire.
The hillsides smelled of apples and chestnuts. The clothes of the women were cheap cotton made by themselves. I remember a wild-looking girl wearing only a sack with a hole in it stirring the apple butter in a cloud of flies. She smiled: there was often a soft, lostlooking smile on the women’s bony faces. The men sat around “chawing” tobacco and spitting and there were sometimes whispered words. Maybe about moonshine whiskey: this was in the days of Prohibition and there was often talk of being “in a kinda mixedup business.”
There was great talk of bears. Bear meat was thought of as “stringy.” The people seemed to accept me simply, without suspicion—which no one in England or America would do nowadays—and went on slowly staring and talking in voices that drawled like the wind in the trees. “We never let a stranger go without a meal’s victuals,” an old mountain man told me—he was that ancient taxi driver in Nashville. I might have seen him as a child. Being a scattered remnant the people treated me curiously, as if I might be related to the Vances, the Ingrams, the Perkinses, or old Gashry Allison himself, from over the creek or indeed out of Cloudland itself, a sort of forgotten neighbor, perhaps a cousin, for they must all have been cousins here.
I had walked across Spain in those years and had found the same simple welcome among the shepherds of Castile or the poor of that region along the Portuguese frontier called Las Hurdes—the country poor are hospitable everywhere and like to hear news from strangers. The only other genuine footslogger I met was an itinerant preacher. He was about to cross a stream by the steppingstones, a shabby collarless man in a smart black hat—he might have been my own preaching Yorkshire grandfather, in his open bluntness with its dash of singularity.
“Howdy,” he shouted. “What’s your name?” I started to cross. We met in midstream.
“Mine’s Sam Robinson. I’m a preacher. I go everywhere. I belong to no one. No one belongs to me. Kinda strange to think of a man belonging to no one.”
Still, he was soon on to his cousins over in Carolina who kept “right smart of hogs.”
Names travel in the mountains like myths and I heard more of Sam later on from a storekeeper who was also the sheriff in a more prosperous valley, a real Bible Belt man. I sat with him on the stoop of his store. He had a large Bible on his knee and was marking passages with a bit of blue chalk, preparing for one more public Sunday debate with Sam on the burning subject of Darwin and the Tennessee monkey trial:
Sam haint no debater and were kinda confused last time at Roaring Creek. He allowed he were a right smart feller but he looked purty mean sort o’ popskull when I’d finished with him. I suspicioned it all ‘long. “Ye can’t ‘scape Holy Writ,” I said. “Ye haint got your tex’ right.”
One night when I was lost I stayed with a family who had just lost their jobs in a mill in South Carolina and had come back with their iron stove and furniture by wagon that enormous distance to live off the land again. The roof had gone from the house. The windows of the place had no glass; sacking was nailed over them. The family was large and included the grandfather, grandmother, and young children. They were ten miles from a store, five miles from the wagon trail, with two rivers to ford and steep land to till. (People often spoke of a man “falling” out of his field.)
The woman’s stove was broken by the jolting wagon and so was her clock. Still she fed all of us with the usual salt pork and red-eye gravy. I shared a room with grandfather, who snored all night. Bats flew about the room and we slept under the stars. The alarm clock went off at four by mistake and she got us out of bed, cooked a breakfast, and drove the men to work and the children to pick up the chestnuts before the squirrels got them. Their boy showed me the way over the bald. They had no neighbors now. “All gone away,” he said. “Soil’s gone.” He called it “sile.”
Somewhere else I came across an old man, one of the “talkingest,” who rambled on a long time with tall stories about bears. This was when I got well into the Smokies and was making for Clingmans Dome. He moved on to the classic lumberjack’s or hunter’s story, which he credited to a pal of his called Phil Morris. (I had heard it in Canada, north of Quebec, that very year: these stories migrate.)
Phil, like the rest of us, was in a kinda mixed-up business. Hit’d be hard to say what kinda business hit’d be with one thing and another and nothing regular. Well he was up in the woods and there was snow on the ground and the country was most friz up. We lit a fire and Phil sits him down and offs with his boots to kinda rest his feet like.
Of course, in the night, the boots fell into the fire. And in the morning Phil sent up a great hollerin’ and had to make him moccasins out of his leggins and walk sixteen miles in them. An’ ever since that place has been called Phil Morris’s defeat.
He did have the grace to add: “Like ol’ Uncle Durham uster say—every time a story crosses water it doubled itself.”
My own story too has doubled itself: old and young I have seen Old Smoky twice. As the old man said, about panoramas: “A man can see everything in the world till his eyes are tired of looking and he come down and go away.” The vision melts as he goes down from the firs, to the maples, the oaks, the hickories, the yellowing poplars, and the birches, looking deeply into the tall trees and the ones that have fallen; until when he is low enough down he will see a last white dogwood lighting up the scene like a living candle in a room. And as he goes his eye sees more of the tumbling creek stream coming out of the shadows into the dancing sunlight and turning again into shadow when the stream rests and men are fishing in that pool beyond Fighting Creek.
I am still trying to think of another word that would evoke that sea of receding rings up above. Because of the forest those mountains seem to be furred and to have been rushing like herds of animals from North Carolina into Tennessee for centuries before the mountain people had come, and now after they have gone.
Smoke in the Smokies April 15, 1982