Day 3 – 21 May
We got an early start on a sunny and cool Sunday morning, and we spent a few hours driving through several hollers on the same kind of roads we’d been on since before we crossed into Kentucky. (Linguistic note: “Hollers” got their name because of the distinctive, frustrated cries of travelers trying to get cell reception to call their Uncle Bob for more local color information. True story.)
We eventually ended up at the Green River Tabernacle Cemetery, where we found the stones of Hezekiah Simpson and his wife Mary. Hezekiah was my grandpa Zack’s grandfather, and a fine instance of the Old Testament-named Simpsons. We have multiple Moses-es in the family tree, for example.
(And I just now realized that there’s no logical way to write the plural of “Moses.” Because you can’t go with the Latin “Mosi” for an OG Hebrew like Moses.) (Luckily for all of us, we are very rarely called upon to summon up the plural of “Moses” in everyday conversation.)
In all three cemeteries I noticed a lot of infant deaths, as well as many deaths tied to Spanish flu, and one of several wars. (The things we take for granted, again.) I also found one grave with a carved symbol that I’d seen on several graves at each cemetery: a hand with the index finger pointing upward. But in this one, the hand was not particularly well-rendered, and the effect was that the middle finger seemed to be the one doing the pointing. Beneath the hand were the words, “Gone Home.”
I know that that was supposed to be an earnest expression of faith. But feuds were not unknown in Kentucky, and I’m tickled to think that maybe the woman beneath that stone was a fiery lady with a wry last message for some kin of whom she may not have been particularly fond. (As in, “I’m gone home now, Jedediah, so suck it!”)
Not far from the Green River, we drove down a road where my dad and his brother Bob (Bobby’s dad) had spent many childhood summers. (Dad and Uncle Bob were “Irish Twins,” dad born in January and Bob born in December of 1938, when Zack and Rose were turning out Simpsons at a furious pace.) We found the small home of one of their Gabeheart uncles – the house still in very good shape – on a beautiful little piece of land that dropped away in back to a creek running through some timber.
In the backyard, halfway between the house and the creek was an old, weathered spring house that uncle Bob remembered and described to us, in between dropped phone calls. Which made us – you guessed it – “holler” in frustration.
As we got out of the car on the road and took some pictures and video, a lady who looked to be in her 70s came to the front door of the house. She invited us to come up and talk to her, and we told her who we were. She said that she had lived in the house since the early 1960s, and gave us permission to walk around the property. Darryll went into the spring house, where water was still running inside, though the building looked like you could knock it down by sneezing on it.
After leaving the old Simpson stomping grounds, we cut across country on yet more winding and scenic roads. Darryll eventually came to what looked like a private driveway between two very nice homes, and he drove right up and parked like he owned the place.
Then he led us across the backyard and through a gate in a farm fence, and then for about another 30 yards, where we came to an old wrought-iron fence surrounding maybe a dozen graves. Three of those were Darryll’s ancestors on his dad’s side. Their recently replaced headstones showed that they had all fought as officers in the Revolutionary War, and received land grants of 400 acres each, after the war.
I imagine those homeowners must be legally required to provide access to the old family plot, which is otherwise landlocked. But I’d like to think that they’d do so anyway, out of respect, and because they’re not a bunch of grievance-study-majors who have minored in tearing down statues.
Back on the road, we soon came across the Mill Springs Battlefield National Monument, near the small town of Nancy, KY. The visitors’ center had an impressive array of weapons and equipment carried by Civil War soldiers. We learned that the average size of the soldiers was 5’8” and 140 pounds. So I could have been a god among them!
I mean, until it came time to load and shoot an old rifle. Or hit a squirrel. Or cook or eat the squirrel that I had somehow miraculously shot.
A display inside told of how Confederate general Felix Zollicoffer had a rough day, getting killed in the first hour of the battle. He rode up to talk to some soldiers whom he thought were his – I guess the blue uniforms weren’t enough of a clue – and got shot by them. (If I were to learn that that guy was the great-great-grandfather of bumbling Merrick Garland, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised.)
We crossed over into Tennessee in the late afternoon, ending up in the valley town of Townsend, where we’d be staying for the next two nights. We took a half-hour drive into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where the forest seemed to envelope the road, surrounding us with cool air and bird song and a green canopy overhead. The road rose gradually, turning in gentle curves alternating with tight switch-backs.
Gliding along in a convertible gave us the full sensory experience. The sounds of splashing water were almost constant, either from the shady creek that flanks the road or from small trickles of ground water that run off of cliff faces and rocky outcroppings that had been dynamited to make a path for the railroad that preceded the road.
The woods were green and clean-smelling and sun-dappled, and we enjoyed a brief foretaste of the hiking to come, before returning to our destination for the day.
Darryll’s cousin on his dad’s side lives with her husband in a house above Townsend, and we eased the Cadillac up into the hills and then up their curving driveway, before bringing her to a stop on a flat section of pavement beside the house. It was not unlike maneuvering a large boat into a small berth.
That day ended with a warm welcome and a full table, courtesy of our generous hosts.
Day 4 – 22 May
We had breakfast at a mom-and-pop place, and our waiter was Larry. He was as friendly as can be – as was pretty much everyone we came across all along the trip – with a Tennessee accent as smooth as Tennessee whiskey, as the song says.
It was the kind of accent that when he called each of us “buddy” – which he did repeatedly – he sounded like we were old friends. (In most places, when a stranger calls you “buddy” it’s usually in a tone that suggests an unspoken “what’re you lookin’ at?” or “keep moving.”)
After breakfast we drove into the National Park again, this time driving the 11-mile loop through Cade’s Cove, a small and primitive mountain community that had been there until TN and NC began purchasing the land for the eventual creation of the national park. By the end of the 1940s the residents had all sold their land or died, thus ending life-leases they had to their homes, leaving behind some scattered churches, cabins, barns and a gristmill.
The Cove road moves partly through forest, and partly along the edges of open meadows. While there were a good amount of cars driving the loop that day, it gets much more crowded in the summer months. A local said that the 11-mile loop takes 5 hours or more to drive then, so I’d suggest going either in the winter or spring.
The traffic stopped ahead of us for awhile when we were maybe 3 miles in, and when we finally moved through, we saw that an adolescent black bear was eating and walking in the long grass maybe 20 yards from the road. In a couple of more miles, we parked at the trailhead entrance to Abram’s Falls, and spent the next 3 hours on a 5-mile hike with around 600 feet of elevation difference to the falls and back.
The path ran alongside another wide creek, and much of it wound between sweet-smelling mountain laurel and several other flowering bushes that we didn’t recognize. The first half of the trek made a slow ascent, but after reaching a ridgeline, the path dropped more steeply down to the falls. By the time we had retraced our steps up to the ridgeline and completed the hike, we were ready for a slow, cooling trip around the rest of the cove, and back to Townsend.
We had supper out that night, and after we returned to the house above town, Bobby and Darryll’s cousin Sharon called it a night pretty early, but Darryll and I stayed up and hung out with Sharon’s husband Gary. We talked books for a while, and he gave me a U.S. Grant biography that I hadn’t seen before.
Then he broke out the spirits.
As a curiosity, we tried a Marsala wine, and it tasted just like you’d expect, if you’ve ever eaten chicken Marsala. We did a taste test of his favorite bourbons – Booker’s and Baker’s – and then had some aged Talisker single-malt Scotch, which was very smooth. I had the feeling that all of these bottles were way more expensive than your humble roving correspondent is used to, so I was hesitant to take very much of any of them.
But like any good bartender, Gary has a heavy pour.
We also had a shot of very good tequila, the name of which I can’t remember. (Possibly because of the bourbon and Scotch that preceded it.) The only thing we tried that I didn’t like was absinthe, which had the same weird, licorice-y taste that I remember from the first (and only) time I tried ouzo at a Greek restaurant.
We hit the sack in a state of contentment after a very good day, with a plan to head back north the next day.
Biden delenda est!