I blog about my outdoor life, mostly in the Southern Appalachians and the Mountains-to-Sea Trail across North Carolina and our national parks.
I’m writing a book on visiting all the national parks in the Southeast – the battlefields, monuments, historic sites as well as the traditional national parks. My book, titled Forests, Alligators, Battlefields, will come out next year, 2016, the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.
I’m involved in outdoor and conservation issues. I hope these blog notes will inspire you to go and explore the outdoors, wherever you are.
At Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park, outside of Hodgenville, Kentucky, you get the conventional view of our sixteenth president. It’s the story of the American dream, the ability to rise from simple beginnings to one’s highest potential. Eloquence and common sense marked Lincoln’s speeches. Most stirring was the 266-word Gettysburg address, 11/19/1863, at dedication of Gettysburg National Cemetery.
But you also get an unconventional look at Lincoln in an enlightened visitor center film. Abe Lincoln’s father, Thomas, a successful carpenter, was able to buy Sinking Spring farm for $200 cash in 1808. Abe Lincoln was born in a middle class family, perhaps upper middle, in a frontier town. Abe’s grandfather was the true pioneer, having come through Cumberland Gap, maybe with Daniel Boone, himself.
Abe was born in a log cabin on February 12, 1809, a year after the family settled on the Kentucky farm but he only spent two years here. The family was forced off the farm because of a land deed dispute. They moved to what is now preserved as his “boyhood home” at Knob Creek ten miles away. Unfortunately, that site is closed to the public for construction right now.
The highlight of the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace is the Lincoln Memorial. Before the Lincoln Memorial in Washington opened in 1922, a Lincoln Memorial here was dedicated in 1911. The memorial has fifty-six steps symbolizing the fifty-six years of Lincoln’s life. The steps lead to a building with columns inspired by the Parthenon. The Lincoln Farm Association, composed of prominent men including Samuel Clemens, bought the site in 1905 and built the Lincoln Memorial. President Theodore Roosevelt laid the cornerstone on the hundredth anniversary of Lincoln’s birth. In 1916, the site became a National Park, overseen by the War Department until 1933.
A one-room cabin sits in the building. For a long time, it was thought it was the actual Lincoln cabin. After a great deal of research and testing, the National Park Service concluded that the logs were of a much later time. Still the log cabin remains on the site as a “symbolic cabin.” At least, it resides on the top of a hill at the same spot as the original. The Sinking Spring is below, now fenced off so that visitors don’t drink the same water that Lincoln had.
In 1816, the family was part of another land dispute and had to leave Knob Creek. That was the last straw and the family headed for Indiana.
Mammoth Cave is the oldest tourist attraction in North America. The first tourists came here in 1816, before Hot Springs, Arkansas and probably before Niagara Falls, attracted by the mystery and grandeur of the seemingly endless underground passages. In the Visitor Center, an LED displays says “400 miles of passageways in the cave, as of 2013.” Cavers, scientists, and adventurers keep discovering more. It’s a shallow cave with many mysteries.
“There’s no end in sight. Mapping and explorations is never ending,” says an explorer in the visitor center film.
I’m on the Star Chamber tour, an evening tour to see the cave as nineteenth century visitors might have experienced it. We carry lanterns instead of having the usual electric lights turned on. Ranger Shannon Hurley, a local, is our guide. He preps us with all the usual no-nos before we go into the cave – no smoking, eating, touching rocks. But there’s a new one.
“If you hit your head on a low rock, watch your language. We don’t want to improve children’s vocabulary in a negative manner.” That’s followed by warnings of how difficult this tour is, “260 stairs with an elevation change of 160 feet. If you have heart or lung trouble, knee or back problems … It’s very difficult to rescue someone in a cave.” But no one backs out of the tour.
We walk down the Historic Entrance, a natural entrance, where prehistoric people first went into the cave 4,000 years ago. Skeletons were found in the cave, one man crushed by a rock. The first explorers may have gone in for gypsum, mostly used for dry walling, now. “The old Hostess Twinkies had gypsum as well,” Ranger Hurley says. “It was supposed to make the cupcakes light and fluffy.” Then the prehistoric people left, for unknown reasons.
At the turn of the 19th Century, John Houchins went out hunting. At the top of the ravine, he saw a black bear and took a shot but missed. “He was obviously not a native Kentuckian,” Ranger Shannon Hurley says. But Houchins chased it until he found himself at the cave entrance. We don’t know if Houchins got his bear but he gets credit for rediscovering the cave. Unfortunately, the bears are all gone from the park.
Mammoth Cave became an interesting place when nitre, an ingredient in saltpeter, was discovered in the cave. Saltpeter with charcoal and sulfur became gunpowder. The unpleasantness with Britain, as the park brochure calls the War of 1812, was brewing and the United States could no longer import foreign gunpowder. Cave owners found saltpeter production very profitable. The large wooden vats and wooden pipes used to bring in water to leach the soil to get at the saltpeter can still be seen in the cave. Because Mammoth Cave is a dry cave, so many artifacts that would have decayed with water are still here.
When the War of 1812 was over, demand for saltpeter petered out. Someone had the bright idea that tourists might be interested in touring the cave. Stephen Bishop, a slave in the 1830s, became a guide and the first explorer of the cave trail system. He crossed the Bottomless Pit by throwing a ladder across the chasm and crawling across. On another tour, I cross the pit on a good bridge with a handrail.
The cave kept changing owners, bringing new ideas of how to capitalize on this wonder. One of the owners, Dr. John Croghan, thought that the constant 54-degree temperature would cure tuberculosis. In 1842, he brought more than a dozen patients underground to live in wooden and stone huts. Servants cooked meals and took care of the patients needs. Cave air was supposed to cure them. While the patients lived in the cave huts, visitors kept coming to the caves, going right past the patients, which they described as walking skeletons. But the cave air didn’t work too well and all his patients died. Three are buried in the old Guide’s cemetery behind the Mammoth Cave hotel. Croghan himself died of TB soon after. The stone huts are still here for modern visitors to see.
On each tour, you get wonderful stories of what happened in the caves. The rangers are entertaining as well as factual and each has his or her own spiel. The tours are run by park rangers, not by volunteers. With so many tours day in, day out, I find that amazing and refreshing. The easy tours can have up to 120 people but they’re orderly and you don’t miss a thing, if you’re paying attention. These rangers know how to work a crowd. At some point, on each tour that I’ve been on, the ranger turns out the lights and asks for quiet. Even young children stop chattering. The silence and utter darkness would drive anyone crazy after a short while.
I’ve stayed here two full days on two occasions. But by concentrating on the cave, I’ve only walked a few miles of the eighty trail miles above ground. According to Ranger Hurley, “Mammoth Caves is mostly a daytrip. People come through from the Midwest and stop for a tour on their way to Florida.”
That’s why there are no large gateway towns, like Gatlinburg outside the Smokies. Also with I-65 so close, people get off the interstate and get back on after a tour, even though there’s lodging next to the visitor center. I stayed at the Mammoth Cave Hotel, run by a concessionaire. It feels like a 1950s hotel, with a tiny bedroom and even smaller bathroom. You can’t beat the location and it’s a shame that it will be torn down soon.
By the 1920s, there was a clamor to protect the caves and the land above it. In 1926, Congress authorized Mammoth Caves as a national park, along with Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Shenandoah in Virginia. The Kentucky National Park Commission was established to start buying land from individuals. The park opened in 1941.
The temperature was down to almost freezing when I started out this morning to head for Fort Donaldson National Battlefield in middle Tennessee. I hadn’t put my car scraper away, and it was a good thing too since my windows needed a good working over.
Early in the war, the Confederates built Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland outside of Dover to prevent a Union invasion of Tennessee. Ford Donelson, named after Confederate general and politician Daniel S. Donelson, was a fortress built by the Confederacy to control the Cumberland River leading to the heart of Tennessee. The capture of Fort Donelson was the first significant victory for the Union. It not only opened up the heartland of the Confederacy to Federal forces but it propelled Ulysses S. Grant to hero status. Brigadier General Simon B. Buckner, who was left to negotiate a surrender with Grant, didn’t do too badly either, as he became Governor of Kentucky after the Civil War.
The visitor center film features more than just the battles. Buckner and Grant were friends at West Point and Buckner even lent Grant some money. In 1885, Buckner visited Grant on his deathbed, as an act of reconciliation.
I always wonder about the small things I learn at a visitor center. A display says that war was 99% boredom and one percent terror. What did soldiers do to entertain themselves when they weren’t fighting or attending to personal chores? They wrote letters, played cards, gambled, whittled, and participated in cock fighting. Cock fighting? “Where did they get the roosters?” I ask the ranger on duty. “Well, it’s illegal, now,” she says “but probably from local farms.”
In some national parks, I feel like I’m the only person here and that they’ve opened up the place just for me. But I’m never alone in a Civil War site. Today, in addition to a couple of Civil War enthusiasts, two busloads of High School ROTC students from Dixon County, an hour away, swarm the visitor center.
I start the drive through the battlefield. I forgot to ask how long the tour is and if it’s reasonable to walk it. The United Daughters of the Confederacy erected a Confederate monument in 1933 to remember the Confederate soldiers who fought and died here. Though there’s a national cemetery at Fort Donelson, Confederate soldiers couldn’t be buried here because they had fought against the United States. The monument is a tall spire, with a soldier holding a rifle. A stone confederate flag flies above him. An inscription reads, “There is no holier spot of ground than where defeated valor lies”
I expected to see a brick and mortar fort like the old Spanish forts in Florida but this fort was built of earthworks. I must have read right over the word, earthworks. Soldiers and slaves built the fort with walls made of logs and earth that could be put up a lot faster than more substantial forts. But today, the earthworks look so inconsequential. I catch up with the school buses here, as Ranger D.J. Richardson explains that this was the first major winter confrontation, February 12 through 16, 1862, with the big battle on Valentine’s Day.
But I still can’t picture the protection of an earthworks fort.
“Do the earthworks make a closed loop?” I ask the ranger.
“Yes. It’s a challenge to preserve earthworks. In addition, the Army planted oak trees in the 1920s and the trees are coming to the end of their lives.” Some have toppled over. At the time, the earthworks would have been much higher but they’ve sunk over the years.
Bald eagles have nested in the middle of the battlefield. An eagle flying above us interrupts Richardson’s talk about cannons on the riverbanks. The girls in the group, who looked so bored, perk up “Did you name the birds?”
“No,” Ranger Richardson says. “But I understand that at Shiloh, they’ve named a pair Hiram and Julia.” Hiram was Ulysses S Grant’s original first name but it got changed when he entered the army. Julia was Grant’s wife. The ranger confesses to be fascinated by Grant.
Several highschoolers are just wearing a T-shirt and must be freezing, standing still while the ranger speaks. Today, it’s cold and rainy, the same weather that soldiers had in Feb. 12-16, 1862 while soldiers camped here. But I’m not camping. When I get back to the visitor center, I take the Donelson Trail and get caught in a sleet downpour.
Some claim that the rebel yell, a battle cry used to intimidate the enemy, originated here, when a Confederate cannon hit a gunboat. But the feeling of success was short lived. The Confederates were so busy strengthening their position that they didn’t notice that Grant’s army to march and encircle the fort’s earthworks. After more fighting and confusion on the part of Confederate commanders, the Union surrounded the fort.
I drive to the Dover Hotel, built between 1851 and 1853, in downtown Dover. It stands on the banks of the Cumberland River, an attractive stop during the heydays of riverboat travel.
During the battle, the hotel became General Buckner’s headquarters, where he met Grant to discuss surrender terms on February 16, 1862. Dover Hotel reopened after the war and stayed in business until the 1930s.
Although this was one of the first battles of the Civil War, this is my last Civil War park in the Southeast:
Shiloh, Stones River, Vicksburg, Chickamauga and Chattanooga, Kennesaw Mountain, Brices Cross Roads and Tupelo.
“I’ve been everywhere, man, I’ve been everywhere.”
Every national park unit that I visited has some unique characteristic. It seems that Obed is the only wild and scenic river in the Southeast, managed by the National Park Service.
Little River Canyon, though scenic, certainly wasn’t wild. We walked to the dam and saw houses above the river. I know that if you look at a picture, both rivers look like they’re at the bottom of a canyon, but it’s the surroundings that count. Chattahoochee outside of Atlanta has really been used, and not just by paddlers.
But the Obed and its tributaries are pristine.The flow of the river carved amazing gorges for thousands of years. Only portions of the four streams that make up the Obed unit are in the Wild and Scenic program.
The National Wild and Scenic Rivers System was created by Congress in 1968 to preserve certain rivers with outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational values in a free-flowing condition for the enjoyment of present and future generations. Note that I said, managed by the National Park Service. Rivers like the Chatooga are wild and scenic but managed by other agencies. If you make the category small enough, everything is the “only” and “first”.
My first stop is the visitor center in the town of Wartburg, northeast of Oak Ridge. Because the river is so spread out and there are few access to the streams, they probably decided to make the visitor center more accessible. I wonder how many people stop at the visitor center and then drive several miles to the river itself.
The narrator in the film says, God made three beautiful places: Garden of Eden, Obed and then never came back to name the third place. The video stresses the climbing, paddling and fishing opportunities here. In a climbing scene, a woman slips, gets caught by her rope and recovers nicely. I gasped, but not as loud as when I saw a girl, maybe six years old, walking on the river rocks, barefoot. What was the park service thinking, showing a visitor walking barefoot on slippery rocks?
The Obed River and its two main tributaries, Clear Creek and Daddys Creek, cut into the Cumberland Plateau of East Tennessee, providing some of the most rugged scenery in the Southeast. Paddlers come from all over the world to run this river. Maybe this is what Daniel Boone saw, when he walked west. At the overlook, if you look up and out, you’ll see no sign of civilization.
I drive down to Lily Bridge across Clear Creek. Like a true New Yorker, I stop at the first parking area I see and grab my pack. A steep trail takes me to the Overlook. When I walk around past the Overlook, I realize that I could have driven a little further and walk a flat trail to the view. But I would have missed the layered boulders, that looked like a uneven multi-tiered cake. Climbers have left metal chains with hanging loops on the end.
I’m getting close to the end of my visits to national park units in the Southeast.
I only have a handful left to see. Like the country music song says, “you’re going to miss this.”
I’ll miss discovering new parks. I’ll miss driving backroads, with its small churches, farms and meeting people. I won’t miss driving hours on the interstate at 70 MPH, sandwiched between trucks on either side of me, especially when it’s raining.
You’re gonna miss this / You’re gonna want this back / You’re gonna wish these days hadn’t gone by so fast
My granddaughter and I have been going all over the country with Family Nature Summits since 2010 and this year, they’re coming to the Smokies.
Yes, I love to hike but it’s also about building and nurturing my outdoor community. Many people would never get out on the trail, unless they came with a group. It’s
* The new person in town,
* The one that can no longer drive,
* The person who fell on the trail, recovered, and came back stronger than ever and climbed that hill,
* The hiker who says I am going to take my grandchildren here,
* My visitors from the city,
* The one who has no one to hike with . Hiking alone in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is very safe but not as fun as being with others.
* Family Nature Summits may be a misnomer. Many singles spend a week with FNS because it’s an inexpensive, simple way of seeing the country.
Hikers share their knowledge of other outdoor sports like fishing or cycling. Some tell stories of their ancestors who lived in the area. I am amazed at the folks that will drive from Charlotte or North Georgia for a day in Western North Carolina.
One New Zealander joined Friends of the Smokies to come on a guided hike in Cataloochee. For $35, which is the cost of membership for a year, she got an all-day outdoor experience with a bunch of Americans and lots of stories to tell when she gets home.
Everyone should go outside and play because it keeps you young and active. You connect with nature but you also tell the world that protecting land is important. For many newcomers, walking into Cataloochee is a great adventure.
One FOTS member in my car didn’t know what to expect when he rode in my car as we drove up Cove Creek Rd. He kept asking me “if I knew where I was going.” And when we rode back down at the end of the day, he was holding on for dear life. Another man didn’t really understand that people lived on the land until we went to a cemetery.
So, you don’t need friends or a spouse to hike with. You need to join an organization which will always run the hike and not be subject to the vagaries of an individual.