Like many of my generation, I loved Fleetwood Mac. I had always wanted to see them perform live and, finally, had the chance just a couple years ago. So, my wife, Diana, and I gathered with about 23,000 of our closest friends at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville for the Farewell Tour. Stevie Nicks came to the microphone and told the story of flying into Knoxville and noticing that the mountains appeared to be covered in smoke. Once in the limo she asked the driver why the mountains were on fire. He laughed and explained that they are called the Great Smoky Mountains – they always looked that way! Stevie is adorable, if not well-informed, and the story got a huge appreciative laugh from the Tennessee crowd.
Because mountains are important, especially if they smoke.
And then she sang about the mountains in her life:
“I took my love and I took it down
Climbed a mountain then I turned around
And I saw my reflection in the snow covered hills
Well the landslide brought me down” (Stevie Nicks, 1972)
I got my start on the central coast of California where there aren’t many mountains, and the ones that are there seem to be crashing into the Pacific. I didn’t stay there long, though, and ended up in Central Kentucky, in a little place called Elizabethtown, my Mom’s hometown. Sitting smack in the middle of the Cumberland Plateau, there are no mountains, barely any hills, so a mountain vista is hard to come by. After that I spent half my childhood in Germany, courtesy of the US Army.
Let me tell you, in Germany they know mountains!
We lived in Heidelberg, where a beautiful castle lodged in the side of the mountain is the focal point. But that was just the jumping off point, as we were always on the go. Europe is small, compared to here, and a quick trip in any direction would land us someplace exotic. I saw the Austrian Alps, enjoyed the alpine area of Switzerland, admired the mountains rising out of Lake Como in Italy, all from my vantage point in the back of our Plymouth Belvedere III station wagon. We got to visit Hitler’s lair in Berchtesgaden and paddleboat in Lake Cheimsee, nestled in the Bavarian Alps. Mountains defined countries and are a natural defense, and wherever you saw a mountain, you saw castles. Because you always build your stronghold on high ground.
Once back stateside we ended up in Northern Virginia, where I spent my teen and young adult years. Just a short drive west and we had the Shenandoah Valley, with its undulating chain of mountains and famous Skyline Drive. But get off the drive, put a pack on your back, and start heading up hill if you really want to enjoy the beauty – and challenges – of a mountain. The hike was always rewarded with a sense of accomplishment, and a wondrous view. A favorite destination was Big Schloss (actually in West Virginia), named for a rock outcropping that we, as young irreverent men, called something else. Because it stuck out proudly over the valley. Ahem.
I like this description of that area:
“Almost heaven, West Virginia
Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River
Life is old there, older than the trees
Younger than the mountains, growin’ like a breeze.” (John Denver, 1971)
Our great country is filled with mountains. I remember seeing the Rocky Mountains for the first time as a friend and I drove cross-country back-in-the-day. We camped in the Sangre de Christo range, where the night is dark and cool, and the stars explode above the mountain peaks. Later, I took a trip out west with my then-young family to revisit South Dakota, a place I had spent a year of my childhood. We headed to Mount Rushmore (of course, and so should you). As we came out of a tunnel my then-three-year-old cried out that there were “mens in the mountain” – and there were, too. Four of them, to be exact, carved out by a man bold enough to carve a mountain, Gutzon Borglum. Not far from there we stared up at the decades-long project of carving Crazy Horse out of another mountain. Later, on a trip up north, I drove through West Virginia, where the mountains are steep and the valleys narrow, and up into New York, which reminds me a bit of Germany, or even here in Tennessee.
But I have also lived in places with no mountains, like South Carolina, and always missed them. Mountains are majestic, powerful, a reminder of our Earth’s violent beginnings. I need mountains, and what they represent, and moving to Tennessee 25 years ago brought all that back together for me.
Because Tennessee knows mountains, too!
What Stevie also did not know about the Smoky Mountains is that 12.5 million people take the time and trouble to visit that area every year. If you have been to Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge, I’m sure you felt they were all there at the same time, especially as you waited for breakfast at the Little House of Pancakes or other breakfast-provider. But we tended to get our Smoky on by renting cabins nestled in the mountains, always with a view, always with a hot tub, always with some privacy. The mountains are magical, especially at night, especially in that aforementioned hot tub, as the sun sets and casts the whole of it in glorious shades of red and orange and yellow. Throw in an adult beverage and you might get lucky. Ahem, again.
But you really don’t have to go away to enjoy the mountains in East Tennessee. They are all around us, as the southern-most extension of the Appalachians. The mountains define this place, with highways and cities following the base of the mountains to the west and the Tennessee River to the east. Indeed, Soddy-Daisy stretches 9 miles in a thin line because it has little choice. And up and over this mountain in front of my window you will find the Sequatchie Valley. I flew over it in a small plane a few years back, and it is breathtaking, as the Cumberland Plateau ends at the rift valley. Now, scientists argue if this is a true “rift” valley, but if you fly over at low altitude the floor seems to drop out and you can appreciate the earth splitting – rifting – rather than eroding. And if you live over there, you reap the benefit of the resulting two mountains making a very real valley.
It is easy for outsiders to laugh about hillbillies and folks that live in hollers, barefoot with banjos playing and moonshine distilling (why is that so bad, anyway?), but what they do not understand is that mountains attract money. Most things that are beautiful do. A brow lot here will cost as much as a good lake lot, and if you drive up it is easy to see why. Sitting up high seems to convey some of that mountain power, as if sitting on a throne with a view for miles. And it must be true, as I have been told that Signal Mountain runs Chattanooga, but Lookout Mountain owns it. People aspire to live on both, and pay a pretty penny to do so, so there may be truth to that. Regardless, mountains inspire passion, as noted in this famous song (you can sing along if you’d like):
“Once two strangers climbed ol’ Rocky Top
Lookin’ for a moonshine still
Strangers ain’t come down from Rocky Top
Reckon they never will
Corn won’t grow at all on Rocky Top
Dirt’s too rocky by far
That’s why all the folks on Rocky Top
Get their corn from a jar.” (1967, Osbourne Brothers, written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant)
Me, I prefer to be a flatland hillbilly (hold the banjo, never shoes at home, and red wine as my beverage of choice), down here where I can enjoy the view above me.
Tying all my travels together, it is rumored that one of the reasons Volkswagen chose Chattanooga was of its uncanny resemblance to the homeland of Germany. Now, I can’t verify that but, having lived in both places, I get it. And remember, German cars are designed for negotiating the mountain switchbacks with their excellent steering and powerful brakes.
My mother came to live with us a couple years ago, and we converted the back part of our house into an apartment for her. It was complete with a private entrance and a deck that wrapped around to the front, covered porch. She would routinely sit in a rocking chair, enjoying her view of Montlake Mountain. Or is it the back side of Walden’s Ridge? Or maybe Mowbray Mountain? It did not matter much to Mom what you called the mountains, as she rocked for hours enjoying her view. She was born and raised in the very flat Elizabethtown, Kentucky that I mentioned earlier. And she was with me for my most of my own mountain travels in Europe and Virginia. But even though she loved her home in E-town, she loved the majesty of mountains, too. Her final days were spent in her room-with-a-view, where she sang of her mansion over the hilltop.
So, I am glad that I had the good sense to come ‘home’ to Tennessee, 25 years ago this month. I cannot imagine living anywhere else. And whether I am enjoying my front-porch vista or floating in the pool out back, looking up at the brow-dwellers – the mountains loom, always present, always majestic, always beautiful.
Lots of singing about mountains, but I think Dolly sang it best:
“In my Tennessee mountain home
Life is as peaceful as a baby’s sigh
In my Tennessee mountain home
Crickets sing in the fields near by” (1972, Dolly Parton)
I love my adopted Tennessee mountain home.