Kitchen Stories: How to Make Buttermilk Biscuits

One of my favorite things to do is to sneak into the kitchen at the Hemlock Inn and see what the cooks are up to. I love listening to their stories. Wally and Donna just happen to be married and if I’m lucky I’ll catch them singing old country songs while they cook.

Donna started working in spring of 1998 as a kitchen helper to cook Gladys Hensley.  Gladys died last year at the age of 86.  I was so moved when Donna and Wally told me that for the last few years before Gladys died they had picked up Gladys on Sunday mornings to take her to church with them. (Donna also invited me to my first revival if you remember). To make a long story short, when Gladys turned 71, she finally retired from cooking for the Hemlock. Donna liked it so much in the kitchen she stuck around. Yay for all of us.

Recently Donna told Harper (“the intern”) and I that she’d teach us to make biscuits one day. I took notes which you’ll see at the bottom of the post with the recipe.

More importantly though here’s what I learned from Donna this afternoon about how she learned to cook:

I grew up cooking for my family because my mom and dad worked in the cotton mill on the 3rd shift. I’d cook dinner and wake up my parents and they’d eat and then go off to work. We’d make meatloaf, pinto beans, stewed potatoes, and fried chicken. Typical southern cuisine. We were latch key kids but my daddy knew one of the local policeman and he’d stop by to check on us every so often.  You grow up pretty fast when you are cooking and doing laundry for the whole family. Both of my parents were gone by the time I was 18.

I also learned to cook by watching my grandmothers. I remember my country grandma, Minnie J, had country hams hanging in the smokehouse. She’d take the tops of onions and tie the tops with twine and hang them up in the smokehouse too. Those would last a year to 16 months. She’d can almost everything else. I remember my arms being red from skinning beets. Whatever produce we didn’t eat or can, Grandpa would take in the truck to sell. He’d take his wheat to Southern Biscuit Flour Company. It’s still in operation today!  My grandfather still plowed with a big work horse and a walk behind plow. He had a mule named Rosemary, but she wouldn’t plow unless my daddy led it. (Wally pipes in: That’s a Jenny.)

My city grandma was Lillian. She was single and worked in a cotton mill on 2nd shift (4 to midnight). I remember our meals with her were cans of Bunker Hill Stew, shotgun biscuits, and instant mashed potatoes. My city grandma smoked one cigarette a night and we’d fall asleep watching the Johnny Carson show. I learned from both worlds it was like I had two lives. Actually I think I’ve had nine.

My country grandma hated my city grandmother because she had running water and a bathroom. My city grandmother wore pants and bermuda shorts bought from the store and my country grandma had an outhouse, a well and made her own cotton print dresses.  She wear those dresses until they were worn out and then she’d cut them into pieces and make quilts from them. I still remember the pieces on the quilts and which dresses they came from.

(Note: I feel like I left out so many awesome details….I need to get a tape recorder!)

Here is the recipe for the biscuits we made (we didn’t include the butter though). Enjoy!

Recipes from our Front Porch: How to Make Buttermilk Biscuits - Hemlock Inn's Recipe plus Donna's stories!

 

 

And a photo step-by-step.  Donna doesn’t measure anything out:

“Gladys taught me that one big scoop of flour in the sifter makes one pan of biscuits.  That’s how I measure.”

 

How to Make Buttermilk Biscuits - Hemlock Inn's Recipe plus Donna's stories!

 

Love you Donna!

 

 

P.S. The Hemlock cookbook has all the recipes of the food served at the inn.  You can get it here. My favorites are the banana pudding, the carrot custard and the black eyed pea salad.  I’ll share some more recipes soon.

Recipes from our front porch by Hemlock Inn / Lainey Shell White

(Recipes from Our Front Porch on Amazon)

 

 

 

 

You and I Have a Date

At my sister’s house I found these sitting on a shelf: a large box of cards my parents used to set dates with each other when we were growing up.

My parents' old "you and I have a date" cards

The box only has a handful of the cards left…..they went on a lot of dates.  I remember seeing these on my parent’s bathroom vanities. I can still picture each of their handwriting.

Wherever You Go Becomes a Part of You Somehow

(Photos are from my Instagram feed @Lilblueboo)

The profile of Grandfather mountain yesterday morning from where my parent’s house is:

 

We’ve spent the last two days in Linville visiting my mom, my brother and his family at my parents’ house.  Two days ago, as we approached Grandfather Mountain, Boo began weeping in the back seat:

Boo: I wish I had died in the tornado.
Me: What?! Why would you say that?
Boo: Because then I would be in heaven…and I would see Grandpa.
Me: But we would miss you!
Boo: Oh, but you would have died too.

I guess at least she has the whole afterlife thing figured out, but we were pretty taken aback by her sudden response to a place. It reminded me of this:

Wherever you go becomes a part of you somehow. -Anita Desai

Yes sometimes it is hard to believe that my dad is gone.  Everything in Linville reminds us of him. Like the Linn Cove Viaduct…every time he took us over it he’d say some thing like “here’s the Viaduct…the road is just suspended over the mountain.”

The Viaduct on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Linville, NC

 

The first day we were in Linville it was pretty overcast. We drove up to the Mile High Bridge at Grandfather anyways.  A few years ago I took Boo by myself and I refused to walk across.  I look thrilled and enthusiastic this time too:

 

Ok I was pretty proud that all three of us went across. Fun fact: the highest temperature ever recorded on the top of Grandfather was 83 degrees.

 

Standing in the middle of the bridge:

 

As I walked back across the bridge I noticed a family huddled over the side like they were scoping out their surroundings.  Then I noticed a jar one of them was holding: ashes.  When they got back across I asked one of the men whose ashes they had released under the bridge.  He told me it was his brother who had died 3 weeks earlier.  We listened to their story for a while and then my mother walked up and she went right up to one of the women in the group and hugged her.

Me: Did you know them?
Mom: Oh yes, that was Glenda. She’s a hospice nurse where I volunteer.

*****

After Grandfather we drove over to Julian Price Lake to rent a canoe.  It’s only $13 for an hour.  Brett and my brother Swen took turns rowing the kids around the lake. It’s a dreamy place:

 

My mom made us all dinner and afterwards we made a fire. Is there anything better than a crispy marshmallow?

 

While the kids burned sticks in the fire with the rest of the adults, Brett and I went on a walk at dusk. We noticed that it was so quiet we could hear our breathing. We are so used to the katydids in Bryson City that it seemed eerily quiet. No birds, no insects, nothing.  And the cloudy mist comes in. It always looks so perfect that it looks fake to me…like someone brought in a smoke machine:

 

Yesterday morning we hiked to Linville Falls:

 

We persuaded my brother and his wife to come along with us and bring their two kids, and we all pitched in carrying my nephew Carter who is still toddling. Brett carried him the most because he’s part llama:

 

I got a stamp in my journal: [Read more...]

Craving a World of Less Convenience

Before my grandfather died I had a chance to interview him here and there. I would go over to his house and ask him questions about his childhood and growing up….the kind of stuff that no one else would know. I would ask him to sketch little maps of house and land and as he did that the stories would begin spilling out:

That’s where the well was. We lowered our milk and cheese down into it using a bucket to keep it cool.

The barn had a pool table in it. This is the window I once sent a pool ball crashing through.

This is where the wood-fired stove was that your great-grandmother cooked our meals on.

When we drove cross country this summer to our new home we made a detour up to Kansas to where my grandfather’s grandparents had homesteaded in the 1800′s. I had an old map and he had pinpointed the location of the farmhouse he grew up in.

The old farm was right here. We didn’t have any electricity.

When we got to Lindsborgh in early June, we ate lunch and then I showed to my grandfather’s map to a few locals to see if they could decipher where the location of the farmhouse was. Two women stared and chatted and then you could see a lightbulb go off: they knew exactly where it was….and it was still there.

Excited, we jumped in the truck and we drove from the town into the rural country.  We drove down skinny paved roads with wheat fields for as far as the eye could see. Then we turned onto a gravel road.  And then a dirt road.  Then another dirt road.  And finally we found it. I recognized it from the photos I had.

When we arrived at the farmhouse I think what hit us most was the remoteness of it.

What on earth did they do out here?
Where did they buy things?
Who did they talk to?

And the answer was so simple:

They worked all day.
They rarely bought things.
They talked to each other.
They shared with neighbors.
They went to church.
They were pretty darn self sufficient.
This was the American Dream.
And they were happy.

I recently read The Last American Man and it’s was one of those books that I stayed up all night reading because it really hit me how profound it was:

Do people live in circles today? No. They live in boxes. They wake up every morning in a box of their bedrooms because a box next to them started making beeping noises to tell them it was time to get up. They eat their breakfast out of a box and then they throw that box away into another box. Then they leave the box where they live and get into another box with wheels and drive to work, which is just another big box broken into little cubicle boxes where a bunch of people spend their days sitting and staring at the computer boxes in front of them. When the day is over, everyone gets into the box with wheels again and goes home to the house boxes and spends the evening staring at the television boxes for entertainment. They get their music from a box, they get their food from a box, they keep their clothing in a box, they live their lives in a box. Break out of the box! This not the way humanity lived for thousands of years.

Clever, ambitious, and always in search of greater efficiency, we Americans have, in two short centuries, created a world of push button, round the clock comfort for ourselves. The basic needs of humanity – food, clothing, shelter, entertainment, transportation, and even sexual pleasure – no longer need to be personally laboured for or ritualised or even understood. All these things are available to us now for mere cash. Or credit. Which means that nobody needs to know how to do anything any more, except the one narrow skill that will earn enough money to pay for the conveniences and services of modern living.

But in replacing every challenge with a short cut we seem to have lost something and Eustace isn’t the only person feeling that loss. We are an increasingly depressed and anxious people – and not for nothing. Arguably, all these modern conveniences have been adopted to save us time. But time for what? Having created a system that tends to our every need without causing us undue exertion or labour, we can now fill those hours with…?    -The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert

 

More and more I’m craving a world of less convenience. The closest Target is 67 miles away. The closest Walmart is 20 miles away. It’s kind of nice not having so many choices.

I used to dream about the perfect house and perfect clothes. Now I find myself dreaming about fresh air and blackberry bushes. Baby chickens and maple trees. Hanging laundry and a good pair of overalls. And maybe building a cabin one day:

(Foxfire Books, Volume 1) : Hog Dressing, Log Cabin Building, Mountain Crafts and Foods, Planting by the Signs, Snake Lore, Hunting Tales, Faith Healing, Moonshining, and Other Affairs of Plain Living

 

I love the idea of plain living.

How did this happen?

And how do I show others…..

 

How to Make An Oversized Wood Ruler

How to make a DIY oversized wooden ruler as home decor or for a growth chart #diy #tutorial #create2educate #backtoschool

It’s almost time for school to start back.  I’m actually really looking forward to having a schedule again.  We are still working on our small cottage here in the mountains and something I thought would be nice touch was a large rustic ruler.  We can use it as a growth chart for Boo and it also makes a great statement piece for the house.

How fun would this be in a classroom:

Large Wood Ruler Growth Chart Tutorial

 

First I started with a large piece of wood that I picked up from the local hardware store. It was an 8 foot long 2″x10″….and we cut off a foot to make it 7 feet tall.  I used ScotchBlue Painter’s Tape to create my inch marks along the wood.  I tore piece in half so I could get an approximate width for each notch:

Here’s the wood completely taped off:

I masked off all the areas that I didn’t want to paint. Then I took chalkboard spray paint and sprayed a few light coats over my masked off areas. I prefer chalkboard paint because it doesn’t bleed through the wood grain:

ScotchBlue Painter’s Tape project ideas: Oversized Wood Ruler Growth Chart

The best part is removing the tape to see the design left behind:

 

To make my numbers I just printed off some samples in Powerpoint and traced them over white transfer paper to leave behind a template:

How to easily paint letters and numbers onto wood #diy #painting

I carefully hand painted each letter with a small brush and some black acrylic craft paint:

How to easily transfer and paint letters and numbers onto wood #diy #painting

 

To make the ruler more realistic I wanted to add a hole and a metal ring. I was able to find these plastic snap together grommets that look just like metal from Michaels:

The grommets come with a template to cut the hole:

Adding a metal grommet to an oversized wood ruler

My husband used a 2 1/8″ hole saw drill bit to cut straight through the wood:

How to cut a hole into a piece of wood using a drill

2″ is pretty thick so he used a chisel to break out sections in between drills:How to cut a circle or hole into a piece of wood using a drill

I used Golden Fluid Acrylics in Raw Umber to make my own wood stain:

Golden Liquid Acrylics Project Ideas - How to make your own wood stain

To make an easy wood stain I mixed steel wool with white vinegar in a mason jar and let it sit overnight. The vinegar reacts with the steel wool to create a barn wood color.

How to make wood look rustic without all the toxi fumes!

 

I just squeezed drops of the Burnt Umber straight onto the damp wood and brushed it into the wood in different ways to make it seemed aged:

How to paint rustic wood

One the wood was stained and dry I glued on my grommet using E-6000.

How to add a grommet to the large oversized ruler

The finished grommet:

A realistic oversized ruler - How to add a grommet to the large oversized ruler

The finished ruler:

Vintage and Rustic Ruler Project Ideas

Great for an indoor decor piece in a classroom or any room of the house:

Rustic Home Decor Project Ideas

Or for outside decor:

Rustic Chic - A Giant Wood Ruler - Home Decor Project Ideas

 

Also, Michaels is inviting you to create your own back-to-school project and upload a photo to your Instagram using the #Create2Educate and #sweepstakes hashtags before August 15 for a chance to win a $50 Michaels gift card!

One winner will be chosen each day!

If you don’t have an Instagram account you can also submit your photo via www.michaels.com/create2educate, which will be live on August 1.

Michaels will highlight fans’ submissions on social and on Michaels.com throughout the two week entry period.

Have fun! And Happy Back to School!

Disclaimer: I do receive occasional product from Michaels in exchange for crafty ideas. All ideas are my own.

The Letter We Got from Our House Buyer

The letter below has to be one of the most favorite letters I’ve ever received.

A little background: As many of you know we made some huge life changes recently….including selling our dream house. We sold the house furnished meaning we sold the furniture, plates, silverware, pots/pans, vacuum cleaner…everything. Even our pet fish were included in the sale (it was the first time our realtor had ever heard of fish being listed by name in a household inventory).

As soon as we moved we started receiving communication from the new owner…every message expressed appreciation at the condition we left the house for him:

I hope you’re all doing well.  House is great. Fish are fine.

Even though it was a nightmare closing, we tried to maintain a positive view of the situation. We left the house the way we would have wanted someone to leave a house for our family:  We fixed more than was requested in the list of repairs, anything that might be a safety issue. I ordered parts that needed to be replaced, even though they would arrive after the closing. I also left the new owner with the most detailed owners manual imaginable.  It included, among other things:

  • little quirks about the house that took me forever to figure out
  • a map of the surrounding neighbors and contact info
  • pre-paid pest control, landscaper and pool service in hopes that he would continue to use the wonderful people that had for so long taken care of our home (plus short stories/bios about each person to personalize them)
  • the mailman’s name, trash days, etc.
  • paint colors and swatches
  • directions and manuals for every appliance
  • how to take care of the pet fish

I guess I’m a tad OCD.

Anyway, as a family we look forward to the correspondence with the new owner of our old home.  It’s bittersweet (and funny):

 

P.S. I wrote him a letter back…to tell him how impressed I was that he had filled all 47 photo frames on the gallery wall with photos.  And to tell him that the black fish has a name: Smokey. ” and the fish with the mustache is Penelope.”

P.P.S. Everyone wanted to know about the earring.  It was a faux pearl earring of my mother’s.  It’s still in the envelope.  I noticed at my sister’s that my mother had two faux pearl earrings that didn’t quite match so I think I may have completed one of the set.  Now to find the other odd earring. Maybe that will be a follow up letter one day.

 

Let Your Faith Be Bigger Than Your Fear

On my birthday five years ago my mother-in-law gave me a Daily Word on faith.  I found it in a book recently where I’d filed it away:

I believe that with God all things are possible and that God is expressing divine qualities through me.

With this faith-inspired understanding, I live life with a whole new meaning.

God is wisdom that reveals the wonder of the simple and the complex concern gin all aspects of daily living.

God is peace that restores my soul so that I can live fully in each moment – not in the past or the future.

Here in the mountains, where things move at a slower pace, I feel like I am able to pay more attention to that small voice within.  There is more direction, more understanding.  The scale of faith and fear becomes more balanced. The joy of simple being is there.

In church today the pastor talked about how there will always be worry and fear in our lives, but with faith we are empowered.  “We will never be as low for as long. God is all powerful.” I love that.

I live life with a whole new meaning and with gratitude when the scales tip more in the favor of faith..... #quote

 

An amazing day can be measured by:

Fresh cut bales of hay:

Bryson City - Hay Bales
The loud song of katydids and a whip-por-will.

Meeting new friends at the pizza parlor (who happened to recognize us from church…and said “hi”…small towns rock.)

A night of stargazing.

A summer storm.

A simple “can I have a hug?”:

Let Your Faith Be Bigger than your fear

 

I live life with a whole new meaning and with gratitude when the scales tip more in the favor of faith…

 

 

The Ghost Towns of Hazel Creek

Note: This is a story that can’t be told in just one blog post but I did my best. Whenever I’m in the beautiful Great Smoky Mountains National Park I think about the people that used to live there and what their lives might have been like. Most people (including myself until recently) don’t realize that the land wasn’t just always empty and waiting for park designation.  85% of the national forest was owned by timber companies, and 15 % of the national forest was owned by small landholders, like you and me. These were quaint, self-sufficient communities….now ghost towns.

When we first moved to Bryson City in June, I started learning about Fontana lake and how when the Fontana dam was built in the 1940s it displaced many small towns in an area known as Hazel Creek. I’ve written about my fear of deep water before….lakes, ponds….ever since my dad told me when I was little about the “town” under the lake we lived on.  The Fontana story started to become a little bit of an obsession, especially after one night of sitting and listening to one of the cooks at the inn tell me the story of his father and grandfather, how they lost their land. He told me how his grandfather lost his farm, barn and home, receiving only 4 acres in return. Then he had to rebuild from scratch with no assistance. His father lost his land too….he got nothing in return for it.  He was overseas serving his country during WWII and the federal government took his farm using eminent domain. He came home from war to nothing.  Stories like this haunt me.

It wasn’t just a few people, hundreds of families were forced to leave their homes with the construction of Fontana Dam because their communities would eventually be submerged as the valleys filled up with water.  When the water from the Little Tennessee River rose it also covered roads including Highway 288 which cut off access to the Hazel Creek communities. Gravesites below the waterline were moved (although not all of them were actually moved….many Native American gravesites are still there….or if the families couldn’t be reached: graves remained). Gravesites above the waterline were left because the federal government promised the residents who gave up their land for the Fontana Dam that they would soon have a road constructed on the north side of the lake so that they could have access to their family cemeteries. Some families were told by authorities that they’d even be able to return to their land once the road was built so they left sites as if they were coming back…..but most of the remaining buildings were burned leaving only the foundations and fireplaces. You can still see many of these if you hike around the area. A ghost town for sure.

So about that road: despite the promise from the federal government, only about 7 miles of the road that would allow residents to access the old cemeteries and homesites was ever constructed.  The tunnel was the last thing constructed and the road project ended there in the early 1970′s due to lack of funding and environmental concerns.  (I wrote about visiting the tunnel and Road to Nowhere here.) Now it’s just a creepy tunnel that goes nowhere:

Things to do in Bryson City - The Road to Nowhere Tunnel in Smoky Mountains

It wasn’t until the 1970′s that the park service began to ferry families over to Hazel Creek a few times a year to re-mound the graves and decorate them.  These are known as decoration days. After hearing so many stories I desperately wanted to travel over and visit the cemeteries and “lost” communities. I’d been asking questions about it around town and had gotten to know Helene and Barry, the owners of the Filling Station, and one day when we were ordering Helene slipped Brett a post it note with a name on it and said:

Call this number….this is someone that will take you to the grave decoration.

I felt kind of strange calling someone I’d never met and asking if I could tag along to visit their family gravesides with them.  I got a voicemail and left a message: hi, I was wondering if I could tag along when you go to the cemetery next week. The woman that called me back was named Megan.  I was surprised to learn that she was only 24 years old….she seemed wise beyond her years. She said I was welcome to come along with her and her grandmother Aileen (“Nan”). She even offered to pick me up and drive me to the cove where they would catch the ferry.

*****

On the morning of the decoration, I met Megan and her grandmother Aileen for the first time.  They welcomed me right in.  I even began calling Aileen “Nan” and on the thirty minute drive to Cable Cove they both gave me a quick history of the area and answered a gazillion questions I had. Nan’s mother was moved out of a town called Dorsey in 1944. Dorsey is now under the lake. Nan’s grandfather was the postmaster of Dorsey.

We met the ferry at Cable Cove and it took us on a 20 minute ferry ride through a winding route to Hazel Creek, one of the most remote areas of the Great Smoky Mountains:

Hazel Creek - Town of Proctor

The ferry parked and put a ramp onto the shoreline.  We hiked up a steep hill and it opened up into a small clearing where the Proctor cemetery was located.  It probably didn’t look anything like this in the 1940s….the trees have grown up around the cemetery, taking over as nature does:

Proctor Cemetery - Hazel Creek Valley

Every single grave was decorated. A few new headstones were put into place to mark graves that were indistinguishable.  James Calhoun, a genuine douser, was present to help locate them if necessary.

Proctor Cemetery Decoration on the North Shore of Fontana

I walked around and read each and every stone. A few of the stones really got to me….like this one that was hand carved into the shape of a heart.  It reads “our baby” at the top:

Coleman Johnson September 16, 1929

One corner area of the graveyard was primarily infants…most entered and left this world on the same day.  Many dates were 1918-1919 and I asked a man what happened in that year.  He said that it was the Spanish Influenza.

North Shore Cemeteries - Fontana Dam

Many of the grave markers are just stones and others are deteriorating to such a point that the names are unrecognizable.  The North Shore Historical Society has been slowly replacing them.

After the decorating of the graves we walked a half mile down a gravel road to the Calhoun house….one of the only structures that was left standing after the residents were forced to move. It was left intact so that it could serve as a bunkhouse for the park service:

The Calhoun House - Town of Proctor - Horace Kephart

The front porch of the Calhoun House:

Ghost Towns in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Here’s a photo I posted on Instagram of the sink inside the house:

Instagram @lilblueboo

This was a bustling little community in the 1920′s.  The Southern Railway came in, the Ritter Lumber Company built a large mill, and there was a cafe, a doctor, train depot, school and even a movie theater.

[Read more...]

A Reclaimed Sign

We spent the day today finishing up some painting in Boo’s room. It’s taken us forever to finish her room because of the wood paneling.  It will be done soon and I can finish up that room and share some photos.

One day Brett was looking for some old wood in the inn’s barn and we stumbled upon an old rotting sign that was used years ago to direct guests to the inn.  I asked Lainey if I could have it and she said yes so Brett ended up hauling this huge awkward tangled piece of wood back to the house….wondering what I was going to do with it.

I hung it above the fireplace:

Artwork above my fireplace using a reclaimed sign

Years ago it was a 20 foot long arrow reading: TURN HERE ONE MILE.  The only part I could salvage was the “TURN H.” But I do think it’s awesome.  The arrow has a reflective quality so when it’s dark it glows slightly.

Upcycled. Reclaimed. Recycled.

 

 

High and Far Places (like Mount LeConte)

Life is Rich quote by Harold Broome - Great Smoky Mountains National Park - Mt LeConte and Lodge

 

I’ve been reading and re-reading the journals of Harvey Broome  (Out Under the Sky of the Great Smokies). They were written more than 60 years ago….and he has a profound way of describing the awe of the mountains. He writes over and over about Mount Le Conte but it was just another name to me.  A “someday” hike.

But then…a few days ago we had the opportunity to stay at the Le Conte Lodge thanks to a new friend we met at the Hemlock Inn (Hi Joe!!!).  It takes almost a year to get reservations so this was an amazing opening for our family. We didn’t even hesitate to say yes…even though we knew we’d have to hike a steep ascent to the top of Mt. LeConte to get to our destination. (Hike 5.5 miles uphill? No problem, right?)

LeConte Lodge Facts:
It was built around 1926, before the national park was established.
It’s only accessible by foot (i.e. a long steep hike).
A helicopter brings in the bulk of supplies each spring.
Llamas bring up supplies 3 times a week (linens, perishable food, mail!)
No electricity.

(watch this video to see the adorable llamas in action)

 

First, we had to figure out how to get up to the lodge. There are a few different trails that will take you to the top of Mount LeConte and we researched them all. We picked the steepest and most strenuous, but also the shortest: Alum Cave Trail.  It’s one of the most beautiful and scenic trails by far.  I had purchased a Scavenger Hike Adventures (GSMNP) that has scavenger hunts for many trails in the Smokies…the last trail in the book was the Alum Cave Trail…and it’s labeled “EXTREMELY EXTREME.”

The great part about the book was that it got Boo really into the hike right off….and it was as if the book was being written as we hiked….especially when it said to find the huge rock formation called Arch Rock and look for a salamander: we immediately found a salamander.

Arch Rock at Alum Cave and Mt. LeConte - Great Smoky Mountains

The first 1.5 miles of the hike follows the Alum Cave creek….a beautiful flow of water that twists and turns and churns over and around boulders of every size imaginable. At about 4,500 feet is a clearing (or heath bald) called Inspiration Point. There aren’t many trees at this location which makes the views extra breathtaking. The vegetation is a mix of rhododendron, mountain laurel and sand myrtle (nature is an amazing landscape artist).

Inspiration Point at Mt Le Conte - Alum Cave Trail

Alum Cave Bluffs is halfway to the top. Many people hike up to this enormous rock overhang (it’s pretty amazing) as their final destination before turning back. It takes about 4 hours roundtrip to just this point:

Alum Cave Bluffs - Halfway Mt. LeConte - Le Conte Lodge

After a brief stop at the bluff, we continued on to the top of Mt. LeConte. It’s a pretty steep and strenuous climb after the halfway point with steep overlooks but there are plenty of cable handrails:

Climbing to Mt. LeConte and Mount Le Conte Lodge via Alum Cave Trail

We knew there was rain in the forecast but mostly the thick mist just left us damp, but refreshed:

(umm….that kink might be why it was harder than usual to drink water)

Hiking Alum Cave Trail Mt. LeConte

The top of the mountain is where Alum Cave Creek starts.  The mist begins to condense onto the vegetation and then it begins to drip and then a trickle turns into a stream. As it’s filtered through moss and rock it gets funneled into tiny waterfalls across the trail…which eventually compound into the larger streams below. Broome writes about it better than I ever could:

Water trickles from mossy overhangs. Here one finds the moisture and greenness of high mountains, great pillows of moss, flat carpets of oxalis leaves studded with modest blooms, glistening heart-shaped leaves of the rare Grass of Parnassus, the white blooms of thornless blackberries, and the lovely pink of the punctatums springing sparingly into being in these high woods. -H.B. July 1962

How to Get to Mt. Le Conte Lodge

Almost to the top of Le Conte, with the thick cloudy mist, it was eerie. The thousands of dead Fraser fir trees that were infested by a small insect from Europe years ago give a slight Chernobyl-like feel but you feel a quickening in your step… as if you’ve arrived somewhere mystical. (Note: It IS mystical.)

Hiking to Mt LeConte and Mount Le Conte Lodge

We arrived at Le Conte lodge mid afternoon…it appeared out of nowhere….almost as if an elusive monastery.

Staying at Mt Le Conte Lodge on top of Mount LeConte

After checking in we were given a quick tour on where to get cold water for drinking and hot water for the wash basins. There is no electricity at the lodge so daily activities run by the sunrise and sunset.  Our cabin had a kerosene lamp for light and a small propane heater in case the temperature dropped too low. (Note: the temperature dropped to 38 degrees…but we were snug in our comfy beds!)

Mount Mt. LeConte Lodge Cabin

Before dinner we hiked up to Cliff Top. There are no words for it. It was like entering a another world.

There was an encompassing witchery to it, as of high far places. -H.B. 1962

Mt LeConte Cliff Top

 

“There was no sight of man except the cramped trail leading through the north woods and the sand myrtle to the cliffs. There was no sound of man other than our own quiet conversation. What leisured sanity! No entertainment – except soft-voiced exchanges of experience, and this haze dimmed world of mountains. I have never gone to that cliff without exhilaration. I have never left it without regret.

The calm, the immensity, the forest with a million components – healing, covering, vitalizing every foot of the scene below, and before us! I have no fear for life. I fear only for man, who with his works and numbers is shutting himself away from life. -H.B. at Cliff Top in 1962

I took my time as Boo and Brett headed back to camp…lost in my own thoughts.  I still have a bruised arm, hip and leg to show for that…slipping on a huge rock and not thinking fast enough to catch myself. I fell with a huge thud and only the trees heard me utter a pathetic whiny “owwwwwww.”

Then I saw a perfect little toadstool:

Mt LeConte Toadstool

Back at the lodge we ate dinner with the other guests in the dining hall. The food was much better than I expected considering they don’t have electricity. Boo loved the beef stew but declared that the green beans were not the same as the Hemlock Inn’s because they “left out the seasons.”  After some hot chocolate and cookies, and great conversation with new friends, we turned in for bed around 8pm.

Mt LeConte Lodge Cabin 7

I woke up in the middle of the night (or what I thought was the middle of the night….it was actually only 10pm).  As I opened the door to our cabin I took a headlamp with me.  The cloud and fog was so thick I wasn’t able to see more than a foot in any direction. I followed the stone path in the direction of the bathrooms sure that I would run straight into a bear.  I’ve always been scared of the dark but for some reason I wasn’t this time.  There was no light except my own.  There were no sounds except for the rain and my own heavy breathing of the thin air.

No sound at all. I listened and listened. After minutes of this game, surely there would be something. But I heard no stir. Silence, stillness, and peace. – H.B. at Myrtle Point, 1962

We woke up early the next morning to hike to Myrtle Point (about 7/10 of a mile) to see the sunrise. At the top we were standing unsheltered on large rocks that have been there for millions of years.  The wind whipped around us and as I spoke loudly the sound was blown right back into my mouth. There are no words to describe this view except: wow.

The mist dissolved and re-formed. Vague shapes of mounting appeared and vanished. There were stupendous, formless depths around us.  [...] Looking out again, we saw slivers of color forming above the maw of mist. [...] The awesomeness of the universe and the awful loneliness of man smote me. -H.B. at Myrtle Point, 1962

Myrtle Point from top of Mt LeConte in the Smokies #sunrise #mtleconte #myrtlepoint

Sunrise at Myrtle Point on Mt LeConte short hike from Mount Le Conte Lodge

The morning view from the third highest peak in the Smokies:

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Myrtle Point

We emerged into the openness of the cliff and gazed down into an undulant world of blue mountains. This beauty, this mastery of environment, was what we had come for; and when we retreated to the lodge is was with mingled feelings of humility and of self-respect. -H.B.  on Cliff Top in 1961

Then we headed back to the lodge…and ate the best pancakes ever. And biscuits and apple butter. And eggs brought by llama.

And Boo played with new friends.

And then it was time to leave this mysterious, beautiful place.

I have never wanted to leave the top of a mountain. -H.B.

Mt LeConte Blog and Trails

 

After 60 or more trips to Le Conte, I sensed again, as though for the first time, the exhilaration which goes with the thin air a mile and a quarter up and the grand mystery of the wind ripping through a concealing fog on top of the mountain. I have never wanted to leave Mt. Le Conte. There is a pointedness to every experience. The world of business and of tense endeavor is absent. The mountains are dominant. -H.B. June 1960

 

We made it down the mountain in a little over 2 hours.  All three of us exhilirated. I used to wonder why people would give up everything just to be able to spend time in the outdoors…now I get it.  On the top of Mt. Le Conte a few days ago, 6,593 feet above sea level, I felt that adrenaline.  It’s mixed with a kind of homesickness or “mystic stirring” and “a feeling of foreverness” as Harvey Broome would say.

I wish I could bottle up that feeling and share it with people who I know need it.  Like with the woman at the lodge who insisted that her husband had dragged her up the mountain against her will.  As she complained about the hike, the rain, the lodging and everything else I felt a profound sadness about her.  I suggested she walk up the 1/10 of a mile to the top…through a portal to another world…but she wouldn’t.  And there was once a time where I wouldn’t have ventured up either.  But despite what they say: people can change. And then that change compounds. And everything has a point.  And there is no fear of life.

 
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