GATLINBURG, Tenn. - In Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it's easy to get lost in the past. The nation's most-visited national park has nearly 80 historic buildings scattered throughout its 800 square miles, evidence that until the 1930s, children attended school there while their parents coaxed corn from the hardscrabble soil of the southern Appalachian Mountains.
Then the federal government decided to step in and create a park to protect the area, untouched by the last ice age and straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina border.
Today, as the park prepares to celebrate its 75th anniversary June 13-15, wildlife outnumbers people. And visitors, about 9 million to 10 million a year, can hike and enjoy nature. They can also walk into mountain cabins and churches and family cemeteries left behind by those not-so-long-ago residents, many of whom didn't move willingly.
Raymond Caldwell, 85, of Waynesville, N.C., lived in the Cataloochee area, in the southeast section of the park, until age 15. He says the government paid his family $4,000 to leave the 160-acre farm they'd owned for a century. When they moved, he says, "I drove a team of horses with a wagon and farm implements hanging off it. My 8-year-old brother was with me."
Caldwell says he liked living in the mountains, but it wasn't easy. "It was pretty rough terrain. We were just getting by," he says in a phone interview. He remembers grinding corn at a water-powered gristmill. His family, with eight children, grew corn and raised cattle for beef.
Visiting Caldwell House, his family's homestead, I touched torn Sears, Roebuck & Co. Catalogue pages that still paper an upstairs bedroom. The house is frame, and a five-panel front door and wood paneling elsewhere hint that this once was a fine place.
Caldwell says his father was bitter about leaving, but some families were poor and needed the money. Even before the Great Depression, they struggled. After it hit, some were destitute. Many had worked for logging companies that owned large tracts of land, but had ravaged it, polluting streams and driving elk and other animals from their habitats.
The Depression helped give birth to the park. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps provided jobs for thousands of young men, who planted trees, cleared brush for trails, and built the park headquarters, the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, and log bridges that span streams.
In two weeks, the park - the heart of the area that the nearby Cherokee Indians called Shakaney, or "Land of Blue Smoke," for the mist that shrouds its peaks and floats over its valleys - will mark its anniversary with programs, exhibits, and musical performances. On Sept. 2, a rededication is planned at the CCC monument at Newfound Gap, 5,046 feet above sea level, where FDR dedicated it. Ground will be broken for a cultural museum to complement the natural-history one.
Entertainer Dolly Parton, the official anniversary ambassador, will be there. She has the Smokies in her bones, she says.
There's a reason: She may live in Nashville and maintain homes in Los Angeles and New York, but she grew up poor in a hollow near Locust Ridge, about seven miles from the park, in Sevierville, Tenn., where a bronze Dolly statue graces the courthouse lawn.
"I bought the old homestead [in 1987] as a retreat, for family reunions . . . a place away from prying eyes," she says by phone. "It is hard times. A lot of my relatives are having hard times. I think people are more frightened" about the economy.
Dollywood, her Smokies-theme amusement park in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., employs 2,500 people in peak season.
When Parton is in Locust Ridge, she relaxes and cooks: "I'm famous for my chicken and dumplings." She says she prefers Cracker Barrel cuisine and the home cooking you find at Dollywood. The recipe for Granny Ogle's Ham 'n' Beans, served there with corn bread, comes from her friend Judy Ogle's family. (Ogle roots are everywhere in the Smokies: I found handmade Ogle brooms and stayed in an Ogle-owned hotel.)
Parton says she visits the national park several times a year to rejuvenate. "My husband, Carl, and I love to travel in our RV. . . . We just drive through, find a spot to picnic. . . . I just love the water, the streams, just to sit on a rock." There doesn't have to be a reason to go, she says.
I'd seen the Smokies in October, when 130 species of trees created a riot of color. In springtime, flowers are blooming. During the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage, held annually at the end of April, there might be dogwood below 3,000 feet and painted trillium at 6,600 feet.
You don't have to take a pilgrimage to see flowers; a flora guide ($1 at Sugarlands Visitor Center) works fine for nonexperts.
In February's last days, greenery was abundant at lower elevations, and I counted only 17 people along the Rainbow Falls trail. At Newfound Gap, I stood alone where FDR did, remembering that pennies from schoolchildren - and the Rockefeller family's $5 million - helped buy about 6,000 tracts of land to create the park.
Places left behind by former residents are best seen without crowds. The abandoned buildings of Cades Cove are on an 11-mile loop on the park's west side. Stick your fingers into the mud-mortar chimney on John Oliver's cabin, built in 1820. The log walls do not have any nails. The mud chinking between the logs is there to keep out the cold. My guidebook showed photos of boys getting baptized in a stream near one of three churches for the 125 families who lived here.
But that was long ago. The road dips and narrows, and, past Dan Lawson's place, built in 1856, it is deeply rutted. I hoped our car wouldn't get a flat. At dusk, our only company was white-tailed deer and coyotes.
Come sundown, don't even try to see Cataloochee, the abandoned community where Raymond Caldwell lived as a boy. The best way in (and out) is by a 10-mile mountain-hugging road with 180-degree curves. My husband honked the horn so much, to warn other vehicles, that we woke up the elk herd that "guards" Cataloochee.
A bull with 4-foot-wide antlers stood and scared the heck out of me when I wandered up the porch at Palmer House. I remembered reading that males "sometimes perceive people as challengers and may charge." My husband was calculating the distance to the car, but the elk apparently decided we were harmless.
In an exhibit at Palmer House, a photo shows a man on the porch having his teeth pulled. In a room with a fireplace, four layers of fancy wallpaper hang in shreds. In Palmer Chapel nearby, a tattered Bible rests on a pulpit. Atop a hill is a cemetery; I thought about the sweating brows of those who carried coffins uphill.
In Beech Grove School, we sat at desks of children who are now in their 80s and looked at graffiti and the remnants of an incomprehensible equation on a scarred chalkboard. It was so quiet, I could hear an elk bellowing outside and a stream flowing.
I understood why Caldwell said that, although he left the park, it never left him.
"I try to go every chance I get," he says. "I just feel good when I go."
Inside the Park
Two of 10 park campgrounds are open all year; none has showers. Four take reservations for May 15-Oct. 31; others are first come, first served. Fees are $14-$23 per night. Call 877-444-6777; www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit.
LeConte Lodge (865-429-5704, www.lecontelodge.com), at 6,360 feet, is reached only on foot; the shortest route is 51/2 miles. Seven kerosene-lit rustic cabins and three group sleeping lodges, none with showers, can accommodate 60. In cabins, daily rate is $75 per adult, plus $35 per adult for breakfast and dinner. Open till Nov. 24.
Outside the Park
North of the park, lodging is plentiful in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg; find rooms in the south in Cherokee and Maggie Valley.
Rodeway Inn Skyland (223 E. Parkway, Gatlinburg; 800-255-8738, www.rodewayinngatlinburg.com) has priceless mountain views and doubles from $35.99 to $109.99 a night.
At Sidney James Mountain Lodge (610 Historic Nature Trail, Gatlinburg, 800-362-9394, www.sidneyjames.com), doubles are $49-$104.
In the park, Cades Cove has a snack bar with breakfast and sandwiches.
In Gatlinburg, locals go to Mountain Lodge Restaurant (913 E. Parkway, 865-436-2547) for sourdough French toast and huge cinnamon rolls. Upscale options include the Park Grill steakhouse (1110 Parkway, 865-436-2300, www.peddlerparkgrill.com), constructed of massive spruce trees.
In Cherokee, Peter's Pancakes and Waffles (1384 Tsali Blvd., 828-497-5116) serves belly-busting breakfasts.
Things to Do
Inside the Park
Three visitor centers (Sugarlands, Oconaluftee and Cades Cove) are open daily except Christmas Day. More information: 865-436-1200, or www.nps.gov/grsm. See greatsmokies75th.org for June 13-15 anniversary weekend events and exhibits.
Outside the Park
South in Cherokee: Museum of the Cherokee Indian (589 Tsali Blvd., 828-497-3481, www.cherokeemuseum.org) offers a tour through 11,000 years of history; open daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m. $9.