My Travel Memories: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina

From where I sit right now, I think that this post finishes the 1977 and before parts of my travel memories (though I reserve the right to go back to some of these destinations if I find more photo albums that have more destinations in them). If all goes as planned, we will be back around October 28 for my travel memories of 1979, which I actually have both active memories and documentation of. It doesn’t look like we took a vacation in 1978. We moved that summer and I went to Girl Scout camp that year.  What with the move and everything, we might not have had time and energy to travel.


Within the Appalachian Mountains is an area called the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Within the Blue Ridge Mountains  is an area called the Great Smoky Mountains.  And within the Great Smoky Mountains is Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The Great Smoky Mountains get their name from what amounts to clouds that hang around near the mountain.  There is a lot of water vapor already in the air, and as a result, transpiration, the evaporation of water from the leaves, tends to clump together in clouds that drape the mountains in gray fog. I really wish that we had used our cameras more during my childhood.  We stayed in a hotel in the Smokies once and the “smoke” around the mountain across the street the next morning was one of the most beautiful things I can remember from my childhood travels.

The highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains, Clingman’s Dome, is 6,600 feet in elevation.  On Clingman’s Dome is an observation tower that can let the visitor see up to 100 miles.  The top of the tower is accessed by a ramp, but the half-mile path up to the tower is too steep to be used by wheelchair users.  Much of the park is accessible by car, and there is one path that was made especially to be wheelchair accessible.  That path is just south of the Sugarlands Visitor Center on Newfound Gap Road.

Unfortunately, the mountains are smokier than ever, due to smog. As the eastern United States increases in population, and the population of the United States remains car-dependent and the area remains powered by coal-fired power plants, the smog has increased. One statistic I found says that visibility in the mountains has decreased by 60% in the last 60 years (I think that’s a coincidence and not a linear progression.  At least I hope it’s not, otherwise, by 2060 there will be no visibility at all). In recent years, attempts have been made to improve air quality, and it is working, but it is working slowly and so if you have asthma, check the air quality before attempting strenuous climbs, and always keep your inhaler with you.

And smog is not the only threat that the mountains are facing.  The trees at higher elevations are being killed by pests called adelgids.  The park rangers are attempting to save the trees, but the intervention, which includes and includes spraying the trees with soap and using beetles that eat the adelgids, is slow going.   They have had some success in recent years, but over 90% of the Fraser fir have died in recent decades, which is devastating to the ecosystem (and probably doesn’t help with the smog problem).

Well, that was cheerful.  I do have wonderful memories of the Great Smoky Mountains, and that is probably why I worry so much about threats such as these.  Hopefully the forestry people (arborists and whatever else) can find solutions and someday the Great Smoky Mountains will once again resemble the mountains I remember from my childhood.

My Travel Memories: The Biltmore Estate, Asheville, North Carolina

My mom always liked visiting historic houses.  I’ve been to bucketloads of them, from homes owned by former presidents, to homes owned by captains of industry, to homes owned by famous authors.  I remember some, and even liked them, but the only one that I ever really loved, and wanted to go back to again, is Biltmore.

The Vanderbilts were once the richest family in the world. The family fortune began with a ferry across New York Harbor, which Cornelius Vanderbilt purchased for $100.  By the end of his first year in business, he had earned $1,100, which is somewhere in the neighborhood of $18,000 in today’s money. He wasn’t fabulously wealthy.  Yet.  That would come with time. He used the profits from his first ferry to buy more boats and his wealth grew exponentially.  Eventually he moved into shipping in a bigger way, and then into railroads.  Vanderbilt owned the New York Central Railway, the hub of which was Grand Central Terminal, and which later had a spur which is now the High Line park. And his wealth didn’t all come from doing business in an aboveboard way.  Some came from corruption, such as building cartels with other companies that should have been competitors in order to control prices.  He also undercut the competition in price in such a way that his competitors would actually pay him off to keep him out of their territory.

Cornelius’s grandson, George Washington Vanderbilt II, understandably fell in love with the Smoky Mountains and decided to build a summer home in Asheville, North Carolina.  He named his summer home “Biltmore.”  Biltmore was more than a summer home, however.  It was also a working farm and also something of a laboratory in agriculture and forestry.

The centerpiece of the estate was a 250-room mansion which is still the largest private home in the United States.  This is the part that first captured my attention.  The two rooms that I remembered forever and always were the winter garden and the library.  This makes a lot of sense when you consider my personality.  Two of the things I love best are books and plants.

The first time we visited Biltmore, I was very young (I think I was seven) and I was convinced that it was a palace.  We didn’t see much of the house on our first visit (the owners are restoring the house one room at a time and opening them up to the public as they were restored), so I figured that the part of the house where we didn’t get to visit is where the royal family’s quarters.  The winter garden was, of course, the throne room.

The gardens of the house are lovely, as well, with arbors and ponds and a conservatory.  But the outside of the estate is not just gardens.  George built an entire village for his employees.  Many of the house employees lived in the house itself  (some of those rooms are now open to the public), but the employees of the farm and George’s scientific experiments lived in the village.

Unfortunately, George was not much of a businessman.  The story is that he spent most of his inheritance on the estate and failed to recoup his investment.  As a result, in 1930, 16 years after George’s death, George’s daughter Cornelia and her husband opened the estate to the public in order to raise the funds to hold onto the place.  And, except for the duration of World War II, the house has been a tourist attraction.

After Cornelia’s death, her two sons split the estate. Her elder son inherited the farm and village and her younger son inherited the house.  They have split the property into two entities accordingly, though both are accessible upon payment of the entrance fee.

My Travel Memories: Trips to North Carolina

Several times during my childhood, we went to visit my grandfather at his cabin in the mountains of North Carolina.  I found the Smoky Mountains to be breathtakingly beautiful, a feeling that comes over me every time I return (which my son and I did in 2013).  I also don’t know if this is cause and effect or just my own personality, but I also now gravitate towards temperate rain forests.  If I am ever able to retire, I may well end up in the Smoky Mountains for the Pacific Northwest or, if I am truly financially independent and can go anywhere I want, somewhere abroad such as Ireland or Cornwall.

Looking through our old photo albums (I’m now up to 3,511 pictures scanned in, which is about to become 3,512), I so far have only found two places that we stopped on our way from Chicago to North Carolina.

One of these was the Knoxville Zoo.  As fate would have it, my now-ex-husband (maybe I should give him a pseudonym) and I attempted to go to the Knoxville Zoo in 1992, but the zoo looked like it was closed when we were there.  There didn’t even look to be anyone in the ticket booth.  I don’t think I’d ever seen a zoo that was closed before or since.  The San Antonio Zoo is open 365 days a year.  They have to feed the animals anyway, so they might as well take in a few dollars from visitors.  And lots of people do go to the zoo that day.  Upon digging farther, I see that the Knoxville Zoo is not open on Christmas.  Perhaps this is because Knoxville is in the Bible Belt?

I don’t remember the Knoxville Zoo.  We have photos of it and one has a note saying that I was particularly fond of the bears there, so I know that I must have been there, but other than that, I’ve got nothing.  Perhaps if they had looked to be open on our 1992 visit and we’d gone in, I would have been hit by some kind of sense memories.  While researching this part of the post, it looks like they’ve since remodeled, so even if I returned today, I doubt that I’d see anything that I recognize.  As it is, as with the next two items, I hardly have enough to base an entire blog post on.  One can rent wheelchairs at the zoo, and one TripAdvisor review from 2012 says that the zoo is wheelchair accessible, but nowhere that I can find on the official site does it say whether the zoo is wheelchair accessible.

We also stopped in Gatlinburg on our way in or out on every visit.  This is the only way I know for certain the years we went to North Carolina.  My dad and I would always take the ski lift and then purchase the automatic photo of us that is taken on the way up.  I know that at least one time we stayed in a local hotel while we were there.  all I remembered was the name of the motel — the Dogwood Motel — but until I started my photo-scanning project I didn’t know that it had been in Gatlinburg.  And I do mean “had been,” Google Street View doesn’t show anything in that location anymore, not even a newer motel.

As to things we did while we were in North Carolina, we at some point, went to an amusement park called Frontier Land, which was organized around, just as the name implied, a western theme.  The park was in Cherokee, on or near the tribal lands.  From what I can tell, the park was on the site where the Harrah’s Casino is today.  All I remember of Frontier Land was a train ride and a roller coaster called, I believe, the Mad Mouse.

We also spent time in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on every visit and we went to the Biltmore Estate at least once in my childhood (Alex and I also went to the Biltmore Estate in 2013).  I remember enough of those, though, to base an entire blog post on my memories, which will follow in (if things go as scheduled) another six and twelve days.