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For a long time my chief interest was not in human neighbors, but in the mountains themselves — in that mysterious beckoning hinterland which rose right back of my chimney and spread upward, outward, almost to three cardinal points of the compass, mile after mile, hour after hour of lusty climbing — an Eden still unpeopled and unspoiled.

I loved of a morning to slip on my haversack, pick up my rifle, or maybe a mere staff, and stride forth alone over haphazard routes, to enjoy in my own untutored way the infinite variety of form and color and shade, of plant and tree and animal life, in that superb wilderness that towered there far above all homes of men. (And I love it still, albeit the charm of new discovery is gone from those heights and gulfs that are now so intimate and full of memories).

The Carolina mountains have a character all their own. Rising abruptly from a low base, and then rounding more gradually upward for 2,000 to 5,000 feet above their valleys, their apparent height is more impressive than that of many a loftier summit in the West which forms only a protuberance on an elevated plateau. Nearly all of them are clad to their tops in dense forest and thick undergrowth. Here and there is a grassy “bald”: a natural meadow curiously perched on the very top of a mountain. There are no bare, rocky summits rising above timber-line, few jutting crags, no ribs and vertebræ of the earth exposed. Seldom does one see even a naked ledge of rock. The very cliffs are sheathed with trees and shrubs, so that one treading their edges has no fear of falling into an abyss.

Pinnacles or serrated ridges are rare. There are few commanding peaks. From almost any summit in Carolina one looks out upon a sea of flowing curves and dome-shaped eminences undulating, with no great disparity of height, unto the horizon. Almost everywhere the contours are similar: steep sides gradually rounding to the tops, smooth-surfaced to the eye because of the endless verdure. Every ridge is separated from its sisters by deep and narrow ravines. Not one of the thousand water courses shows a glint of its dashing stream, save where some far-off river may reveal, through a gap in the mountain, one single shimmering curve. In all this vast prospect, a keen eye, knowing where to look, may detect an occasional farmer’s clearing, but to the stranger there is only mountain and forest, mountain and forest, as far as the eye can reach.

Characteristic, too, is the dreamy blue haze, like that of Indian summer intensified, that ever hovers over the mountains, unless they be swathed in cloud, or, for a few minutes, after a sharp rain-storm has cleared the atmosphere. Both the Blue Ridge and the Smoky Mountains owe their names to this tenuous mist. It softens all outlines, and lends a mirage-like effect of great distance to objects that are but a few miles off, while those farther removed grow more and more intangible until finally the sky-line blends with the sky itself.

The foreground of such a landscape, in summer, is warm, soft, dreamy, caressing, habitable; beyond it are gentle and luring solitudes; the remote ranges are inexpressibly lonesome, isolated and mysterious; but everywhere the green forest mantle bespeaks a vital present; nowhere does cold, bare granite stand as the sepulchre of an immemorial past.

And yet these very mountains of Carolina are among the ancients of the earth. They were old, very old, before the Alps and the Andes, the Rockies and the Himalayas were molded into their primal shapes. Upon them, in after ages, were born the first hardwoods of America — perhaps those of Europe, too — and upon them to-day the last great hardwood forests of our country stand in primeval majesty, mutely awaiting their imminent doom.

The richness of the Great Smoky forest has been the wonder and the admiration of everyone who has traversed it. As one climbs from the river to one of the main peaks, he passes successively through the same floral zones he would encounter in traveling from mid-Georgia to southern Canada.

Starting amid sycamores, elms, gums, willows, persimmons, chinquapins, he soon enters a region of beech, birch, basswood, magnolia, cucumber, butternut, holly, sourwood, box elder, ash, maple, buckeye, poplar, hemlock, and a great number of other growths along the creeks and branches. On the lower slopes are many species of oaks, with hickory, hemlock, pitch pine, locust, dogwood, chestnut. In this region nearly all trees attain their fullest development. On north fronts of hills the oaks reach a diameter of five to six feet. In cool, rich coves, chestnut trees grow from six to nine feet across the stump; and tulip poplars up to ten or eleven feet, their straight trunks towering like gigantic columns, with scarcely a noticeable taper, seventy or eighty feet to the nearest limb.

Ascending above the zone of 3,000 feet, white oak is replaced by the no less valuable “mountain oak.” Beech, birch, buckeye, and chestnut persist to 5,000 feet. Then, where the beeches dwindle until adult trees are only knee-high, there begins a sub-arctic zone of black spruce, balsam, striped maple, aspen and the “Peruvian” or red cherry.

I have named only a few of the prevailing growths. Nowhere else in the temperate zone is there such a variety of merchantable timber as in western Carolina and the Tennessee front of the Unaka system. About a hundred and twenty species of native trees grow in the Smoky Forest itself. When Asa Gray visited the North Carolina mountains he identified, in a thirty-mile trip, a greater variety of indigenous trees than could be observed in crossing Europe from England to Turkey, or in a trip from Boston to the Rocky Mountain plateau. As John Muir has said, our forests, “however slighted by man, must have been a great delight to God; for they were the best He ever planted.”

The undergrowth is of almost tropical luxuriance and variety. Botanists say that this is the richest collecting ground in the United States. Whether one be seeking ferns or fungi or orchids or almost anything else vegetal, each hour will bring him some new delight. In summer the upper mountains are one vast flower garden: the white and pink of rhododendron, the blaze of azalea, conspicuous above all else, in settings of every imaginable shade of green.

It was the botanist who discovered this Eden for us. Far back in the eighteenth century, when this was still “Cherokee Country,” inhabited by no whites but a few Indian-traders, William Bartram of Philadelphia came plant-hunting into the mountains of western Carolina, and spread their fame to the world. One of his choicest finds was the fiery azalea, of which he recorded: “The epithet fiery I annex to this most celebrated species of azalea, as being expressive of the appearance of its flowers; which are in general of the color of the finest red-lead, orange, and bright gold, as well as yellow and cream-color. These various splendid colors are not only in separate plants, but frequently all the varieties and shades are seen in separate branches on the same plant; and the clusters of the blossoms cover the shrubs in such incredible profusion on the hillsides that, suddenly opening to view from dark shades, we are alarmed with apprehension of the woods being set on fire. This is certainly the most gay and brilliant flowering shrub yet known.”

And we of a later age, seeing the same wild gardens still unspoiled, can appreciate the almost religious fervor of those early botanists, as of Michaux, for example, who, in 1794, ascending the peak of Grandfather, broke out in song: “Monté au sommet de la plus haut montagne de tout l’Amérique Septentrionale, chante avec mon compagnon-guide l’hymn de Marsellois, et crié, ‘Vive la Liberté et la République Française!’

Of course Michaux was wildly mistaken in thinking Grandfather “the highest mountain in all North America.” It is far from being even the highest of the Appalachians. Yet we scarcely know to-day, to a downright certainty, which peak is supreme among our Southern highlands. The honor is conceded to Mount Mitchell in the Black Mountains, northeast of Asheville. Still, the heights of the Carolina peaks have been taken (with but one exception, so far as I know) only by barometric measurements, and these, even when official, may vary as much as a hundred feet for the same mountain. Since the highest ten or a dozen of our  Carolina peaks differ in altitude only one or two hundred feet, their actual rank has not yet been determined.

For a long time there was controversy as to whether Mount Mitchell or Clingman Dome was the crowning summit of eastern America. The Coast and Geodetic Survey gave the height of Mount Mitchell as 6,688 feet; but later figures of the U. S. Geological Survey are 6,711 and 6,712. In 1859 Buckley claimed for Clingman Dome of the Smokies an altitude of 6,941 feet. In recent government reports the Dome appears variously as 6,619 and 6,660. In 1911 I was told by Mr. H. M. Ramseur that when he laid out the route of the railroad from Asheville to Murphy he ran a line of levels from a known datum on this road to the top of Clingman, and that the result was “four sixes” (6,666 feet above sea-level). It is probable that second place among the peaks of Appalachia may belong either to Clingman Dome or Guyot or LeConte, of the Smokies, or to Balsam Cone of the Black Mountains.

In any case, the Great Smoky mountains are the master chain of the Appalachian system, the greatest mass of highland east of the Rockies. This segment of the Unakas forms the boundary between North Carolina and Tennessee from the Big Pigeon River to the McDaniel Bald.

Although some parts of the Smokies are very rugged, with sharp changes of elevation, yet the range as a whole has no one dominating peak. Mount Guyot (pronounced Gee-o, with g as in get), Mount LeConte, and Clingman Dome all are over 6,600 feet and under 6,700, according to the most trustworthy measurements. Many miles of the divide rise 6,000 feet above sea-level, with only small undulations like ocean swells.


Photo by U. S. Forest Service
“There are few jutting crags” — Southeast profile of Whiteside Mountain, N. C.

The most rugged and difficult part of the Smokies (and of the United States east of Colorado) is in the sawtooth mountains between Collins and Guyot, at the headwaters of the Okona Lufty River. I know but few men who have ever followed this part of the divide, although during the present year trails have been cut from Clingman to Collins, or near it, and possibly others beyond to the northeastward.

In August and September, 1900, Mr. James H. Ferriss and wife, naturalists from Joliet, Illinois, explored the Smokies to the Lufty Gap northeast of Clingman, collecting rare species of snails and ferns. No doubt Mrs. Ferriss is the only white woman who ever went beyond Clingman or even ascended the Dome itself. She stayed at the Lufty Gap while her husband and a Carolina mountaineer of my acquaintance struggled through to Guyot and returned. Of this trip Mr. Ferriss sent me the following account:

“We bought another axe of a moonshiner, and, with a week’s provisions on our backs, one of the guides and I took the Consolidated American Black Bear and Ruffed Grouse Line for Mount Guyot, twenty miles farther by map measurement. The bears were in full possession of the property, and we could get no information in the settlements, as the settlers do not travel this line. They did not know the names of the peaks other than as tops of the Great Smokies — knew nothing of the character of the country except that it was rough. The Tennesseeans seem afraid of the mountains, and the Cherokees of the North Carolina side equally so; for, two miles from camp, all traces of man, except surveyors’ marks, had disappeared. In the first two days we routed eight bears out of their nests and mud wallows, and they seemed to stay routed, for upon our return we found the blackberry crop unharvested and had a bag pudding — ‘duff’ — or what you call it.

“A surveyor had run part of the line this year, which helped us greatly, and the bears had made well-beaten trails part of the way. In places they had mussed up the ground as much as a barnyard. We tried to follow the boundary line between the two States, which is exactly upon the top of the Smokies, but often missed it. The government  [state] surveyor many years ago made two hacks upon the trees, but sometimes the linemen neglected to use their axes for half a mile or so. It took us three and one-half days to go, and two and one-half to return, and we arose with the morning star and worked hard all day. The last day and a half, going, there was nothing to guide us but the old hacks.

“Equipped with government maps, a good compass, and a little conceit, I thought I could follow the boundary-line. In fact, at one time we intended to go through without a guide. A trail that runs through blackberry bushes two miles out of three is hard to follow. Then there was a huckleberry bush reaching to our waists growing thickly upon the ground as tomato vines, curled hard, and stubborn; and laurel much like a field of lilac bushes, crooked and strong as iron. In one place we walked fully a quarter of a mile over the tops of laurel bushes and these were ten or twelve feet in height, but blown over one way by the wind. Much of the trail was along rocky edges, sometimes but six inches or so wide, but almost straight down on both sides for hundreds of feet. One night, delayed by lack of water, we did not camp till dark, and, finding a smooth spot, lay down with a small log on each side to hold us from rolling out of bed. When daylight came we found that, had we rolled over the logs, my partner would have dropped 500 feet into Tennessee and I would have dropped as far into North Carolina, unless some friendly tree top had caught us. Sometimes the mountain forked, and these ridges, concealed by the balsams, would not be seen. Then there were round knobs — and who can tell where the highest ridge lies on a round mountain or a ball? My woolen shirt was torn off to the shoulders, and my partner, who had started out with corduroys, stayed in the brush until I got him a pair of overalls from camp.”

Even to the west of Clingman a stranger is likely to find some desperately rough travel if he should stray from the trail that follows the divide. It is easy going for anyone in fair weather, but when cloud settles on the mountain, as it often does without warning, it may be so thick that one cannot see a tree ten feet away. Under such circumstances I have myself floundered from daylight till dark through heart-breaking laurel thickets, and without a bite to eat, not knowing whither I was going except that it was toward the Little Tennessee River.

In 1906 I spent the summer in a herders’ hut on top of the divide, just west of the Locust Ridge (miscalled Chestnut Ridge on the map), about six miles east of Thunderhead. This time I had a partner, and we had a glorious three months of it, nearly a mile above sea-level, and only half a day’s climb from the nearest settlement. One day I was alone, Andy having gone down to Medlin for the mail. It had rained a good deal — in fact, there was a shower nearly every day throughout the summer, the only semblance of a dry season in the Smokies being the autumn and early winter. The nights were cold enough for fires and blankets, even in our well-chinked cabin.

Well, I had finished my lonesome dinner, and was washing up, when I saw a man approaching. This was an event, for we seldom saw other men than our two selves. He was a lame man, wearing an iron extension on one foot, and he hobbled with a cane. He looked played-out and gaunt. I met him outside. He smiled as though I looked good to him, and asked with some eagerness, “Can I buy something to eat here?”

“No,” I answered, “you can’t buy anything here” — how his face fell! — “but I’ll give you the best we have, and you’re welcome.”

Then you should have seen that smile!

He seemed to have just enough strength left to drag himself into the hut. I asked no questions, though wondering what a cripple, evidently a gentleman, though in rather bad repair, was doing on top of the Smoky Mountains. It was plain that he had spent more than one night shelterless in the cold rain, and that he was quite famished. While I was baking the biscuit and cooking some meat, he told his story. This is the short of it:

“I am a Canadian, McGill University man, electrician. My company sent me to Cincinnati. I got a vacation of a couple of weeks, and thought I’d take a pedestrian tour. I can walk better than you’d think,” and he tapped the short leg.

I liked his grit.

“I knew no place to go,” he continued; “so I took a map and looked for what might be interesting country, not too far from Cincinnati. I picked out these mountains, got a couple of government topographical sheets, and, thinking they would serve like European ordnance maps, I had no fear of going astray. It was my plan to walk through to the Balsam Mountains, and so on to the Big Pigeon River. I went to Maryville, Tennessee, and there I was told that I would find a cabin every five or six miles along the summit from Thunderhead to the Balsams.”

I broke in abruptly: “Whoever told you that was either an impostor or an ignoramus. There are only four of these shacks on the whole Smoky range. Two of them, the Russell cabin and the Spencer place, you have already passed without knowing it. This is called the Hall cabin. None of these three are occupied save for a week or so in the fall when the cattle are being rounded up, or by chance, as my partner and I happen to be here now. Beyond this there is just one shack, at Siler’s Meadow. It is down below the summit, hidden in timber, and you would never have seen it. Even if you had, you would have found it as bare as a last year’s mouse nest, for nobody ever goes there except a few bear-hunters. From there onward for forty miles is an uninhabited wilderness so rough that you could not make seven miles a day in it to save your life, even if you knew the course; and there is no trail at all.  Those government maps are good and reliable to show the approaches to this wild country, but where you need them most they are good for nothing.”

 “Then,” said he, “if I had missed your cabin I would have starved to death, for I depended on finding a house to the eastward, and would have followed the trail till I dropped. I have been out in the laurel thickets, now, three days and two nights; so nothing could have induced me to leave this trail, once I found it, or until I could see out to a house on one side or other of the mountain.”


The Bears’ Home — Laurel and Rhododendron


 “You would see no house on either side from here to beyond Guyot, about forty miles. Had you no rations at all?”

“I traveled light, expecting to find entertainment among the natives. Here is what I have left.”

He showed me a crumpled buckwheat flapjack, a pinch of tea, and a couple of ounces of brandy.

“I was saving them for the last extremity; have had nothing to eat since yesterday morning. Drink the brandy, please; it came from Montreal.”

“No, my boy, that liquor goes down your own throat instanter. You’re the chap that needs it. This coffee will boil now in a minute. I won’t give you all the food you want, for it wouldn’t be prudent; but by and by you shall have a bellyful.”

Then, as well as he could, he sketched the route he had followed. Where the trail from Tennessee crosses from Thunderhead to Haw Gap he had swerved off from the divide, and he discovered his error somewhere in the neighborhood of Blockhouse. There, instead of retracing his steps, he sought a short-cut by plunging down to the headwaters of Haw Creek, thus worming deeper and deeper into the devil’s nest. One more day would have finished him. When I told him that the trip from Clingman to Guyot would be hard work for a party of experienced mountaineers, and that it would probably take them a week, during which time they would have to pack all supplies on their own backs, he agreed that his best course would be down into Carolina and out to the railroad.


Of animal life in the mountains I was most entertained by the raven. This extraordinary bird was the first creature Noah liberated from the ark — he must have known, even at that early period of nature study, that it was the most sagacious of all winged things. Or perhaps Noah and the raven did not get on well together and he rid himself of the pest at first opportunity. Doubtless there could have been no peace aboard a craft that harbored so inquisitive and talkative a fowl. Anyway, the wild raven has been superlatively shy of man ever since the flood.

Probably there is no place south of Labrador where our raven (Corvus corax principalis) is seen so often as in the Smokies; and yet, even here, a man may haunt the tops for weeks without sight or sound of the ebon mystery — then, for a few days, they will be common. On the southeast side of the Locust Ridge, opposite Huggins’s Hell, between Bone Valley and the main fork of Hazel Creek, there is a “Raven’s Cliff” where they winter and breed, using the same nests year after year. Occasionally one is trapped, with bloody groundhog for bait; but I have yet to meet a man who has succeeded in shooting one.

If the raven’s body be elusive his tongue assuredly is not. No other animal save man has anything like his vocal range. The raven croaks, clucks, caws, chuckles, squalls, pleads, “pooh-poohs,” grunts, barks, mimics small birds, hectors, cajoles — yes, pulls a cork, whets a scythe, files a saw — with his throat. As is well known, ravens can be taught human speech, like parrots; and I am told they show the same preference for bad words — which, I think, is quite in character with their reputation as thieves and butchers. However, I may be prejudiced, seeing that the raven’s favorite dainties for his menu are the eyes of living fawns and lambs.

A stranger in these mountains will be surprised at the apparent scarcity of game animals. It is not unusual for one to hunt all day in an absolute wilderness, where he sees never a fresh track of man, and not get a shot at anything fit to eat. The cover is so dense that one still-hunting (going without dogs) has poor chance of spying the game that lurks about him; and there really is little of it by comparison with such huntings fields as the Adirondacks, Maine, Canada, where game has been conserved for many years. It used to be the same up there. The late W. J. Stillman, writing in 1877 of the Maine woods, said:

“The most striking feature of the forest, after one has become habituated to the gloom, the pathlessness, and the apparent impenetrability of the screen it forms around him, is the absence of animal life. You may wander for hours without seeing a living creature.... One thinks of  the woods and the wild beasts; yet in all the years of my wilderness living I can catalogue the wild creatures other than squirrels, grouse, and small birds (never plenty, generally very rare) which I have accidentally encountered and seen while wandering for hunting or mere pastime in the wild forest; one deer, one porcupine, one marten (commonly called sable), and maybe half a dozen hares. You may walk hours and not see a living creature larger than a fly, for days together and not see a grouse, a squirrel, or a bird larger than the Canada jay.... Lands running with game are like those flowing with milk and honey; and when the sporting books tell you that game is abundant, don’t imagine that you are assured from starvation thereby. I have been reduced, in a country where deer were swarming, to live several days together on corn meal.”

It is much the same to-day in our Appalachian wilderness, where no protection worthy the name has ever been afforded the game and fish since Indian times. There is a class of woods-loafers, very common here, that ranges the forest at all seasons with single-barrel shotguns or “hog rifles,” killing bearing females as well as legitimate game, fishing at night, even using dynamite in the streams; and so, in spite of the fact that there is no better game harborage granted by Nature on our continent than the Carolina mountains, the deer are all but exterminated in most districts, turkeys and even squirrels are rather scarce, and good trout fishing is limited to stocked waters or streams flowing through virgin forest. The only game animal that still holds his own is the black bear, and he endures in few places other than the roughest districts, such as that southwest of the Sugarland Mountains, where laurel and cliffs daunt all but the hardiest of men.

The only venomous snakes in the mountains are rattlers and copperheads, the former common, the latter rare. The chance of being bitten by one is about as remote as that of being struck by lightning — either accident might happen, of course. The mountaineers have an absurd notion that the little lizard so common in the hills is rank “pizen.” Oddly enough, they call it a “scorpion.”

From those two pests of the North Woods, black-flies and mosquitoes, the Smokies are mercifully exempt. At least there are no mosquitoes that bite or sting, except down in the river valleys where they have been introduced by railroad trains — and even there they are but a feeble folk. The reason is that in the mountains there is almost no standing water where they can breed.

On the other hand, the common house-fly is extraordinarily numerous and persistent — a daily curse, even on top of Smoky. I imagine this is due to the wet climate, as in Ireland. Minute gnats (the “punkies” or “no-see-ums” of the North) are also offensively present in trout-fishing time. And every cabin is alive with fleas. A hundred nights I have anointed myself with citronella from head to foot, and outsmelt a cheap barber-shop, to escape their plague. In a tent, and without dogs, one can be immune.

In most years there are very few chiggers, except on pine ridges. They are worse along rivers than in the mountains. The ticks of this country are not numerous, and seldom fasten on man.

The climate of the Carolina mountains is pleasantly cool in summer. Even at low altitudes (1,600 to 2,000 feet) the nights generally are refreshing. It may be hot in the sun, but always cool in the shade. The air is drier (less relative humidity) than in the lowlands, notwithstanding that there is greater rainfall here than elsewhere in the United States outside of Florida and the Puget Sound country. The annual rainfall varies a great deal according to locality, being least at Asheville (42 inches) and greatest on the southeastern slope of the Blue Ridge, where as much as 105 inches has been recorded in a year. The average rainfall of the whole region is 73 inches a year. 2

In general the mornings are apt to be lowery, with fogs hanging low until, say, 9 o’clock, so that one cannot predict weather for the day. Heavy dews remain on the bushes until about the same hour.

The winters are short. What Northerners would call cold weather is not expected until Christmas, and generally it is gone by the end of February. Snow sometimes falls on the higher mountains by the first of October, and the last snow may linger there until April (exceptionally it falls in May). Tornadoes are unknown here, but sometimes a hurricane will sweep the upper ranges. On April 19, 1900, a blizzard from the northwest struck the Smokies. In twenty minutes everything was frozen. At Siler’s Meadow seventeen cattle climbed upon each other for warmth and froze to death in a solid hecatomb. A herdsman who was out at the time, and narrowly escaped a similar fate, assured me that “that was the beatenest snowstorm ever I seen.” In the valleys there may be a few days in January and February when the mercury drops to zero or a few degrees lower. On the high peaks, of course, the winter cold often is intense, and on the sunless north side of Clingman there are overhangs or crevices where a little ice may be found the year around.


The old copper mine


Undoubtedly there is vast mineral wealth hidden in the Carolina mountains. A greater variety of minerals has been found here than in any other State save Colorado. But, for the present, it is a hard country to prospect in, owing to the thick covering of the forest floor. Not only is the underbrush very dense, but beneath it there generally is a thick stratum of clay overlaying the rocks, even on steep slopes. Gold has been found in numberless places, but finely disseminated. I do not know a locality in the mountains proper where a working vein has been discovered. At my cabin I did just enough panning to get a notion that if I could stand working in icy water ten hours a day I might average a dollar in yellow dust by it. The adjacent copper mine carries considerable gold. Silver and lead are not common, so far as known, but there are many good copper and iron properties. Gems are mined profitably in several of the western counties. The corundum, mica, talc, and monazite are, I believe, unexcelled in the United States. Building stone is abundant, and there is fine marble in various places. Kaolin is shipped out in considerable quantities. The rocks chiefly are gneisses, granites, metamorphosed marbles, quartzites, and slates, all of them far too old to bear fossils or coal.


2 Average annual rainfall of New York City, 44 inches; of Glencoe, in the Scotch Highlands, nearly 130 inches.

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