Weaving through gnarled limbs of rhododendron, I mop the sweat from my forehead and swat a cloud of gnats. We’ve only hiked 10 minutes, and my bare shins are crosshatched from bashing through these shiny, knee-high bushes. It’s hard to believe this tangled forest was once a tamed landscape of farm fields and apple trees. Near Cosby Campground in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, farmer and 64-year Smokies resident Jimmy Bryant and I are bushwhacking to the homesite of Bryant’s grandparents, who lived on this land until the early 1930s.
Glennie and Elbert Carver were among the 4,000 people displaced by the federal government when it established Great Smoky Mountains National Park on 500,000 acres of the East’s largest forest in 1934. Like their neighbors, the Carvers had planted corn and raised their children here, amongst the hazy blue hills and crystalline waterfalls. When the feds came calling, many settlers reluctantly sold their land, some dispersing to small plots outside the park boundary or to nearby towns.
These days, 9 million people visit the nation’s busiest national park, which boasts huge tracts of resurgent forest and grand, misty-mountain views. But few–if any–realize that entire communities once thrived where now only backcountry travelers go.
I have been roaming these woods since I was 16 and am sorry to report that in 21 years and on more than a dozen trips had never considered the true impact of clearing homesteads to make way for hikers.
Then one day I discovered Daniel S. Pierce’s book, The Great Smokies: From Natural Habitat to National Park, and was floored by what I read. After learning about the sacrifice these Smokies’ communities had made, I couldn’t help wondering if my backcountry solitude came at too high a price. With a newfound appreciation–and a bit of guilt–I embarked on a five-day, 55-mile tour of little-known Smokies spots, once cultivated, now wild, that the Carvers and other settlers called home.