My wife and I just got back from a trip to the Smoky Mountains. It’s been over ten years since we were last there, though we weren’t too far away a couple of years ago when we visited Asheville, NC. This time around we rented a cabin near Pigeon Forge, TN, which let us cook many of our meals there and also gave us a great view of the sunset over the mountains every evening. Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg have both become even bigger tourist trap type destinations than they used to be, but our cabin was just far enough from the hustle and bustle to seem like we almost had the mountains to ourselves – at least most of the time. A couple of rocking chairs on a covered porch were a great place to start the day, and to watch the sun go down.
The fall is a great time to see the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, since it is considerably less crowded than it is in summer when bumper to bumper traffic is the norm. We did a couple of short hikes while we were there, including the popular 2.6 mile round-trip hike to see Laurel Falls. The falls were not as big and loud as they were the last time we saw them, since it has been dry in the area lately, but there was still plenty of water coming down.
But my favorite hike on this trip was the less popular Middle Prong Trail. It’s near Townsend, TN, and at the end of a three mile gravel road that leads to the trailhead. The trail itself is a converted railroad bed, and is wide with easy footing and a moderate climb. We did not hike the whole trail, but walked along it for a little over an hour. The NPS Day Hikes guide we picked up says it “follows a rollicking mountain stream with several cascades”, and I can’t improve much on that description. The water was never far from the trail, and it was pleasing to hear as well as see.
We also enjoyed visiting the Old Mill at Pigeon Forge. They were having their annual Heritage Day there on Saturday, with craft vendors and demonstrations to see. The water-powered gristmill there was built on the banks of the Little Pigeon River in the early 19th century, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The river was low on water while we were there, with barely enough flowing to turn the waterwheel, and not supplying enough power to actually grind any grains. They had ample supplies already ground up however, and I picked up both corn meal and a bag of grits to bring back home with me. The corn meal is coarsely ground by the two-ton stone burrs, and only lightly sifted to remove any larger pieces of corn that didn’t get ground up. The yellow grits I bought are coarse enough to use for polenta, which is likely how I will use most of them.
One demonstration showed how they make sorghum molasses the old fashioned way, using mule power. Sweet Sorghum is an annual plant related to sugar cane, and looks to me a lot like corn when it is growing, though a bit taller. It is a popular sweetener in much of the southern parts of the U.S. It has a distinctive flavor that I find quite tasty, at least when it is well made. The mule (or horse) is hitched to a pole that powers the sorghum mill, which grinds the sorghum cane stalks to extract the juice. I was struck by the irony of the old-fashioned mule power being used just a few feet away from an automobile!
The mule walks in circles, round and round, while someone sits at the mill to feed in the long stalks of sorghum cane. The greenish juice is then collected in a bucket as it runs out of the mill. What’s left of the cane after extracting the juice is usually spread back on the fields to compost and help nourish next year’s crop.
From the bucket, the juice is hauled off to an evaporator that is traditionally heated by a wood fire, though propane is sometimes used. That part of the operation is similar to boiling down the sap to make maple syrup. The setup for the demo was a smaller scale than ones used for production runs, but the process is still the same. Boil, skim off the foam and scum, and keep stirring often until it’s thick and ready to ladle out.
After cooking down, the sorghum syrup is thick and brown in color. It makes for fine eating when spread on a homemade biscuit, especially if there is some country ham or bacon involved! I also use it in rye bread, in place of the usual molasses. I find the taste of sorghum to be a bit less strong than molasses made from sugarcane, but not everyone agrees. I supposed it is a matter of what you are used to using.
There was one artist setup at the Hertitage Day who had fashioned various creations out of old tools and scrap metal for selling to Flatland Touristers like us. He had one he called his Wrench-O-Saurus, and I fell in love with it immediately! It’s made from what looks to be a large pipe wrench, with other tools and tool parts welded on strategically.
I knew it had to come home with us, where it joined a metal ‘stegosaurus’ I bought from one of the craftsman who worked with me at the aluminum plant in Kentucky. He donated it to our Relay for Life fundraising silent auction, and I managed to bid enough to win it without having to break the bank. I suspect I got it fairly cheap because not many of my co-workers truly appreciated this rustic (and rusty) art!
While we were there at the park one day, we had to get a photo at one of the park entrance signs. I normally set the camera on a rock, but park personnel had conveniently provided a wooden post to set your camera on, which made it easy!
It all made for a nice getaway. But as much as we enjoy getting away for a bit, it’s always nice to return to Happy Acres. And after being boarded at the vet, our two cats are happy to be back home too!
I hope you have enjoyed a few vacation photos, and I’ll be back soon with more adventures from Happy Acres.