CHILDHOOD FAMILY VACATIONS: THE SMOKIES
by Gerald D. Murley, Sr. (with memory asistance & tall-tale adjustment by Elizabeth Murley)
Version Options: Son's Perspective | Parents' Perspective
For the week of July 4, 1964, our family took a long-planned vacation to the Smoky Mountain National Park. We did not not even remotely think that thousands of other campers from all over the country might be thinking about the same thing. Knowing that there were lots of hungry bears looking for food anywhere they could find it in camping areas, coupled with the fact that we would be sleeping and eating in a tent, we decided to rent a small enclosed utility trailer to transport our camping equipment and to store our food.
Leaving Memphis later in the day than we had planned for the long trip across the state from Memphis to the Smokies – and pulling a trailer – made us arrive at our planned campground, Cades Cove, well after dark and in a light rain. This was when we discovered that thousands of others had headed to the Smokies for the 4th of July just as we did, and as a result, all of Cades Cove camping sites were filled. After getting some directions, we were able to drive a few miles farther and found a vacant camping site in Cosby Cove next to a mountain trail nearer to the wilds of the forest. We later found out that this was not exactly the safest place to be since the bears regularly used the trail to come into the campgrounds for food.
Getting back to the first night in the rain and setting up our tent, my wife, Elizabeth, was concerned about the wet condition of the ground and asked me if that was going to cause any problem with the wooden stakes securing the tent ropes. She was concerned about keeping it from falling in on us. I, ever optimist, assured her, our daughter Deb, our son Jerry, and our nephew Chuck that there was nothing to worry about. Sure they were secure. During the night one side of the tent fell in because the stakes did not hold and we all got wet re-staking and re-tying tent ropes in the middle of the night rain.
Looking at campground information and talking to other campers and park rangers, we found that there was much to do in and around Cosby Cove, ranging from trail hiking, swimming in the river near the campgrounds, sightseeing trips in the car, and trips into Gatlinburg. We learned about the long history of the area that had been preserved by the Great Smoky Mountain National Park to look much the way it looked in the 1800s. We learned that the area around Cades Cove had the original pioneer homesteads, barns, pasture and farmland and it had been occupied mostly by settlers from Virginia, North Carolina and upper East Tennessee. And we learned that these pioneers were a hearty people. Also, the Cherokee Indian Nation had occupied the area and had come back time and time again because of the abundant wildlife and good hunting.
Many of the original buildings were still standing like museum pieces themselves, such as the Oliver's Cabin, which was the oldest remaining cabin in the Smokies. We saw an old sorghum mill, corn cribs, smokehouses, a mill flume, blacksmith shop, and many other things that helped to make it an educational, as well as a recreational trip.
We also learned other valuable lessons: We learned that every time a mother bear and her cubs came out of the woods close to the road, people stopped their cars and got out to watch and take pictures. Before long, traffic was backed up with nothing moving except the bears. They called that a "Bear Jam." Speaking of bears, the park rangers warned us not to try to feed the bears because they could turn on us. We were told of an incident in the Chattanooga area mountains where a man – witnessed by a park ranger – tried to push a big bear into the front seat of his car next to his wife so he could take a picture of his wife and the bear. The ranger advised us against trying that.
While swimming and wading in the part of the river that goes through Cosby Cove, I slipped and fell on my bottom on one of the many big boulders that surround and are in the river bed. The pain was so great that I could not sit down to ride back to our camp site and decided that I would rather walk along side of the car as my wife drove. Before getting back to camp we stopped at a park ranger's house and borrowed a big tub to heat water in for me to sit in for heat therapy for my coccyx (tailbone). This I had to do several times a day to get in condition to be able to sit for the long trip home. About three feet from our tent, we had wrapped a tarpaulin around the trunks of three trees to make a triangular makeshift bathroom with a folding porta-pot sitting on a big flat rock. We heated water for me to soak in and moved the big tub into our makeshift bathroom.
While I was soaking one afternoon, a bear came down the trail off of the mountain and my family hollered to me that the bear was headed my way. In my haste to get out of the tub, get dry, and to put on some clothes in case the bear came into our bathroom, I sat down on the folding port-a-pot (without the pot), crossed my leg to put on my socks, and the folding port-a-pot stool folded. My 215-plus pounds came down hard on the rock, adding to my already overly painful tailbone injury. While we can all laugh about it now, at the time my first thought was for the family to just bury me right then and there.
Our nephew Chuck had a long-time perfect Sunday school attendance record at his church in Memphis and asked us if we could find a Baptist Church in the wilderness that had a Sunday school where he could attend on Sunday and take back a note to his church to maintain his record. The first one that we found was Cades Cove Missionary Baptist Church established before the Civil War in 1841. Their meeting facilities were built in 1915. This was the church where our son, daughter and nephew were left to attend while my wife and I went into Gatlinburg to get some food supplies. Besides being outsiders, they also drew attention from the members because all that we had to wear were their camping shorts and shirts instead of Sunday skirts and trousers.