August 2018 – “West TN Parks”

In my June and July blog posts, I talked about my husband J.L.’s and my visits to the wonderful state parks in East and Middle Tennessee, and this month I walk to talk about our travels to the West Tennessee parks. We explored all the 56 state parks in Tennessee over a two-year period to write our state parks guidebook Discovering Tennessee State Parks. If you’ve missed buying it, you can pick a copy up or order it at your favorite bookstore or online at: https://www.amazon.com/Lin-Stepp/e/B0028OJMPA

Many East Tennessee parks snuggled among the hills and mountains common to that area, while Middle Tennessee parks offered a more diverse terrain. The parks in West Tennessee tend to lie on flatter land, tucked in rich forests or along lakes or rivers. With these parks, further from our East Tennessee home, we planned trips of several days at a time. On these travels we stayed mainly at park lodges as we could so we could take late evening walks to enjoy the sights and pleasures around the park grounds even after dinner. Park lodges and cabins offer discounts of several kinds, like senior and military discounts, and anyone can get on an email list from the state park office to receive discounts being offered. We used these at almost every visit to the park inns and lodges.

Our first parks visited were clustered along the Tennessee River, the Kentucky Lake, and the nearby forests and natural areas—Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park, Paris Landing, Big Cypress Tree State Park, and Natchez Trace.  Paris Landing proved to be one of our favorites … a boating, fishing, waterskiing, and swimming paradise on a gorgeous expanse of the Kentucky Lake near Tennessee’s northern border. The marinas and view of the lake here were stunning, and we enjoyed staying overnight at the lodge.

We also stayed overnight at the Pin Oak Lodge at Natchez Trace State Park. This vast park with over one thousand acres was fun to explore. It had three pretty lakes, miles of hiking and equestrian trails, beautiful campgrounds, a diverse variety of cabins, a great swim beach, and a zillion places to picnic and fish. We talked to many visitors who come back to this park year after year to vacation. I enjoyed learning, too, about the interesting history of Natchez Trace which helped to explain all the kudzu we saw—often encroaching over the hiking trails we wanted to try and nearly covering many trees.

The kudzu invasion was nothing, though, compared to the insect invasion at Pinson Mounds State Park. It is a historic, archeological site in Madison County below Jackson, but the park spreads across a low lying, rather swampy area, a haven for wetlands insects. To see this park, you have to walk on paths and raised bridges through the grounds and cypress swamp areas. Shortly into our walk, the mosquitoes and swarms of large black dragonflies found and attacked us. Youch! We spent a lot of time swatting mosquitoes, running from the dragonflies, and regretting we had not taken a bath in insect spray before setting out! So be sure to douse yourself in repellent when you visit! This park is interesting historically, and you will see Indian mounds and barrows in the 400 acres of the archeological complex. Also, the park visitor center and museum building [below], was built to look like a giant mound and  is filled with great  artifacts and exhibits.

One thing we learned about state parks, especially in West Tennessee, is that many of the visitor centers, museums, and restroom areas close long before listed closing hours. Also park maps, even when we took one with us, were often unclear, without street names and signs to help us find our way to different points. However, the West Tennessee parks had their own special interest and charm. … We loved exploring Chickasaw State Park, Big Hill Pond, and Pickwick Landing near the Mississippi border.

Pickwick Landing was our favorite of these with another beautiful lodge, cabins, two campgrounds, and a stunning marina on Pickwick Lake. As a golfer, J.L. liked the fine golf course here, too, and also the golf courses at Montgomery Bell and Paris Landing. We both loved the blue expanse of the lake, meeting us at every turn throughout the park. If you love to fish, boat, and get out on the water, this is the park for you. … In contrast to all the other parks in West Tennessee, Big Hill Pond and Big Cypress Tree Park were both very small parks with few amenities, and the Big Hill Pond showed signs of neglect with most of the trails overgrown and picnic areas poorly maintained. The draw of Big Hill is for those wishing to trek for miles into the park’s rugged, snaky backcountry trails, that wind their way through Dismal and Cypress Swamps. Visitors shouldn’t attempt either if not properly dressed for hiking and a backcountry adventure.

The last leg of our parks’ visits took us to four parks either along or not far from the Mississippi River on Tennessee’s western border—starting with T. O. Fuller near downtown Memphis and following north up the Mississippi to Meeman –Shelby Forest State Park, Fort Pillow, and ending at Reelfoot. If you are visiting historic downtown spots in Memphis like Beal Street and Elvis’s home at Graceland, T.O. Fuller has a beautiful campground to consider and the park is as clean and neat as a pin. Up river Meeman-Shelby spreads over 12,539 acres, an immense park, although not all of it is readily accessible to the public. We enjoyed hiking several of the trails there, finding immense,old growth trees with vast diameters, driving down to the river, learning the history of the area, and exploring around pretty Poplar Tree Lake.

Don’t despair in looking for Fort Pillow State Park. The route to it is a long one from the interstate, taking you back through farmlands and straight through the grounds of a prison—perhaps not a good place to stop and explore! But not far from the prison you will find the little park on a high bluff above the river, and its museum and grounds, with great cannons and rifle pits, are great spots to visit, especially for history buffs.

Reelfoot Lake State Park, which we’d always wanted to visit in the far northwest corner of Tennessee was a perfect place to end our travel journey. We were both fascinated with the history of this park and how an earthquake, causing the earth’s surface to rise and fall, had pushed a rampage of water from the Mississippi River into a now sunken area to create a huge 15,000 acres lake. Even more interesting was how many species of fish had been swept into the new lake, creating a fisherman’s paradise. The old cypress trees below the new lake’s surface didn’t die out like other trees and vegetation, either, so you will see them out in the lake—a fascinating sight.  In many places around the park, as at the visitor center, you can walk out on long boardwalks to see the lake, its submerged trees, and birds, eagles, and wildlife more closely. This park is a fun place to visit … and proved a happy ending to our trip and tour exploring all the 56 parks.

We hope you will get out to visit the many parks in Tennessee—or in your own home state—to enjoy the beauty and diversity that each holds and to have some adventures of your own. You won’t regret it! And maybe we’ll run into you there!

 

July 2018 – “Middle TN Parks”

When J.L. and I began exploring the Middle Tennessee state parks, the only one of 26 parks in that area we’d ever visited was Fall Creek Falls State Park near Crossville. Even when we returned to that park in our journey across state, we found we’d only seen a section or two of this glorious park, missing many of its special attractions.

Working our way from east to west, the first parks we visited were in the northeast part of Middle Tennessee—Edgar Evins on the Center Hill Reservoir, the Sgt. Alvin C. York historic site near Pall Mall, Pickett CCC Memorial Park outside Jamestown, Cumberland Mountain State Park, the Cordell Hull Birthplace near Byrdstown, and Standing Stone State Park in Overton County. I think the most memorable among these were Pickett and Cumberland Mountain.

Pickett was full of surprises. None of the park descriptions we read in advance prepared us for the stunning sandstone bluffs, caves, rock bridges, and geological features we found. I remember spotting a sign for Rock House Trail as we started into the park. I talked J.L. into hiking down the trail—which looked nondescript at its beginning, hoping we might find the remains of an old rock settlers home. What we found instead were rock house bluffs towering over our heads and a narrow passageway twining along underneath them. This proved to be only the first of many similar incredible trails like this throughout the park, which often began like woodsy pathways, but then led to rocky stairs, bridges, bluffs, and other fun “finds.” In addition, the CCC museum, lake, and picnic areas around the park were scenic—and we learned this was the first park in the southeast to be listed as a dark sky viewing location, making us wish we could stay  to look for stars and constellations later that night.

Cumberland Mountain State Park, near Crossville, we remember mainly for its scenic beauty. It’s tucked around serene, picturesque Byrd Lake, and J.L. and I loved the long, arched stone bridge with seven arches across the lake built by the CCC, as well as the winding lake trails, rustic cabins, and gorgeous golf course. Near the park entrance we loved exploring the Homesteads Tower and Museum, too, and learning about the early history of this area.

Moving across state we began to hit what we later termed “The Waterfall Parks”—a series of  glorious parks with rushing cascades and tumbling falls. Among our favorites were Cummins Falls with its 75 ft curtain of water falling over a rocky bluff, Burgess Falls with its multiple waterfalls spilling over rocky ledges, all viewable from a riverside trail, and Rock Island with a glory of stunning falls scattered all around the park.

As we neared Nashville and the center of the state, J.L. and I found ourselves continually delighted and entertained by the diversity of parks we discovered. Many times, traveling down the interstate and highways around this area, we’d seen park signs but never driven back to visit them—missing so much! Surprisingly, one state park sat right in the middle of downtown Nashville, the Tennessee Bicentennial Capital Mall State Park. Even with the city skyline all around it, the park still provided an oasis of green and offered an interesting glimpse into Tennessee history.

South of Nashville, we explored parks like Tims Ford sprawled around the banks of beautiful Tims Ford Lake, Old Stone Fort State Archaeological Park with its rich history and stunning waterfalls,  Mousetail Landing, and the David Crockett State Park.

Beyond Nashville we especially enjoyed our visit to Montgomery Bell State Park and spent the night at the inn looking out across Acorn Lake. This large park offered many scenic spots, historic areas – like the old Cumberland Presbyterian Church above, beautiful lakes and picnic sites, making it easy to see why the park is so popular. Nearby, we had fun visiting Dunbar Cave, Port Royal, and Johnsonville State Historic Park on the Tennessee River. This park had a great museum and many Confederate structures, old cannons, battlefields, and monuments.

Two unusual parks in Middle Tennessee each spread out over a long area, versus being on a single site. The Harpeth River State Park consisted of segments along 40 miles of the Harpeth River—and it was like a scavenger hunt finding each one. Similarly, locating the most interesting sites to visit at South Cumberland State Park had us driving sometimes 30-45 minutes between each section in this vast 25,539-acres park, spanning four counties. Our favorite spot in this park was the Stone Door area in the Savage Gulf section of the park near Beersheba Springs south of McMinnville. From the Stone Door Ranger Station off Hwy 56, we walked to Laurel Falls and then took the two-mile round trip hike to the Laurel Gulf Overlook and the Stone Door, where rocky bluffs create a deep slit, or door, between them. The views across the gorge and mountains here made a great finale to our day.

Honestly, it never dawned on J.L. and I what treasures we’d see and what wonderful times we’d have exploring the parks in Tennessee. After completing the Middle Tennessee parks, we eagerly began planning longer trips to see what we might find moving further west toward the Mississippi River. In my August blog next month I’ll talk about the parks in West Tennessee—and spotlight more memory photos, too. I hope you’ve been enjoying this summer journey around Tennessee’s parks.

If you have not picked up our guidebook DISCOVERING TENNESSEE STATE PARKS, you can order it at any bookstore near your home or find it online at Barnes & Noble or Amazon. It describes all 56 parks and is loaded with over 700 color photo illustrations. If you buy and enjoy it, please consider writing a short review about what you liked on Amazon. See you next month!

June 2018 – “East TN Parks”

For the summer, I’m going to tempt you to discover the wonderful state parks in your home state by talking about our adventures visiting all fifty-six of Tennessee’s state parks. For June, I’ll talk about the East Tennessee parks, in July the Middle Tennessee parks, and in August the West Tennessee state parks. … My husband J.L. and I had such a fabulous time for two years visiting all our state’s parks.

How did we get started with this idea? … In 2013, when the national parks shut down, J.L. and I, as avid hikers in the Smoky Mountains, found ourselves with no familiar Smokies trails to enjoy. Looking for alternatives, we decided to try hiking in some of the nearby state parks. So we started looking for a guidebook, similar to our guide created for trails in the Smokies. We couldn’t find anything. Nada. We scoured the library, bookstores, Internet sites, and more. Of course, the Tennessee state park service had a great website telling about the parks … but we wanted a book we could carry with us. Not finding one, we decided to write one.

We thought about our new idea for a  guidebook for a few years, before starting any park visits, because our 2013-2015 season was a very busy one professionally. Our hiking guide THE AFTERNOON HIKER came out in April 2014, my 6th Smoky Mountain novel DOWN BY THE RIVER in June 2014, published by Kensington, and my novella “A Smoky Mountain Gift” published in Kensington’s Christmas anthology WHEN THE SNOW FALLS. In addition to those three books, my 7th novel MAKIN’ MIRACLES debuted in early January 2015 and my 8th book SAVING LAUREL SPRINGS in the fall of 2015. Whew! It was a hectic publishing season! In addition I was still teaching at Tusculum and J.L. was continuing to run his business, getting out his monthly fishing and hunting guide magazines and handling UT sports sales products. Neither of us could scrape out a lot of free time. But in the summer of 2015 we finally started our explorations and from 2015 to 2017 we visited all the parks in the state.

J.L. and I decided to start our visits in the far eastern corner of Tennessee, working our way across state to Tennessee’s western border on the Mississippi River. Before each park visit, we did a lot of research. I looked up information about the upcoming park we planned to explore, printed a park map, read about things to do and see in each park. In addition, I read related website articles and descriptions about the park, its trails, sites, and history so we could know as much as possible for our upcoming visit. J.L. researched the best driving route to each park and studied our maps, the state park website, and other information, as well. For every large state park, we planned a four-page write up and for smaller parks we used a two-page spread. Our goal was to tell readers about the most interesting things we found within each park, along with providing a good general description of what any visitor would find.

The first four parks we visited were Warriors’ Path, Sycamore Shoals, David Crockett Birthplace, and Roan Mountain in the Tri-Cities area in upper east Tennessee. Each were an hour-and-a-half to two hours drive from our home in Knoxville, but by heading out early, we still had the entire day in which to enjoy the park before heading back home. For all the East Tennessee state parks, we made day trips to the park on a pretty day and then drove back home to spend the night in our own bed—with no journey a difficult one.

Warriors’ Path was a beautiful lake park on the Patrick Henry Reservoir on the Holston River. The lake views throughout the park were gorgeous and we ate our first picnic sitting at a picnic table on the hillside above the marina, watching the boats come in and out. We generally took picnics to the parks, so the only cost to us was a little gas and time. The park had ten great hiking trails, a stunning golf course, a riding stable, cabins, campgrounds, a beautiful Olympic swimming pool, and an award-winning children’s park with wonderful play structures including a giant tree house—a favorite of all the children. If there hadn’t been so many children playing in the tree house the day we visited, I’d have climbed up in it myself…. And I loved the interactive walkway around the park with statues from The Chronicles of Narnia.

In contrast Sycamore Shoals in Elizabethton was a historic park, one of many we would find around the state. The visitor center had a museum, an interesting historic film, and spreading over the grounds was a large replica of Fort Watauga to explore. J.L. and I learned a lot of history at this park as well as having a good time … and felt guilty for all the times we’d driven right past the entrance to this park while working sales and deliveries in the area. Traveling to David Crockett Birthplace park another day introduced us to more history of Davy Crockett’s life. This is a replica of Crockett’s family’s cabin above. Later we would visit another park dedicated to Crockett in middle Tennessee and stop by the last home where Davy Crockett lived in west Tennesse before he was killed at the Alamo.

Roan Mountain State Park reminded us of the Smokies with its mountain streams and blue mountain ranges. We really loved this park and enjoyed learning about the Peg Leg Iron Ore Mine and the area’s history. We also enjoyed visiting the old Miller farmstead and cemetery, and hiking many of the nice trails.  Roan Mountain is famous for the annual Rhododendron Festival held every summer above the park at Carver’s Gap but we didn’t know all this land and more once belonged to General John Wilder. In 1870, he bought 7000 acres of  Roan Mountain land for only $25 an acre. He mined iron ore, farmed, and built a lavish resort on top of the mountain  called The Cloudland Hotel which we enjoyed seeing old pictures of. It was incredible to imagine all this vast property once belonged to one man.

After visiting these first four parks we were hooked … and couldn’t wait to get away from our work to visit another park whenever we found a free day with nice weather. Wanting good photos and a fine day to visit, we planned our parks visits carefully, watching the weather reports, and in the winter we disbanded our visits, not wanting park photos with bare branches and little greenery. Our next parks were north of Knoxville—Big Ridge State Park, an old favorite from our childhoods, Norris Dam, Cove Lake, Panther Creek, Indian Mountain, Seven Islands Birding Park, and Frozen Head. Panther Creek proved to be a big surprise for us. We’d expected it to be low along the Cherokee Lake with lots of lake access, but instead it sprawled across high hills and bluffs above the river. Our favorite trail there was The Seven Sinkholes Trail wandering along deep natural sinkholes in the earth, the first time we’d seen geologic structures like these. We ran into more sinkholes at later parks, like at Pickett State Park near Jamestown, in Cedars of Lebanon Park, and in the South Cumberland State Park.

Our last East Tennessee park visits took us south to Fort Loudon near Maryville, to the Hiwassee and Ocoee River Park, famous for whitewater rafting, to Harrison Bay and Booker T. Washington state parks on the Chickamauga Lake above Chattanooga, and to Red Clay State Historic Park. We loved Fort Loudon for its huge fort and scenic beauty on a peninsula in the Tellico Lake and we found Red Clay fascinating, too.  It sits on Cherokee sacred ground where the last Cherokee councils were held before the Trail of Tears began. Hiking up The Council of Trees Trail at Red Clay through the woods, J.L. and I turned a corner to suddenly see this huge limestone structure on a hill in the middle of nowhere.  This tall castle-like structure, called The Overlook Tower, sits high on a ridge literally in the middle of the forest. No one knew how it came to be there, who built it, or why.  Unexpected wonders like this were some of the factors that made exploring every park so much fun.

The last two parks we visited in East Tennessee were actually saved until after we completed visiting all the other state parks as both were still in construction stages. The Justin T. Wilson Cumberland Trail State Park is still under construction today. It’s a linear park angling from the Kentucky/Tennessee border above Harrogate to a point below Chattanooga on Signal Mountain. Somewhat like the more familiar Appalachian Trail, the trail will span over 330 miles through Tennessee with plans to some day link into a north-south trail tentatively called The Eastern Trail. When we finished our book over 95% of the land for the trail had been purchased and about 65% of the trail had been completed. We learned a lot about this projected trail, its history, and all the volunteer groups who had and still are working on it. We visited several sections of the completed trail to sample it, starting at the head of the trail at Cumberland Gap. There we hiked up past the Iron Furnace to the Tri-State Peak Pavilion where the borders of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia meet—an interesting spot with fantastic views. We visited other spots along the trail in middle Tennessee near Cove Lake and near Crossville at 110-foot Ozone Falls.

The final East Tennessee park we visited is one of the newest in the system, added in 2012, Rocky Fork State Park. One of the park rangers, early in our journey, suggested we wait until some of the trails could be improved and the bridges and parking areas repaired before we visited. Like Seven Islands, another new park to the system, this park doesn’t have a formal visitor center yet or restrooms, but it’s a beautiful place for hiking. The 2,037 acres of park land lie in a sweep of wilderness bordered by the Cherokee National Forest. Like Roan Mountain park, the trails feel like those in the Smoky Mountains, climbing along rushing mountain streams with cascades, waterfalls, and wildflowers in the spring. The Rocky Fork Trail is an easy, broad, well-developed trail to follow along the stream passing several falls and leading to a historic site.

Finishing the eighteen parks in East Tennessee, we were eager to next explore the parks in the middle region of the state – featured next month. We hope you might look for our guidebook DISCOVERING TENNESSEE STATE PARKS to help you to better locate and enjoy all these wonderful parks – still free to visit in Tennessee.

Happy adventuring!…  See you next month with more park discussions.

May 2018 – “My Early Life”

I was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee. My mother, injured in a car accident, had been advised not to have a second child—so I was a risk. My father, a prudent man, bought cemetery lots as the doctor cautioned that one or both of us might die. I still have those lots in the Greenwood Cemetery in Brainerd—in case you need them—and obviously my mother and I cheated death and God had other plans for us.

My father was an engineer with the U.S. Geological Survey, my mother a former high school Home Economics teacher. My mom, dad, my older brother David (eight years older than me), and I lived in Chattanooga for only a short time after I was born before my dad got transferred to the survey office in Knoxville. Our new home was in South Knoxville in Colonial Heights at the end of a dead end street called Chalmers Drive. Few people had big homes then as now, but we had a fantastic yard with wonderful shade trees for climbing, a big vegetable garden, and an abundance of flowering shrubs and plants all over our yard.

Dad converted an old shed and chicken house into a wonderful playhouse that both my brother’s and my friends enjoyed. It had bunk beds, a table and chairs, and play items in it—a fun place we filled with childhood adventures. A small freight train ran by our property every day and we loved waving to the engineer and getting him to pull the train whistle for us as he passed. My young life was filled with outdoor fun—playing in the woods and fields nearby, taking hikes up Browns Mountain, coloring pictures and cutting out paper dolls on quilts under a shade tree, roller-skating and riding our bikes on the street and sidewalks, playing croquet or kick-the-can on warm summer evenings,  giggling and telling stories at spend-the-night parties. My dad helped me build a big dollhouse in the converted playhouse that I peopled with character dolls—all with rich personalities and individual stories… obviously the “writer” in me at work at an early age. My friends say I always created great “pretend” stories and dramas for us to act out and came up with great play ideas. I remember those young years growing up as good and happy days.

I became a “cat lover” in early childhood, and I always had one of more cats. My first cat was a stray that showed up at our Chattanooga home when I was a baby—a small, fluffy, yellow tabby. Mom took it in to feed it and then sent David around to the neighbors’ homes to look for its owners with no results. Looking for the kitten later, mom found it curled up in my crib beside me, my arm around it. From then on, my years were filled with many beloved cat pets. You can see a couple of girlhood photos here with some of our cats and kittens.

My love for books and stories started early, too. I read avidly, loved biking to the nearby library to fill up my bike basket with new books to read. I scribbled poems and stories later, worked with the school newspaper, and was a strong student. School was a place to learn, disciplined and ordered then, with no permissive dress codes or conduct indulged. I am grateful for that solid restrictive, but loving and encouraging, background as it paved the way for later undergraduate, masters, and doctorate studies, along with the discipline and skills needed for study and writing.

As I headed into high school, my father accepted a transfer to Arkansas, which did not prove a happy change for me. We moved to a more city environment and I missed the mountains and countryside of East Tennessee and my friends. I made some good friends and memories, of course, in those years in Arkansas but returned to Tennessee for college, eager to “come home.” I went to Maryville College for a year on an art scholarship but found the school, at that time in its history, heavy-laden with rules and restrictions, and I transferred to the University of Tennessee the next year, changing my major to education. In my heart, I wanted to write and illustrate, but my dad had closed the door to all the colleges I’d been accepted to for commercial art and illustration programs. In those years, a lot of decisions and choices were dictated by others—by parents, advisors, and authorities. It was a limiting time for women as well—in the midst of the age of domesticity—when most girls were pushed more toward gaining their “Mrs. Degrees,” marrying and staying home to raise kids, than pushed toward more ambitious career goals and dreams. Being overly ambitious then made me a bit of a black sheep. Still does sometimes.

I remember adolescence as an emotional roller coaster season with a lot of pressures and disappointments. I feel blessed that I met J.L. in my college years with relationships bouncing up and down like yo-yos. I’m grateful he doggedly pursued me, loved me, believed in me, and married me. I am sure that living with an artist and dreamer [for all writers are essentially artists and dreamers] has not been easy.  Both of us had a lot of growing up to do in those early married years, too—even after the children came. But with time and sharing our lives and dreams, we have become not only sweethearts but the best of friends.

J.L. was out of college, working in business sales, when we married, I was still finishing school and went on to get my masters, while living in an apartment near the university and later in our first house. My artistry goals had shifted to more practical educational goals and I was studying to work in higher education in career services when I got pregnant with Max. I remember with humor getting “the college job offer of my dreams” when I was six to seven months pregnant, as big as a tank and battling toxemia. It wasn’t a day and age when pregnant women were hired for power jobs—or any job. But I loved being a mother to Max and then about two-and-a-half years later to Kate, after we’d moved to our current home in West Knoxville. I found motherhood a wonderful, creative adventure, and J.L. and I sacrificed a lot for me to stay home as much as possible in those years, with me always carrying a wide variety of part-time jobs to help out economically.

In the early years as we became parents, J.L. and I also found the Lord in a new and rich way. We’d grown up in church and were believers, but we had no vital, personal relationship with God. The term for that “change experience” is not as important as finding and having this needed experience, but we were indeed “reborn” at this time. We found that faith filled all the empty places in us and began to make of us something new and better, especially as we read the Word and grew in understanding. Knowing God and growing in God is still the richest and most rewarding part of our lives.

As the children grew older I got into educational sales in the college arena, whetting my old desire to return to college work. I went back to school part-time—as I could save up enough for classes with side jobs—and began work on my doctorate in higher ed and leadership studies.  On right you’ll see me in one of my typical professional suits with my dad, mother, and brother.

I received my doctorate degree at UT the same year my son Max got his undergrad degree in art. Instead of working in college administration, as I thought I would, I ended up in teaching and taught for the next 18 years at Tusculum College’s Knoxville branch while working a variety of part-time marketing, sales, and PR jobs and in J.L.’s business. At Tusculum I taught a variety of Research and Psychology courses, including Rudiments of Research, Organization and Analysis of Research, Educational Psychology, Social Psychology, Developmental Psychology, Gender, Adult Development and Aging, Theories of Counseling, and Introductory Psychology. Teaching and sales pushed me forward in developing leadership skills, speaking and marketing abilities, creative initiative, and good time management competence.

It wasn’t until the children were finally grown and gone from home that life opened time for me to write—around my other work roles. So you might say I’m a “late bloomer” to the writing life. However, life before this time had strengthened and trained me to handle this new role more efficiently, developing in me the self-discipline, confidence, and initiative needed to write diligently and well—and to market my work—when the time finally opened.

So here I am now, ten years after signing my first book contract, finally writing full-time and able to really call myself a “career author” at last. I am a prime example of the quote: “It is never too late to be what you might have been.” Like a little ship, battered with life’s storms, I’m still sailing on—finally doing what I was always intended to do—and grateful and blessed to be doing it.

April 2018 – “April Wildflowers in the Smokies”

Wildflowers, uncultivated, grow freely in fields, forests, and meadows without human intervention. The origins of many wildflowers are unknown and they appear to be native plants, varieties differing by regional area. Today many wildflowers can also be intentionally seeded or planted but others still grow wild, spreading and reproducing, and delighting us with their beauty.

Living near the Great Smoky Mountains, I look forward to the wildflowers blooming every year. When J.L. and I were working on our hiking guidebook, we were on the trails often through all seasons, always seeing new flowers along the way.  But April was always the prettiest month of the year for enjoying the wildflowers. It’s also in April when the wildflower pilgrimages and wildflower walks around the mountain areas are held. There are more than 1,500 kinds of flowering plants in the Smokies, more than in any other national park, so there are always many varieties and types of wildflowers to discover.

On our hikes and walks in the mountains, we have taken many photos of wildflowers, like the photo of us at the beginning of this post with several varieties of trillium, an early Smokies wildflower. However photographer fans and friends of ours, that we’ve met on the “writer’s road,” take far more spectacular and beautiful photos than we do, so I’ve spotlighted some of their work in this blog post. Raven Pat Smith’s photos above show a glorious white trillium, an early purple violet and wild bluebells. Other early wildflowers in the mountains include white rue anemone, bloodroot, and pink spring beauty as in Pam Mullinix’s photos. Pam’s other shots are of flowering quince and dwarf blue larkspur.

Daffodils, brought to the Smoky Mountains by the settlers, are common in early spring, especially in areas like Cades Cove where many settlers once lived. Dogwood trees were also planted by early settlers and later spread, as did other non-native flowering trees and shrubs. We often discover daffodils, flowering shrubs, and non-native plants around the crumbling walls, foundations, and chimneys of old homesteads—the flowers living on long after the people and farms are gone. Marie Burchett Merritt’s photos on the right show dogwoods in bloom, yellow trillium, and wild dwarf iris—that I always love spotting on the trail.

J.L. and I have many favorite “Wildflower Trails” we love to return to every April, knowing we will find a wide variety of wildflowers there. One of these is the Chestnut Top Trail near the Townsend Wye where forty species of wildflowers can be found on the first mile alone.

Another trail we love is the Porters Creek Trail in the Greenbrier area where we have seen trillium, blue and yellow violets, and trout lily like in Jim Bennett’s photo. Along the roadsides and in other park areas you will find purple ironweed and orange butterfly weed, also in Jim’s photos, which the bees and butterflies love. We were delighted to spot our first pink ladies slippers on a quiet side pathway off the Porters Creek Trail, too.  Another treat in the spring further up the Porters Creek are the white fringed phacelia which spread across the ground like a delightful carpet along both sides of the trailside.

After you explore the mountains trails for many years, you learn where certain flowers can be found most readily … like flame azalea in late April and May on Gregory Bald, mountain laurel on the Smokemont Loop and Chestnut Top Trail in early summer, and later rosebay rhododendron on the Alum Cave and Finley Cane trails. Vibrant pink Catawba rhododendron, like in Kristina Plaas’s photo, grow in the higher elevations like on Andrews Bald or near the Chimney Tops Trailhead. Many wildflowers we simply run into along a trail … stopping to delight in our “finds.” Special wildflowers, always a treat to discover, are white dutchman’s britches, yellow lady’s slippers, and red Indian paintbrush, also in Kristina Plaas’s photo below.

We tried to mention in our hiking guide The Afternoon Hiker trails especially known for wildflowers but flowers in the mountains often show up in unexpected places, and there are flowers of different types to see from early spring into the late fall. But April is still the best time to see the most wildflower varieties in the mountains. If you ever come to the Smokies in April the show of wildflowers will delight you and give you lovely memories to carry home. But remember that anytime you explore the woods, parks, and fields near your own hometown in the warmer seasons that you will find wildflowers, too. This month, I hope you will head outdoors—and get out of your car and walk up a trail—to enjoy the beauty you will find at every turn.

Springtime is the land awakening.” [L. Grizzard]…“For, lo, the winter is past, …the flowers appear on the earth.” [Song of Solomon 2:11, KJV]… and “Spring invites us into a fairy land of imagination where flowers bloom with joy, butterflies fly with song, and love dances with love.” [D. Mridha] … Happy Spring and Happy April.

March 2018 – “Book Inspirations”

My new novel LOST INHERITANCE publishes on April 3rd. This is my eleventh novel set around the Smoky Mountains. The short publisher description on the back of the book says: “Set amid the charm of downtown Gatlinburg in the Smoky Mountains, Lin Stepp’s LOST INHERITANCE explores how shattering loss can lead to happiness and gain.” … A fitting description. Main character Emily Lamont learns, as the story begins, that an improperly executed will has cut her out of inheriting the prestigious gallery in downtown Philadelphia where she works. Stunned and with few other options, Emily retreats to a small mountain gallery in Gatlinburg she did inherit—a smaller life by far than she is used to. She hopes for happiness and a new beginning but soon bangs heads with Cooper Garrison, who feels bitter his mother didn’t inherit the gallery instead of her. And so begins this story of two young people life has dealt losses and disappointments to more than once. I hope you will enjoy their story and visiting in the Gatlinburg area of the Smokies.

Ideas for books come from many different sources. The idea for this new book came from a true life, similar story that happened to my long-time friend Jayne Matthews.  I was unaware a will could be overturned on a technicality and remember Jayne’s own disappointment over an inheritance that an aunt and uncle meant to leave her being disbursed to others. I dedicated this book to Jayne, who died a few years ago, much too young. Pictured with Santa in this photo, Jayne—always ready with a good story—will be forever loved and remembered with fondness by her many friends.

Often animals belonging to my friends and fans inspire pets I create for my stories. In LOST INHERITANCE both my main characters own a dog. Emily’s dog is a proper, refined standard poodle, named Mercedes, used to life in downtown Philadelphia. Cooper’s dog Brinkley is a warm-hearted, lovable golden retriever, used to rambles in the outdoors around  the mountains. Mercedes was inspired by my fan Lisa Keever’s big gray poodle Sadie Belle and Brinkley by Kensington CEO Steven Zacharius’ golden retriever by the same name. I featured a gallery cat in this book, too, named Sugar Lips, who welcomes guests to the Creekside Gallery on the River Road. Sugar Lips belongs to my fan Charlene Povia. Sugar Lips is hardly the head of the welcoming committee when Mercedes arrives at the gallery but they grow used to each other as the book progresses.  As Emily explores a neighborhood near the gallery and her apartment, she meets Sara and her little white bichon freise Buster.  The girls become friends and often walk their dogs together.  Buster was inspired by neighbors Ken and Sandra Owens’ two white bishons, Ginger and Tucker. Special thanks to Lisa Keever, Steven Zacharius, Charlene Povia, and Whitney Owen for providing photos of their pets for this blog post.

Main character Emily Lamont in this story works at the Creekside Gallery and also builds dollhouses. In a later scene in the book, Emily talks about the Dollhouse Shop her parents once owned in the Bearden neighborhood in Knoxville. I used to take my children to that charming little shop in the Homberg area when they were small. We enjoyed looking at the miniature dollhouses, dolls, and furnishings for sale and we sometimes got to watch the owner working on a new house. The shop is empty now but I drove there today to take this photo. It’s still such a cute place, reminding me of good memories—just as Emily is reminded of sweet memories when she sees it again, too.

The story’s other main character, Cooper Garrison, builds log homes and loves the outdoors. He soon takes Emily on hikes around the mountains … and he and Emily often walk their dogs on the nearby Gatlinburg Trail. This is one of the few trails in the Smokies that allows dogs on the trail. It is popular with locals and visitors for that reason and because the trail winds along the creekside and past remnants of old houses, chimneys, and other relics of the settlers who once lived there. The Gatlinburg Trail is an easy trail for any to enjoy while visiting the area, as is the Old Sugarlands Trail nearby, that Cooper and Emily explore in the story another day. Both these trails are ones we have hiked often, so our memories of good times there were fun to create for my scenes in LOST INHERITANCE.

Many inspirations behind an author’s books are totally fictitious but sometimes the places, people, pets, and adventures are based on real memories. Good writing advice says to “write what you know” … so often what I know and love finds its way into my books. I loved creating this new story in Gatlinburg … and hope you will enjoy this new novel, too.