October 2018 – “Autumn Glory”

In one of L.M. Montgomery’s beloved Anne of Green Gables books Anne Shirley said: “I’m so glad we live in a world where there are Octobers.” Here in Tennessee, October is an “expectant” month. We watch the trees, still green, knowing that sometime soon we will begin to see those first turning leaves and then – perhaps suddenly in late October – a rush of color … russet reds, rich oranges, and golden yellows. Oh, yes … we’re glad to live in a world where there are Octobers…. And in a world where there is the expectance of beauty and the expectance of change.

I hope that you will get out to savor the beauty of October near your home  – in whatever state you live in. In all our states, there are many beautiful city, state, and national parks to take you “up close” to nature. Don’t simply drive through a scenic park either, but get out of your car to take a walk, to smell the crisp fall air, to feel the leaves crunch under your feet, and to look up into the canopy of fall color. John Muir said: “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks” and this is so true. When on a walk, you will feel that touch of peace, refreshment, inspiration, and inner joy that only being in God’s glorious outdoor world brings.

People often ask J.L. and I where to best enjoy the fall colors when visiting in the Great Smoky Mountains, and we have some favorite places. Although the popular Newfound Gap Road to the overlook on top of the Smokies is a lovely drive, the traffic is often so congested in the fall that we avoid it for lesser-known but equally beautiful spots. Near Gatlinburg, the Gatlinburg By-Pass offers lovely views and the Roaring Fork Nature Trail winds along a scenic one-way back-road, passing by old cabins, historic spots, and many pleasant trails. We like both of these places for color as much as the Newfound Gap Road.

To the west of the Smokies near Townsend we also avoid Cades Cove in the fall, because of the congestive traffic there, stalling constantly for tourists to take photos of any wildlife they spot along the way. Instead, we take to the back roads and love drives like the Rich Mountain Road behind Townsend that travels up to Rich Mountain Gap. It’s a winding, steep road but the foliage along the way is beautiful in fall and there are several trails you can enjoy at the top of the mountain.

Between Townsend and Maryville, Tennessee, is the 18 miles long Foothills Parkway, offering some of the most stunning autumn vistas you can find anywhere in the Smokies. On the highest point of the Parkway, a half-mile walk to Look Rock will take you to the Observation Tower for 360-degree panoramic views. Soon, too, the new extension of the Parkway will open across the mountains to Wears Valley,  bringing even more miles of scenic beauty. We love the Foothills Parkway drives. East of the Smokies, the far end of the Foothills Parkway climbs the mountain ridges between Cosby and Newport, with lovely pullovers and vistas. These Parkway roads are seldom overly crowded or congested with traffic—true treasures for Smoky Mountain visitors.

Still another beautiful spot for stunning fall color is the Cataloochee Valley on the east side of the Smokies near Maggie Valley and Waynesville, North Carolina. The road into the valley is always a glory in the fall and visitors can enjoy many fine hiking trails scattered throughout the valley. The scenic, winding Cataloochee trails, like Bradley Creek, the Cataloochee Divide, Pretty Hollow Gap, and the Boogerman Trail, offer quiet walks to enjoy the fall color up-close and personal. The Blue Ridge Parkway, rising behind Maggie Valley, and traveling across the mountain to Cherokee, NC, also has many beautiful vistas and overlooks. While on the Blue Ridge Parkway, we also like to drive the Balsam Mountain Road to the picnic area, where a short walk takes you out to the Heintooga Overlook with fabulous panoramas across the Smokies ranges.

While the Smoky Mountains offer stunning fall scenes every autumn, we often have seen equally beautiful color in Tennessee’s state parks. To find a state park near you, our new guidebook DISCOVERING TENNESSEE STATE PARKS might give you ideas for things to see and enjoy in the state parks. In town, we also have city parks with lovely fall color and nice outdoor trails. Our favorite is Ijams Nature Park. But we also enjoy simply walking the streets of pretty neighborhoods in Knoxville (like our own) where mature trees abound around old established yards. Often a few late fall flowers and mums add an extra touch of beauty to these landscapes.

So, yes, we are glad to live in a world where there are Octobers. Don’t let this beautiful month pass you by without getting out of doors to make good memories of your own.

September 2018 – “Things We Collect”

People like collecting things … from simple inexpensive things like postcards to more precious items like Faberge eggs or rare coins. There seems to be an innate part of us that likes to find, keep, and collect things we like. Small children pick up pretty stones, leaves, or pinecones  almost instinctively to take home and put on a shelf.  On trips to the beach kids love to collect shells, which I still like to find and bring home even now. As children grow older they often begin to collect other small items and toys they can purchase inexpensively like stickers, stamps, coins, bracelets, small cars, or stuffed animals. Amateur versus serious collectors may collect items of all different kinds simply because the subjects interest them. They may not care about the monetary value of the things they collect at all.

I’m not sure of all the reasons why people collect things but I seem to remember nearly everyone in my family collecting something at one time or another. My mother collected pitchers; she liked pretty colored glassware – and she collected Fiestaware, which I inherited. She also collected buttons because she liked to sew. I remember loving to get out the metal tin boxes filled with the buttons she’d collected to play with them. My father collected tools because he liked to fix and make things. I remember he collected National Geographic Magazines, too. As an engineer, they appealed to him and he enjoyed them. Dad also had a few carved birds. He liked to whittle. I inherited two of his birds and I later picked up a few beautifully carved and painted birds over time that I love, too.

My husband J.L’s mother had many collections. She collected baskets, roosters, dolls, Depression glassware, and quilts, among many other things. I inherited one of her butterfly quilts, which I really cherish. As a boy J.L. loved baseball and collected baseball cards. I know he wishes he still had some of those cards now.

Because I played outdoors so much, I’m sure I collected many outdoor treasures in my romps around the countryside. I remember making a “leaves” book with all the different leaves I collected one summer. I collected Betsy McCall paperdolls, too, from the back of Mother’s McCall’s magazines every month. Neither of these collections cost me anything but they were fun. I also collected small character dolls I received for birthdays and Christmas over the years…. Madame Alexander dolls, Ginny dolls, Betsy McCall dolls, a Miss Revlon and a Bob doll, and some Skipper dolls. I never really got into Barbies as my daughter Kate did later. But I created a fine fantasy family with my big collection of dolls. Dad built me a dollhouse for them and I spent many happy hours decorating and making furniture for that house and inventing play stories about that family.

I soon started other collections, as did most of my school friends. I collected Nancy Drew books and, along with my friend Paula, started a collection of glass and porcelain horses. Both of us were very “horse crazy” in those schoolgirl years. Like most teens, I collected records and Teen magazines and charms for my charm bracelets. The Nancy Drew books, records, and magazines are long gone but I still have many of the horses and my old charm bracelets.

One collection I inherited was of small teacups and saucers, which were my mother’s. She’d received them from the minister and his wife she lived with during her college years at Elon College. I kept these to honor the memory of that pastor and his wife who put my mother through school and let her live with them—very special in her time, when from a family of twelve children.

As an author and avid reader, I admittedly have always collected and still collect books. Many I treasure and re-read again and again. I like the idea of collecting books because you can enjoy them over and over, and I learn from them every time I re-read them … unlike so many items I collected but have now let go. I have many old books in my collection, passed down from others, many reference and academic books, novels by favorite authors, spiritual and devotional books. I’ve also started collecting a few glass paperweights. I admit I’m drawn to them when we’re traveling or when I see special ones at a crafts fair.

J.L. and my daughter Kate are not very avid collectors but my son Max likes to collect things. He has taken many of the old collections of his youth home with him to New Orleans from our house. Some he’s sold on eBay; some he’s kept. He likes comic books and always has. He also collects vinyl records and displays old toys, action figures, and Matchbox cars in his office.

There are a lot of interesting studies about why people collect and why people collect the things they do. Although collecting can have a dark side and can become obsessive and unhealthy, for most people collecting is normal and fun—like an adventurous hobby. One of my friends, Jayne, collected small bells all her life; she enjoyed finding new ones when she traveled, and she could tell special stories about each one she had. A lot of people say they don’t collect anything and yet their closet is filled with forty pairs of shoes, their hobby room overflows with fabrics or art supplies, or their garage is piled high with sports equipment. So, probably all of us collect one thing or another whether we realize it or not.

I am not the buyer and collector I once was in my youth. Today I look around and realize I need to get rid of excess things in my home rather than adding more. Although I recognize the personal value of the small things I’ve collected and kept over the years, they will probably have little sentimental value to my children someday.Now I am more of a collector of experiences, adventures, and stories. I tend to collect “moments” now more than things. … However, I think collections tell a lot about the individuals who have them. I also think homes with collections are always more interesting than homes without them. So, should people collect? My answer is yes, and I love this quote about collecting to close: “Collect things you love, that are authentic to you, and your house becomes your story.”

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.