In the sometimes foggy world that is my memory, Cades Cove lives in a clear and sunny spot. It's all alone there, surrounded by tree-covered mountains on a long autumn afternoon, with the shadows stretching out over the fields where deer are grazing. It's red, orange, yellow, and a dozen shades of green. It seems untouchable, a perfect memory of what a day can look like.
Technically, Cades Cove is a place in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. You can find it on a map and drive to it in a car; something like 2 million people do so every year. But I don't think of it as a place in the normal sense, like West Memphis is a place. Besides, in my memory the only other people there were some kids sneaking through the tall grass, trying to get closer to the deer.
I prefer to think of Cades Cove as a state of mind, a place that I visited not just physically but also emotionally and spiritually. In that sense, I've never really left. Whenever someone says "fall" to me, I return immediately to Cades Cove, where the sun is always setting and the creeks are always running low.
Physically, I went there one autumn a few years back, when I was hiking on the Appalachian Trail. Or maybe it was when I was in Knoxville to see a football game. I can't remember -- and don't care, really. My mind is still trying to comprehend the simple beauty of the little white church with the red maple tree next to it.
Even if you survey the actual history of the actual place called Cades Cove, it doesn't seem to be of this world. The Cherokee called it "the place of the river otter," but they only hunted there. The first whites arrived at the beginning of the 19th century -- some of them veterans of the Revolutionary War -- and did what we did all over the continent: They killed off the otters along with the bison and elk, cleared land, drained wetlands, ran off the Cherokee, planted crops, and started digging for minerals. But there were no minerals, farming and cattle operations were hemmed in by the mountains, and the roads were almost impassable. So even at its peak, the population of the cove was less than 700 people. It seems Cades Cove just wasn't meant to be a part of this world.
Such was their isolation that during the Civil War, the folks up there -- as did a lot of the people in the mountains -- mostly sided with the Union. What did they have in common with the other people in the South, anyway? A band of Confederate soldiers came through occasionally to take prisoners and steal livestock, but for the most part the war skipped Cades Cove. What it did do, however, was make the people of the cove believe that the outside world was no damn good, and vice versa.
Over the next 40 years virtually nobody else moved in. When the national park was created in 1934, there were a few dozen families still living there, with only a few last names. Some of the people had never left the cove. The last actual resident of Cades Cove, a certain Kermit Caughron, died in 1999.
The cove, with some effort, seems to have been frozen in the time of Mr. Caughron's youth. Cattle are allowed to graze to keep the fields down. Old buildings have been restored and newer ones taken down. River otters, barn owls, and elk have been reintroduced. Native grasses have been planted and wetlands restored.
Those old roads have been replaced, too, of course. To get there today you need only drive about eight paved miles from Townsend, Tennessee, up winding Abrams Creek. The drive has the distinct feel of coming into a big place through a small entrance. You'll find a one-way loop road that leads through fields, forests, apple trees, azaleas, daffodils, fences, and log buildings. You can visit the old grist mill and buy meal, or you can rent bikes; on Wednesday and Saturday mornings the road is closed to cars. You can hike to waterfalls and viewpoints. In winter you can cross-country ski.
But the main thing you can and should do is see the place. See the morning mists and the afternoon shadows. See the deer and the mountains and the creeks and the trees. See a glimpse of what things used to look like, back when people were more connected to the land, when there was no electricity, when the weather and the season had direct consequences for day-to-day life.
You just might see something that will find a special spot in your memory and stay there, all by itself, for a long time.