To a northerner like myself, Asheville, North Carolina, evokes the feel of small towns in Vermont or Maine. Nestled in the French Broad River Valley in the Blue Ridge mountains at 2100 feet above sea level, the town is by turns artsy, crafty, foodie, and very easygoing — a comfortable marriage between a kind of hip, escape-from-the-rat-race vibe and southern charm. A creative air suffuses it all: Everyone you meet, it seems, is an artist, writer, brewmaster, or chef.
So you go to Asheville to enjoy the arts, crafts, beer, and food, and also to go hiking, biking, or something active and outdoorsy. (The peak tourist season is October when the leaves turn color – the changes cascading down the mountains over several weeks – and it’s also when hotel rooms are priciest.)
As for shopping: wonderful, quirky, and super-local. You won’t find many chain stores here. It’s not that there’s an ordinance blocking them, but rather that their presence is discouraged — sometimes aggressively. Picketers marched up and down in front of Urban Outfitters a few years ago when it first opened. (Apparently the same censure does not apply to sugary treats: Ben and Jerry’s had no such problems in setting up shop.)
My wife Estelle and I pulled into town on a Monday in early August and stayed at the centrally located AC Marriott Hotel. This is a modern, recently renovated property with rooms that are light and airy. At nine stories, the building is tall for Asheville. The top floor holds an elegant restaurant with an outdoor seating area allowing expansive views.
Our dinner that first evening was at Limones, a Mexican restaurant — not at all like your local taco joint — where San Francisco-trained chef Hugo Ramirez gives a modern twist to traditional Mexican fare. After an appetizer of ceviche and a fresh tuna sampler, we tasted plates of salmon and scallops in a broth with corn. Delicious food, and you couldn’t help noticing the place was packed to the gills even at 9 p.m. on a Monday night.
The next morning, we were off to the arts district, where a series of 22 industrial buildings and warehouses are spread out for a mile along the French Broad River. More than 200 artists occupy these spaces as part of the city’s effort both to boost the arts and reclaim what had been a decaying part of town. Pottery predominates, but there are also interesting paintings, metalwork, fiber, glass, and paper art.
For the afternoon, we embarked on the “Eating Asheville” food tour, which involves marching around for two-and-a-half hours, stopping along the way at local eateries for a bite here, a nibble there, and a sip in between. First stop was the eclectic Battery Park Book Exchange, which features 80,000 lightly used books for sale as well as a wine and champagne bar. There, we sipped sparkling wine while browsing the book collection, arranged by theme. Treasures abound. Under Civil War history, I stumbled across War is Hell! by General Sherman, an extraordinary journal of his march to Atlanta, including photo plates. In the Western section, I was stopped by The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard. The writer of Get Shorty and countless other modern crime novels got his start writing western stories for the pulp magazines in the early ‘50s. After paging through it for a few minutes, I put it back on the shelf. (But two days later, I was still thinking about it, and had to come back to buy the thing. It didn’t disappoint.)
The bookstore is located in Grove Arcade, built by one of Asheville’s most noted developers, E.W. Grove, who also built the four-star Grove Park Inn at the edge of town. We learned that he (along with George Vanderbilt) were some of the first to see the potential for what was then a sleepy little town. The three-story arcade, one of America’s first shopping malls, is a late gothic revival building featuring an ornate décor that includes a series of grotesques (distinct from gargoyles in that they are purely decorative and don’t have water spouts) said to be modeled on the face of a debtor who owed Grove around $200. “A precursor to Facebook shaming” suggested Kaycee, our guide.
As for the food, over the course of two hours, we sampled Indian food, barbecue, Italian food, and tacos — culminating in brownies topped with single-source chocolate at the popular tourist spot, French Broad Chocolate Lounge.
With barely enough time to recover from the gustatory overload, I donned a reflective vest and hard hat for a tour of the then-still-under-construction Kimpton Hotel Arras with general manager David McCarthy. (The hotel opened in October of 2019.)
Hotel Arras is a gut renovation of the city’s tallest building, the 18-story BB&T Bank building built in 1965. Today, the top floors house 54 condos, ranging in price from $750,000 to $1.5 million and featuring fantastic views from every window. In the hotel portion, occupying the lower floors, the 128 rooms are decorated with Calacatta marble, European oak, leather, metals, and original artwork by local artists. In the closet of each room, aside from the Frette linen robes, guests will find their own yoga mat. (Asheville is something of a yoga center, with two training schools.)
The last stop on the tour was the ground floor, where two restaurants (now open) were still under construction. There’s District 42, featuring cocktails and sharable small plates. And for fine dining, Bargello offers Mediterranean fare. The menus for both restaurants were developed by Chef Peter Pollay of Asheville’s Posana restaurant. Bargello wasn’t yet open when I visited, but I was treated to a sampling of their scrumptious food at Posana a few days later.
The evening belonged to Isis Restaurant and Dinner Hall in West Asheville. It was more of a music venue in design, with tables facing a large stage. You might expect the food to be standard bar fare, burgers and wings, but you’d be wrong. We sampled delicious plates of Ahi tuna with risotto and trout stuffed with herbs. Meanwhile on stage that evening was some excellent bluegrass music by Nashville-by-way-of-Australia’s Kristy Cox and her five-piece band.
The next morning, it was off on a foraging tour with a No Taste Like Home, which was part hike, part botany lesson, with a focus on the edible. About a dozen participants gathered at a modest farm about 25 minutes west of Asheville where Becky Beyer, a trained botanist, guided us on our trek into the nearby hillside. We stopped every few dozen yards for a little talk about a given plant – and a nibble on said plant. The gist is that there’s food all around us. We learned for example that plain old Pennsylvania smartweed (which we learned to ID by the little hairs on the stem) has leaves that can be fried into chips; that you can safely eat all segmented berries, not just the obvious wild blackberries and raspberries; that Carolina hemlock (distinct from the poison that killed Socrates) can be used for seasoning and has a rosemary flavor; that jewelweed has healing properties; that goldenrod has a carrot-like flavor; and that the tea made from Queen Anne’s lace is good for arthritis.
Noshing on leaves, stems and the occasional root was all good, but it became clear that the group’s main interest was mushrooms. Becky quickly gave in to the mushroom energy and guided us up a trail where we soon found plenty. “Don’t pick anything white,” she warned.
Heeding her advice, we filled our bags with tiny orange chanterelles and also tawny milkcap mushrooms, indigo milkcap mushrooms (which look deadly as hell, but are edible), painted boletes, and huge, malformed (as if by a nuclear accident) lobster mushrooms. The latter is not technically a mushroom, but rather a parasitic fungus that grows on certain other mushrooms and has a reddish color like a cooked lobster as well as a faint seafood odor and flavor.
After a few hours of hunting and gathering, Becky and her assistant Natalie Dechiara rolled out a blanket and we dumped and sorted our finds. Each cache was carefully reviewed for safety before being repacked to take home. Natalie lit a portable camping stove and cut up one of the giant lobster mushrooms and fried it in butter. Creamy and delicious.
The next day, we paid a visit to Asheville’s crown jewel, Biltmore, just outside of Asheville. It was created by George Vanderbilt in 1895 as a retreat reminiscent of the grand castles and estates of France and Britain. Vanderbilt fell in love with the North Carolina mountains after visiting with his mother in the late 1880s and immediately began acquiring land. By late 1889, he was ready to build his dream house, bringing together two of the leading architects of the age, Richard Morris Hunt (best known for designing the façade and entrance hall of New York’s Metropolitan Museum) and Frederick Law Olmsted (the father of American landscape architecture and the architect of New York’s Central Park).
On a tour of the extraordinary 178,000 square foot house set on 125,000 acres, we were escorted back 100 years to the gilded age. We first entered the dining hall with 70-foot ceilings where formal dinners featured men in white tie and tails and women in evening gowns.
The tour continued through sumptuous sitting rooms, breakfast halls, a music room, a walnut sided library with 10,000 books, a gallery featuring fine Flemish tapestries. Along the way, Vanderbilt’s art collection includes Ming dynasty urns, Dürer prints, a portrait of Washington by John Singer Sargent, a portrait of Vanderbilt’s wife Edith by Whistler, collections of Japanese art, and more.
So, what’s not to like about this lovely southern town? Well, some fear the town is in danger of becoming a victim of its own success: Too many tourists, traffic jams, and soaring real estate prices. In the previous four years alone, 2,761 new hotel rooms have been approved — this, in a once-sleepy town of 92,000.
To put the brakes on the town’s growth spurt, in September of 2019 the city council voted 7-0 to put a moratorium on approvals for new hotels for a year, which in practical terms means several years, since the planning of a new hotel requires a long lead time. As a city council member said in an interview explaining the decision, “For many people here, expansion of tourism, the increase in tourism and the corresponding increase in hotel development mean that Asheville is losing its character.”
Still, one can easily see why Asheville is so popular. The climate, the artsy vibe, the high quality food, and brewpub scene. It’s the kind of place where you can’t help taking mental notes about coming back again, maybe even looking for a place of your own.
Featured image: Asheville, North Carolina skyline nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains (Shutterstock)
This article and other stories of the Civil War can be found in the Post’s Special Collector’s Edition, The Saturday Evening Post: Untold Stories of the Civil War.
—This account appeared in the August 11, 1962, issue of The Saturday Evening Post.
There were more Confederate flags sold during the first year of the Civil War Centennial (1961) than were sold throughout the South during the war itself (1861-1865). One hesitates to estimate the number of Confederate flags that will be sold during the next three years, but the prospects are that the total will be more than all the flags sold in all the wars the nation has fought.
Yet the Civil War Centennial is hardly a promotion dreamed up by flag manufacturers. Nor is the centennial merely a project of the enthusiastic city booster to lure the tourist dollar to his hometown. No city booster anywhere in the south or in the north has any intention of proposing a celebration of other conflicts like World War I or World War II or the Korean War.
We celebrate no other war because essentially we believe those wars are over, their outcomes final, the course of history decided. But there are centennial committees throughout the south which would have us think the Civil War is not completely done with, that it ought to be refought. These fellows grow beards, wave flags, and charge over the few meadows the housing developers have left — hoping somehow by this exertion to sustain the illusion that the South may yet snatch victory from defeat. They do everything to re-create the Old South except save Confederate money.
The war started again in July 1961 with the grand reenactment of the Battle of First Manassas (Bull Run), which the South, not surprisingly, won again. Twenty-three states on both sides sent participants, although a large number of soldiers came from the ranks of the North-South Skirmish Association, an organization founded in 1950 by devotees of the muzzle-loading rifle, whose purpose is to hold shooting contests from time to time. For the First Manassas reenactments the participants wore authentic uniforms and carried old muskets whose blank cartridges often bruised the shoulder, blacked the face, and seared the eyes of the unwary.
The son of a friend of mine, a “corporal” in the Guilford Greys (Greensboro, North Carolina), has been “killed” three times since First Manassas and is perfectly willing to give his life in a fourth reenacted battle. It is nice , indeed, to have more than one life to give to one’s country, although the plane fare to the different battlefields is considerable.
The centennial engenders nothing if not sacrifice. The late Bill Polk, editor of the Greensboro Daily News, once showed me a letter from a North Carolina high-school boy which read, in part: “I wish I had been born before the Civil War and had died at Gettysburg.” These mock recruits, I suspect, secretly hope one day the batteries will load real projectiles in the cannons, and the bayonets will be cold steel, not rubber. And this time they will take Washington, D.C.
On To Washington! On To Yesterday!
Certain centennialists seem to believe that once they take the capital, they can force upon the Supreme Court the decisions that will restore the old plantations, the crinolines, the dueling pistols, the house on the hill with smoke coming out the chimney at twilight, and little Sambo rolling in laughter under the magnolia. Ah, what a glorious dream!
Yet it is not entirely an idle dream. The Civil War centennialists have some vague idea that, if they can mount a sufficient show of force, they may not have to deal with the more aggravating and immediate problems of Southern life — the problems that press upon an urban, industrial area that is leaving behind the old, easy agrarian values.
Thus the centennial has turned into a party rather than a pageant. I have even seen a few automobiles decorated with the Stars and Bars, filled with black students, each of the occupants therein wearing the butternut-gray dinks of Confederate soldiers. No centennial committeeman, no matter how skillfully he ties his bowstring, is completely unaware of what is going on in the business district of his hometown. He doesn’t even have to work behind a store counter to know that, in the states of the old Confederacy, at least one-third of all the purchasing power and one-half of all the credit buying comes from the pockets of grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the black slaves.
That realization is why the centennial is something less than a huge success in the big Southern cities. The plan for my own home, Charlotte, North Carolina, by far the largest city of the two Carolinas, was to commemorate the fact that it was the site of the Confederate Navy Yard. It seems that, after the war broke out, the naval stores at Portsmouth, Virginia, were seized and transported inland to Charlotte. The long boardwalk is still called “the wharf.” But except for the members of the committee itself, few people are even aware of the centennial, let alone a Confederate Navy Yard.
Was the “Old South” A Myth?
The chamber-of-commerce fellows are selling the ideals of the modern industrial world because the ideals of the Old South were only make-believe currency. There were Southerners before 1800, but there was no “Old South.” One of our Southern writers, Wilbur J. Cash, in his book The Mind of the South, recalled that boys who cleared out the Indians in the Carolina backwoods lived to command brigades at Bull Run, which means that the Old South could not have been more than two generations old.
The fact is that the Old South was nothing more than a myth and a poem and, as Jimmy Street, another Southern writer, put it, a malady for which there fortunately is a vaccine — the industrial payroll.
The Civil War started with the Negro in slave cabins. But all of the blanks and muskets and beards will not disguise the truth that Negroes serve today on the Republican and Democratic national committees. The real Confederates found cover behind occasional tar-paper shacks. In their place today, the re-created regiments and brigades have to charge around factories where the skilled workmen inside knock off a few minutes to cheer them on.
The time has come to end the Civil War because we are one country with one economy. We cannot take time out from industrial and urban problems of unemployment, housing, schooling, and civil rights to indulge ourselves in silly excess, celebrating a time that no longer is — and never was. The truth is that, at best, the centennial provides but a minor amusement.
“Lets End the Civil War,” August 11, 1962
Alan Muskat raises a mason jar into the air. “I’ve made you birch tea,” he says. Inside the glass is a faintly golden liquid. Also, a generous number of sticks and twigs, the kind that scream “not edible!” at least to a city girl like me. Muskat pours the beverage into small cups so we can taste something wild. With his slight build, soft voice, and curly hair, he reminds me of a young Joel Grey. He’s grinning. Not for the first time that day, I wonder what I’ve gotten myself into.
It took a drive on a twisty mountain road to reach this spot on Laughing Frog Lane in Walnut, North Carolina, about half an hour from Asheville. I’m here for a guided tour with Muskat, proprietor of Wild Food Adventures, which specializes in teaching the lost art of foraging. It’s late October, but there’s still plenty to find in this rolling landscape, Muskat assures the dozen of us on the tour.
We start by learning the four critical questions to ask about any foraged item: Can you eat it? When is it in season? Do you eat it raw or must it be cooked? Where did you find it? Avoid heavily traveled roads, Muskat cautions, because the plants may be contaminated from car emissions. That’s not a problem on this private land where Muskat has permission to forage.
In the next several hours, we encounter wild foods at every turn. Common chickweed, with its small, teardrop leaves, looks like half the stray plants in my neighborhood but tastes like zippy lettuce. We see dandelions (leaf, flower, and root are all edible) and wild daisies. Mullen, whose soft leaves make a fine tea or, in a pinch, a fine toilet paper. Onion grass. Sheep sorrel, with its citrusy tang and fun shape like fish crackers.
Muskat gathers us around a cluster of shrubs with small red fruits. I’m pleased I’m the first to recognize it as sumac, often part of the Middle Eastern spice mix called za’atar. We head toward a glen to hunt for mushrooms. Muskat examines our finds and tosses the inedible and unusable. Later, at the landowner’s home, he chops and slowly sautés what we foraged — hen-of-the-woods mushrooms with wild onion, burdock roots, and sumac powder — with butter, salt, and pepper. The flavor is dark, earthy, and herby all at once, with the richness of a juicy steak.
to be suspicious if our food doesn’t come packaged and sanitized in the grocery store.”
There are practical benefits to foraging, from saving a bit on food costs to helping the environment by eating plants that don’t require pesticides, fertilizers, or irrigation. But the fundamental reason to forage is the connection it helps us create with the natural world. Foraging is a back-to-basics way to immerse yourself in a beautiful setting, focus on the present moment, and deeply satisfy your soul.
When we learn about plants by foraging, we become more self-reliant, and nature becomes understandable, almost intimate. “As a forager, I’ve learned to sense and anticipate the subtle changes in the seasons, almost like a sixth sense,” says Lisa M. Rose, author of Midwest Foraging: 115 Wild and Flavorful Edibles from Burdock to Wild Peach. “On sunny February days that are cold but bright, I can actually hear the sap in the maple trees begin to run. And April rainstorms with warmer weather means it’s time to go mushroom hunting.” Such seasonal changes are easier to miss when we are busy with office jobs and other indoor pursuits. We forget the natural world is part of wherever we live.
Foraging can’t be rushed. It teaches you to linger, to pay attention, to see what’s really there. Those weeds in a nearby park may actually be wild grapes or spicebush berries once your knowledge builds and your perceptions change. The heightened awareness from a foraging adventure can extend to other parts of your life, from noticing the vivid colors on a city street when you travel, to truly hearing the layered harmonies in a great piece of music. It’s no wonder foraging can be akin to a spiritual practice for some people.
At the same time, foraging imparts a useful lesson about acceptance. You can set out to collect a specific edible, but there’s no guarantee you will find it. A tree with figs last September may have none this September. Conditions change quickly, which means a forager learns to be flexible and to appreciate the opportunities that arise. “It’s easy to find what you’re not looking for when you’re foraging,” Muskat says.
Wild-food experts like to point out that wild foods are healthier because they can contain substantially more phytonutrients, vitamins, and fiber than store-bought produce. Phytonutrients are part of a plant’s defense against disease and predators. When we eat phytonutrients, these compounds may help guard against cancer, heart disease, and other illnesses, according to studies in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute and elsewhere. But we’ve bred phytonutrients out of farmed foods in part because they frequently taste astringent or bitter, says Jo Robinson, an investigative journalist and author of Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health. Just one example: Dandelion leaves have more calcium, vitamins A, E, and K, and antioxidants than spinach.
Some foragers take the healthy properties of wild plants a step further and forage for medicinal ingredients for making teas and other remedies. “Whenever a bee stings me, I immediately start looking for plantain,” says Sergei Boutenko, author of Wild Edibles: A Practical Guide to Foraging. “Plantain has soothing properties that help reduce swelling and relieve pain. I chew up a few leaves and apply the green mush to the affected area for instant relief.”
Reishi mushrooms have been a hallmark of traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years and are believed to boost the immune system, among other uses. “They’re really good if you feel you have a cold coming on,” says Ava Chin, former Urban Forager columnist for The New York Times and author of Eating Wildly: Foraging for Life, Love and the Perfect Meal, who boils them to create a (bitter, it must be said) tea. And some studies demonstrate the value of feverfew for preventing and treating migraines.
Foraging isn’t new, of course. While farming began anywhere from 12,000 to 23,000 years ago, foraging has been a given as long as people have inhabited the planet. That includes past generations of Americans, who were, by necessity, well-informed about wild plants. Foraging became less necessary during the industrial revolution, and practically disappeared by the 1950s, as packaged foods took hold. It took writer Euell Gibbons to reintroduce Americans to the notion that the wild held good things to eat with the publication in 1962 of his bestseller Stalking the Wild Asparagus. [See “Would You Like Weeds with That?”]
Though Americans cook with far more ingredients now than 50 years ago, some still regard uncultivated foods with unease. “As Americans, we tend to be suspicious if our food doesn’t come packaged and sanitized in the grocery store,” says Chin. But that attitude is changing. Restaurant chefs and craft breweries are using foraged ingredients to add a chic and unexpected element to their offerings. Hotels and inns are starting to offer foraging adventures among their activities. There are foraging and wild foods festivals from Big Sur, California, to Reidsville, North Carolina. “We mean to teach people about what’s edible in their local landscape, and in doing so, help them look at the area where they live in a different way,” says Iso Rabins, founder of forageSF in San Francisco.
My foraging experience changed my outlook, too. Out in the woods, foraging with friends, the world is a safe and abundant place. And all the references I’ve heard over the years to nature’s gifts and bounty? I understand them anew when I see the evidence on wild soil.
Interested in learning more? Find how-to’s, classes, and tours across the U.S. at saturdayeveningpost.com/foraging.
Light the candles, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is 75 years old this summer. Standing at Newfound Gap with the hazy ridges of the Appalachians stretching to the horizon, I try to visualize what the scene looked like when President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered the dedication at this spot. By the time the park was established in 1934, 80 percent of the hills and valleys had been clear cut by timber companies. Not a promising start for what has become the keystone national park east of the Mississippi River.
Yet today you would never guess the mountain slopes had been stripped, the streams silted, and the wildlife decimated. From The Rockefeller Memorial, where FDR stood with one foot in Tennessee and the other in North Carolina, the view is breathtaking. The densely forested hills, verdant valleys, and wildflower-lined roadways show little sign of past abuse.
At the Sugarland Visitor Center at the Gatlinburg, Tennessee, entrance, Ranger Arthur McDade explains the beginnings of the park. “This was the first citizen-driven park in the nation. With the help of $5 million in matching funds from the Rockefeller Foundation, Tennessee and North Carolina raised enough money to purchase the acreage required to establish the park. This park is a testament to citizen efforts to donate and preserve. And with 50 to 80 inches of rain annually and a long growing season, the park is a testament to nature’s ability to recover.”
In the early 1920s the people of Tennessee and North Carolina realized that a park in the Appalachian Mountains could rival the great western parks with both natural beauty and the economic benefits from tourism. The movement developed with citizen advocates and automobile clubs in Knoxville and Asheville leading the way. Finally in 1926, Congress agreed to establish an Appalachian park if the states could acquire 150,000 acres to donate to the federal government.
Unlike Western parks where all the land was owned by the government, in the Smoky Mountains, timber companies and small farmers owned the land. Over the next four years, the states acquired 6,000 plots of land, some from willing sellers and some by eminent domain. In 1934, Congress authorized the park with 400,000 acres.
“First, the Cherokee gave up their land when the government forced them out,” Ranger McDade says. “Then the American-European farmers gave up the land. Now we have a great chunk of the southern Appalachian Mountains preserved for posterity.”
By the time the park became a reality, however, the country was in the midst of the Great Depression and funding for development seemed impossible. But the Civilian Conservation Corps came to the rescue by sending 1,000 young men to build the roads, buildings, and trails that are still the backbone of the park infrastructure.
Though decimated by logging, the mountain ecosystem recovered with the spread of the plants and animals that survived in the hollers and hills too steep to cut. Now a designated UNESCO International Biosphere Reserve, the park boasts more species of plants than all of Europe. An ongoing biological inventory has documented 1,500 species of flowering plants and 130 species of trees. The study has discovered 900 species previously unknown and estimates the park may harbor as many as 100,000 life forms.
Sampling the magic and majesty of the mountains is as easy as getting out of your car and walking down one of the forest trails. Along the road, “Quiet Walkways” lead far enough into the woods to escape road noise. Yet, according to the park administrators, five out of six of the nearly 10 million visitors have only a “windshield experience.”
“We offer lots of ways to see the park,” says Nancy Gray, park public relations officer. “We have auto trails with stops and printed guides and self-guided nature trails from one-fourth to one-mile long. From June through October, rangers lead interpretive hikes and present programs. Best of all, the park has 800 miles of trails that vary from easy strolls to 71-mile hikes of the Appalachian Trail.”
For an introduction to the lure of the Smokies, we hike to Laurel Falls, a 1.3-mile walk through a forest of oaks and maples with a dense understory of mountain laurel and rhododendron. In June flamboyant blooms cover the shrubs, and in the fall the maples turn blushing hues of reds and oranges. Today shades of green color the valleys and distant ridges. Couples pushing strollers and people of all ages flock down the family-friendly, paved trail to the 80-foot waterfall.
Besides the wonders of nature, the park preserves seven historic districts where settlers carved out small farming communities in the rich valleys. The Cades Cove district preserves 10 cabins, barns, outbuildings, and churches from the 125 families that lived here in 1900. An 11-mile, one-way loop circles the perimeter with abandoned fields in the center.
To get a closer feel for the land and its pioneer inhabitants, we rent bicycles at the visitor center and cruise the rolling, winding lane. A cloudless blue sky and precipitous mountain ridges frame fields chest-high in grass and sunflowers. With little road traffic, the silence of history mingles with the whisper of the breeze. We stop at log cabins with split-rail fences and walk among the weathered gravestones in cemeteries behind white, clapboard churches. The land shaped the lives of these farmers as much as they shaped it.
At Clingmans Dome, a short drive from Newfound Gap, a paved but steep one-half-mile trail leads to a 54-foot observation tower. At 6,643 feet, the view from the highest point in the park encompasses a horizon-to-horizon panorama that on rare clear days extends 100 miles into seven states.
Though majestic, the view also captures the history of mountains under siege since the first axmen invaded the pristine forests. Dead-standing Fraser fir trees killed by balsam woolly adelgid, an Asian parasite introduced in 1963, surround the tower. In 1929, the chestnut blight from Asia killed the keystone tree species and forever changed the makeup of the ecosystem. The latest threat to the forest emerged in 2002 when another Asian woolly adelgid that kills hemlock, another keystone species of the forest, entered the park.
Axes and plows decimated the forests of the Smoky Mountains in the past, and imported species threaten the future, but they are minor disturbances compared to what these resilient mountains have endured through the ages. Born from the collision of tectonic plates 200 million years ago, the Appalachian range has seen its rugged peaks worn down to rounded domes, ice ages come and go, and climate changes from near subarctic to today’s moderate winters. After seven decades of the healing touch of undisturbed nature, the rejuvenated Smokies once again have the power to inspire even the drive-through tourist.
All baby boomers can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing on November 22, 1963. The murder of John F. Kennedy was a defining moment of their childhood, just as Pearl Harbor was for the preceding generation, and 9/11 was for the millennials.
A half-century of books and movies related to the assassination have made that afternoon in Dallas the most frequently recalled event of 1963. Unfortunately, its prominence in public memory overshadows other events that eventually shaped our lives far more than the death of the president.
Black Americans’ fight for equal rights had become hard to ignore in 1963. It had broadened from the 1957 confrontation at Little Rock Central High School where federal troops had enforced the right of black students to attend a previously all-white high school. And this action had arisen from the Supreme Court’s decision in 1954, outlawing segregated schooling, which would separate children into all-white or decidedly inferior all-black schools.
A Post editorial in February 1963 (“Bad words and good words down South”) observed the varying responses to black protest and legal challenges among southern states. In Alabama, they noted, there was no talk of compromise or acceptance. George Wallace, then governor of Alabama, had chosen to be sworn into office standing precisely where Jefferson Davis stood when he was sworn as the Confederacy’s first president. “As far as Wallace was concerned,” Post editors wrote, “the interval since Jeff Davis might just as well not have occurred. ‘I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny,’ Gov. Wallace said. ‘I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.’”
In contrast, the governors of South and North Carolina were talking of life beyond segregation.
In South Carolina, the new governor announced he would pursue “a sensible approach” to racial problems, which the state would work out “according to our standards of justice and decency.” In North Carolina, Gov. Terry Sanford had told the press, “The time has come to quit unfair discrimination and to give the Negro a full chance to earn a decent living for his family and to contribute to higher standards for himself and all men.”
These were reassuring words for white Americans who wanted to believe state governments would finally start implementing the end of “separate but equal” schools.
However, Carl T. Rowan wasn’t reassured. The journalist, then working with the secretary of state on public affairs, had seen little change in the nine years since the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Writing “The Travesty of Integration” (January 19, 1963) for the Post, he argued that what little change had taken place was, in fact, a carefully built illusion of progress. “Scores of communities have, by devious means, pretended to comply with the letter of the law while ignoring the spirit of justice and decency that the law embodies.”
Of North Carolina’s 173 school districts, only 16 had ended segregated schooling. “In those 16 supposedly integrated districts last year, only 901 Negro children were in school with white youngsters. The other 77,404 colored pupils … were still in all-Negro schools.”
Rowan also referred to Prince Edward County, Virginia, where, in 1959, the board of supervisors withdrew all funding from the public schools rather than comply with an integration order. For the next five years, all schools in the county remained closed—except for private, foundation-operated schools that admitted only white children.
“In Texas, they may boast about the ‘peaceful transition’ to ‘integration’ in Dallas or Houston,” Rowan added, “but the meaningful thing to me is that a ‘whopping’ 2.16 percent of the Negro children in that state attended integrated schools last year.”
Even where integration had begun, administrators were suggesting policies that only reinforced racial stereotypes.
“In Little Rock, some ‘moderates’ argued at first that all the Negroes in the first group to be admitted to white schools ought to be light-skinned. In other communities there have been demands that all Negroes in the token delegation be girls—so as to preclude the ‘wrong kind’ of interracial romances.”
Rowan couldn’t understand why the federal government could enforce its tax laws so effectively but prove so ineffectual in guaranteeing civil rights for all its citizens. He believed Americans would either have to push their government to enforce the laws or live with the change that came in response to sit-ins, demonstrations, possible violence, and near anarchy.
Wallace believed there was a third choice, which was to stubbornly resist all change. On June 11, 50 years ago, he stood in the doorway of Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama. In an event staged for the media, he refused to step aside and allow Vivian Malone Jones and James Hood, two black students, to enter and register for enrollment. The U.S. deputy attorney told Wallace to move. Wallace refused and launched into a speech about states’ rights. The deputy attorney phoned the White House. In response, President Kennedy ordered the National Guard to clear the doorway. Wallace moved out of the way.
Later that same day, the president addressed the nation to announce that the federal government would finally undertake a legislative initiative to ensure civil rights. Kennedy asked for legislation to outlaw racial discrimination and segregation, ensure voting rights, and guarantee equal protection under the law for all citizens. His proposal was realized in the Civil Rights Act, which was eventually signed into law by Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
After hearing the news from Alabama and Washington, Americans might have gone to bed that night with a sense that, finally, the country was seeing the end of the protests, anger, and violence in the fight for civil rights.
The next day, June 12, civil rights activist Medgar Evers was shot in the back and killed as he returned home from a meeting with NAACP lawyers. His killer was Byron De La Beckwith, a member of the White Citizens’ Council, who eluded punishment for 21 years. The fight was far, far from over.