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Book Reviews

Milt Gross Book Review, High Vistas, an Anthology of Nature Writing from Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains by George Ellison
By Milton M. Gross
Aug 5, 2012 - 12:05:58 AM

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High Vistas takes you not only to a wild region but back to when the wild region, the Great Smokies, was even wilder. Photo by Milt Gross.
My daughter in western North Carolina mailed us two books, High Vistas and a murder mystery that takes place in the western North Carolina mountains.

High Vistas, published in 2008 by The Natural History Press in Charleston, NC and illustrated by the author's wife, Elizabeth Elison, is about a subject both familiar to me and unfamiliar to me. It covers mountains, lots of mountains in the days long before Route 40 and another route with no number cross the Great Smokies from Tennessee to North Carolina.

I'm familiar with many of Maine and New Hampshire's mountains, have hiked a fair number, and volunteer with the Maine Appalachian Trail Club that follows those mountains through Maine to the top of Katahdin. But I've never been in North Carolina or Tennessee so am totally at sea in any knowledge of those mountains, generally higher than Maine's and most of New Hampshires.

This book covers the same chain, the Appalachian Mountains, only in the South. But the first of its essays was written in 1674 and concludes with one penned in 1898.

On my Island Explorer bus in Acadia National Park, I once picked up a couple of hikers who had no idea where they'd just been. They carried no maps or even water. By questioning them, I figured out which trails they had followed over which mountains to land at this bus stop.

I expressed surprise that they had made this trek with no aids at all, although I carry no water or map when I'm in the same country, just a camera sometimes. The difference is that I had been in and around Acadia for nearly 20 years. They had never been in the national park before this vacation.

To my expressions of surprise, the young man said, "Oh, everybody does this in Tennessee."

My daughter e-mailed me photos of the mountains there, which appear to be in a way more grand than are ours. Except the Southern Appalachians are basically tree-covered even at 5,000 feet above sea level and higher, up to 6,643 feet at Clingman's Dome. Many of our mountains are bald at their summits, making them more dramatic to climb and with more open views.

What fascinates me with High Vistas is that these travel and nature accounts were written when the mountainous area involved with roadless and had to be traveled by foot or horseback. When Earl Shaffer began his walk of the entire, newly completed Appalachian aTrail in 1948, no one expected that his hike would begin a trend of through hikes of the entire trail. The AT was not planned for through hikes. It was designed as get-a-ways for people living on the East Coast and was planned as a kind of protection for the Appalachian chain.

But in 1674 there was no AT, only a few dirt roads, and no way to access these highest mountains in the east except by foot and horseback. These were the normal ways of travel. Abraham Wood, who wrote of the mountainous journeys of James Needham and Gabriel Arthur in 1763, was born in 1615 and became an indentured servant, paid his indenture obligations, and owned 600 acres in Virginia's southwestern frontier by 1639. A biographical sketch of Wood states that Wood's goal, "...was not to open new lands so much as it was to discover an overland passage to the Pacific Ocean." The perspective then was a lot different that our knowledge of the U.S. today.

The essay about Wood states that his agents, "...discovered that, while men could pass through the Appalachians, the route was too rugged to be developed for commerce..." There is commerce in the easier lands near the Great Smokies today, but those mountains are no longer an unknown challenge to discoverers. They are protected by the U.S. government.

My daughter and her dog, Buster, drive a short distance on roads and then walk a short distance to a favorite overlook.

One of the early explorers became ill and lost a horse through lack of food during an exploration. A description of a trek by Wood, states, "About the 10th of April, 1673, I sent out two Englishmen and eight Indians with accommodations for three months, but my misfortune and unwillingness of the Indians before the mountains that any should discover beyond them, my people returned affecting little, to be short."

Try to get a tourist visiting the Great Smokies National Park today to understand that early endeavor.

This drawing, which is black-and-white in High Vistas but photographed from a painting, depicting a Red-Breasted Nuthatch, is typical of the many illustrations in this account of travels through western North Caroline and the Great Smoky Mountain from 1674 to 1900. Milt Gross Photo.
A later trip described by Wood says in part, "When they lost sight of those hills they see a fog or smoke like a cloud from whence rain falls for several days on their right hand (the Great Smoky Mountains) as they travel still upwards towards the sun setting great store of game, all along as turkeys, deer, elk, bear, wolf, and other vermin very tame."

No RVs, SUVs, autos, or other signs of tourism to come some 200 years in the future.

The beauty of this book is that you can read it straight through or in a series of sittings, as the mood brings you back to it.

The final chapter, "A World of Green Hills (1898)," is about Bradford Torry (1843-1912), who died when my father was a youth and who was a "...nature essayist and close observer of bird life..." This explorer had "...a many-side career, first in missionary work, then as an editor of Youth's Companion and of Thoreau's journals. At his death, he "...resided in a boardinghouse (not in "an isolated cabin," as reported in various sources)."

Ah, how Americans romanticize those who went before.

Torry wrote, "A turn or two in the road, and we had left the village behind us, and then, almost before I knew it, we were among the hills; now aloft on the shoulder of one of them, with innumerable mountains crowding the horizon; now shut in some narrow, winding valley, our 'distance and horizon gone,' with a bird singing from the bushes..."

I wonder what road now runs through that area.

About the author and illustrator, the book states, "George and Elizabeth Elison moved to Western North Carolina in 1973." It continues, "Since 1976, they have made their home in a forty-six acre cove surrounded on three sides by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park."

A fascinating anthology of yesteryear in yesterplace.

Maybe Dolores and I will travel the 1,200 highway miles to visit my daughter at her 2000-foot-in-elevation house. We'll make reservations in motel along the way or perhaps, but not likely, travel to those western North Carolina mountains by getting as close as possible -- pretty far away -- via Amtrak and then renting a car.

Which seems a lot more pleasant than how the travelers in High Vista found their way.

Milt Gross can be reached for corrections, harassment, or other purposes at

Milton M. Gross Copyright 2012

Milt Gross Down the Road A Piece Column

Milt Gross Book Reviews

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