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Roughing It in Mountain Cabins

Sometimes the best trip to the Smokies comes with a full fireplace and kitchen.

Photograph by Bruce McCamish

When my wife informed me that two of our friends were getting married, I was happy for them in the easy, casual way that someone can be happy for people when it requires no effort. But when my wife, who is ordained clergy and licensed in the state of Tennessee to perform weddings, informed me that she was going to marry them and that the couple requested I shoot the wedding photos, I was less than thrilled. An amateur photographer, I knew just enough about wedding photography to know I’d rather cozy up to a cottonmouth than be responsible for a permanent record of a life-long commitment. Who wants to be the guy who screws up a wedding by taking crappy photos?

But then my wife, crafty conniver that she is, told me that ceremony would take place in a mega-cabin in the Smokies and that we’d have our own room with a king-size bed. Well, now, that changed everything. The nuptial couple were our friends, after all, and it’s always good to do things for friends. Besides, it would be good experience for me. I could learn to take decent wedding photos; and they’d be done gratis, anyway, so it’s not like I could be sued if I screwed up. The truth is, though, the idea of spending a couple of days and nights in a mega-cabin in the Smokies was vastly appealing. There’s something about the mountain air—the scent of pine and spruce—that makes drinking your morning coffee on the deck marvelous. The valleys, the mountains, the slight frisson you feel when you hear something rustle in the foliage—there’s a deliciousness that’s enticing.

The three-story cabin itself was huge—it was the Smoky Mountain Getaway rented by Eden Crest Vacations. It had 4.5 bedrooms with king- and queen-size beds and slept 14. It had all the amenities: a jacuzzi; BBQ grill; fireplace; central air and heating; a huge deck with many rocking chairs; a game room with a pool table, arcade consoles, and jukebox; a washer and dryer; a high-tech kitchen; and even a home theater with stadium seating. Everything had a rustic flavor, everything evoked old-time cabin living: the quaint wooden toys and peg games on every surface, the small whittled bears and deer and other knick-knacks on the shelves and window sills, the photos of mountains and bears and deer, the homey little signs hanging by twine from nails—“Life is Better in the Mountains,” “Welcome to Our Neck of the Woods.”

Photo by Bruce McCamish

With us was the entire wedding party—little kids ran around exploring and playing with Lincoln Logs, the women ooh-ing and ah-ing over the wedding and bridesmaid dresses, the men drinking beer and talking sports. I ran around trying to catch candid photos before the wedding itself. The massive cabin was bustling with activity, and everyone was occupied with something: watching movies in theater chairs with a state-of-the-art sound system, making breakfast or lunch or dinner in the large kitchen, playing pool or video games in the game room, sitting or chatting on the porch, wandering the nearby trails.

When I was a boy growing up in Montana, vacations meant packing a huge canvas tent in the trunk of the family’s Gran Torino and heading to a national park—Glacier, for example, if we wanted to head north, or Yellowstone if we wanted to head south. We slept in sleeping bags on the hard ground, used Coleman stoves and lanterns, shivered in the chilly mornings and evenings, took our fishing lines to the stream for trout. Several times bears raided our camps, at which times my parents hustled us kids into the car and we waited as the bears got into our stuff. I romanticize those days, but, you know, I am not a kid anymore. Although I have friends who think it is a blast to backpack high into the mountains and sleep on the hard ground, that no longer appeals to me. I want to rough it on a king-size bed; I want air conditioning, hot showers, and hot tubs; I want to find my favorite shows on the television. That makes cabin rentals ideal—when you rent a hotel room, you are giving up any illusion of being a man (or woman) of the wild. But a cabin? Sure. Didn’t Abraham Lincoln grow up in a tiny rustic cabin in Illinois? Isn’t that the same as renting out a mansion cabin in the Smokies? We live as much by our illusions as we do our ideals. It’s why we go to Disney World or the movies—a fantasy getaway from the daily grind of eking out a living.

So there’s something about the rustic that appeals to most of us. Oh, if we’re traveling alone, we won’t rent a cabin. That feels silly, but if we’re traveling with family or meeting up with friends—well, that’s a different story. We know in our hearts that spending a few days in a building designed for maximum comfort bears no relationship to being people of the wood, but if the building is constructed as an idealized version of an old rustic cabin, then we’re quite willing to engage in a bit of self-flattery. The truth is, these cabins are fun. Over the last decade, I’ve stayed at number of cabins, ranging from the tiny to the huge.

Early in our marriage, my wife and I spend a weekend in a one-bedroom cabin near Pigeon Forge. Although it was small, it had the obligatory hot tub, fully appointed kitchen, patio, internet, cable TV, and pool table. As newlyweds, we didn’t explore much; rather, we took delight in drinking our early morning coffee on the porch, breathing in the mountain air, and lounging in the hot tub. Only half a mile away down a winding road were convenience stores, gas stations, souvenir shops, kayak rentals, etc., but while we were in our cabin, which was at the end of a short dirt road that descended from the paved access road, we could see no other cabins, no sign of human activity. Signs warned us not to leave food out because of bears, which always gave me a jolt of adrenaline whenever I saw them. (No, we didn’t see bears, but I certainly regaled my wife with stories of bear encounters from my youth.)

There are many hundreds of cabins available for rent in the Smokies, ranging from 1-bedroom, single-floor structure to literally mansions with many bedrooms. VisitMySmokies (VisitMySmokies.com), an online clearinghouse of cabin rentals, event announcements, dining recommendations, and the like, features many hundreds of cabins offered by various rental companies. These cabins, mostly in Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, Sevierville, and Wears Valley, advertise themselves as providing incredible views of mountains and valleys, as offering the latest in luxuries, and as being near many family-oriented activities, such as zip lines, bumper cars, dinner shows, and the like.

The largest cabin I ever stayed at perhaps doesn’t qualify as a cabin. I say that for all practical purposes it was a mega-cabin, but my wife says it was actually a hotel. It was The Lodge at Buckberry Creek. A couple of years ago, a family patriarch with an amazing life story passed away (he piloted Flying Fortresses on a great number of sorties in World War II), and the extended family gathered for the funeral and reception.

Everyone booked rooms at The Lodge. Separate immediate families had separate rooms not attached to other couples’ rooms, so in that sense you could argue that The Lodge is not a mega-cabin. But in every other respect it was. It had the feel of a cabin structure – everything built out of wood: wooden stairs, wooden decks, wooden toys and knick-knacks. Each room had photos of mountains and wildlife; the view outside the windows was of mountains and trees.

Because we were there to honor the memory of the family patriarch, the occasion was relatively somber, but The Lodge provided the perfect place for reflection. The truth is, you have to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life to recharge yourself, to be re-invigorated by mountain air, to see the vast expanses of life-sustaining foliage and sublime mountain vistas. It’s about regaining perspective. Sadly, The Lodge at Buckberry Creek was destroyed in the Gatlinburg wildfire late last year, but the owner—Buddy McLean—has vowed to rebuild, and in fact has opened one of his buildings for business.

So why do we rent cabins in the mountains? Much of it has to do with friends and family, I think. We get away to get closer to those we care about, and the faux-rustic cabins evoke a primal response from us that helps us get closer. We know that in some respects these luxurious cabins are just a fantasy, but in a deeper way they bring us closer together. We’re not actually roughing it, but the illusion that we are brings us together against the busy-ness of daily life. Besides, there’s something about that mountain air.

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