When planning a visit to Tennessee’s Upper Cumberlands, I never expected to be the first outsider to enter and help consecrate an enormous new meditation hall featuring a 21-foot statue of the Hindu god Shiva. While this was certainly the most surprising part of my trip, I found the area activities diverse, with a combination of nature, art, modern businesses and old-time hospitality. Here are just a few of the different things you’ll find in the southern Appalachian Mountains.
I wasn’t surprised to find plenty of friendliness and old-fashioned charm. Two treat shops in Cookeville exemplify the pleasures of bygone days: Cream City Ice Cream and Coffee House and Ralph’s Donuts. Cream City features a much-beloved neon sign and popular ice cream flavors like Mexican chocolate, loaded butterscotch, and stellar coffee. The building was formerly an ice cream manufacturing plant and, for the past five years, owners Karen and Chris Savage have run it as a retail operation.
Ralph’s Donuts has had a 50+ year run and is still going strong. Several people I talked with described it as a Cookeville institution. During an early morning visit, regulars stopped by, some sitting on shiny silver stools at the counter, other grabbing butter twists and long johns to go. Visitors can get a face-sized apple fritter, or try the CrossFit donut, a maple bar with two strips of bacon on top. The donut got its name because it’s the favorite of Rich Froning, holder of the CrossFit title “Fittest Man on Earth.” His CrossFit Mayhem gym is right across the street from Ralph’s. I suspect it’s not the donuts responsible for Froning’s physique, though locals seem to use his endorsement as a reason to indulge.
Hogs and Pigs, an annual event, brings Harley riders and police officers together at Ralph’s for donut eating. The shop also caters weddings. For reveal parties, where friends and families learn the sex of a baby, Ralph’s fills donuts with blue or pink cream, depending. Everybody bites into a donut at the same time to learn the new baby’s gender.
During Ralph’s annual week-long closure around the Fourth of July, owner Mark Pullum performs maintenance on the shop. But he can’t work in peace because people pound on the door, distraught that the shop is closed. “We’ve had kids crying and screaming,” Pullum says. “I’ve been cussed by two old ladies. The following this place has is almost cultlike.”
Wearing an improvised rain poncho made of a plastic garbage sack and scrambling down rocks and boulders in Cumberland Mountain State Park, I saw my first wild newt. As a child I bought my newts at a pet shop, so seeing a red newt in the wild was a thrill. The area is rich in amphibians. State naturalist Randy Hedgepath said the southern Appalachians have more salamanders than anywhere on earth, including their state amphibian, the Tennessee cave salamander. This bizarre cave-dwelling critter has translucent skin and no eyes. Shine a flashlight on it and you’ll see its heart beat.
The state parks offer all the usual good outdoor stuff – hiking, camping, cabin rentals, river sports. But a few have extra features. At Standing Stone State Park, I visited the site of the annual Rolley Hole marble competition. Hundreds of people from around the world come to participate in or watch competitors play marble games on special marble grounds. Also at Standing Stone, ranger Shawn Hughes let me hold Elvis, a gorgeous corn snake the color of autumn leaves, that lives in the visitor’s center. Hughes enjoys the startled reactions of people who think Elvis is Tennessee’s feared and similarly-colored (and venomous) serpent, the copperhead.
Pickett State Park has two special attractions. It’s an International Dark Sky Park and has a fine collection of original Civilian Conservation Corps buildings. Visitors can stargaze on their own or join rangers and astronomers for scheduled star parties. The park also has a CCC museum. Visitors can even sleep in what was once the CCC barracks back in the Great Depression.
I got up terribly early one morning to meet a kayak outfitter at seven a.m. My shortened slumber was totally worth it. Janis Martin, owner of Caney Fork River Outdoors, guided me on a three-mile journey down the Caney Fork River. Mist hovered above the water. Cranes squawked as they flew over our kayaks. Nobody else, except for a few fly fishermen, was on the river that early and I spent peaceful moments gliding down the calm river, listening to crickets.
In between meditative spells, Martin entertained me with local lore. She recounted one memorable time when area resident Al Gore – then vice president – arranged to rent about 20 of their kayaks for his entourage of family, friends, and a dozen Secret Service officers. The group arrived in seven black SUVs, a caravan the likes of which Silver Point, Tennessee had never seen. Though Martin had advised against a 16-mile kayak trip, the mob paddled down the river, at last tumbling exhausted out of their kayaks so late they missed their dinner reservation in Nashville.
Gourmet and Artisan Foods
My most surprising dining moment on the trip was when my server at the Stillhouse Restaurant in tiny Woodbury, TN, suggested a dish incorporating locally made tempeh. Tempeh? Here? It turns out that enterprising members of several local hippie communes produce the fermented soy product.
Or maybe the presence of Barry O’Connor in Gainesboro, TN, was more surprising. An Irish chef who’s worked in Paris, London, and Milan, O’Connor now rules the kitchen at the Bull & Thistle. “I’m lucky here,” he says in his charming County Cork accent. “I have a free hand.” He makes everything from scratch, and enjoys the challenge of special dietary requests. When I asked for something vegan, he said, “Leave it to me” and devised a dish based on white chanterelles and whole Brazil nuts topped with a red pepper coulis.
This Irish/Scottish/British pub was created by Diana Mandli, who fell in love with small town Tennessee while visiting from Florida. Mandli restored the historic building, preserving its original tin ceiling tiles, stripping away seven layers of linoleum to reveal beautiful wood floors, and helping to revive the old town square.
My favorite condiment discovery was Vee Shine Moonshine hot sauce made by Woodbury’s Blue Porch Restaurant. This sauce includes such unusual ingredients as beets, celery and moonshine. The Blue Porch makes a whole line of sauces, but this is the only one I had the opportunity to try.
Yoga and Meditation
Isha, a nonprofit meditation and yoga organization headquartered in southern India and led by guru Jaggi Vasudev, owns a 1,200-acre center outside McMinnville. Visitors can sign up for a yoga or meditation program, or participate in a personal retreat. Some drop by for a day visit and a free meditation class, while others commit to longer stays as volunteers. The grounds are beautiful, with trails for hiking and mountain biking, and seven waterfalls. I was excited to have lunch at what may be the only vegetarian buffet in the Upper Cumberlands.
Many of the locals in the area – sometimes referred to as the buckle on the Bible Belt –aren’t sure what to make of Isha. “Initially they thought we were from a nude colony,” marketing director Aparna Senthil told me. Instead, the meditation center draws most of its guests from the east and west coasts of the U.S., and abroad. Isha also hosts many visitors from India, the UK, Germany, Switzerland and Italy. Their recent celebration of World Peace Day drew 1,400 guests from 35 countries.
Overnight $65 per night accommodations include a cubicle within a dorm and, for $130 per night, a private studio. Both rates include two vegetarian meals per day.
I didn’t expect to thoroughly enjoy a play called “The Perils of Pinocchio.” But the Cumberland County Playhouse, Tennessee’s only major non-profit professional theater, surprised me with top-notch acting, intricate sets, clever costumes and a really funny play. This phenomenal theater in Crossville was founded in 1963. Many alums have gone on to Broadway in acting or tech roles. And many locals fill volunteer roles from ushers to cookie bakers to actors.
In a whole different vein, I also attended Jammin’ at Hippie Jack’s Fall Americana Roots Festival. Before he became Hippie Jack, Jack Stoddart was a fine art photographer who documented the vanishing ways of Tennessee’s hill people. But Stoddart was not one of those artists who keeps his subjects at a distance. Instead, he became completely integrated into the community. Now all the musicians and music lovers in the area come to his land to perform on his regional radio show, the Hippie Jack Radio Hour, and to participate in the festivals he coordinates.
Fours day in the Upper Cumberlands let me glimpse these diverse scenes. I have no doubt that if I have a chance to return and stay longer, I’ll uncover even more secrets hidden in those mountains. And while I thrilled at my first wild newt sighting, I’d really like to get a peek at Tennessee’s translucent salamanders. – Story and photos by Teresa Bergen, RFT Vegan/Vegetarian Editor
If You Go