Photo by Bill Robertson.
Homesite Cades Cove
One of the still-standing historic structures in the Great Smokies, a homesite sits along the loop road on the way out of Cades Cove.
Photographer Bill Robertson has been after me for a few years to go on a hike with him. He’s good friends with another of our contributing photographers, Ben Geer Keys, and I can only imagine the conversations the two of them must have on their weekly hikes in the Great Smokies. They’re both colorful characters, and both love, love these mountains and that love comes through in every image they shoot.
I interviewed Bill a few days ago for our upcoming issue – we’ll be featuring a number of his photos from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, by way of celebrating the Great Smokies’ 75th anniversary (in addition to some other stories, including a history piece on storyteller, mountaineer, entrepreneur and book author Wiley Oakley, "the grand old man of the Smokies"). Bill will also be writing about his images, how he found them and what inspired them.
After playing phone tag and e mail tag for some weeks (and I the more difficult-to-pin-down of the two of us, I must admit), he picked up the phone: “REALLY? Is it you???”
I’d caught him in the morning, after one cup of tea, the day after “our hiking day,” as he calls it, the every-Wednesday walk he and his significant other Lynne Scoggins (also an avid hiker and photographer) take in the mountains. On Saturdays, they form a pretty regular trio with Ben – “the three of us get out on the weekends and wander around.”
The day before, he and Lynne had been to Black Balsam Knob, off the Blue Ridge Parkway, about two hours away. In a few weeks, he’ll be headed west for 10 days, shooting wildflowers in Colorado. He’s photographed in California, Texas, in Shenandoah National Park, along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Born in Shanghai, grew up in South Carolina, Bill spent years in California and Lake Tahoe before he came back home to Greenville and stayed there. He’s 30 minutes from Jones Gap State Park, two hours from the Blue Ridge Parkway and one and a half to two hours away from the Great Smokies, depending on which entrance he’s headed to.
But after he gets there, he heads inward, away from the crowds.
“It’s not so much a park that’s enjoyed from the inside,” he says of the Great Smokies’ majority of visitors. “It’s more that people are on the main access roads.”
What’s the best way to really experience the Smokies?
“Either hike or backpack into the center of the park,” he says. “I’d just as soon every trail I walk down I never run into another person except the one I was with.”
While he prefers the natural, wild places, he also appreciates the human remnants left from when the park wasn’t a park. He’ll come across old homesteads, places he knows were houses once, not necessarily because of fragments of walls or chimneys, but “because of the flowers they used to plant, and ivies – jonquils, maybe some fruit trees.” I imagine women in long skirts trimming flower beds, making apple pies, walking paths between their homes, children born, grandparents buried, ridge-to-ridge travel by foot or on horseback, days to reach places we motor to in mere hours. “I believe in ghosts,” he says, though he hasn’t seen any, but these mysterious places, deep in the park’s interior, strike him and me both as places where you might.
He’s worried about the park, though. Part of it’s the funding, federal budget cuts that are hurting every park in the nation. “It’s a park that’s in demise,” he says, a word that jars with his great love for the place.
“It seems like the Smokies, bless its heart, is just being encroached on in so many ways, by development, by air pollution, by too many visitors.”
I mention talk I’d heard of a shuttle service into Cades Cove, one of the best-loved – and most-photographed – parts of the park. “It’s a beautiful idea,” he says. And, “the Smokies needs an entry fee desperately, for the protection of the park.”
Bill’s hiked every mile of the 850-to-900-some in the park, with the Greenville-based Natural History Hiking Club, or with Lynne and Ben, or with informal groups he’s led. On the shorter hikes, he takes pictures (“I have a camera that’s older than me and you” – a decidedly nondigital Nikon F100). Every year the NHHC takes a weekend trip into Deep Creek, Cades Cove or Cataloochee, 20 or so people hiking and camping Friday through Sunday.
As for this week, what’s his next trip?
“Oh, my. Hard to say.”
Somewhere deep in the park, beyond the madding crowds, where he might see some ghosts, or at least a bear or two.