In a tour full of scenic drives, we were again treated with a very memorable one today. As we made our way down Roan Mountain and southwest on TN 173 to Unicoi through the Cherokee National Forest, we enjoyed incredible views. And it only got better. From the town of Erwin, we picked up TN 107 and followed it along the Nolichucky River to Tusculum. Only one word can describe it – gorgeous. And the scenic beauty continued all the way down US 321 into Newport, our first destination. Our trip today was mostly along the Great Smoky Mountains Byway, a state-designated scenic byway. Scenic byways are designated as such by the state or federal government and it is not an easy honor to achieve. Tennessee only has five such state designations. The other state byways are the Ocoee Scenic Byway, the Sequatchie Scenic Byway and The Tennessee River Trail. Walton Road is a new byway currently under development.
Nationally, the National Scenic Byway Program lists over 150 designations. five of those are in Tennessee and they include the Cherohala Skyway, the East Tennessee Crossing, the Great River Road, the Natchez Trace Parkway and the Woodlands Trace. The national byway program is run by the Federal Highway Administration. On the surface, it seems silly to spend money on signage and websites to promote these beautiful scenic corridors, but upon closer inspection, I think it is a wise investment that benefits the communities attached to these roads, as the increased vehicular traffic brings in more tourist dollars and jobs, not to mention the pride of being designated a scenic byway probably goes a long way in keeping the roadsides clean.
In Newport, we met up with local historian Duay O'Neil, who shared stories with us about Cocke County. Some may remember the CBS television series Christy from the 90's. It was based on a novel of the same name which was, in turn, based on historical events, people and localities of Cocke County.
After our interview with Duay, we were serenaded by another a cappella group, the Spirit of Smoky. All four ladies in the group are employees of Smoky Mountain Health. The setting was the Serenity Garden at Brookdale Senior Living facility. Such therapy gardens are a wonderful way to keep people with physical or mental ailments engaged in a healthy occupation. We met a resident of the facility who was very proud of the work she had done in the garden, despite her dependency on a walker, and that we were using the garden as a backdrop for the filming of the singers. I'm happy that my daughters got a chance to mingle with the resident for a bit. They are not usually around such frail elderly people. The kids benefited by seeing some of the struggles that we all face in life's last stage, and the resident benefited from being around the energy, excitement and enthusiasm of children. She was so happy to be part of the Pickin' Up Tennessee experience, however brief.
After we left Brookdale, we made our way to a remote county dirt road. Yesterday, we encountered a few tires in the Watauga River but never anticipated what we would see today – dozens of tires that had accumulated along the steep shoulder of the road in a dense forest. Thankfully, there was a small army of volunteers and an inmate crew that greeted us and the whole group tackled the dump site impressively. Such tire dump sites are a sad reality all over the state, but especially in rural counties. Unscrupulous car repair shops and tire dealers will pocket the mandatory tire disposal surcharge on every new tire purchase and instead of properly disposing of the tires, they will take them to these out of the way places and dump them, polluting waterways and creating a breeding ground for mosquitos.