The Road to Nowhere

By Tyler Currie
Sunday, May 1, 2005

I'm looking forward to dinner number one, freeze-dried lasagna. The night after that there's freeze-dried beef stroganoff. Next, freeze-dried chicken enchiladas. On night four I'll be out of food. But by then I should also be out of the woods. If not, maybe I'll be eating tree bark.

I figure that I can hike across the North Shore of Fontana Lake in four days and three nights, as long as I stay close to the water, where the elevation doesn't change much. The North Shore forms, in part, the southern boundary of Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the North Carolina side, and it is one of the biggest pieces of roadless land in the Eastern United States. Starting two days from now, I plan to walk it end-to-end, covering about 40 miles of trail, and with any luck I won't see another soul for the better part of a week.

The timing of my trip is key, because a 62-year-old dispute is going to be settled in the next year, perhaps allowing a road to be built on the North Shore. In other words, the wilderness I'm about to visit may soon, in one sense, cease to exist.

Meanwhile I'm sitting on a curb in Sylva, N.C. The town of just a couple thousand residents is about a half-hour drive from the national park and is surrounded mostly by the Nantahala National Forest. The prevailing ruggedness of this region hasn't always been put to noble use. Eric Rudolph, who pleaded guilty to setting off a bomb at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, managed to evade the FBI for more than five years by hiding in these mountains.

Since my solo trek is a couple of days off, I have time to spend with Helen Vance, a 77-year-old great-grandmother who is an ardent supporter of building a road on the North Shore. In fact, today we're going to make a brief excursion to the North Shore, and Vance has offered to take me along.

Soon a sedan pulls up. Vance is riding with one of her younger sisters, Eleanor Rhinehart. The women greet me in the accent of Southern Appalachia, where the vowels are swallowed, like an Irish brogue crossed with a Southern drawl. There, for example, is pronounced thar. In Vance's handbag I spot a bouquet of brilliant flowers: a reminder that for her this trip is sanctified.

On the way out of Sylva, signs advertise "Mountain Heritage Day," a festival that includes fiddle-playing, clogging, and a beard and mustache contest. Traffic is already backing up--it seems that tiny Sylva wasn't meant for crowds. That's not the case, however, on the Tennessee side of the Smokies, where the towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, abutting the national park, attract millions of visitors with arcades, bumper cars, water slides, jamborees and Dollywood, a theme park named after Dolly Parton.

If the North Shore road is built, nearby Bryson City, N.C., will become an eastern gateway into the national park. Some have suggested that a wave of Tennessee-style development could follow.

"I hope that don't happen," Vance says. She looks out the window as we speed over a sparsely developed mountain byway. "We don't want Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge over here because it's just too much commercialism. We like the peace and the quiet." She calls herself an environmentalist. "Our family had to learn to live with the land and off the land. And they had to take care of it . . . At certain times of the year, our brothers were taught that they weren't allowed to hunt because the squirrels were having their young . . . We were resourceful. We tried to do things that wouldn't destroy the land."

Why, then, does she want a road built on the North Shore?

THIRTY MINUTES LATER we arrive at the edge of Fontana Lake, parking in the gravel lot of the Cable Cove marina. Low clouds obscure the sun and shroud the mountains that rise from the opposite shore. Vance shivers and pulls on a cap. We are waiting for a ferryboat to carry us over to the North Shore.

Our route across the lake will come close to passing over the remains of Vance's childhood home. Six decades ago, she lived on the North Shore. It wasn't called the North Shore back then because there was no lake--until the Tennessee Valley Authority condemned her family's home and hundreds of others to make way for a hydroelectric dam.

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