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Playing Horseshoe in the Greenbrier March 21, 2011

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, history, Smoky Mountains.
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Mike G. fords False Gap Prong using the plastic bag method while Ben waits his turn

When Ben Bacot told me the plan was to go to the Horseshoe in the Greenbrier, I was confused at first. I thought he meant going up Horseshoe Mountain, over by Mt. Kephart. But when I considered other clues—especially thinking about a dramatic hike in high-water conditions that I knew he and Mike Gourley had made a couple of weeks ago, I realized he meant something different. Plus, I knew Mike Maples would also be along, and I know he likes to prowl around areas with old homesites and cemeteries. I figured it out. We would be exploring an area between False Gap Prong and Porters Creek, a place rich in human history with many old homesites.

The area is known as the Horseshoe because it is bounded by the horseshoe-shaped northern end of giant Porters Mountain, which extends southward all the way to the A.T. Mike M. told us that during the Civil War, when the settlement was being raided by bushwhackers, the residents would turn their horses loose to run up into the Horseshoe, where they were essentially enclosed by the steep walls of Porters—but harder for the bushwhackers to catch.

We started just past the bridge that turns toward Ramsey Prong off the main Greenbrier road. There a gravel road leads up to the Plemmons cemetery, and an old, fainter roadbed goes closer to the creek. Ben and the Mikes were already very familiar with the cemetery, but they were kind enough to take me up there, since I’d never been.

Plemmons Cemetery

The cemetery is one of the larger ones in the park, bearing silent testimony to the many people who lived and died there before the national park was created. It is populated by Whaleys, Ownbys, Ogles, Rayfields, and Bohanans. Mike M. said in one of his many writings about historic structures in the park, “At least 70% are cousins of mine in one way or another…Maybe you’re old enough to remember the pine box in the living room with all-night singing before the funeral the next day.” That is a fine thing to think about as we gaze over the many different kinds of headstones—some carved professionally and others mere slabs of slate with names scratched by hand into the stone, barely visible. Those were to me the most moving.

An old stone behind a newer stone, with flowers still being placed

Soon we had to face up to the crossing of False Gap Prong. It had come down quite a bit since Mike G. and Ben had failed to find a place to cross on their earlier trip, but it was still tough. Mike M. had brought along four plastic garbage bags. The idea was to put a bag around each leg to keep dry. Then the two who crossed first would put stones in them and throw them back over for the other two to use. Mike M. crossed first and did fine. I crossed next and did not do so fine. I couldn’t manage to hold up the bags and hold onto my hiking pole at the same time. Plus, I unintentionally made holes in the bags, and they filled with water. I’m surprised the others didn’t banish me back to wait at the trailhead right then and there for this gross incompetence. Mike G. and Ben did fine (see top photo).

Soon we came to old homesites. Usually the most prominent feature is the remains of the chimney, and then you usually find rusty old artifacts lying around, such as old pails and washtubs.

Mike M. and relics including part of old stove and a washbasin

Spring wildflowers awaited us. I saw a bloodroot—one of my very favorite flowers.

My first bloodroot of the season!

Some of the homesites were lushly carpeted with spring beauties. Oh, this is a wonderful time of year to be in the Smokies.

Homesite, spring beauties

We saw lots of yellow trillium that hadn’t started blooming yet, but the leaves are so beautiful anyway. I think I love those and the ones of the trout lily the best for their speckled appearance.

Trillium leaves, spring beauty

Yellow violets were turning their cheery little faces up toward the sunshine.

Yellow violets

We saw lots of old walls.

The walls were getting furry with moss

We looked down on Porters Creek from an angle I hadn’t seen it from before.

Mighty Porters Creek, which leads to so many adventures

Mike M. suddenly decided to roost in a tree. I think this was the multi-trunked sycamore that we found.

He's a bit larger than an owl, and most owls don't wear blue jackets

We came to relics of an old sawmill.

Sawmill relics

And found part of an old horse cart.

Metal frame from old horse cart

At last we came across a trillium in bloom—a white one, not a yellow one.

White trillium

Soon afterward we came to a very impressive tall chimney.

The chimney was about 15' high

At this homesite we found plenty of daffodils. The foliage behind the daffodils is iris not yet in bloom.

Daffodils way out in the midst of what's woods now---it used to be fields under cultivation

Up until this point, we had been climbing gently and not very strenuously toward the Horseshoe. Now we began to climb fairly steeply up to the ridge that forms the western side of the Horseshoe. We got up to a gap and then after a brief rest plunged down the other side. Mike M. led the way at a fast pace. We did a sort of interval training over several ridges—up, down, up, down. Now we were getting our exercise for the day. After playing around on the ridges for a while, we headed back to lower ground, Mike M. looking out for particular homesites. We crossed several small streams and eventually found ourselves back at False Gap Prong. It is truly a beautiful stream. In case you are wondering how it got its name, it comes from the stream’s headwaters at False Gap up on the A.T. I’ve heard False Gap was originally believed to be Porters Gap by the mapmakers of the early 20th century. When they figured out that Porters Gap lies slightly to the west, they renamed the other one False Gap.

All of these streams lead to places of unimaginable steepness and wildness up by the stateline ridge. They all follow the classic pattern of Smokies streams—the steepness increasing in a geometric progression. I’ll just say that’s it’s possible for people to get into trouble up there…

Down in this lower section of False Gap Prong, the stream tumbled over giant boulders and into beautiful pools.

The pools and boulders of False Gap Prong

Of course, we had to cross back over to the other side again. Our black plastic garbage bags were waiting for us, weighted down with stones, and Mike M. had several pairs of white socks neatly draped over a branch, drying from the first crossing. His method was to take boots off before putting garbage bags on—which is probably what would keep them from getting holes. Then he crosses with boots tied by their laces around his neck.

Mike M.'s tried-and-true method of stream fording

It was a wonderful way to spend a Sunday in early Smokies spring.

Mike G. takes close-up portrait of trillium

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Comments»

1. Thomas Stazyk - March 21, 2011

What an amazing hike–like a step into another world. I imagine it would be quite moving to see the cemetary and the artifacts.

Jenny - March 21, 2011

Yes, it has a real emotional impact to see evidence of the many lives of people who lived within what became the boundaries of the national park, who were forced to leave. It is one of those impossible ethical questions: on the one hand it seems terrible that they had to uproot themselves, and on the other hand we now have one of the most important and highly protected national parks in the country.

2. kaslkaos - March 24, 2011

It’s spring! For you…I went skiing in the woods last night. What a beautiful preview of things to come. The variegated trillium leaves are especially fascinating to me as we don’t have that species here (what kind is it?). But the spring beauties & bloodroot we do have, and daffodils are sleeping below the snow in my garden. Thanks for the preview.

Jenny - March 24, 2011

Glad you enjoyed it! The variegated leaves belong to the yellow trillium.

3. tom lundberg - March 25, 2011

I like it up there-i really enjoyed going up and over the crest of the horseshoe and then descending fern falls. hey, the geometrically increasing steepness is something that i equate with the slope of my trombone bell. starts out subtly, back by the player’s face, and then steepens all the way to the edge of the fluting…

Jenny - March 25, 2011

I like that comparison! Clearly it would be possible for a mathematician or physicist to come up with the equation that represents that progression, whether it be the bell of a trombone or the slope of the stateline ridge. There is a certain elegance to that progression that has an inherent rightness to it.

4. TWL - March 26, 2011

This account of your hike makes me yearn to be up in the mountains hiking.

I am looking at a topo as I write this. I had never even noticed the area between Porter’s creek and False Gap creek before. But I understand that hundreds of people had lived in the Greenbriar before the Park was created. So it makes sense that the Horseshoe area would be dense with human artifacts.

I also appreciate your point about the moral ambiguity involving the personal costs to some of the local people regarding the creation and preservation of the Park. I am of course glad the Park was created and preserved.

But not only was there a human cost involved, but the Park is hardly the wilderness that many car-bound tourists envision. The Park is something of a human artifact itself in the sense that it is shaped by human-created borders, roads, trails, and even human-made decisions of what buildings were worthy of preservation and where.

I am not criticizing this aspect of the Park, merely noting it.

Of course, the way you and your hiking comrades go off-trail, probably gives you the most “real” or at least “nature’s view” of the Park. Nature’s entry ways into those mountains are creeks and streams and ridges, which I never really understood until I started following your blog.

Jenny - March 26, 2011

You make an interesting point about the Park being a human artifact in itself. That is certainly true. Even places that are federally designated as wilderness, such as the Shining Rock Wilderness in WNC, have many signs of human impact, some of them ironically stemming from the very attempt to minimize that impact (the many false trails along the Shining Rock ridge that are caused in part by the lack of trail signs). However, when I compare the human impact of GSMNP with the human impact of Pigeon Forge, I’ll take the former!


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