This past weekend, Todd and I were fortunate enough to attend the first annual Sugarlands Mountainfest in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Their tag line was “Party in the Mountains” and after three days, we would have to agree. Mountainfest kicked off Thursday night with the Tennessee Whiskey Experience. On the lawns of a hotel overlooking Gatlinburg, nearly every distillery (I think 22 of them?) in TN provided knowledge, great looking beards – both groomed and not-so-groomed, and of course samples of their whiskey, bourbon, moonshine and more. I was amazed at how well behaved everyone was during this endless supply of spirits – so I chose to act accordingly. I was also surprised at how many distilleries there were, all from Tennessee. This was just the beginning of the first annual #partyinthemountains.
Being the outdoor folk we are, this festival provided more than just booze, music and tye-dye however. Gatlinburg is the gateway to the Smokies on the Northern front and the whole idea of this festival is to bring the outdoors back to the city. We obliged and booked a campsite at Elkmont campground, about 6 miles inside the park. The campground is by no means in the backcountry. It has restrooms, firepits, and quite a few RV’s with a nice placard displaying the name of the family residing. Didn’t know this is something folks did, but most who did have the placards had the aforementioned RV – we didn’t – so didn’t feel too out of the loop.
The best part of camping at Elkmont is…well…there are three best things. One of the best aspects is if you happen to be a fly fisher. The Little River runs right through the campground and continues for miles both before and after the area flowing all the way into Townsend, TN. Leading upstream is an old logging road with wildflowers, old growth timber, and old structures helping to put you back in a time where people lived out there. As you may or may not know, black bears are prevalent and I was lucky enough to come across a cub. Did not see mama bear, and am unsure if I wish I would had at that specific moment. GSMNP has not been stocked with trout since 1979 as the local fly shop Smoky Mountain Anglers told us. All the fish were born there. They are extremely quick, extremely smart, and very abundant. The abundance however does not equate to easy and prolific fishing. It is extremely difficult. Stealth, light tippet, and pocket water seemed to be the best recipe for success at this time of the year. I caught most all of my fish on 6x soft-hackle with a tungsten bead head. Every morning of the festival began one hour before sunrise and included a bowl of oatmeal, pot of coffee and a certain type of quiet only a morning in the Appalachian Mountains can provide
The second “best” thing is the plethora of trails right out of the campground. You can do relatively easy day hikes or create longer loops. If you wanted to drive, the amount of trails would of course increase 10 fold, but the multitude of hikeable and runnable trails right out of camp was quite a luxury. With that, the last best thing was that you were of course in the Smokies! The contrast from being in Gatlinburg during the day then sleeping under the canopy and starts while listening to the sound of cicadas and water flowing was as good as it gets. I would prefer this type of camping to the typical festival camping 10 out of 10 times. It does not get old.
Mountainfest was three days of music and moonshine. Sweetwater Brewery from Atlanta, GA was kind enough to provide the folks who prefer beer over spirits. Their motto of “don’t float the mainstream” aligns pretty seamlessly with a lot we believe in. Growing up outside of Atlanta, it is awesome to see how much they are involved in. It also doesn’t hurt they have a rainbow trout in their logo either. Klean Kanteen is a family owned, certified B Corp and 1% for the planet member. They provided the non-alcoholic hydration and were selling their insulated bottles which kept my water (which we downed everyday up until around 3pm) colder than those mountain streams all day. We were there with Fayettechill and produced limited edition long sleeve shirts for the event. We provided a different shirt for all folks who attended Thursday night’s VIP whiskey tasting. Both of these custom shirts were made on the same blend of USA made, organic cotton, recycled polyester and blue-sign certified blends all of our shirts are printed on.
On the music front, we felt right at home with the bluegrass, folk and southern jam band music which gave the festival its authentic Appalachia vibes. My two favorites were most definitely Elephant Revival and Billy Strings. Billy Strings provided an unbridled energy and youthfulness to the stage all while maintaining a classic old timey bluegrass sound while Elephant Revival presented a clean, diverse harmonic mix of upbeat music and beautiful lyrics. Other bands we really enjoyed included Jeff Austin, The Travellin Mccourys, Mandolin Orange, Driftwood, Roy Lee Jones and Whiskey Shivers.
The last aspect of Mountainfest which differentiates it from other festivals were the outdoor competitions going on all weekend. There was a downhill 1 mile dash, a 5k with 1900 elevation gain, a 10k trail run, and another 5k on the parkway. In addition there was both a 62 mile and 25 mile road bike race benefiting Dream Bikes Knoxville - a nonprofit that believes in turning used bikes into jobs for local youth. Lastly there was a “one fly” fly fishing tournament put on by the the Great Smoky Mountain Trout Unlimited with over $3000 in prizes.
Aside from the moonshine, music and native trout, I would have to say one of the most memorable moments of the weekend was meeting a certain individual. We watched a long, curly gray haired man floating from group of people to group of people. He had thin wire framed glasses which fell down to the bottom of his nose and a surprisingly well groomed beard to match his gray bushy eyebrows. A black and pinstriped vest, full brimmed black hat, tye-dye satchel, and peace sign necklace completed his ensemble. If you are imagining a fella resembling Jerry Garcia in his later days – you are correct. He drifted around leaving each person with a bigger smile than they displayed before. Todd and I felt like we should know who he was – everyone else seemed to know. As we tried to guess, he caught our gaze and meandered our way. He introduced himself as the Appalachian Hippie Poet or Bill Jackson and proceeded to ask us if we would like to hear a poem? We said of course and he asked “the long one or the short one?” Given we had nowhere to be, we said both. He seemed to like that answer given his grin and began. He recited the poems as we imagined Appalachia folk told poems and stories many years ago. In nearly every one, there was certainly a line dealing with whisky or moonshine which he acted out gladly pulling a a mason jar from his pocket. He possessed an authenticity and practiced something often overlooked in this digital age – the act of spreading stories and poems by spoken word. In the not so distant past, that’s how all song, stories and wisdom was passed down. I myself have been known to tell stories often, some you may hear several times and grow tired of hearing and most will probably be embellished to some extent. The more stories we tell leads to more memories we don’t forget. In a way, reciting these stories often seems like it has a way to extend our time here. Maybe Im wrong, maybe Im not.
Being outside, camping in the woods, hiking on trails, listening to good music and meeting new people all in one event will create stories 100% of the time. Its up to us to keep telling those stories, keep spending time in the woods and keep dancing. Mountainfest makes all of these easy to do.
Thanks to everyone who took the time to read our first ever post. There will be more to come - many more. Some you may love, some you may not but we hope at some point we inspire you to do something you may not have, go somewhere you never dreamed of, tell a story you may have forgotten. With that, a poem by “The Appalachian Hippie Poet”.
Panther Creek Trail
February 1, 2002
Live to hike
And hike to live
‘Cause a better life
Is what it gives
It sores the feet
But relieves the mind
Lets the tension go
And makes life shine
So take to the trails
And the mountains steep
Let your troubles go
For a good night’s sleep
#mountainfest #camping #festival #flyfishing #elephantrevival #SmokeyMountains