This is part three of my on-going yammer about life in the mountains. In Part 1 we looked at getting established, in Part 2 we looked at the physical necessities of life here. This time we’ll look as the more esoteric aspects.
In east Tennessee winters are normally pretty mild. This winter has been an exception: In early January we hit an overnight low of minus 1, the lowest temperature in 20 years. My relatives in Nebraska and Colorado laugh at me, saying that’s a balmy spring day to them. We have been spoiled by the normally temperate weather we enjoy so much here. Aside from this year’s cold, we do have some special challenges.
One is that temperatures vary with elevation. Newport sprawls out along the Pigeon River on the floor of the valley and is around 1,050 feet elevation. At 6,593 feet, Mount LeConte is the highest point in our immediate area (we can see it from our front porch) and the difference in temperature between there and Newport can be dramatic. There are dozens and dozens of other mountain peaks that range between 1,500 and 4,000 feet.
After a snow, we often have continued school closings on days when the roads in Newport are clear and the weather seems fine. This is to accommodate the people who live in those higher elevations where it has not warmed up enough for things to start melting off. Road ice is the major issue.
Not only does it stay cooler at higher elevations but on roads, where the trees press in close, the trees prevent the sun from getting to the road to warm it and help thaw the packed snow and ice. This is treacherous enough for family vehicles, but navigating a school bus along these tracks can get hairy. Especially since most back roads around here do not have guard rails.
One of the things that surprises me is the clear demarcation where the air is warm enough to melt the snow into rain. Anyone living above the snow line is shoveling their way out, those below simply don their galoshes. Sometimes it’s cold enough that everyone gets snow but the higher elevations get quite a bit more.
Morning fog is also an issue at most times of the year. I like to describe it as clouds that recline against the mountain faces for the night, arising at dawn to creep up the slopes. They pause, crouched on the mountain crests to gather strength, then leap upward to rejoin their brethren in the sky. This fog, as the clouds claw their way up past us, is sometimes so dense I can’t see across my own driveway, but it is short lived. This phenomenon is what gave this region the name "Great Smoky Mountains."
Photo: courtesy Great Smoky Mountains Association
The up-side of all this weather is that when the air is clear we have some breathtaking views from our mountain perches. There is one point near here where, if you go up to the crest, you can see portions of five states. One of our greatest joys is to sit on our porch on summer evenings and watch the sunset over English Mountain. Glorious!
One of the most valuable lessons our real estate agent taught us was that we did NOT want to build a house on a mountain peak or crest, as we had supposed. While this does afford majestic, sweeping views, there is little protection from cold winter winds, and in summer something unexpected happens. Trees absorb sunlight and radiate heat. That heat rises up the slope. A house on a ridge or crest will have this hot air coming up at it from several sides and become sweltering on still days. A home built down on the slope takes advantage of these convection currents and will be cooler than a house on the crest – or the asphalt-laden town on the valley floor. Leaving some trees for shade also helps. We built our home with large windows and no air conditioning, and we have not yet regretted it.
The mountains also act like the bug deflector on the hood of your car. When bad weather whips in, much of the wind and nastiness is shot up over us by the back-side of the mountain. The wind may roar like a freight train through the trees on the ridge above us, but we are relatively unmolested. When the winds blow in from the west, English Mountain shields the valley from those. Living between the two ridges is like living in an enchanted bubble of protection: quite different from my Nebraska relatives. The Nebraskan straight-line winds can sometimes pluck the hair right from your head!
The extra considerations of a well for water and a septic system (both common to most rural residents) are more than offset by the fact that we do not have monthly bills to pay for these utilities. I’d love to have a large solar array, batteries and a big inverter. Then we could clip the cord on our electricity use as well. Alas, those systems are pricey. But living right next door to the Tennessee Valley Authority, our electricity has not been bought and sold many times as is the case for those who live farther away. Our electric rates are pretty reasonable.
Add that to the fact that when we built our home we put our money into energy efficiency instead of square footage so we have a quite livable combination. We have no need of energy gobbling central air conditioning. We equipped our home with Energy Star appliances. We installed low-e, dual-pane windows with thermal shades. We have 6-inch exterior walls and extra insulation in the attic and under the floors.
We do have the fireplace Marie had always wanted, so we can use that to provide heat in our home. Ours was built to work more efficiently than most fireplaces as a heat source by using a fan and air channels around the fire box to extract heat that would normally just go up the chimney. It is not as efficient as a wood stove, but better than a straight fireplace.
For us, the net result of all this is that we live where we are surrounded by serene beauty, the air is fresh and clean, and the water is free of chemicals. The weather here is more temperate than most places in the nation, yet we still have the excitement of seasonal changes. There are people close enough to visit when we wish to socialize, but not so close as to be intrusive when we want our own space. We have room to grow much of our own food – and enough we could, if we chose to, add a couple of goats for milk and a flock of chickens for eggs and meat.
Our property taxes are a fraction of what we paid in St. Louis and regulations are almost non-existent. Food, household supplies, gasoline, and electricity are less expensive here than in nearby cities, and this entire region is lower than the national average.
Adventure is a short walk to the nearest tree line. If we want more we have ready access to white water rafting, Dollywood, all the attractions of Gatlinburg, hundreds of hiking trails, horseback riding, rock climbing and zip lines. Just to name a few.
The challenges of living in this rugged terrain is more than offset by the variety and added interest that the changing topography brings. Others may prefer the coast lines of California, or the deserts of the southwest, or the wide open plains of the midwest but, for us, The Great Smoky Mountains are home.