Like countless other Blue Ridge Parkway motorists, I’ve peeked over Wildcat Rocks in North Carolina’s Doughton Park to where a tiny cabin sits 1,500 feet below in a postage stamp meadow. It’s the quintessential image of Appalachian isolation.
One glance down at Caudill Cabin is all you need to realize why many 1930s residents of Appalachia simply didn't believe that a modern road like the Parkway would ever penetrate their "mountain empire." Mountain families like the ones that populated the cove around the cabin were still reaching their homes by steep, primitive rocky roads and trails when transportation was far easier throughout the rural South.
The Blue Ridge Parkway, arguably America’s most scenic road, did find its way through eastern America’s highest mountains, and in September, the mountaintop route will be 75 years old.
There is still a vast rippled realm of summits in the Southern Appalachians, but the Parkway, believe or not, may just now be ready for its “close-up.” Only last year, the Parkway’s official main visitor opened near Asheville, North Carolina (MP 384). And one of the road’s interpretive landmarks, the Blue Ridge Music Center, with stirring live concerts, is also a recent addition.
Three quarters of a century after the start of "America’s first rural national parkway,” there’s a lot of “new” about the Parkway and environs—memorable inns, spas, flower-bedecked small towns, wineries and more. But part of the appeal of this iconic American road trip, especially at its relaxing 45 mph speed limit, is that you can’t help but get in touch with simpler times.
I did that last summer, when I took a hike to Caudill Cabin and found out just how isolated it really is. I started on a well-marked trail that deteriorated to a fern-fringed track. After 5 miles and wading through many stream crossings, I found the forlorn cabin hemmed in by cliffs and 6,000 acres of forest.
Looking up at the precariously perched log structure, I struggled to imagine the lives of Martin and Frances Caudill. They built the 20-by-20 log structure in 1894—and raised 14 children there.
Luckily, my hiking companions helped me appreciate it. Lenny and Larry Caudill’s grandfather was the first child born in the cabin. Lenny’s 14-year-old son Alex was with us. “Alex was born precisely one hundred years and one day after his great-grandfather was born right here in this hollow,” Lenny said.
The modern Caudills live in cities not far from the Blue Ridge Parkway. Their ongoing visits to help maintain the cabin are inspiring evidence that the heritage of the Southern Appalachians is not only being preserved, but is staying fresh and influential in the lives of Americans.
People tackle bits and pieces of the Parkway, and that’s easy to do, but this year, the Parkway’s 75th anniversary, is a great time to devote a week or more to make the entire nearly half-a-thousand-mile journey.
Though not a national park, the Parkway is a unit of the National Park System, and the most popular of all the nation’s parks at that. The 469-mile Parkway also links two of the country’s most famous national parks, Shenandoah, in northwestern Virginia, and Great Smoky Mountains, in western North Carolina.
This is a linear park, a protected corridor a half mile or so wide, with larger tracts like Doughton Park that bulge out periodically to encompass entire ecosystems. This spectacular, billboard-free, beautifully manicured road is almost continually at the crest of one ridge or another. It winds, climbs, and dips with a new view—and indeed hundreds of overlooks and trails—every few feet, it seems. Best of all, the road passes many other parks on a route often wrapped in hundreds of thousands of acres of national forest land. Vistas range from pastoral to pristine, and facilities at adjacent parks amplify the Parkway’s own recreational offerings.
I’ve been following the Blue Ridge Parkway to places like Caudill Cabin for more than 30 years, first as a college student, now as an author. It’s more than a road. It’s a portal—to the entire region that was America’s first barrier to westward expansion, our first frontier. To this day, an earlier America—or its echoes—can still be heard in the accents of the people and the sound of the music one hears all along this national treasure.
Doughton Park, where Caudill Cabin sits far below, is a major bulge in the Parkway and one of those treasures. Meadow-covered crests on both sides of the road lend the area an alpine feel. Not up for the long hike to Caudill Cabin? Can’t say I’d blame you. Stop on the roadside at MP 238.5 and explore Brinegar Cabin, owned by a not-so-nearby neighbor of the Caudills.
I chose to hike in to the cabin -- it’s the kind of place where you feel far removed from the modern world.
Even for the uninitiated hiker, the trek to the cabin reveals the trail-side stone chimneys that still stand amid cabin foundations. Understandably, many landmarks -- old stone walls, once cultivated fields growing up in trees, the stone supports of a sorghum press -- are not visible from the trail but are known to Lenny and Larry. Among those is “Perfect Chimney.” Lenny led me away from the trail, along a small stream to the crest of a rise, and there, towering in the woods, stood a masterpiece of rock masonry so perfect and undisturbed that you might imagine that the cabin that once surrounded it had been beamed up to a time traveling star ship.
When it’s the Caudills on the trail, the hike past the easily seen trailside landmarks is more like a walk through the neighborhood. The first chimney beside the trail on our hike was built by James “Harrison” Caudill, the first Caudill in the cove, Lenny and Larry’s great-great-grandfather—and Alex’s namesake great-great-great-grandpa.
James Harrison Caudill (1841-1924) moved into the wild watershed of Basin Creek in the mid-1800s. He and his brother, Thomas Matthew Caudill, enlisted and briefly served on the side of the South in the Civil War. In a story now widely known as the plot line of Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, many a Confederate deserter went home to the divided loyalties of the southern mountain communities and chose to elude the home guard patrols in remote locations. Both men deserted, and Thomas followed Harrison into the virgin forested isolation of Basin Cove. Later, their brother Ruffin Caudill, who served for the Union during the war, joined them.
Harrison is famous for having married two sisters—at different times—and between them having 22 children -- 11 boys, 11 girls, 11 redheads, and 11 brunettes.
The Caudill Cabin got its start with Harrison’s son Alford “Martin” Caudill, Lenny and Larry’s great grandfather, who owned about 18 acres at the headwaters of Basin Creek. He married Frances “Jannie” Blevins in 1894 and presumably built the cabin that year as a home for his future family -- of 14 kids. Lenny and Larry’s grandfather, Linnie Famon Caudill, was Martin and Jannie’s first child, born in their cabin, on September 5, 1895.
The isolated community of subsistence farmers -- about 75 or so people, many of them Caudills -- made their livings on small fields cut out of the forests and also clear-cut timber for cash. Just before World War I, tragedy struck the cove and its residents.
The modern Caudills’ grandfather Linnie married 15-year-old Alice Adams on January 16, 1916. While he was away working timber that summer, two back-to-back hurricanes slammed the North Carolina mountains. The awesome flood washed away homes and denuded mountainsides so severely the forest still looked demolished 30 years later in a National Park Service photo. Alice, her mother, and Linnie’s brother all died when Linnie’s cabin washed away. Linnie learned of their deaths when he stopped at a store on his way home from work.
Linnie was a precise record keeper. In July 1916, Linnie records buying Alice’s tombstone from Georgia. The floods’ high water quickly and decisively depopulated the cove. Today, Caudill Cabin is the only intact structure still standing under the cliffs of the upper cove on the knob that surely directed flood waters around it.
Lenny and Larry Caudill often “come home” to explore the now deserted valley of Basin Cove. At least one relative’s grave, that of their grandmother Alice, is visible by the trail near backcountry campsites, but the Caudill family cemetery still eludes discovery. “We’ll find it,” Lenny Caudill says.
The Caudills appreciate the National Park Service’s role in their family’s story. “To have a place where your past is preserved is a rare thing,” says Lenny Caudill. “We owe the National Park Service a real debt of gratitude for preserving our heritage for us.”
As the 75th anniversary of the Blue Ridge Parkway arrives in September, it takes just one visit to this lofty road to realize that the Park Service has done exactly that for all of us.
Randy Johnson is the author of the bestselling guides Hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway, Best Easy Day Hikes Blue Ridge Parkway, and Hiking North Carolina. His new book is Best Easy Day Hikes of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He was a task force leader for North Carolina’s Mountains-to-Sea Trail, a design consultant for the Parkway’s Tanawha Trail, and founder of the trail preservation program at Grandfather Mountain (now a state park) that helped keep the peak open to the public. Visit www.randyjohnsonbooks.com/