My love affair with the Smoky Mountains began when I was still a very young child. Except for a two-year stint in Fort Wayne, IN, my years between infancy and third grade were spent in Southern Illinois. And most of our family travels took us into the northeastern sections of the country. But when I was six, my family traveled south for the first time. On our way to South Carolina, we passed through Tennessee, and I came face to face with the homeland of my Cherokee ancestors: the Appalachian Mountains – and specifically the area known by that time as The Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
I remember two specific things about those mountains. In one sense they were a little frightening to a six-year old. Highways were not what they are now, and the less developed highways ran in among those mountains with a little more drama than they do today. The inclines were exceptionally steep in places, with warning signs everywhere about making sure autos were in lowest gear and with stories rampant about “runaway” semis barrelling down those inclines. I remember coming around curves more than once where the road looked as though it would literally lead straight into the mountain. It was a little overwhelming in one way, but it was tremendously exciting as well. The second thing that struck me was that within these mountains and their foothill regions dwelt people of a different culture and attitude toward life. It wasn’t just the Cherokee people who exhibited that difference. It was virtually all the people who called that place home.
That particular trip touched, not just me, but also my parents. They fell in love with Tennessee and decided that they wanted to live there. When an opportunity came along to do so – through a job opening in Nashville, TN – my parents jumped at it. Nashville wasn’t in the mountains, of course, but it was a lot closer. I can honestly say that I have never lived any place that was so special to me as Nashville, Tennessee. I fell in love again – with the city of Nashville and the whole state of Tennessee.
In the years following, my family and I made many trips into the Smoky Mountains. We saw the Park and the surrounding towns change considerably during that time, but the area never lost its unique culture. And having a strong Cherokee heritage in my own life, the older I got, the more I wanted to know and be known by the people who had given me my great grandmother. My immediate family eventually moved back to Illinois, but we have never stopped visiting the Smoky Mountains.
Photo courtesy of my step-mother Pam Pavloff
I’ve wondered sometimes if there’s something in my own blood that calls me home to the Smokies. I don’t recall ever visiting any other place – or even living in any other place – that kept pulling me to come back to it the way the Smokies do — or where I felt so much as if I were “home” each time I visited. Over more recent decades, I’ve tried to maneuver some things in my life and work out a way to have my work and my everyday life in the midst of that area of the country. But the Lord has kept opening doors to the ministry He wants me to do in other areas instead. So those other areas remain my world of everyday life. And, alas, I am still relegated to making visits to my mountains.
But those visits, over the years, have gleaned me an entire family of wonderful characters who do get to live and love and work and play right in the midst of the Smokies. So I’ll have to settle for that. When writing the books in The Smoky Mountain Series, I live there with them and enjoy being “home” for all those months. And I’m grateful that, through these books, I can truly live in two worlds at the same time.
The Smoky Mountain Series began with the novel Set Free To Love, which was actually the first novel I had ever written — although it was not the first of my novels to be published. The second book nudged its way into my heart and mind just as I was writing the conclusion of Set Free, and by that time, I couldn’t shut off the flow. Two more novels later, I had a four-book series, but book number 5 is in progress even as I write this post.
Most of you, my readers, know that I have finally been catapulted into the digital age, and I can now offer Set Free To Love in digital format for all those lovely technologically advanced gadgets that make reading while on the go so easy.
You can find Set Free To Love — and a synopsis of the story, along with a rerun of this article — at the Kindle store by clicking on the book cover above, and you’ll find book number 2 (Cameron’s Rib) in the same store shortly. So many readers have shared with me about how they have been blessed by Set Free To Love. I hope all the new readers will be equally blessed as well.
Oh, and one more thing: Last fall, on my most recent trip to the Smokies, I picked up a little magnet for my refrigerator door that says, “Heaven’s a little closer in the mountains.” Ahhh, yes it is, my friends. YES IT IS!