Driving Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau

A novelist’s past, present, and future wind together along his slice of Appalachia


From left: A drive into Sewanee; swimming at Foster Falls; Ace the donkey at Sequatchie Cove Farm.

I live in the same county in Tennessee where I grew up. If you had told this to the teenage version of myself, he would have had a panic attack. In the nineties, living in Winchester, Tennessee, the county seat of Franklin County, I felt so isolated; everything that interested me (music, film, books, food, museums) always seemed out of reach. I imagined that if I cared about something, I’d have to search it out, and leave. So I did, and I stayed away for nearly ten years. But the longer I stayed away, the more I felt the pull of returning, as if each new experience were preparing me to go home. In 2005, two jobs opened up at the University of the South in Sewanee, back home in Franklin County, on the Cumberland Plateau. My wife, Leigh Anne, had gone to school at Sewanee. I’d grown up in the nearby valley. What in the world would it be like to return to the place I thought I’d left behind forever?

Almost every day, there’s a moment when I feel the echoes of the past laid over the present. My sons, Griff and Patch, who are fourteen and ten, had the same gym teacher as I did, and when Coach Gilliam would greet me at their school, I was ready to drop and do twenty push-ups if he asked me. When we see a movie at the Oldham Theatre in Winchester, I tell my kids how, at their age, I watched movies in these same seats, and they politely remind me that I have mentioned this every single time we go. Lately, I’ve been driving past local campaign signs featuring one of my best friends growing up, and he doesn’t look much different from the teenager I remember.

We’ve made a life here. We’re still living it. Now I cannot imagine leaving.

* * *

The Cumberland Plateau is the name of the southern section of the Appalachian Plateau that runs through Kentucky, Tennessee, and parts of northern Alabama and Georgia. Sewanee sits on this plateau, though people who live here always call it “the mountain.” Our family loves to travel, to try new foods and explore museums, but most of our adventures occur within three counties in this area: Franklin, Marion, and Grundy. We’ll set out for a day trip, the kind we often enjoy along our slice of the Cumberland. A recent summer weekend found us heading east on I-24, winding our way down the mountain into Marion County for our first stop, Sequatchie Cove Farm.

Bill and Miriam Keener, alongside their son and daughter-in-law, have run this three-hundred-acre farm for more than twenty years, producing organic vegetables, eggs, cheese, and beef that is some of the best I’ve ever eaten. Every Saturday morning, at the farm’s trading post, people come from all over to pick up preordered items or to simply browse. Today we’ve ordered ground beef and Cumberland cheese, Sequatchie’s take on the French Tomme de Savoie, a mild, earthy cheese perfect for burgers, as well as a blueberry buckle made by Hen of the Woods, a local catering company run by our neighbor in Sewanee, Mallory Grimm. When we arrive, there is already a small crowd, including the Keeners’ son, Kelsey, who is letting children pet the miniature horse and donkey, flanked by one of the huge Great Pyrenees dogs who roam the farm and often nap in the fields with the chickens. Miriam offers me a pickled carrot that is so incredible I ask if I can buy some, only to learn they’ve already sold out, so I make a mental note to get here earlier next time. Bill pulls up on his tractor, and we chat about my family’s recent trip to Ireland. (We were in Dublin on Bloomsday, and I had been reading Bill’s ruminations on Ulysses on his Substack newsletter.) Kind, enthusiastic, and charismatic, Bill is one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met, willing to talk to anyone about anything.

Bill Keener of Sequatchie Cove Farm.

The farm offers a wide variety of workshops, from making brooms to fermenting miso to raising pastured pork. Griff has twice taken workshops with the famed California-based cook and author Sonoko Sakai, whom the late Jonathan Gold of the Los Angeles Times credited with making possibly the best soba noodles outside of Japan. For the second workshop, I lingered along the edges as Sakai taught everyone about okonomiyaki, a savory Japanese pancake. Griff stood next to Southern chefs including Caroline Thompson, a food superstar in Sewanee, and Sakai treated them all with the same respect. Afterward, we sat on the grass and ate the okonomiyaki Griff had just made. In these moments, thinking about the perceived lack of opportunity I had experienced, I watch as my son, growing up in this same region, is working with nationally recognized chefs and cooking food that my own grandmother, born and raised in Kobe, Japan, would have savored. Griff returned home that day knowing new ways to become the person he wants to be.

After we say goodbye to the Keeners and the miniature horse, heavily pregnant with what will apparently be a mini mule, we head to our next stop, only twenty minutes away. We have to resist the urge to eat the blueberry buckle on the drive.

* * *

Just north along US 41, we arrive at the Foster Falls Recreation Area. From this point, we can access the Fiery Gizzard Trail, a twelve-mile hike through some of the most scenic landscapes in Tennessee. When I was in college in Nashville, the first time I brought home friends from school, we did an overnight hike along the trail’s waterfalls and rock formations, stopping to admire the stunning view from Raven Point, looking down at the Fiery Gizzard Creek gorge.

Hiking Fiery Gizzard Trail.

Leigh Anne, who grew up in Atlanta and attended Sewanee in the late eighties, had also hiked this trail with classmates, and when we moved back to the mountain, it was one of our first hikes together. But twelve miles in the heat with kids is not ideal, so instead, we change into bathing suits and make the much easier trek less than a mile down to Foster Falls, where we stand in the midst of a sixty-foot waterfall, rock walls surrounding us, and a deep swimming hole. The reflection of sunlight off the water makes the rock walls turn golden and fluttery, as if the stone were breathing.

Griff heads to an edge to look for crayfish where a creek feeds the swimming hole. Patch, Leigh Anne, and I cautiously walk into the water, which, even in summer, is bracing. We submerge and float on our backs to stare up at flecks of green foliage hiding in cracks of the rock. Griff finally joins us, and we swim to the waterfall, stand under it, and then sit ourselves on a little ledge, and it feels like we’re on our sofa at home. Patch tells me the swimming hole reminds him of one we explored last spring in Belize, where we hiked into a gorge and swam in water so blue it felt unreal. I smile at the thought that the place where we live has something that can evoke that same sense of beauty. If Patch wants a spot in his hometown to impress the people who come into his life, he’ll know exactly where to go.

A shady path along Fiery Gizzard Trail.

Needing a snack, we drive ten minutes on 41 into Tracy City, a small town in Grundy County and home to the oldest family-owned bakery in the state, Dutch Maid Bakery, which opened in 1902. In a brick building downtown, owner Cindy Day still makes bread and pastries using some of the equipment from the bakery’s early days. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but Griff and Leigh Anne are partial to the éclairs, while Patch and I go for the ginger cookies. Griff asks if this was a place I loved as a kid, and I tell him I’d never even heard of it until I moved back home. I suddenly realize that, once we had kids, Leigh Anne and I explored this area we thought we knew through different eyes; so many of our discoveries came because of them. Maybe it’s easier to have epiphanies when you’re eating a giant cookie.

From left: Dutch Maid cookies; Cindy Day, the owner of Dutch Maid Bakery in Tracy City.

* * *

When we get back to Sewanee, grab an early drink at the Blue Chair Cafe & Tavern. Jimmy and Sarah Wilson, my uncle and aunt, run the place, and over the years it’s become a gathering spot on the mountain. The week before, Patch and I came here for a viewing party to see my friend compete on Jeopardy! As fifty people packed into the building, drinking beers from Jackalope Brewing Company and eating the best burgers in Sewanee, we cheered for Lauryl Tucker, Patch high-fiving her son for every correct answer.

From left: Cheeseburgers and fries at the Blue Chair Cafe & Tavern in Sewanee; Blue Chair Cafe owners Jimmy and Sarah Wilson with their son, Felix.

Now we sit outside at a picnic table, drinking beers called Thunder Ann and Bearwalker, waiting for our beer-battered french fries while the kids play across the street at Angel Park. Two years earlier, we adopted Dolly, the feral cat who had lived behind the tavern for years, the sweetest cat we’ve ever known. We cannot imagine our life without her, and we’re reminded again that the longer we live here, the more reasons we find to stay.

Gathering outdoors at the Blue Chair Cafe.

In late afternoon, we invite our friends and their two sons over to our house so the kids can take a swim in Hidden Hollow Lake. As afternoon turns to evening, we talk about the day’s adventures, and we layer these memories over those of the past, when I was young, when Leigh Anne was a college student, when our children were so small it seemed like they would never grow up. Now I imagine Griff and Patch, once they get their driver’s licenses, setting out on road trips through the plateau with their own friends, while we wait for them to tell us the stories of what they have discovered.