We don’t have a long history exploring along the Parkway though we have always used it to get our first sight of the high Smokies and to avoid the Maryville traffic. Today we had more errands to run in Townsend but explored as we went. Millers Cove is mostly untouched until you near the exclusive Blackberry Farm. Other well endowed folks have purchased nearby and closed a pretty road to Hesse Creek and posted lots more. At the Missionary Baptist, we stopped to admire the flawlessly maintained cemetery all decked out for Memorial Day.
One resident distributing a carload of flower baskets paused to tell us about the families resting here and the too tragic story of one young girl whose name stood out.
Place names all round the area carry these names. And tell the history as well. Turkey Pen Gap, Farr Gap is a family name, not just a ”fer piece.” We always take special note of all the places named Panther -- Panther Town, Panther Creek near here, and many others. They recall both the presence of big cats and the singularity of a sighting or a place associated.
Once, a few years back, we were easing up the Parkway after a shower. There were wisps of clouds crossing the road, and, though we had missed the sunset, we hoped the view from the top would be clear or at least interesting. Rising, we had just topped a tiny rise and started around a curve when a long tawny figure crept cautiously but confidently across. We were less that 75 feet away when he reached the center line. He didn’t pause his slow pace, and did nothing to accelerate or otherwise acknowledge our presence. And then he was gone, his FOUR FOOT TAIL the last thing we saw as roadside brush enveloped him.
We were speechless and immobile in the road just staring at the verge and down at paw prints dimpling the wet sheen of the pavement. We were certain what we saw and also certain that reporting or even mentioning this would have no effect. Wildlife agencies were always skeptical and protected their reputations (and at the same time the remnant populations) by not acknowledging Panther sightings.
Experienced woodsmen and, in one case, a Smokies Ranger report sightings now and again and as years go by and sightings accumulate. Today you may report to a scientist in Virginia; a scenario has begun to emerge. Young males travel long distances – hundreds of miles –- on great circuits hoping to find a willing female and establish a new territory. Females seldom move 75 miles from their birthplace, so the great wanderings are most often fruitless, but who can say? Coyotes moved from Texas to New Jersey in our lifetimes and were seldom seen and only occasionally heard. Big cats are so much less likely to show themselves at Fido’s kibble dish. There are reports of declawed “pets” being released and occasionally killed in the mountains…. If one of those females should make the acquaintance of one our lonely bachelors from say Oklahoma or Ozark Arkansas …..