Fall and spring in the Midwest are those lovely times of year when either summer’s veil of heat has lifted or the icy grip of winter has loosened, enough for most of us to yearn for those activities that bring us closer to nature. The hiking boots slip on and our feet once again stomp the earthen paths through the forests of our imagination that have steadily grown up over the months of our climatized isolation indoors.
Sure, Missouri has plenty of trails, rivers, wooded hills, and soaring bluffs that appeal to our sense of the nature we covet, but there are places, friends, seemingly enchanted places not too distant from our own fair city that fully realize these expectations. If your vision of wonderland is a cozy weekend away in a vintage, jellybean-shaped camper hidden down a remote, winding road, in the shadow of the Great Smoky Mountains, then Camp Grits is genie to your heart’s desire, which may go a little something like this:
Around 7am, the sun’s first rays pierce through the trees surrounding your fire engine red, 1959 Shasta Camper. Somewhere in the distance, a rooster crows. You stretch your legs out from the wool blankets, and slip on a extra layer and your dusty hiking boots. You clamber out the front door, and the warm sun kisses your cold cheeks. On a shelf outside the camper, there is a small cooler and a round tin container; inside them are a fresh baked loaf of bread (still warm), two eggs harvested from the grounds, and your choice of either fresh goat’s milk or almond milk. You twist open the seal on the propane tank, releasing the gas, and climb back into the camper with your assortment of fresh goodies. You boil water and then brew coffee in the supplied french press. Following the directions scrawled in chalk on the board above the stove, you prepare an “egg in jail” (or “egg in a hole” as its known in colloquial terms locally).
Back outside, you turn off the propane, rest in one of the eclectic assortment of outdoor chairs surrounding the fire pit, with wood still smoldering from last night’s fire, and lazily enjoy your breakfast. What will the rest of the day hold in store for you? Will you prepare for a push to the summit of nearby Mt. LeConte, spend a day shopping in Gatlinburg (the Branson of the east), or just hang around camp, enjoying the tranquility and perhaps getting some reading or writing done? At the close of the day, you climb into the clawfoot tub in a bathhouse under the stars, and soak away the stresses of life back home in what the proprietors refer to as a “hillybilly hot tub” (a fire is lit for you in a small stove under the bathtub- a surprisingly effective, simple solution to getting a warm bath in the deep woods). When your eyes close for sleep that evening, you know how close to heaven you have come.
Speaking of the proprietors, Jim Clark and Primrose Coke, both artists, are the husband and wife team behind Camp Grits. Their tireless hard work and wonderful eye for the rustic design of the grounds, give the experience of staying there its effortless charm. This is not the Hyatt, there is no round-the-clock concierge, pillow service or continental breakfast; in fact, much of a stay’s rewards are dependent upon what the guests are willing to put into it. That said, Rosie and Jim are extremely responsive to the services they do provide, like stoking the fire for your bath, or ensuring that the eggs, milk and bread are there when you want them, or keeping the outhouse (it seems effacing to even refer to it as that) clean and stocked with no lingering odors. No doubt, the empyrean vision of a day at camp espoused earlier in this article is possible only due to this couple’s dedication to their guests. While you are at Camp Grits, Rosie and Jim are your gracious hosts, your guides on this adventure, and your friends. If you leave without a massive appreciation for their vision of this place and of the incredible effort required to achieve it, then perhaps this dream was never for you to begin with. Of course, this is no matter, because Camp Grits will take great care of you either way.
My son Harper playing with Kestrel, the proprietors’ son:
If the idea of staying in an old camper is not exactly for you, you have two additional options for “glamping” at Camp Grits: you can “rough it” a bit more in a decked out, 18’ tall canvas tipi overlooking a bubbling brook, or you can observe more amenities of home in their newly constructed cabin, a Scandinavian-inspired retreat, complete with a loft bed and private privy. With all three campsites spread out across several acres, our family ran into other campers only a few times in our five day stay.
Costs are $70 per night for the tipi/camper, or $90 per night for the cabin on AirBnB. Kid-friendly Camp Grits is located in Cosby, Tennessee, near the Greenbrier entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.