Margaret Hester photo
“I do think there is something about being outside that makes you more aware of the whole universe, of creation itself. Some may say that doesn’t have anything to do with God but for me it does,” says Charles Maynard, who has spent a lifetime exploring and tending to the Smoky Mountains.
The Appalachian Mountains are dear to Charles Maynard. They’ve been a constant in his life since he was scampering around on Signal Mountain as a kid growing up around Chattanooga. He’s spent his life hiking all over the Appalachian Range and tending to its needs. He’s mountain through and through, and the peaks’ solid, stony grandeur seem to have forged in his soul a deeper appreciation for all creation.
Maynard’s three roles—as mountain man, storyteller and minister—complement each other. From preaching at a small church years ago to his work with the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church to his involvement with the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, Tenn., to the numerous speaking engagements and workshops he’s conducted through the years and the 43 books he’s written, he is clearly a man with something to say and the wherewithal to say it.
“You hear people talk as if the environment is something over there, when of course it’s what we live in every day,” Maynard said. “I do think there is something about being outside that makes you more aware of the whole universe, of creation itself. Some may say that doesn’t have anything to do with God but for me it does.”
Maynard, who has a master’s in divinity, has served in years gone by as a pastor for a United Methodist Church and is now a district superintendent in the Maryville District of the Holston Conference of the UMC, often conducts ministry retreats and camps.
“I was at a camp recently and an adult was standing near me and we were observing children playing outside,” Maynard said. “This adult leans over to me and says, ‘You know, it’s really interesting, but people seem to relate differently to each other when they’re outside.’ I wanted to say, ‘Well, of course! That’s why we have these camps; that’s why we have these parks.’”
It was more than 20 years ago, while he was a minister in the Knoxville, Tenn., area, that Maynard’s relationship with the mountains took him down a new trail. He was hiking frequently back then with two of his best friends, David Morris and Hal Hubbs, when they collectively formulated a very good idea.
“We’d do an easy trail with our families and we wouldn’t see people with their families and we’d wonder why other people wouldn’t bring their families to this,” Maynard said. “Then we’d do difficult trails and we’d run across a family and we’d think ‘Why in the world would you bring your kids up here?’ We kept saying, ‘Somebody ought to write a book.’ So we were all having dinner together one night and it came up and another friend said, ‘Well, who knows more about it than you three?’ We kinda laughed, but that was the germ of the idea for the book. So we pulled together our 25 favorite hikes for children.”
That book, Time Well Spent: Family Hiking in the Smokies: A Guide to 25 Enjoyable Family Hikes in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, was published in 1991 and later transformed into a fuller book, and has now been through some six editions more simply titled Family Hiking in the Smokies: Time Well Spent.
After the success of the trio’s first book they found other friends asking what they were going to write next, according to Maynard. A waterfall guide to the Smokies became the answer to that question. Waterfalls & Cascades of the Smokies: A Guide to Finding & Enjoying 30 Waterfalls of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park was published in 1992.
The three complemented each other on the trail quite well, Maynard says. He knew a lot about the history and culture of Appalachia. Morris was the ace naturalist of the bunch, able to call off the names of trees and plants they saw along the way. Hubbs was the bird man, recognizing the fine feathered friends they’d see and hear.
“When we’d hike together we’d really have a blast because each one of us knew something different,” says Maynard. “Over the course of years we’ve taught each other what we know, but you know you’re always looking for something else.”
By this time, Maynard had gained quite a reputation as an outdoorsman and public speaker through his frequent hiking expeditions, his books and his nature talks. The book on waterfalls resulted in him getting an offer to do a book on the waterfalls of Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons.
“Of the three of us, I do the most talking,” Maynard says with a laugh, explaining how it was he garnered perhaps more recognition as a naturalist than his two buddies. “So when someone would approach us and say, ‘Can you guys come do a program,’ I was usually the one who did the program.”
In 1993, the Friends of Great Smoky Mountains National Park was formed. The independent nonprofit organization was created to provide volunteers and fund-raising for the park. The newly elected board of the nascent Friends of the Smokies organization asked Maynard if he would serve as inaugural director. Thrilled with the organization’s mission, Maynard agreed and in February of 1994 began working part-time while he sorted out his various other commitments. He took his family with him to Yellowstone that summer to do the fieldwork for his Yellowstone and Grand Tetons book project. When he came back to Tennessee, he stepped in as the full-time director of Friends of the Smokies, a position he would keep until 2002.
“Initially we had nothing,” Maynard said. “We had a borrowed office and a borrowed computer and a borrowed phone. There were only about eight or 10 Friends groups at the time in the entire country. Now there are over 200. We were kind of inventing how to be in partnership with the park.”
The partnership accomplished quite a bit during Maynard’s tenure. Four historic log cabins were restored, as was the wheel on Cable Mill in Cades Cove. An endowment was established that enabled Discover Life in America to begin its important All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory to catalog every living species in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Elk were returned to the Smokies after 150 years. Numerous campgrounds, restroom facilities, other buildings and trails were rehabilitated.
Of the Friends’ building projects, one holds a special place in Maynard’s heart. It was the first major project the new Friends organization undertook—the rehabilitation of the Mount Cammerer fire tower. The two-story octagonal stone and timber fire tower sitting up on a narrow ridge straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina state line had been neglected for decades.
“It’s a western fire tower design,” Maynard said. “You don’t find many of this type east of the Mississippi. At the time the Friends was started, it was just rotting away. The catwalk had rotted off. The roof was caving in. It was going to become just nothing but a crumbling stone remnant.”
Maynard admits the fire tower wasn’t the thing the National Park Service folks thought most crucial but Maynard and the board were savvy enough to understand that this kind of iconic structure with the dramatic historical purpose that happened to be a two-state project would form the basis for a far more appealing fundraising campaign than would a project to fix up bathrooms or shore up a spot of trail somewhere. The project proved successful and garnered considerable attention, and Maynard feels a special connection to the locale to this day.
His only connection with Friends of the Smokies now, he says, is as a donor and volunteer. “Many nonprofits don’t survive their founders,” Maynard said. “I wanted the Friends to move to the next step. I thought it was important for the board to rotate. It was a good parting but necessary. I can’t say enough about the board. They were, still are, very dedicated people who worked quite hard to form that organization. Of course most of the original board members have rotated off by now.”
After leaving Friends of the Smokies, Maynard’s other great constant—storytelling—took him to Jonesborough, Tenn., where he was for a time the director of advancement for the International Storytelling Center. He says he and his family had always attended the national storytelling festival in the northeast Tennessee town and so it seemed a natural fit.
But perhaps Maynard’s most prolific storytelling has been with the written word. Almost all of his 43 books have been non-fiction for young readers, and many tell the tales of great outdoor explorers and adventurers. He also wrote the essays on a couple of collaborative book projects with photographer Jerry Greer. One, The Blue Ridge: Ancient and Majestic, won the Phillip D. Reed Memorial Award for Outstanding Writing on the Southern Environment from the Southern Environmental Law Center. The duo teamed up again for the soon-to-be-published The Blue Ridge Parkway. He says yet another, this one on Cataloochee, is presently in the works and he’s also writing a book of essays on the Smokies for the University of Tennessee Press.
Life is good for this 56-year-old mountain man. He lives with his wife Janice, who is an avid hiker herself and a romance novelist with more than 10 books to her credit, in Maryville, Tenn., in the foothills of his beloved Smoky Mountains. The couple’s two daughters live in the area and have given them three grandchildren. He’s still great friends with his early writing partners Hal Hubbs, a computer specialist, and Morris, a registered anesthetist. Both Hubbs and Morris live in Knoxville, Tenn., and the trio still hike together when they can find time.
Maynard continues to be involved with organizations devoted to the Appalachian Mountains. He’s on the regional Southeast Advisory Council of the National Parks Conservation Association and on the board of Discover Life in America. He has served on the Appalachian Trail Conservancy board for the past four years and was recently re-elected to continue in that capacity.
One thing’s for sure with Maynard. Whether with his family, his buddies, or folks who participate in the hikes he leads through the church or with one of the several outdoor education and recreation organizations he’s involved with, he’s going to be out on a trail as much as he can. “Hiking is part of how I relax and how I recharge my batteries, renew myself,” Maynard says.
Maynard leads a hike up to Cammerer every year during Wilderness Wildlife Week in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., and also usually leads one to Albright Grove through a section of old-growth forest between Gatlinburg and Cosby, Tenn. He does a program on waterfalls for the University of Tennessee Smoky Mountain Field School every spring and this past July he led a hike up to the Walker Sisters cabin and told stories on the front porch before walking back down. He also occasionally adds to the charm of The Swag, a mountain inn located 5,000 feet up on the Cataloochee Divide in North Carolina on the border of the Smokies, where he’ll lead daily hikes for several days at a time and then tell mountain stories around the fireplace after supper.
“That understanding that God created this place is something I’ve long had,” Maynard said. “I can’t even say when it started exactly, but it’s driven everything I’ve done. I don’t necessarily overtly try to connect the dots for people, but I do try to help them see this place and understand it from that perspective. When I was with Friends of the Smokies, that’s what I was doing. I couldn’t take care of my whole world but I could help take care of this place.”