Not far from here in the Smoky Mountains is a country inn that caters to the hiker in all of us. It's up-scale, up a mountain.
The drive up is a bit bumpy. It's steep and curvy, but it's worth it. Waiting at the top of this mountain, 6000 feet high, is one of the most beautiful views in all the Southeast. Also waiting at the top are two special people. Deener Matthews is an innkeeper as warm as the spring air. Dan is the husband of the innkeeper, as he likes to be called.
Welcome to The Swag.
"We say we are a romantic hiking resort and I think that describes it pretty well," says Deener.
"To be in this Inn every day, 30 feet from the boundary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and to be able to walk in there ten seconds, you're in the park, that's ultimately everything to me," says Dan.
This scenic spot in Waynesville on the North Carolina side of the Smokies was not always this plush. Dan and Deener enhanced the natural beauty. And these two have quite a rich story themselves.
Dan grew up in North Carolina
"I wanted to be a photographer when I was a kid," says Dan.
Instead, though, he pursued an education in drama, a masters in business, but ultimately found he wanted to preach God's word. One minister in particular made an impact.
"He said, 'You see Vanderbilt Divinity School is just full of people who are what we call theologically world denying. They don't believe in lipstick. They don't believe in makeup. They don't believe in dancing and they certainly don't believe in drinking any kind of alcohol and the Episcopalians believe in all of it'," says Dan.
He switched from his childhood church to the Episcopal Church and ended up all over the country.
"I'm blessed beyond words. I can't imagine being blessed any more than I have been with my ministry, with the churches I've been in and much of that has been in Tennessee and I love Tennessee," says Dan.
He led St. John's Episcopal Church in downtown Knoxville for seven years, but ended up spending most of his time in New York City.
"It's a small church relative to the congregation, only about 500 members in the congregation, but it's the wealthiest Episcopal church in the world," says Dan.
He was able to give away millions of dollars to charities around the world. He even got to spend time with Queen Elizabeth along the way.
"She's animated and fun and playful and we really had a great time with her," says Dan.
With Dan on his journey has always been Deener. She was quite the athlete, skiing and skating.
"I really enjoyed ice skating, started skating when I was eight years old," says Deener.
She met Dan when they were both in school at Rollins College.
"I was a graduating senior and he was a freshman and I was in charge of the welcoming committee as a senior and he was one of the kids I welcomed," says Deener.
Deener married another man, a Naval Aviator who was killed when his plane went down. After that tragedy, Dan and Deener reunited.
"He said, 'I make so little money, I can't afford to date you, but will you marry me?' So, in nine dates we were married," says Deener.
52 years later they are still as happy as can be. Most of the year, you will find them tucked away in the Smoky Mountains. "You see the minute you cross that fence and walk in to the park, you are in another world. You are in kind of like a natural cathedral, everything is perfect. You don't pick a flower, you don't break a stick," says Dan. "It's a religious experience. It's a sacred moment to even step in to the park."
They found this spot more than four decades ago. It was their family home for years, but after opening it for guests during the World's Fair, they decided to open it as The Swag Country Inn. And boy has it grown, cozy cabins, hiking trails, swimming holes, a comfortable spot around every corner. And guests are well taken care of.
"They might be cold, but they know they are going to get warm. They know cookies are going to be waiting for them and hot chocolate," says Deener.
They also join together every night for a home cooked meal and fellowship.
"It's a joy. It's a privilege to be an innkeeper. It's a privilege to do something that makes people relax, love each other more," says Deener.
Dan and Deener Matthews, warm and welcoming much like the Smoky Mountains.
"The Rockies, they say, 'I dare you. I just dare you to come on in here.' And the Smokies say, 'Come on, come on' because they are soft and they have nice trails and beautiful streams and so green," says Deener.
"It lifts you right out of the world into the holiness and the sacredness of eternity, which is as close as we can get in the park," says Dan.
One of Your Stories. There's no place like this one.
Several East Tennesseans lead hikes and educational tours at The Swag like Dr. Bob Collier. Find links to his hiking tips and a recipe for Swag Bars here on wbir.com.