In July, I spent a night at Camp Grits, an unusual Airbnb near Cosby, Tenn, owned and operated by my friends Jim Clark and Primrose Coke. City life was getting me down, and Jim and Primrose let me stay in the new cabin on their property, part of the “glamp ground” that is their livelihood.
Glamping, a portmanteau of the words “glamorous” and “camping,” is “camping with luxuries,” says Jim. For some of Camp Grits’ guests, glamping is an introduction to camping in the woods. For others, it’s as far as they are willing to go down the path that leads away from electric lights and a soft bed. Guests can rent an 18-foot-tall canvas tipi set up by the creek, a vintage camper parked among the trees, or the hand-built cabin. The structures and grounds are furnished with thrift-store finds and handmade items: vintage metal camp dishes, bunting made from old shirts. The flavor is mid-century Americana “grandpa chic” married to a whimsical “beans-for-dinner” aesthetic.
Glamping is a thing in England, where Primrose is from. Her aunt, an innkeeper in Dorset, was an early adopter, adding “gypsy caravans” and portable shepherds’ huts on the meadowland surrounding her traditional bed-and-breakfast. These primitive lodgings conjure up the romance of transient and glamorized lifestyles.
In 2013 the couple bought 3 acres of inexpensive rural land along Dunn Creek. An eccentric, sprawling house of unpainted wood sat in an overgrown clearing. The previous owner, a spirit-drum maker named Karen, built the house piecemeal throughout the 1990s and died of cancer before completion. It’s the kind of house that might send a lot of home-buyers screaming for the hills, but it spoke to a couple of make-do artists with a love for the rustic, handmade, and unusual.
The couple needed a way to pay for the property they had just bought, and as there aren’t many job opportunities in Cosby, Primrose turned to what she knew. They put together some tiny structures on their land. Business took off when Camp Grits joined Airbnb, the peer-to-peer website for homeowners to rent out their property to vacationers.
Some may remember the couple as operators of Bonanza Jelly Bean, the red 1950s Shasta camper converted into a mobile art gallery/vintage shop. Now Bonanza Jelly Bean is retired to a small clearing with a fire pit. Inside is a bed, freshly made with vintage floral sheets.
Jim and Primrose met in 2009 at an artists’ colony in Troy, N.Y., married three months later, and moved to Jim’s hometown of Newport, Tenn. Both hold degrees from art schools. They live and work at Camp Grits earning “the equivalent of one income,” says Primrose, with their 3-year-old son Kestrel, a full-time pirate captain.
We are sitting around the camp fire when guests arrive—two women from the suburbs, who booked Bonanza Jelly Bean. The Camp Grits owners greet the guests and advise them of the extra linens and breakfast situation—fresh baked bread, local eggs, and goats’ milk. The women seem pleased and retreat to the camper for the night.
Jim returns to staring into the fire. He says sometimes guests driving BMWs tell him he is living the dream. He finds it irritating. The charm and convenience of a guest’s stay at a mom-and-pop operation like Camp Grits is possible through backbreaking behind-the-scenes labor. They are on call all the time and trapped in an isolated place. Though naïve, even condescending, it’s easy to fetishize the simple romance of being poor and living in the country, when you’re fresh off the rat race of city life.
The 150-square-foot cabin, painted black with a bright yellow door, is like a little chapel: small but monumental. It is the most glamorous rental option, built of local poplar and decorated with Primrose’s small paintings. It inspires fantasies of stylish off-grid living: reading, writing, breathing the clean forest air, bathing in the stream. Romantic escapism at its finest. Outside the cabin, Primrose has built the most gorgeous outhouse in Tennessee, with yellow-painted floorboards and a stained-glass window from England.
“The cabin makes me feel like I’m in Scandinavia somewhere and the loft with the balcony is incredible. Waking up to a rooster crowing, birds chirping, and leaves rustling was magical. The fact this was built by Rosie and Jim with their bare hands with love makes it that much more special,” wrote Andre from Lexington, Ky., June 10, 2016, in the Camp Grits Guest Book.
On the evening I stay, the moon shines like a spotlight through the trees. When I wake up in the middle of the night, the cabin is dark—the kind of dark never experienced in the city. I do not panic as I grope my way to the most gorgeous outhouse, but the dark makes me a child again. I feel the eyes of the skunk ape watching from the woods.
Located just outside of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Camp Grits offers tourists an alternative to the McMansion cabins and consumerism of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. Jim and Primrose—with very little money, but with a lot of gumption—built an inspiring place, both comfortable and wild, and it’s a testament to their skill that the result seems effortless.
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