Secret Vistas: The Great Smoky Mountains

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National Park Celebrates 75th Anniversary

Glynn Wilson

A rock tunnel beckons as you enter the Great Smoky Mountains National Park…

by Glynn Wilson

GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS — When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt stood at Newfound Gap with one foot in North Carolina and the other in Tennessee on Sept. 2, 1940 at the official opening of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the visibility into the dark blue ridges ranged about 80 miles. By the year 2000, soot and ozone from automobiles and the Tennessee Valley Authority’s coal-fired power plants in East Tennessee had so polluted the air that on a good day, you could only see for about 12 miles.

Glynn Wilson
Newfound Gap road in the snow and clouds

Due to cleaner cars and smoke stack scrubbers on TVA’s three nearby coal-fired power plants, and a 10 percent drop in the number of people and cars passing through the park over the past decade, perhaps, you can now see for about 14 miles, a slight improvement of a couple of miles, according to park spokesman Bob Miller.

On the day we passed through last week on the way from Cades Cove near Townsend, Tennessee, to the Smokmont campground near Bryson City, North Carolina, the visibility was not even a mile. It wasn’t due to air pollution or even fog, however. We were so high in the sky, about 5,000 feet at the North Carolina-Tennessee state line, that we were literally in the clouds.

Remnants of snow from the most recent storm lined the winding mountain road, inspiring the few early tourists traveling through on the day before the spring season began to stop and have their picture taken by the snow and ice hanging down from the rocky peaks.

Inspired by the 75th anniversary of the park, to be celebrated in song and dance, and with hikes and bike rides and other events throughout the year, we wanted to camp on both sides of the vast mountain range known for it’s blue mist and diversity of life before the crowds showed up.

Glynn Wilson
An old mountain church in Cades Cove…

The Cades Cove campground was nearly deserted as the high mountain winds rocked the old growth poplar, pine and fir trees, some more than 100 feet tall, creating an almost scary whisper through the treetops and shivers of ancient rhythms up one’s spine. No city lights were visible this far up in the mountains, so the big dipper in the night sky seemed so close you could almost reach out and touch it.

There is something wild and rebellious about camping in an old growth forest in one of the world’s oldest mountain ranges, formed between 200 and 300 million years before any priest even considered creating a god with ink and paper.

The 12,000 animal species in the Smoky Mountains are also kind of special in their own right, considering they evolved from species that were never directly affected by the moving glaciers during the last ice age about 10,000 years ago. The northeast to southwest orientation of the peaks allowed animals such as elk, white-tailed deer, wild turkeys and black bears, which now number about 1,500, to migrate along the slopes and escape the massive climate changes then, according to the official literature being passed out to visiting media at the Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg.

Glynn Wilson
A white-tailed deer fawn foraging in the forest around Cades Cove

If you want to catch the height of the anniversary, you better get in line now for tickets to the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra performance in Cades Cove scheduled for June 13. At several locations in the park, you can pick up a copy of Dolly Partin’s new CD celebrating the Cherokee heritage of the area. The title is “Sha-Kon-O-Hey,” Cherokee for “Land of the Blue Smoke.” Proceeds to go the Friends of the Smoky Mountains and the Trails Forever program.

On June 15, the actual anniversary date, the main events will highlight the cultural heritage of the Southern Appalachians and the Cherokee Indians with music, storytelling and exhibits at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee, North Carolina.

President Barack Obama has been invited to speak at Newfound Gap on Sept. 2 on the spot where Roosevelt stood on that day in 1940. No word as of yet on whether he will accept the offer to be the first president to visit the park since the Great Depression.

Glynn Wilson
A wild turkey sneaking through the forest around Cades Cove

To better understand the park’s history, the National Park Service has built an enhanced new section to the park’s Website complete with an interactive timeline of events, including a short audio clip of Roosevelt’s dedication speech.

We highly recommend the park’s Website and the park itself. But you better go camping early before the crowds arrive. The 10 campgrounds in the park stay full from June through “leaf season” in the fall.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the country, averaging a little more than 9 million visitors each year. Park visitation actually peaked in 2000 with 10.3 million visitors, but dropped 10 percent in 2001. It has remained flat ever since, although the advertising and public relations boost from the anniversary promotions could bump the number significantly this year.

In today’s modern world when young people especially spend so much time indoors watching high definition television and playing video games, Miller said, “People need to come to the Smokies and experience nature in a real sense.”

For purists who like the primitive camping experience without hot showers, cell phone service or high speed wireless Internet connections anywhere around, never fear. There are no plans to add those services in the park, even in the campgrounds. We tried to encourage it, but according to Miller, it’s not even being discussed — not so much as a matter of philosophy so much as a budget issue. It would take more money to put in a sewer system and run power lines up into the mountains than the park would ever recoup in fees, he said.

The parks were built in an era when people just wanted to take a cheap family vacation to see the country in a station wagon, Miller said. In those days, before daily showers became part of modern life due to indoor plumbing, many people only took baths on Saturday nights anyway. Hmmm. Thank dog for the aroma of pine needles, wood smoke and hot cups of coffee.

It’s ridiculously cheap and not that far from anywhere in the South to see it up close. Being there is where it’s at. Watching it on the National Geographic channel, well, it’s just not the same — even in High Def.

Glynn Wilson

A mountainscape in Cades Cove…

© 2009 – 2016, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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