As some of you may have gleaned from the previous post we've just recently returned from a whirlwind trip to the Smokies. I say whirlwind because we did cover a lot of ground (water and air too, for that matter) in a span of time that is always too brief when trying to consider a landscape such as the Smoky Mountains. Today happens to be the birthday of the National Park Service. I shudder to think that I'd ever agree with film maker Ken Burns, but his point about the NPS being America's best idea may be on target.
The Smokies surely can't be grasped in a week - and in our defense, we didn't attempt to try. We were pretty spontaneous about our wanderings. We did manage to see a couple of the more popular spots, and we also managed to go on some hikes where we ditched about 99.8% of the other visitors. One never quite knows what to expect on such journeys - and I'm surprised to find that I came away as impressed by the history as by the landscape itself, although I only saw snippets of both. We did the obligatory drive/hike to Clingman's Dome. The mountains below unfolded as misty and mysterious as promised. We shared the trail up to the spiral concrete viewing platform with hundreds of other visitors from all over the world.
The view was amazing, of course, and it included a panorama that included many dead Hemlocks, victims of the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid. This was an insect and situation I already knew a little bit about, so I guess the sight of the dead snags didn't really register until days later when I spoke with a co-worker who visited the park when there will still plenty of these spectacular trees. (I should hasten to add that we did hike past some old-growth Hemlocks later that day still thriving near the end of the Chimney Tops trail - and they're as majestic as any living thing I've ever seen).
In Cade's Cove and Oconaluftee we saw cabins in various states of restoration. At the latter, we wandered among the old farm buildings, part of a museum at the southern edge of the park. Some of the logs were originals, made from American Chestnut - another tree that is virtually extinct, wiped out by an invasive fungus, Chestnut blight. Some of these logs have become irresistible targets for people who want to carve their names in them, creating their own little marks on history. Of course, once those logs are gone, they're gone forever.
Upon my return, one of my teaching pals and I were relating our mutual wonder about the Smokies. We remarked upon their beauty, of course, but we also talked a little about the number of people that enjoy these parks now. I'm told the Smokies get the most visitors - and I believe it. Throw in the fact that there are now 100 million more Americans now than there were when I was in grade school. The same people that use that odd concrete spiral at Clingman's Dome and carve their names into priceless logs. We all need these places, even if we don't treat them as well as we should.
It's a good thing that places the Smokies were set aside when they were. If the park hadn't been created who knows just what would be there now. Something I'd guess that's between wilderness experience and the Gatlinburg experience. One of my favorite writers, George Saunders, has made a name for himself writing short stories that pretty much show America as a giant jive theme park. When approaching near to boundaries of the Smokies, it's not hard to reach that same conclusion.
But driving away from the park, into North Carolina, we happened upon the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is as lovely a roadway in the land. I've been near the BRP before, but this was my first time on it. It speaks to a time when our country - steeped in economic hard times - created projects that still inspire wonder in people. We're again steeped in economic hard times but we seem to have lost that spark to create new vistas. In 2013 we're content to re-asphalt roads and call it a day.
Someday, that weird Jetson's-y concrete viewing platform at Clingman's Dome will need to be rebuilt. I wonder what America will be like when that day comes? Will there be 400 million of us? What will become of the ramp? Will it topple over, becoming a magnet for graffiti like the old chestnut logs? Maybe I'm fond of the ramp, because like myself, it too was born in 1959:
Clingman's Dome ramp - Image by National Park Service
Before we left North Carolina I purchased a copy of Wendell Berry's novel, Hannah Coulter. Those of you who know me best know I am vain enough to seek out anything that has the same surname as mine - an affliction that I doubt I would have had with a name like Smith. Anyway, I've just begun reading this fictional account of a life in a fictional town in Kentucky. It seems like these days I want to latch on to Wendell Berry's view of the world as opposed to George Saunders'. I want to leave my very recent memories of the Smoky Mountains on a hopeful stance. Maybe that is real gift of these National Parks? It allows us an all too brief opportunity to view our country on that more hopeful stance.