This week I’ll be spending a few days in the Smokies, so I revisited this column I wrote for the Gazette in Colorado Springs 26 years ago. Hope you enjoy your visit too!
Growing up in East Tennessee, my definition of mountains began and ended with the Appalachians, specifically Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
Whenever I travel back in that direction I always watch for the rounded green summits veiled in blue haze from the window of the airplane. When I see the mountains, I know I’ll soon be home.
As a Girl Scout on a day hike or a young woman on a backpacking adventure, those peaks always seemed plenty high to me, so I was a bit shocked when my Colorado husband said, “you mean the smoky hills” when I spoke to him of my native mountains.
It’s true the Smokies will never “measure up” to the Rockies. Although the national park encompasses the highest portion of the Appalachian range, Clingmans Dome is the highest of the 16 peaks over 6,000 feet, and it only measures 6,642. There are no fourteeners in the Smokies.
The Cherokee Indians named the mountain range that was their home Great Smoky because of the haze that continuously nestles in the valleys and glistens in the morning sunrise. The mist comes from the dense vegetation, and the park still boasts 150 species of trees and over 2,000 species of plant life, including the white-blossomed rhododendron, pink azalea, and myriad of ferns and wildflowers that I remember lining the moist mountain paths.
It’s impossible for me to think back to hiking the trails of the Smokies without remembering the cool smell of green, or my delight at discovering a “jack in the pulpit” nestled amongst the wildflowers.
Most summer, Sunday afternoons when I was little my family drove to the mountains to cool off. We stopped for a big lunch at the Apple Tree Inn in Pigeon Forge, a sleepy little town before Dolly Parton built Dollywood and all the other tourist attractions sprang up. Then we’d roll down the windows in the station wagon and take the windy road through Gatlinburg and all the way to the top of Clingmans Dome. My dad would drop a quarter in the long-range binoculars and my sisters and I would take turns standing on “tippytoe” to see all the way to Virginia.
A few descendants of old mountain families still live in pockets within the park, having managed to get lifetime leases from the park service when the land was claimed by the government in 1934. But most of the residents then and now are the white-tailed deer, raccoons, foxes, and black bears that call the Smokies home.
Before tourists were discouraged from interacting with wildlife, we used to get out of the car whenever we saw a bear and run to toss it stale Ritz crackers or take its photo. At school each Monday there would be a competition as to who had seen the most bears the day before. Twenty-one is a record I remember claiming.
Only in the Smokies can you rock on the front porch of a rustic cabin and listen to the Roaring Fork river dance around the boulders as you “soak in” the mountains. While I may marvel at the Rockies, I can’t say that I ever remember “soaking them in” as I always have the Smokies.
Gentle, green, smoky hills, you aren’t tall, but you are beautiful to behold.
All photos courtesy of Steve Hixon, www.stevehixonphotography.com.
Lea Ann says
This makes me smile. You ARE a Tennessee girl at heart just like I am a Colorado mountain girl. Oh the childhood memories we each have. I’ve been to your mountains twice on a women’s team retreat and totally “got” why they are called the “Smoky” mountains. Beautiful part of this grand nation!!!
Glad you got to experience them, Lea Ann. Beautiful in a different way from the Rockies!
Alice Scott-Ferguson says
A vivid word painting!! Love that area, Nancy.
Thanks, Alice. Hope you get to visit there again.
Elizabeth H. Van Liere says
You make it come alive, Nancy. However, I know a few “soakable” places in the Rockies, as well. God has spread them everywhere.
True, Betty. I’m blessed to have experienced both mountain ranges!
Your Huzzband says
Beautifully written – accompanied by fantastic photography.
Yes! Steve’s photos are stunning. Thanks, dear!
Peggy Lovelace Ellis says
Only a woman with a mountain heart could write this with such feeling. Here in the Blue Ridge, just east of the Smokies, it’s normal to see black bears in my yard. At lunch today, Mama Bear watched over her cubs as they played next to our patio. We know not to interfere with them, and they don’t interfere with us. This has been their trail for centuries–who are we to try to keep them away!
Peggy, I was hoping to see some bears–from a distance–on this trip but no luck. The last time I had a chance to drive through Cade’s Cove we saw a mother with two babies. Such a treat!