Home in the Mountains of Blue Smoke
As we drove to the Great Smoky Mountains, it seemed appropriate to listen to “The National Parks” on tape, by David Duncan and Ken Burns. We were struck by an interview with Gerard Baker, the first Indian American superintendent of the national parks, where he said, “When you walk into any natural, national park, you are walking into someone’s homeland.”
This is doubly true of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Spanning both North Carolina and Tennessee, these gentle mountains were once home to hundreds of families, with a mountain culture all their own, and who were expelled with the formation of the park in 1934. Almost a hundred years earlier, the Cherokee people were dispelled by the Indian Removal Act of 1830, but were able establish their own territory, where they still thrive today. With so much past, the Appalachian mountains remain rich with stories today.
Today, the Great Smoky Mountains is the most visited national park in the country, with an estimated 11 million visitors in 2015, and even more expected in 2016. Our interviewees cited many possible reasons - that the park is fee-free, and that it’s within a day’s drive of ½ of the US population, that it’s beautiful, of course. The park also hosts sections of the Appalachian Trail, the Georgia to Maine hiking trail, and the Blue Ridge Parkway, a historic scenic motor road stretching from Georgia to Virginia; two routes for two distinctly different types of travelers.
We asked a series of three questions in the interviews that we conducted in our two weeks.
- What does somebody who has never been here before need to know about this place?
- What are your favorite things about this place?
- What are some common notions/stories about this place that should not be shared?
Our interviews led us to stories from Gladys Trentham Russell, a poet and mountaineer, and Wiley Oakley, the Ramblin’ Man of the Mountains, who served as a local guide-for-hire in the early days of the park. We visited cultural institutions like the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center and the Mountain and Farm Museum within the park. We interviewed park rangers, storytellers, community members and folks from the Great Smoky Mountains Association, Friends of the Smokies, the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, and many more!
We were welcomed in early May by rain, which gave way to blooming tulip poplars (among many other wild flowers), and two weeks of allergies.
We leave the Great Smokies with these themes in mind:
Wisdom of the Mountains
The Appalachian Mountain range is one of the oldest mountain ranges on the planet, thought to once have been as tall as the Rocky Mountains, but have been worn down by weather, by time, and by the constant shift of the very earth that formed them. They appear today as “gentle” and “feminine,” like “grandmother’s bosom.” Fun fact: a majority of the sand along ALL the coastlines of the Atlantic Ocean is made up of the very particles that once made up the highest peaks of the ancestral Appalachian mountains.
The Great Smokies gets its name from the fog over the mountains, typical in the mornings or after rainfall. We’ve heard many origins of the smoke: that it’s humid air from the Gulf of Mexico cooling rapidly in this climate, that it’s moisture from these trees, or that it’s the prayers of all the Cherokee people, making their way up to the gods. No matter which you believe, the smoke that hangs over the mountains has the effect of giving this emerald palace a character of wisdom.
Full of Life
Botanically, the Smokies are referred to as the “womb of the earth,” for its role as a sanctuary for over 19,000 unique species of flora and fauna. We were told that during the Ice Age, there was no glacier that covered any mountains in the Appalachian chain, due to the mountains orientation at an angle, from southwest to northeast. So as the Ice Age receded, the species in the Smokies were able to fan out, and repopulate the American continent. The highest elevations of the mountains maintain a climate and air pressure that can host northern species, while the valleys maintain climates appropriate for species that are comfortable in Georgia or Alabama. There are more plant species here then anywhere in North America.
A few wildlife facts about the park:
- On average, there’s one black bear for every square mile. If you took all the salamanders in that same square mile, they would outweigh every other species combined - bears included. Thus, it’s the “Salamander Capital of the World.”
- Early to mid-June, you can watch thousands of fireflies sync their lighting patterns in the Elkmont area of the park - an event so popular, visitors must call ahead and reserve a spot to watch this phenomenon.
- Elk, once eliminated from the area, were reintroduced to the park in 2001 and you can spot them on the North Carolina side of the park, sometimes grazing even just outside of the Ocanaluftee Visitor Center.
- A familiar refrain is that there are 1,600 black bears and 11 million people in the park, and neither behave responsibly. During our stay, a backcountry camper on the Appalachian Trail was bitten through his tent, and a few days later, a bear came wandering back into the campsite, and had to be euthanized. Once a bear sees humans as a source for food, everyone’s safety is in danger. This is the ongoing challenge of park officials to keep everyone safe, and to keep the wild, wild.
The park, established in 1934 amidst mountain habitation and a thriving logging industry, forced the relocation of hundreds of families. Some families saw the need for protection and accepted the compensation, but others resisted, and those complex emotions remain today. The park’s preservation has saved much of the forest from logging as many will be quick to point out that what you see today is second-growth forest. Nearby tourist towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge have been sprung up from the visitorship to the park. These communities, who helped raise the funds to purchase the land for the government, see the value of the park and continue to aid in its ongoing preservation.
And to their credit, the National Park Service supported lifetime leases for a few mountain families (including the famous Walker Sisters), and hired Joseph Hall (aka “the Songcatcher”) to collect recordings of mountain culture. Unlike other parks, the preservation of this culture was a mission of the Great Smoky Mountains park from the start. And so the Smoky Mountains today remains rich with stories of the Appalachian way of life.
- Appalachian people were both fiercely independent, and lived in tight-knit communities, often centered around the church. One interviewee told us while it is inappropriate to ask for help, neighbors will often notice and lend a hand in a time of need.
- Mountain life consisted of farming and hunting. The work of everyday life was rugged, and people used a variety of ingenious methods to live off the land. But without higher education, or access to doctors, mountain communities relied on home remedies and superstitions to guide their daily decisions. Lice was treated with kerosene, and moon phases guided when and where to plant or harvest crops. And despite religious values, turning corn into moonshine (aka corn liquor) proved so profitable, that many farmers owned and operated stills illegally.
- For all the hardships, people who lived in these mountain communities feel rich in their heritage. Much of this culture was carried through music and song. Without instruments, people relied on shape-note singing, a sheet music system that used different shapes to recall notes. Once instruments began to be introduced, the banjo became most common for its ease to make at home. The music culture grew, and eventually old-time music branched off into modern forms of bluegrass music today.
But 100 years before the park was established, the Cherokee were driven out of these same mountains. President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, calling for all Indians east of the Mississippi to be relocated to “Indian territory,” present-day Oklahoma. Through a variety of means, the Eastern Band of Cherokee were able to remain, buy back some of the land to establish the Qualla boundary, a sovereign nation within North Carolina.
The Cherokee are the native people of this land and their history goes back tens of thousands of years, as recent archaeological digs are confirming. Cherokee leaders govern themselves in the Qualla boundary, where they continue to teach their language and culture, and hold ceremonies - even an annual Miss Cherokee competition. Storytelling continues to be a large part of passing down important values and lessons. While every story varies slightly each time it’s told, these stories continue to carry forward the Cherokee culture into the new millennium.
A Spiritual Connection
Many who live here today speak of some sort of spiritual connection to the land - a feeling of a sense of place here. Those who trace their ancestors into the lands that now make up the national park speak of reverence, awe of the landscape, and continue the traditions of resourcefulness and appreciation for the function of the land. We also encountered a number of people who upon a chance visit, describe the same awe and appreciation, and decided to move here. One interviewee attributed this indescribable connection to the feminine and gentle nature of the mountains. The wisdom of the smoke, the gentle curves of the old mountains, that call to many to a simple and rich way of life.
As one of our last interviewees told us, “what you seek, will seek you.” For as peaceful as they seem, the Great Smokies is full of turbulent human history, culture, and wildlife.
We are so grateful to all the individuals who sat down with us to share their collected opinions of a place they hold so dear. There’s a whole stack of books we devoured on our trip, and another stack to continue to dive into for when we get home. But for now, we wrap up our time in the Great Smoky Mountains, and look west to our next stop in the Rocky Mountains.