I’ve been on a trip the past couple of weeks visiting friends in Virginia. We opted to take a roadtrip to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee to catch a dinner theater performance, and visit Dollywood. It was a fun slice of Americana, complete with over the top Christmas lights and outlet mall shopping. I did manage to snag a pretty cool pocket knife – so no complaints.
But what was the most meaningful part of the trip to me, aside from the time spent with my friends, was a day drive we took to visit The Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
I wasn’t unfamiliar with the Great Smoky Mountains. My Grandfather’s people, the Cherokees, called the area home from time immemorial through the Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears in 1830. Even after, some bands of Cherokees remained, taking to the Appalachian hills and making a life among the thousands of acres forests, creeks, and valleys in the southeastern United States. Having visited, it was very easy to understand why some chose to remain. The place is nothing if not peaceful. A refuge lost to time.
The park takes its name from the natural fog that results from the park’s trees and vegetation. The fog hovers over the mountains, making them look bathed in smoke from afar and even from within the park itself.
Far from it though.
The air was fresh and crisp with a hint of November chill. It smelled of pine and growth, and of the soil that has eroded from the craggy terrain for millennia.
In all, it was a place mostly undisturbed by mankind spare the roads and few visitors taking in its wonder on a cold day. The quiet streams and rivulets ran throughout the park, paying no heed to the passing cars. The rustle of branches in the wind gave greeting as we drove, accented by the occasional warble of mischievous bird overhead.
The mountains themselves are said to be the oldest in the world. I suspect the Cherokees would agree with this sentiment. The fog and the air give the mountains a certain natural stateliness that is coupled with mystery and grace. They seem to look out over the vast Tennessee landscape toward the resort towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge with a kind of bemused wonderment at the bustle of the world going on around them. And yet, within the park reserve, life goes on as it always has. Nature’s cycle continues apace. The streams continue to bubble over the rocks that have been there since the foundations of time were set.
I think if I had my druthers and could shuck off the fetters of responsibility that anchor me to my lived reality, I would transport myself back to 1830. I would build myself a little cabin along side one of the babbling brooks and make my home from the land.
Of course, armed with no knowledge of how to do this, I probably wouldn’t last very long. As Will Ferrell said in a recent movie, January was the leading cause of death in the 1800s. But there’s something about the ancientness of the place that conjures the romantic latent even in my calloused soul. I am mindful, though, of my own, human tendency to romanticize the past. It’s easy to think that prior eras and generations were really the golden age in which to live. I suspect that sometime in many years hence, future generations will look back at this current era and yearn for it in the way that I do the pre-1830s Smoky Mountains.
So, rather than wish for a bygone era, I resolved to be grateful for the existence of such a place, and thought about how fortunate I was to set foot on the lands of my ancestors. I hope that in 2123 the waters will still meander through the park, and that the fog of the mountains will still entice visitors with mystery.