I’ve lived in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains for most of my life. I cannot thank my parents enough for taking me on excursions to the park. Among the parks wild waters, forested canopy, steep slopes and rugged terrain I learned at a young age to respect the natural environment. This respect has matured through my years. Such maturity makes it difficult not to reflect on the past and think about the future.
In August of 2016 the National Park Service turned 100 years old. In its centennial year the service undertook initiatives to get folks out-of-doors to discover the parks. These lands are much more than places for recreation and vacation — they are fundamental for the health and survival of human civilization. Wildness, danger, emptiness, excitement and adventure are experienced, in purest form, in the wild. It’s good every now and then to think about the Leviathans of today and know that we can run away. In the grand scheme of things we are small. Natural processes have no regard at all for human activity (thank God).
A personal agenda of mine this birthday year was to get my son 100 miles of trail behind him in recognition of 100 years of the park. The idea came in summer. I re-discovered the forest in 2016. I’ve always loved the outdoors, ever since childhood. But, with a small child of my own and pressure from work I missed out on a lot of good wilderness time. So I was happy to get back into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for a few excursions. Most notably I got to hike with my Dad, my wife, some good friends and eventually my son. Hiking with the boy changed my life – but, that’s a tale for another time. I also got to hike with the park superintendent, Cassius Cash, and trail guru Christine Hoyer a couple of times. I owe my 100 miles to those two, they encouraged our family to do it. The boy and I finished in early autumn, just before the fires.
Disaster struck the Appalachian wilderness Thanksgiving week on a beloved trail. The Chimney Tops are a very popular hike in the park. A short, but very blistering hike to the summit of the Chimneys is a worthy adventure. At the pinnacle there is an inspiring panoramic view of the park. This year, though, a record drought struck the southern United States. The classic temperate rain forest went without water for months. The land was dry but autumn was still brilliant. The forest floor was littered in a beautiful blanket of leaf senescence. On Thanksgiving week, the drought conditions and littered under-story on the Chimney Tops trail collided with a few matches. The blaze began, but no one knew the extent of the damage those first simple flames would reap.
One of the worst natural disasters in the history of Tennessee unfolded because of those few matches. To date, over 10,000 acres of forested habitat within the boundaries of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park burned. Outside of the park boundaries over 6,000 acres burned. 14,000 people were evacuated from the nearby towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. Sadly, 14 people lost their life.
It’s hard, if not impossible, to describe such a calamity. To see this happen to anyone, anywhere is nothing but horrible. To have such an event strike a community and wilderness I truly love is beyond sad — it’s oddly lonely, helpless and terrifying. But, for what it is worth, it is important in our grief to remember the wild. The Smoky Mountain wilderness is mature, radiant and full of wonder. The ecosystem will respond to the damage and recover rather quickly. This is mountain resilience. In fact, the forest is already recovering. Since the wild-fire, rain has come back to the region. Once again we witness the beating heart of the forest. Water travels the vascular tissue of the forested trees and transpires over the entire valley and ridge. The wilderness is once again breathing, creating the mist and climate it’s famous for. This resiliency is important — it can inspire the human animal.
So, how do we appreciate such resiliency? How do we preserve wild lands? How do we protect species? How can we encourage new generations to leave human dominated landscapes and experience wilderness? The answer is to keep going ourselves. To keep sharing our stories. To explain what it means to truly be wild. To understand that we cannot understand humanity, our own wildness, our own resilience, until we experience the great *out there*. This is of fundamental importance. Without teaching these lessons to new generations we risk losing everything that connects us to natural splendor and each-other. Without the hearts and minds of the next generation such splendor could be lost forever. To care for and protect the wild is to care and protect each-other, it is all our community. We are part of our ecosystem.
So, in this time of disaster let’s tell our Smoky Mountain stories. As the forest transpires, as communities rebuild the region prepares for a long winter. Spring is coming.
Photo of Springtime on Clingman’s Dome by the Author, Grant A. Mincy