The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Great Smoky Mountains National Park

I took the day off from work two weeks ago and drove to Cades Cove, a stunning valley in the northwest corner of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In fairness, the day trip wasn’t to get away from work but to cleanse my mind upon the aftermath of what may have been the meanest mid-term political election in U.S. history. ‘Murica.

But America, despite her flaws, is also home to some of the most natural beauty in the world. The wide-open spaces of the west house such wonders as Monument Valley, Yosemite National Park, and the Grand Canyon. Space comes at more of a premium as you cross over the Mississippi and continue east, but beauty isn’t in short supply out here, either. My current state of Tennessee and my neighboring state of North Carolina share hosting duties for what may be the most jaw-dropping sight in the Eastern Time Zone: Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The Smokies of the title join the majestic Blue Ridge Mountains as the southern half of the Appalachian chain of mountains. If you’ve seen the movie “A Walk in the Woods,” or better yet if you’ve read the book, you’ll recall that the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail passes through the Smokies on its way from Springer Mountain, GA to Mount Katahdin, Maine. Many of its thru-hikers cite the Smokies as their favorite section of trail.

There are other trails, too – 900 miles of them, in total. (Yes, you read that mileage figure correctly.) A few of those trails will receive a brief mention in later paragraphs, but my recent visit to the park in general – at a time when the fall foliage was perhaps five days past its peak – reminded me that this park, a gem, is, nonetheless, an imperfect place.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) is, according to the park’s own website, the most-visited park in the U.S. park system. Human incursion, and the traffic congestion, air pollution, and commercial over-development that follows, has left its footprint on the land. In November, 2016, arson in the Chimney Tops area of the park led to 14 deaths, and the park will long bear the scars of this devastating act. Mother Nature herself plays Russian roulette sometimes, too; flooding, snowfall, and other acts of weather do their own damage, although, lower carbon footprint notwithstanding, there is less that we can do to appease the spiteful weather gods.

I am already six paragraphs in and I can tell you that this will be a long post as I write about the Good, the Bad, and – yes – the Ugly of this beautiful and complicated national park. Spoiler alert: there is much more of the former than of the latter.

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A Moving Experience

This past weekend, Morristown, TN, midway between Knoxville and Johnson City, played host to the Vietnam Moving Wall. A half-size replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, the Moving Wall has been traveling around the U.S. since 1984.

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Farmsteads and Open-Air Museums of Tennessee

As I mentioned in my recent July post about Johnson City, I have made a concerted effort during my four years of Tennessee residency to take in as much of the state’s natural and political history as possible. For starters, I visit my sister in Memphis once or twice each year, and often stop off in Nashville along the way. The state’s two largest cities have much to offer, and my August, 2016 post on the subject remains one of my most-read entries. Secondly, I hit up the state’s spectacular hiking trails as often as possible. Panther Creek and Seven Islands are two favorite tramping spots close to where I live, while Cummins Falls, further afield, has a short, but tough, hike to a spectacular, watery destination. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, one of the jewels of the national park system, is 90 minutes by car with traffic, and I could write pages upon pages about the joys of hiking in the Smokies. Finally, I commute to Knoxville each day for work, and have gotten to know that city almost as well as places like my original hometown of Chicago or my beloved Mexico City.

Tennessee began as a series of settlements in the late 1700’s, farmsteads usually established on or close to one of Tennessee’s many rivers, and grew from there. Few buildings from that time period remain, although you will find some early 19th-century brick “Federalist” architectural gems in towns like Jonesborough and Rogersville, and several in Johnson City. If it is log cabins, moonshine stills, and one-room schoolhouses that you are looking for, however, you’ll have to look a bit harder; most are preserved at various public parks and open-air museums. Here are just a few:

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A Friday in Johnson City

In the four (so far) years that I’ve lived in Tennessee, and over countless holiday visits prior to my having established permanent residency here, I’ve managed to explore quite a bit of the Volunteer State, from the Delta blues history of Memphis in the west to the trails of the Great Smoky Mountains in the east. One corner of the state that I have, for the most part, overlooked – and for no real reason – is the “Tri-Cities” corner of Bristol, Kingsport, and Johnson City.

I am actively working on changing that.

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A Civil Rights Lesson in Memphis

The last two weeks have been interesting in my world. I found myself quitting a job that was simply never going to meet its full potential in favor of what I hope will be a better career opportunity. In the short term, as these things go, the move is lateral, and it actually has a longer commute, but I hear nothing but good things about the place, so I will do everything I can to quell the cynical side of myself that – all too often – comes to the forefront.

I pride myself on being punctual, hard working, and loyal to any company that I work for, so changing jobs isn’t as easy or commonplace for me as it is for others. I do have a weird vibe about the fact that I left my last job without giving proper notice, but I simply didn’t have the chance to give a proper two weeks’ notice.

You see, I had to take a week for myself. This included catching up on errands, going for a hike, and visiting my sister, who as Loyal Readers know lives in Memphis. The last time I saw her down there was in Thanksgiving, 2016, just two months after our mother passed away.

Many of my blog introductions begin with the following sentiment, but it really is true: Where does the time go?

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Thanksgiving Reflections – 2017

My, what a crazy year this has been.

Thanksgiving is normally a time for introspection and reflection, for remembering everything that you have in your life, and for spending the day – or at least the afternoon – with friends and family.

I will be spending my Thanksgiving alone.

This is probably for the best.

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Tennessee Hiking

Summer in Tennessee is normally too hot for hiking, but these past few weeks have seen temperatures perfect for enjoying the great outdoors. Additionally, rainfall for the year has been well above average, so that means that Tennessee’s lakes are full and its waterfalls are raging.

I have tried to take advantage of every free day to get out and about. Here are a few Tennessee hiking destinations from recent excursions worth mentioning:

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Photo Locale of the Month – June 2017

Nashville has been in the news a lot lately.  The Nashville Predators, an NHL expansion team that debuted in 1998, are fighting for the Stanley Cup. They won their last two games, and the the city’s nightlife-rich streets have been filled with even greater than the usual number of revelers. Additionally, the 2017 Country Music Awards air this Sunday on CBS, and the CMA Awards are the city’s perennial Big Event. If that isn’t enough, it was just last month that Governor Bill Haslam announced, from Nashville, that legislation recently passed naming Tennessee the first state to promise free community college tuition.

Nashville is one of the fastest-growing cities in the south, and last year it surpassed Memphis, three hours to the east, in population. Downtown Nashville, its Cumberland Riverfront in particular, has much to offer.

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2016: A Year to (Not) Remember

It has been four years since I made a year-in-review post such as the one you’ve just started reading. But 2016 has been an interesting year. I was promoted twice, took a few day trips, and bought a car. On the other hand, my mom passed away, as did countless artists and celebrities, all of them before their time. Additionally, my general stress level seemed to increase tenfold. There have been times, during these last two months in particular, when it seemed as if 2016 would never end.

2016 highlights and lowlights

What a year it’s been!

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Exploring Urban Memphis

morristown-sunset-1

I think I speak not just for myself but for many people I know when I say that 2016 has been a tough year. Locally, over 700 structures were recently destroyed in the arson-fueled fires of Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains. The 14 distinct blazes, which are still less than 20% contained, have taken seven human lives, as well as the lives of countless bears and other animals.

Community response to the Gatlinburg fires has been phenomenal. People have opened up their homes to the displaced, and more canned foods and sundries have been donated to the city than it even has room for! It seems that Thanksgiving, which formally starts the holiday season, has brought out the best in almost everyone.

On a personal note, I left the smoky air of East Tennessee for a few days and visited my sister in Memphis for Thanksgiving. It was good to spend time with her and enjoy a good meal; the last time we were together was for our mother’s memorial service.

My sister had to work the day after Thanksgiving, so I took the opportunity (after sleeping in, of course) to do a bit of self-guided exploration of urban Memphis.

And by “urban Memphis,” I mean “the hood.”   Continue reading “Exploring Urban Memphis”