Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

After an absence of six years, I visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park last week. Located on the Tennessee-North Carolina border, it is America's most visited national park. It's also one of our most interesting to think about.

The Smokies lack the iconic awe-inspiring grandeur that most of our most famous national parks have. Yellowstone has Old Faithful. Yosemite has Yosemite Falls. Grand Canyon has the Grand Canyon. Except during the fall color season, the Smokies lack anything like this. The Smokies are the highest part of the ancient Appalachian mountain chain. The highest elevation is less than 7000 feet and most of it is less than 5000. Given that on the first glance, it's not one of America's most amazing places, why is it so popular?

I think there are several reasons for this. I'll list them, but not in any particular order:

1. First, whites have really screwed up the environment of the eastern half of the United States. At one time, most of the East looked like the Smokies. Now there's only a few places that compare--Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, the Adirondacks, maybe a couple other spots. The Smokies are the one place that millions of Americans can easily go to get away from cities and into a relatively unchanged nature, even though any scientist or environmental historian can tell you that in fact the Smokies today are quite different than 400 years ago.

2. The most popular part of the Smokies is Cades Cove, an old farming community from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A lot of the buildings still stand and the fields are mostly kept clear. Although this is to some extent a historical fantasy because the Park Service is presenting a certain version of Cades Cove's past that erases its history as a resort community, it is clear that Cades Cove represents a space where nostalgia can be unloosed with actual buildings for it to bounce off of. The anti-urban prejudice remains strong in America. Suburbanization is part of this. While Cades Cove is a long way from a suburb, its popularity has many of the same historical origins. It is a cool place to go, especially during the fall. But there are lots of cool places in the area--it's the historical nostalgia that drives its popularity.

3. It's free. Because of rules included in the original park legislation, it's one of the only major national parks to not charge a fee. I don't know if this makes a huge difference, since it's not as if the Grand Canyon is hurting for visitors. But it no doubt helps. It also means that the Smokies have very little money, causing a big backlog in maintenance, park programs, etc.

4. The Dark Side--The Smokies, particularly on the Tennessee side, is dominated by the theme parks just outside its borders. The towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge attract far more people than the mountains do. Most of these visitors probably enter the park at some point. But they come to play at Dollywood and the chintzy-ass stores in Pigeon Forge. Gatlinburg may be slightly less offensive, but just slightly. Here, the fact of the mountains are almost completely erased by the theme park tourism promoted and consumed by millions. Once, I was driving from Atlanta to Knoxville through the Smokies. It became dark about at Newfound Gap, the top of the Smokies. It was pitch black for the rest of the trip until I reached Gatlinburg, which literally goes up to the edge of the park. I turn a corner and BOOM, the lights of Gatlinburg. Incredibly alienating.

I think what's really amazing about this place though is none of the above. It's the sublime beauty that hiking or even driving through the Smokies provides. No, there are no whitecapped peaks, no giant waterfalls, no grizzly bears or moose. But the sheer biological diversity is remarkable. Just a short walk through the forest shows the amazing diversity--plants of all sizes, many kinds of trees, mushrooms, mosses, ferns, small animals, fish, deer, turkeys, bear. Around each corner you are bound to see something different if you look. On a short walk, I saw at least 5 different types of mushrooms. Not many places you can do this. If we stop and take in the place, I don't know that there is a better park in the national park system.