Seeing Life Through the Smoke


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North America » United States » Tennessee » Gatlinburg
October 15th 2020
Published: October 22nd 2021
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There is a traffic light in Gatlinburg that seriously has to be one of the most congested places on the face of the earth. And I’ve been to India! It is just crazy disruptive as you roll down out of the hills and try to turn onto the main drag towards Great Smokey Mountains National Park. We had been completely screwed the day before with the traffic. So we decided on an early-in/early-out strategy. It required an early rise, but sometimes sacrifices need to be made.

Gatlinburg is a funny place. Having been created virtually out of nothing back in 1945. Coincidently we were visiting on its 75th anniversary. I noted to my mom that she was older than the town itself. She grumbled in rebellious recognition. There had originally only been a small settlement at the location. However, after Great Smokey Mountains National Park was officially dedicated by FDR in 1940, the town grew and sprawled in reaction to the sheer amount of visitors to the new park.

As we entered the park we saw an electric signboard saying dense fog advisory. This made no sense since where we were felt like a beautiful Indian summer sunny day. We were however going up to Clingman’s Dome, the second highest peak in the Eastern United, so we would keep that advisory in mind. Truth be told I was more worried how my seventeen-years-old car would handle the ascent, than any foggy drifts.

All during our days in the park we kept coming across long rows of parked cars along the road. Alongside these cars was always a parade of people marching in search of some desired spot or trail. Mom thought these people were nuts. In fact she began saying that the park should advertise “Highly Accessible Astonishingly Crazy People Tours” to see these people in their natural habitat. They certainly would be easier to spot then the black bears and they could also reliably be found on both sides of the road!

After rumbling through what was becoming familiar forest scenery, we finally reached the turnoff for the route up to the Dome. The road kept going up and up and round and round. Once we were on it, there really was no turning around. We just had to keep on going up come hell or high water. The blind switchbacks in the road were sharp and gnarly.

The name I had given my car upon purchase was Baron von Zoom. I now began to worry that this might be the Baron’s last journey. The ascent was getting ridiculous while the temperatures began to drop precipitously. All the while the day was getting darker and darker. With no other choice, we kept driving on that road which was becoming twisty to the nth degree. I knew we might be pushing our luck when our car was pushing through actual clouds.Somehow by the grace of God we made it to the top. Once there, we were met by a wall of white. No views here. The air temperature had fallen off completely. It was so cold that I had to scramble around to find a wool ski cap for Mom. It was even difficult to see people just a short distance away. People would wander in and out of our vision, as if coming in and out of smoke. With what was going on the world, the scene felt vaguely post-apocalyptic.

In the guidebooks there had been mention of a manmade tower there to climb up. Mom had barely been up for this, but that was before we were told by a ranger that the tower was still farther along an uphill paved path. This was a bridge to far for Mom. She is game for lot things, but being an octogenarian long sustained walks were no longer in her wheelhouse. She decided to head back to the car to read up on Clingman’s Dome and the surrounding area instead. I would be making the climb solo.

I had to be sure to make it there and back in quick time though. Didn’t want wait too long and return to see a frozen mother in the passenger seat. It was a long hard slog up the paved road. Unencumbered by slower party members and with the advantage of my long legs I was able to reach the tower in about 10 minutes of fast walking. I was rocketing past people, but at the same time was finding myself increasingly out of breath. I am not sure if it was the altitude or what, but my ears kept popping due to the pressure.

Finally, I came to the tower at trail’s end. I ascended the long circular ramp to reach the viewing deck. It was there that I was finally able to rest and recover my wind. The whole thing, ramp and tower, was completely up in the clouds. I couldn’t see much, but I was still glad to have done it. Up there the leaves had fallen off all the trees. The bare trees and the figures, wandering through what looked like smoke, seemed to me how the aftermath of fire disaster might appear.

There was history up here too. Clingman’s Dome was once a sacred mountain of the Cherokees, called Kuwahi. Tribal medicine men would trek up this mountain to fast, pray, and seek guidance of the spirits for centuries. During the Trail of Tears, the forced removal of the Cherokee by the US government, a group of Cherokee warriors fled and hid away up here among the clouds. A heroic journey of escape and defiance in the face of government tyranny. You couldn’t help but admire them.

I was pleased to find Mom alive and unfrozen when I returned to the car. By then she was full of local knowledge gleaned from all the reading she had done, which she of course filled me in on as we drove down to Newfound Gap. We had been told that some of the best views in the park could be found there. The autumn foliage reappeared as we dipped below the cloud banks. The oranges and yellows sparkling with color below the cloud laden sky.

There was a large parking lot at one particularly gorgeous overlook. We stopped there to investigate and take some pictures. The place was swarming with people. I turned my camera toward the looming mountains, when I turned back around Mom was nowhere to be seen. I eventually found her hugging the sign that marked the border of Tennessee and North Carolina. In just that short time she had already made some new friends and was happily chatting away.

I found a high stone wall to sit upon. I let my vision wander over the scene from my elevated perch. There were so many jubilant folks, very few with masks, milling about breathing in the mountain fresh air. Huge multigenerational family groups, packs of young friends in the prime of their lives, and couples out for a hike. Everyone here seemed so open and cheerful. They would not be kept solitary and at home any longer. I too was ecstatic to be out there among them. I was in a state of bliss.

Mom found me and mentioned that she had found the actual Appalachian Trail. She wanted to walk a small piece of it, her small piece of it turned to be around only 50 meters. It counted though. From then on we could officially say that we had hiked on the Appalachian Trail. We got back in the car and drove off in search of a less crowded luncheon spot.

We stopped by a small gurgling stream to eat our food. Lunch was much improved over the day before, barbeque leftovers as opposed to breakfast box bananas. We got to talking about our experience of the Great Smokies. We had expected scenery, but we hadn’t expected it to be so rich with history. There was the history of the settlers, the history of the Cherokees, but also of the Civilian Conservation Corps who were put to work building the park’s infrastructure during the Great Depression. Perhaps, they even had constructed the very road that we sat beside contently eating our food and pondering the passage of the years

By the time we got back to Gatlinburg, it felt like a different world yet again. The sun was beating down strong and it felt like summer had returned. Quite a departure from the cloud enveloped chill of Clingman’s Dome. We found ourselves caught in traffic on the town’s main drag. I was playing some Hank Williams with the windows rolled down. I realized that the passing pedestrians could hear the tunes coming from the car. I nudged the volume up to spread the good news to the unsuspecting congregation.

Just like a blind man, I wandered along
Worries and fears I claimed for my own
Then like the blind man that God gave back his sight
Praise the Lord, I saw the light

I saw the light, I saw the light
No more darkness, no more night
Now I'm so happy no sorrow in sight
Praise the Lord, I saw the light

It had been a day to file away in life's memory bank. Praise the Lord indeed!

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23rd October 2021

Wonderful song...
we saw he light!
23rd October 2021

A classic
Definitely. No choice, but to share it with the passersby.
23rd October 2021

seventeen-years-old car
I had my previous car for 17 years...never missed a beat except rear shocks went and then duco smashed sitting under a gum tree during an Americas trip confirmed her doom. May Baron von Zoom take you to many more destinations. sounds like the perfect beast for your sojourn in the Smoky Mountains, Tommy.
23rd October 2021

Old cars
For sure. I plan on keeping the Baron on the road until the wheels fall off or maybe gets smashed under a gum tree. Although, I didn't trust it enough to drive down to Florida and back in February 2021. Gave it a break and rented a car for that one.
30th October 2021
Observation Tower

Clingman's Dome
On a sunny day it is lovely.
30th October 2021
Observation Tower

In want of a sunny day
I bet! Funnily enough, when I visited Corcavado in Rio it was the same thing, shrouded in clouds. Makes for a good bit of atmoshere though.

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