Thursday, February 19, 2009

A Summer Visitor’s Guide: The Popular Sites (1 of 4)

You’ve probably noticed that a consistent theme in this column about the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is this: avoid the crowds; whatever it takes, avoid the crowds. You can do this by visiting the less-famous sites in the park or going during the off-season, but we all have those inevitable moments when we don’t have much choice in the matter. Our relatives from out of town have one day to burn on their summer vacation, and they’d like you to show them around the park. What to do?

Well, dear reader, that depends on you and your relatives. If they refuse to get out of the car and insist on visiting the most popular spots during the middle of the day in the middle of July, then, yes, you will have problems with the crowds. You’d be better off just lying to them. Tell them the park is closed for repairs. Tell them the admission charge is $1,000 per car. Whatever you have to do, do not – I repeat, do not! – drive through Sevierville and Pigeon Forge during the daylight hours on a summer day, unless you enjoy the taste of carbon monoxide. It’s a trafficatastrophe of Biblical proportions.

However, if they are willing to be flexible, then you can avoid the worst of the crowds. During the peak visitation months of June, July, August (plus most of October, the Christmas-New Year week, and weekends in May), you’ll encounter crowds, especially at the most popular sites. However, there are some ways to limit the madness.

If the typical visitor were going to spend just one day in the park, it would make sense that they’d want to visit the well-known sites. That’s understandable. If I went to Yellowstone, I’d be happy to wander around the backcountry, visiting the untouched wilderness, but I’d also want to see Old Faithful, simply to be able to hold up my end of the conversation. “You mean to tell me you went to Yellowstone and didn’t see Old Faithful? Are you sure you were in Yellowstone, in Wyoming? The national park?” I’d have no defense. If you go to Yellowstone, there are certain things you are expected to see. Ditto the Smokies.

So what is the typical visitor to the Smokies expected to see?

First of all, every visitor has to drive the main road (Newfound Gap Road) from Sugarlands Visitor Center (near Gatlinburg) south over the main ridge crest at Newfound Gap and down into the Cherokee Indian Reservation in North Carolina. The main points worth seeing on this road are Sugarlands Visitor Center, the Chimney Tops (a pair of rocky peaks), Newfound Gap (a large parking lot with good views), Oconaluftee Visitor Center and Farm Museum, Cherokee Indian Reservation, and the numerous roadside views and pullouts. Also, near the midpoint at Newfound Gap, there is a side road that wanders seven miles along the state line to Clingmans Dome, the highest mountain top in the park, with a concrete observation tower at the top.

The other main road in the park also starts at Sugarlands Visitor Center and heads west about twenty miles to Cades Cove. On this road, there are two main sights on the way to Cades Cove: Laurel Falls and Little River. Laurel Falls is a beautiful but crowded spot at the end of a 1.3 mile walk. It’s definitely worth the walk, but it’s almost impossible to find a parking spot on a typical day of the peak season. Like many popular hikes in the Smokies, you have to arrive before 9 am or after 4 pm.

Little River, the wonderful stream that parallels this road for much of its length, is popular with picnickers, tubers, and fishermen. Stop and enjoy this beautiful part of the park while you drive on this road. And, of course, this road’s destination is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. Seriously. Cades Cove.

Most visitors see Cades Cove by driving the 11 mile, single-lane, one-way road past deer, turkeys, meadows, cabins, and an occasional bear. If I could do just one thing as a first-time visitor, this loop road would be it.

So that’s it – the three main roads and their best sights: Newfound Gap Road, Clingmans Dome Road, and the road to and in Cades Cove. These are the roads you must travel and the sights you must see. But how? When? Let’s come up with a plan. [To be continued; for information on some Smokies websites, visit]

Extra Website Info:

The official, government Smokies website is If you’ll look around here you’ll find a helpful Trip Planner. There are also several digital (pdf) maps you can download, mainly a Park Map and a Trails Map.

The Great Smoky Mountains Association is the educational and publishing arm of the park. It has two websites: or

Another related organization is Friends of the Smokies. Visit their website at

Finally, there is a visitor center outside the park, very close to the #407 exit off I-40. From I-40 travel south on Hwy 66 (the highway leading to Sevierville, etc.) for 1.5 miles. The visitor center is on the right – a new building of red brick, white wood, and a green roof. It is mostly a store, selling books, maps, etc. It also has one “exhibit” – a nice 3 D map of the Smokies. The folks who work there are helpful and reasonably knowledgeable about the park. They can answer most questions that the typical visitors ask.

Carnage on the River

The great circle of life. One generation grows and prospers, only to pass the torch to the next. Yeah, that sounds good, but if you’ll think about it, that circle of life consists partly (fifty percent, I suppose) of death. Out there in the natural world, a generation of animals will thrive only at the expense of someone or something else. I suppose that works for plants, too. Kudzu smothers everything in its path.

Keith Oakes and I saw the death side of that circle on display last May on the Clinch River. We both are fly fishermen. No, let me re-phrase that. We both fly fish. Calling ourselves “fly fisherman” somehow sounds like we should be good at it. Saying “we fly fish” sounds a bit more modest, not to mention true.

We drove up to the Clinton and Norris area and wound around a few back roads to a certain boat ramp that provides access to the river downstream from Norris Dam. This boat ramp is no great secret, but being a fisherman – I mean, being a guy who fishes – I just can’t bring myself to give too many details. I’ve rarely been accused of having too many ethics, but there is a certain code among guys who fish about giving too much information.

So we arrived at the boat ramp, put my old canoe in the water, and paddled a few minutes to a nice spot where we could get out and wade among the shoals and moving water. Fly fishing for trout usually involves wading in knee to waist deep water, looking for the occasional splash of a fish feeding on some bug on or near the surface. And on this day in early May that’s exactly what we found – rainbow trout feeding on Sulfur Mayflies.

In the five or six hours that we were on the river, there was a steady trickle of Sulfurs coming off the surface and flying away to the trees. Or, that’s what is supposed to happen. The trout and the birds do their best to interrupt that water-to-tree migration.

We’d wade around until we’d see or hear a splash of a trout nabbing a mayfly off the surface. When we’d hear a splash, we could usually find the spot by locating the ring of ripples moving downstream. We’d cast there, letting our fly float repeatedly over the spot until the fish decided to take it. Or, if you are really into watching the natural cycle unfold, you can watch that general vicinity as another Sulfur floats by and is sucked in by the fish. Occasionally, a mayfly will bounce along the surface, trying to fly away on tender, new wings, when a trout will jump out of the water and take it in mid-air. The poor mayflies have no defense against this attack from below. In fact, the only thing that guarantees their species’ survival is their massive numbers. Like an army, individuals are expendable; it’s the species that must survive. And it does.

And the death-scene got even worse. An army of insect-eating birds – tree swallows and cliff swallows – moved in as reinforcements. I’d often find myself watching a mayfly who had escaped the fish’s jaws flying away, only to be picked out of mid-air be a speeding swallow. These birds are so fast and sleek that it sometimes looks like the bug just disappears in mid-air, right before your eyes.

Death from below and death from above. It was pure carnage; death was everywhere. It was pretty cool… but also a bit sobering. Every moment of every day, we are surrounded by death on a massive scale. Invisible, relentless slaughter. It happens in the dirt, in the air, on TVA lakes and rivers, in front yards, and on mountain peaks.

We live in a fallen world where death not only happens, it happens often, and everywhere. It’s the rule, not the exception. And yet, from death, life comes. In fact, because of death, life comes. I think I see some religious symbolism here. The death of One brings life to another. Yeah, I’m pretty sure I’ve heard that before, somewhere.

The only ones not involved in the killing were Keith and me. We were catching fish (a lot of them, actually), but we always threw them back. Nevertheless, by the end of the day, even I got in on the killing: I had a tuna sub at Subway. A fish and a tomato died that I might eat. I know, not very dramatic. But like I said, the great circle of life and death happens everywhere, even indoors under fluorescent lights.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Colorful Language

I don‘t know if our Native Americans were exceptionally eloquent, but I do know that their language was earthy. Literally earthy. Many of their phrases and metaphors are born of the forests, rivers, plains, mountains, and seasons. So if you love the outdoors, you’ll love the manner in which they expressed themselves.

Black Elk, a Lakota (Sioux) holy man who had lived through the waning days of the Lakota nation in the 1870s and 80s, described a day from his youth when he challenged an older man to a horse race. His opponent taunted him by saying, “only crows and coyotes think your horse is better than mine.” Apparently crows and coyotes (the garbage collectors of our natural world) were not highly esteemed by the Lakota.

You’ve probably heard of the phrases in the old treaties which promised that the Indians could keep their land, unmolested by settlers and the army, “for as long as the grass grows and the water flows.” Those were words any Native American could understand. Many years after the Lakota had lost their land, Black Elk offered this wry observation, “You can see that it is not the grass and the water that have forgotten.” He also explained that trying to hold on to their homeland had been like “melting snow held in our hands.”

Black Elk tried to explain a life-changing vision from his youth but had trouble describing it: “When the part of me that talks would try to make words for the meaning, it would be like fog and get away from me.” What a great image to describe the problem we’ve all had of trying to describe the indescribable. Many years later he added,” I did not have to remember these things; they have remembered themselves all these years.”

In describing a council meeting in which nothing was resolved, he said, “They talked for days, but in the end it was just like wind blowing.” I doubt that Black Elk was familiar with the book of Ecclesiastes, so it’s interesting that his metaphor is similar to Solomon’s idea of fruitless labor being like “chasing after the wind.” And of course, Bob Dylan had some thoughts on answers blowing in the wind. Great minds think alike.

Animals, grass, fog, snow, rivers, wind. They described life in metaphors that sprang from the natural world. But they were more than poetic. The Native Americans were also insightful.

People have difficulty looking at their own society objectively. We tend to be blinded by the present, by our own way of doing things, so we can gain some insight into our own strengths and frailties by listening to the words of outsiders.

For example, the Cherokee and the Lakota described gold as “the yellow metal that they [whites] worship” and “that makes them crazy.” Of course, we’d all deny that we worship gold, but how else could an outsider interpret what he saw? Gold rush, gold craze, gold worship. And haven’t I read somewhere of a calf made of gold? Sure, you and I may just think of gold as a sign of love or commitment, but the gold has to come from somewhere, often at a very high price – a people’s way of life.

One of the most telling Native American quotes I’ve ever run across came from the Cherokee chief Yonaguska, probably during the 1830s. A missionary read a bit of the New Testament to him. After listening politely, he made a classic statement: “It seems to be a good book. Strange the white man isn’t better after having had it for so long.” Ouch!

Sure, we can quibble about the validity of judging an entire society or race based on the actions of a few. We can question whether those that Yonaguska had encountered were patterning their lives after the Bible. We can pick nits, or we can admit that Yonaguska was on to something. Undoubtedly, virtually every white person the Cherokee had encountered in the previous 100 years would claim to be a Christian, a believer in the Bible, even if they’d never read it. This was the early 1800s, when America was as thoroughly a “Christian nation” as it would ever be. And yet it was a nation that killed the native people with reckless abandon, while thanking God for providing an unoccupied, open wilderness for His New Jerusalem to be established by His new, chosen people. It’s a great story… if you love irony and hypocrisy, not to mention murder, deception, and greed.

The language of the oppressed often speaks the truth. It’s even better when it is spoken in such colorful language.

The Two Sides of Cherokee

I’ve always liked Cherokee, NC, probably because I first saw it as a child. A kid just can’t resist the wiles of Cherokee – real Indians, teepees, totem poles, live bears, souvenir shops. In the days before Disney World and video games, it was everything that a kid could possibly want. But like most of our illusions of youth, the charm of Cherokee gets a bit tarnished as the years go by. We learn that those real Indians are wearing eagle feather war bonnets that were part of the Plains tribes, not the Cherokee. Ditto the teepees. Totem poles? The Kwakiutl and Haida tribes of the north Pacific coast. The souvenirs? Mostly cheap trinkets, some of which are made in China.

On the other hand, I guess you’ve gotta make a living. Very few of us have ideal jobs that have no gray areas, and in a sense, what makes something “authentically Cherokee” anyway? If the Eastern Band of the Cherokee builds a casino or a McDonalds or low-cost apartments, I suppose that’s authentic Cherokee. Traditional Cherokee? No. Authentic? Yeah, sort of. It’s Cherokee people who are doing it, so that makes it authentic, right?

But there are some things in Cherokee that I just can’t bear. For example, in 1828 something happened that guaranteed the Cherokee people would lose their remaining shreds of land and would be sent west. Gold was discovered on Cherokee land in the mountains of North Georgia. So when I see a gold mine for tourists (“Pan for gold! Strike it rich!”) on the main road of Cherokee with a picture of a white prospector panning for gold, I can’t bear to look. Why hasn’t that place been struck by lightning? And why do the Cherokee people put up with it?

Just a moment of thought about human nature, history, economics, and tradition provides a quick answer. From the very beginning of white contact with the natives – both east and west – the tribe would divide into two groups. One faction wanted nothing to do with the whites. These people would usually just ignore the whites, or move further west, or eventually fight. The other faction was enticed by the products of European civilization – knives, guns, cloth, beads, alcohol. These were the ones who eventually sided with the whites because it was obvious that the whites were powerful and numerous and would ultimately win the war. The Sioux called these people “those who hang around the fort.” They became collaborators with the invaders. Or maybe they were just wise and pragmatic, choosing to go with the flow of the inevitable.

The same thing still happens today on most Indian reservations, including the Qualla (Cherokee) Reservation. There are those who are willing to pander to the stereotypes and dollars of tourists. Why? Because you gotta do what you gotta do. And one of the things you “gotta do” is make a living, in this case by serving the tourists. And it works. You can make a decent living from the tourist dollar in the town of Cherokee, but a traditional Cherokee might call these kinsmen “those who hang around the town.”

But there is undoubtedly the other group, a group which probably gets a little smaller every year as the youngest generation is enticed by money, video games, Hollywood, MTV, and that whole wasteland we call American popular culture. The traditional group doesn’t like the tourist town and what it has become and what it portrays. Maybe they don’t like the traffic. Maybe they don’t like the teepees and totem poles. Maybe they are still mad about the Trail of Tears the way some Southerners are still mad about the burning of Atlanta. They just want to be left alone, so they live away from town in the rural parts of the reservation. You probably don’t see these folks in town, except at the grocery or hardware store.

So, if you want to see traditional, authentic Cherokee people, untainted by tourism and pop culture, the museum might be helpful, or get away from the Casino and shops and spend some time at a small grocery store or hardware store on the edge of town. Just watch and listen. In that respect, the reservation is no different than any other county. If you want to see the heart and soul of a place, go to those living museums where average people buy their necessities: grocery stores, co-ops, hardware stores, gas stations. In spite of our historical and cultural differences, there are still a few things that we all have in common.