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Great Smoky Mountains National Park
|Wednesday, 23 June 2004|
|written by Teresa|
No, we haven't been carried off by aliens, eaten by wolves or lost in the back of beyond; our lack of log entries has to be attributed to slightly more mundane, less exciting causes. I'm going to blame three weeks visiting relatives and friends in Wisconsin coupled with a hard disk failure for most of the silence; the last week has been more to do with a temporary slump in our usual optimism brought about by our present financial situation.
This entry should have gone out sometime before Memorial Day so cast your mind back and we'll pick up the story.
Dense deciduous woodlands clothe the mountains, reaching down into the valleys where the cool shallow waters cascade over rocky streambeds. Copious rainfall feeds the waterways and keeps the vegetation a vibrant moist green, vistas shortened by the topography and surrounding trees. In the aftermath of summer rainfall, the trees give off a mixture of oxygen and hydrocarbons, producing the smoky effect for which the park is named.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is on land that was originally home to the Cherokee People prior to being taken and settled by early Europeans. The Park was created in 1934 through the purchase of private lands from descendents of these immigrants, the deal enshrining a covenant of free access and is the most visited Park in the NPS system with over nine million people in 2003, far outstripping the more famous jewels of Yellowstone with just over three million and the Grand Canyon with four. The majority of the Park preserves the natural environment of the southern Appalachians while the heritage of early settlers provides another aspect in the country's largest collection of wood buildings at Cades Cove.
In the early morning light mist hangs above the dew-dropped fields of Cades Cove, the surrounding mountains hidden from view. The road is temporarily closed to motor traffic on two mornings and for a few hours it is possible to glimpse the ghosts of horse drawn carts and pedestrians travelling the lane. As the haze lifts the true nature of the place reveals itself; the broad expanse of the valley bottom, cleared for agriculture and previously occupied by row crops now left to meadow divided by small hedgerows, broken by the occasional copse and farmstead; the ridges of the surrounding tree-covered hills enclose the Cove separating it from the twenty-first century, holding it in a time bubble.
A number of farmsteads have been preserved on the eleven-mile loop around the valley; some are no more than a one-roomed cabin, others slightly larger but still very basic, all smelling of smoke permeated wood, a strong reminder of a more basic existence before the days of electricity. Some of the farm-buildings have their own distinctive beauty, the simplicity and symmetry of the cantilever barn at The Tipton Place coming to mind. Perhaps due to the original covenant, the Park is severely under-funded and fighting a continual battle to maintain these buildings and explain their significance to visitors. The singular lack of information boards and the fact that they have less than two interpretive staff for the entire park highlights the difficulties they are facing. Overcrowding is another serious issue and we read that the eleven-mile drive around the loop can take up to six hours in the height of the summer season. The Park is looking at various schemes to alleviate this problem but luckily for us it was early enough in the year to be relatively quiet.
We came into the Park on the quieter southern side, staying at Smokemont campground. For reasons that nobody fully understands, there are a number of peaks in the southern Appalachians which are devoid of vegetation. These are known as Balds and in search of views we set off on the trail up to Newton Bald, a twelve mile round trip with a climb of three thousand feet on the outward leg. We had foolishly hoped for some reward on reaching our destination but although the trees thinned out a little there were no clear vistas while we ate our lunch and I have to confess we were sorely disappointed after making that amount of effort.
Not to be tricked a second time we discussed the possibilities with a Ranger who informed us that only a couple of the Balds were naturally occurring, the others having been cleared by settlers for grazing and had been given the appellation as a consequence. Once the clearing stopped the vegetation reclaimed the land, hence no views. He recommended the trail to Mount Cammerer and with this in mind we crossed the Park to the much more remote Cosby Campground which was virtually empty. The trail was a steep demanding climb some five miles long but the views when we reached the observation tower at the peak were nothing short of spectacular. The tower is a stone built fire observation post, renovated in 1995 it no longer acts as part of the early warning system but gives uninterrupted views through 360 degrees. It was a wonderful place for our lunch, weather forecast threats of rain proving incorrect as we enjoyed the sunshine, warmth and blue skies.
Our third stop was at Cades Cove Campground where registration is done in the office by Park staff. Just occasionally I get fed up with reactions to my surname and so use Sterling's name instead under the illusion that it will make life easier. The volunteer in the office asked for my first name. Sterling, say I. That's an unusual name says he. He asks me to spell Udell which I dutifully do and he then asks me to repeat the letters and I again enunciate them as clearly as I know how albeit with an Northern English accent. With the money handed over and the transaction complete we left the office to find on the reservation slip that Sterling Udell had been mangled into Shirley Ucclo. I think I'll stick to using my own name in future.
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