“May your trails be crooked” – First Week at the Smokys

Every environment is unique in its own ways, but as I learn my way around the Smoky’s, I can’t help but make comparisons to the nature of Puerto Rico. I suppose it makes sense in a way. Both the island and the Smoky’s are rainforests, the former tropical and the latter temperate. The roads are similar when you are driving through the middle of the island, hilly and curvy with steep inclines and swooping valleys. I thought It would be prepared for how biologically productive the mountain were, but nothing could’ve fully explained the sheer amount of life here. It’s green and verdant quite literally everywhere I look. Even the dead wood and detritus climb over each other to burst fungi, moss, slime molds, and ferns into the forest.


Tubifera ferruginosa, the raspberry slime mold
Hemlock Varnish Shelf
This one remains a mystery!

I have honestly never been somewhere with so much moss. In the tiny wood behind my house at home, there was one wonderful patch in a shaded area, where I would rest my bare feet after running over broken twigs, dry grass and sweet gum tree balls. I don’t have to run over any dead-man’s-land to find moss here.

The rivers and streams are clear and fast moving, with green covered stones guarding the riverbanks. I’ve never had waterproof boots before this, so my instinct was to avoid the moving water at all costs. But tentatively, I let myself step into the water and move across the smooth river stones. Not only did I establish that my boots were indeed waterproof, I also cleaned the mud off them from the trail. Success!

The animals of the Smoky’s are brave creatures. My first walk by the Oconaluftee river, bird song decorated the air like lights on a Christmas tree, twinkling in and out of earshot. Warblers, sparrows, tree swallows, red eyed vireos, and Louisiana Thrushes. They all sang hello as I learned my home for the summer. Butterflies here are bold too, alighting just beyond my reach.

Elk are an especially lovely surprise, and they seem to love the river trail as much as our visitors. I saw a lone cow elk resting in the shade, and on the other side of the river a magnificent bull elk with a tracking collar. They seem to be more unfazed by people then I am sometimes. Caution is still heavily advised, pointedly now, as it is calving season. Cow Elk defend their babies with viciousness, and the park has far more incidents with them hurting people than the bull elk.

We haven’t had any incidents this season so far, but there is a grim air of expectation. I haven’t seen anyone try to touch the elk, or go into the fields. People stopping their cars to look at and take pictures of the elk is a very common occurrence, so drive carefully!

Here she is!

I decided to spend my first roving day at Cataloochee. It is one of the more remote areas of the park, and has a complicated history.

Like the rest of the Great Smoky Mountains, the land was originally inhabited by the Cherokee peoples. The word “Cataloochee” is thought to be a misinterpretation of the Cherokee word Gadalutsi, which means “fringe standing erect.”  After years of disputes and bloodshed, the Cataloochee area was settled by white farmers.

These homesteaders grew a strong community, with their numbers reaching 1,261 by 1910. At one point, Cataloochee became the largest Appalachian community in the Great Smoky Mountains. Through the creation of the NPS in 1916, and the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC), the government provided assistance for the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains. The issue in creating this park was that all the land here was privately owned, not by the federal government. Some of the land belonged to logging companies with economic interest. The rest belonged to settlers whose ancestors had homesteaded the land a generation ago. What followed was an ultimatum: either sell the land, leave, or stay, but with all the restrictions of living within a national park, and not be able to pass on their land to their descendants. Cataloochee, being such a big community, was especially complicated. Many of the people stayed until they died decades later, and the houses available to view are the ones they lived in.

I decided to come to Cataloochee to understand how historical and environmental preservation often clashes with community interests. It isn’t something that will ever go away, or become easier. The best we can do is learn from the mistakes and grievances of the past, and try to do better when situations like this arise again.

One thing I noticed about this part of the park is how quiet it is. Perhaps I’m just used to Baltimore and Atlanta noise, or I haven’t been alone enough in the park to pay attention, but Cataloochee is completely silent. The contrast between standing in an empty schoolhouse or church that once was filled with song, and the wilderness outside, is astounding. The atmosphere of this area is completely different from anywhere else in the park and anywhere else in general. It’s absolutely gorgeous in the valley, and the elk roam free and happy. But it makes me think deeply about the area when standing by the empty barns and fields. I even met a descendant of the Woody family, whose cabin is a mile hike from the road. He had his children with him.

I’ve had a lot to think about within just one week at the Smoky’s, and I’m excited for how much I’ll experience over an entire summer.

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