Sunday Kind of Love – Dance of the Smokies

 Maybe I should’ve been more specific in my last entry. I asked for rain, and this week the Smokies delivered. It rained heavily the whole week, the sun barely peaking out behind the mountains at times. The fog wreathing over the trees and ridging, sometimes lifting to heaven and sometimes deigning to stay here on earth, made it worth it. The first time I saw them, I thought a wildfire was raging somewhere. Instead, the mountains were breathing out in the cold, like children outside in the snow. Many a time now, I’ve been in the passenger seat, taking in the sight of the blue ridge parkway winding in and out of the smoke like a snake. The tunnels on the route feel like they multiply every time I’m on it, the darkness inside each one giving way to overwhelming emerald and blue when finished. At night, the shadows of night wrap around the car like a weighted blanket. Even the sounds are muffled, the only sign of an elk, turkey, or bear being their gleaming eyes and blurry outlines as they meander by the road. I can’t pretend I’m not unnerved, but it’s beautiful nonetheless. 

The rivers have swelled from the rain, and the mountains have become even greener. The elk wade across the rivers with their babies, who have never seen the river this high. They make a kind of mewling, a screaming cry when they are playing or distressed. When they enter the water at their mother’s coaxing, I hear them complain loudly and clearly. I understand them completely.

One of my programs is a guided hike at Clingman’s Dome, or as the Eastern Band of Cherokee calls it, Kuwohi. It was pleasant in the coolness, as opposed to the burning heat of midday. But the view is not nearly as clear. On a clear day on Andrew’s Bald, you can see Lake Fontana. (a bald is a section of the mountain completely clear, and there is debate whether this is a natural phenomenon or artificial and maintained.) But all you see now are white clouds, like the forest burning. I did get to hear a whole flock of Red Crossbills, though! They are rare birds in the Smokies and have a unique beak shape. I played the recording I took on my bird app to make sure it was clear, and they chorused back like they were my pupils and I was a choir director. I did not get to see one, but I’m ok with that. They are chatty birds and certainly made their presence felt.


I have long since begun presenting my programs, finding them more manageable each time. People do need more coaxing for programs, not about large mammals here. It is not a fault, bears and elk are certainly cool, but birds and fish are too! Older couples, especially those who have returned to the mountains time and time again and already know about the elk and bear, particularly like my programs. Many of them know more about the Smokies than me, so instead of a one-way flow of information, I get to learn something too.

The same is true with many of the park’s rangers, volunteers, and other interns. I’ve learned so much from them about the industry, the park itself, environmental topics, and what the world will be like after graduation. I’m the youngest in the crew, so I need all the help I can get. People are very kind here and are willing to help any youngun on their path through the park service.

Speaking of learning: I know what clogging is now! Every month there’s a music jam at the Oconaluftee Visitor’s Center. It invites bluegrass musicians with traditional Appalachian instruments. I actually arrived at the center for the first time when they were doing one, and I closed out my first full month here by attending the next. We sat on the porch, the musicians with banjos, fiddles, guitars, dulcimers, and their combinations playing traditional songs. Sometimes they sang, and a few times, they clogged with the music.”Clogging” is a form of dance where one keeps their torso motionless and quickly moves their feet and legs. There are a few different forms, and the one performed at the music jam was probably “shuffle” clogging. This style is characterized by bent knees and a “drag-slide” motion of the feet. Clogging is the state dance of Kentucky and North Carolina. It is closely related to styles attributed to Ireland and Scotland. Considering the ethnicities of most white settlers who lived here, the lineage of Appalachian clogging is prominent.

Two instruments I want to put a focus on is the banjo dulcimer and the hammer dulcimer. They are both featured to the left. These two ladies were very kind, and talked to me after the show about their instruments. The banjo dulcimer is handmade by an artisan in the area, and the hammer dulcimer is apparently very popular in my home city! There is so much diversity, creativity, and love for an instrument most people outside Appalachia probably don’t know exists. 

A normal dulcimer.
A hammer dulcimer. it's played like a xylophone.
Banjo dulcimer. Played on the lap like a normal dulcimer.

For my roving day, I finally explored Cades Cove and saw my first bear. (the first of three in the same week. They are following me.) There I talked to a couple visiting the park since long before I was born. We explored the wildflowers and historical buildings. Much like Cataloochee, Cades Cove was a vibrant community before the park service acquired the land. Several historical churches, graveyards, homesteads, and former farm fields still exist. Even the roads driven on are old settler paths. The acoustics of these churches were some of the most impressive I’ve heard in such small buildings.

On Sunday afternoon, a storm came rolling in. All the radios gave warnings to the employees. We were called back to the visitors center and the admin building. It hailed and rained intensely for about an hour, the wind howling and shaking the trees. It didn’t last long, though; the rain lessened to a slight drizzle. The entire elk herd came out to rest and play in the field, cow elk as far as one could see. The calves were in a circle, a little apart from the mamas and bull elk (“Gimpy”). They all lay together, napping in the coolness of the freshly wet fields. The entire interpretation crew came out onto the porch of the visitors center; I was close behind after scrambling to get my binoculars. We passed them around as we watched the baby elk nap, one of them getting up to stretch his legs before returning to his friends. The smoke wreathed the mountains, and the adult elk were full and content.It was a lovely end to my work week.

No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.