"In the end you can't always choose what to keep. You can only choose how you let it go"
State 38: North Carolina - April 20, 2018
We woke up at a Walmart in Sieverville, TN well rested, and ready for a brand new day. Yesterday, we learned about the history of crime and punishment at Alcatraz East, and could not wait to see what adventures lie ahead! First, it is time for a new game we are calling: Cross Country Couple Trivia!!! Are you ready?
What US National Park had the most visitors in 2017?
B. Grand Canyon
C. Great Smoky Mountains
With 11,338,893 visitors in 2017, the correct answer to Cross Country Couple's trivia question is (DRUM ROLL PLEASE...) the National Park depicted on the reverse of the Tennessee Quarter: Great Smoky Mountain National Park!!! In case you were wondering, the 2017 visitor counts for the others were: Grand Canyon 6,139,967, Yosemite 4,268,150, and Yellowstone 4,095,230. If you answered our trivia question correctly then you are quite the super sleuth! If you answered incorrectly, I guessed Yellowstone, so do not be too hard on yourself! First, we had to get to the Smokies, which would prove to be quite the challenge!
Michelle, our GPS, plotted a path requiring us to drive 7 miles South back to Pigeon Forge. Pigeon Forge is a major tourist destination in the South, and extremely reminiscent of our visit to Branson, Missouri, which you can read more about by clicking here. There is one main road in Pigeon Forge, and one main road out making traffic absolutely unbearable! Complicating matters further, the town was featuring the largest, and I mean the absolutely largest car show I have encountered on my cross country trip! There had to be over 1000 cars on display, and thousands upon thousands of people meandering around! While I am not against car shows, at the moment I had no desire to be in the middle of one! Traffic was at an absolute standstill, and took us 3 hours to drive 9 miles across Pigeon Forge to the entrance of the Smokies! I never had to pee so badly in my life!
After finally answering Mother Nature's calling, I headed to the visitor center to discover how best to explore the most frequented national park in America. Established in 1926 by President Calvin Coolidge, Great Smoky Mountain National Park is listed as a Biosphere Reserve, one of only 23 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the US, and contains nine individual listings on the National Register of Historic Places. The mountain's “Smoky” appearance is naturally caused by vegetation releasing gasses which have a high vapor pressure causing a natural fog to envelop the range. The plume seen over the mountain has little to do with pollution.
The Great Smoky Mountain National Park offers visitors: 522,427 acres of federally protected land throughout Tennessee and North Carolina, 730 miles of fish-bearing streams, sixteen mountain peaks exceeding 6,000 feet in elevation, 850 miles of backwoods trails, 1000 campsites, and best of all, there is no charge for admission! Furthermore, the Smokies contain over 78 structures of former Appalachian homesteads, 187,000 acres of old growth forest, and the largest black bear population East of the Mississippi River.
Most exciting of all, The Great Smoky Mountains are home to the largest and most diverse salamander population in the US. There are 655 types of salamanders known to exist, 1/3 of which can be found in the Smoky Mountains. Many scientists believe the Smokies is the birthplace of the species! I find salamanders scary because they come out of nowhere and startle me. On the other hand, Nate finds salamanders quite cute, and stated he looks forward to having a few encounters! With all the Smokies have to offer, it is no surprise the park attracts over 11 million visitors annually from across the US and around the world!
After spending three hours stuck in traffic, we had less than a ½ a day to explore the Smokies, and opted to limit our exploration to the 24 mile paved road meandering throughout the park’s most scenic viewpoints. Please see the pictures below.
The most memorable experience of our visit to the Smokies was our arrival at the highest point in the park and in Tenneesee; Clingman's Dome. Please enjoy the pictures below of the breathtaking views!
I have always wanted to visit the Great Smoky Mountains, but as I stood on the summit of Clingman's Dome, I found the experience to be bittersweet for the most unexpected reason. By visiting the Smokies on my year long cross country trip, it felt as if I was stealing experiences from my future self. The apex of Clingman's Dome intersects with the Appalachian Trail; a hike I have long dreamed of attempting. Extending 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine, The Appalachian Trail is the longest and most famous hiking only trail in the world, and passes straight through The Great Smoky Mountains. During my week in West Virginia I engaged in some dream building by visiting the Appalachian Trail Conservatory, which you can read more about by clicking here.
While admiring the beauty from the summit of Clingman's Dome, I encountered a couple who were currently hiking the Appalachian Trail, and they clearly had a couple hundred miles of the trail already behind them judging by their appearance. Although I am far from a jealous individual, I found myself a wee envious for a brief moment! I then reminded myself of the amazing cross country journey I was blessed to currently be on. My envy suddenly transformed into gratitude for the opportunity to have a glimpse into my future journey! Viewing the seemingly endless beauty and grandeur of the mountains before me awoke something within my soul. As I stood on the Appalachian Trail, I heard it speak to me in a gentle whisper, but I forced myself to walk away. I may not know how and I may not know when, but I am certain at some point in the future I will hike the Appalachian Trail! For the record, Lori has absolutely no desire to hike the AT, and I could never leave Lori for the six months necessary to complete the 2,200-mile journey. For now, hiking the Appalachian Trail remains an adventure for another day.
Let’s get serious for a moment and talk about salamanders! The Smokies are the salamander capital of America, but I did not see a single one during my visit! I expected to see thousands of them scurrying all over the place! Where in the park were all the salamanders hiding? Perhaps, I should try to think like a salamander! If was a salamander where would I be??? Hmmm… I would likely live deep in the woods among dense vegetation near a water source, and would likely steer clear of the parks roads and sidewalks. Had I had more time, I would have loved to venture to the places where Salamander’s dwell. Now I have another reason to one day return to the Great Smoky Mountains!
While on top of Clingman's Dome something else unexpected occurred! Our week of exploration in Tennessee came to an abrupt end, and we would enter the next state on our cross country journey in the most unexpected way. We were currently in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park on top of the highest mountain in Tennessee “Clingmans Dome. As we made our way back to Rosie, we encountered the welcome sign for the 38th state on our year long cross country journey to discover America and find a new state to call home; North Carolina: First in Flight. On December 17, 1903 four miles North of Kitty Hawk, NC Orville and Wilbur Wright achieved aviation immortality by taking the first controlled powered airplane flight.
“First in Flight” states the obvious, and does not really get my juices flowing! What I found most fascinating was the story of how North Carolina adopted the motto. Although the famous first flight occurred in North Carolina, the Wright Brothers were born in Ohio. For decades, the dueling states quarreled back and forth attempting to lay their respective claim to early aviation superiority until long at last a truce was reached! Ohio's state motto would be “Birthplace of Aviation” paying homage to the state where the Wright Brother’s were born, and North Carolina “First in flight” would pay tribute to their first historic flight! With North Carolina's willingness to defend its reputation inspire the Cross Country Couple to call the state our new home? We can’t wait to begin our week of exploration in North Carolina!
We continued our visit to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park from the North Carolina side, and after descending Clingman's Dome, we encountered The Mountain Farm & Home Museum. Prior to the park's founding in 1926, over 1,200 families called the Smoky Mountains their home. Although placing the Smokies under federal protection promised to forever preserve the mountains, it also required those who called the land home for generations to permanently vacate. Some of the families happily moved after taking the money the government paid. Other families were devastated to leave, and never recovered from the loss.
In the decades following the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, many of families former homesteads began falling into disrepair. In the 1950’s the farm homes, barns, workshops, fences, outbuildings, and even outhouses scattered throughout the park were relocated to a single location called The Mountain Farm and Home Museum. In addition to telling the story of early 20th century mountain life, The Mountain Farm and Home Museum serves as a memorial to the sacrifices of the 1,200 families. They possessed such a deep love for their land, they agreed to sell and vacate, so the Smoky Mountains would be forever protected for future generations. Allie Condie was correct when she said, "In the end you can't always choose what to keep. You can only choose how you let it go". The Great Smoky Mountain National Park would not exist today if not for great sacrifices of those who once lived and worked in the homesteads pictured below!
After departing the Mountain Farm and Home Museum in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, we drove 45 miles Southeast to a Walmart in Sylva, NC where we spent the night.