On my mother’s side of the family, East Tennessee connections to the land go back for generations to when the first pioneers were putting down roots in this part of Appalachia. In more recent history, my mom and my dad spent their first date in Cades Cove, after which my father declared that he would marry her. I grew up in Michigan, Washington State and Texas, but this is where we would come to see family...drive down the narrow roads, skirting creeks and rocks and new fallen snow. This is where we would bring picnics, and sit in quiet churches, and walk trails dotted with May apples and jonquils and honeysuckle.
This is where I bring my own family now—to Tremont or Alum Cave or Cataloochee or Metcalf Bottoms or Roaring Fork or the Chimneys or Rainbow Falls or Fontana Lake or Elkmont—to hike or swim or kayak or camp or just be still for a little while in sacred, familiar places. It remains a constant even as I move from house to house, my children grow up, life goes by in its unpredictable ebb and flow. Of course the park changes too. Season, fire, disease, storm, people themselves make their mark and take their toll. But whether scarred by tornado and flame or flaming with autumn color and speckled by spring wildflowers, it has always remained, heritage staked out for generations past, present and future. Always ours.
I’ve traveled all over the country, drawn by natural wonder. I’ve lived in the shadow of the Rockies, made annual pilgrimages to the Badlands, stood breathless on rugged coasts from Washington to California, lost myself in the Outer Banks’ vast and sandy stretches, spent days paddling through rich and murky swampland. But we always return. And we exhale. And on the days we see three bears or watch wisps of cloud move swiftly through green-clad peaks after a summer rain, we count ourselves among those most fortunate to live in such a place. Because, it’s home.