Favorite Travel Quotes

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts."
-- Mark Twain
Innocents Abroad

"Stop worrying about the potholes in the road and celebrate the journey." -- Fitzhugh Mullan

"A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving." -- Lao Tzu

Great Smoky Mountain National Park—Learning from the Past to Preserve the Future

©Bert Gildart: Great Smokies Mountain National Park exists to a large extent because of an influential lobbying group that surged into power toward the end of the Great Depression, or about the late 1930s. That group was the American Automobile Association of America.

Essentially members of the AAA wanted a place to drive their shiny new cars, and at the time, they looked longingly to the Great Smokies. But blocking their way was a group of Appalachian farmers who were land rich, cash poor—and lacking in sophistication.

In other words, they lacked political clout, and so they could garner but little resistance when the government enacted its power of Eminent Domain, telling thousands of dirt farmers that the land they on which they had given birth to their young and buried their dead for the past 150 years would now be put to a more noble purpose.

Today, for better or worse, the Great Smokies has become the nation’s most visited park in the East. Certainly the mountains comprising this park are popular for their staggering beauty, but as well they are popular because they interpret the very thing they had to condemn in order to become a reality, and that is the life of the small family farm that once numbered in the hundreds…

At the moment, we’re in the park camped in Smokemont Campground, located several miles from the Oconaluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee, North Carolina. But more significantly, as far as we’re concerned, is the fact that one of the area’s best preserved mills is located nearby, and is one of the features the National Park Service inherited when the Smokies became a park in 1940. It is also one of the mills the people who were displaced used, and if nothing else, it reflects tremendous innovation.

Today, several men interpret the life at Mingus Mill, and Janie and I were fortunate to meet them. Because the day was young, we were able to follow Hugh Blanton and George Armstrong in the cycle of creating power to grind corn into cornmeal—and listen to a bit of homespun philosophy about life in the Smokies.

From our campground Mingus Creek is easily reached following a several mile drive. A short walk then took us to the mill and the people devoted to preserving memories of a way of life that essentially died out in the 1950s. One of the men actually lived the life associated with the small mill.

Hugh Blanton is a tall man who once lived on a small farm not far from the town of Cherokee. He speaks with a deep southern drawl that is compelling. As an interpreter at Mingus Mill, he begins the day by opening the gate on the flume that diverts water from Mingus Creek into a 100-yard long “race,” into a hundred yard long flume and then into a penstock. The penstock is a tall structure and because of its height, offers a 22-foot head that contains the kinetic energy necessary to rotate a turbine. Gearing from the turbine then turns a spindle that is attached to two huge hand-made cylindrical blocks of granite that grind the corn kernels into cornmeal. A lever adjusts the proximity of the two cylindrical stones, which in turn controls the resulting texture.

The explanation of the operation is somewhat text-bookish, but not Hugh’s recollections of the simple life once associated with a day at the mill.

“When I was young,” said Hugh, we used to call it a ‘turn-of-corn.’ In other words, we all stood in line and took our turn getting our corn ground up. It was a social event and sometimes we’d just gab but other times we might do a bit of trading. Once, I traded an old pocket knife for something I wanted more.”

Though the day was rainy, it was easy to appreciate the comradery, for as we visited we did so around an old wood stove, listening to the beat of rain on the old shakes that covered the mill, and it was then that George Armstrong, the other interpreter, helped crystallize the direction of our conversation, which contained an elements of nostalgia and philosophy.

Together we applauded the park service for its efforts to restore the natural order of things in this most visited of all eastern national parks—something not easy to do. Today, for instance, managers in the Smokies are confronted with the overwhelming challenge of ridding feral hogs.

As well, they’re challenged with an elk reintroduction program, and only that morning Janie and I had seen some of the results of the 2001 and 2002 attempts. Less than a mile away from the mill, in a large meadow, a huge bull elk had stepped for a brief moment from the timber, but long enough for a quick photograph. Because the introduction is a pilot program, all of the approximately 60 elk in the park are monitored through use of collars. Their ultimate welfare is dependent in part on whether or not the elk “threaten park resources or create significant conflicts with park visitors.” The conditions seem a little contradictory as once elk were native to the Smokies and were, of course, dependent on “park resources.”

Sitting around the warm potbelly stove, we all wondered if the reintroduction has a chance, particularly with the way civilization is encroaching on the few remaining “wild” island in North America. And as the rain continued its staccato-like beat on the wood shingles, we wondered about the future. By reflecting on the past, we arrived, we thought, on an appropriate scenario for the future.

Perhaps the way of the farm life in Appalachia may have eventually been doomed because of a lack of knowledge of sustained yields and more sophisticated knowledge of farming. At the time the government condemned the land for national park purposes that, at any rate, was one of the reasons they cited. And now, the park is what it is. But, today, a new threat seems to be emerging, and that is one created by developers and real estate agents.

“They come in here from outside the region,” said George, “and offer up land to a certain element of society that flanks the boundaries of the park. And then people from these big cities come in—buy a chunk on the top of some mountain peak and build a multi-million dollar estate.”

I knew exactly what he was referring to for much the same has been happening in my home state of Montana—and to many other areas of the country that we had seen. In this same state we’d seen the beauty of the Outer Banks of North Carolina marred by high-rise condominiums which now block from sight the magnificence of ocean vistas—except for the few occupying these high-rise monstrosities. The solution, we joked, might be to vote in politicians who would treat arrogance just as an earlier group of politicians treated the unsophisticated ways of farmers who once worked the mountains of the Appalachians.

“Yes, yes,” we said, agreeing that those who construct huge, unsightly multi-million dollar mountain-top homes and high-rise condominiums will have their domiciles confiscated by rule of Eminent Domain. We’ll declare those people unfit because of an excessive amount of arrogance and pomposity.

The, point, of course, is that in 70 year from now if we want to enjoy the same beauty we enjoy today, then we must work hard to enact new laws that will tolerate only principled development. In view of the overwhelming popularity enjoyed by national parks—such as the Great Smokies—the thought seems appropriate.

Ah, to be king for a day.

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