I remember my sixth-grade teacher telling a story about a college roommate from one of the plains states. When they got to our rolling hills of southwestern Ohio, they were incredulous.
“Are those mountains?” they wondered. Obviously, I have no way of verifying this. But my teacher swore they thought our hills and ridges were mountains because the geography they were used to was flat as a pancake. I wonder what they would have thought the first time they saw actual mountains – like the Great Smoky Mountains. I grew up bouncing up and down hills – carsick half the time – and I was incredulous the first time I saw a real, live mountain.
My first trip to the Smokies was in 1998. My family – aunts, uncles, cousins and grandfather – rented a chalet in the mountains for Labor Day weekend. It was the first time we experienced the stop-and-go traffic of the Parkway and the fervor of Tennessee Volunteer fans. I was 13, and when the adults went to bed, my cousins and I had the run of the place. It was fan-freaking-tastic.
But the mountains – they were the show stopper. The first night there, we got in after dark and had to feel our way through the switchbacks to get to our chalet. We got turned around a couple of times, but we managed to get there without going over the side of the mountain. By the time we arrived, if our ears weren’t popping, we wished they would. We couldn’t really see anything until dawn broke the next morning. Once everyone started getting up and looking out the windows, they were amazed.
My family visited the Smokies several times before we decided to go West to see the Rocky Mountains. Let me tell you, once we saw those towering, rugged, behemoths, well, the Smokies just didn’t seem all that grand anymore. Poor Smokies. I suppose older mountains are like older people: All the things that make them seem super cool gets worn away until we forget just how spectacular they really are.
It wasn’t until we went down in March, after the fires ravaged the Gatlinburg area, that I got a reminder of just how majestic those smaller, rounder mountains really are. You see, when the fires coursed over the mountains, much of the underbrush burned away exposing the bare rock underneath.
Here on the eastern side of the country, where water is much more plentiful and the elevation is lower, we have dense foliage that grows up between trees. It creates a lush, green curtain shrouding the true majesty of the Smokies. But in the Rockies, the higher elevations and drier climate makes it more difficult for that kind of growth to gain a foothold.
So, while the Rockies display a sort of “in your face!” kind of strength – daring you to try to tame them – the Smokies kept their strength and ruggedness hidden, inviting you in for an adventure. That is, until a fire burned away its shroud and reminded me that just because these mountains do not tower over 14,000 feet, they are no less majestic.
Check out my YouTube channel for additional video content of driving through the mountains!