Leafy-green mountain majesty

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.

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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!

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What’s this Road to Nowhere?

Popularly called "The Road to Nowhere," North Carolina Highway 228 construction was halted in the 1970s due to environmental concerns. Residents of the state fought with the Federal Government until 2010 to receive compensation for the unfinished road.

Popularly called “The Road to Nowhere,” North Carolina Highway 228 construction was halted in the 1970s due to environmental concerns. Residents of the state fought with the Federal Government until 2010 to receive compensation for the unfinished road.

In a complete coincidence, I’m bringing you another tale of controversy in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s history. Or maybe it isn’t really a coincidence, its just a throw back to my days of being a newsie. I don’t remember ever actually running around the newsroom screaming, “If it BLEEDS, it LEADS!!!” but knowing me, its entirely within the realm of possibility. Not that I seek out controversy for the sake of it; but it does make for a more interesting plot.

Scene: Another tranquil place in the Smokies. Its late March, around 60 degrees and sunny. Not many birds are out yet, so the only sounds you hear are leaves underfoot and, of course, my breathing. A gentle breeze tickles your arms and makes you grateful for the sun’s warm rays beaming on your scalp. A short walk up a slight incline will take you to the deceptively-long tunnel. I didn’t think there was much to the tunnel, until I was in its belly. Devoid of sunlight, the center of the tunnel swallows any light – including the flashlight on my iPhone that seems so bright when I’m looking for a dropped earring. And remember that gentle breeze? Its turned into a downright cold wind.

I’m visiting Gatlinburg for the second time this year – already more than I’ve been in the last few years. This time around, Mom wanted to go to a quilt show and did not want to go alone. Will I walk around a quilt show with my beloved mother for a nearly-free-for-me trip to Tennessee? Absolutely!

My reward was a day trip into North Carolina the following day. If you go to Bryson City and follow Everett Street out of town, it will dead end eight miles out in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

So, why is there this random road that literally goes nowhere? The answer lies some 50 years ago in the mountains.

The players in this drama are The Aluminum Company of America, who had been building dams in the area to provide power to their plants nearby in Tennessee; the Tennessee Valley Authority, who was concerned about the effects of flooding along the Little Tennessee River; and the United States Department of the Interior, the Big Daddy of the Park Service.

DSC_4164When the Department of the Interior was putting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park together in the 1930s and 40s, it acquired vast tracts of land from Swain County, North Carolina. Part of this tract of land included Highway 288, which connected Bryson City with Deals Gap. This road was left alone – until World War II when growing electricity demands gave someone the bright idea of harnessing the power of the Little Tennessee River. Added bonus: creating a hydroelectric dam would also help produce aluminum for the war effort.

By 1935, when the Tennessee Valley Authority got involved, the Aluminum Company of America was working on the Fontana Dam project. The TVA wanted in on the action, but couldn’t get enough funding to complete the dam until World War II broke out and aluminum was in high demand. Once funding was secured, ALCOA signed their land over to the TVA in exchange for the rights to the output of the dam.

DSC_4141To create the hydroelectric power for the factory, a reservoir would need to be created – present-day Fontana Lake. To accomplish this, 1,311 families, 1,047 graves and over 60 miles of roads had to be relocated – including Highway 288. Four towns – Fontana, Bushnell, Forney and Jusdson – would be covered with water. In exchange, the Department of Interior agreed to create a road – or rather, move Highway 288 – that would allow displaced residents passage to the cemetery on the other side of the lake. This road would also grant access to some of the more remote areas of the Park.

The dam was completed in late November 1944, in time for the closing months of the war. Construction of the new Highway 288 was intermittent until the 1970s when it was halted for good. I’m not entirely clear about what, exactly, the environmental concerns were that halted work 40-odd years ago. I read something about construction releasing toxins from the soil and contaminating water supplies, but that was a comment on a road trip website.

With construction stopped, residents became bitter about what they considered a broken promise and the topic became popular fodder for local politicians. Those who wanted construction to continue said the environmental concerns were exaggerated. Opinions are rampant, even among people with no ties to the region except taking a vacation there once.

DSC_4162It looked like construction could resume after funding was secured for the road in 2000 by a North Carolina Senator, but an environmental study released seven years later said that completing construction would cause too much damage to the area. The controversy reached its end when Swain County agreed to take a cash settlement from the National Park Service in exchange for the road.

Today, the road exists as another testament to the evolution of our national park systems and sacrifices that were made to create our public lands. The Park Service operates a boat in the summer that ferries visitors to the old cemetery and trail heads on the far side of the lake. In winter, lowered lake levels allow hiking in the reservoir basin along the ghost of Highway 288.


I rate my adventures based on oxygen tanks, ranking from one to five based on how taxing the activity is on my pulmonaries.

I rate my adventures based on oxygen tanks, ranking from one to five based on how taxing the activity is on my pulmonaries.

The Gus Scale 

I’m rating this attraction a three because even though its a short hike, there is a slight, extended incline. The road continues past the tunnel and connects to several trails, none of which I explored. There are also opportunities to climb some hills around the tunnel to get to the top.