It had been a long morning of driving. Our toddler was on the brink of an “I-won’t-stay-in-my-car-seat-one-more-minute” meltdown when my husband had to hit the brakes and slow down. In the mass of towns and tourism clustered together at the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, we were completely stopped. There was a line of cars as far as we could see.
The cranky toddler was not our only problem. We had packed a picnic lunch, but there was nowhere to eat it, and we were starving. We drove on, slowly, hoping to find a park or even a bench somewhere to sit and eat. I finally spotted a building that said “Tourist Information” and I thought we should at least pull in and investigate.
There was a picnic bench in the parking lot, obviously meant for employees, so we decided to just go inside for a potty break and continue our search for a picnic area. Once inside, a man stopped us. “Where are you staying?” he asked. When he found out we were staying in North Carolina, he exclaimed, “You’re staying on the wrong side of the Park! There’s nothing over there!” Seeing that we had a little girl, he told us “You just have to go to the Bear Jamboree!” Apparently the buffet was fantastic, and you could eat while being entertained by big, mechanical bears up on stage, banging away on instruments and singing.
We hustled Lily, our daughter, out of the building as fast as we politely could. The bear jamboree, the traffic, and the crowds were not what we had envisioned while planning our trip. So many of the rental cabins we had seen during the planning of our vacation touted satellite TV, hot tubs, and video game rooms. A video game room? In a cabin? Definitely not what we were looking for.
When we finally made it to the entrance of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, we breathed a huge sigh of relief. We had our picnic sitting at a bench in front of the visitor’s center, not even bothered by the sprinkle of rain. We drove slowly through the park to our cabin, on the quiet side of the park, in the middle of the mountains. I’ll admit right now that our cabin was not rustic. We did have a hot tub that I couldn’t enjoy because I was six months pregnant; however, my husband soaked in it every night. We did have all the conveniences of home, like a washer, dryer, and refrigerator. But we also spent the whole week enjoying the park and didn’t step foot in the commercialism of the “other side.”
We spent hours eating lunch beside rushing, rock-filled mountain streams, hiking up to tumbling waterfalls, and crossing brooks on narrow, mossy log bridges. Lily crouched down to gaze at butterflies fanning their wings at the muddy edge of a creek. She hugged tree trunks and refused to come out from behind them; she ran across grassy meadows. With her pudgy little legs pumping away she hiked trails next to us and joyfully exclaimed, “We’re climbing a mountain!”
This was the Smoky Mountains we wanted our daughter to see. This was the Smoky Mountains WE wanted to see.
In an interview for the documentary The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, Gerard Baker, a Park Superintendent, states, “We need National Parks to have people, especially our kids, understand what America is. America is not sidewalks. America is not stores. American is not video games. America is not restaurants. We need National Parks so people can go there and say, ‘Ahh, this is America.’” Our family couldn’t agree more.
Ginny Marie's bio: I live in Illinois with my husband and two daughters. Even though we live in the suburbs of Chicago, we try to take advantage of the nature available around us, such as going to Maple Syrup Days at the local forest preserve and hiking trails along the Des Plaines River. This summer, we even enjoyed the company of a red fox in our back yard. (The fox seemed just as surprised to see us as we were to see it!) I blog at Lemon Drop Pie.