Sunday, September 14, 2008

Walk these hills

On our summer vacation in Townsend, Tenn., I was glad to spend some time relaxing at the place my folks own there: Reading, playing music, idling. But the property's great draw is its proximity to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the forested wonderland whose underutilized Little Greenbriar entrance is about eight minutes away from the old homestead.

Many -- most? -- visitors to the park explore it by car. But it is crisscrossed with hiking trails, and the best way to take it in is to strap on sturdy footwear and walk. So Ereck and I went on strolls of lesser and greater lengths, hikes that took us to roaring cascades, to groves of mighty, old-growth poplars, to stunning, damp grottoes of rhododendron in lush bloom.

Something strange happened as I walked those paths. I kept flashing back to, of all things, vacations I took as a kid to Disney World, and I especially remembered the paved paths I trod at the Frontierland attraction Tom Sawyer Island. Like many Disney attractions, Tom Sawyer Island is about storytelling, of a kind. As with Space Mountain, It's a Small World or the Haunted Mansion, you start at some point; you move through the attraction, either on foot or in some kind of transport; you take in imagery, words, music. A narrative unfolds, and in the process you are, the designers hope, variously thrilled, frightenened, amused, charmed. The same goes for tourist attractions of many kinds: museum exhibits, house tours, caves. The difference with Tom Sawyer Island is that there is freedom, or at least the illusion of freedom. You don't follow a single path. You're free to roam around -- or, more accurately, "free," since your movements are in fact limited by the attraction's design.

I got the same feeling of freedom/"freedom" in the Smokies park. On the one hand, it was liberating to choose from the hundreds of miles of paths, to experience the almost total solitude of the park's remote areas, to encounter flowers, deer, tiny frogs in their wild state.

On the other hand, the Smokies park is in some ways no less an artificial construct than the Disney park. The Smokies park exists partly as the result of an act of preservation, of course, but also acts of creation. Those trails have been blazed, preserved. They are well marked by handsome wood signs. They travel by campgrounds, roads, parking lots.

The weirdest thing about the Disney flashbacks is that I unconsciously kept waiting for the narrative to solidly kick in. Disney attractions let you experience stories immersively: Mr. Toad has a wild ride, Tom Sawyer runs around in the woods, Snow White's prince comes, etc. But although you can pick up on hints of narrative from the Smokies' paths, they're very different kinds of stories. Years ago, mountains were formed, and plant and animal species evolved. More recently, Native Americans lived here, and then European settlers. There were quaint folkways, and also acts of violence. Now, for the most part, no one lives here. Very different from Mr. Toad's wild ride.

But mostly what I contemplated on the paths weren't stories but rather mysteries. Why is this roaring cascade here? Why this lush rhododendron?

I still haven't come up with an answer.