The new normal. It came in waves, and each week brought unfamiliar challenges. Oddly enough, it’s beginning to feel, well, old. Life has changed, but humans are tough. We grieve, then start digging in with our adaptive heels. 

Remember when the national parks began reopening? We welcomed each phase like a long lost school chum. Many raced to their favorite parks the moment park rangers waved the checkered flags. I know someone who thought about it but waited. Hmmm. 

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park

It’s anyone’s guess when our parks and lives will resemble the old normal, but one thing is certain. We’re now pros at handling inconvenience and change. Pivoting is an art. If we were good planners in February, we’re rock stars today. 

I made two trips over the shortened summer to The Great Smokies, my park-of-choice. On both journeys, my eyes were peeled for signs of change in the park, gateway towns, and people. 

Tennessee and North Carolina share this park; my first stop was Sugarlands Visitor Center on the Tennessee side near Gatlinburg.  Amid unpopular decisions with reopening and reduced staffing, park rangers exhibited exemplary patience. The same was true with store personnel.  Customers made their selections quickly, then hastened outside so others could enter.  Politeness prevailed. Tennessee and North Carolina share this park; my first stop was Sugarlands Visitor Center on the Tennessee side near Gatlinburg.  Amid unpopular decisions with reopening and reduced staffing, park rangers exhibited exemplary patience. The same was true with store personnel.  Customers made their selections quickly, then hastened outside so others could enter.  Politeness prevailed. 

Sugarland Visitors Center

You’ll find a ranger-staffed facility offering park maps, a plant & animal museum, a 20-minute film & a bookstore. They can also suggest some of the restaurants in Gatlinburg, Tennessee that are open, fairly busy, and extremely hospitable. Had it been legal, the staff at the one I chose might’ve hugged me. Their industry has undoubtedly taken a beating. 

Mountain Farm Museum

The mountain farm sat chicken-less and oddly quiet. No programs. No children clustered around volunteers with 19th-century toys. A few pangs of sadness? Yep. Nevertheless, visitors milled around the outbuildings as a herd of elk grazed in nearby fields. 

Elk Herds in the Smokies

Trails showed very little change. Hikers seemed even more courteous sharing the paths, or maybe they were just trying to smile through cotton. 

Cades Cove Camp Store

Campgrounds were predictably full.  Moods were vibrant. Park visitors lined up for $3.50 ice cream cones in Cades Cove as thousands do each year. (My girl cousins never leave here without camp store cones in hand.) Pandemic or not, it’s a place where life’s problems step aside for a while.  Take away the face coverings and Norman Rockwell’s paint brush would be right at home. 

After twelve days in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I left with these two thoughts.

  • Let’s adjust, enjoy, and appreciate.
  • Most people are truly nice.

The largest part of 2020 lies behind us. Proceeding from here is a personal choice. Stumbles lay ahead, but choosing the windshield sounds like a better option than that rearview mirror. Onward! 

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