Story and Image by Don McGowan
Benjamin Morton was a Knoxville businessman, and from 1924 to 1927, he was also the mayor of the city. Such an ardent conservationist and a great supporter of the creation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park was he that an overlook of considerable magnitude on the Tennessee side of the mountains was named in his honor.
Morton Overlook, a mile into Tennessee from Newfound Gap, is also the quintessential Smokies sunset location for somewhat under half of the year. From early April through late August, the ball of the solar disc sets somewhere between the lengthy ridge of Sugarland Mountain on the south and the Le Conte massif to the north—in other words, somewhere down the valley of Walker Camp Prong and beyond, where Walker Camp Prong has joined with Road Prong to become West Prong of Little Pigeon River.
During the remaining months, the sun disappears over the long ridge of Sugarland Mountain well in advance of actually setting, so that by the hour of sunset the valley system I’ve just described is in very deep evening shade and much of its otherwise interesting detail is lost in shadow.
In its long traverse above the valley, the sun—on the day of the summer solstice—sets about midway up the ridge on Le Conte by which the Alum Cave Trail travels on its way to the summit. When it reaches this point on its journey, it stops, pauses briefly, turns (metaphorically anyway), and begins to return by the path along which it came. By late summer it is poised to say farewell until the following spring will herald its return. It is an amazingly beautiful pageant, and one in which I have participated for nearly thirty years.
“There is great beauty in how the light takes its leave of the day. From the first blush of dawn, the day is carried everywhere by the light. Time unfolds in light. In the morning, light clears all the outside darkness and the shape of each thing emerges in the brightened emptiness. Light identifies itself completely with the voyage of a day; its transparency puts the day out in the open. There is nowhere for a day to hide; it is exposed every minute to the revelations of light. Perhaps this is why twilight appears gracious; when light abandons the day, it does not believe that it will ever return and consequently permits itself an extravagant valediction in a huge ritual of color. The silence of twilight is striking because the flourish of the coloring has the grandeur of music.”
~John O’Donohue, Beauty: The Invisible Embrace
Don McGowan owns and operates EarthSong Photography. For five years he was the staff photographer for Friends of the Smokies. He offers workshops and photography instruction in beautiful locations around the country, including the Smokies.