By Logan Boldon, Marketing Content Specialist
Horace Kephart. You’ll hear the name thrown around when you move to the Smokies area. It’s inevitable – especially if you’re coming to work in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It starts off with trail and place names: Kephart Prong Trail, Kephart shelter and Mt. Kephart. His name might pop up again when talking about hiking the 70-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail within park boundary. After all, it’s because of his efforts that the trail even runs along the peak of Clingmans Dome. Eventually, you’ll learn that Kephart was one of the most influential people advocating for a national park in the first place. This is how my Kephart journey began, at least. And that’s as far as it went until just a few short weeks ago.
As a trained biologist, I didn’t move to the Smokies nearly three years ago to revel in its history. I was drawn here due to its fascinating abundance of life: more tree species than are found in the entire continent of Europe, more species of salamanders than anywhere else in the world and mega-fauna like bear and elk. Yeah, now we're talking! Don’t get me wrong, I certainly value history and find it interesting, but it’s not a subject I tend to explore unprompted. When I was tasked with writing an announcement of Great Smoky Mountains Association’s publication Back of Beyond: A Horace Kephart Biography, into history I dove.
I started by reading an excerpt from the book, a 500-page collaboration between authors and Kephart enthusiasts George Ellison and Janet McCue. It taught me a lot about the actions Kephart took to promote the idea of a national park in the Smokies, but it didn’t reveal who he was. Sure, he felt a sense of despair that the natural resources in the area were being squandered, which spurred his desire to do something about it, but so did a lot of people. What made Kephart’s story unique among those who espoused the national park idea, I asked myself?
The materials I received to help craft the announcement included interviews with both authors. In response to the question about how this book differs from other sources, McCue responded, “Kephart is a man full of contradictions—solitary yet a masterful storyteller; generous yet indebted; conventional yet unconventional; a loyal friend and an absent parent. Back of Beyond explores this complexity, revealing a talented man who from the abyss of his breakdown in 1904 found the fortitude to build a worthwhile life in the Smokies.” This struck a chord with me – and a very personal one at that.
Before becoming a woodsman of the Smokies, Kephart was director of the St. Louis Mercantile Library, a prestigious position that earned him national recognition. As time went on, however, the pressure of never-ending professional obligations, his chaotic family life, and his longing for the wilderness became too much and resulted in several absences from work that led to his forced resignation. Then, his wife, Laura, left him, taking with her their six children, to move back with her family in New York since there was no longer a steady income for support. All of this, plus alcoholism and the added fatigue of insomnia, must have pushed Kephart past the edge. As the book’s authors reveal to us, he handed a suicide note to a bartender in March 1904, was arrested a few minutes later and taken to the hospital. Yet despite this level of despondency, Kephart arrived in the Smokies later that year to begin his life anew.
My own arrival in the Smokies had striking similarities. I, too, came here seeking a fresh start. I've struggled with depression for as long as I can remember. Suicidal thoughts seem to have always been flitting in my mind. The added responsibilities and struggles of work and school, especially as someone diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, exacerbated my sense of hopelessness and nervous breakdowns became the norm. Like Kephart, I sought solace in nature – in the songs of birds, the gurgling waters of streams and the trees reaching skyward, pillars of strength.
I decided to study biology, as well as natural and cultural interpretation in college. I couldn’t think of anything that I could suffer through except working for the National Park Service and staying close to those few things that brought me comfort. I felt the same discouragement as Kephart when he said, “It makes my heart sick to see with what reckless selfishness these gifts of nature are being squandered.” He had to do something about it, and so did I. I needed to protect what was protecting me.
As I see it, the biggest barrier to conservation efforts is a lack of understanding due to insufficient education as to the importance of our natural and cultural resources among the general populous. Born out of this realization came my personal mission – to foster meaningful connections between people and our resources in order to promote conservation ethics and stewardship attitudes. I landed my first National Park job in 2009 as a summer park guide at Hopewell Culture National Historical Park. Coinciding with my schooling, I would go on to work for Fort Mountain State Park in Georgia on the weekends and land summer internships at Gulf Islands National Seashore and Yellowstone National Park. Working at the first national park ever?! What a dream – and a prestigious one at that!
That dream was shattered shortly after it began, though. My depression around that time had ramped up to the point of being hospitalized. I would spend the next year in and out of hospitals and mental health institutions, cut off from society and even more downtrodden because now I thought there was no hope. I thought that I, like Kephart, had fallen from grace.
Imagine my surprise when the Student Conservation Association, the organization I obtained the Gulf Islands and Yellowstone internships through, contacted me saying they had an opportunity they believed was a good fit for me. To even consider applying, I had a lot of convincing to do. I had to convince my parents that I could reintegrate myself back into society. Perhaps more importantly, I had to convince myself. It took a lot of work, but soon after I found myself heading to Great Smoky Mountains National Park for a yearlong internship as the Centennial Volunteer Ambassador in 2016. That year extended into three.
The Smokies has become my home. I cannot imagine leaving these mountains and the friends I have made inside and outside the park. As fortune would have it, the day I was to officially move out of my park-provided housing, Great Smoky Mountains Association called me with the best news. Here I sit three months later writing this blog and marveling at how Kephart’s personal journey to the mountains mirrors my own.
When you're in nature, it awakens something primeval, something simple, and it can ignite new life in the weariest of souls. I am so thankful for the opportunities I've been given in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. And I can honestly espouse the same feelings about which Kephart once wrote, “I owe my life to these mountains and I want them preserved so that others may profit from them."