By Korrin Bishop
I placed a stack of maps and guidebooks on the checkout counter of the Sugarlands Visitor Center bookstore in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
“It looks like you’re trying to hike every trail in the park!” exclaimed the woman at the cash register.
I nodded. She asked if I was a local.
“I am,” I said. I think, I thought.
The truth was I wasn’t sure how much longer I’d be in the region. It was December and, through a series of life’s twists and turns, I had recently landed in East Tennessee. But as a full-time freelance writer, I wasn’t tied to living in any particular place. I hadn’t decided to stay, yet something in me just knew to buy the maps.
The woman asked if I’d heard of the Great Smoky Mountains Association (GSMA) and called my attention to the bookshelf behind me lined with copies of Smokies Life, the association’s award-winning biannual magazine. She pointed to an issue where the iconic Clingmans Dome adorned the cover.
“That one has an article about the 900-Miler Club,” she said, referencing my nascent goal to hike every trail in the park. She told me more about the association and how it could help me get involved with the park and local community. I filed the information away, not quite ready to commit to this place or a membership.
Not long after this interaction, the park closed to slow the spread of COVID-19. When it reopened in May, I sought refuge on its trails. I let the rolling landscape absorb the anxiety and grief that I—like so many others—had been carrying through these uncertain times. I relished its vast biodiversity, learning the names of local flora and fauna. I found a sense of belonging within the fervent network of people near and far whose lives, somewhere along the way, had connected with and come to love this land.
That sense of community and deep personal connection to Great Smoky Mountains National Park brought me full circle back to GSMA. Now I was ready to commit. My membership packet arrived auspiciously in the mail the day before I’d planned a weekend backpacking trip in the park. I carefully peeled my membership sticker from its backing and placed it on my water bottle. I slid the latest copy of Smokies Life into the front pocket of my pack.
The next evening, I sat on a downed log eating rehydrated curry as a chilly breeze rustled the autumn leaves at Three Forks campsite. I read articles in Smokies Life about navigating human–bear interactions, mapping plant species, and African American history in the park. I thought about the diaspora of people who have let themselves fall apart, tested their bodies, revered the natural world, and healed their hearts all within the gentle arms of the Smokies. I thought of how our common membership with GSMA connected us across time zones, countries, cultures, and beliefs. As the sky darkened, the cover of my magazine surprised me by glowing in the dark; it had been designed to capture the magic of Elkmont’s famous fireflies.
In a year of immense grief and division, the glow of these fireflies, the names of these plants, and the continued work to protect this place and educate its visitors gives meaning and hope to so many—myself included. I became a GSMA member to carry a little piece of the park’s hopeful light—starry skies, golden hour trails, spring wildflowers—with me no matter where I am. What started for me as a stack of maps and a search for home became a chance to be rooted in the Smokies alongside a 34,000-strong membership that understands the deep value of these roots.