There's nothing better than waking up in the morning and driving to work inside a national park. Even in July and October, when the park's seams feel as they might burst with visitors, working on behalf of the Smokies is the best job I've ever had.
While I usually do my level best not to add to the traffic congestion this time of year, midway through October I had a reason to travel from Gatlinburg to Cherokee for a family event. Starting out before daylight, the drive over turned out to be the most challenging part of the journey. It was raining and foggy near Newfound Gap, and I was actually relieved to follow glowing-red brake lights. We were all taking our time, and that was fine with me.
Knowing the trip back had the potential to be slow going, as well, I resolved to settle in and take in the sights, just as thousands have done each day of the month in October for decades. Within a couple of minutes, I found myself pulling over and parking at the Towstring bridge, where I’ve often taken advantage of the quiet walkway from the horse camp and eventually into Smokemont Riding Stables and Campground.
During my exploration of the area, something tiny and white caught the corner of my eye. Seeing this colour in the woods usually means either a hunk of limestone or trash. Following the image close enough to make it out, I found a beautiful clump of Doll’s Eyes, the fruit of a white baneberry plant. "More often noticed in fruit than in flower" (Wildflowers of the Smokies), the white baneberry’s dark spots in the centre of its white berries are said to resemble the porcelain eyes of an old-time doll. Even better, a few of berries I found were still holding fast to a single drop each of that morning’s rain.
Merging back into the traffic heading north of U.S. 441/Newfound Gap Road, I followed a slow progression of colour change, from summer green to glorious gold. By the time I arrived at the Newfound Gap parking lot, my head was swimming with the golden splendour of beech, birch and elm. I had to stop and take a minute. But where to park? The lot was beyond capacity!
When a spot finally opened, I grabbed it and began walking toward the highest spot in the lot, where even more yellow glow. Once again, a glimmer of white caught my attention, and I headed in its direction. What a lucky day! Right there, behind the split-rail fence, was a beautiful display of nodding lady’s tresses, a new orchid for me!
A trip that might never have been turned out to be a source of surprise and delight. A little-known pull-off to most provided the solitude I never thought possible this time of year. And a stunning example of flowering beauty humbly growing untrammelled in a place where thousands visit to take family photos and selfies in the opposite direction put a smile on my face.
Even in the Smokies, it’s still possible to explore quiet walkways, secret gardens and roads not recently taken. For all these reasons and more, I am so eternally grateful.