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The Waiting Mountains

by Charles E. Rice

Paintings by Jim Gray

The gods of time have autographed the earth's crust with monumental designs. Among them stand those immense strokes we call the Great Smokies. From thousands of feet above, these mountainous inscriptions stand out like braille on a vast, rippled scroll. And, as with the writings for the blind, mountains must be touched and followed to tap their secrets. What Wordsworth called "the voice of the mountains" can be heard only as it is felt.

All great mountains make their imprint upon the sensibilities and destiny of the human race. The Smokies rise well to this conversation with history. For millions of years before man stood in their shadows, these patient peaks waited for him. Today, people venture by multitudes toward this mountain realm. And the Smokies in their seasonal garments still wait . . . as if for the first murmur of human awe.

The foothills of the Great Smokies fan out and probe the surrounding country in a maze of dips and turns. These both beckon and forbid the traveler. From miles away the silhouette of the peaks on a clear day steadily salutes and invites the beholder. Moving into the foothills, however, these same peaks flash into view only to retreat again behind the modest covering of the slopes beneath them.


The mountains — their vegetation, wildlife and even their weather —offer but a limited and temporary welcome. Like the natives who know them best, they may tender hospitality but rarely intimacy. Seemingly friendly wooded slopes, quiet hollows, and singing waters can still mislead and disorient the unwary. In every generation wayfarers have gone unto these hills never to return.

Winding stretches of concrete and asphalt have been poured along some of the early trails through valley and gap. These smooth but fragile byways are like bridges spanning a mighty river. They barely touch and never subdue the wild spirit below and to either side of them. Mountain roads, at best, remind the user that he is surrounded by impassable mountain mysteries . . . or, that he has an exit. After all, even the sign of a "Motor Nature Trail" suggests more than it can deliver.

The proud Smokies possess an array of skills. These matchless mountains can excite, seduce, inspire, calm, exercise, hypnotize, aggravate, isolate, revive or kill man or beast. These tremendous mounds of time also have bred their artists and warriors, cults and castes, common folk and chieftains. The long shadows of the mountain evening cover all who come or go with mute indifference to rank or reputation. Neither do these heights weep whether tree or man is felled. The natives of these highlands know well this solemn mountain "truth."

From all over the world people come to the Smokies. Some stop short. Tourists frequently ask shop clerks of Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge, "What is there to do or see around here?" Some of these surely have not come to the Smokies but rather from something, somewhere. Or, perhaps, they seek the mountains but the mere sight of Mt. LeConte from a motel window satisfies their quest. That great, sharp summit, snow-crowned much of the year, does cast a spell from any angle.

The vantage point shapes and reshapes any view or encounter with these many-splendored mountains. Different temperaments, tastes, trails, or times make for a chemistry of an infinite variety of visions. From top to bottom this mountain world throbs with clues and signals for the attentive. Move in any direction but a few paces or ponder a new question and the mood can change.

The paved entrances to the Great Smokies are relatively few but, some would insist, ample. Main routes converge from North Carolina through Asheville and Cherokee. From Tennessee the gateway opens by way of Sevierville or Townsend. Snows in higher elevations close some passageways in winter. By foot, entry into the mountains is limited only by physical stamina, caution, and commonsense.

Human nature, regardless of the route or vehicle, approaches this mountain reality with more than a fixed destination. Mankind from the beginning has brought its mixed baggage of faith and folly, greed and grace. For one and all the mountains wait. Unmoved these towers of time stand massive and majestic before the just and the unjust alike. But, while the mountains do not discriminate, they guard and convey their mysteries jealously. The "voice of the mountains" is heard best by those who expect what can be found only in the mountains.


Mountains lure the human spirit in every generation. Ocean depths, starry heavens, wind-swept deserts and arctic masses also tempt the imagination. Indeed, all creation makes its bid for the rapt attention of the only mortal creature capable of awe and wonder. But great mountains not only loom higher in sight--they stand out in history as watersheds and way stations in the whole human story.

Poets, prophets, mystics, monks, generals, engineers, and plumbers each and all have their reasons for "seizing the high ground." The challenge goes deeper still. Mountains move men. They speak to the human soul with an eloquence barely shy of religion . . . if shy at all. They intimate what they can never exhaust or define: the very idea of the holy.

The great religions of the world, East and West, sprang from mountain anchored roots. They draw from and feed upon the lore and legacy of mountain-top visions. The sacred literature of Jew and Christian and kindred religions echo with gratitude for the "everlasting hills." For thousands of years those reverent poets and scribes found the mountains a symbol of stability as well as of grandeur.

And mountains also beckon all peoples to identify and size up their gods. Wherever we take our own handiwork too seriously, mountains rise before us as sobering sentinels of a reality above and beyond us. Their endurance, vastness, dark recesses, roaring waters--and their stillness mock as petty and passing the fever and folly of civilizations.

The Great Smoky Mountains offer rest and recreation to all comers. They invite the artist's brush and the camera's eye among all other disciples of nature's beauty and marvel. They also invoke a religious reflex even among some who are too worldly wise for such primitive touches. These mountains ask no creed or contribution. But they call forth a sense of creatureliness from those who consider them for a while. They confront us with new ways of measuring life--a keener sense of proportion.

The Smokies seem to know, even if we don't, that we have not progressed in our capacity for humility, beauty, and awe. We stand in such matters too often behind those sons of men who first climbed these wooded steeps. We walk behind those prehistoric tribes as well as behind those later, highly appreciative Cherokees when we walk among these hills. We trail, as well, those Anglo-Saxon late-comers who boldly settled--but never finally conquered--this peculiar reach of earth and sky. And the Smokies still wait.

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