The Off Season
I noticed on a recent visit to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that I happened to arrive during the off season. So what’s the “on season?” Like most national parks, crowds flock to the Great Smokies during the summer because that happens to coincide with the peak vacation season in America. Not that the national parks have a monopoly on summer, but if you have ever driven through Yellowstone in July, you might find traffic – actual bumper-to-bumper traffic – much like you would see in line for the Matterhorn at Disneyland or along the National Mall in Washington, DC. Cruises to Alaska, camping in Wisconsin, and road trips to practically everywhere commence as soon as schools conclude.
Between Gatlinburg, Tennessee and Cherokee, North Carolina the highlights don’t end just because Labor Day arrives. Peak season number two begins when the leaf peepers hit the road and marvel in the rich colors that coat the Appalachian range. Even the quaint Great Smoky Mountain Railroad increases its fares during October. Yet, I still prefer to travel during the off season to avoid the crowds, but also to see the other vantage points of the scenery. And while the landscape probably shimmers and glistens in its winter white, my season of choice fits none of the ideal, pastoral images. I arrive on the cusp between winter and spring when the snow has melted, but the daffodils have only begun to think about blossoming.
Hills and hills flow together along these state lines, much like they hugged the roads in West Virginia (see “Almost Heaven” from July 2012). The ancient mountains have brought forth innumerous trees, the overwhelming majority of which are deciduous and in the waning winter days show their wear from each hard freeze. The leaves, deposited months ago and packed against the earth, have long since sapped the color from the branches, and the woodsy colors now, mostly shades of brown, which in the sunlight lose any trace of color, cast grayness over each slope, as well as the next slope, and the slope after that. Sporadically, a conifer boasts it bits of green among a forest of blandness.
Suddenly I realize, I don’t just belong here, I am here. How often do I feel like these tall empty trunks, blown and ripped of the leaves I brought forth, the efforts I contributed, the bright color I shared with others? Even when the autumn arrives, I vary my colors; I adapt and make the changes necessary to keep others engaged. But like the wintered, weathered trees, I am left dormant, gray, and lifeless. I wish my spirit had the hardiness of the pines to hang on to my little bit of green, to keep some visible signs of life about me. Everything I have given has fallen off, been blown off, been stripped and picked off by the forces around me. And don’t think these lifeless trees inspire me or invigorate me; they simply remind me of myself. They, too, are standing, not hardly bending against the last huffs and puffs on the northern winds, because they have nothing left to lose, but to wait for a change – a warm wind – to blow their way. Like me, they wait for something better to come along before they fall to the forest floor forever.