Sunday, March 14, 2010

"Strangers in High Places"

After reading Horace Kephart's "Our Southern Highlanders" I wanted to pick up the other classic book on the Smokies: "Strangers in High Places - The Story of the Great Smoky Mountains" by Michael Frome.  

Published in 1966 it provides a great complement to Kephart's book.  I borrowed a copy from our library, but you can purchase a copy here.  This is definitely another book I'll be adding to my bookshelf.

"Our Southern Highlanders" was a very personal account of Horace Kephart's life and adventures in the land that would become the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  It describes in beautiful and humorous terms the land and the people of the area as they existed in the late 1800s / early 1900s.  

"Strangers in High Places" on the other hand is a historical account of the land and people from the early settlement of the area by whites and the natives they encountered, through the concept of the national park and the political wrangling that took place to achieve it, and finally to the current state of affairs (as they existed in the 1960s), with final notes on what Frome saw in the future for the park.  Admittedly I struggled to stay awake through parts of the book.  It is much more text-bookish than Kephart's with numerous characters who were sometimes hard to keep track of.  But it gave me a much deeper understanding of the area and the historical development of the park.  It also left me with deep respect and gratitude for some of the players in those early days...  Had it not been for folks like Arno Cammerer, Stephen Mather, Horace Albright, and John D. Rockefeller, there might very well not be a Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Frome divides the book into two major sections: "The First Half-Billion Years" and "The Civilized Age."  The first section describes the geological history, early explorers and settlers of the area and the dealings with the Cherokee who lived here for thousands of years before white folks arrived.  The second section describes the state of the area in the early 1900s at the beginning of the push for a national park.  The politics and players, the $5 million donation of the Rockefeller foundation (approximately 1/2 of the cost of the land that makes up the park), and the residents of the park (both human and animal).  Like Kephart's book there's a lot about the moonshiners (or "blockaders" as they called themselves) and the bear hunters.

One of the chapters I enjoyed the most was chapter XXIII - For Tomorrow, a Ballad.  Here Frome muses about the 1960s pressures the park faces and contemplates its future.  He notes how the number of visitors to the park had risen substantially from 1-2 million per year in the early years of the park to projections of up to 10 million a year by the 1970s.  These projections have come true with over 10 million visitors to the park last year, more than twice as many as any other national park.  There was pressure to build more roads to allow more people to get more places in the park.  Traffic jams and car-induced smog was becoming a problem as was trash and the problems of bears becoming habituated to humans (and their food).  Some of these problems have been alleviated to a large degree.  A major educational focus on eliminating trash and keeping food away from bears has helped.

The problem of traffic congestion, however, remains a major problem.  Local wisdom says that 90% of people who visit the park never get more than 50 yards away from a road.  This saddens me because the real beauty of the Smokies lies deep in its wilderness, accessible only by trail.  Anyone who's visited Cades Cove on a Saturday in October can attest to the insane traffic and constant "bear jams" or "deer jams" that occur when people stop in the middle of the road to goggle at the wildlife.  Frome conjectures that public transportation into and around the park is something that must be introduced.  Over 40 years after Frome's book was published there's still debate about whether we could or should do this.

All in all this was an outstanding book that gave me important insights into how the Great Smoky Mountains National Park came into being.  I highly recommend it anyone with an interest in the Smokies.

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