We decided to use Gatlinburg, Tennessee as our home base. Our hotel was located around the corner from the main strip, so we were in a quiet area, but able to walk downtown in just a few minutes. We arrived just before midnight from Vicksburg, so we had our first real look at Gatlinburg and the beautiful Smoky Mountains the next morning. We walked downtown to take in the sights and eat breakfast. Gatlinburg is a total tourist town with a mix of quaint gift shops and souvenir ones, spread out between several Ripley's attractions and all the varieties of mini golf a person could want. It has a quality of being wonderfully tacky and uniquely American, and I really mean that in a good way. I'm a person who has a desire for my children to see both Washington, D.C. and Elvis's Graceland. The sleepy timber town grew as a result of Smoky Mountain tourism.
|How American vacation is this picture? The Bradys could be posing here!|
We had several choices to get a view of the area: ski lifts up a mountain, a tram up the mountain or an elevator ride to the top of the Space Needle. We chose the Space Needle. On the observation deck, we were able to see gorgeous views and read the history of the town.
That was the most time we spent downtown. After that, we walked to eat each day. That afternoon, we made our first visit to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is the most-visited of all the nation's parks and it seemed to be a perfect first visit to a major national park.
|This picture was taken on another day at this entrance because we missed the parking area on our first drive-through.|
There are several entrances to the park, with visitors centers at each. Admission to the park is free; it one of only a few national parks in the nation with no admission fee. We entered at the Sugarlands center where there is a film, museum, large gift shop, and great Junior Ranger programs and activities. The one souvenir the children talked about was a stuffed black bear because I told them I had a baby stuffed black bear from Gatlinburg when I was a little girl. The park gift shop was the perfect place to buy them because they were of good quality, very reasonably priced, and all the proceeds benefit the park. We made most of our purchases at the park shops so we could support the park. So, holding tight to their new bears (an owl for Emmeline), the children listened to a great bear talk from a REAL RANGER, watched a film about the history of the park, and toured the naturalists' journals exhibit in the center while we waited out a beautiful afternoon rain shower. TIP: Begin the Junior Ranger program at your first visitors center upon entering the park. There are activities the children must complete to make their pledge and receive their badges and they will need time at the stations to do them. I wish we had known this at our first center.
|The museum exhibit features copies from early naturalists' journals, along with replicas of the plants and wildlife.|
|"Berry" because bears eat berries!|
|The film was good, but poor Thomas was exhausted by that time:)|
|Native! Just wild throughout the lower forests!|
|A true reward at the end of the trail|
|No human designs can compete with God's creation|
|Little explorer with his official Junior Ranger binoculars|
We drove to mass that evening. It was a beautiful mass at a small, simple parish, St. Mary's, whose wonderful history can be read here. At mass, there was a lone piano player, no choir, a religious brother with reading difficulties as the reader, and yet, it was inspiring. We were there for the Feast of Corpus Christi and the congregation sang all the verses of St. Thomas Aquinas's Eucharistic hymn that he wrote for the feast. Eastern Tennessee is not Catholic country; it is thoroughly Protestant and it was beautiful to see such a small band of faithful people practicing their faith. It had a profound impact on me and just further reinforced the truth that it's NOT about the priest, the church architecture, the choir, or the way we "feel" at mass or a particular parish. It's about Jesus, our relationship with Him, and that most special way he comes to us in the Eucharist. That's it and yes, it IS enough. It is more than enough, more than we can ever completely fathom.
|Picture from the St. Mary, Gatlinburg, TN website.|
In the early days, parishoners of St. Mary's in Gatlinburg had to make a steep climb simply to attend mass. I guess a commitment to my local parish, rather than abandoning it for something that might feel better, is a little matter in comparison. What if those East Tennessee Catholics had simply abandoned their parish because of their discomfort and trials?
I saw so many trees growing under less than ideal conditions. My immediate thought was of the book, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a favorite from my teen years. My next thought was of the bravery of the native peoples, the Cherokee, who first lived in this land, of the brave early pioneers, and then of the faithful minority, the Catholics of the area.
I choose to grow in my circumstances, to be like the trees stretching their roots however they must to continue living and growing, as a wife, mother, friend, and most of all, as a daughter of God.