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I was driving west through the mountains, going to cover a football game.
Then, I crested a hill and found myself awestruck by the beauty below.
With the sun behind them, the mountaintops stood out dark against the strokes of yellows, reds, oranges and pinks in the sky.
The valleys were blanketed in thick blue mists.
The glorious splendor of the Smoky Mountains sprawled out ahead, begging to be explored, for their beauty to be documented as one of the world’s true wonders.
I was lost in my thoughts, singing along to the radio, thinking of the job ahead.
Enjoying a few minutes alone on a good drive, I was paying little attention to the world outside except for the highway’s curves and bumps and to the other drivers who I hoped weren’t too distracted by the vigorous performance going on in the driver’s seat of my car.
I couldn’t stop for a picture. I couldn’t miss kickoff.
I think about that, occasionally, the shock of natural wonder breaking the routine of a fairly mundane day.
Stopping and getting a pic, probably would have been worth being a couple of minutes late to the game.
I’ve been back up there a few times, trying to catch the perfect moment again, but while it’s beautiful every time, it’s never quite the same.
The mountains have become a regular part of my life, often taken for granted as I rush from A to B and back again. I don’t take enough time to appreciate the wisps and the peaks, the smoke rising in the morning and settling into the valleys at night.
Why are they called the Smoky Mountains?
You might wonder why they are called the Smoky Mountains while driving through the park or walking along one of the many trails.
Well, amazingly, it’s not why you’d think. In fact, there’s a really compelling and surprising way the mountains got their name.
Here it comes.
Wait for it.
Yeah. Ok. It’s actually exactly why you’d think.
It’s not surprising at all.
Why do they call them the Smoky Mountains? It’s the smoke, although they’re really more of a mist or fog, but yeah basically the Smoky Mountains are, well, smoky.
The Cherokee called the mountains Shaconage – place of the blue smoke.
I always assumed the smoke rose from the many creeks and streams running through the mountains, but that’s not the case. The rising mists are produced by the forest itself.
Water is pulled from the soil up into the plants and trees and eventually rises from the leaves, evaporating into the air.
The water cools and forms the blue-tinged mists you see rising over the mountains, eventually forming clouds and falling back to the earth to repeat the cycle.
Through time, however, the mountains’ mists have been supplemented by man-made smoke and smog.
For generations coal-fired plants and pollution made it harder to see the same mountain views and the air stream patterns often brought pollution for other areas and deposited it in the mountains.
You can somewhat tell the difference between the natural mist and the smog because the mists are blue and the smog tends to be white or gray.
The mountains, in many ways, retain the charms that made them attractive to the National Park Service and steps that have been taken to reduce air pollution have been effective.
Some studies indicate the air pollution in the mountains has been cut in half from previous decades.
A tip for seeing the cleanest views of the Smokies
Still, if you want to see the Smokies the way they were prior to the industrial age, there is one pretty good trick we can recommend.
Nearly every hurricane season a storm from the gulf winds its way across Tennessee and over the mountains.
Those high winds will carry whatever isn’t in the air naturally away with them, creating the cleanest air in the Smokies in their immediate aftermath.
In other words, if you want to see the Smokies as they were in the 1700s, get to a remote high point quickly after the storm and watch the natural mists rise anew.
What are your best tips for viewing the Smoky Mountains? Let us know in the comments.
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