Melissa and I are planning our annual trip to the Smokies. We leave in a few weeks. I’ve been going to the Smokies on a regular basis since I went to college at Maryville College in nearby Maryville, TN. It is my favorite of all places. It’s not obviously grand like the scenic views in the West, but it’s more intimate than any place I’ve ever been. It has it all. Weather, clouds, fog, beautiful light, wildlife, flowers, waterfalls, idyllic streams, hiking, camping, photography. What more could you ask?
Years ago, a friend and I discovered a secret place in the Smokies. It’s not really secret, but I’m not telling everyone about it. They have to go with me to see it, unless they find out about it themselves. Selfish? Well, somewhat. You see, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most visited parks in the nation. That means that, especially during the peak wildflower season, there are a lot of people there. In college, one of my favorite times for the Smokies was in the late fall and winter, when nobody else went. Now, they close the roads for our “safety” and it’s much less accessible than it was back then. I absolutely LOVE photographing wildflowers. I bring my identification books and I try to shoot every flower I see. I also quiz Melissa on the IDs! Unfortunately, there are others without ethics, that pull the flowers up so they can try to plant them in their yard at home, or trample them, so no one else can see their beauty. I don’t want any part of that. So, I keep this place a relative secret - only for special people to know about.
My friend no longer goes on photographic trips with me. We had one planned, and she had to back out for personal reasons, which I certainly understand. She went into another profession, and I planned to go to the mountains alone. That’s when Melissa asked me to join her at one of her workshops with her former business partner. I was basically their guide for the area. I know it well, having spent probably more hours in the Smokies than I did studying while in college! Since that first trip together, Melissa and I, and sometimes other groups and other individuals, have gone to the Smokies every year. Last year, the weather was supposed to be so horrendous, we altered our plans and stayed at Grandfather Mountain, which also had horrendous weather, but we stayed in one of the cabins. Of course, the Smokies ended up with great weather after all……
Back to the story. This special place is magical. That is the only word for it. Not too bad or long a hike to get in, but it’s a really steep downhill at the end (which, of course, means a steep uphill on the way back) which culminates in this place of unsurpassed beauty. Each time, we have brought our cameras, and each time, we have left with less-than-satisfactory images of this beautiful place. Somehow, though, it’s not a total disappointment. You see, there is more than visual beauty here. There are the sounds of the trees swaying and birds chirping. There is the smell of this place that is like no other. It’s the wildflowers. One of them, phlox, is so heady it takes your breath away. Add early morning mist and a bit of the usual Smokies moisture, and you have a place where gnomes and fairies could live. There are only 2 places I’ve ever seen like this, and both of them are in the Smokies. However, the fragrance here is unsurpassed.
What I’m getting at, is that you can’t always leave a place with pictures that represent what you saw because seeing is only PART of the experience. The people you are with, the smells, the sounds (or lack of them), the weather – it’s all a part of the experience, and some of that can’t possibly be captured in a photograph. It must be documented with a picture, but you can’t take the rest of it back with you.
Melissa and I have been on many, many trips together. We have had several indescribable moments that we have decided aren’t photographic, but almost spiritual. Take the time to breathe it all in and experience wherever you have chosen to venture. You will never forget it. I know, still, that the folks we took down there one year have always remembered that experience, and it’s been talked about ever since we were there. It’s inside you – not in a photograph. We will go there again and attempt to bring it home with us. We know we never will, but it’s taunting us to give it a try. We will. I don’t give up easily, but I just don’t see how we will EVER capture ALL that beauty in a photograph that does it justice. But we will keep going there and keep trying. We’ll continue to seek out places that challenge our photographic skills, but if we can’t do anything but enjoy the moment, it will still be priceless and unforgettable.