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In fact, for anyone who grew up somewhere in that long stretch of the United States, walking in these woods is like experiencing familiar landscapes that have been somehow enriched, enlivened, concentrated. Meadows hum withbees, groves of hemlocks echo with the knock of woodpeckers, barred rays of sunlight shift and dance above the surface of a trout stream: It is as if a thousand well-loved meadows, a thousand groves, a thousand streams, had all been distilled into this mythic forest, this eastern Eden.

Thanks to their sheltered isolation, the Smokies are—or once were—a kind of cultural biosphere reserve, as well as an ecological one. One local person who is well aware of that is Mike Maples, whose European-American forebears began settling here in the late 1700s. “There’s not a place in the park where I’m not rich in cousins,” he boasted. Maples, an avid amateur historian, spoke in the present tense, but the truth is that all those kinfolk have been gone for dec-ades, dispersed when the national park was created in the 1930s. Unlike most of the western parks, which were carved out of vast holdings of fed-eral land, Great Smoky Mountains National Park was stitched together from thousands of small tracts, including farms and villages that had existed for a century or more.

This part of Appalachia was the ancestral home of the Cherokee and one of the first frontiers of the fledgling United States, where the restless energies of the young nation spilled over into a green new land. Tough Scotch-Irish veterans of the Revolution made their way, rifles in hand, along the chain of mountains. They and their descendants built communities in which old ways died hard, family feuds died even harder, and moonshining was a way of life. (Without decent roads, turning your corn crop into liquor was the only way to get it handily to market.)

Although the Park Service has preserved scores of scattered buildings, not much is left of many settlements but some gnarled fence posts in the woods, a few tumbled chimney stacks, and perhaps a small cemetery on a muddy hillside. There also remains a lingering resentment of the park among some local families who were forced to give up hard-won lands and livelihoods.

I met one of the last of the dispossessed, 96-year-old Gudger Palmer, at a reunion of families that once lived in the park's Cataloochee Valley. Palmer's great-grandfather, in the 1830s, cleared with his own hands fields that have now been made wilderness again. "I used to mow hay right here, with a horse-drawn mowing machine," Palmer said, pointing to a meadow where elk, reintroduced to the park several years ago, now roam. "There were about a thousand people in this valley, including children. It feels like home still. People didn't want to go, but we knew we had to."

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