Maples shares the sentiment but has also come to terms with the past. "My grandmother hated the park till her last day on Earth. But if it weren't for the park, what would all this be now? Nothing but condos and hotels, probably."
The Smokies are, by some measures, the most visited national park in the country, yet the great majority of visitors never set foot on an unpaved surface. They may stop by the park visitors center or drive the scenic loop at Cades Cove—a grassy valley where cars crawl bumper to bumper as people lean out of windows to photograph deer—but they never glimpse the backcountry trails, just a few miles away, where even on a summer weekend you can hike all day and encounter scarcely another living soul.
Great Smoky also suffers from some of the worst air pollution of any national park in the country, thanks not just to those cars but also to coal-burning power plants and factories throughout the eastern United States. When you hike a ridgeline on an overcast day, you may be inhaling rain clouds that have the approximate acidity of vinegar and ozone pollution that rivals nearby cities. Not surprisingly, many trees along those ridges are dead or dying, although the dirty air serves only to weaken them. The actual killers are exotic insects and other plagues. An invasive blight in the 1930s all but erased the mighty American chestnut. More recent invaders threaten the park's hemlocks, dogwoods, butternuts, beeches, spruces, and ﬁrs. "What will the forests look like 20 years from now? Probably very different," said backcountry manager George Minnigh.
Crisis and change are not new to these woods. One weekend I hiked up Hazel Creek, the still-remote area where Horace Kephart camped a century ago. A writer and ethnographer, Kephart came to these mountains in 1904, drawn by his love of wilderness and of communities where he found the 18th cen-tury still living undisturbed in the 20th. "All about us was the forest primeval," he wrote in his most famous book, Our Southern Highlanders, a vivid anecdotal account of life among moonshiners and mountain folk. "Our settlement was a mere slash in the vast woodland that encompassed it."
Years later Kephart returned to the area to ﬁnd it altered beyond recognition. "Industrial logging had come to Hazel Creek. They'd just raped it," said my hiking companion Kenneth Wise, a librarian and Kephart aﬁcionado. After the big lumber companies ramped up logging in the Smokies in the early 1900s, about 80 percent of the forest was clear-cut and turned into clapboard houses, newsprint, and World War I biplane struts.