Smokies LIVE Blog

Six weeks in the park—Part 7: Spirit

Cades Cove church pews. Provided by Maggie Gordon.

Editor’s Note: This is the final essay in a series written about Railback’s stay in the park from June 22 to August 4, 2023.

My days at this place I’ve called Second Acts are coming to an end, and that old human rooting instinct wants to hold me fast to what feels like home. Haunted by the idea of leaving, biking or hiking in the grooves of familiar paths, I wonder about the deeper truths here before it’s too late and I am back in Cullowhee, watching Wheel of Fortune.

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” Robert Frost wrote in his great poem, “Mending Wall.” I believe that something calls to us in places like Great Smoky Mountains National Park. And I wonder if some visitors seek it when they come from afar to be here.

One afternoon in the bustling Cades Cove camp store parking lot, I see a great extended Amish family huddling near the vending machines. Like visitors from the 19th century, they look upon the scene with what I imagine to be a mix of weariness and bemusement. Perhaps they have come from Pennsylvania or Ohio. Their van driver takes a break, alone in the cab listening to rock music and smoking a cigarette.

Cades Cove church pews. Provided by Maggie Gordon.
Cades Cove church pews. Provided by Maggie Gordon.

On a small patch of grass in the middle of the Clingmans Dome lot sit two Buddhist monks, smiling, looking at the long horizon while vehicles in search of an empty space circle around. They remind me of the monks I saw years ago on a hike from one temple to another in the ancient city of Nara, Japan. In their bright orange robes, though, they are likely from some other country in Southeast Asia. I want to ask them where they are from but stop; they don’t need my interrogation.

In his book, Nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson builds his list of our environment’s gifts, from material commodity to the ultimate one: spirit. “The aspect of Nature is devout,” he wrote, adding that the happiest person is the one “who learns from nature the lesson of worship.”

Of all the lessons in his book, this one resonates with me most. As an agnostic teenager, I found anything remotely spiritual to be uncomfortable (even the concept of The Force in Star Wars bothered me). At 18, though, during a two-week backpacking trip in the shadow of the jagged Minarets of the Ritter Range in the Sierra Nevada mountains, my closed view shattered. The gigantic beauty of those peaks and the perfection of the forest dwarfed me—an invitation to ponder the universe beyond measurable fact.

Of course, Emerson’s notions leaned on sources from all over the world (he read voraciously). For his time, he had a profound interest in Indigenous beliefs. Indeed, a survey of the great Native American literature of our country helps one to understand what I first glimpsed in the Sierras.

One of my favorite novels, Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko, beautifully weaves the spiritual landscape of Laguna Pueblo into the healing of a broken war veteran. Tracks by Louise Erdrich illustrates the deadly folly of those exploiting the land in ignorance of Chippewa culture and spiritual belief. In his wonderful collection of short stories, The Witch of Goingsnake, Cherokee author Robert J. Conley writes: “The American Indian spirit world does not exist as a world apart from the real world. The world we inhabit in this life is both physical and spiritual. To Cherokees, as to other American Indians, spirit life is an everyday reality.”

I hope Conley’s belief, drawing from centuries of human wisdom, might extend to all of us.

Colorful fall foliage. Provided by Robert Miller.
Colorful fall foliage. Provided by Robert Miller.

Our last Sunday morning here, we’ve come one more time to the pop-up church in the amphitheater behind the bike rental shop at the Cades Cove Campground. A gathering of visitors from a variety of Christian denominations come. I prefer the church without boundaries, though, and denominations and doctrines mean little to me.

I look forward to the work of our ministers: three college women. On my writing and research leaves in 2023, I’ve missed students. Despite media claims of a “snowflake” generation, I’ve learned that many students today work hard to pay their way through, feel anxious about the country they’ve inherited, and search to find ways to make a positive difference in the world.

Our ministers, Abby Bennett (Florida Southern College), Olivia Koetter, and Riley Van Ginkel (both from the University of Nebraska), make me feel at home. They bring devotion, enthusiasm, and humor to the services. They are part of A Christian Ministry in the National Parks (

I ask Bennett why she volunteers. Her explanation resonates with books I’ve read across many beliefs about the environment and spirit.  “When I’m in nature I always feel closer to God. No matter what I’m dealing with in my personal life, when I enter the park each Sunday, I am immediately reminded of God’s love for me and the vastness of creation.”

As we pack to leave, my wife Sandy, far more spiritually advanced than I will ever be, smiles and asks if the temporary name for our place came only from a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald. So, I look up Second Acts in the New Testament and there again is the message I’ve seen in so many forms and faiths: “Thou hast made known to me the ways of life; thou shalt make me full of joy with thy countenance.”

I return to Cades Cove for a bike ride in October, taking forever as I stop to admire the wine smell of dead leaves and watch trembling colors of green, gold, and red. I am back again in December, looking out at the bare tree limbs and fields of brown stubble. The air is still and cold, the forest silent.

I can’t help but feel that there is something out there, waiting to connect with anyone who is ready.


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The Great Smokies Welcome Center is located on U.S. 321 in Townsend, TN, 2 miles from the west entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Visitors can get information about things to see and do in and around the national park and shop from a wide selection of books, gifts, and other Smokies merchandise. Daily, weekly, and annual parking tags for the national park are also available.

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7929 E. Lamar Alexander Parkway Townsend TN 37882


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