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Outdoors Column | Les Winkeler: A post-pandemic vacation

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An extended family trip to the Smoky Mountains last June was our first “post-pandemic” vacation.

Driving through the hills of Tennessee a typical conversation included the words, “I’ll bet this place would be beautiful in the fall.”

A month or two passed and the topic of returning to the Smokies re-emerged as a real possibility. Sometime in late summer a decision was reached – a return trip was a go.

We procrastinated for several more weeks, awaiting the COVID-19 booster, before finally making concrete plans. Last week we learned, “This place really is beautiful in the fall.”

Driving south and east out of Harrisburg we noted the surprising fall colors in Southern Illinois. The colors got incrementally fuller, more widespread, as we meandered through Kentucky and Tennessee.

Finally, by the time we reached eastern Tennessee we were captivated by the yellows, oranges, occasional reds and intermittent green of the pines of the Appalachian foothills surrounding us. That alone would have been worth the trip.

However, when we entered Great Smoky Mountain National Park it was like we pushed through the looking glass. It was as if we entered a fall version of a snow globe. Instead of snowflakes falling around us, our car was caressed by leaves, slowly riding the gentle breeze to the ground.

The canopy extended over the curving mountain roads as if Mother Earth was extending a warm hug. We were literally engulfed in a magical world ringed in yellow and orange. Walking through this wonderland I felt like a yard gnome come to life.

We took the short hike to Laurel Falls. The narrow path provided occasional gaps in the trees, giving us glimpses of hills in the distance. The low areas between the hills were filled with the clouds and mists from which the Smokies derive their name.

The “smoke” only heightened the unearthly feel of the world that we were now part of. Occasionally, we’d hear other tourists approaching us on the path. It was easy to imagine a face-to-face encounter with Hobbits, or even a band of Smurfs, but in each instance, they were humans marveling at the wonder of our planet.

Our travels took us to Cades Cove, a large valley nestled in the mountains. The open areas allowed us to see the forest’s stunning patch work extend for miles.

As daylight trickled away, we headed for the North Carolina side of the park, a trip that necessitated driving through Newfound Gap at the top of the mountains. The winding mountain road yielded breathtaking view after breathtaking view.

Two things became eminently apparent as we ascended the mountain – the temperature was dropping rapidly and the clouds we had been viewing from the valley below were now, quite literally within our reach.

There are several tunnels along the way. I’m not sure exactly where it happened, but near the top of the mountain we entered one side in the magical world of fall, but exited in the land of film noir.

Colors no longer existed and the once distant clouds surrounded us. Visibility was reduced to almost nothing and the objects we were able to see appeared to be black, white or gray. Although entertaining at first, it got eerie pretty quick.

Fortunately, the descent from Newfound Gap happened quickly and the colors of fall re-emerged.

Sunset was now falling over the mountains. We stopped at one of the scenic overlooks to watch the fading light of the day. By now, the colors were muted and some of the mountains were little more than shadows in the distance.

The color was … well, I now understand the 'for purple mountains majesty' line in the song, “America, The Beautiful."

LES WINKELER is the outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at, on Twitter @LesWinkeler.


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