Today was mostly about the majesty of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. What can you say about this place? It is the number one most visited national park for a reason, with over nine million visitors annually. It is a time capsule to the way the region looked before wide scale settlement, when only Native Americans lived here, harmoniously with the land for thousands of years.
The city of Gatlinburg, the gateway community to the park, sees most of the significant visitor impact on a daily basis. In response to the ever-increasing stress of the environment by so much humanity, the local Chamber of Commerce has developed the Gatlinburg Goes Green initiative to encourage local businesses to use the most sustainable business practices possible. An early adopter of this outstanding program is the Hilton Garden Inn., the first green hotel built in Tennessee and a Silver LEED certified building. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental) certification is the gold-standard for sustainable building methods that promote minimal impact on the environment. Among other things the facility was built partially with recycled materials, diverted over 75% of its waste during construction from landfills, used regionally-sourced building materials, has 30% less water usage than a similar-sized hotel, uses 20% less energy and has a facility-wide recycling program. Also on the green theme, the Sevier County Composting facility, one of only seven like it in the country, offers the community free mulch. The mulch is derived from 53,000 tons of trash per year and diverts 70% of solid waste from the landfill. This program along with local recycling efforts, creates a waste reduction of nearly 2.5 times the national average.
For today's litter pick up, we ventured inside the park with national park service rangers and volunteers from Keep Sevier Beautiful. The challenge here was not such much removing the visible trash (there was none because of regular pick-ups) but the unseen trash which was mostly cigarette butts that don't typically get removed with the regular clean-ups. This is because they are buried under a thick layer of turf and require getting on hands and knees and parting the blades of grass to see them. This is the perfect job for kids and our team today did an impressive job of finding thousands of the dreaded butts in one overlook area. We were there for an hour and I'm sure we could have easily found thousands more had we been there for another hour. Luckily, the butts don't have to go to the landfill. They can actually be recycled. TerraCycle is a company that will accept the butts and recycle them into other products.
After the clean-up, we rewarded the girl's with that undeniable Gatlinburg tradition - a feast at one of the many local pancake restaurants. In this case, it was the original one - the Pancake Pantry. Who doesn't love pancakes?
After lunch our team was able to visit the the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts. It has been a fixture in Gatlinburg for over 100 years. What started as an effort to introduce formal education to the area for the first time, has grown to become a world-renown school for hands-on arts and crafts instruction, offering over 130 classes a year. The school's focus on crafts was a natural outgrowth of the industrious nature of the people who have lived here since the first settlers arrived. They made their own household items, built their own homes, grew their own food and otherwise were100% self-sufficient. As the world changed for these folks and a need for formal education became more important, Arrowmont embraced the idea of preserving the traditional handicrafts and skills of the region, lest they be lost to the changing times.
We ended our day with a drive to the rural Blount County property of Scenic Tennessee supporters Mark Durand and Beverly Green. They have a gorgeous piece of property directly adjacent to the Smokies and treated us to a wonderful backyard picnic. As the sun was setting, Mark and friend Ron Elrod entertained us with some Irish folk tunes on fiddle and banjo with the mountains as a backdrop.
We bedded down for the night in our R/V on Mark and Beverly's property, and with the cool breeze wafting in from the mountains, I had one of the best nights of sleep I've had on the whole tour.