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Boondock Heresy
Bil Gilbert
September 02, 1968
A 'forever wild' naturalist visits the Great Smokies National Park on a holiday weekend and decides reluctantly that the trailer-rig campers deserve a piece of the action
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September 02, 1968

Boondock Heresy

A 'forever wild' naturalist visits the Great Smokies National Park on a holiday weekend and decides reluctantly that the trailer-rig campers deserve a piece of the action

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That certainly would have made no sense on this Labor Day Sunday. An anthology of holiday happenings in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (culled from Hardin's experiences and those of his colleagues as reported over the radio) would include: the apprehension of two men poaching ginseng, a rare, commercially valuable herb that grows in the park; an on-duty National Geographic photographer who fell off his horse into a barbed-wire fence and required treatment and soothing; a motorcycle that fell off the mountain; a Volkswagen bus that went over the side while the driver was trying to tow a dead tree back to his campsite for firewood; a young hot rodder who came perilously close to running down a party of nature walkers; a boy stung by hornets while trying to dig out a chipmunk; a lady who lost her shoe while wading in a stream; a man beating a bear with a garbage-can lid.

While all of this and much, much more was going on, the superreality of the park—all those cars on Highway 441—was getting realer and realer. By 8 o'clock in the evening cars were lined for five miles up the mountain from Gatlinburg. The edge of the highway was littered with out-of-gas cars, vapor-locked cars, cars with hot brakes. In the almost stationary line of traffic you could see wives talking to husbands, appearing to an amateur lip reader to be saying things like, "Why didn't we leave this morning when I said we should?" and husbands with tight, quivering jaw muscles. The climax of the Sunday-night traffic pageant came about 10 o'clock when simultaneous radio reports indicated 1) a motorist had assaulted another motorist for alleged discourtesy, and 2) a husband had shot his wife while they were in the traffic jam.

Hardin immediately returned to park headquarters to deal with these incidents, both of which proved to be somewhat less serious than first reported. The assault case was more a bad-word tie-pulling case. The shooting was a shooting, but a bizarre one. The husband said he had become restless while in the traffic and had decided for therapeutic reasons to clean and load his revolver. While he was so occupied, a child in the back seat had joggled him and he had accidentally discharged the gun, wounding himself very slightly in the leg. The wife said her husband had intended to wound her very slightly for nagging about the way he was driving, but that he had missed and shot himself. However, she did not care to press charges. She just wanted to get home. The husband was fined for carrying a loaded gun in the park, and the happy couple was permitted to continue its holiday travels.

When it was just about all over Hardin and several other rangers were sitting in the switchboard room at park headquarters, reviving and relaxing. Shortly before midnight the phone rang. The operator listened with a look of incredulity, then said, "Just a moment, sir, I'll have to ask." He put his hand over the receiver and explained the call to the rangers. "This gentleman is camped in Elkmont. He says he has to leave early in the morning and will a ranger come over and wake him up at 5:30."

Hardin and the others shook their heads in wonder.

"I'm sorry, sir," the ranger-operator said into the phone, mimicking the traditional singsong of hotel clerks. "Our wake-up man isn't on duty."

Being a devout boondockist and an illusionist, I have in the past regarded it as a sign of social responsibility to worry about what is happening to our national parks. One personal benefit of the exercise in reality conducted in the Smokies over Labor Day has been that I no longer fret very much about this subject. It does not seem to me that the public is, as I have been told and previously more or less believed, ravaging our parks. On the contrary, I can now see how it could be argued that the 6� million visitors to the park, 99% plus of whom are auto-and road-bound, are far more effective conservationists than the whole boondock lobby laid lug-boot sole to Tyrolean hat. After all, collectively, the 6� million visitors make an impressive statistic for, say, a legislative appropriations committee that provides funds not only for the toothpaste tower on Clingmans Dome but also for cutting a trail to Andrews Bald. Even more important, those 6� million voluntarily, even eagerly, restrict their activities to the road-serviced 5% of the park area—that is real conservation. It is none of my business nor that of any boondockist if most of the park users enjoy living in trucks, looking at movies of scenery rather than scenery, creating and sitting in bear and traffic jams. Rather, we should be grateful that their tastes and ours, while so disparate, are so compatible; that they can have the Gatlinburg candy stores without interfering with us on Andrews Bald. Furthermore, though the suggestion will probably cause me to be stripped of my Kelty packboard and my Italian hiking shoes, we boondockists might even try to be a little more tolerant and agreeable when an occasional new road or rustic toilet is built in the park. It is just possible that it would not be a moral, social and esthetic disaster if some day this 99% of the people who use the public park got to use even so much as 20% of the park area. That still leaves considerable real estate in which boondocky pleasures and illusions can be pursued.

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