“Most people are on the world, not in it…”

“…having no conscious sympathy or relationship to anything about them - undiffused, separate, and rigidly alone like marbles of polished stone, touching but separate.”

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Today I spent the day with people who are

in

the world, as I got to go on a field trip with people from the Volunteer program.

We started the day early, and after a two-hour drive we ended up in Cataloochee, a valley region on the North Carolina side of the park, which was first inhabited by Cherokee and then American “settlers.”

The Cherokee originally pronounced it “Ga-da-loot-see,” referring to the mountains and meaning “standing closely together in line or rank.”

The day wasn’t heavy on hiking, but it was rich with history as park historian Kent Cave described to us what is was like to live in the region from the late 1800s to the early 1900s.

Many houses like this were originally log cabins, but eventually had weather boards added to the outside for a multitude of reasons, one of which was to keep up socially with the neighbors.

They even had multiple stories and fairly large rooms.

This was fascinating. The family used newspaper as a base layer under their wallpaper. It seems they put this up around winter, because there were a lot of Christmas ads.

It was really interesting getting to learn about some of the history of the park, especially because I’m looking for topics and areas to focus on while I’m here in the park.

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As soon as we got back, I made a last-minute decision to try and catch sunset from Clingman’s Dome, the largest peak in the Smokies at about 6,600ft above sea level. The hike up to the top wasn’t all that special, as it was just a half mile of pavement, but the drive to and from was much more exciting.

Since GSMNP is so huge, nearly all of it is accessed by car. It’s slow going, as the dense forest makes the road incredibly curvey, and you’re constantly tempted to stop and look at the breathtaking views. Today’s drive was no different and involved driving up in low gears and neutraling almost the whole way down.

But when I got up to the top, there were some spectacular views.

The Smokies are so old that they have a rolling nature to them, meaning that you can see one after another, and at a distance they seem almost impossibly close together.

However, as sunset drew nearer, the clouds rolled in. And by that, I mean the clouds enveloped the mountaintop I was on. My view of sunset was ruined, but this created an entirely different and still worthwhile experience. I was literally standing in the clouds.

They’re essentially all I could see in all directions. Describing the feeling is hard. It’s much like being in a dense fog. Suddenly, you feel cool, there’s a thickness and a dampness to the air, and it’s hard to see. Except by knowing you’re surrounded by clouds, the experience has an entirely new emotional impact. This wasn’t the first time this has ever happened to me, but let me tell you, it never gets old.

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Speaking of getting old, let me answer the question I’m sure you’re all asking…

“Mike, weren’t those all old people at the house with you?”

Well, not all of them. Though, it is an unfortunate truth that the vast majority of park volunteers are elderly. Of course, young people are less likely to take on a volunteer position because they’re focused on careers and can’t afford the time. However, in reality, that’s not the kind of person that our nation’s parks want, anyway.

The National Park Service wants people who are in the world, not on it. And the people I met today were exactly that. They were incredibly friendly, talkative, happy and content with life, and despite the age gap between us, we shared a common appreciation and love for the natural environments we’ve been blessed to be given. And after talking any one of these people for a few minutes, it was clear to see that they, just like me, were frustrated with the level of engagement that today’s youth have in the outdoors.

So hear me out:

These days, plenty of young people choose to spend part of their life doing volunteer work. It’s usually something along the lines of teaching children in tribal villages of Africa or assisting mission hospitals in rural South America. Don’t get me wrong, those are both very praise-worthy and (presumably) selfless accomplishments. I’ve seen one of those environments first hand and would probably be uncomfortable spending a large amount of my life there.

But that’s just the thing. If you’re young and you want to do volunteer work, you don’t have to have incredibly specialized skills or the budget or ambition to travel halfway across the world to do good. There are plenty of opportunities right here in our own country. Opportunities to do meaningful work in amazing places that aren’t as far away as you think.

Our nation’s parks were a truly revolutionary idea: setting aside land and giving it to the public. You and I literally own the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, the Great Smoky Mountains, and many other awe-inspiring places. The National Park Service is a phenomenal agency, but they’re underfunded and understaffed in many locations.

So here’s what I’m asking from you, even if there’s less than five people who end up consistently reading this blog:

If you’re unfamiliar with our national parks, absorb my experience here over the next five weeks as best you can. Then, if anything I do or see sounds interesting to you, make an effort to visit one of our nation’s many parks. If you have even half the experience that I think you’ll have, exploring and discovering the many wonders of our own nation, consider giving back in one way or another to the agency and the idea that is truly America’s best.