Illustrated Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park: You Call this Research? (Part 1)

Illustrated Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park: You Call this Research? (Part 1)

After the success of our 59 Illustrated National Parks book in 2015-16, we started thinking: what next? Sure, the book was a fun overview of America's greatest nature hubs but we were looking for a chance to really dig deep and focus on one area. We thought about making a book for the Grand Loop in Colorado / Utah. We thought about all the many wonderful parks in California and Alaska. The Smoky Mountains crossed our mind (they're only 3 hours from Nashville after all) but writing so in-depth about one single Park sounded like a pretty daunting endeavor.

Enter Dan Pierce. Dan had been a friend of my dad's back in the early 90's when I was just a wee lad. Honestly, I don't remember him that much. Dan moved his family back east to pursue his doctorate at the University of Tennessee when I was still little and my parents lost touch with Dan and his clan for almost 20 years after that.

Dan, Nathan, & Joel

It's funny how life can come full-circle though: in 2016, one of Dan's daughters was driving back to North Carolina after a temporary stay in San Francisco. She picked up our 100th Anniversary National Parks puzzle at the Zion National Park's visitor center on the way home. As the Pierce family worked on the puzzle, Dan recognized the artwork as Joel's and found our website. He contacted Joel soon after and the friendship was reborn. 

It just so happened that Dan was a Smoky Mountains aficionado, literally a doctor on all things Smokies. He's known at the University of North Carolina-Asheville where he teaches Southern history as the "Resident Hillbilly." He's written books about NASCAR and moonshine, not to mention a detailed history of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He drove a beat-up 1991 Ford Ranger nicknamed "Old Danger" until it was well over 200k miles. He listens to old-timey Gospel songs on the radio and The Prairie Home Companion. This guy is unabashedly awesome, in a down-home mountain-climbing Encyclopedia Americana kinda way.

Summer Reading


Thus we had our expert. I, being a first-generation Southerner, quickly realized what a highland novice I was. First off, Appalachian is pronounced AppaLATCHin not AppaLAYshin (Dan taught me this the first time I re-met him). Second, Asheville people must have mountain goat DNA mixed into their city water lines. Everybody hikes (or bikes or runs marathons or climbs or kayaks or [insert strenuous outdoor activity here]). Dan and his sweet wife Lydia talk about biking 60-something miles like it's a commute to work. Don't get me wrong, Nashville has its share of outdoorsy folk too. But I wonder how many of us just like to dress like we scale mountains on a regular basis and wake in the morning with dew in our beards. These Blue Ridge people are straight-up.

Now to the Park itself. If you haven't been there before, it's not what you think. There's more to the Smokies than Pigeon Forge and the Gatlinburg Strip. Putt-putt golf and Ripley's Believe It or Not are not the only attractions here.

Gatlinburg in the valley below

The National Park, for one thing, is free admission (thanks to a deal struck with the federal government back when TN and NC had to buy up the land to create a Park). It is also one of the most driver-friendly Parks in the country thanks to the logging industry's railroad-heavy obsession with the place in the early 1900s (many of the railroad grades became "auto nature trails"). The wildflowers here are incomparable, both in variety and color. The animal life and forests are diverse and plentiful.  And it is chock-full of human history. Pioneers, moonshiners, Cherokee Natives, wealthy aristocrats, even a particularly well-trained dog named Smoky Jack.

Roadways curl through the mountains

My dad's brain swam with new poster ideas as he got his first real taste of the Park one fine fall day in 2015. A year and a half later, he and Dan hiked up to Alum Cave just days after Joel recovered from the flu (he was a bit winded). They drove the Cades Cove loop, eerily abandoned in the melting snow save a lone buck browsing in the church graveyard. They took in the barren hillsides where wildfire had incinerated the slopes just a couple of months earlier. They heard the omnipresent sound of mountain streams bubbling beneath the ice. Inspiration abounds in a place like this.

One of the Park's innumerable streams

The odorously magnificent Alum Cave

Quiet in Cades Cove

We met with Dan soon after the January trip to begin outlining the new project. We decided to use the 59 Illustrated National Parks book as a template, breaking the Park up into four unique sections and describing enjoyable or interesting aspects of each. We planned a number of trips to visit these four sections in the months to come. Joel compiled a list of 40 new GSMNP poster designs that our art team would work on this year (as you can see in our National Parks collection, many have since been completed). We set the book release date for October 2017.

The final, and most difficult, task for us was figuring out how to explain to our wives that all these raucous excursions into the wilderness were for "research". Thankfully, our better halves are nature lovers themselves. They were willing to empathize with the "sacrifices" we must make for this book ... As long as we bring them along once or twice. Compromise can be a beautiful thing.

On the next blog post: we venture into the North Carolina end of the Park where the switchbacks to Oconaluftee treat my stomach like a dorm room bean bag. But the elk herd we wandered into made it all worth it. We also explore the oft-overlooked Big Creek region off I-40, home to the mischievously-named Boogerman Loop.

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