Like many of us, I possess special gifts and talents. Some are fairly mundane.
"Gee, grampa. You sure can snore loud."
"Wow, that guy really can put away the fried chicken."
But there is one ability in my repertoire that really is pretty darn exceptional, if I do say so myself.
I can make it rain.
Now, I'm not sure what tools and techniques other rainmakers use to coax precipitation from the sky, but for me, it's pretty simple.
I pitch a tent.
Actually, it doesn't always rain when we go camping, but it happens often enough in certain parts of the country to make us think we're somehow shifting the odds in those spots.
Like the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Like last week.
Our Illinois-to-North-Carolina-via-Nashville journey featured a couple of campground stops. We got lucky at beautiful Kentucky Lake, where clear skies and a site overlooking the water made for a near-perfect experience, with only a few acorns rattling down to startle us overnight. And Nashville featured the kind of stunningly beautiful weather that tourism bureaus pray for. It was not until we packed up and headed for our next stop that things began to change.
Me: Uh oh, it's starting to cloud up.
She: Of course it is, we're heading for the Smokies.
We've been trying to enjoy camping in those beautiful mountains for over 30 years, but we've never been able to avoid some kind of wet weather, ranging from persistent cold drizzles to sudden gullywasher showers to frightening peak-rattling thunderstorms.
It looked like nothing had changed.
As in many national parks and other major camping venues, the campground office at the vast Elkmont section of the park displays a wipe-off board that provides information on things like sunrise and sunset times and any special events taking place. Oh, and the weather, too.
"70% chance of showers," read the board.
"Hey, that means there's a 30% chance it won't rain," I remarked brightly.
Dream on, tent-boy.
As we pitched the tent and rolled out our sleeping bags, we heard the distinct noise of rushing water not far away. It wasn't raining just yet, so we headed for the source of the sound, which turned out to be a river running through the heart of the campground. Determined to enjoy at least a little scenery before the called-for rain drove us into our tent, we hiked along its banks. We left the campground behind, but soon saw the roof of a large building just across the stream. I figured it was just a pavilion or picnic shelter, but we were curious enough to press on until we came to a small bridge. Once we crossed, we were greeted by the sight of a largish falling-down structure and a sign.
The Elkmont Historic District.
It's hard to describe what's there now, just as it's hard to imagine what was there back in the day. But the upshot is this: Back in the early 20th century, a couple of social clubs, a hotel and around 74 rustic cottages sprang up in a densely wooded region of the Smoky Mountains near the logging town of Elkmont. The area was served by logging railroad and, later on, by narrow roads carved out on the railroad beds after the logging work ended and the trains and tracks left.
We, of course, knew none of this when we discovered the site. We looked around in amazement and slowly walked down a narrow dirt road lined with deserted vacation cottages.
"It's like a resort ghost town," she said.
The architecture of the crumbling cottages is varied and astonishing, with strong influences from Frank Lloyd Wright and other period designers. But even more compelling to me was the way the Elkmont district felt.
Silent and even a little eerie, it is like a place that had been suddenly deserted for some unknown reason and left untouched ever since. I half expected to hear distant music from a wind-up victrola or the laughter of children playing in the woods.
It was a trip back in time, with rambling rows and clumps of cottages winding all the way up by Jake's Creek Trail towards the south and the remains of the old Wonderland Hotel to the North.
"My parents stayed here," she exclaimed.
Built in 1911, the Wonderland Hotel featured a wrap around porch that provided a view of Blanket Mountain and was lined with swings and rocking chairs. Her folks especially enjoyed the fact that the Wonderland provided no phones, radios or TV in the guest rooms, so most visitors chose to spend their evenings relaxing either on the porch or in the lobby, with much of the evening's excitement revolving around the raccoons that came up on the porch at night to beg for food from the guests.
A fire spelled the end of the Wonderland after it closed when its lease wasn't renewed by the park service in the early 1990s. In fact, all the structures in the Elkmont District were eventually forced to close or be deserted, leaving the structures abandoned to a plan called "demolition by neglect."
But happily, it wasn't quite that easy.
Elkmont was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994 and was awarded Save America's Treasures status in the late 1990s. In 2004, the Tennessee Preservation Trust listed Elkmont on its annual list of endangered historic places, Ten in Tennessee. Later that summer, the National Trust followed suit and named Elkmont to its annual list of America's Most Endangered Historic Places.
In 2009, the National Park Service announced plans to restore the Appalachian Clubhouse and 18 cottages and outbuildings in the Appalachian Club area.
Good sense, at least in part, had prevailed.
But it's still a little frustrating to realize that this and other national treasures face an uncertain fate due to lack of funds in a day and time when we, as a nation, have spent (as of Tuesday) nearly 800 billion dollars in Iraq and over 465 billion on the war in Afghanistan. And since unemployment remains a serious problem, maybe it's a good idea to consider a government-funded civilian work force to help develop, preserve and improve our infrastructure, both natural and man-made. Sort of like the Civilian Conservation Corps, which, during the great depression of the 1930s, planted nearly 3 billion trees to help reforest America, constructed more than 800 parks nationwide and upgraded most state parks, updated forest fire fighting methods, and built a network of service buildings and public roadways in remote areas.
I think there's a lot to love about this land of ours. Much of it is a beautiful place, from sea to shining sea.
We do a good job in this country, I truly believe.
But maybe, just maybe, we can do a little better.