Image credit: @ MATT BRASS

Summer 2019

Water, Smoke, Spirit, Forest, Ghost, Land, Sky

By Matt Brass
Summer 2019: Water, Smoke, Spirit, Forest, Ghost, Land, Sky

A photographic essay on Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

On my mother’s side of the family, connections to East Tennessee go back for generations to when the first pioneers put down roots in this part of Appalachia. In more recent history, my mom and dad spent their first date in Cades Cove, a verdant valley in the mountains, after which my father immediately declared to a friend that he would marry her. I grew up in Michigan, Washington and Texas, but Great Smoky Mountains National Park is where we’d go when we were visiting family. This is where we’d drive down narrow roads, following creeks, skirting rocks and, sometimes, pressing through new-fallen snow. This is where we would bring picnics, sit in quiet churches and walk along trails lined with mayapples, jonquils and honeysuckle.

And this is where I bring my own family now — to spots including Tremont, Alum Cave, Cataloochee, Metcalf Bottoms, Roaring Fork, the Chimneys, Rainbow Falls, Fontana Lake and Elkmont — to hike or swim or kayak or camp or just stay still for a little while in sacred, familiar places. The park remains a constant even as I move from house to house, my children grow up, and life goes by with its unpredictable ebb and flow.

Of course, the landscape changes, too, though. Seasons, fires, storms and people make their marks and take their toll. But whether scarred by tornado and flame, flaming with autumn color or speckled with spring wildflowers, the land feels like it’s ours. Always ours.

I’ve traveled all over the country, drawn by natural wonders. I’ve lived in the shadow of the Rockies, made annual pilgrimages to the Badlands, stood breathless on rugged coasts in Washington, and spent days paddling through rich and murky swampland. But we always return to the Great Smokies. And we exhale. Some days, we see bears or watch wisps of cloud move swiftly through green-clad peaks after a summer rain, and we are reminded how lucky we are that this place is part of our past, present and future. That it’s home.

great smoky mountains View the Slideshow

About the author

  • Matt Brass Author

    Matt Brass recently retired from his job as vice president of creative at an ad agency specializing in sustainability and the environment after a 17-year run. Since then, he's founded a company, Smoky Outfitters, that creates art about destinations around the U.S., including many national parks. Based in Knoxville, Tennessee, Brass continues to pursue photography and document his adventures in the great outdoors. To learn more, go to

This article appeared in the Summer 2019 issue

National Parks, our award-winning quarterly magazine, is an exclusive benefit of membership in the National Parks Conservation Association.

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