It’s an unglamorous and vague word. Yet it stands for profound and vital processes. Physicians work their life-saving skills based on observations. Sherlock (and a crowd of similar characters since) could only arrive at clever deductions after making astute observations. We call our telescope sites observatories, where deep thinkers are opening our minds to the whole universe.
Naomi and I spent a few days roaming the Great Smokies, joining the annual throng the hill folk call leaf peepers. We caught the fall foliage at peak, made even more luminous under squint-bright skies. We took pictures of course.
We also gathered observations. Each turning of the twisty roads brought new views of vivid yellows and reds amid the mountain evergreens. Early one morning from the nearly 6,000-foot Waterrock Knob overlook, we saw mists rising out of the valleys in towering, shifting shapes to form fair-weather cumulus clouds that went sailing away eastward into the sunshine. Near Clingman’s Dome on a vertiginous stretch of narrow road where you tend to sit up a little straighter and grip the wheel a little tighter, a cold wind from the west was herding ragged clouds to leap over the high peaks and plunge down the other sides in curling turbulent waves. The stunted trees at that elevation had been stripped of their leaves, and the night fog had frozen onto every naked twig on the windward side of the mountaintops, creating a dazzling lacy fantasy.
We made people observations, too. Weathered hikers with staffs and backpacks and far-horizon gazes. A few fit bicyclists in skin-tights laboring sinuously against the steep grades. Leather-clad motorcyclists enjoying this high country where the road signs look like snakes. Young couples sharing new love, holding hands at the overlooks. Older couples savoring the color and the clean wind and the scenery and each other’s companionship, maybe realizing all this was never granted to them forever.
And then there were a few people who made us question why they were even there. Along the Blue Ridge Parkway there are no wires, no billboards, none of the glitz and hustle and litter and gaudy clamor of the cities and towns far below. Speed limits are sedate, relaxing. Views are spectacular. Yet there were those who tailgated and zipped through the blind curves as though in a hurry to get somewhere better. We wondered where that might be—drive-time frenzy on some Interstate overloaded with NASCAR wannabes? We stopped for a fine lunch in a Little Switzerland hotel. The dining room was walled with glass, looking out on a vista of ranked hills undulating away into a far blue haze, scattered cloud shadows rippling over the slopes, muting the colors only momentarily. A cheerful waitress seated a couple close by one of the large windows, and they smiled at the view for a few seconds. Then they dug out their smartphones and began tapping and swiping, soon totally engrossed. I was soaking in as much as possible of the ever-changing panorama without inadvertently chewing on my napkin or spilling my tea, but I stole glances at the couple. Neither of them looked outside again. Whatever was on the other ends of their phones was apparently far more interesting than one of the grandest displays nature can provide—far more interesting even than each other.
One evening we went to a scruffy little makeshift theater, the Maggie Valley Opry, owned by 75-year-old Cherokee Indian Raymond Fairchild, five-time world champion banjo picker and holder of two million-seller gold records. He and three of his country cohorts on upright bass, acoustic guitar, and harmonica put on a lively two-hour show for the 20 people who showed up. Pony-tailed, mustachioed, Stetsoned Fairchild told stories (his first banjo as a boy was a fretless instrument with a squirrel-hide head) and a few hillbilly jokes. He pushed his CDs and clear homemade moonshine jelly and corn fresh-popped by his smiling wife Shirley. We clapped and toe-tapped and sang along and loved it.
Naomi and I came down out of the mountains tired but with satisfied souls. And with a wealth of observations that will color our lives and my fiction.