As a friend and I were crossing the Scott-Campbell line Sunday afternoon — where S.R. 63 reaches the top of a gap between two mountaintops on the North Cumberland WMA and spills into a grand view of the hills towards Huntsville — he made a comment that stuck with me.
"I always like seeing these mountains when I'm headed back home," he said. "They're just different somehow."
We were headed back, ironically, from Pigeon Forge — gateway to the Smokies. No one will ever mistake the Cumberlands for the Smokies; they aren't as tall, as wide or as plentiful. They aren't as grand. But they're pretty darned scenic in their own right, and those of us who live in this area probably take them for granted every time we drive across S.R. 63 between Huntsville and Caryville, seldom pausing to think about the scenic beauty that we have right here in our own backyard.
This week, thousands of people will trek to Scott County from across the eastern U.S. and beyond to enjoy an extended holiday weekend. They will be on ATVs, in jeeps and on horseback; in canoes, on mountain bikes and on foot.
The primary draw, of course, is the hundreds of miles of ATV trails in our mountains. Brimstone Recreation's annual White Knuckle Event will draw close to 10,000 — maybe more for what promises to be the largest Memorial Day weekend event yet for the Huntsville company, with both Jamey Johnson and Uncle Kracker scheduled to appear in concert. Meanwhile, a similar — but unrelated — event will take place at Trail's End Campground near Huntsville.
But it isn't just ATVs that will draw folks to Scott County and the northern Cumberland Plateau this weekend. The campground at Bandy Creek will likely be filled to capacity and the Big South Fork sells more back-country camping permits on Memorial Day weekend than just about any other. The hiking and equestrian trails will be just a bit more crowded than usual in the BSF.
Not everyone enjoys the increased tourism, of course. There are more than a few who feel that visitors interrupt our peaceful way of life here on the northern Cumberland Plateau. But there are also more than a few folks who are as tickled as a student with a substitute teacher on test day to see an uptick in the number of tourists who visit the area. Among them are the owners of lodging establishments like Grand Vista Motel and Laurel Fork Rustic Retreat, of convenience stores and of outfitters like South Fork Tack. You won't have to look far to see "out-of-towners" this weekend, especially in Huntsville but even in Oneida, where pickup trucks loaded with ATVs will be a common site at Walmart and various restaurants, as will pickups towing RVs across S.R. 297 towards Bandy Creek.
In a community still stifled by the impacts of double-digit unemployment, the benefits of tourism are increasingly important.
From those mountains that pop into view when you top the hill at the county line on S.R. 63 in the east to the Big South Fork river gorge in the west, Scott County has something to offer visitors, especially in the new American economy that is seeing fewer people travel to exotic vacation destinations and more people turning to "staycation" destinations they can reach in a half-day's drive. Mosts people still have no clue where Oneida, Tenn., is located and couldn't point to the Big South Fork NRRA on a map if their lives depended on it. But the Scott County Chamber of Commerce has undertaken a broad marketing effort and more folks are learning where we're at . . . even if they still pronounce it "Oneeeeda."
Not everything about an influx of visitors on a holiday weekend is peachy. There is a bit more congestion to deal with, a little more noise pollution in the neighborhoods that are in the immediate vicinity of ATV trails and some of us may even find that our favorite camping spot along the banks of the Big South Fork River has been claimed by "foreigners."
But if tourism generates a little extra revenue for some of the businesses that are providing jobs to Scott Countians — not to mention a few extra tax dollars that can benefit everything from our schools to our law enforcement agencies — it's well worth it.
Some of the guests are the result of government. Without Congress acting years ago to preserve the land surrounding the BSF River, the people who visit the park this weekend wouldn't even be here.
But most of them are the result of private individuals with no government funding or incentive who took a business idea and ran with it. This weekend is an example of what happens when forward-thinking Scott Countians realize that we have something worth capitalizing upon.
Either way, Scott County should welcome its guests with open arms. Tourism may not be the answer to all the economic woes this community faces, but in the current economic climate it is the best thing we have going for us.
■ Ben Garrett is editor of the Independent Herald. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.