GATLINBURG, Tenn — As the country continues to confront complex issues of racism and diversity, the superintendent of the Great Smoky Mountains wants the national park to help with the discussion. The conversation can start by hiking together on common ground.
"When I saw the deaths of the three African Americans, it made me very frustrated like so many people around the country," said Superintendent Cassius Cash. "I needed to clear my head on what we're going through as a country and as a world and went for a hike. Hiking in the Smokies is a sanctuary. I was hiking in the park and I found myself being restored and open to new perspectives. And I felt if I gained this, what would it do for my fellow community members and citizens?"
Cash now plans to host eight "Smokies Hikes for Healing" from August through December. COVID-19 restrictions limit the groups to 10 people. He said the Great Smoky Mountains is a fitting setting as one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet.
"I think the only way that we can heal is through conversation. It is my hope that these 80 people total will continue to have these conversations. And these conversations take quite a bit of self-awareness and self-reflection," said Cash.
The various national issues of race and law enforcement are very personal to Cash. He is the first black superintendent in the history of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In addition to his professional role with park rangers, his own family has a long history of service in law enforcement.
"My father is a retired police officer. And I have two brothers who also served as police officers," said Cash.
Cash said he hopes to encourage meaningful dialogue and personally learn about others' perspectives.
"A lot of us have friends who have come from different places or are different ethnicities. But just knowing someone doesn't necessarily mean you know the shoes they've walked in. The Smokies Hikes for Healing will allow us to peel that back and gain your perspective on what it means to be you."
For those wondering why a national park superintendent would grapple with potential controversy, Cash noted the National Park Service has a long history of leading the way on social issues.
"Here in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park during the era of segregation, the superintendent took a courageous position because black people were not allowed to stay in hotels in Gatlinburg. He gathered business leaders and told them if they would not allow black customers, the national park would build a competing hotel that allowed blacks inside the Smokies," said Cash.
Cash said he does not want a meaningful moment for the nation to be ignored by the park that belongs to everyone.
"We're in an important point in this country's history. And I want to be able to tell my children and grandchildren, as my parents told me during the 1960s of their actions during the Civil Rights movement. And I think there will be a roll call for someone to ask, 'What did we do during this important time?' And I want to be able to say myself and the community around the Smokies came together to make this place better."
You can apply to attend one of the Smokies Hikes for Healing at the website smokieshikesforhealing.org. Because the COVID-19 pandemic is limiting attendance to 10 people per hike, the website will also feature self-guided materials to lead your own hikes and discussions in the Great Smoky Mountains.