My earliest memory is of being on vacation in the Great Smoky Mountains when I was only two. Of course, at the time I had no idea how old I was or even where I was – that information came later from my mother.

I remember laying on my back in a playpen (first sign I wasn’t sleeping at home) and the playpen was right in front of a door that led to the outside (second sign that I was in a motel.) I remember the door opening, the soft light of early morning floating through, and my father walking in with a package of diapers in his hands. I remember I could hear the sounds of running water – sounds that my mother later told me were coming from the babbling brook right outside the motel balcony.

My mother filled in the rest: apparently I had gotten sick during the night and they had run out of diapers. Thus my father leaving at first light to try and find an open store in the small town of Gatlinburg which sits right at the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

I remember nothing else about that short weekend stay over, apparently en route to visit family. But I do find it interesting that my earliest memory turned out to be of the one place I have returned to many times during the fifty years since.

I have traveled to Europe, Asia, Central and South America, the Caribbean and just about every state from the Everglades to the Rocky Mountains. But the one place that has always felt like home to me is the Smokies.

There’s just something special about it. Something magical. My grandfather first started visiting the area before it even became a national park. He took his children there – my mother; and then she took her children there – me; and then I took my children there – who are now in their mid twenties and early thirties. Hopefully one day they’ll take their future children there and that will make five generations of our family continuing the pilgrimage to those sacred, shrouded hills.

It’s like a religion to me. Hiking the trails of the Smokies, being at one with nature, draws me far closer to God than being in church ever did.

I currently live in Florida – a mere five minute drive to the beach – and while the rhythmic sound of crashing waves and the tactile sensation of sand between the toes does indeed calm my mind, nothing feels like the warm, welcoming hug of the Smokies. It feels like home.

Home. It means something different for everyone. For me, it means crossing the Tennessee state line. My aunt once jokingly told me that she could hear the angels singing whenever I crossed that border.

Actually, I think that was me.