Why I think everyone should spend a weekend in the woods at Tremont 

When Scots in the Smokies debuted last spring as a sophomore-exclusive opportunity during my sophomore year, it felt almost serendipitous. As a mountain-loving, Tennessee-raised, tree-hugging Appalachian native, I always jump at any opportunity to spend time in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. When I found out the program was being brought back this spring and would be open to MC students of all years, I didn’t even have to think before signing up. 

Last year’s trip to Tremont Institute was a turning point in my college career; it is what converted me from a passive nature enjoyer into a passionate nature lover, and it was the catalyst for my decision to add a Sustainability Studies minor to my degree. 

I knew that this year’s trip would look a lot like last year’s, programming-wise, but I tried not to form expectations about the weekend so that I could be open and flexible to whatever Tremont staff had in store for us. The weekend did resemble my last experience in many ways, but it also offered so many new opportunities. As Kaitlin Koster (‘25) put it at the closing circle, “I gain something new every time I go outside.” 

Familiar activities included hiking Spruce Flats Falls trail, Appalachian music around the campfire, alone time in our “secret spots”, exploring the landscape through nature literature, evening games, and endless streams of conversation over delicious meals made by people who, though they claim to be Tremont staff, I’m more inclined to believe are angels sent by the culinary gods.

While these aspects of the weekend maintained the same structure that I and other returning students expected, Scots in the Smokies was not a copy-and-paste. Perhaps most notably, the torrential downpour that endured for almost the entirety of the trip was absent this year, and I don’t think it was missed by anyone. The weather, while chilly at times, allowed us to observe the first signs of spring emerging in the forest around us, and the one rain shower that did pass through politely waited until we had all gone inside for lunch to begin, and promptly moved on as we embarked on our next hike.   

We also had the opportunity to go “salamandering”: hunting for salamanders under damp logs and rocks in still water. Everyone in my group was able to catch a critter and learn how to identify the species (and give it a nickname, of course). Our group leaders educated us on the native wildlife and taught us the history of Walker Valley, where Tremont’s campus is nestled. 

Group one was all smiles after reaching Spruce Flats Falls. Courtesy of Emma Henson.

Beyond the hikes and activities that we all got to participate in, there were also plenty of opportunities for alone time with nature. Being able to walk outside and see the night sky free of city light pollution, trek to the edge of the river and listen to the rushing water, and walk through the woods listening to the abundant bird calls all reminded me how lucky we are to attend a college with a national park in its backyard. 

While impending due dates and homework assignments can be hard to ignore, Scots in the Smokies gave all of us students a sanctuary from the stress of school and social obligations. We were forced to unplug, and many students expressed the freedom they felt while being unreachable. Burnout sometimes feels inevitable for college students, but Wendell Berry’s poem  “The Peace of Wild Things” is a reminder that stillness isn’t as unreachable as it may feel: 

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Whether you have grown up surrounded by the mountains or tend to prefer nature from a distance, Scots in the Smokies provides a space for anyone who needs solace from the hustle and bustle of urban life to reconnect and recharge with nature. I encourage anyone who has the opportunity to attend Scots in the Smokies to go, but don’t wait until next year’s trip rolls around to touch some grass; we live in the foothills of the most biodiverse national park in the U.S., and that is a privilege I believe we should all be taking advantage of.

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