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Talking With: Smoky Mountains Volunteer Finds His Mecca

Allen Goss has logged more than 5,000 hours of volunteer service at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. His main job is manning an information desk one day a week at Sugarlands Visitor Center near the Gatlinburg entrance. He also helps the staff with special events and programs. We caught up with him one recent afternoon to hear about his experiences and his loves.

Q: How did you happen to come to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the first place?

A: My wife Diane and I came here on our honeymoon in 1963, and we decided someday we would retire to these mountains. We were living near Alexandria, LA, in a town called Pineville, and we came back as often as we could. We hiked. We camped. We just fell in love with the park. We knew we wanted to be part of it.

I was the director of a medical center, and my wife was a nurse. I retired in September 1999. We hopped in the car and we were here in two days.

The views keep on coming at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This one is on the way to Laurel Falls.

Q: As a visitor center information assistant, what do you do all day?

A: The Number One function is to answer questions. Some people are very knowledgeable about the park. You have people who have hiked every single trail here, sometimes twice, and they want to know if this is a good time to cross a particular stream. Then you have brand new visitors, and usually their first question is where is the bathroom.

Lots of people ask where to see a bear. I ask them, “What are you going to do if you see a bear?” They say, “I don’t know.” (If you see a bear, leave it alone and back away slowly.)

You also have the visitor who brings in a picture of a wildflower or a tree and asks if you can identify it. If I don’t know, part of my job is to find someone who does.

We want people to enjoy the park and to be happy, but we also want to protect them as well as the park. So you have to find a balance.

A retinue of volunteers is on hand to field visitor questions.

Q: What is the strangest question you have encountered?

A: One guy handed me a snake and asked if I knew what kind it was. He found it going into one of the drains out here. I am not particularly a snake fan, but he got about six of us going, trying to figure out what it was. Turns out it was a horsehair snake. We carefully took it outside and put it where it was going in the first place.

Q: Tell me something nerdy about the park.

A: We have two types of bears. We have black bears and tardigrade bears. A tardigrade is also called a water bear. You have to have a microscope to see it. It is almost like a millipede body without all the legs, and it looks rather bear-like. Star Trek Discovery took the tardigrade and made it big and scary as an alien creature named “Ripper.”

Got questions about Great Smoky Mountains National Park? Veteran volunteer Allen Goss will find the answer.

Q: What do you enjoy about working in the park?

A: There is so much biodiversity here. Almost 1000 new species to science have been discovered here.

Working with the rangers and young kids just getting out of school and seeing their excitement and how they love what they are doing–that’s gratification for me.

Another thing, you meet people from all over the world. I’ve seen people I worked with years ago, and here we come together.

This is Mecca.

Maypops, also known as passion flowers, flourish at the park.

Q: What is your favorite area of the park?

A: Cades Cove, a valley where early settlers lived before the park was formed. My wife’s ashes are buried there. She died in 2016  She picked out the spot because it has a special meaning to us. You can do that, but you need a permit. She volunteered until she couldn’t. She loved the park as much as I do.

Q: Will your ashes be buried there?

A: Absolutely.

Q: Until then, how do you spend your time when you are not at the park?

A: I do research into the history and early founders of the area. I also play golf. I live on a golf course. When I go to Gatlinburg, I enjoy the regular touristy things like eating the pancakes. Gatlinburg is famous for pancakes.

Miles of hiking trails meander through woodlands and waterways at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

(Many thanks to the Gatlinburg Convention and Visitors Bureau for hosting my visits!)

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