Cassius Cash believes in a magical place far from screens — where streams lead to waterfalls and where field sparrows and scarlet tanagers do the tweeting.
As the superintendent of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Cash is the man in charge of this magical place. With more than 12 million visitors each year, it’s our country’s most visited national park.
For many of those 12 million visitors, the park is a place to escape their always-on daily lives and hike behind waterfalls, climb mountains and watch for wildlife.
But Cash knows that the park’s magic runs even deeper. It’s also a place of profound healing — the perfect medicine for a country bruised by the pandemic, racial unrest and political infighting.
That’s why, in 2020, Cash created Smokies Hikes For Healing, a series of conversations about systemic racism. On each of these eight hikes, 10 people from Tennessee and North Carolina participated in a thought-provoking discussion around race.
“I have a saying about hiking in the Smokies: ‘I always come out feeling better than when I went into the park,’” Cash says. “With the mental toll that COVID-19 and social unrest had on us all last year, being in nature, particularly the Smokies, was what I considered to be the antidote to what we were experiencing as a country.”
The idea for the hikes came from Cash’s understanding that connecting with nature — and each other — has the power to make a real difference. It’s a lesson Cash first experienced as a Scout in Tennessee.
A Scoutmaster steps up
Cash was a member of Troop 511 of Memphis, Tenn., part of the Chickasaw Council. He remained in the program until First Class — the fourth of seven ranks on the trail to Eagle — more than enough to leave an impression that remains with Cash to this day.
Much of that positive experience came from Henry Peabody, Cash’s white Scoutmaster. Peabody recognized that Scouting’s adventures can benefit all young people, so he started a Black Scout troop in an underprivileged housing development.
Thanks to Peabody, Cash’s first lessons in leadership didn’t come from a high school textbook or a class at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. They came from Scouting.
“Mr. Peabody not only demanded the respect that comes with being a Scoutmaster but showed us that the true strength in becoming a leader and gaining respect is by working together as a team,” Cash says. “Those qualities appealed to me and were in tandem with how my mother and father raised me as a young man.”
Embracing the adventure
Cash began his government career in 1991 when he got a job with the U.S. Forest Service working as a wildlife biologist in Washington state. Over the next 18 years with the Forest Service, Cash said yes every time a new opportunity arrived.
Those opportunities took Cash to Nebraska, Georgia, Mississippi, and Oregon. In 2010, he joined the National Park Service, serving as superintendent at Boston National Historical Park and Boston African American National Historical Park.
While bouncing around the country for career opportunities isn’t for everyone, Cash welcomed the adventure — seeing each stop as a new chance to develop skills and make a difference.
“I didn’t care where I had to travel across the country to get the skills that I suspected I needed,” Cash says. “I did it because I embraced being part of an adventure. Becoming comfortable with adventure began with what Mr. Peabody exposed us to.”
It all goes back to Scouting.
“Troop 511 was the epicenter to my developing a relationship with the natural world,” Cash says. “That led me to beginning my career with the federal government as a wildlife biologist.”
Hikes for Healing
You can draw a straight line from Mr. Peabody’s Troop 511 to Cash’s Smokies Hikes for Healing initiative.
Scouting gave Cash the leadership skills — and even the bravery — to put on such an important program.
Cash says there were three key takeaways from these hikes:
- Discussing topics like systemic racism won’t feel safe or comfortable. “But we, as leaders, have a responsibility to create spaces where people can be brave to speak their truths around this topic that has been with us for over 400 years,” Cash says. “Being in the Smokies during these conversations did just that for us.”
- Inspiring change takes courage. “The very people that we love and care for may be the individuals that you need to have the difficult conversation with for a better tomorrow,” Cash says.
- We all have a role to play in making our communities better. “Mr. Peabody and his impact on me demonstrates how a legacy can live way beyond your own life,” Cash says. “Personally, I feel very proud to have started this initiative with the platform I’ve now been afforded. My parents were able to account for what they did during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and now I can do the same for my kids and future grandkids when they look back on this chapter of this country’s history.”
Going back outside
The pandemic has underscored humanity’s need to spend time outside — away from screens, densely packed areas and other mainstays of modern society.
For Cash, this realization has been 30 years in the making.
“There is a lot of scientific research out there now about how being outdoors helps us physically and mentally,” Cash says. “And based on the record number of visitors that parks, including the Smokies, are experiencing across the country, many Americans have discovered this.”
Cash believes this change will be a permanent one.
“After being hemmed up in your house due to COVID, people who didn’t necessarily understand the value of being outdoors can now better calculate the return of investment by being outdoors with their free time,” he says. “This could be the very thing that ensures that national parks will remain relevant for the next generation — and the one after that.”
Thanks to Holly Cooper of the Chickasaw Council for connecting me with Cassius Cash.