GATLINBURG, Tenn. — Even when the rugged expanses of the Great Smoky Mountains were bursting with their famous fall colors, they always looked dull black and tawny to Lauren Van Lew from the 3,590-foot-high perch of Mount Harrison.
For the 20-year-old Van Lew, who has been colorblind her whole life, some colors have just been left to the imagination. She loves painting, but her wife Molly has to help her pick and mix colors.
Last week, however, when Van Lew visited the scenic mountaintop again and looked through a special viewfinder, for the first time she saw yellows, oranges and reds exploding across the landscape.
“Red was the biggest difference. I mean, I can’t describe it,” said Van Lew, who lives in Sevierville, Tennessee. “It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life. That red, it’s just gorgeous. It’s incredible.”
She wondered, “How do you see like that all of the time?”
The colorblind viewfinder installed atop the Ober Gatlinburg resort by the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development is one of three in the state that debuted Wednesday, letting people gaze upon colors that they may have never seen before. The other two viewfinders are at scenic areas of Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area near Oneida, and at the westbound Interstate 26 overlook near Erwin in Unicoi County.
Although the technology isn’t new — eyeglasses that let colorblind people see colors are already available — state officials believe this is the first time it’s been incorporated into a viewfinder, at a cost of $2,000 apiece, to help people with red-green color deficiencies. How crisply the viewfinders display new colors can vary from person to person among the 13 million or so people in the country with color deficiencies.
State tourism officials invited people to try it out last Thursday at Ober Gatlinburg, bringing them up by ski lift, but left the details somewhat vague to maintain the element of surprise. A crew filmed their reactions for marketing material.
Their first glimpses drew tears, smiles and faces stunned by wonder and awe.
“My heart just started beating fast,” said Todd Heil, who generally sees a lot of green. “I felt like crying, man. Too many people around.”
Amber McCarter works in real estate, so part of her pitch is the fall foliage that drapes the Great Smoky Mountains, even though she can’t entirely see it herself. The viewfinder gave her a firsthand look of the views she’s been selling.
“It’s like, if you want to go see a show somewhere, you don’t want to hear from somebody whose family went. You want to hear from somebody who actually went,” the 22-year-old said.
For Van Lew, nothing looks the same now. It can be a little disheartening to know what she’s been missing. But the possibility of tapping into a long unseen world of vibrant color is uplifting, she added.
“It’s going to enable more people to experience the beauty that we live in, that I didn’t know we lived in,” she said.