Viewfinders unveil fall colors for the colorblind
The Great Smoky Mountains always looked dull black and tawny to Lauren Van Lew from the 3,590-foot-high perch of Mt. Harrison. That was true even when the rugged expanses were bursting with their famous fall colors.
The 20-year-old Van Lew 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 Van Lew visited the scenic mountaintop again. She looked through a special viewfinder. For the first time she saw yellows. She saw oranges and she saw reds. They were exploding across the landscape.
"Red was the biggest difference. I mean, I can't describe it," said Van Lew. She 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?"
A colorblind viewfinder was installed atop the Ober Gatlinburg resort. It was installed by the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development. It is one of three in the state that debuted last Wednesday. It lets 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. The other is at the westbound Interstate 26 overlook near Erwin in Unicoi County.
The technology isn't new, it consists of eyeglasses that let colorblind people see colors. But state officials believe this is the first time it's been incorporated into a viewfinder. They cost $2,000 apiece. They 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. They brought them up by ski-lift, but left the details somewhat vague. They wanted 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.