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Published: February 8th 2022
Great Smoky National Mountains National Park straddles two states. Mom and I had left Gatlinburg, Tennessee and were once again driving through the park and beginning our descent into the North Carolina side. The road was pointing steeply downhill and Baron von Zoom was not happy. The old car’s brakes shuddered from the exertion. I was relieved when the car in front of us pulled off the road and I was able to just let my old car run.
When we finally approached the park’s exit we came upon a long line of cars and a big electric signboard saying “Don’t Slow Down.” That seemed a strange request. But just as we made our way to exit, we noticed a huge herd of majestic elk lolling about on an open patch of grass. We hadn’t seen anything close to this on any of the previous days. I of course reflexively reached for my camera. As I was busy taking snaps a policewoman loudly yelled and motioned me to keep moving. Ahh, that sign made perfect sense now.
We rolled into the small town of Cherokee. We thought that the Museum of the Cherokee Indian would be great stopover and
introduction to North Carolina. What better way to get to know the area than to find out more about its original inhabitants. Our first impression of Cherokee the town was that it was a little worn around the edges, a charmingly down and out reservation town. There seemed to be sorts of interesting shops and small restaurants. Basing ourselves here instead of Gatlinburg would have set an entirely different tone for our trip.
In a sign of the times the large wooden Cherokee totem outside the museum wore an equally large cloth facemask. Once inside, we were sold tickets by a chubby soft spoken Cherokee girl. I have always loved Native American voices. There is something so calm and serene about them. This seems to be true, no matter what section of the country the particular tribe is from.
The museum was very thoughtfully presented and far larger than I thought it would be. There was a fascinating exhibit on the man who created the Cherokee writing system from scratch. There was another on how the different tribes reacted differently to the coming of the white men. However, whether they fought back or cooperated, they all seem to
have suffered in the end. There was one fierce looking statue representing the “fight back” group that I was particularly taken with. Unfortunately, I began to feel pretty claustrophobic in my required facemask, so I wound up zooming through most of it to get outside to breathe some fresh air once again.
Before leaving the town, we stopped at a recreated traditional Cherokee village. I was eager to journey on so we many mainly poked about the fringes instead of going on an official tour. As we drove away, I decided to take the scenic route through the reservation. There were even street signs that used the Cherokee writing we had just learned about. We left the reservation eventually, but stayed on the winding and sometime treacherous roads through the back hills of North Carolina.
The scenic drive was quite atmospheric with mountains, grey skies, and popping autumn colors flashing all around. After passing by quirky landmarks like a huge hulking paper mill, the offices of the mortgage company who had been plaguing us all year, and the Taco Bell in Black Rock we arrived at our hotel in Kernersville, exactly equidistant between the friends and family we
planned on visiting in the coming days.
* * * * *
Our first full day in North Carolina would start with lunch at my Cousin Ron’s house in Greensboro. He was knee deep in a big litigation, but he managed to find time to squeeze us in. I hadn’t seen him in six years. Being a time of coronavirus, we weren’t quite sure how the visit would commence. Would he be wearing a mask? Would we be allowed in the house? Would we have to socially distance? The sight as we pulled up to his house would put us at ease right away. There was Big Ron doing yardwork outside. He greeted us with a great big smile and hugs were shared all around.
He ushered us inside his house, where his wife Crystal was. We then all went outside again to a picnic table to share some lemonade. After so many months, it was great to finally be seeing my extended family again. They said that we were the first long distance visitors that they had hosted all year. It soon became apparent that the wind was too strong and cold for us to stay
where we were. So we gave up and went inside. I noticed that while we had all sat together around the picnic table outside, when we were inside Ron and Crystal left the table to Mom and me and sat themselves about ten feet away from the table.
Once the conversation got flowing it was just like old times. You know the good old days. We talked about long forgotten family memories. Ron told us all about the legal case he was working on, involving a bunch of hogs that smelled a little too much for their neighbors liking. Then we got on the subject of travel memories. Italy for them. Japan for me. And then sadly moved on to trips we had to cancel earlier in the year. Caribbean for them. Philippines for me. All this talking was helped along by delicious tuna and chicken salad and four kinds of giant soft cookies.
After lunch, Ron had to get back to litigating those hogs. But before he did, he gave us a helpful suggestion for a nearby afternoon excursion to Guilford Courthouse National Battlefield. This was great because I would be able to add another stamp to
my national parks passport. Full of warm family feelings we said our fond goodbyes and were off.
Upon arrival at the battlefield, we made our way to the small visitor center. A park ranger had set up a table outside. We collected a couple pamphlets and she was able to give me my cherished stamp. We then were able to go inside to check out the historical exhibits. To my surprise one of the main protagonists of the battle was General Nathaniel Greene, who was in fact a great great uncle of mine! Dad had been telling me stories about him all throughout his life and now I was here in the middle of the action.
When I thought of battlefields in the South, I had always thought of the Civil War, but this was a battle of the American Revolution. The British redcoats under General Cornwallis had been rampaging throughout Georgia and South Carolina. And they thought that North Carolina would be easy pickings too. However, although Greene was defeated on this battlefield, he put up such a fight and inflicted so many British casualties that he permanently stunted the British effort. Which in turn led to
Cornwallis limping into Virginia and his ultimate surrender to George Washington at Yorktown. Way to go uncle!
Wandering around was idyllic with the sun shining through the bright green leaves. The forest where the battle took place was tangled and yet so peaceful. It was hard to imagine the amount of blood and carnage that was shed here 240 years earlier. Mom and I spent quite a while trying to find Nathaniel Greene’s statue, which we eventually located. I strode across the lawn to meet the gaze of my ancestor sitting regally atop his mighty steed. I saluted him for all his accomplishments in the founding of this country and I wondered if I was made of the same metal as he.
* * * * *
Our final day in North Carolina was spent with Mom’s friends, Ben and Nancy. They had moved down to a retirement community down here the autumn before the pandemic began. Therefore, Mom had not seen either of them in over a year. We arranged to meet them for lunch at a restaurant in Winston-Salem. I immediately saw their two welcoming faces as we pulled into the parking lot. We then
all put on our masks to walk into the restaurant and the twenty feet to our table. We then took our masks off when we sat down. Mom had to remind Ben to take his off as well, as he had forgotten
Lunch was served on an outside patio, covered by a huge tent which was dotted with heat lamps. The setting made it seem like were attending some sort of pop-up wedding reception. Aside from family, we were again the first friends they had seen from back home since they moved here over a year ago. It seemed that no one else was travelling these days.
Mom seemed to come alive with the delight of being with and chatting to her cherished friends. For lunch she had the roasted pheasant. I had the cajun burger with bleu cheese salad. We filled Ben and Nancy in about our trip so far, as well as reminiscing about the old times and past travels. We detailed our bouts with covid and how strange everything had become. They discussed how the pandemic was affecting octogenarians like them. Could they really afford to wait multiple years for things to get back to
normal? How many years of activity did anyone really have that they could be tossed away so blithely?
Afterwards, it was decided that we would all drive over to walk around Salem College. The four of us squeezed into the same car as if covid never happened. The college campus reminded me of a mini-Williamsburg, a carefully preserved 18th
century village. The students weren’t there, on account of covid, so we had the whole place to ourselves to wander about amongst the old restored brick buildings. It was the perfect weather, cool with bright sunshine. In a way the day felt very wholesome and was peacefully centering. Good friends. Simple times. What could be better?
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