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Escape to Transylvania County, NC (Part 3: Cherokee Reservation)

Section of the river trail by the welcome center at Great Smokey Mountains National Park in the Eastern Cherokee Reservation (Qualla Boundary).

Tuesday morning (March 29, 2021) was absolutely beautiful. After a night of freezing rain and crazy strong wind, I drove up to the Blue Ridge Parkway and followed my GPS toward the Eastern Cherokee Reservation. The temperature was cool, the sun made the icicles on the mountain side sparkle as they slowly melted off. A few times I stopped near overlooks to take photos of the ice as it occasionally dropped off in chunks and shattered on the rocks below.

Once I had descended from the parkway into the next county, I continued to follow the signs and soon found myself in reservation territory. I drove into town and spotted a cafe on the corner of one intersection. The place is called ‘Grounded: Coffee Shop and Food Facotry’. I ordered a latte they called “Barefoot”. It was delicious! I ordered some turkey pesto crepes to go, as I had planned to eat them at a nice quiet spot on the National Park…

Such a unique and beautifully decorated establishment!

The entire reason I wanted to come was that the elk herds like to pass through that area and I had my heart set on seeing them up close (since elk are not native to Alabama and I think they are really cool).

The visitor center was really crowded and there was nowhere to park. There was a line out the door and into the parking lot (due to covid restrictions) so I just asked the ranger outside for a map and went on my way. (Yes I was a bit frustrated at the number of people…) So I drove a little way up the main road into the mountains to take a look at the overlooks. I had tried following the river but there wasn’t an adequate place to sit and eat because all of the picnic areas were closed. I eventually just parked at a populated overlook and ate my crepes in the car and watched other people take selfies for about a half hour. That turned out to be quite amusing especially they noticed Kairi in the back seat watching them though the open window. She got a lot of attention and she loved it.

If you just wander aimlessly for long enough, you’re bound to discover all sorts of things you never expected to find.

I kept this in the back of my mind. I drove back down towards the visitor center area. I had decided to take Kairi for a walk along the river trail, hoping that soon I’d be able to see the Elk crossing. I pulled off the road by a bridge and parked the car by a trail entrance. For some reason, I had the idea that I might see elk in the secluded area several yards from the riverbank where there were a lot of bushes and trees for them to lay under and browse from. I was not wrong. I found 4 or 5 large females laying around, munching on leaves and napping in tall grass. They were pretty obscured from view, but they didn’t seem to mind me being right above them on the shoulder of the road.

I took a few terrible photos and moved on. While on the trail I met this old New Yorker named Jim. He had two excitable border collies. He was a nice guy and quite talkative. He informed me that since he’d been living there he’d seen a lot of elk and that they would cross the main road and cover up the visitor center field in the late afternoons, closely followed by a band of Cherokee to ensure their safety.

Unfortunately even though we stuck around till after 2, I had not seen any such activity and I still wanted to explore the town before everything closed for the day. I took my pup and e drove out of the park, thankful that I saw the few hidden elk that I did.

In the cultural district there are a lot of souvenir shops and such things. There is also a pavilion where native dancers hang out and during certain times of the day were traditional clothing and perform dances and music. I happened to park near this pavilion. There were 3 Cherokee men sitting under it, one of them in full traditional ensemble. Everyone else walking around looked like tourists – so I asked these men for suggestions. I asked if the shops were dog friendly, as it was too warm now in the sun to leave Kairi in the car. So I was given the go ahead to take her inside the shops and explore. (Note that the shops all had signs in the windows asking people to NOT take photos inside. So I can’t show you what it looked like…)

Among the novelty, touristy trinkets one might expect to find in a shop that was designed as an attraction, I found some gems. Naturally I HAD to purchase the real locally handmade bracelets AND a lovely blanket (which is now my favorite). I also bought a turquoise stone, because why not? North Carolina is famed for its gem mines so every store everywhere sold them.

When I emerged from the store, the dancer in the pavilion called me over. He asked how I liked the shop. I told him it was fantastic and then he suggested (with much conviction) that I try the ice cream shop next door. So I did. I got Kairi some water and me a cup of raspberry ice cream. Maybe it was the fact that I was on my own vacation far from home, or the peaceful atmosphere of the town – but that was some of the best ice cream I’ve had and I don’t really even eat ice cream that much.

While we were cooling off on the porch enjoying treats, Chad (the dancer), came walking by. He was out of his ceremonial clothes and wearing a t-shirt and jeans. “So how do you like it?” He asked. I swallowed the wad of ice cream I’d just taken in and smiled really big and said “Great suggestion. This is wonderful!” Then I invited him to sit with me and he did.

We made small talk at first, just asking questions – I told him I was a student on vacation and he old me about his teenage son, Benjamin. He seemed to like the fact that I was really interested in other cultures- especially since I grew up in a bubble and finally am breaking out of it. Honestly this was the most relaxing location (even with the tourist activity). We talked for a good 45 minutes before he had to head home.

I would like to have found Chad on social media, so I could keep in touch like I did with the other friends I made on the trip, but he doesn’t use those platforms. Perhaps when Mom and I return there this fall we’ll see him again and catch a performance and then get ice cream.

Around 5 everything had closed in town, so we said goodbye to Cherokee for the time. I returned to my cabin to see that Zan had departed, but she had left me the rest of her kindling and a couple of bananas to snack on, along with a sweet note. She said she was happy to meet me and that she had a good time staying there. When she get’s her own resort/campground running I am definitely going to book a stay!

“The ripples of the kind heart are the highest blessings of the universe.”

– Amit Ray, Yoga and Vipassana: An Integrated Life Style

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Escape to Transylvania County, NC (part 2)

Old bridge on the campground at Balsam Grove

“Not all who wander are lost.” – J.R.R. Tolkein

I know- its a terribly over-used yet wonderful quote that you find on travel-themed jewelry and journal covers in Hobby Lobby. Honestly it’s so befitting for the feeling of total wanderlust that comes with exploratory travel. In the mountains of Transylvania County I had no phone signal unless I went into town. I had to descend the mountain just to get my GPS in order so I wouldn’t get lost on the backroads. If I couldn’t load a map while I was out of tower range, I drove blind. Yet not once did I feel lost – only free.

I spent a good deal of time driving when I was away from the cabin. What’s funny is it never really got old because the scenery was so lovely.

When the dog and I set out for our first sloppy day of hiking and waterfalls, I didn’t really know where I was going to go on a rainy Sunday in an area where businesses already had strange, short hours. Brevard offered no options, so naturally I followed a random road though a neighborhood and into the forest. Specifically – we landed in Dupont State forest. After dawdling in a gift shop/diner, I spotted a highway sign for “Hooker Falls” and followed it to a gravel parking lot. We took to the trail in the light rain and snagged some photos.

This was my first look at the Blueridge Parkway and I was lucky that it was even open that day. I felt the need to stop at every overlook (but I skipped a few) for the magnificent views it offered. As I climbed the winding road, it became windier and the fog thickened. I was literally driving in the clouds and living for it!

I returned to the cabin pretty windblown, wet, and muddy. But I was cold and hungry so before trying out the bathhouse I needed food and a fire. I struggled a bit since i didn’t have enough kindling (poor planning on my part since up till now I’d been hanging at the neighbors’ fire.). However luck had it that my new neighbors, Jeremy and Cecilia, saw my plight and offered my coals from their grill to start my fire. So of course I accepted and that was awesome. They later invited me to hang out at their fire and so I brought the Malibu out and we had drinks and discussed our interests. They are very kind people and I wish them the best in their life together.

After dinner and socialization, it was bedtime – but this hiker needed a shower. So I walked to the bath house with my supplies and a flashlight and got clean.

I had started making a habit of recording each day’s adventures in my journal so I could be sure to remember my new friends as we encountered each other. I wrote in my journal and crashed for the night. I had plans to visit the Cherokee Reservation in the next county the following day.

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Escape to Transylvania County (part 1)

My cabin at The Ridge

Last Friday I packed my bags and headed for the most remote place I could find in the South. I had booked a week-long stay in Balsam Grove, NC – which is in Transylvania County. The Pisgah National Forest, the town of Brevard, and Dupont National Forest (as well as a good chunk of the Blueridge Parkway) are some notable features in this area. I had pretty much needed a long break for what was familiar to me and from work (which is fun but can be highly stressful on a bad day).

So when I say “remote” I mean no cell service, no internet, LOTS of trees and steep terrain. Very few people lived in this small mountain farming community and businesses tended to close early. I kissed convenience goodbye and spent a lot of time at a campfire or exploring with my sweet faithful doggie by my side.

We set out at the crack of dawn

The drive was pretty cool. Atlanta was horrifying but that’s apparently always the case. I feared for my life on I-85 and after surviving that stretch and getting turned around in the middle of the city I vowed I was NOT going home via the same route. The only thing I have to say about mountain roads in NC is WATCH OUT. People drive like they are in the Daytona 500. I was hearing the soundtrack from Days of Thunder playing intensely in my head as drivers or all vehicles – cars, large trucks, beat up trucks, crotch-rockets- zoomed around the endless tight curves up and down the mountain. I was also told that they have at least one death a year simply for that reason. Yikes.

Anyways…….

What I thought was just going to be me and the dog and nobody else turned out to be not quite so. I think it could have been – if I wanted to truly escape human interaction, but alas I am too social to keep that persona up. After a scenic and, at times, terrifying drive, we arrived at our destination. My cabin was not really a cabin – more of a tiny red shack with minimal furnishings (a bunk bed/couch, small fridge, a microwave, heater, and coffee maker). The bathroom was a port-a-potty out back – the showers were in a bath-house a couple of football fields away. I was perfectly happy with my minimalistic choice for a stay.

Immediately upon arrival I was greeted by the couple staying in the cabin next door. They had a couple of dogs and seemed very inviting. I waved back and set my stuff inside the bare cabin. I went back out and spoke to them. This was the beginning of a wonderful human experience.

Lauren and Erin are really cool ladies. They are girlfriends, they are vegan, and they have a business of their own making various types of bags (Check them out here – Cabin Girl Designs). We spent a good deal of time for the first two days (mornings and evenings) at their campfire learning about each other and talking about life. They are total cool hippies with down-to-earth but very free-spirited views on life and I appreciate every moment I spent getting to know them. They were only there for a couple of days and left on Sunday morning. I definitely gained two new friends and i look forward to seeing them again the next time I travel to NC. I wasn’t leaving until the next Friday and had already resolved myself to meet my other neighbors as they came and went throughout the week.

Made sure to take a picture together to commemorate the fun times we shared. (left to right – Lauren, Me, and Erin)

The night before these two left, another lady had taken up the cabin on the other side of mine. We almost immediately invited her to hang out at our campfire since everyone was being social. A few hours later she did join us. Her name is Zan and she was really kind of quiet at first. She and her dog are very sweet and the following morning I had the opportunity to converse with her more. I’ll tell more about that in the next post. It was a very full week.

For now I’ll leave you with pictures from my first couple of days of exploring.

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Locked In Love

(Hmmmm…when I phrase the title like that it sounds like a trap.) Well – I’m making a play on this concept. Today I visited Leeds Historical Park in the city of Leeds, AL. It’s a very pleasant drive and it was such a pretty day to visit a park. I took several pictures (all the ones you see here and more…).

Johnson Bridge, Leeds Historical Park (photo by me)

One thing caught my attention and I had to make an issue of it. I stepped onto a bridge, which seems to be one of several central features of the park, and hanging all along the chain-link sides of the railing were padlocks. Almost all of them had a date and people’s names on them, so I assumed each one was placed there by a couple who had visited the bridge.

I posted on my facebook page about it, as I have never seen a tradition like this anywhere, and at the time was unaware that Paris had a famous bridge with a bunch of locks on it as well, but that one became weakened and is no longer standing. My friend, who is a phenomenal researcher, posted an article about lock bridges (which you can read here). It explains the tradition’s origins. Summarized, it originated in Hungary but became famous in Paris. Apparently there is a legend that tells of a woman who lost her lover in WWI and she placed a lock at each bridge where the couple had met in the past in order to symbolize her unbreakable love. A sweet but very sad story.

This park had a lot of cool tidbits of history sprinkled thought it – such as monuments and plaques featuring recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor and people who had contributed to the city and the park, etc. It’s a lovely place and I imagine I will visit again and read more about the history of the city and people who lived there. For now I will leave you with some of the better photos of the day and bid you “good night”.

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Defining Culture

Culture1. The arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively. 2. The customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group.”

Culture is a system of attitudes, beliefs and values that are learned by a group of people and influence how they behave.

In general people define themselves through certain identity elements consisting of many factors including a preferred aesthetic, the company they keep, the music and movies they like, their artwork or writing, etc. It is not only individuals who work like this, however. Every single bit of it is influenced by the majority that a person is immersed in. Groups of people show identities in much the same way. Our decisions are shaped by our way of life. What is socially acceptable changes with region, as well as the type of entertainment available, the foods people consume, the clothing worn, religions and traditions we are exposed to, etc.

Without this variety, the world would be such a dull place. As things are, we have so much to share and experience and borders or social boundaries don’t have to stop us from growing and making new friends, finding new places, and trying new things. That said, I am dedicating this blog to one thing: Discovery. I want to discover new insights, meet new people and share their stories (and mine).

SO upcoming material will involve, travel, interesting interactions, a variety of new experiences (food, traditions, religions….) – basically I’m jumping out of my bubble that is the South and sharing what I learn about humanity.

Peaceful pier at Lake Purdy, AL (photo by me)

Intro and Short Bio

Introductions first: My name is Sherri and I am a student of Anthropology, attending Arizona State University online. I chose this major because I love people and history fascinates me (though I hated it in high school). The idea of learning from people who are different from me in almost every way is exciting and finding opportunities to travel of make connections with people along the way is my ultimate goal. I’ll explain my inspirations and why I chose this path later…but let’s move on for now.

The dog in the picture above is Kairi – a 48-pound rescue pup who is now 5 yrs old. She’s just as playful as she was when I adopted her at 6 months, and is the most loving and cooperative companion I could ask for. You’ll see more of her since she will accompany me on my adventures often.

So why study culture and history?

My interest in foreign culture came in high school through my Spanish teacher. She and I had totally different upbringings and views, but her kind demeanor and genuine love for humans, no matter who they were or where they were from, showed a true image of Christian love. She taught me things I didn’t that know I didn’t know. Not only were we learning a language but we were learning traditions, mythology, religious practices – the heart of a people, not just their words. That cultural enrichment gives a person so much more insight into the language they are learning. So my desire to understand people – and to love them by learning who they are- never ceased.

The final push that drove me down this path was actually (don’t laugh) the video games I got into. I kid you not – I started playing Assassin’s Creed and was completely awed by how much actual history and real people the stories had been built upon. I would explore and area, or read about a particular person your character would meet, or a certain event would happen (like the Boston Massacre in 1770 or the Lisbon earthquake in 1755) and I would say “I need to read about that” or “WOAH did that actually happen?” I realized how much a didn’t pay attention or remember from history classes because when I had to take those courses I didn’t care – but now I do. Then in the last couple of years I became obsessed with the Uncharted series. In those you play as a treasure hunter (it’s like a Tomb Raider game, but more interesting characters and, in my opinion, better writing). I loved the elaborate environments and the thought of discovering pieces of lost or long-gone civilizations. I said “I must go to college and study culture and history. This information is too fascinating to ignore.”

So here I am – starting a blog to share interesting discoveries around the world, cultural stories, travel adventures, and deep thoughts. Maybe by the end of this and when I have my degree I’ll be a photojournalistic archaeologist. I hope that readers will find this content as inspiring as I do.

So welcome to my little corner of the internet and please explore with me! Meet me in discussion – I will be so happy to engage.