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

Published by Student_of_Life

Culture, people, history, old stuff, art, animals, exploration, food, and coffee!

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