Cades Cove

The hunting grounds of the Cherokee people once, Cades Cove is an isolated valley of supreme beauty within the Great Smoky Mountains. The Cherokees called it Tsiya’hi. Translated, it means Otter Place, hinting at the fact that otters did abound here before European settlers arrived in the 1800s to dispossess the tribes of their land. They say that Cades Cove was named for the wife of a Cherokee chief, but no one really knows how it came about.

The road to the cove was straight out of my dreams. I have a weakness for those that curve through old forests, where the trees tower and look like they have a trove of stories, of the way the landscape has been moulded by the passage of time, of the generations of men that have come and gone. Limestone cliffs, creeks riddled with rocks, and from a sudden spell of shower, the roads gleaming green beneath the shadow of the trees. This had to be the naturalist’s definition of paradise.

At Cades Cove, the humidity was unbearable. We could not brook the thought of a hike despite the lure of seeing a bear. There are so many black bears in the area, roughly above 1,600, that you apparently could not, would not, miss a sighting. But here’s the thing, we did (no surprises). There are cherry trees and fields of blueberries, huckleberries and blackberries in the meadows. Plus there are people landing up with picnic hampers. Irresistible enough for bears to turn up from time to time.

As a result of this promise, every driver turns into an oaf on the 11-mile scenic loop that gently winds through the valley. It is a one-way paved road that follows an old logging railroad track. The traffic here crawls. We spent not less than 3 hours on the loop, well-stewed apples by the end of it if you will, wondering when we would be done with the sight of the driver ahead sticking his feet out of the window, and generally, behaving like a certified jackass.

The only way to let off steam was to take these off-road trails that led us into log cabins of the first settlers and ‘primitive’ churches as they called them in the 19th century. The white log frames of the churches with austere, dark wooden interiors suggesting that they existed to serve the basic purpose of disseminating faith among the few families who lived in and around them. They must have had dirt floors and fire pits inside to begin with.

Within an interval of a few minutes there were three Methodist and Baptist churches, emphasising that life in this Southern Appalachian community must have been harsh. A world where men and women would have needed the crutch of faith to carry on in the wilds. Their reality would have been made up of temperance societies and Sunday schools, of gatherings at general stores and swapping stories. Books have been written by the children and grandchildren of these settlers — they tell of a time when spotting a red ear of corn in a pile of husks was a prize for a young fella, a sign that he could kiss the woman he had been eyeing for some time; they talk of the mettle of children who kept themselves entertained by inventing their own toys, such as fashioning balloons from pig’s bladders. Not to distill (and dismiss) it in the matter of a sentence, but it seemed to me then that those folks paid the price for simplicity as much as we city folks pay the price for modernity.

When we finally left behind the last of those homesteads beneath its canopy of thick vegetation, I could not shake off the image that rose in my mind. Of a lachrymose man upon its porch, in his overalls of faded grey, a pipe stuck in his mouth, strumming a banjo that must have seen better days.

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Snippets From Wears Valley

The road below the cabin dipped alarmingly. So sudden was this drop that it felt like rolling down a playground slide in tar. This road then led us on a serpentine drive up and down the mountains, past burnt-out trees, skeletal and stripped enough that it was a surprise they were standing at all. Half-built cabins too. A reminder that all it takes is a wildfire for every effort of man to be laid to waste (but here we are, creatures of toil and industry). The green was so very green, the hills with their stubbles of bluish-green startling, the sky thick with batches of clouds who could not make up their mind if they wanted to stay or go. Some settled atop the peaks to catch a breath before they dissolved into tears. The fancy of the clouds. In the Smoky Mountains, you will find that there is no guarantee. The rain clouds, they gather upon your heads in a jiffy. Before you think of the shortest swear, they let loose, and when they do, you’d better find a roof of some sort.

Before I get ahead of myself, we found ourselves in Wears Valley that runs parallel to the Smoky Mountains. Once a theater of squabbles between the Cherokee tribes and the first European settlers, and named for a Revolutionary War veteran, Samuel Wear.

It was an idyllic place. Isolated farms composed of old log houses and barns and sheds, mom-and-pop groceries with old biddies behind the till pointing out to basic tuck shops for tasty sandwiches and local fare, modest chapels and churches, mountain stores where they sell local concoctions of jams and jellies. Just an outpost of the old Appalachian culture with autumnal hoards of pumpkins and squashes as harbingers of this ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ that is finally upon us.

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A Cliffhanger of a Cabin on Old Smokey (Beloved of a Mamma Bear)

A band of cicadas serenaded us as we got off our Outback Subaru. Their singing seemed to intensify as we hopped off the car, me casting nervous glances at the cliffs and trees around us, the thought running through my mind that a welcome committee of bears might be awaiting us in the dark.

The drive from North Carolina to this chalet in Tennessee, built into the hills of the Great Smoky Mountains, had been one of unimaginable beauty. The sky, riddled with billowing clouds earlier on in the afternoon in Winston-Salem, was suffused now with a crimson glow that continued to intensify till it dissipated in pastel hues. The hills loomed large in front of us in the gathering gloom, clouds rushing in to envelop us at intervals. At others, they rose from the silhouettes of trees in wraiths of wispy white.

And then the spell was broken. We had reached Gatlinburg. Rows of flashy souvenir shops, ‘wine-tasting’ kiosks that doled out free fruity wines guaranteed to give one an unbearable insulin rush, barbecue diners, the crowds …I wanted to think, but I could not. Adi helpfully supplied the words, ‘It’s like Skegness on steroids?’ Skegness is a seaside resort town on the east coast of England – the lesser said about it, the better.

Gatlinburg’s flashiness evaporated as we drove higher and higher up into the mountains. How impenetrable the darkness seems in the hills. It presses in upon the mind. The desolate hairpin bends brought us at the foot of a road that shot up at a 35° incline, and lo and behold, there stood our rented chalet. No curtains inside to draw across the bay windows in the  living room? I was unsettled. But there was nothing to do but stash my paranoia away.

The chalet was a two-bedroom affair built in wood — to withstand the winds that sweep through these mountains. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had rhapsodised about ‘the winds that blow through the wide sky in these mountains, the winds that sweep from Canada to Mexico, from the Pacific to the Atlantic’ to ‘have always blown on free men’ at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that he declared open for the public in 1940.

Where Nature gives, she takes too. And man, he survives despite the odds. The cabin being proof of this indomitable spirit. The previous chalet had been gutted in wildfires towards the end of 2016. Yet here it stood, well-stocked and utterly homey with its rocking chair, hot tub and wraparound porch, rebuilt after the fires. There were pots and pans and everything we could hope for if we wanted to rustle up our own meals (how cosy it must be to hunker down within its warmth during the cold months).

In the morning, we woke up to views. The windows, which in the dark hours had given me the heebie jeebies, in the early morning hours opened up to a vision of smoky blue mountains and clouds rolling off their peaks (there are photos below to confirm that I do not exaggerate).

We did what any sane person would do — tuck into a huge breakfast and sit staring at the drama of the clouds and the mountains, wondering if mamma bear (previous visitors to the cabin had mentioned her repeated visits in the logbook) would eventually turn up with her cubs. But were we to be so lucky? Naturally, we decided to do what could be done next. We headed out, chasing bears and clouds in the Great Smoky Mountains.

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Salem

Way before we drove into Salem, part of the hyphenated metropolis of Winston-Salem, my mind had travelled before my body. It had daydreamed about The Salem of the witch trials. The prospect of chancing upon stories of witchcraft, swirled in my thoughts, of the detail being in the devil just as in the case of the Pendle Hill witches of Lancaster. Could the famed Lancastrian occultists have given their Salem counterparts a run for their money, who knows (it’s such tosh anyway).

In Salem the absence of the bad girls were notable. Where were they? Adi shrugged, saying: “I was hardly interested in the history of any place before you came into life, was I?” Yeah Watson, we should have headed to New England.You might be an an ace at the memory game, but my mind is a sieve, dear reader. On an important aside, there are 26 Salems in the US.

Salem of North Carolina did not have the witches of its Massachusetts namesake, but it had the Moravians. Good old people of the faith with a solid moral compass, whose single men and women lived in the Single Brothers House and the Single Sisters House, respectively. The staid nature of their lives must have been challenged by the wilderness of North Carolina in which they found themselves when they arrived here in 1766, all the way from Pennsylvania. I think of them as adventurers who built a town from nothing, because there was no Winston then. It was just Salem.

After we had left behind the tall official buildings in Winston and its modern high street along with its brick town hall, it was as if we crossed an invisible wall into another time. Old clapboard houses, brick and dark timber-framed houses turned up along a leafy street, signs of tradesmen hanging from the eaves of some.

All of this linked to an event from the early 1400s. Years before Martin Luther, there was Jan Hus in Bohemia who daring to challenge the practices of the Roman Catholic Church was naturally burnt at the stake. His followers, who called themselves the Unity of Brethren, left the land and travelled to Saxony (Germany). Some took off to England. The rest of the Moravians, as they were called in England, moved to the New World.

Now the pity is that we had to vamoose. Our end game was a secluded cabin up in the Great Smoky Mountains. Tennessee was a four-hour drive from Winston-Salem, including stops. More if you slept in a McDonald’s car park after the torpor induced by a locally brewed ale from Salem (we are hard-pressed to pass up on liquid gold). As a result, we did not have time to wander into the living history museum of Old Salem, where they have tradesmen going about their various trades, for the sake of the curious visitor. Bakers, blacksmiths, tinsmiths, gunsmiths, carpenters operate within the walls of Old Salem, in a bid to forget the modern world.

What we had instead was a gander at the charming architecture around us, thinking that this was the kind of town we should have seen bathed in the warm glow of gas lamps. Met a woman sauntering down the road in her old Germanic dress of embroidered bodice and waistcoat, long skirt and pinafore, her hair masked in a white cap. Somewhere from afar the clip-clop clip-clop sounds of a horse carriage reaching our ears in the tranquility of the night.

However, it was not too bad, what we ended up with. Actually no, it was nothing less than an esoteric triumph. Pumpkin muffins (oh yes, I have had my headstart on autumn) slathered (a touch too) greedily with honey butter, and a scrummy pecan pie, following Adi’s un-Moravian meal of beef burger and mine of a traditional chicken pie smothered in a thick broth. All ravished at a historic tavern where George Washington had dined during his tour of the Southern states in the spring of 1791.

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The Colours are Gold & Black at Winston-Salem

My connection to the southern town of Winston-Salem in North Carolina is my husband. He lived and studied in this sweet sleepy place, laid out by a cigarette baron and his philanthropic wife. It is the town where they till late handed out cigarettes for free in offices, even at the university that the same baron funded in the mid-1800s. Shocking? Hell yeah, but you see how the world has changed for the better, even though we might carp about it from time to time.

In more ways than one, the story of tobacco tycoon R.J. Reynolds and his wife Katharine Reynolds is intertwined with the story of this institution that is sprawled over 300 acres of the couples’ property. Wake Forest University where Adi completed his masters in business administration. Three golden years of his life, he maintains, because it is here that he sprouted wings. He was living away from home for the first time, making friends who would last him a lifetime, meeting people from diverse cultures and professions. Truck drivers, military officers, biologists …you get the drift. It was suddenly so that he discovered the irresistible tug of living life on his own terms, inculcating the lesson of independence which we all need and prize at some point in life.

Eight years after passing out, he found himself back upon the rolling campus of his university, exactly a week ago. I do not need to spell out what he was experiencing because we all have our own bank of emotions to tap into. The kinds that well up our throats palpably upon return to beloved places that have been part and parcel of the formative years of our lives.

On a toasty hot Sunday, we were walking around its massive grounds. Adi taking me with pride to his familiar stomping grounds. The beautiful brick buildings built with flourishes of of colonial architecture; the ash trees in the compound draped in toilet paper, a beloved and curious tradition, the students refer to as ‘Rolling the Quad’, and in which they find self-worth in ‘tossing like a boss’; the photogenic chapel with its green steeple reaching for the skies where personalities such as Dr. Martin King Luther Jr., and former presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, delivered discourses and addresses, to what I imagine to packed audiences, and which years and years later hosted Adi and his batch’s hooding ceremony; the cafeteria where Adi grabbed lunch, when the cook would rustle him up an indulgent plate of aglio e olio, it not being part of the menu. The black and gold colours of the school. It was rather a heady rush for my sweetheart.

Such were our rambles made of last Sunday. Peppered by a surplus of stories and memories.

All because hundreds of years ago, the power couple of their day, the Reynolds induced the college that Wake Forest once was, before it was elevated to university status, to move to Winston-Salem from a bucolic little town called Wake Forest a 100 miles away.

As it drizzles away this soggy Sunday, I think of this son of a tobacco farmer from Virginia who moved to Winston (then Winston and Salem were separate towns), innovated packaged cigarettes because at the time men were used to rolling their own tobacco, married Katharine Smith of Mount Airy, and used her sound business acumen to cement the fortunes of his tobacco company. Directed by her goodwill, R.J. allowed himself to be channelled into acts of goodness about town. And hundreds of years later, there was my husband and his band of friends, touched by the legacy of this man whose grandson went on to become an anti-smoking activist for a smoke-free America.

Isn’t life just the most fascinating and amusing business, made up as it is of emotions, of beginnings and ends, of ends and beginnings, wrapped in boxes of paradox?

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Meeting Adi’s friends from Wake Forest University. A warm and fantastic lot, with wives and tiny tots now. Thanks Heidi and Sachin for making us so comfortable in your beautiful home, and Bharath and Jyothi, for the splendid night of drinking and reminiscing at your place, with a generous amount of buttery popcorn and stirring debates. I don’t know why we did not take more photographs that night except for this dull, dark one.
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When three friends meet after 8 long years at the cool dark bar of one.
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The town of Winston dominated by the tallest building in town at 100 North Main Street
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Winston-Salem
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Winston is the home of BB&T Bank
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The day was enveloped by dramatic clouds. The cloud-catcher in me was mesmerised.
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Wait Chapel

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The Wake Forest Logo — and in the backdrop is Hearn Plaza
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Wandering through the many corridors of the various buildings

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At the former building for business studies where he sat imbibing lessons that were life changing
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Adi’s former home in Wake Forest that he shared with his friend, Sachin.
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Stories abound here. The most prominent being of a woman who washed her car in the shortest of shorts on weekends. I could picture the boys’ faces.
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When the years come rushing back, because let’s face it, there is no joy like letting nostalgia wash over you with abandon, and awe at the changes that time does wreak.

Vegan Thoughts of a Non-Vegan

A non-sequitur of a start, but a cheery hallo, dear friends. We have been away for a week, hovering around the blue misty mountains y’all know as the Smokies . We had pecan ‘pah’, we were called ‘sugah’, and we soaked in the drawl of the warm Southerners. It was all as heartwarming as the lavish drizzle of maple syrup on a stack of fluffy pancakes.

I am always in serious danger of losing focus as you must know by now, so here let me get to the crux of this post. It is to share my experience of dipping my feet gingerly into the world of a vegan, as a non-vegan.

I am living on the edge, you could say, but then what is life without that side of adventure (be it of the vegan variety). Now don’t you roll your eyes at me, dear non-vegan. Give me a few minutes, okay pet?

A few months ago, through a Pelvic MRI I found out that one of my fallopian tubes have decided to go bonkers on me. It meant that my hormones were all over the place. It also meant that my body was demanding changes in my diet. I set the ball rolling with plant-based milks. Tinkering around with unsweetened almond and cashew milks in my coffee, I found that I could not withstand the taste of cashew milk. The former was acceptable. In the last couple of months, I have arrived at the grudging conclusion that almond milk suits me better than cow’s milk. Coz the bloating I was experiencing earlier has been relieved. I cannot not stress enough on how it has changed my life for the better.

At the same time, I cut out poultry and instead started putting together simple vegan meals. Courgetti in pesto, salads with pearl barley and chickpeas, clear soups, roasted veggies. I also continued with my beloved staple of daal (lentils) and Bengali-style veggies. And I realise that it is not tough to eat vegan. Nor is it too expensive. I just have to plan beforehand and take stock of what’s languishing in the fridge. Plus there’s the summer bounty of fresh fruits — watermelon, cucumber, kiwi, apples and mangoes.

Have you been contemplating veganism too?

Now, because life has been made easier with the option of availing online tests, you can figure out if veganism suits your body through the online lab portal, www.HealthLabs.com. Because our bodies demand bespoke lifestyles. You may opt for the basic ‘Should I be Vegan’ panel if you want to take a first step.

P.S.:

  1. This is a sponsored post. It went with the change in my life so I decided to embrace it. Though I remain a non-vegan, occasionally indulging in fish and seafood platters.
  2. The featured (grainy) photo is a shot from Ella Mills’ book on vegan meals. Red bell peppers stuffed with mushrooms and pine nuts sounds like a delicious side for lunch, so right after posting I shall get started on it.
  3. There is another lovely book I am eyeing right about now. The Green Roasting Tin by my niece-in-law, Rukmini Iyer. It offers plenty of one-dish dinners to go with this busy life of ours. Plus it looks gorgeous.
  4. Lastly, a few months ago, I would have snorted at my own post in disbelief. But I have swallowed all expressions of derision and snorts since. It is this thing called living. It makes you think twice, all the time.