Cataloochee Valley

It is the beginning of autumn here on the East Coast. I can feel it in the softness of the sunshine and in the nippy breeze that flows in and out of our home; ’tis in the hint of colour as the leaves on some trees in the park have started to flame out into brilliant reds, others have graduated to lime green, the rest are plain ol’ slowpokes holding onto their sheaths of green; I can feel the change in the simple pleasure of walking a couple of miles to the library, which might not be too a distressing figure at all, but smack in the middle of summer and winter, oh it feels far far away; there’s also the leonine golden retriever who sits with his old master everyday in the park and seems to have turned a deeper russet to welcome the season. Maybe it’s just my fancy, but he looks as happy as I feel. Now how the scenes would change if we were on the high ridges of the Great Smoky Mountains, where the woods are dense and human footfall rare, where it is the rutting season for the elks.

As warmer colours seep into the foliage around them, primal instincts (and love?) take over the workings of the animal kingdom in the valley called Cataloochee, where even as I write, the bull elks must find themselves bugling to the cows.

Cades Cove despite its lush beauty and picturesque meadows started to feel like a tourist’s thoroughfare when we hit the dirt roads that winded higher and higher up through Cataloochee that scooches within two main valleys, Big Cataloochee and Little Cataloochee, soldiered by 6,000 foot high ridges. We found a place of gravel roads, switchbacks and old steel girder bridges which together stitched up divides, ridges and narrow valleys.

All in all, it was a cathedral of silence around us. Not a single soul to be met as we passed by water power stations and old country stores, brooks and mountain cemeteries.

We were in ‘Gadalutsi’ of the Cherokees. They hunted and fished here just as they did in Cades Cove. The fertile land around the creeks here attracted the attention of European settlers who trickled in during the mid-1800s and bought the land from the tribes. They started calling it Cataloochee, possibly their stuttering take on the Cherokee name which referred to the straight-backed conifers lining the ridges. It is said to have been an amicable arrangement. The settlers mastered the Cherokee tongue and they co-existed peacefully with the tribes. Some even helped out those Cherokees who did not set out on the infamous Trail of Tears (in 1838 the tribes were forced to move across 1,200 miles on foot to present-day Oklahoma).

It seems fitting then that the descendants of those Cherokees, who clung to their land, should live on a reservation nearby today. At the Oconaluftee Indian Village they showcase their old ways of living to gaping tourists. We caught a whiff of it when we saw a wizened man there jump around in a towering headdress upon his head, a war bonnet. I have no doubt that his audience watched him with rapt attention.

But let me not veer from the Cataloochee which in the late 1800s to early 1900s had a community of just above a thousand people. It was the most lived-in place in the Smoky Mountains. Those pioneers grew corn for a living, set up grist mills, reared cattle for beef, sent their children to two-room schools, crafted shoes out of felt hats, sang of faith and participated in revivals with the arrival of autumn, brewed some ‘wicked’ moonshine, and generally, they lived the rustic life. When tourists discovered the beauty of these mountains and came knocking on their doors, these families boarded and charged them to fish trout in the creeks adjoining their land.

We found abandoned log houses in the valley, their rooms forlorn and empty of everything except for the fireplaces of bricks, bits and pieces of newspapers still sticking scrappily to the walls and reminding us that this was the humble life where people used paper for insulation. You could easily set up home within because you could see that the wood was sturdy.

Yet these people had abandoned their perfect little homes.

It turns out that they were asked to vacate their lands by the authorities when the Great Depression set in in the ’30s. For years, lumber companies had indiscriminately destroyed batches of old forestation with their dastardly business of logging. The mountains were in a bad way. Naturalists like Horace Kephart campaigned for the preservation of this beautiful part of the world, paving the way for the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which also translated into jobs for young men. It was by 1934 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt granted it national park status that a whole mountain community had also lost their homes.

That is how we left it behind, the land which seems to exist on another dimension, as if no one had ever set foot within it except for the legacy of those early settlers which tell a different story. The voice in the video with its Transatlantic accent states succinctly: “National Parks are not built. God made them in the beginning.” But the preservation of this national park would not have got anywhere, it seems to me, without the sacrifice of these Cataloochee folks who could not have found it easy to let go of their beloved mountains.

P.S.: As usual there was no elk sighting in store for us. Not even a bear, and bears love showing up in the valley, they say. Just a fresh pile of bear doo-doo for us.

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Waterville Power Station in Cataloochee
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Waynesville in North Carolina
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Country store, Waynesville
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Pigeon River
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Gravel roads in the Cataloochee Valley
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Driving through Cataloochee

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Fresh bear scat
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Bridges and brooks
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Cataloochee Overlook where the ferns grow waist high and the mountains flow into one another in smoky blue waves
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Homes of the early settlers
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What would it be like to live here? Just give me a library and coffee shop nearby and I would be a happy bee.
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Bunkhouse where the Palmers put up tourists who came fishing in their creek
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The Palmers’ barn
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Peeking inside the barn
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You have an an iconic American architectural style right here in the Palmers’ house. The dogtrot style where a passage divided the home into two sections: with kitchen and dining area in one and living quarters in the other half. In those early times of no electricity, it allowed the passage of breeze through the house.

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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.