I can still hear the crunch of the leaves beneath my boots. The feel of the breeze in a lazy ponytail. The chirps of the birds and the gurgling of the creek as I meander along the most beautiful trails. The laughter of my companions. Paths that reveal new delights with each step. This is a place close to my heart. A place left behind in memory ten years ago. It is a place wrapped in history, nature, salvation yet separation. A place that has always possessed a magical charm. A place of dreams. A place of contemplations as well as reflections. A place of escape. A place that is now home to the elk who were reintroduced in 2001. The elk who had been wiped out during the Great Depression. Cataloochee can be found just outside of Maggie Valley, North Carolina at the top of Jonathan Creek Road. A road I knew too well in my day to day life before moving to Boston. Jonathan Creek Road was the road my daughter went to elementary school and I bought gas. Jonathan Creek Road was home to the new Dollar General we loved to shop.
Jonathan Creek Road is where I would turn onto Cove Creek Road on a nearly weekly basis with friends or whenever we found the time. All seasons are represented in the Appalachian Mountains. The road to the old settlement was rocky, gravelly, and bumpy. In some places it was necessary to slow to a near crawl so as not to accidentally run into anyone. Parts of the road were narrow and the drop off one side could be lethal. I drove my silver Subaru with the utmost skill. I remember hiking there before the reintroduction of the elk when it became more than just a place to hike, camp, write, read, and reminisce. Dream of the future.
Trips to Cataloochee had to be planned during non-peak elk observing time. There were no more impromptu hikes. As the elk increased, so did the tourists. They parked their cars to watch the elk, becoming a favorite past time. Clogging the small windy road. It was imperative to keep one’s distance from the elk because they are not the friendliest animals and quite frankly, I cannot blame them. They have been known to attack. They are trying to live their lives and here are all these annoying humans with their car fumes and cameras sitting in lawn chairs as they graze and mate. I was glad to see their reintroduction, but the masses of viewers were an intrusion. A once quiet place became overrun by human pests.
Early evening was a popular time for the elk to make themselves visible, so we would go early. Sometimes take a picnic. Cataloochee is a fascinating place because it is like a ghost town. As one hikes, you are greeted by old houses, a barn, church, and schoolhouse. This was once a homestead. The desks remain in the Beech Grove Schoolhouse. A settlement that had been forced out in the 1930’s when the government included their land within the boundaries of what would become part of the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. Today when one visits, the houses are open, yet empty, and visitors can walk through them. Caldwell House is one of the bigger homes which is two stories. The walls pasted with old newspapers used in that time as part of the construction for insulation and the pleasant benefit of helping children to learn to read faster. The newspaper was that era’s equivalent of what the back of cereal boxes were to me as a child. The smell is musty, windows are broken, cobwebs and mouse droppings visible, yet surprisingly still in adequate shape.
The quaint Palmer Church is nearby with a green lawn where couples still exchange vows. I imagine a gathering of churchgoers after a service on a beautiful summer day. The history of the home seeped through my feet as I stepped on the porch of the Caldwell house. Taking in its soul. Its heart. Climbing the tight staircase into two small rooms.Gazing out cloudy windows. Imagining the children playing behind the house when it snowed. Each room housing a small fireplace.
Walking along the gravel road, I moved deeper into the woods where a smaller home stood, the Hannah cabin built by John Jackson Hannah in 1864. Unlike Caldwell house, it was dark brown and nestled deep in the cove. A springhouse, a small structure built over a spring, a few feet away which housed meats and other foods that needed preserving. This cabin is still surrounded by tall trees and a great hideaway for garter, copperhead, and rattlesnakes. Copperheads and I are blood sisters since I have been unfortunate enough to have stepped on and scaring the living daylights out of a baby suffering its retaliation; a bite which led to swelling to the middle of my thigh. A college trip to the North Carolina Arboretum turned into a night in the hospital. The tiny scar still visible between my toes. A natural tattoo reminding me of that chapter in my life.
The trail leads deeper into the forest where there are camping sites slated out with the usual ropes and pulleys to hang food up high to keep the bears from accessing it. This vision can be a little daunting because it is the affirmation that bears are more than likely nearby. Each time I stood there one memory would flood my thoughts. I will never forget hiking in the Smokies in Tennessee when I was a little girl and hearing the bears climb up the trees tearing down our bags while I tried to sleep. I had a slight cough and it was all I could do to silence it. The sight that I beheld the next morning after leaving the tent will forever be imprinted on my subconscious. The bears left only mints for us to eat. As a little girl, it seemed we were miles from the car. We had to cut our outing short and go home to Georgia grabbing food on the way. It is one of the few memories I hold dear of my father who was very much like a father to me then even if he forfeited that years later. But that is a topic for another day.
The smell, the sounds, the brush of the breeze on my cheek are lasting memories and what has made me feel as if I am a small part of this special place of quietude and unrest that follows me wherever I may go. A welcome travel partner throughout all aspects of life. A place that was taken from the Cherokee Indians by settlers who in turn had it taken from them by the government in preservation of the mountains after many years of logging the forest. As with anything of beauty there are scars. Leaving it to the tourists to stamp their own destructive mark on this sacred land. I marveled at the history that greeted me as I made my way through its paths or took in the sight of a rumbling creek. Crossing a bridge or a log. Taking time to rest, letting the cold water cleanse my fingertips. Admiring the wildflowers which bloomed in the early spring. Cataloochee owns a special place in my heart that will always leave me longing to stand within its warm embrace. This is a place that has seen me through many stages of my life, of growth, stagnation, and heartache. It is a place that has been stripped of its integrity and has had it returned. It is a place that is once again home to its native elk who will never know life as their ancestors did. The freedom of life with no microscope. It is a magical place that has seen living in ways that I could only imagine. Hard living based on survival. It is a place that remembers simpler times and where it is still difficult to get cell service forcing one to fully immerse in all it has to offer.
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