9 June 2022


I hope this letter finds you well. We recently took a week-long vacation in the Great Smokey Mountains (henceforth GSM).

Smokin’ after a downpour

GSM, smokin’ after a downpour

I have other news, but that will wait for other letters, assuming I get around to writing any… I seem to be falling out of the habit.

Cherokee crafstman making masks The destination I looked forward to most, and which paid off, was Cherokee, a town at the heart of the Cherokee country in North Carolina. This was my second visit to Cherokee. If I understood correctly, it’s not a reservation; some Cherokees managed to buy the land they lived on back in the 1820s or 1830s, and so they evaded eviction during the implementation of the Indian Removal Act, though it did take a lot of lawyering to help. It’s technically the tribe’s private property, held by the federal government in trust.

Cherokee has several places worth visiting. One is Ocunaluftee, a model village / living museum that replicates Cherokee villages from the mid-to-late 2nd millennium. At each station, a guide gives a short description of what the craftsman is doing. At right you see a mask-maker; masks were important for dances and storytelling. Cherokee often used wood to make masks, but they also used gourds. A gourd-based mask in the shape of a bird’s face appears at far left.

Another worthy spot is the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. This is an indoor museum with lots of exhibits that follow the known history of the Cherokee peoples. It’s a fairly high-quality place with a nice gift shop; I walked away with a sticker with the word for “Cherokee” in their syllabary: ᏣᎳᎩ (tsa-la-gi). That’s another admirable aspect of the Cherokee: when the Cherokee Sequoyah saw that the Europeans had their own “talking leaves”, as he called writing on paper, he sat down and spent ~15 years inventing a writing system. It turned out to be easy and better-adapted to their language than the Latin alphabet is to ours. It’s a unique episode of history, and within a few years nearly all Cherokee were literate, and they had newspapers and all the rest. They still use the syllabary: on road signs, for instance.

road sign in Cherokee

The language itself is not in such great shape, but the Cherokee Tribe offers free online lessons. One day I hope to find some time to learn, if only for the challenge, but after nearly 20 years I still speak only a very poor Russian.

Another reason to visit the Cherokee reservation is for lunch. We very much enjoyed Wize Guys, which serves burgers and pizza and other tasty things. Their Hawaiian-style pizza is excellent, and the burgers are better than most I’ve had.

You might be wondering why we’d visit a Cherokee city and not patronize a Cherokee cuisine restaurant. You have a point. I was wondering myself some months ago why we can find Italian restaurants, Mexican restaurants, Chinese restaurants, Japanese restaurants, Indian (Asian) restaurants, Middle Eastern restaurants, Soul Food restaurants – we even have French restaurants, for some mysterious reason – but we don’t have Native American-themed restaurants. I thought about it a while, and I wonder if it’s because the Cherokee, the Powhatan, the Iroquois, and so forth taught us their cuisine, and today we call it American cuisine: squash, corn (including cornbread), turkey, etc. I’m probably mistaken, but I wonder.

Elena on the rocks Maria on a stump I tried to do some hiking while I was there. I couldn’t do much, as my parents were with us, they are both pushing 80, my father can’t walk more than a few feet anymore on account of both a bum knee and a bum hip, and my mother has issues with mosquitoes, so we had to stick with just a couple of short hikes. Truth be told, that was probably a good thing, since The Great OutdoorsTM is one of those concepts that I handle well only in the abstract. It is not unknown for me to get lost, tip a canoe multiple times on a trip, get rained on, and even… no, no, I still can’t recount that story.

I did get to hike to Cataract Falls, a relaxing stroll from the visitor center that greets one on the Tennessee side of the GSM. It’s worth the hike: lots of greenery and water and birds and opportunities to convince your kids that you were right to pull them away from a glowing screen. That’s Cataract Falls behind Elena on the left.

From the Visitor Center there’s a nice, curvy drive through the hills that takes you past a couple of waterfalls that you can see from the road… in principle. One is “The Sinks”; I never did see that, and while there’s a fair amount of parking, it was full. I did see a lot of people walking about in bathing suits. The second waterfall is “Meigs Falls”, visible if you look carefully. The parking is less ample, but almost no one stops to visit, so we did. You can only see it from a distance, unless you decide to walk through the woods a ways. We didn’t, as it was getting toasty, and we didn’t see a trail, but some courageous folks had in fact made their way to the falls, climbed up, and were even sitting on it.

Another place we went both driving and hiking was the Cades Cove Loop Road, an 11-mile road through very picturesque scenery. You supposedly have a much higher likelihood of seeing wildlife along this trail. On Wednesdays they close the road to automobiles; you can only walk or bike it. We went on Sunday afternoon, so we drove, but stopped in a few places, including one that offered a very short hike to an old, restored log cabin.

The road is narrow, and can bottleneck despite the pull-offs. That happened to us when someone spotted a bear and just had to stop to take photos, rather than drive to the nearest pull-off and walk back. Someone finally yelled at him, and he got back in his van and moved out of the way. As we passed the spot, sure enough, there were four bears by the side of the road: a mother and three cubs! I was driving, and I don’t like getting yelled at, so I didn’t take a photo. Galya managed a short video. The bears endured us patiently while eating their berries.

From various literature around the park I’ve read that black bears are not generally aggressive, the way grizzlies can be, not even if you happen between a mother and her cub. The problem with black bears is that people feed them (“aw, isn’t he cuuuuute?” or “I’ll get a better photo this way!”) and the clever little things learn to associate people with food: not that people are food, but that people have food, and that it is a black bear’s God-given right to relieve people of their food. Not only were we not allowed to feed the bears, we had to deposit our trash – even at our cabin – in special “bear-proof” containers.

I can’t blame the bears for living there. Cade’s Cove is gorgeous, especially at the right time of day.

Cade’s Cove panorama

Or when you’re with the right people.

We spent most of our time in the towns of Sevierville and Pigeon Forge, but I have the impression that most visitors to the region stay in Gatlinburg. I strongly discommend Gatlinburg in no uncertain terms. We spent some time there briefly on Sunday the 5th, and my word the place was aswarm with people and cars! Our goal was to visit the Anakeesta theme park, which involves taking a ski lift up a mountain, where visitors can walk a sky bridge, and… well, I don’t remember what else, but it sounded interesting when my wife proposed it.

Anyway, we never made it. There were so many visitors that I had to drop off my family and circle around town to find parking. While I was still crawling through traffic, they called and told me to come pick them up: the ski lift was broken, so we’d have to take an “Anakeesta bus” up the mountain, but buses were booked for the next 90 minutes.

Thus ended our brief excursion to Gatlinburg. Mind you, I’m not complaining. A ski lift is little more than an instrument of exquisite psychological torture, dangling riders hundreds of feet above mountain gorges. In principle, a bench preserves the rider from certain death, and sure, benches are solid, but I have difficulty believing in solids. Do you know how much space there is between the atoms of a solid? A lot. Not as much as a liquid, true, but a LOT.

Besides, the bench is suspended from a cable. Pulleys hold the cable taut, bolts hold the pulley to a post, soil holds the post firm, etc. Notice how many things can go wrong? Does the word “terra firma” come to mind? I don’t believe in that, either; I’ve read too much about sinkholes (and seen one caused by a broken water main). Terra “not-so-firma” is more like it.

As for the Anakeesta bus… I passed a couple of those, too. They didn’t look any less torturous than a ski lift, certainly not on mountain roads.

Honest, I’m not complaining. The point of this section was merely to dissuade you from visiting Gatlinburg. Stick to Cherokee, Pigeon Forge, and Sevierville. – And the park, of course.

My family did some other things, too.

Alik and sisteres at Cade’s Cove Alik spent one day entertaining his sisters. First they went to the Alcatraz East Museum, where the younger one had to be “sprung free”. Apparently she committed the crime of going through the museum too fast, or something like that. (They’ve explained it twice, and I still can’t remember the details.) Afterwards he took them to WonderWorks, a science and math amusement park (no, that’s not a typo) that from the outside looks as if some moron built it upside down. (I am not making this up. Look it up online if you don’t believe me.) They said it was a phenomenal experience, well worth the price of admission. It kept them busy all day and would have kept them busy longer, but it closed… at 10pm. That’s how long they were there!

At Jayelle’s Ranch, Galya and the kids first went zip lining for their first time ever, then joined my parents to ride horses. I preferred to stay on terra not-so-firma, so that my children have more zip-lining and horse-riding experience as of this writing than I ever intend to have. But that let me take photos:

family zip-lining

That’s about it! Of course we did a lot more, but I doubt you’d have much interest in my restaurant reviews, the local Catholic parish, or my work on a science fiction story. (“Day Four: I still have not finished Chapter Two. Words are scarce, while mosquitoes are abundant.”) We did a little eating at home and a lot of eating out, so that stepping on the scale depresses me.

The upshot is that we kept the children’s eyes away from glowing screens. In short,

It was awesome.

Some of us even got up at the crack of dawn to enjoy a great view with no one else around.

Nonna at dawn

That’s my Mom, by the way, not me. You can tell because her hair is darker, she has a lot of it, and she’s cuter than me. (True story: we once went to Mass, and the man sitting next to us asked: “So how long have you two been together?” She was very pleased. Me? not so much.)

Would I go back? I don’t know. There are lots more things to do; I didn’t hike nearly as much as I’d hoped, and I’d planned to visit Dollywood, but lost interest as the week progressed. Some of the activities are also quite expensive.

Earlier in the year I had thought to visit Flagstaff. I’d still like to go.

But I’d also like to spend a month or more in Gaeta, my mother’s hometown. I haven’t done that in about twenty years. There’s a mountain there I dream of hiking – literally dream of hiking, waking from nightmares where I have just woken up and realize it’s the day I have to return to the States, but I still haven’t hiked the mountain, and I’ve forgotten to buy the Neapolitan pastries I always buy: babà and sfogliatelle and… ooooohhhhh now I’m depressed. Those pastries are the ultimate foretaste of heaven, the most logical proof that God exists and loves us and wants us to be happy. Neither GSM nor Flagstaff has anything quite like Neapolitan pastries.

I wonder if I’ll ever dream of Hattiesburg or GSM the way I dream of Flagstaff and Gaeta. That’s the thing about some places: they enchant not only the eye, but the soul as well. The Great Smokey Mountain area of Tennessee is spectacular, and if you’ve never been there, you might want to try it. It’s enchanting in its own way, but whether it enchants the soul… well, folks are different, I guess.

God bless!

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– John / Jack Perry