Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most visited parks in the US. The biggest gateway towns, Gatlingburg and Cherokee, target tourists perhaps to the detriment of their original charm. The town where our friends live, is quaint and reflects the North Carolina mountain culture in a way these gateway towns do not. That does not mean that the locals ignore the tourists passing by. Rather they have rebuilt and refurbished the building downtown so that they look much as they must have when they were originally built. The gift shops feature the work done by local artisans. Much of it is very expensive, but when you consider all the labor and talent that has gone into the wood carvings, ceramics, paintings, quilts and furniture, the price fits the value. The restaurants downtown feature local foods prepared in the traditional way rather than being the predictable, but boring franchise places.
John and Mary also took us for a walk around a nearby lake lined with lovely old buildings, hotels, swimming pool, and a convention center run by the Methodist church. The Lake Junaleska environs are maintained by the Methodists, but shared with the local community and are a local social center for the community.
After this bit of exercise we headed toward the Cataloochee Valley, a part of the Smoky Mountains National Park that is not heavily visited because its approach is an unpaved road and slow going. The pay off at the end of this road is a herd of elk. The original elk were all exterminated by the end of the 1700's and this herd has been reintroduced in the last few years. They have no natural predators and plenty to eat, so it appears that this repatriation project has been a real success. Mary packed a picnic dinner and as we dined, we watched the elk doing like wise. It was a bucolic spot.
This valley is especially significant for Mary, because her family homesteaded here and her great grand parents were the last family members allowed to live in the home they built there, once the property was taken over by the park service. All the members of their town had to leave this beautiful valley, but Mary remembers annual reunions that brought everyone back together when she was just a child. She took us to the spot where she used to pick blackberries and killed a rattle snake that crossed her path. Today her great grandparent's home is maintained by the park service and it was a unique experience to visit this special spot with her.