The stone cabin I’m writing from is a place I’m not supposed to tell you about. It’s not down a road marked for leaf-looker traffic, nor does it have views with an observation deck. GPS doesn’t work here. It doesn’t work up hollers shaded by white pines, tangled in kudzu. It doesn’t help you find the seat of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) government, located just ten miles away. It doesn’t lead you to sacred sites or legendary fishing holes.
Nested high on a mountain, the cabin lies in the heart of Swain County, North Carolina. To the west, Bryson City bustles with Great Smoky Mountains Railroad riders, tumbling summer tubers and would-be time travelers exploring the vestiges of long-buried communities. To the east, the Qualla Boundary brims with hopeful gamblers, enthusiastic outdoorsmen and cultural voyeurs. And families. Communities. We are here, too—people so rooted to this land, we have no need for GPS.
The EBCI represents those Cherokee who remained in our homeland during the forced Indian removal known as the Trail of Tears. While a majority of Cherokee were pushed west to Oklahoma, a smaller contingency remained behind, hiding out in the mountains or brokering deals in order to avoid abandoning their homeland.
In 1942, ten miles west of Bryson City, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) flooded Swain County homes and farms for the creation of Fontana Dam. The dam provided the economic boon of jobs and electricity to the Tennessee Valley in exchange for uprooting the lives of hundreds of families and relocating thousands of graves.
Cherokee proper and Swain County more broadly have survived off tourism for decades, but their modern resilience is rooted in a unique environmental conservation—in shared values unyielding to economic pressures. The land has provided a source of revenue for this region since trade began, and like many similar communities, far western North Carolina has had its historical share of natural resource depletion and manipulation for economic purposes, including a logging industry, stream pollution from factories, and mountaintop removal. But today, we’ve traded depletion and manipulation for conservation: safeguarding the waterways, ridges and endangered species that tourism depends on.In contrast to the casinos or discount cigarette outlets on many reservations, Fire Mountain gambles on visitors wanting to engage with the landscape and mingle with locals like me.
This cabin was once an abandoned shack of a structure, a remote party spot for squatters and teenagers. When my father purchased the property over 15 years ago, shortly after my mother was diagnosed with carcinoid cancer, he and I went in with crowbars and stripped the walls of their wormy chestnut paneling so that he could repurpose them as shelving. He wanted this cabin to be a gift to my mother, a distraction from the disease. We cleaned up the cans and bottles from the otherwise bare floors and placed decades’ worth of Dad’s kitschy tourist trinket collection, complete with headdressed bobblehead figurines and postcards of tepees, on the newly finished shelves.
What I see now as I step onto the inlay flagstone porch of the cabin, peering through the steam of my morning coffee and the fog of sunrise, is our Mother Town, Kituwah. Kituwah Mound is the origin of the Cherokee people. It is the place from which we all came, and also a place almost lost forever. Our only female principal chief, Joyce Dugan, oversaw the repatriation purchase in 1996 after 176 years of the site being used for farmland and the threat of it being dozed for economic development.
I didn’t grow up hearing stories about this place in the way people often imagine. There was no movie script moment; no one sat us down around a campfire and told the secrets of the Cherokee world. It is a subtle teaching: a comment on a drive by a field or mound or point in the river. A school field trip led by native speakers like Tom Belt, a historical scholar and citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, who seem to just be holding conversation but are instead teaching you about the details of the landscape, like how the river bends to encourage trade routes. I had never even heard of Kituwah’s origin until high school.
Many locals still refer to Kituwah as Ferguson Fields, referencing the longtime farming family who owned the land. It is an unassuming spot. Often there are more elk and turkey surveying the grounds than people. But Kituwah is my compass. The Tuckasegee River hugs its southeastern border, a reminder of ancient trade routes. Kituwah sits in the shadow of other significant Cherokee sites, another indication that it has always been a compass. From Kituwah one can see the peaks of Mount Noble and Fry Mountain, part of the Appalachian Mountains, one of the oldest ranges in the world.
Yet, on most days, especially on writing days, when I need perspective, I seek another summit–one that requires a little bit of sweat and two wheels.
With my bike loaded onto the car, I drive ten minutes up Highway 19 to Fire Mountain, the newest addition to Cherokee’s recreational landscape. I pass the most iconic Cherokee cultural sites on my way, including Kituwah Mound, the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, the Unto These Hills outdoor drama and the Oconaluftee Indian Village. Because I grew up here, those places fade into my subconscious; I am more interested in a quick stop at a local coffee shop or picking up some gear at Fire Mountain Outpost.
Since Fire Mountain Trails opened in 2017, mountain biking has transformed my writing practice and rekindled my love of these mountains. Sometime between prepubescent abandon and warning my own children to watch for snakes under fallen leaves, I forgot the magic of the forest. The trails have lured me back into the woods of my youth, where curved wooden bridges cross mossy creek beds and tunnels of twisting rhododendron and mountain laurel create blushing pink and mauve portals that spill out between slopes of verdant ferns.
In contrast to the casinos or discount cigarette outlets on many reservations, Fire Mountain gambles on visitors wanting to engage with the landscape and mingle with locals like me. The trails are well-designed, challenging yet accessible—important when I was just learning the sport. While the trail system is free to visitors, its ripples have helped to redefine the tribe’s image, with bike wheels and Nalgenes replacing plastic tomahawks and multicolored feather headdresses.
I often meet riders and exchange stories at a respite shelter called Raven’s Roost. On one particularly hot July day, while catching my breath at the shelter, I delved into a discussion with two retired women who, while fit for their age, professed to be casual riders like myself. Learning that I was, in fact, both a local and an enrolled member of the tribe, one of the women casually, albeit pointedly, asked, “Do they treat you well?”
I was taken aback. “Does who treat me well?”
“I mean . . . I guess so. I’m sorry. I don’t understand your question.”
But I did understand. I understood the implications of her limited knowledge of our tribe and our relationship with the United States. We are wards in her eyes, people to be cared for. But the reality is that, as an enrolled member, it is my responsibility to care for the land we were standing on. It’s this stubborn responsibility that has kept my tribe on this land for thousands of years, despite aggressive shifts in federal policy.
It is the same stubborn responsibility that has also kept my non-Cherokee family tied to this land for centuries.
When the United States rolled out the Indian Relocation Act of 1956, my grandfather and his brother moved to Chicago briefly to work. An employer told my great-uncle that he was malnourished when he got there. He replied, “I’m not malnourished. I’m just hungry.” These men talked about how eager they were to return home—home to a place where my fraternal great-grandmother was known to foster any flower or tree or shrub clipping into a full-grown plant in the creek beside her house because “the water was special. It came from this land.” My grandfather and his brother were hungry in a way only this land satiates.
While Fire Mountain has come to feel like my home trail, I often seek variety at Tsali Recreation Area near Fontana Lake. Named for a Cherokee removal resister, this, too, is a short drive from my cabin epicenter. Its series of trails weaves through woods and provides panoramic views of the water below.
As I skirt the lake rim of Fontana on my bike, I am reminded of what lies under the surface. I am once again reminded of origins.
My maternal grandfather’s childhood home is beneath those waters. He grew up on Eagle Creek, where his father was a store owner and postmaster and owned a copper mine. His mother taught at the school. In the name of the war effort (which would later be uncovered as, at least partially, nuclear production in nearby Oak Ridge, Tennessee), the TVA brought in 5,000 temporary dam construction workers, transforming the former homes and farms of the evicted into the second-largest city in western North Carolina. Once my grandfather’s family was removed, they moved to Bryson City and opened up one of the first motels in western North Carolina, Myers Court.
My uncle still remembers his childhood growing up in Bryson City, when the Tuckasegee River was as black as tar from the straight piping of outhouses and other waste dumping. Even today, rusting classic cars line the riverbanks, a method used for building the riverbanks up and protecting roads from erosion. Bumpers, fenders and door frames speckle the banks throughout Swain County like antique gems. Fortunately, the river is now clean enough to fish out of and swim in.
On summer days, I boat across to Hazel Creek, another flooded community, and walk among the remnants of homes and factories and graveyards. But access to these sites is not always possible. The descendants of Fontana families are the very ones ensuring these sites remain part of our heritage, in part by establishing small businesses in Bryson City rooted in environmental conservation and appreciation. Businesses like Bryson City Outdoors, Darnell Farms and the Nantahala Outdoor Center bubbled up from a convergence of local intuition, work ethic and innovation. They lead tours on this land and through these waters, ever vigilant to protect spaces not only as a means of economic survival, but out of an inherent gratitude for our homeland.
It may seem counterintuitive that tourism is preserving rather than exploiting these resources, but to me, this speaks to the presence of business leaders raised on local values. True, there is always money to be made by taking more visitors on Smoky Mountain adventures, but these local companies abide by not only governmental restrictions, but also a genuine deference to preserving the integrity of natural spaces. We are all well aware of the loss this land has experienced and the difficulty in restoring its treasures such as rare amphibians and medicinal plant varieties.
Even my daily drive up Fontana Road to Swain County High School, where I teach, is a constant reminder of near erasure and the need for protection. The town’s directional signs jointly list Swain High School and The Road to Nowhere. Locals joke that we hope those two place names are not synonymous, but I am sure the irony is disconcerting for visitors. The Road to Nowhere is as it sounds: a picturesque, winding drive through verdant national parkland, climaxing at a tunnel that spills out into, well, nowhere. Day hikers explore the surrounding trails, road bikers make the pilgrimage on warm days, and teens tell ghost stories in the pitch-black tunnel on summer nights. This road was supposed to be completed as part of an agreement with the federal government so that families could always access cemeteries isolated by the dam’s construction. It was never finished, and generations of residents have never allowed legislators to forget this unfulfilled promise.
Down the mountain from my cabin respite, all these stories wait, safeguarded. I run my hands along the bookshelves’ chestnut paneling. The American chestnut and its destruction by invasive fungal disease: yet another eradication, another story lost from this landscape that people are still trying to revive. I think of how rare this piece of wood is, this place is. In the face of relentless progress that threatens to erase the past, I keep unearthing these stories that belong to me and my community, embedded in the landscape.
Excerpted from Great Smoky Mountains: A Field Guide. Copyright © 2020. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Wildsam.