At last I have a chance to sit down and tell the story of our adventure. To begin with, it was a trip that we have made many times before (in fact, my sister makes it at least three times a year, and I go whenever I can). So the route and the time frame are pretty well set in stone. Only this time, that stone fell apart and there was an avalanche of unexpected events. They were not big in themselves, but every time we rounded a corner, it seemed, we were being put on hold. There in the middle of one of the major interstate highways, traffic was creeping along, bumper to bumper and sometimes at virtually a standstill – across half a state. And not just for an hour or so, but for the whole last half of the trip.
Now, of course, truckers are one of the biggest groups of interstate users all over the nation, but I have to say that during these four hours of heavy traffic congestion, we found ourselves snuggling super close to these big 18-wheel babies – front, back and both sides. I tell you, after about four solid hours of that kind of snuggling, we just felt we’d developed a new kind of intimacy with these big guys. And what normally takes 8 hours, or 9 if we stop on the way, turned into a solid 12 hours of high-stress driving and arriving at the inn two hours late for supper.
Never fear. The innkeepers have a heart of gold and had put back a plate for each of us. Oh, my goodness. If we had sat at the table (the meals are always family style at this inn), we would never have loaded our plates with so much bounty. It was piled so high you could hardly figure out where to start. We had succulent beef roast, the best salmon cakes I have ever eaten in my life, mashed potatoes and gravy, mixed greens, corn pudding, carrots, green beans, black-eyed peas, Waldorf salad, and some kind of chocolate pudding creation for dessert. Of course, the food there is always terrific, but waiting so long to eat added a special satisfaction to that particular meal. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to clean our plates.
The following day, we began our normal routine of sightseeing, shopping, and just absorbing the gorgeous mountains. My love for the Smoky Mountains goes beyond the elemental use of words. There are no words. I’ve tried on a number of occasions to describe how I feel when I’m there, but I never do the feelings justice. Sometimes I wonder if I feel so drawn to the mountains and so at home there because of my Cherokee blood. I don’t know, but I’m beginning to believe that there’s something to that idea. And, of course, there are many happy memories of great family experiences connected with those mountains. My sister and I made our first trip across them when we were aged 3 and 6, and we never forgot the thrill of the journey.
Anyway, we had a very successful day of getting great photographs, food, local items that we can’t purchase anywhere else, and – of course – chocolate. This year we bought our first batch of chocolate from a candy chef who kept assuring us that his fudge would not melt in the car as we traveled and would freeze perfectly. I finally looked at him and said, “Are you actually assuming that there will be any of this fudge left long enough to melt or freeze either one?”
However, that visit wasn’t all about buying and eating. Since my niece by marriage has become a confectioner in St. Louis, my sister (her mother-in-law) knew a lot of the finer points of her work, so she and the owner of the store chatted and exchanged ideas on candy-making. Who knows, there may be some brand new recipes coming up as a result of that conversation. We finally made our selections. My sister started with a huge Rice-Krispies Bar that was loaded on top with chocolate, caramel, and nuts. And did I say it was big? Then she made choices from the smaller candies. I settled for a slab of peanut butter fudge and some chocolate truffles (some with blackberry filling and some with orange.) Oh, I also want to go on record as reporting that it was my sister who bought the chocolates with liquor in them, not I.
Of course, our candy shopping was not over, because we always go to the Mast General Store as well, and in their basement, they have almost one half of the store devoted to baskets and baskets of great individually wrapped candies. Many of them are the old-fashioned things that you can hardly find anywhere else: Cherry Mashes, Liquorice Bulls Eyes, Chocolate Ice Cubes, and on and on and on. They even stock the Fizzies drink mix. (Does anyone else out there remember Fizzies from the 50’s and 60’s?). Well, we each filled up a sack from all those bountiful baskets and that pretty well took care of the candy shopping.
Besides, we had to save room for fresh-baked apple turnovers and apple cakes and apple cider donuts. There’s an orchard in the area where my sister loves to visit, and they have their own bakery. We cannot pass up their turnovers, which are thick, thick , thick with apples. And the apple cakes are scrumptious. In fact, we made a second trip the morning we left just to make sure we got the cakes right out of the oven that morning.
But getting back to candy for a moment, it led to another “exciting” first-time experience for us. Now, most everyone who loves chocolate knows that you can’t have a good snack on chocolate unless you have a good cup of coffee to go with it, so we decided to hop into the local McDonald’s for a cup. We had to use the bathroom, of course, so we went to the Ladies’ room first. I did say Ladies’ room, didn’t I? Yes, I did. The door definitely said “Women” on it. I’d like to emphasize that fact. When we entered the room we saw that one of the two stalls was occupied, and my sister went ahead and went into the empty one. (She had to “go” worse than I did.) I stood patiently waiting for the other lady to finish, but when the stool flushed and the door opened, out came this big, burly man.
I’m sure my mouth hung open, but always one with good presence of mind, I spoke up immediately and said, “Oh, did we come into the wrong room?” Whereupon I opened the door to check the sign on the outside. It said “Women,” so I turned back toward the man and said, “No, this is right.” To which he said absolutely nothing. He just hurried past me and out the door. Not even an “excuse me” or anything. Sheesh! How embarrassing. But it just goes to show that you can never believe everything you read. Of course, in Europe, bathrooms that allow both sexes in at the same time are not all that unusual, so my sister takes that stuff with a grain of salt. But then, she wasn’t standing there when this great big guy walked out and almost right into me either.
Well, I’m all for education, and that was part of a good education, no doubt. Moreover, our education in that department was not over, because when we made the trip back to Illinois, we had another unusual experience concerning the bathroom. To begin with, driving home we did not meet much tie up in traffic, but we had to plow through one horrific rain storm. As we were just getting out of it, we decided to pull into a Pilot travel stop to use the bathroom. (I know I make it sound as though we “go” a lot, but this was an entirely different day from the previous episode.)
We walked in and started toward the ladies’ bathroom, only to meet the manager standing in the door with a big bunch of cleaning apparatus. He said he was cleaning the bathrooms right then so we couldn’t use them, but that he had prepared one of the truckers showers for use during that time. Since the showers are usually way out of the way, he had to direct us. We found the area just fine, and we were not sorry, because, after all, this too was an elucidating experience. Neither of us had ever been in a trucker’s shower before. And we both were delightfully surprised to find how clean and orderly everything was. My sister especially enjoyed the experience because she had always assumed they would be dirty, wet, and smelly. Of course, this one had probably been cleaned that day, but, even so, it was sparkling, and that was a nice surprise. Thought provoking, isn’t it — that we had become so intimate with the truckers on the way down to N.C., and now, here we were using their showers on the way back. Maybe we should think about changing careers.
I did forget to tell you, though, that a couple hours before that stop, we had pulled into a Cracker Barrel to have supper. It was pouring rain, and since Brenda was driving, she let me out at the porch and then found a parking place. She came running toward the porch with her umbrella in hand, when two dogs jumped from a parked car and started toward her in attack mode. She had the presence of mind to stop and face them instead of just running, and I hurried back over to where she was and started yelling at the dogs. They eventually backed off, but it wasn’t until they were already subdued that the owner even bothered to do anything at all. Even then, he just yelled at them. He didn’t bother to pick them up or corral them in any physical way. They should have been on leashes at the very least. This world is full of irresponsible people, but we have our guardian angels, thank the Lord.
Meanwhile, back at the inn: I have digressed in order to tell you about our educational experiences, but there is one other thing that I am proud of personally, and it took place at the inn. My bathroom sink just would not put out hot water the way I needed it. I had to run it about 10 minutes before it got hot. So basically, the only faucet handle I used 90% of the visit was that “hot” handle. I guess it got tired, because one night it just fell off. I went on to bed and planned to tell someone in the morning, but by morning, I decided that I could fix it. So – even though I don’t belong to the plumber’s union, I dug right in and repaired the sink. And even though it sounds like bragging, I’m proud to say that that little handle does an even better job now of putting out “not hot” water than it did before.
But enough about the places and things. Let’s talk about the people. (People other than the two irresponsible men I’ve already mentioned.) I’ve saved them for last because they were truly the highlight of the trip. We met several really nice folks. You always do when you spend time around a table for meals and have time to visit. However, one of the nicest couples I met wasn’t staying at the inn. They are potters in Dillsboro, NC . The man allowed me to watch him work for as long as I wanted, and he explained that the business had been in his family for several generations. His great grandfather had come into the mountains and set up his kiln and pottery shop, and the sons had carried on the work in each generation. This man’s son and daughter-in-law are also involved now as well.
We also met a pastry chef form Bolivia. She was so sweet and so excited and passionate about her work. She shared with us how she first came to the States and wanted to find a job in a bakery. No one would hire her because she had no previous experience. She said she loved that kind of work and knew from her personal experience that she was good at it, so she finally offered to work for free at one bakery so that they could see what she could do. They allowed her to work with them – for no pay – only on Mondays, but at the end of the second Monday, they were so impressed with her work that they hired her full time. In a few months, she was the director of the decorating department, and eventually went on to get involved in other departments – again working from the bottom up. Her story was just a great reminder that this nation still offers so many opportunities to people who are willing to work hard to develop their skill and who are passionate enough to do whatever it takes to get started.
She later moved back to Bolivia and opened her own business. But eventually, she returned to the States and married. She’s currently considering starting her own small business in their hometown in South Carolina, focusing on special event cakes. She described creating sugar magnolias for one of the cakes she has done recently, and it just made our mouth water. It’s always a joy to talk with creative people. They spark creativity in me, and I hope I do the same in them.
Now the last lady I will share about is probably the most precious of all. Meeting her was worth the whole trip if we had done nothing else. We sat beside her and her son at the breakfast table, and we understood that they were on their way to Knoxville to see her newest great-grandchild. As we talked I thought of her as being about 80 years old. You know how you generally get a feeling about people’s ages. When she told me that she was 100, I nearly fell out of my chair. She had just celebrated her 100th birthday this past May, and this lady (Lela Barnes) was perfectly sound of mind, eager to converse, and full of interesting things to share. At one point, when I was talking to her about how young she looked and acted, she said, “I just never thought about getting old.” I’ve included her picture with this story because I think anyone who sees it will agree that she does not look like the normal idea of a 100-year-old woman.
I was most blessed about the things she told me concerning her personal life, living in Minnesota and marrying a minister, who eventually moved them to Virginia and then to South Carolina, where she’s currently from. Then she proceeded to share with me about his home-going three years ago. She said they were sitting in the living room, having their meal on a TV tray. Suddenly, her husband stopped eating and threw up both hands. She said when he did that, it spilled some of his milk, and she went into the kitchen for a towel. When she returned, there was another man standing beside her husband. That really surprised her, and she said something to her husband. But he did not answer, so she reached over and took hold of his wrist, checking his pulse. She told me, “I said to him, ‘Why, you don’t have a pulse. You’re dead.’” At that point the man beside him disappeared, and she realized that it had been her husband’s angel who had come to usher him into the presence of the Lord.”
She’s bravely gone on making a happy life for herself, but after being married to the same man for well over 60 years, you know it has to be hard. She looked at me and said, “I miss him.” And the words spoke volumes – more than most people will ever even begin to experience. I will never be the same after visiting with her, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to draw from her life and faith.
And that’s just about all I have to tell — Oh, there is one more thing. I shouldn’t forget something this important: While I was perusing a book on Indian medicine, in a store in Cherokee, NC, I discovered a remedy for rheumatoid arthritis. Here’s what you do: Have the person urinate, then take some of that urine and rub it on the afflicted area. (Now it has to be his own urine – not someone else’s). After that, make a poultice with the urine and wrap it around the afflicted part. And there you have the cure. Who wouldn’t want to try it? I have to admit that this has been one of the most educational trips I’ve ever taken.
See more photos from the trip HERE.