The first whole day I would spend in North Carolina had arrived. I would be based in Cherokee for two days, though most of the time I would spend out of town.
Getting ready to leave Bryson City on the Great Smoky mountains Railroad
After breakfast, which I ate at the hotel relativly early, I drove directly to Bryson City, where the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad has its terminus. From Cherokee to Bryson City there are only 10 miles and as there was not much traffic, it only took me 20 minutes to get there, though I did pause to take a few pictures of the ubiquitous kudzu. That meant I was already at the parking lot about five minutes past 9. Here I parked the car, paying the $ 6 they charged - a whole dollar more than last year - oh, where is the world heading? I immediately went over to the ticket office to exchange my reservation for an envelope with a few tickets. Before booking, I had considered which of the two trips to choose. One goes to Dillsboro along the Tuckasegee River and I hadn't tried it before. The second one goes to the Nantahala Gorge along the Nantahala River and Fontana Lake, and I did that in 2018. However, I had decided to take this trip again; mostly because the Tuckasegee trip includes a one-and-a-half hour stop in Dillsboro, and there are not that much to see in this town, and I could drive there from Cherokee myself, which I decided to do the next day.
In 2018, I had booked a first-class seat, which was nice enough, but unfortunately, I had been placed at a two-person table in the side of the wagon where there was least to see. This time, therefore, I had booked a seat in a so-called "open-air gondola". Here you are facing the sides of the carriages - ie sitting sideways in the direction of travel, there is no glass in the windows, and you change side at the terminal, so that you have a view of both sides during the trip. However, not many people stayed in their seats, as we all got up and turned around whenever there was something on the opposite side to see and photograph. There are two of these types of wagons in the train - one with numbered seats and one with so-called "free seating". I had chosen the first one which was a little more expensive than the second, but in return there was a sandwich and free coffee / soda included as well as a tote and a thermo jug.
The guide in this car was called Steve, and he started by telling that it was he who trained all the other guides, so that what he would tell us was much better than in the other cars, as he didn't teach his trainees all the best stories :-). He was generally very entertaining all the way. Before we left, he warned us that about 50 % of what he said would be true. The car behind ours had no doors, so those going in that car had to pass through the one we were in. That was because it was the so-called "moonshine wagon", where passengers had paid extra to taste "moonshine" along the way. Moonshine was originally a term for illegally produced liquor, but now it is produced legally (even if there are still some not so legal distilleries hidden in the woods - or so I've been told). The reason there were no doors - according to Steve - was because the train company wouldn't risk someone getting off the train on the go after tasting the goods. And when Steve was acting as guide in this particular car, only 10% of what he told would be true, because no one could remember anything after the trip anyway. When he found that there were only adults in our car, he could also afford to tell "adult jokes", but in the end he didn't. The closest he got was when we passed an old building that had originally housed the county's oldest brothel, complete with red lights in the windows and more, of course he told this, and a little about the ladies' work, then added that when he at one point in another carriage had a bunch of kids as passengers, he had told them it was the county's oldest ice cream shop. Incidentally, the brothel was no longer in operation, so-as he said - there was no neeed for us to go there after the ride. Then he told how he had experienced something interesting a few days earlier. As the train passed a remote cove on Fontana Lake, there had been six people, three of each sex practicing "naked paddling". He believed that they had believed that they had found an isolated place where they could be naked without spectators, and had not realized they would be passed by a train with 600 tourists, all armed with cameras. So they ended up jumping into the lake, but not until most people had gotten some good pictures.
But otherwise we saw the same things as in 2018 (for obvious reasons), but he actually told about other things that the guide had not told us the year before. At one point we passed a campsite on the other side of the river, and he said that where it was now, one of the stockades where members of the Cherokee tribe had been detained before being sent out on the 4000 mile walk to Oklahoma, that later became known as The Trail of Tears. Some of the descendants of those who survived, are now living in Cherokee Nation in Talequah, Oklahoma, which we had visited a few days earlier. Steve told us that only the foundations of the palisades were left, but still I decided that I would head out there the next day and see what I could find. Along the way, I got to talk with the couple sitting next to me, and as usual, it was quite nice. At the terminus, which is actually in the middle of nowhere, and not at a station, we then swapped seats with the person sitting on the opposite side and then headed back to the Nantahala Outdoor Center, where there was an hour long break. On the way back there, it was possible (for a fee) to taste some of the moonshine they were served next door, and I bought myself a glass of "blueberry shine" for $3, and it was really good.
The Million Dollar View - All of the train is visible going around a bend in the river.
Just before we reached the outdoor center, where you can indulge in all kinds of outdoor activities, not least rafting and wildwater kayaking, Steve showed us some caves in the mountainside. In these caves, a group of Cherokees had hidden in 1838 and thus avoided being forced on the Trail of Tears. One of the caves, sacred to the tribe already long before 1838, goes all the way through the mountain. The caves are in fact lava tunnels from when the mountains were young, but was some time ago as the Appalachians are considered some of the world's oldest mountains, more than 480 million years old. Many years later, a man named Eric Rudolph had also been hiding in the caves, when he escaped from the police. Rudolph was a right-wing white supremacist, anti-abortionist and terrorist, who killed 3 and wounded 150 in an Atlanta, Georgia bombing during the 1996 Olympics. He believed the Olympics were organized as a socialist conspiracy backed by Washington DC, and he was opposed to the idea. When he was identified as the bomber in 1998, an arrest warrant was issued and he was included on the FBI's Most Wanted list. However, he managed to escape and returned to the Nantahala area of North Carolina, where he had grown up. He managed to stay hidden for five years, most of which was spent in the caves in question. Along the way, he got help from his family, who refused to believe he was guilty. In 2003, he was arrested by a rookie cop, who had no idea who he was, when he (the cop, not Rudolph) caught him searching a container behind a supermarket in the town of Murphy, which I visited in 2017 (the town, not the container). Only when he was fingerprinted at the police station , it was revealed who he was. As he was a member of various right-wing groups whose members believed he had done the right thing, the officer who had arrested him was exposed to numerous threats and he was moved to another location in the country where he is currently living under witness protection.
When the trip was over and we got back to Bryson City, I visited the train museum at the depot (the entrance fee was included in the train ticket), which I had not had time to visit the year before because I was in hurry getting north. What really fascinated me was the large model railway in the musem. I also watched how they turn the 160 ton steam engine around by hand. In fact, two men can do it, but here the audience was allowed to participate and therefore, in addition to the engineer and the conductor, there were three volunteers at each end of the turntable. After this experience, I headed back to Cherokee, where I arrived around 4.30 pm. I relaxed for about an hour and then went on my first walk. Initially, it walked about 4 miles and later (after dinner) added another mile or so I ended up with 5 in total plus what I had walked on the Appalachian Trail at the Ootdoor Center (maybe 1½ mile or so). After the walk, I had dinner at Paul's Family Restaurant, which is not far from the hotel, and where I have eaten on several occasions. Here, as usual, there were problems with staff - or rather lack of staff, due to illness or other absence, so they warned the customers that there could be a long wait (the same have actually happened on my last two visits). However, I as soon as I got inside I was shown to a table and I had just sat down when a waitress came and asked me what I would like to drink, and that was served right away. Neither did I have to wait for the food, the appetizer (potato skins with cheese and bacon as a starter) came super fast, and even before I had completed the starter, the entree arrived, in this case en elk burger with a side of sweet potatoes fries - it's good to be a regular :-). Apart from the potato skins, a relatively healthy meal; there is not much fat on the elk, and sweet potatoes are root vegetables, which are reasonably healthy. After dinner, I went back to the room where I relaxed until bedtime.