Vacations were not something we enjoyed a lot in my youth. Getting my Dad to take us all somewhere was a challenge. But once in a while we got to go.
The first time I ever went to the Great Smokey Mountain National Park, I was perhaps six or seven. The trip only takes a little over 90 minutes from the homeplace now, but in those days it seemed longer. In fact it seemed like we drove for days.
I was told to look for bears, which I now realize was an attempt to keep me quiet.
There are no bears along Interstate 81. And I’m pretty sure I was told that even before we got to the interstate.
Daddy liked to smoke, and so we children (me sitting in the middle, flanked by my older, meaner sisters, one on each side), sat in the back and got the full force of second-hand smoke, more than likely leading to all our health disorders today. Add to that his constant expelling of gastro-intestinal fumes, and we were glad to have windows we could let down a little.
This was in the days before Pigeon Forge became the tourist mecca it is today. Gatlinburg was the main event, and it wasn’t far from scenic drives through mountain scenery. I don’t remember a lot about this trip, but I know we stayed in a small motel in Gatlinburg. I’m not sure I slept any, because conditions were tight, and I think I slept on a foldaway bed.
But I was getting used to the place when our family took a notion to drive over into Cherokee, NC. The drive was gorgeous, although the traffic was heavy this summer, lots of tourists gawking at the trees, and moving quite slowly on the narrow road that connected the communities.
When we got to Cherokee, I loved it. It was a quiet little town complete with a roadside Teepee that was manned by a dark-skinned man wearing a large feather headdress. I just knew he had to be a real, live Indian. I later found out he was a “tourist trap” as my dad called him. His western style was not authentic to the Cherokee at all.
A little restaurant sat near a trout stream in Cherokee. We finally stopped to eat, and my dad chose this spot. I was starved. This was in the day when a waitress would bring you a glass of water with the menu. I devoured it while I tried to read the big menu. One item was something about Rainbow Trout. I thought that sounded good, so I ordered it.
When the trout came, I was famished. The server set a big old white plate in front of me. Upon this plate was a fish that filled the plate. It was the biggest fish I had ever seen. And the first thing I noticed was it was staring back at me. This fish had EYES. I had never eaten a fish like this, and I wasn’t sure I could. It had scales on one side and looked like they had just grabbed it out of the creek and put it on my plate. I said, to the delight of everyone at my table: “I wanted a fresh fish, but not THIS fresh!” Everybody laughed, and I picked at my fish, but couldn’t finish it. My dad reached over and forked it to his plate and ate almost all of what I had left. I ate a few french fries and that was that.
The only souvenir I remember purchasing on this trip was a little paper weight made of rocks.
One of the reasons we go away on vacation is to make us cherish home all the more. I think my favorite part of our trip was coming home. After a few days looking at the Smokies I was plenty glad to see the old Clinch Mountain of home. And I had a new appreciation for our frozen fish sticks which I always ate with ketchup. Home is a good place to come back to.