There is something mystical about the Cataloochee Valley, something that makes a person expect to hear a centuries-old ballad drift from a porch up the mountain down to the road. History hangs in the air, heavy and unavoidable. My parents first took me there twenty-five years ago and told me the story of the Cataloochee Valley. I love to go back.
During the day, tourists drive and bike the main road hoping to see elk, black bear and other wildlife. Along the road are a chapel, a schoolhouse, an old barn, and one of the family homes left behind. The buildings edge up to either side of a creek along the road. The creek runs behind the chapel on the left side of the road, around the school on the right side, in front of the house and under the spring house next to it on the left again. Ferns spring up around the water and the meadow is lined with mountain laurel. Beyond the road, the dark blue shadows of the forest makes you want to go deeper into it.
Foot bridges offer a mossy path across the water. Go slow, you may spot salamanders or timber rattlesnakes. (Timber rattler photo courtesy of Ulrike Speirs.)Little butterflies sip minerals on the bank of the creek and you may see trout in the current.
Inside the chapel, you will get a sense of the stark life lived cut off from the world. The silence, the white walls and ceiling, the old hymnal. The 1200 people who once inhabited this valley were isolated and self-sufficient.
In the schoolhouse you can almost picture someone like Ichabod Crane keeping the students in line under threat of whipping. The school is dark and cool, how anyone stayed alert and attentive is beyond me. Especially knowing there was clear, adventure-filled creek running by just outside.
The old house really tells a story. It was built well and with love from yellow hickory. In the front hall there is a handwritten letter from an original inhabitant tacked to the wall. In it she tells of memories evoked during a recent visit – her family left the house in the 1960s, the last people to leave Cataloochee. The house tells the story of a different time. You can stand inside and imagine the cold morning before the fire was stoked. The family’s only entertainment would have been singing and playing a fiddle and telling stories in the low light before bedtime. No radio, no TV, no phone, no electricity. No contact outside the Valley until the Federal Government decided a park warranted the use of eminent domain.
At dusk when folks line the road, shut off their engines and wait for elk, you might catch a glimpse of the ghosts of people forced to leave in the first half of the 20th century. The beauty and solitude they left behind is still lovely.