Seeing is bear-lieving in Cherokee!
Cruising through the streets of Cherokee, North Carolina, it was hard to pull my eyes away from the looming Smokey Mountains, which were to my surprise and delight, actually smoking. I don’t really know what I was expecting, but the clouds of mist rising off the forest covering the mountains just left me awestruck. I was leaning over my steering wheel gawking at the scenery, when I nearly ran a red light. After that I diligently focussed back on the road and the instructions of my nagging GPS, and started to pay more attention to my surroundings.
The small town of Cherokee really seemed to capitalise on toursits passing through on the way to the Smokey Mountians National Park, and I don’t blame them. According to Wikipedia, this is the most visited park in the United States – even more so than the Grand Canyon. The entrance to the park is only a mile or so out of the town, and if I’d had more time, I too would have pulled over to watch a traditional Indian dance, pan for gold, or shopped for mocassins and other Indian wares.
Unfortunately I had a schedule to keep that day. I had been staying in the city of Asheville and was undertaking this 3hr round drive, determined to do a day trip to hike part of the famed Appalachian Trail. This was partly (mainly) to ease my guilt after 3 days of heavy drinking, thinking that some fresh air and sweat will minimise that extra tyre I seemed to be forming around my waist.
Nonchalantly taking in the vibe of the place from my drivers seat, my eye was drawn to a life-sized bear on the side of the road with beautiful coloured artwork. I was moving too fast to stop and investigate, so I filed the mental photo in my head and kept cruising along. However, after a few hundred meters I spotted another bear, and another – all painted differently. I recognised straight away that this was a series of artworks developed as a tourist attraction; a strategy which has been used in many places, including our own Margaret River Region in Western Australia. I kept my eyes peeled for more, and to the chargin of other drivers, started to randomly pull off the road to take photos.
“The idea for the Bears Project started in 2005 as Cherokee wanted to showcase the variety of talented artists within the Qualla Boundary” it says on the Visit Cherokee website.
“A committee researched several ideas prior to selecting a bear theme as they wished to produce something that would be culturally significant. Bears are a large part of the Cherokee culture and it is believed the Bear Clan may have at one time been an eighth clan. The culture currently recognizes the Seven Clan Spirits Bird, Blue, Deer, Hair, Paint, Wild Potato, and Wolf.”
All of the artists are enrolled members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and each bear apparently represents each artists own interpretation of Cherokee culture and traditions. The colours and designs on the bears were indeed beautiful and striking, and it was fun trying to spot them all. I imagine it would be a good family challenge if you had a couple of
ankle biters little ones jostling around in the back seat itching for a distraction. I’m happy that I spotted at least half of them; 7 of the 13 bears.
After zigzagging around Cherokee taking photos, I did eventually drive up the narrow, windy road through the thick fog of the mountain side in the national park, now cursing those damned ‘Smokey’ Mountains where visibility was near to none. Having grown tired of passing many a cliff face and only being rewarded with a wall of grey instead of a jaw-dropping scenic view, I figured going any further up the mountain was an exercise in stupidity and just pulled into the next car park. When I parked I looked up and the mist cleared enough that I saw directly in front of my car was a sign to the Appalachian Trail – ha!
I breathed a sigh of relief and closed my eyes for a second… and before I knew it, I jerked awake from a nap and looked at the time in despair. I was asleep for an hour and a half! I had run out of time now and had to head back down the mountain to get back to Asheville. So much for my hiking badge of honour to casually ‘mention in passing’ to the other travellers around the hostel water cooler. As I headed back to Asheville rubbing the sleep out of my eyes, I told myself it was just another reason to come back one day and spend some more time in this beautiful part of the world.