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Baptized in the River


Peter and I are now on the second and final leg of our “Best Of” tour, and I’m posting this from Cherokee, North Carolina. Last week we saw some of the best of Indiana, my home state, on our “U.S. 41 Cruise,” and now we’re in my all-time favorite place, the Great Smoky Mountains.

I believe in traveling slow. I’m not one of these people who gets up at dawn, then drives all night to get to a distant destination, only to spend the next day exhausted. I’d rather take two days and arrive in style. Our first night we aimed for Berea, Kentucky via Cincinnati, just so I could take Peter to Camp Washington Chili.

Camp Washington Chili

Peter allowed me to order for him: one cheese coney, no onions, heavy mustard, and a 3-way. Cincinnati-style chili, which is Greek in origin, is a local delicacy, and there are chili parlors “on every corner,” hundreds of them in the city. Camp Washington is my sentimental favorite, because I remember its original location, an all-night place 24/6, perfect after a night at the bars. The “new” restaurant is now old enough to look slightly seedy, which makes it perfect even at 3 in the afternoon. The late Charles Kuralt of CBS News once proclaimed Camp Washington’s “the best chili in the world,” and it’s won the James Beard Award as an American Regional Classic.

Here’s the most wholesome picture of a 3-way you’ll ever see.


Peter’s always a good sport, and he pronounced it “a new experience. You saw how quickly the plate was empty.”

From The Camp we headed south via I-75 to Berea, a small town just south of Lexington, Ky., about two hours away. The town grew up around Berea College, which was founded by Christian abolitionists in 1853 to educate Blacks and Whites, men and women, according to the precept “Learning, Labor, Service.” It is world-renowned, the cultural capital of Appalachia, located in the foothills not far from the Cumberland Gap. The town is quite an arts colony; we both bought some pottery.

I mentioned Berea College in my novel “Andy’s Big Idea,” about the founding of the world’s first Gay and Lesbian university. Andy goes to Berea to find out how the college can avoid charging tuition; all the students work 10-12 hours a week, earning their keep. He ultimately decides against following that model, but leaves with great respect for the place. But I’d never visited, doing all my research online, so I was eager to see it.

We stayed at the historic (Daniel) Boone Tavern, which has previously hosted Eleanor Roosevelt and the Dalai Lama. We loved it there. We both compared it favorably to the French Lick Resort Hotel, which cost $250 a night.

Boone Tavern

We ate a light supper in the dining room; I had a salad with homegrown butter lettuce from the college farm, green peas and bacon, the prettiest arrangement I’ve ever seen.

The next day we went to Union Church right across the street. It’s very Protestant (Communion once a month, we got a hymn sing instead) but it’s still liberal; we enjoyed the organist and the pastor, who mentioned Episcopal priest Carter Heyward, a Lesbian and member of the “Philadelphia 11,” in his sermon. When we said goodbye at the door, I told him, “I’m a friend of Carter’s.” (True.) He looked surprised, then said, “Well, Amen!”

Union Church Berea

Then we headed down to visit The People in the most beautiful mountains on earth. Yes, there are taller ones, but the Smokies are close together, covered in trees and flowers, a temperate rain forest.

Our first day we immersed ourselves in Cherokee culture as best we could, visiting the Cherokee Museum, the Qualla Arts & Crafts Mutual, Inc., Oconoluftee Indian Village, run by the tribe, and “Unto These Hills,” the most successful outdoor drama (59 years, 6 million visitors) in the United States.

Officially this reservation is the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians; last year I visited the Western Band in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Both have casinos, which have greatly enhanced the tribal income and allowed for expanded community development. The People are doing well in both places and enjoy active cultural, historical, economic and social lives.

The Eastern Band, which kept a small portion of its ancient homeland in the mountains, has traditionally been more isolated, exploited by outsiders and ambivalent about White people. The Western Band, which suffered the quasi-genocidal Trail of Tears, is perhaps the stronger of the two by some measures. Certainly they have the better museum; the one here in North Carolina is cramped and dark, so they’re adding onto it. But both are worth seeing, especially if all you know about Indians comes from a John Wayne movie.

The Cherokees have always been a highly advanced culture, the leading member of the “Five Civilized Tribes,” and you can get a good feel for their history, religion and folkways in either place. For visitors, the comparison between East and West comes in part from how one is treated. The Western Band is friendly and optimistic for the most part, while the race-based resentment is more obvious here in the mountains.

The rap against Cherokee, NC has always been that it’s a tourist trap selling moccasins made in China, completely inauthentic. More recently, the Harrah’s-run casino has enabled the tribal government to take more control of its namesake town. The outsider-owned junk shops are still abundant, but the art scene is real, as visits to the Qualla Mutual and a private gallery called Great Smokies Fine Arts Gallery reveal. The Cherokees have always been magnificent weavers and potters, and you can find some fabulous works at Qualla. But I found myself most attracted to the woodworking, because the artists bring such unusual visions to the animal-spirits they depict. I wish I had a spare $800 to take home just one piece from Qualla; the art is worth every penny.

Oconaluftee Village features local enrolled members demonstrating the various crafts of everyday life in a beautiful wooded setting next to the outdoor amphitheater. We saw women weaving and asked about their methods. A man worked to craft projectile points (arrowheads), and I had to stop and watch for several minutes. My backyard in Indiana is filled with arrowheads – as kids we used to hunt them, because they’re all over my homeplace – but here I saw a guy chipping away at one using the old tools. A few days before Peter arrived in Indiana, I ran across an arrowhead while gardening and saved it to give him as a gift; now I’ve seen the patient work involved in shaping the stone. I was fascinated; the process is very logical, detail-oriented, peaceful. A good arrowhead could pull down a family’s dinner, and over time The People learned how to appreciate both the weapon and the prey. The demonstrator was pretty shy and close-lipped, but not hostile.

My best interaction at Oconoluftee was with a young man demonstrating canoe-making; the ancient Cherokees felled or found a tree trunk, hopefully close to the water’s edge so they didn’t have to drag it, then hollowed it out using controlled fire. The kid was friendly, eager to talk, a great ambassador. Imagine my surprise when later that night he turned out to be the Lead Dancer at the play. In a loincloth!!

“Unto These Hills,” like most historical plays, is both less and more than a good night at the theater; Peter and I saw the same problem last week at the world premiere of “Lincoln” at Honest Abe’s Boyhood Home in Indiana. You’re amazed that semi-professionals can pull them off at all. Both plays tried to tell an epic story in two hours, and as a writer I know that’s nearly impossible. The Cherokee play has to condense centuries, while the Lincoln play focused on the most famous American’s least known period. So “Unto These Hills” spends too much time on dancing and political arguing; it’s uplifting nevertheless, and that is why you go.

Today we headed for Great Smokies National Park, the nation’s second-oldest and by far its most popular.

Peter has some health problems and hiking the mountains is not an option, so we decided on a motor tour instead. Mountain driving definitely takes some getting used to, but by the end of the day I was feeling experienced.

We chose the Roaring Fork tour, which starts 40 miles from here on the other side of the park in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, a god-awful city which should be bulldozed and forgotten. (You cannot underestimate the taste of the American people.) But our drive through the park revealed many stop-worthy vistas, hundreds of wows; Roaring Fork was outstanding. It’s a one-lane paved loop up the mountain and down again, following a quintessential mountain stream; lots of whitewater rapids and gorgeous scenery, plus a well-preserved hardscrabble farm with a log cabin and numerous outbuildings, circa 1890, right on the raging creek. The land is so rocky you wonder how anyone could farm there, much less raise ten kids, but somehow they did it, till FDR bought them out to create the national park.

Rushing water; what the Cherokees call “living water,” which they incorporated in all their important religious festivals. To be alive, water has to move; static water in a plastic bottle or out of a pipe obviously is dead. At their major festivals, like the Cementation Ceremony, the People “went to water” seven times, bathing and changing into clean clothes in a ritual of purification and renewal.

(I believe, based on Mooney and Mails, that the Cementation Ceremony was a Gay wedding that united the whole Nation, but that’s the subject of an unpublished novel I may never bring to print. Today’s Cherokees are so Baptist they rewrite their history, no Gay people ever.)

At the old homestead, the waters rushed like mad through the forest in a place of incredible beauty; Peter took pictures from as close as he felt comfortable with, but I went down to the stream, climbed a few rocks and had to feel the water move over my fingers. It was suitably cold, and it just kept roaring down over the boulders, so clear and clean, I had to taste it.

Then I had to throw some over myself. And that reminded me of baptism. So I crouched down, dipped my hand in again, and made the sign of the cross on my forehead three times, In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit of these mountains and rocks, birds and trees, butterflies and lizards. And bears!

Episcopalians talk a lot about their Baptismal Covenant from the new (1979) Prayer Book, and we renew our baptismal vows several times a year; for me the most recent time was Easter Eve, when my parish had several baptisms. I’ve always found this very nice, but in fact I was baptized as a toddler under the old 1928 regime, and I don’t consider these newer vows binding in quite the same way. Yes, I believe in them and subscribe to them (in fact, they’re a theological improvement over the 1928 Prayer Book), but indeed my soul was first pledged, and still remains, under the old formula; a person gets baptized just once. But still, there I was in my beloved mountains, as close to God as a human being can get, renewing my baptism, because the water was alive.

Nobody gets Christianity quite as right as Episcopalians; and nobody understands our place in the cosmos like the Cherokees.++

Roaring Fork Falls

2 Responses

  1. Lovely, spectacular…I´ve never been in that part of the country (only Cincinatti in the old days/daze of doing in store visits at all their department stores…which are no longer)…great fudge in Cincinatti (at one of those department stores that is gone, gone, gone).

    Have fun, keep it up, you´re great to travel with.


  2. I have to agree with Leonardo, you’re great to travel with!

    Where’s the switch-light? 😉

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