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The Dark Story Behind a Bright Ride


Come for a ride with me. A ride into the past. A ride through a time that our fast-paced lifestyles make almost impossible today. A ride on a slow-moving, steam-powered passenger train through the rugged but beautiful mountains and coves and gorges of western North Carolina.

On one side of the train are steep hillsides and bluffs covered in thick kudzu. On the other side are vistas of a man-made lake and God-made rivers feeding into that lake. We feel the gentle sway of the train. We hear the clack and clatter of iron wheels on iron rails

and crossing points and the lonesome wail of the whistle of the locomotive. And we taste with delight the flavors of the meal served piping hot from the kitchen of the dining car. Interspersed with these sensations is lively conversation with fellow travelers.

But behind this idyllic setting is a sad story. A story of displacement and disappointment, of a sudden and unasked-for interruption of a way of life as it was once known. Allow yourself to become a character in that sad tale.

One day, strangers came into the mountains and gorges and said, “We’re from the government, and we’re here to help you. We’re going to bring you into the twentieth century.”

But then, “Get off your land. Here’s a pittance. Leave the lands of your ancestors, the lands they and you have farmed for decades, lands where your forebears lie buried. No, not in a few years. In thirty days.”

And the government men forced you and your people out of those protective mountains and gorges, giving you no time to move the houses and barns and various outbuildings that you labored years to erect. No time, even, to exhume the bodies of your ancestors, family members whom you and your neighbors and your and their parents and grandparents laid to rest in numerous little family cemeteries throughout the area.

Even before your feet left these near-sacred grounds, the government men were building dams, and the waters they allowed to collect behind them rose. And the waters covered your cemeteries and your houses and your barns and your past.


Replacing these were fishing boats, Sea-doos, houseboats, and docks and marinas. But the government has again ventured in to disrupt even that way of life, saying that it, too, will no longer be allowed to remain unmolested. Regulations are forcing more changes.

And as we leave this story and continue our ride through these mountains, one way of life has been removed for ever and another is endangered. And we ask ourselves, “Was it really worth it?”

These gray, foreboding thoughts trouble our minds as we enjoy the Nantahala Gorge excursion on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroads.

If you should take this excursion, as my wife and I did recently, enjoy it as we did. Revel in the lively conversations of your fellow passengers. Savor the culinary repast. Enjoy the scenery. But don’t forget the losses of the original inhabitants of this wild and beautiful land that made your pleasure possible. And ask for Bri as your hostess. She will tell the story of this region in a way that will make you feel as though you, too, are a character in it. And that is as it should be.

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

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