- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 7, 2002

MAGGIE VALLEY, N.C. — An 18-wheeler bore down on my vehicle so close that for a moment I thought it would make contact on a road that was so curvy I believed I could see my pickup's entire tailgate in the rear-view mirror. It would be a wondrous accomplishment anywhere else, but in the Great Smoky Mountains it probably is an everyday occurrence. Its narrow back roads, away from the interstate highway, are more than serpentine they're like the tentacles of an octopus. You steer downhill to the right, no, the left, no, right, down ever more, then back up, up and away. Don't forget the switchbacks, those unnerving little lanes that head west one moment, east the next and all of it happening so quickly you hope your steering wheel can take the torturous strain and doesn't twist off.
Now add the chance of an elephant-sized camper coming at you, possibly a bear and deer crossing here, a raccoon or skunk there, maybe a wild turkey (some even have feathers), and the idea that a fishing trip to the Smoky Mountains is just what the doctor ordered suddenly didn't sound all that good.
The mountainous driving reminded me of a 1950s Robert Mitchum film, "Thunder Road," which was about moonshiners and the lawmen who chased the whiskey runners and, of course, the wild, winding roads of a state that lies just on the other side of the Smoky Mountain ridges.
Then the weather threw a monkey wrench into hoped-for visits to local trout streams. Precipitation can be funny that way. Sometimes it does little more than cool the sun-warmed water, but there are also times when the skies open up and rain cascades from the hillsides, raising and churning creek levels, making a visitor's life miserable at least for a time.
Not far from here, in a tiny dot on the map whose name I can't even begin to remember, there was a restaurant with an Italian moniker that served only American food. What's up with that? If the sign says Angelo's, the kitchen is supposed to have scampi, garlic toast and Chianti. For three days I learned to live with that disappointment. But up the road, not far from Asheville, I found a cafeteria that delivered the goods as far as calves' liver with onions or chicken-fried steak were concerned, not to mention that the moment I asked for peach cobbler and a cup of good coffee the southern side of the Appalachians looked better all the time.
A newfound acquaintance provided unexpected advice when he suggested that I ought to try the trout fishing on the huge Cherokee Indian Reservation that apparently begins where else? in nearby Cherokee, N.C.
It might have turned out to be a grand adventure, too. A body could buy a three-day tribal fishing license for $20. (Forget the season-long $200 fishing permit.) But for 20 bucks you can have a few days' access to stocked streams.
I entered the reservation amid bumper-to-bumper tourist traffic. Along the way, inching forward, I was totally astonished by dozens upon dozens of little junk stores that lined the two-lane road, all of them advertising "authentic" Cherokee Indian arts and crafts. I also watched several fellows standing in a narrow stream alongside the road casting elegant loops from their flyrods, which raised my adrenaline. However, if the fish were biting, they must have been biting each other, certainly not the flies that were presented to them. In the traffic jam I was in, I had plenty of time to observe the lack of action.
So it came that I was actually relieved to be stuck in Cherokee Indian Reservation traffic instead of being ignored by the trout. I passed an authentic Harrah's casino and hotel, a covey of bingo halls, dozens of motels and vacation cabins. Now add more gift stores in a space of four miles than can be found in the entire state of Maryland and you get the idea. However, when in a tourist mecca, do what the tourists do: fill your trunk with junk.
I parked the car and joined the throng.
For now, there would be no trout and no fishing tales. Instead I was bamboozled into buying a T-shirt for my pre-kindergartner grandson, Jake. If memory serves, I believe the shirt came from Honduras. For beautiful Lindsey, our teen-age granddaughter, I bought an "authentic" Cherokee dream catcher, a wooden hoop surrounding make-believe cobwebs that were made from monofilament fishing line. It had dyed chicken feathers dangling at the bottom. It could have been assembled in Bangladesh, or some such place.
Our newest grandson, Lane, will proudly wear an "authentic" Indian shirt and pants with buckskin fringes by the time he celebrates his first birthday. It might very well have been real Indian garb from Bombay or New Delhi.
And my biggest chuckle came when a pretty woman with a lovely Southern accent asked a Cherokee gift shop clerk if the earrings she was looking at were real Indian handiwork. "Yes, indeed," he said. "We get a shipment from the Navajos every couple of months."
Could be the Cherokees are getting even for some of the misery our forefathers caused them. OK, good for them. I didn't mind providing a little payback.
And the fishing? Well, that had to wait until I returned to the Washington area, where the catches are a more assured and everybody with an ounce of sense already knows that local gifts even patriotic items such as American flags come from our latest "best friend," Red China.
God bless us all.
*Look for Gene Mueller's Outdoors column every Sunday and Wednesday, and his Fishing Report every Friday, only in The Washington Times.


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