Qualified Entry: Non-Fiction Category
By: Russ Hicks
There were certainly better times to take a six-day road trip through the South than in the middle of August in 1999, but my wife Carol was raring to go. I wanted to wait until October, when the weather down there would be cooler, but got outvoted, one to one.
Carol had done a great deal of online research into her Cherokee heritage over the previous few years. In one sense that effort was like searching for a needle in a haystack, but in another sense it was more like digging for buried treasure. She never knew what she might find. Either way, the job became almost an obsession, consuming much of her free time.
This would be our first opportunity to take her research out to the field, so to speak. She had various county records buildings and cemeteries to explore, and specific family headstones to find, while I had Cherokee markings, names, and dates to photograph. There were older relatives Carol hadn’t seen in years to visit whom she hoped would reveal the kind of information she was looking for, if they had any, without raising their suspicions.
That would not be easy. Long before the politically correct term Native-American was coined and popularized, prejudice against American Indians was so strong that they were not even granted U.S. citizenship until 1924. Even after that, if any could pass themselves off as white, many would. Some even claimed to be black. Anything but red.
Inter-marrying with “half-breeds” and whites over several generations only added to the confusion. The fact that many of Carol’s ancestors went by their middle names instead of their first names didn’t help, either. Nor did the fact that many had the same name. So even finding the right records often didn’t really get you to the truth. Trying to sort through and fit together all those pieces of information like some giant jigsaw puzzle, decades after the fact, would prove to be nearly impossible.
That was the plan, though. Accordingly, our trip would take us to North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri, southern Illinois, and finally back home to southwestern lower Michigan, all in less than a week. We didn’t have much time to waste at any stop.
This was not my idea of a fun vacation, but Carol was on a mission. I was along mostly as the driver/photographer, and expected that most of this trip would be tedious at best.
There were, however, some unexpected episodes of terror along the way.
We left home on a beautiful Tuesday morning intending to reach Asheville, North Carolina, by nightfall. Some of Interstate 40, as it neared the Smoky Mountains leading toward Asheville, was only a two-lane highway each way with practically no shoulders. Parts of it were carved right into the side of the foothills. The curves in the road tended to be quite sharp and were usually on a fairly steep upgrade or downgrade, unlike the gentle curves on generally level interstate highways, and yet the speed limit stayed the same, 70 mph. I’m sure the locals were used to it, but for me, being unfamiliar with the area, driving that fast was a little uncomfortable. I couldn’t tell how sharp or in which direction the next curve would be until the last second because the mountains blocked my view. Even so, the beauty of those mountains was breathtaking.
We were breezing along in our Grand Prix doing 60 mph in the right hand lane when I noticed in my rear view mirror two semis, one in each lane, bearing down on us. Rather than move over into the left lane, the one directly behind us closed in as if he intended to run us over. He never blew his horn but instead inched right up to our rear bumper. With a too narrow shoulder I had nowhere to escape, so I had to speed up. 65, 70, 75, soon I was doing 80 mph on a part of the highway that was a steep downgrade, with hairpin turns I couldn’t see until we were right on top of them. Still the semis were right on top of us. The faster I went the faster they went, side by side. Even on upgrades I couldn’t pull away.
I white-knuckled the steering wheel while Carol clutched her seat and door for miles and miles. Exit ramps we zoomed past appeared out of nowhere but I couldn’t slow down enough to take one. While I struggled to keep our car on the highway the semi on our tail remained locked in on us like a laser beam. He was so close all I could see in my rear view mirror was his two headlights and grille.. If I lost control we would be flattened for sure.
Part of the highway had been blasted right through the mountain, so suddenly we were speeding through a tunnel, dark in spite of its rows of interior lights, which made this ordeal even more terrifying. Our tires squealed as we swerved to stay in our lane. I was sure we were running for our very lives on this real-life roller coaster. As we emerged from the tunnel the sunlight was almost blinding, but I managed to adjust as we flew down the highway.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, both semis backed off and took an exit ramp. What a relief to finally breathe again and ask ourselves if all that had really happened.
Over the previous three decades some of Carol’s southern relatives occasionally hadf come north for visits. While here they sometimes had complained about the Northerners’ supposed belief in the stereotype that Southerners were typically backward and uncivilized rednecks. Of course I had always denied such a perception existed, at least among anyone I knew. I had plenty of southern relatives myself, and had never run into either the attitude Carol’s southern relatives had about Northerners or the one they believed Northerners had about them. After a while I developed one about hers, though. Several of them earned it, as far as I was concerned. But Carol was always so happy to see them she never noticed.
Several times they inexplicably felt the need to call in the winter, especially after we’d had a blizzard, and ask about the temperature, and how much snow we had, and then ask when we were moving down south. Without even mentioning our immediate families I’d reply that my job and house were up here, to which they would flippantly assert that they could take care of that down there. I would think, Really, just like that, you can get for me down there what I’ve worked so hard for up here? I always thought that conversation was awkward and disrespectful, although not unexpected. Of course I noticed they never called after they had a hurricane or an outbreak of tornadoes.
To me, if the best reason for living down south was the weather, well, that was a pretty poor endorsement. I’d rather have four months of winter than six months of 100 degree heat. But rather than confront and possibly embarrass them with that fact I would just laugh it off. They never got the hint.
Even if we had moved south we would not have been accepted by the locals. We were Northerners because we were born and raised in the North, not the South. The fact that we both had
plenty of southern relatives would be irrelevant to all but our own relatives. Our Northern accent would be a dead give-away.
So far on this trip, at stops for gas and snacks, I had actually felt unwelcome by some Southerners to whom I was not related. I would have preferred a polite indifference. Instead, I sensed a certain resentment, a slight hostility thinly veiled by so-called Southern Hospitality. It was as if to them the Civil War wasn’t really over while an uneasy truce bridged our division, no matter how often they called you “Darlin’” or “Hon.” We were intruders, not tourists. Worse, we were Yankees. But Carol sensed none of this yet.
Was our experience with the truckers proof I was right? By our license plate they could have seen we were from Michigan. Had they been playing with us for their own amusement? Getting even for our apparently being on vacation while they had to work? Or was I just being paranoid? Maybe they weren’t even Southerners at all, just insanely irresponsible truckers passing through. Whatever the truth was, we were just happy to still be alive. But this was an ominous beginning to our trip, I thought.
A couple of days later I would view this incident as strike one.
One reason we planned to spend the night in Asheville was because Carol had an internet friend, a woman whose username was Moonmother, who lived there. She headed up an email list group of several women, including Carol. She had invited us to spend the night with her and her husband, but when we got to town we decided to get a motel room instead. I don’t know if it was intuition or the trucker ordeal, but we felt it was the prudent thing to do.
Then we visited Moonmother and her husband. Ironically, he was a long-distance trucker, with over two million miles logged. The four of us had a nice dinner with some pleasant conversation. But every now and then Moonmother’s husband said something slightly strange and almost sexual. We ignored it the first time or two, but eventually we decided to discreetly make our excuses, end the evening pleasantly enough, and retire to our motel room for a much needed good night’s sleep.
Only a few months later Moonmother discovered that her husband had another family in another state, which of course shattered her world. She divorced him, moved to Texas, shut down her email list group, and as far as we could tell never went online again.
The next day, Wednesday, we drove to Carol’s brother, Andy’s house in the little town of Fountain Inn, South Carolina, not far from the state line. We had a relaxed, pleasant visit, and explored our first cemetery where I took a few photos of family headstones with Cherokee markings.
We made plans to travel together the next day, Thursday, to Cherokee, North Carolina, just on the other side of the Smoky Mountains. Andy had a scenic route mapped out that would take us right up and over the mountains using a few two-lane mostly paved roads. His wife, Ginny, couldn’t get off work, so it would be just the three of us going. We left in our car early in the morning. Being over six feet tall, Andy was too long-legged to ride in our back seat comfortably, so Carol sat back there for this all-day excursion. Sitting up front, Andy navigated while I drove. The interstate would have been quicker, but I had had enough of that for a while.
Parts of these roads up the mountainside were similar to those dangerous roads occasionally seen on TV, with no guard rail or shoulder, just a steep dropoff from which we likely would not survive if we went over. Even when there was a shoulder it was somewhat unstable so I had to be very careful if I was going to stop and park. Once I did feel our car start to slide a little to the right toward the edge
as Andy said “Get over!” It would be easy to just fall off the mountain.
Yet at other spots the roads were just fine, and tourists liked to drive them for the spectacular scenery. One spot we stopped at had a beautiful waterfall, and about thirty people were there taking pictures. I was pretty sure I’d never be this way again so I grabbed my trusty Pentax K1000, an old 35mm SLR, and took some shots myself while I could. An 8×10 of one still hangs in my living room.
Andy seemed to know a lot about the sights along these roads. Even though he had been born in the South he had spent most of his life in Michigan. Shortly after he retired as a police officer he returned to the South, and was very happy. He seemed a little too eager to impress us with the area, I thought. But he was probably just trying to show us a good time.
We pulled over and stopped again and walked out onto a huge, protruding, rock ledge from which we had a magnificent view of the mountains, all carpeted with trees everywhere we looked. Gazing down, we could see the valley floor far below, which gave me a slight feeling of vertigo. Peering across, we could just make out the mountain peaks on the other side through the misty haze, the reason the Smokies have that name. As I glanced to my right I barely saw a part of someone’s solitary house with no back yard, just a sharp drop off down the mountain. An 8×10 of that shot also hangs in my living room.
It may have been just my imagination, or my prejudice, but it seemed to me that the only people I saw living on the mountain were either born there or didn’t want to be found there, as if they were in hiding. Through a veil of superficial friendliness I sensed a certain heightened level of hostility, more than before. Carol sensed none of this. She was having the time of her life, and I didn’t want to spoil it for her, so I just bit my tongue for her sake. But I was growing more and more uneasy.
Soon we pulled over again to see another sight, an old stone fireplace deep in the woods, all that remained from some structure long since gone. What was so special about that I didn’t know, but Andy wanted us to see it. I had my camera hanging around my neck just in case it was picture-worthy.
I parked behind an old, beat up van. As we walked in front of it I noticed someone inside, just sitting there behind the wheel. I thought that was a little odd, but I soon forgot about it as we followed a path deep into the woods.
We hiked for about half an hour and came to a clearing that had a rope bridge suspended over a gulley cut deep by a stream. I wish now I had taken a picture of it, but at the time I just didn’t. Then we started back by a slightly different route and came upon that stone fireplace from behind. It was huge, the biggest I’d ever seen. While I took a couple of pictures of that, though, I silently wondered, what are we doing here? We have more important things to do and time is running short.
As we made our way back toward the edge of the woods and the road we met the man from the van coming in. Andy slipped his right hand part way down his front pants pocket as the man engaged us in light conversation. Among other things, Andy mentioned that he was a retired police officer. I thought that was a curious thing to bring up for no apparent reason.
The guy asked if we had seen the stone fireplace, and then asked if we had gone in further and had seen the rope bridge. He finally invited us to follow him in even deeper so he could show us something we hadn’t seen, but Andy said no, thanks, we had to get going. The man relented and went in deeper alone. As he passed by us we stood there, watching, before heading out to our car.
As we drove away Andy asked me, “Did you see that guy’s tattoos?”
“Yeah, I did.”
“Do you know what they are?”
“Other than ugly? No, I don’t.”
“Those are prison tattoos,” he explained. Although I had heard of them I had never actually seen any before. Not in the flesh, anyway. Andy continued, “That guy is an ex-con and definitely up to no good. He knows you two are tourists by your camera. He probably figures you have a lot of money on you, and that you’re a long way from home, if he saw your license plate. And I bet he checked it.”
“You saw him in that van, too?”
“Of course. I think he waited about half an hour before coming in on purpose so he could catch us deep in the woods. If he robbed and killed us in there we would probably never be found.”
Andy paused, as if to let that sink in, and then asked, “Remember when I mentioned to him that I was a retired police officer?”
“Yeah. What was that about?”
“That was to make him wonder if I recognized his tattoos and was on to him. Well, I did and I was. That’s why I slipped my hand into my front pocket, to make him think I might be carrying a small handgun. I bet he had one but he couldn’t be sure I didn’t have one, too. Those are probably the only reasons he left us alone. We wouldn’t be the easy pickings he first thought we’d be.”
When Andy told me all that I freaked out inside! First the truckers and now this? Just what was it about my attitude about the South that was wrong, anyway? This was America, not some third world country! Being unwelcome was one thing, but actually being preyed upon was quite another. That was the last time I went against my own instincts, no matter how politically incorrect they were. However, I kept these feelings to myself so Carol wouldn’t get rattled. I was just glad that from the backseat she apparently didn’t hear our conversation.
But I was also glad Andy was with us. His keen eye, quick thinking and expertise likely saved us before we even knew we needed saving as we walked into and out of some ex-con’s trap. Clearly, this was strike two, and I was determined there would be no strike three. For the first time in my life I even wished I owned a gun.
Around noon we arrived in Waynesville, a small town on a relatively flat area at the top of one of the Smoky Mountains’ peaks. It had electricity and traffic lights and everything, even a Pizza Hut. We were getting hungry so Andy suggested we eat there.
But right across the street was Big Mountain BBQ, a restaurant too big to be called merely a rib joint, so I suggested, “We can have Pizza Hut at home anytime. Let’s get some real Southern BBQ instead.” Andy was pleasantly surprised by that.
The menu listed two kinds, North Carolina style and South Carolina style, so I asked the waitress what the difference was. She said South Carolina BBQ was vinegar-based while North Carolina BBQ was sweeter, so I ordered the North Carolina style.
Then I noticed something on the menu I had never seen up north, something called Sweet Tea. I had been drinking instant iced tea since I was a kid, always sweetened with sugar. I used to add a capful of ReaLemon juice to it, but one day we ran out so I drank my iced tea without it. I liked it better, so from then on that’s how I drank it. Eventually I even began brewing my own. Of course I ordered the Sweet Tea, and when our food arrived the first thing I did was take a swig of it.
“This tastes exactly the same as I make it!” I looked around and noted several others drinking it, too. Somehow that made me feel a little more welcome.
And eating the BBQ was like eating for the very first time. Being on top of the mountain gave us some sense of being on top of the world, and this meal was delicious part of it. Sure beat Pizza Hut.
As we left town we crested the mountain and began our descent around Maggie Valley toward Jackson County, the Cherokee Indian Reservation, and the little town of Cherokee itself. We drove slowly due to the sharp turns, riding the brakes. This was the more dangerous part of the drive. If I got too much speed going downhill I wouldn’t be able to stop and would likely skid right off the mountain. I could have downshifted but thought it better, probably needlessly, to wear down the brake pads rather than potentially damage the automatic transmission. At least that would be a much cheaper and easier fix. Going so slow we probably stayed mostly in first gear, anyway. The engine started running warm but the brakes never got too hot, nor did they wear out, even though it seemed to take us forever to get down the mountain.
We finally arrived at Cherokee around 3 pm. There was a micro phiche records department in the high school library that closed at 4 pm, so we had one hour to try to find any specific family records. Amazingly, we did find some and were able to make copies before leaving.
We then browsed some of the tourist traps in that sold fake Indian items. We bought a couple, but never made it to the real monetary lifeblood of the town, its casino.
Right after leaving Cherokee we drove on major highways and arrived back at Andy’s house in less than three hours. We spent the night again and left the next morning, Friday, for Savannah, Tennessee, to see more relatives and cemeteries.
There was no interstate running the length of Tennessee, so this leg of the trip took most of the day. We arrived in Savannah around 5 pm and immediately rented a motel room. It was 100 degrees outside but it felt like 200 degrees inside the room. The air conditioning must have been off all day. We turned it on and left to visit relatives, hoping that when we returned the room would be cooled off.
We first visited the police chief of Savannah, a cousin of Carol’s, who insisted on taking us to dinner at the local Pizza Hut. He was pretty excited about the possibility they might get a McDonald’s soon. The only fast food hamburger place they had was a Sonic.
As we ate he told us of a recent local murder during which someone had been hacked to pieces on a road with a sword.
“I hope I don’t have to wait for a rain storm to wash the road clean.” He wasn’t very optimistic. His honesty was disarming, and I couldn’t get too self-righteous about such barbarism since someone near our home town had recently committed murder and had tried to get rid of the body by burning it in a large smoker/grill. Still, it was unsettling.
He then took us to some older relatives Carol hadn’t seen since she was a little girl. While visiting, she was very careful in how she led up to and worded certain questions in order to not tip off what she was really after. In that regard her natural gift of gab, one of her strongest assets, came through with flying colors, resulting in our being taken to two different cemeteries where I took photos of more family headstones with distinctive Cherokee carvings.
Finally, we returned to our motel room and found it cool inside, a welcome relief from the heat and humidity outside. The air conditioner in our car worked perfectly, but any time spent outside, like at a cemetery, was brutal.
The next morning, Saturday, we left for Missouri and the short trip south to the Arkansas state line where Carol’s parents had supposedly briefly lived a long time ago. As we drove down an old dirt access road Carol saw a place that looked like it used to have a house on it. I took some pictures even though we had no idea if this was it, and then we left and headed north for Hayti.
I was driving in the left lane on Interstate 55 when we passed by two Missouri State Troopers in the median, parked in the shade under an overpass. As we drove by I saw one pull out onto the highway behind us. We weren’t speeding but I wondered if he was after us anyway.
Sure enough, he pulled up close behind me and turned on his flashing lights, so I pulled over. Seeing we were from Michigan, he asked where we were going and what we were doing. When I told him we had been on the road a long time already that day, driving from Tennessee down to Arkansas and now north into Missouri, he asked me to step out of the car to make sure I wasn’t overly tired.
As we walked around a little I mentioned that our vacation included taking pictures of family headstones with Cherokee markings, and with a touch of sarcasm indicated just how much fun all that was. I bet it was one of the stranger stories that officer had ever heard.
He looked at me quizzically, chuckled, and then informed me, “The reason I pulled you over is because you were driving in the left lane while the right lane was open. The left lane is for emergency vehicles only except when passing in Missouri.”
I nodded and replied, “That’s different from Michigan law but sounds like a good idea.”
He then let me go with a smile. “Have fun taking pictures.”
“Yeah, thanks,” I laughed, relieved I wasn’t getting a ticket. We continued north to Hayti in the right lane all the way, and arrived there around 2 pm.
It was really getting hot outside, closing in on 110 degrees. The South was in the grip of a major drought that summer so we never saw a hint of rain during our entire trip. There was no breeze and the sun felt like a broiler. It was so bright sunglasses were of little help. We had straw hats to wear when outside, but even they got hot. But we couldn’t have survived without them. The unrelenting sun practically drove us to the scorched, rock-hard ground which was too hot to touch. Nobody was walking around outside barefoot, that was for sure.
At city hall the mayor kindly gave us some trinkets of Hayti, key chains and pens and such, after which we visited the local records building to do more research. We found nothing of value there except the air conditioning.
We stopped at the local cemetery where the grass was brown and crunchy. We couldn’t find all the family headstones we were looking for, but I did find a golf ball which I put in my pocket. A year later we would be back with better luck.
I took pictures of all of the family headstones we did find before we headed north for Sikeston to meet with some relatives Carol had found online. She had never seen them before but they had chatted on the phone a few times. They were an older couple, now both deceased. When we saw them the family resemblance was obvious. They were from a side of the family that had drifted away from the rest.
We had an illuminating visit with them, and a wonderful dinner. They were some of the most genuinely funny people I had ever met. We practically laughed all night. We then retired to another motel room. They wanted us to stay the night with them but Carol insisted, so we said our goodbyes. We would be back a year later to vist them again, bringing Andy along with us.
After failing the next morning, Sunday, to meet up with another internet friend of Carol’s at her small Native American shop a little further no9rth in Cape Girardeau, we headed back south into southern Illinois, specifically Williamson County. There was a confusing story about a relative with the last name of Stone who was either the mayor or the former mayor of the small town of Colp when he was shot and killed during a police action in 1926. Charges of corruption had been made, and a book entitled Bloody Williamson, originally published in 1952, included a footnote about it. What little information we had didn’t mesh very well. It seemed no one knew for sure what had really happened or why.
We again tried to research some county records. The building was surprisingly open on Sunday, but not to us. Here the people were cool, uncooperative and almost openly confrontational, really much worse than anywhere else we had been on this trip, not counting strikes one and two from Tuesday and Thursday. Was our snooping into their sordid public history too personal for them? After all these years were they actually still hiding something? Did they see us as a threat? We decided to leave while we still could.
Carol had finally had enough so we headed north. Later that night we arrived back home in Michigan. And cooler weather. For the most part she had really enjoyed this trip while I, the reluctant tourist, had mostly just put up with it all for her sake. She had wanted and needed it. Unfortunately, none of our research ever produced anything of provable importance. We had found a few needles but no buried treasure. The mysterious past was destined to remain mysterious.
But at least we had survived. There had been no strike three.