March 2015


Today (3/26/15) started out early with the need to get our Chinese friends taken care of.  They had called last night with the decision to scrap the car and ride back with a friend from Alabama who had rented a car to come pick them up.  To be honest, we were a bit disappointed they would not be spending the next few days with us!

We awoke early (well aware that our late nights and early mornings were catching up to us) and headed down to the hotel to pick up our new friends to take them to arrange the details of the sale.  I had been a bit nervous when I looked up Carr’s Auto Sales and Service and a negative review came up.  However, in his “negative report,” this man mentioned how Carr’s sent someone to Florida to tow his car back to Tennessee to fix the problem.  He claimed this was to cover up shoddy workmanship, but the condition his “expert” described his transmission being in would have rendered the car impossible to drive even one day, much less 6 months.  For his one negative review, there were countless others sharing tales of how the owners had gotten out of bed to come out at midnight to help get their car out of a perilous situation or that they always stopped here for a check-up while on vacation.  It definitely restored my confidence, as did their help today.

Saying good-bye to the car--Thanks, Carr's!

Saying good-bye to the car–Thanks, Carr’s!

We collected our friends, asked if they had the paperwork, and proceeded to the shop–only to learn they had no idea what the correct paperwork was, and therefore, did NOT have it.  So, we headed back to their motel and looked through their stack of car documents to eventually find the RIGHT paperwork.  I remember a friend of mine telling me the biggest need her Mexican immigrant friends had was someone to help them know what they needed to know–to understand the process of how we do things in America.  I’m so glad we were at the right place at the right time, but what about the countless others who don’t  have someone there?  It was a wake up call for me to be more aware in my own community of those who might not know how to accomplish things.

We proceeded to complete the transaction with Carr’s.  The receptionist not only gave us the best possible scrap price for the car, but also gave her 1/3 of the money in cash up front–the rest to be sent when the title is mailed to them.  She did this simply because “this is a bad situation, and I don’t want her to have nothing to go home on.”  Additionally, one of the mechanics took time to ask her how to pronounce her Chinese name, actually say it correctly, and say, “It’s nice to meet you.  I’m so sorry it turned out like this.”  Just these little acts of kindness reminded me how often we get so stuck in our own business to be accomplished that we forget to take time for others.  If there’s anything I should have learned in my stay in Tennessee, it’s to slow down a little and enjoy the ride–hard to do for a Chicagoland resident.

Saying good-bye after making the best of a traumatic experience

Saying good-bye after making the best of a traumatic experience

We said farewell to the car, and headed back to pick up the rest of the group.  We made a side trip to our condo (to explain how a condo is different from a hotel), and headed to a Chinese restaurant for lunch where they gave us the special blessing of treating us.  One thing I had noticed the night before is that one of the ladies would always pull out a chair for my mom.  These little tokens of respect are too often lost in our culture. Throughout our time, we had the opportunity to learn so many interesting things about China.  When we were discussing family, we shared that my sister has seven children.  The lady who’s car we had just sold shared that she only had her one son–China’s one child policy.  One of the other students with them was from a family with two girls and a boy–they live in the country and were able to have more children due to family connections rather than a fine.

Rainclouds moving in

Rainclouds moving in

We also discussed the thing they missed the most from China–the food.  When  we got to the Chinese restaurant, I asked the boy if it was like the food at home.  He said Chinese food is more spicy, but they’ve made it sweeter for Americans.  We Do like our sweet things.  The hardest thing for them to get used to in America?   The culture.  One woman shared her fear of doing something wrong.  We explained that as a whole, American’s are remarkably helpful and forgiving–and we’re also incredibly diverse.  Finally, it was time for them to return to Alabama.  We were sad indeed that we were losing more time with these dear people, but after hugs, promises to keep in touch, grateful thanks, and invitations to visit China, they headed for home.  (We just got the text that they made it safely!)

We went home to catch up on our sleep.  I awoke to the rain clouds moving in over the mountains.  Since tomorrow promises to be a rainy day, we’ll see if we venture out or just enjoy a quiet last day in Tennessee at our “home away from home.”  Either way, I’m glad our plans changed to help out some dear new friends from China–we’re definitely richer for the opportunity!

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Visiting friends

Visiting friends

When long time family friends called last night to say they were coming to visit and had planned on going to Dollywood, we together decided to spend today (3/25/15) with them.  Though they are “ride people” and we are “show people,” we decided to do a bit of both, and everyone had a wonderful time.

We first went to ride the Thunderhead–They rode, we were the supportive people waving on the ground.  Then, since we still had time to kill before the show we both wanted to see, we headed down to the Country Fair area.  We never spend a lot of time in this area, so it was neat to check it out.  We even joined them on the “moderate thrill” rides like Skyrider, the Scrambler, the Wonder Wheel (Swings), and the Carousel–and it was actually very fun.

Next, we headed to The Rhythm of the Dance, which we had both wanted to see. The crowd was better, but still not as “into it” as I would like.  I also realized how much music (without dance) is in the show.  I think almost half the numbers are strictly musical–a lot more than I had remembered.  But, we both thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

Los Pampas Gauchos

Los Pampas Gauchos

We got out in just enough time to make it over to Los Pampas Gauchos (My recommendation).  Having seen the show previously, I noticed they showcase different dancers in each show, so it is possible to see the show multiple times and see something different each time.  They also came out to the lobby to take pictures with audience members, but we were moving on, so didn’t take time to do that–a neat opportunity, though. Our friends agreed, they are a definite favorite! (Maybe we’ll get to see them one more time before we leave…)

One thing I love about Dollywood is their partnership with The American Eagle Foundation.  So far, they have provided a sanctuary for wounded eagles who would not survive in the wild.  These eagles are kept safe and are still able to breed.  At the time of our visit, over 133 eagles have been released back into the wild from this sanctuary, and eagles have moved from around 400 pairs to over 1500 pairs, allowing them to be taken off the endangered species list.

One of the rescued Eagles.

One of the rescued Eagles.

What an amazing opportunity to preserve this symbol of America!

After browsing in a few stores, we ended the day with the Alash Ensemble.  My mom recommends this group to everyone she possibly can–mostly because it is something you have to see to believe.  This show was also different.  For the last number, one of the band members recommended they teach the audience a song.  It was such a fun experience to learn a little bit of the Tuva Language–albeit a phrase with no English translation.  The audience here was incredible, and everyone participated well.  I think it’s a tradition that should continue!

We thought we were finished for the evening–we were all happily exhausted. So we parted ways with our friends and headed for home. Along the side of the road, we saw three Chinese ladies and a fifth grade boy in various positions around a car with its hood up. “Do you think they need help?” I asked. My mom pulled the car over, and I got out to ask. Their engine had started shaking, so they had called a repair place and were waiting for the tow truck to arrive. We decided to wait with them, since they might need a ride somewhere if the car were really in trouble. I’m so glad we did.

Map at Dolly wood showing the represented nations

Map at Dolly wood showing the represented nations

One example my parents have consistently set for us is to help out those in need–it’s something that was not just an idea in the Bible, but something they lived out in front of us. And here was our opportunity to serve. When the tow truck arrived and led us through varying degrees of not so nice neighborhoods to arrive at the ultimate of stereotypical hillbilly garages (looking like a used car lot), we were skeptical, and didn’t want these kind ladies and boy to get “taken for a ride”–especially when we found out that same garage had worked on the car just that morning. To make a several hour story very short, the car had a ruined oil pump. The diagnosis was it had probably ruined the engine. Not knowing much about cars, I snuck off to Google the information. Unfortunately, the diagnoses sounded logical. So, these dear Chinese ladies, one of whom has only been in America for three weeks, are stuck about 5 hours from the colleges at which they are studying with a car they can either sell or pay $2500 to fix (to replace the engine.) Not a nice time.

Blooming trees at Dollywood

Blooming trees at Dollywood

But, we spent a lovely meal with them, took them back to their hotel, helped them negotiate a way home, and discussed with them the different options they had to choose from. We were so blessed to meet them and were hoping they would get to stay with us while we waited for the repairs to be done.

For me, it was another reminder that, just as God has put people in the right place at the right time to help me navigate through many other countries, He also chose to honor us with the privilege of helping out these wonderful visitors to ours. What a great way to celebrate the Festival of Nations!

As a lover of history and one who is also doing a Kickstarter project, I wanted to make others aware of this need.

Belle Grove Plantation Bed and Breakfast

March 25, 2015

When we first moved into Belle Grove Plantation, one of the things we needed to do was to take down several trees. But in true fashion, I didn’t want to just take them down and send them to the dump. One tree, the mulberry located right in front of the house, was one that I knew was pretty old. I would later find out it was over 200 years old. That means it was live during James Madison’s lifetime.

So I reached out to our blog followers and had two woodworking guilds come front to help me preserve our “Witness Wood”. One of these was Historic Pens of New Jersey. Bob and his master craftsmen find “Witness Wood” from locations like Gettysburg, Independence Hall, The Boardwalk in New Jersey and turn them into some of the most beautiful pens you have every seen. They have created pens…

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Morning mists and layers of beauty!

Morning mists and layers of beauty!

We set out this morning (3/24/15) to visit Cherokee, North Carolina.  Since our previous visit was over Christmastime, we weren’t able to go then, so this was our first time.  As a history teacher, I was hoping to get some first hand information on major events like the Trail of Tears and the Battle of Horseshoe Bend–and I was not disappointed.

We stopped along the way to capture the gorgeous views of the (relatively) early morning mists on the mountains. It was beautiful to see layer after layer of ridges–the sight is breathtaking–in some cases quite literally, as we were a mile in the air. Our first stop was the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, which is a definite “must see.” It boasts and outdoor collection of Mountain cabins and outbuildings that we were interested to see, but we wanted to make sure we had plenty of time in Cherokee, so we vowed to visit on our return trip.

Street view with one of the cultural dancers Photo credit:  Mary Rosalind Brailey

Street view with one of the cultural dancers Photo credit: Mary Rosalind Brailey

A few miles down the road, we entered Cherokee territory. When one hears the word “reservation,” a number of images come to mind. I’m not sure quite what I was expecting, but it was different than what I saw. We drove down a street lined with shops and even a Dairy Queen–I guess I expected it to be more primitive than it was. Not that I think Native Americans should be stuck in the 1800’s, but from reading Chief Seattle’s “If we sell you our land, love it” speech to my class every year, I guess I was hoping in would be more “untouched” by the commercialism that pervades American culture. Having encountered such vast natural beauty on the way into the reservation, I expected it to be more beautiful here. It was not.

The Museum, however, offered a wealth of information on the Cherokee Experience from the beginning of their civilization to the present. There is a wealth of artifacts to see–tools, arrowheads, tomahawks. They also have a variety of interactive displays where visitors can experience tribal stories from the Creation story movie to first hand accounts of different experiences.

The first thing that really captured my attention was the story of Sequoyah. This amazing Native American has about two lines of text in our History book–merely known as a leader who created the Cherokee alphabet. From now on, I will cover him differently.

The Museum of the Cherokee Indian

The Museum of the Cherokee Indian

Sequoyah had so many obstacles to overcome, it is incredible. In today’s world, he would have been labeled an “at risk” kid. Abandoned by his white father and born with an infirm leg, Sequoyah entered life at a disadvantage. Yet, he helped his mother around the farm, and became an artist and a silversmith. He had been exposed to writing but was illiterate himself–the only inventor of a written language (at least in 5,00 years of written history) to not first write another language. And yet, he felt, as I do, that his people had a story to share. So, he set about creating an alphabet for them to record their heritage. He had another obstacle in the creation of the alphabet–this time from closer to home. His wife felt his work was becoming an obsession since he was neglecting their farm. She also felt his work was affecting his mind, so she burned it–I can’t believe what that must have been like. Still Sequoyah pressed on, and two years later he completed his syllabary. Finally, eleven years later, he would receive a silver medal from the Cherokee National Council. He is a true example of overcoming obstacles to achieve a goal.

I also learned more about another interesting Native American: Tecumseh. Being from Indiana, we spend special interest on the conflict between Tecumseh and William Henry Harrison. I knew that Tecumseh had been off raising support from other tribal members when Harrison picked a fight at the Battle of Tippecanoe. At the Museum, we were able to read a portion of his words. Here’s a quote from his speech: “The white race is a wicked race.

Museum Display

Museum Display

The hunting grounds are fast disappearing, and they are driving the red men farther and farther to the West. Let the white race perish whence they came. Upon the trail of blood, they must be driven. Will not the warriors of the Southern tribes unite with the warriors of the Lakes?” While this speech perfectly falls in line with the image we’re traditionally taught in history, an understanding of the Cherokee rule of Blood Revenge casts a new light on history. In Cherokee law, if a member of tribe A kills a member of tribe B, a member of tribe A must be killed in return. The goal was not simply revenge, but balance. The Cherokee followed this same practice with the “white tribes”: the settlers, the British, and the French. Imagine their surprise when these groups returned the blood revenge with military force. This is not to say Native Americans were innocent bystanders, but perhaps they are not quite the savages we have made them out to be.

Museum Display

Museum Display

Finally, we were able to learn of some unexpected people with Native American connections. Even General Andrew Jackson fought in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend alongside the Creeks, the Cherokee, and other Native Americans whom he would eventually expel with the Indian Removal Act. One of them even saved his life during the battle! Another famous American present at that battle was Sam Houston. Sam has quite an extensive experience with the Cherokee. As a 16 year old, Sam ran away from home and lived among the Cherokee. He was adopted by Chief Oo-Loo-Te-Ka and given the Indian name “The Raven.” He lives with the Cherokee for three years at this stint. He’ll then start a school, join the army, and get wounded twice at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. He then turns to politics, representing the Cherokee in Washington, where he will be criticized by Secretary of State John C. Calhoun for wearing Indian dress! After serving as the Governor of Tennessee, he will return to the Cherokee Nation for the Green Corn Dance where he will meet the woman who will become his second wife. He ends up staying with the Cherokee for a while, needing to be nursed back to health with Indian medicine by his Cherokee father after a severe bout with Malaria.

In addition to the notable names, we also learned about the “no names” like William Holland Thomas who essentially made his own Indian Reservation by buying up land on which he allowed the Cherokee to live. He first got to know the Cherokee by working in a trading post as a young man. He will eventually be adopted by Chief Yonaguska, who will name him his successor, making Thomas the only white Chief of the Cherokee. In addition to buying the land that is much of the Cherokee land in North Carolina today, he would negotiate for the Cherokee in court, and represent their interest in the Senate where he was elected in 1848 and would serve until the beginning of the Civil War. He also protected his tribe in the Civil War by forming the Thomas Legion–initially a protective force, but his men would eventually be sent into dangerous battlefields. Yet, his troops hold the distinction of the last shots fired in the Civil War east of the Mississippi.

The Qualla Arts and Crafts Store

The Qualla Arts and Crafts Store

Almost a month after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Thomas and his men surrounded Waynesville. After a night of war whoops, the garrison surrendered. Just four days later, on the one month anniversary of the Lee’s surrender, Thomas would learn of Appomattox and agree to lay down his arms. Always looking out for his tribe, we will convince the government that the Cherokee had never enlisted in the Confederate army and should therefore be allowed to keep their weapons. He is successful. In decline of health and deeply in debt, Thomas will continue to care for his people. Though he himself was committed to a mental institution, the Cherokee are able to use the treaty he negotiated in 1848 to maintain control of their lands which had been seized due to his debts. Definitely a neat story!

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Mountainside Trees

After leaving the museum, we walked across the street to the Qualla Arts and Crafts store, which the museum had recommended we see. Offering a variety of items for purchase from woven baskets, to pottery, weapons, and wood carvings. The Craft store serves as a kind of museum on its own! We visited a few more shops and headed out to the Blue Ridge Parkway. It was discouraging to see how much of the area consisted of trailers and abandoned or falling down buildings. Again, I desired more of what I had seen of reservations in the West.

The Mountain Farm Museum at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center

The Mountain Farm Museum at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center

The Blue Ridge Parkway was an amazing drive. From the views of layers and layers of mountains, to the roadside waterfalls, to the bare trees, every bend held a piece of beauty!

We concluded our drive back at the visitor center to visit the farms they shared. Much like we had seen driving through Cades Cove, these cabins are incredible pieces of history. Apparently, there is more to see later in the season, as most of the buildings were closed, but the layout of buildings as well as the different trade areas makes me think later in the season, this will be a place buzzing with activity.

Finally, we made our way home, stopping often to enjoy the changes in the mountains from the morning when we set out. From battlelines to ridgelines, it has truly been an amazing day!

Welcome to Cades Cove!

Welcome to Cades Cove!

As we spent today (3/23/15) driving around Cades Cove, I was overwhelmed with the beauty of nature. Every turn offered some new delight that made us exclaim, “Look at that!” I was reminded of a principle I’ve heard often and hadn’t thought of recently–that Beauty demands to be shared. While all of us enjoy things that bring us delight, there’s another joy entirely when we are able to share them with another person–or a number of people via social media. And so, while a picture cannot possibly do justice to the real life experience, I’m inviting you along to share some of the beauty and stories we experienced today.

We saw amazing scenery along our drive out to the Cove, but I just wanted to arrive at the scenery I knew was coming. No sooner had we gotten into the park, we saw our first deer. I love deer, so this is a special joy for me. But, there are so many joys here.

John and Lucretia Oliver's cabin

John and Lucretia Oliver’s cabin

Our first stop was the cabin of John and Lucretia Oliver. He bought land in the 1820’s and built a 1 1/2 story cabin on it. This cabin stayed in his family for over 100 years until the park was established. One thing that was neat to notice about the cabin is that the notches where the logs fit together were carved at a downward angle (about 45 degrees.) I’ve always seen cabins with square notches, but John made them angled to run water away from the house–a great piece of ingenuity. One sad fact I learned by visiting the National Park website was that John W. Oliver (a namesake descendant of the builder) was one of the residents who fought the National Parks buying up land. He apparently went to court several times before losing his family property.

Another deep disappointment of the area was captured by the “Bob was here” sign outside. It referenced the fact that so many irreplaceable pieces of history have been spoiled because someone felt the need to carve or write his or her name. In fact, almost every cabin on the property had graffiti on almost every inch of visible surface–it’s truly heartbreaking. As 17th century British clergyman Thomas Fuller observed (and my mom quotes), “Fools names like fool’s faces are often seen in public places.” Please resist the urge to graffiti historic places! If you want to sign your name to remember a trip, do it in a guest book!

The Primitive Baptist Church in shadows

The Primitive Baptist Church in shadows

From the Oliver cabin, we headed to two different churches, The Primitive Baptist Church and The Methodist Church. These buildings not only have an amazing beauty (despite the graffiti), but also a great heritage as well. The Primitive Baptist and the Methodist Churches were both built around the 1820’s. The Baptist Church was closed during the Civil War due to their support of the Union and their fear of their Confederate neighbors. The Methodists were not as numerous as the Baptists, and, although they did not close, were bitterly divided over the issue of the Civil War as well. Though I reenact with a Civil War group which represents a Tennessee regiment, I had not realized they were so divided. This issue of this truly being a “brother against brother” war would come up on other occasions as well. In the present, however, I loved the way the light played with the shadows on this church.

In the middle of the Cades Cove loop is the Visitor Center. Instead of just being a traditional Visitor Center, we were greeted by a number of incredible historic buildings. In addition to the barns, houses, and other out buildings, there were great places to hike, streams to ford, and beautiful photography to be taken. We spent a wonderful time just simply taking time to pursue beauty–definitely a worthwhile task.

Mom's picture--beauty shared

Mom’s picture–beauty shared

Since the title of this entry is that beauty demands to be shared, I want to share one of my mom’s amazing pictures from the Visitor Center (which she went through great contortions to get.)

This whole idea of the separation between people in the cove was brought home to me with our visit to the mill. Here, we found not only beautiful scenery, but also a rare treasure in the form of 91 year old Cliff–the current miller. Cliff began running the mill at 89. He had moved to Tennessee from Florida to retire–exactly the opposite of most. I asked him why he decided to become the miller here, and he explained he had been sitting on his front porch when the park service came by and asked him if he’d like to run it. He informed them that he had no mill experience. They replied that they’d teach him. And he’s never looked back. He said one of his favorite things is all the different people he gets to meet. His favorite story was about Rebecca Cable. She wanted to marry a young man, and her dad said no. She told him that since he wanted grandchildren, she’d never marry to spite him. And she didn’t. (His son, however, did marry and have children, so he got his grandchildren after all.)The Cable family owned a great deal of the park, so many of the buildings were sold by her.

Cable Mill (Cliff's)

Cable Mill (Cliff’s)

Cliff also shared that the mill was a good way of reconciliation after the Civil War. He reminded me that half of the area went for the North and half for the South. Both during and after the war, the mill employed many men from the area. When you have to work in close quarters, you make up your differences. This is why Cliff considers the mill a place of great healing.

We ended our tour by visiting a few other cabins. While each had a slightly different appearance and their own story, I was particularly interested in the Carter Shields Cabin. Carter had been wounded at the Battle of Shiloh–a battle in which the 154th Tennessee Sr. Co. K (with whom I reenact) also fought. It was a horribly bloody battle, and Carter was one of the lucky ones–he was crippled for life, but alive. His story was a happy one though–he married and moved to Kansas, then returned almost 40 years after the war to buy property here. However, he only stayed for eleven years before moving on.

As we drove out of the park, we were able to make our way to a number of the beautiful sites we had seen on the way in. One favorite was the Sinks and Upper Meigs Falls.

Sink at Meigs Falls

Sink at Meigs Falls

This site had beautiful views, hiking trails, and rocks to climb on. Finally, it was time to head home. Because there is so much more beauty to be shared, I’ll leave you with a few of my favorite shots from the day. Enjoy! Until tomorrow!

Mountain Beauty

Mountain Beauty

I Love Deer!

I Love Deer!

The Robert F. Thomas Chapel,  Dollywood

The Robert F. Thomas Chapel, Dollywood

There’s a famous line from Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra:  It beggared all description.  I think I learned what this phrase meant today (3/22/15.)

While there are many incredible things at Dollywood–the food, the shops, amazing craftsmanship, the rides–but for us, the shows are the main reason we come.  My previous experience at Dollywood was during the Christmas holidays, when the shows were truly unparalleled, but what we saw today at the Festival of Nations truly blew it out of the water.  So, while we did walk around, visit shops, and buy things, today’s experience was truly about the shows.

To begin with, we weren’t planning on being at Dollywood as early as we were.  We had planned to attend Cowboy church–a local church service (broadcast internationally) that features country music artists.  A friend had recommended it as an amazing experience.  But, when we pulled into the Comedy Barn, there were no cars in the parking lot.  We went in and asked the workers, and they told us the church had moved.  With a bit of digging, we discovered the church was not meeting for the next two weeks.  Still wanting to attend church on a Sunday, we googled where Dolly went to church.  We didn’t find out where Dolly usually attends, but we did discover there was a chapel in Dollywood with an 11:30 service, so we still had a chance to make it–without even rushing!

The view from the choir loft waiting for the service to start.

The view from the choir loft waiting for the service to start.

When we arrived, the chaplain was asking for volunteers for the choir, and since mom and I both sing, we decided to join.  Service was an incredible one.  Chaplain Joey Buck started by sharing that God had brought us specifically to this place–especially true for us, since we had planned to be someone else.  He brought an encouraging message from Ps. 51, challenging us that God was a God of renewal, that He didn’t and wouldn’t give up on us, and that He gives us joy and meaning as we walk with Him.  The service was interspersed with hymns and sharing.  While different from my home church, it was an incredible experience, and I’m glad we ended up with God’s plan A.  I also think it is awesome that Dolly has employed a full-time chaplain for her staff for 30 years: a true testimony of how much Dolly gives back.   For more about Smokey Mountain Resort Ministries, check them out at http://www.smrm.org.

The Invaders Steel Orchestra

The Invaders Steel Orchestra

After church, we meandered towards the Valley Theater to check out The Invaders Steel Orchestra. We bought a few things at the glassblowers and were informed that Dollywood offers guests the option of Package pick-up. If you buy something other than a stuffed animal, they can have it delivered to the front of the park for you to pick up on your way out! An awesome convenience for people who already have a lot to carry.

The Invaders Steel Orchestra is a group from Trinidad and Tobago. When the show first started, I had been anticipating something that was like Drumline. Instead, the first song was a mellow, islandy melody which reminded me of hold music (The music you hear when you’re placed on hold.) Steel drumSo I wasn’t very impressed until the one of the performers began to share a bit more. I learned that Trinidad and Tobago are the most southerly of the Caribbean islands. While two separate islands differing in industry, they together make up the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. The instruments they were playing are steel drums made from 55 gallon oil drums, and they were created in Trinidad and Tobago. What I had mistaken for a synthesizer playing the melody was actually the drums. These varying drums, some of which looked like overgrown mixing bowls, created the most beautiful melodies. They vary in pitch and sound, in some cases resembling the instruments for which they are named, like the cello, guitar, or bass. When they played everything from Amazing Grace to Offenbach’s Can Can, I was blown away. I had been expecting drums–this was incredible skill which involved picking a selected spot on the drum to represent each note. Unbelievable!

The Alash Ensemble Throat Singers from the Republic of Tuva

The Alash Ensemble Throat Singers from the Republic of Tuva

Since we had about an hour and a half until the next show, we browsed various shops along the way, finally making our way to The Heartsong Theater to see Alash Ensemble. This group from the Republic of Tuva (Located between Siberia and Mongolia) was the first show I’ve ever experienced that truly “beggared description.” From the moment they began singing, I knew there was no possible way for me to describe what they do. These “Throat Singers” are able to shut out certain tones in their voice so what you hear coming out is literally two distinct sounds in two very different registers. Like trying to decipher a good magic trick, we looked for something else that could have been making the noise we were hearing: Nothing.

Stilt walking acrobatics

Stilt walking acrobatics

While they played accompanying instruments, they were not moving their fingers appropriately to produce the sounds we heard. There was no trick! Mom and I both left saying it was the most unique thing we had ever witnessed! To find out more information on the Alash Ensemble–and to hear this incredible phenomenon for yourself–check out their website at http://www.alashensemble.com Play the video in the left hand corner to hear a sample! (By the way, they really are country–they sing about pretty girls and fast horses…)

We were able to make our way to the next show at a leisurely pace, so we spent time on the lookout for the Zebra Stelzentheater from Germany. These stilt walkers simply rove the park, posing for pictures with tourists and showing their acrobatic skills. We saw two different groups–one with alien looking costumes, and one with late 1700’s costumes. They were a fun interlude.

Los Pampas Gauchos

Los Pampas Gauchos

It was then time to check out the much anticipated Los Pampas Gauchos. This group from Argentina totally blew me away. It was the second group to truly leave me speechless. Not only did they perform incredible dancing, but they blended it with comedy, acrobatics, and a variety of dangerous items including knives, whips, and bolas. Additionally, they boasted a cast containing both the 2013 and the 2014 winners of the Malambo dance contest. (Malambo is a mix of tap, instruments, and basic showing off.) Each dance was more incredible than the one before. When they came out and danced with Bolas (a throwing weapon made up of a cord with a ball attached to the end, meant to be thrown and wrapped around an animal’s legs), it was stunning! Definitely a show not to miss! To experience a bit of the show for yourself, check out this YouTube video from the 2012 season! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Q21Zo0_RA8

Timber acrobatics

Timber acrobatics

Finally, we ended our day at the Showstreet Palace Theater to take in Timber! This group hails from the small town of Saint-Alphonse-Rodriquez, Quebec and brings their experiences of farm life combined with unbelievable acrobatics. Since I had missed the part about them being from Quebec, I was surprised when the songs they sang were in French. But, we soon recovered and thoroughly enjoyed the show. It was slower paced than the enthusiastic gauchos, but also included feats of incredible balance, juggling axes (legitimate axes–you could hear the clang of the metal, and they ended each trick throwing them into a tree trunk), running logs, spinning inside wheels, and a variety of other tricks. You can check out their show at http://www.cirquealfonse.com/en/shows/timber/

Alas, the park was closing, and it was time to leave Dollywood for another day. We will be exploring some other territories tomorrow, so probably won’t be back to Dollywood until later in the week. I can’t wait to see several of these shows again!

Old Mill for Trolley Stop

Old Mill for Trolley Stop

Today (3/21/15), we left Ohio headed for Gatlinburg, Tennessee, to begin our adventure in and around Dollywood. I was incredibly excited because from today (Opening Day!) until April 20, it is the Festival of Nations. Since I love travelling, and other countries, I was (and am) very excited to be here for this celebration. I wish we could have been here last night for the kickoff with Dolly, but Spring Break officially started today, so we missed our opportunity–or so we thought.

After a 7 hour drive from Ohio, we arrived at Laurel Point Resort, which will be our home for the week. We did the traditional “stop at the visitor center and pick up coupons for everything possible” stop and found out Dolly would still be at the park today! We quickly checked in and unloaded at the resort, then headed off to catch the trolley.

If you are taking a group of less than 6 people, riding the trolley is a cost effective way to avoid the $12.00 charge. The trolley leaves from Old Mill Square (off Old Mill Road, stoplight 7 in Pigeon Forge), and travels to both Dollywood and Gatlinburg, so be careful which one you take. The cost of the trolley is $.50 each way or $2.50 for the day. The trolleys run every 15 minutes and are a fun way to see the city.

When we got on the trolley, we passed a group of tourists whom my mom asked if they had seen Dolly. “Oh, yes!” one exclaimed. “She’s in the parade at 4:30!” It was 4:15…and we still had to get there and get our season passes. Alas. We arrived at Dollywood at 4:21–9 minutes til the parade. But, the season ticket line was long. Finally, about 4:40, we had tickets in hand and rushed to where the crowd was lined up–just in time to hear someone yell, “Dolly!” We jostled a few people trying to find a place to stand, while balancing tickets, water bottles, snacks, and trying to get out our cameras. Needless to say, between the people blocking the view and the speed she was travelling, we didn’t manage it, but could only half-heartedly wave as her carriage passed quickly by. Opportunity missed. “Well,” my mom stated, “It’s about like our picture of the Queen.” (Same scenario, Buckingham Palace–by the time you register what you’re seeing, it’s gone…Translation: No picture. But, that’s another story…)

Dolly--Thanks for this Photo goes to Mary Lynn McKaig!

Dolly–Thanks for this Photo goes to Mary Lynn McKaig!

We decided to see what shows we could make it to see and settled on Rhythm of the Dance–the Irish Dancers. I love Riverdance, so I was excited to see the Dollywood version. Knowing it was 4:50, Opening Day, and the show started at 5:45, we decided to head straight to the theatre. The Line was already through the line gates and up the street. Good thing we decided to be early. As we were standing in line, we noticed the couple behind us looking at pictures. Since all of us had just come from the parade, I asked if they had gotten a picture of Dolly. She said yes, and showed me. Mom and I both chorused, “Can you send it to us?!” Thankfully, she agreed. She also had only found out about the parade by accident, but had more Irish luck than we did and made it on time. We chatted for a bit (a shout out to Covenant Transport where the McKaigs work!), and then it was time for the show to begin.

The Irish Dancers of Rhythm of the Dance

The Irish Dancers of Rhythm of the Dance

The Rhythm of the Dance show offers not just Irish Dancing, but an incredible collection of Irish music–both instrumental and sung. It also offered a variety of instruments I don’t traditionally see in concerts–from bagpipes or other pipes, to Bodhran (handheld drum), to an accordion, together with the usual violin and guitar. Additionally, there were a number of dances featuring individual dancers, couples, and large groups. I thought it was spectacular! Unfortunately, as I mentioned in my previous Christmastime blog, the crowd really makes a difference. And this particular crowd was a tough one. Having performed on stage myself, I know how influential an audience can be. I also know, as my mom pointed out, that people have different personalities that are expressed differently. Still, if you’re going to go to a show, PLEASE, get into it.

Dollywood Train

Dollywood Train

With about an hour left before the park closed, we decided to take the train around the park. It’s a great way to orient yourself to all that Dollywood has to offer. The trains at Dollywood were actually used in WWII, so they have an incredible history of their own! I was reminded on the train of just how diverse an audience Dollywood really receives. We sat behind a family from Jordan. The wife had only been in America for 10 years, while her husband had been here for over 30–I didn’t quite get the story of how they had met–her English was a bit broken. She did tell us of their encounter with three bears at Chimney Rock. We’ll have to see if we can find them when we go to Cherokee Country. In talking with this woman, I was reminded again of what I really think is the point of the festival of nations: We all have different cultures, and every culture has something to offer to the others if we will just take the time to listen–whether it’s to the lady at the Visitor Center, who hasn’t lost her Middlesex English accent, despite 52 years in America, or a sweet couple from Georgia who shares a picture with a total stranger, a beautiful woman in a headscarf who took a risk to talk to people who might judge her just for that. So many amazing people–and we still had one more to meet.

After grabbing some unbelievable cinnamon bread from the Grist Mill (Seriously, fresh out of the oven!), we headed onto the trolley. A man in a conductor’s uniform came and sat across the aisle from me. When I asked if he had been our conductor, he stated that he had–and that his accent was real–a severe Tennessee twang. We had laughed about his instructions to make sure kids sat in the “meeedal” (middle) and to contact the First aid if you got a “Se-ander” (Cinder) in your eye. As has become my tradition, I asked him first how long he had worked here (since June of 2011), and what the coolest thing he’d seen or been a part of during his time here. He shared with us that in 2012, there had been a convention for people who were interested in Roller Coasters at Dollywood because of the big reveal of the Wild Eagle Ride (which had been a big secret–he had to sign papers about it and everything!) While they were at the park, he took them on the train ride and allowed them to stop and have a picnic on the grounds. He got to join them as they spent about 2 hours just eating and sharing together. Then, Dolly came out and sang about three songs. He said it was a really incredible time for him. Thanks, Brian, for taking the time to share this story with us!

Now, there’s just one more sight I want to see:

To Bed...

To Bed…

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