Slicing down the road from the Clingman's Dome parking lot toward Newfound Gap, I'm doing a cool 30 mph on my bicycle, enjoying the payoff from the long ride up, when a bear lumbers out of the trees ahead to my left. It swaggers down the roadside bank, pads out to the middle of the pavement, swings his or her distinctive head around, then stops on the yellow line for a better look at the spectacle of a man on a bike quickly approaching.
Hmmm, not the reaction I'd hoped for. About 40 yards away, I consider braking, but I'd be too close before stopping, and since the bear looks to be half grown, a mama bear or other family member could be lurking. I'm no expert.
Jeanne is about 50 yards back on her bike, and so I yell a warning over my shoulder. Maybe we can glide past. Maybe the bear won't take a swipe or step into our paths. I hope it makes up its mind soon just to move on, and that's what it does. Shrugs, ambles on to disappear into ferny down-slope woods as I slow and scan in vain, then turn back to exult with Jeanne over this piece of magic we've been treated to, before looking yet again. But the bear's reduced to a shadow among shadows.
Reduce this story to a shadow of itself and it comes to this: A bear stepped out of the woods, took note of us and ambled on.
There's something dismissive about the encounter that's hard to, well, dismiss. I'm reminded of lines from Knoxville poet Marybeth Boyanton's description of a swan's gaze... “the empty dark omniscience of that askant eye…" and the way it made the speaker feel... "observed and noted; gone….”
And I'm reminded of another friend who frequently gets a bemused look on his face and tells me, “Don't worry about nature. Nature's going to be just fine.” I've had this conversation with him enough to know he means that, in the end, Gaia will observe, take note, then dismiss us with a shrug of her shoulders, a toss of the head, as she ambles on to tend her garden.
Clingman's Dome is a fitting place to ponder such notions. There among some of the planet's oldest mountains, silvery boles and scrubby green vestiges of once-shaggy Fraser firs remind where a mighty ice age forest once dwelt. Such trees were still dense and towering when I was a child.
Now, scores of tourists visit daily, yet few bother to read up on the lore of the land as they walk the asphalt path to a lookout tower straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina border, a demarcation that seems spurious and theoretical as you gaze upon peaks in the mist.
How many will bother to learn that the Indians regarded Clingman's Dome, which they called Kuwahi, as sacred ground? Or that they believed black bears had a townhouse inside Kuwahi, where they held dances in preparation for their wintry hibernation?
Anthropologist James Mooney recorded stories of a mythic Lake Attagahi--visible only to those who fasted and prayed--where wounded bears could submerge themselves in magical waters and be healed.
Some visitors know that a handful of Cherokee hid out among these mountains and—in part thanks to the storied sacrifice of a man named Tsali--helped preserve a portion of them for the Eastern Band of Cherokee.
But how many will bother to learn the story of another man named Tsali, a prophet who arose among the Cherokee around 1810 and told his people of a vision he'd had? The Great Spirit related that the Cherokee were guilty of apostasy—of turning away from the paths of their elders. According to Mooney, the Great Spirit told Tsali they must give up their featherbeds, fiddles, books, cats and other possessions from the whites. Those who refused would die, but those who returned to the old true beliefs would live to see the end of their enemies.
Tsali predicted a terrible hailstorm would destroy the invaders, but any Indians who climbed to a charmed spot high in the Great Smoky Mountains—it might've been Kuwahi--would be spared. After the storm, the elk, the deer and other game would return. Then the Great Spirit's children would live as their ancestors had in the golden days of old.
Of course, such End Times never came, and three or four decades later most of the Cherokee were forcibly removed west over the Trail of Tears, where thousands died.
Later, whites were evicted to make way for the national park that straddles these ridges.
As we glide into dusk, peaks rise indifferent to such comings and goings. These mountains will be here millions of years hence with their rivers, trees, birds and beasts weaving magic dances beneath the moon. Such notions crowd the mind as I ponder:
A bear came out of the woods, took note, moved on.