Making Time in the Future to Embrace the Past

Making Time in the Future to Embrace the Past

Sue Wasserman

Lately, I’ve been on a history kick. It started in Concord, MA a few weeks ago while on vacation. A tour of Little Women author Louisa May Alcott’s house was so moving, I wandered across the street to learn more about author Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose work influenced Alcott. This was followed by a foray to Walden Pond, Harper’s Ferry, and Charles Town in West Virginia, and later Staunton, VA, where I toured President Woodrow Wilson’s birth-home and museum. I gleaned so many fascinating tidbits that felt significant, particularly in these wobbly times where I struggle to understand where we are headed as a nation.

Cataloochee Valley Church
The Palmer Chapel Methodist Church in Cataloochee was built in 1898 on land deeded by Mary Ann Palmer. Photo by Sue Wasserman.

There’s something about being in a history-filled place that sparks my imagination, transforming what might be a boring sidenote in a static textbook into a voyage of deepest curiosity.

I was hungry for just such a voyage when I wandered into the Cataloochee Valley to see the elk bugling. The only thing I knew beforehand was that the valley had been a thriving community until the land was earmarked as part of the future national park and residents were asked to leave.

Having experienced the winding, rutted road that made entry into the park challenging, I wondered about the hardy souls that called this valley home. I applauded the decisionmakers who chose to preserve structures, allowing people like me to wonder as I wandered and attempt to put myself in their shoes.

As I stood in the entry to the church, I tried to imagine what Sunday churchgoers wore, whether sermons inspired or coaxed remorse and heartburn. In my mind’s eye, I visualized boisterous picnics that followed services, sensing elder parishioners sat shaded beneath the great maple tree behind the building as high-spirited youth ran through the fields, overjoyed to be free from their pew-enforced silence.

Cataloochee Valley two-room schoolhouse
The two-room Beech Grove School was built in Cataloochee in 1901 and served as the only school for the community. Photo by Sue Wasserman.

I lingered in the two-room schoolhouse, wondering what a typical day looked like, curious about how many children attended and what lessons were considered most important. Given time constraints, I didn’t get to explore the other buildings during this visit. I have promised myself to remedy that soon, hopefully in the spring if I get to take my place as writer-in-residence.

I have often been guilty of skipping historical markers and landmarks, something I am eager to change. Clearly, there are ample opportunities scattered across the Smokies. While there’s no doubt nature will always play the starring role in my adventures here, I realize there’s something to be said for expanding my horizons, too. I have this sense that the more I explore this region’s rich history, the more I just might inspire my own history-in-the-making.

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Sue Wasserman is the author of A Moment’s Notice and Walk with Me: Exploring Nature’s Wisdom. She has also written for the New York Times and Southern Living. She currently lives in North Carolina.

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