On June 3 of 2022, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians rededicated the $20 million Jacob Cornsilk Complex in Snowbird, just a few miles outside of Robbinsville. I drove the
On June 3 of 2022, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians rededicated the $20 million Jacob Cornsilk Complex in Snowbird, just a few miles outside of Robbinsville. I drove the roughly 48 miles past Bryson City, past the pontoons bobbing on Fontana Lake, and around the lush mountain dips and dives of Stecoah to witness an emblem of what far-western North Carolina is, was, and, I hope, will be.
This new building rose from the riverbanks, on ancient grounds that had yielded pottery shards, Civil War uniform buttons, and memorabilia from the Snowbird Day School during a preconstruction archaeological survey. It was purposefully built to house all essential needs of the small community — from health-care support services and fitness facilities to transit and law enforcement to a library. It was designed in this manner because this is how far-western North Carolina operates. We are interconnected, communal, and resourceful. We are the rhododendron and mountain laurel communities of the Smokies.
There is often a sense among outsiders that the western bookend of the “Murphy to Manteo” slogan is largely uncharted. While that notion is far from accurate, it is true that we are home to more hidden gems than Franklin’s roadside ruby mines advertise. It is as if these mountain thickets simultaneously blossom for our visitors and yet maintain the navigational maze in which generational locals find solace.
Like our other Smoky Mountain neighbors, our economies embrace tourism. Trains whistle their arrival. Smoke rises from campgrounds. Inner tubes splash into icy waters. Many of our trails are clearly marked for even the most novice of explorers.
But it is those trails that are undefined that mark our journey. Like the branches of rhododendrons (or rhodos, as we would say), we are a tangle of cultures — interconnected and symbiotic.
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Since the beginning of time, Cherokees have been stewards of this land. We have been joined by generations of families who have worked this earth and, more important, protected its treasures from the scars of commerce.
Still, this is a land of displacement. The Cherokees who now compose the Eastern Band resisted forced removal west and were forever severed from family. Additionally, this region contains vast tracts of federal lands that once were private homesteads. Beneath and surrounding the waters of Fontana Lake are the remnants of once-thriving towns like Eagle Creek and Proctor. I ride ski boats over my grandfather’s childhood home and hike the Lakeshore Trail, marveling at the pre-World War II automobiles and the hastily abandoned wares lining its path. Running my fingers along the exterior chinking of my in-laws’ log cabin reminds me that this structure was once removed to make way for national parkland.
The people of this area rely on our root system of values, tradition, and sense of community.
This is also a land of rebirth. Though the leaves and branches of rhodos and mountain laurel are some of the first victims of periodic forest fires, their immense and resilient root systems shoot burls through the blackened earth. One can witness tiny pink flowers dotting the scorched banks when the heat dissipates. They are the first to return.
The people of this area rely on our root system of values, tradition, and sense of community. We rebuilt traditional arts economies and upstarted industry based on mountain ingenuity.
When you visit the downtowns of Waynesville, Sylva, Franklin, or Murphy, it’s apparent that the front-porch lifestyle — the community forums of our parents’ and grandparents’ youths — has transferred to storefront streetscapes. We gather now on the patios of breweries and bakeries, sandwich shops and heritage museums; public murals and display windows of world-class art surround us.
We share maps through the laurel thicket. The outdoors industry budded in the past decade, offering immersive trail systems like Jackrabbit, Tsali, and Fire Mountain. Hiking, biking, disc-golfing, and cross-country running provide hours of forest exploration. When the summer heat takes over — a stickiness not unlike that of laurel or rhodo buds — our creeks, rivers, and lakes bring us all respite.
As a local, I admit that I sometimes avoid seasonal tourists. I’ll take back roads and seek hidden swimming holes. Yet, even if we don’t always admit it, there is something special about sharing our home with visitors. We have never been a place that refused to grow and learn and welcome — just as long as our root system remains intact.
Snowbird reminds us that connectivity is essential. Prior to the completion of the Cornsilk Complex, some Snowbird residents remarked that they “only got the crumbs.” This could be said of all of far-western North Carolina. But as we dig into what makes us unique and enduring, we continue to unearth our own sources of nourishment — our values and principles.
We have cultivated them, and, when ready, we have spread them across our region — painting these mountains with an interwoven canopy poised for full bloom.