There’s something about the Southern live oak. It’s majestic and evocative. Its Spanish moss makes it mysterious, recalling the departed spirits that locals swear haunt these places. Few natural objects bring to mind so many and varied sentiments.

Savannah is a city of live oaks. They are everywhere. The city is truly urban but more like a giant garden. It’s the sort of place where you can walk around every corner and take magnificent pictures.

I’ve visited many Southern cities: New Orleans, Mobile, Charleston, Montgomery, Jackson, among others. None compares to the elegance and perfection of Savannah. Savannah is all that they aspire to be and much more.

The city is the brainchild of Gen. James Oglethorpe, the founder of the colony of Georgia. He carved the city out of the forest and created a beautiful pattern that shapes the city today. It’s a tribute to what the vision of one man can accomplish many generations later.

The layout of the city is based on squares. These are small or large parks around which are built housing, businesses, shops, and churches. Each one has its own character, monuments, and flora and fauna. These are places where people can gather, visit, and reflect.

In Reynolds Square, there is a statue of the founder of Methodism, John Wesley. Wesley was converted (or came to a better understanding of justification) on his trip to Georgia. He preached there and left his mark on the growing colony. He said: “My heart’s desire for this place is not that it be a famous or a rich but that it may be a religious colony, and then I am sure that it cannot fail of the blessing of God.”

You can see the religious nature of the city by the fact that nearly every square (at least on Bull Street) has an historic church. I knew of Independent Presbyterian Church through its Pastor, Terry Johnson, who is a member of my denomination. I did not realize that it was right in the heart of old Savannah. It was founded in 1755, but the current building was dedicated in 1819 at a service that President James Madison attended.

There is so much history in this city. We had lunch at the Pirate’s House and had a delicious and cheap lunch buffet. This was a building originally constructed in 1753 as a tavern. The owners of the tavern attempted to grow grapes for wine and mulberry trees for silk. These and many others failed. What did succeed was peaches, and, according to the restaurant, this became the source for peaches throughout the colony.

I feel like I merely scratched the surface of the city. There is so much more to see and learn. Each street, each home, each square summons me to investigate.

But I’m not sure I want to go back. It was a day of perfect weather. I have such a perfect image of the city in my mind. I feel like it was a glimpse of the New Jerusalem. I don’t want to go back and have it spoiled. I may just carry the image in my mind until I reach the New Jerusalem and can more adequately compare the two.

A Quieter Experience of the Smoky Mountains — Maggie Valley, Waynesville, and Lake Junaluska

I love living in the Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge area beneath the Great Smoky Mountains. You can visit Knife Works, Dollywood, the Comedy Barn, Crockett’s Breakfast Camp, and endless others. But when my wife and I want a quieter experience of the Smokies, we travel to North Carolina and visit Maggie Valley, Waynesville, and Lake Junaluska.

If you are looking for a place to take your kids for fun and excitement, Maggie Valley is not the place. But if you are looking for a place to relax and enjoy the culture of the Smokies in a picturesque, quiet setting, Maggie Valley is it.

When I think of the Maggie Valley area, I think of three distinct places: Maggie Valley itself, Waynesville, and Lake Junaluska.

Maggie Valley
Maggie Valley is just that, a beautiful valley situated in the midst of the Smoky Mountains with a crystal clear creek in the midst of it. Highway 19 is the main road through Maggie Valley, and it leads straight up into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway.

One thing about Maggie Valley is that the hotels are well-kept and clean. We’ve never had a bad experience at any of these hotels, and we’ve stayed at a lot of them. For example, the Clarketon Motel is an older style lodging place, but it has served us well when the other hotels in town were full.

There are a large variety of restaurants including many of the old style Southern, family restaurants that you won’t find in Pigeon Forge. My favorite restaurant is Butts on the Creek, a BBQ joint right on the creek. It’s a little hard to park there when it’s busy, but it’s well worth it. The BBQ is good, but they have one thing I’ve not seen anywhere else: fried corn on the cob. If you get a dish with two sides, get two of these. You won’t regret it. It’s one of the best sides I’ve ever eaten. Add to that the sound of water rushing over the rocks in the background, and you have a real dining experience.

For dessert, head toward Waynesville and stop at the Red Gingham Country Store. The store is nice, but I make the stop because of their reasonably priced Hershey’s ice cream. Hint: order a banana split to get more ice cream at a lesser price!

Lake Junaluska
After you’ve eaten your fill in Maggie Valley, it’s a great time to take the 2.3 mile walk around Lake Junaluska. This is my favorite place in the Smokies. It reminds you of something you might see in the Swiss or Austrian Alps with the alpine lake below you and the mountains all around you.

A large part of the lake is actually the conference grounds of the Western Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church. This is apparent throughout your walk around Lake Junaluska (i.e., the Susanna Wesley Gardens).

Besides the lake and the mountains, you will see a large variety of lake houses all around Lake Junaluska. The architecture of these houses is attractive and interesting. They are not your run in the mill modern homes. They are old style houses with unique styles and structures.

Besides the lake houses, you will also find that the whole walkway is well-groomed and filled with plants and flowers. A section of the walkway is a rose walk with roses of numerous types lining the walkway.

The crown jewel of the lake is Memorial Chapel. As you come around the trail and see the chapel, you can almost imagine yourself coming across this scene on some Scottish loch. It has an old world feel. The chapel is usually open and is a great place to pray or meditate.

I recommend that you park near the gift shop. You can get a coffee or snack and sit out on the deck overlooking the lake. Then, you can walk around the lake and experience its numerous sights and views. You also have the option of doing an inexpensive boat tour and learn the history of Lake Junaluska.

Waynesville could be called “little Asheville.” It has the same type of restaurants and stores you would find there. It’s a picturesque downtown is a great place to stroll and shop.

For example, there is the old school Mast General Store. Upstairs is a clothing section. Downstairs you can find a variety of things including a section with the toys that you grew up. Warning: your children may not be as excited about these old-school toys as you are!

In the winter, the downtown is covered with lights and often filled with music. Even at night, Waynesville is a great place to visit, which is unusual for any downtown but especially in a small town. It is a true gathering place.

Of course, like Maggie Valley and Lake Junaluska, you have added to the good things you experience in the place itself, the wonder of the mountains all around. Wherever you walk in Waynesville, glorious scenes of the mountains await you.

Waynesville, Maggie Valley, and Lake Junaluska are some of the best places to enjoy the Smoky Mountains. I can’t wait until the next time my wife and I can get back there.

The River

The river is its own world. I never knew this until this August when I took my birthday money and purchased a kayak from Dick’s Sporting Goods.

My son, David, had known this for a long time. The river is about a hundred yards from our house. Three summers ago, he and his friend Josh walked up and down the river for miles, fishing in every conceivable spot and getting to know the Middle Prong of the Little Pigeon River like the back of their hands.

This summer, David worked at Dollywood Splash Country. He is conservative with his money, but I encouraged him to use his money to get something he really liked. He bought a kayak to expand his fishing range.

I have been on a kayak many times and always enjoyed it. I thought it would be fun to go out with David and explore the rivers in our area. So, I bought myself a kayak as well, even though I didn’t work at Dollywood Splash Country.

Having purchased our kayaks, we went to a little island in the river near our home where we could get in. We made our way slowly down the river. When we first started, we were as cautious as Southerners driving in Michigan in January. We soon learned, though, that kayaks are sturdy little boats and would do quite well in the rapids or even small waterfalls.

The river is a place for wildlife. It’s like a nature preserve in the middle of the city. As I floated over the clear water, I saw a huge snapping turtle with a shell probably 18 inches in length. It wasn’t the biggest I’d ever seen, but it’s the closest I’d ever gotten to one that big. Not too long after that, I saw a very long snake slithering along the bottom.

The river is a place for interesting people. We encountered one gentleman who spoke to us out of the bushes. He was just wandering the heavily wooded banks with his shirt off. He told us he just enjoyed having adventures and seeing new things. He had come up from Wears Valley to see this area of the river. There are also homeless people living under bridges. Some areas are so isolated it looks like people have fled civilization and set up a little settlement like our ancestors did as they traveled westward. The river is its own world.

As I moved on down the river, I looked around and saw only nature, no sign of the busyness of one of the busiest tourist destinations in the nation. You might as well have been in the middle of the mountains.

It’s hard to fish in certain sections of the river. There is so much pressure from the fishermen who access the river that the fish are few and far between. Taking a boat just a little ways down from those places, you encounter areas humans rarely visit. There, the fish live in abundance: carp, small mouth bass, blue gill, catfish, and gar.

Gar are prehistoric looking fish. They have a long nose filled with sharp teeth. On our trip down the river, my son saw them and wanted to catch one. He moved over to the side of the bank and switched his bait. On his first cast, he caught a blue gill. Then, he said, “I’m going to do a David White special.” He proceeded to cut up the blue gill and prepare it for bait.

Within a few moments, David was fishing with the blue gill on his hook. It did not take long for a gar to bite. It struggled a long time, but David reeled it in. Here is a video of it:

That gar bit him on the arm when it flung itself up, leaving a few small scratch marks.

After that, David and I went on toward our place of exit, the bridge under Chapman Highway on your way out of Sevierville. We had never gone that way before. The water was shallow, and it was very hard to paddle. Eventually, we decided to just walk the kayaks out.

David got to the ramp first, and I saw he was doing something with his paddle. He turned it toward me and on the end of it was a snake. He then flung it away from us, and we got out.

My wife came with our van, and we strapped our kayaks to the top of it. We headed home leaving behind the river, leaving behind a different world.

I Love the Fall

There is something glorious in each season, but there is no season quite like fall.

God has given us this world to enjoy, and fall is a reminder of that truth. He paints the trees and bids us enjoy His handiwork, though only for a brief season.

Sometimes the leaves change in varying stages. Other times the leaves change all at once.

In South Dakota, there weren’t as many trees, but there was still tremendous beauty. I remember in 2012, one of the hottest years I’ve experienced, when all the leaves changed at once. I had the privilege of driving through Spearfish Canyon several times to enjoy the innumerable cottonwood trees that complimented the Black Hills’ pines.

A little more than two years later, I moved to Tennessee near the Great Smoky Mountains. Trees everywhere! I was excited for my first fall in October of 2015.

One thing that was a little disappointing about Tennessee was that it did not have the maple reds that Michigan (where I grew up) had. So, I was excited one October day when I drove into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and went to one of my favorite trails: Laurel Falls. There I saw red leaves in abundance.

That day, I put up on Facebook: Sevierville friends, I don’t care what you are doing, come up now into the GSMNP! It’s peak color!

The whole fall is beautiful, but to see that one day where everything seems to have turned together is just other-worldly.

I don’t have to travel far, though, to see and experience the leaves. My own yard provides an amazing variety of colors for me to enjoy. Some of my favorite pictures are those of my daughters running across a yard with the backdrop of the colors of the oaks, the beeches, the dogwoods, a Norway spruce pine.

People spend millions of dollars to come and see trees as their leaves change color. My neighborhood is filled with a huge variety of trees and colors in the fall. One thing I have emphasized to my wife is that we need to make sure we are enjoying what we have right in front of us.

And that is one of the most important message of life: enjoy what’s in front of you! Fall is a brilliant reminder of that. “For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving . . .” (1 Tim. 4:4).

Return to the Battlefield

“I’d like to hike the Union line trail.” I told the rangers at the counter of the Visitor Center of the Chickamauga National Military.”

They looked at me like I had styrofoam cups on my ears and then began to show me hiking maps.

Oops. No Union line trail. Of course, there was a Confederate Line Trail but no Union Line Trail. This was Georgia, after all.

Since 2011, I’ve had a fascination with battlefields. They combine the history of our nation together with the study of strategy. Seeing the terrain of the battlefield always gives me a fuller perspective than just reading about a battle.

But this visit was going to be different.

Over the past year, I had researched my own family history and genealogy. What I had come to realize is that my own family history intersects the great points of our nation’s history at so many points.

I had identified 15 of 16 of my 3rd Great Grandfathers (in other words, my grandparents’ great grandfathers). I was amazed to find that 6 of these 15 were soldiers in the Civil War, all on the Union side (I thought for sure I had found my first Confederate ancestor when I discovered that 3rd great William Smith had served in the 1st Alabama Cavalry. Turns out it was Union and accompanied Sherman on his infamous “March to the Sea.” Not surprisingly, he moved to Kentucky from his Georgia home shortly after the war). Continue reading “Return to the Battlefield”