Railroad Town in the Smoky Mountains: Bryson City, North Carolina

a green train engine

Photograph by Nathan


When the roller derby girls showed up, we knew it was a party.

But I should back track a moment. There’s a story behind even finding the small town of Bryson City, clinging to the southern edge of the Great Smoky Mountains like a bead of water desperate to get back into the spigot of a kitchen sink. The first step of the journey? The tragic condition that is Gatlinburg, Tennessee. If you’ve ever been to one of those big town East Coast beach cities like Myrtle Beach, you’ll know the situation. A lot of Ripley’s Believe it or Not style attractions. Coldstone Creamery? Check. Dunkin’ Donuts? You know it. And yeah, it has its fair share of local attractions, but all in all its a vacationer’s paradise, a traveler’s nightmare.

Gatlinburg, Tennessee

The town of Gatlinburg can’t be more than a mile or two long. But come high traffic, which is rush hour during tourist season, you’re looking at an hour to traverse that distance easily. Pedestrians in search of the other side of the road, motorists eager to lock up the grid in their own pursuit of a left turn and delivery trucks assuming four way flashers give them parking rights alike keep rush hour going from 8am through nearly midnight. Still, “you’ve got to see Gatlinburg!” is about as common an utterance as qualms about the weather when you’re in the Great Smoky Mountains region and so unsuspecting victims end up trapped like tourists all the time.

Seasoned as we are, we fell for the allure. So by the time we were looking to escape the town, a long drive through the Great Smoky Mountain National Park seemed like exactly the escape we’d all seen in our dreams.

And the drive through the Smokeys is quite fabulous. Nowhere else that we’ve encountered in this entire United States of America has held the one particular site found here: three seasons at once. That is, during the fall months in North Carolina, you can drive through the Smokys surrounded by the rusty varied hues of orange, red and golden yellow as a goose’s egg while at the same time watching snow cling to the tops of the trees towering overhead even as the lush green canopy down in the valley clings to affairs of a more summertime inclination.

So it could be forgiven that the driver of our entourage-on-wheels, namely myself, missed the construction signs which declared US-441–the only route through the park–impassible. Now considering it’s an hour or two drive just to get through the Smokies, when you realize you’ve gone halfway and need to turn around, only to eventually face the all-the-way-around route that would put you on the southern edge of the National Park, a daunting feeling begins to stir in the part of your gut which controls both uneasiness and annoyance.

That’s right, there is only one route through the Smokies. Therefore, if it’s closed, you’ve got a two hour drive around the National Park. Plus the 45 minutes we’d already ventured into it, doubled for the return trip out…well, by the time we rolled back into North Carolina we were counting on Bryson City to deliver in a big way.

Cherokee, North Carolina

As US-19 follows the Oconaluftee River on its way to Bryson City, first it flows through the small town of Cherokee. Named for the Native Americans which still inhabit the town (and reservation it exists within), Cherokee lives somewhere between Main Street and Strip Mall. Technically, the Eastern Cherokee Indian Reservation is dry, meaning there is no alcohol sold within its borders. That is, except for the casino in which tribal leaders have decided that it is financially, and of course therefore morally, acceptable to imbibe spirits.

Humorous hypocrisy aside, though, Cherokee differs drastically beautiful from its Gatlinburg antithesis. Where Gatlinburg is all hype and let down, Cherokee is a quiet stretch of federal highway lined with touristy shops selling dream catchers and moccasins. Roadside stores with names like Eagle Dancer and White Buffalo shout at passers through their various discounts, deals and biker-friendly statuses. Though there is not really a “downtown” area, and the town isn’t exactly pedestrian friendly, it is one of those rare “local strip malls” where you’ll find less McDonalds and more Mom & Pop.

Where Gatlinburg is the gateway to the northern entrance to the Smokies, standing tall and audacious like a rhinestone cowboy long past his time, Cherokee is the stalwart Indian man of today: clinging to a simpler history while unafraid to capitalize on said tradition to keep himself afloat. Where Gatlinburg is a trumpet declaring your arrival at these sacred mountains, Cherokee is a quiet whistle through the forest leaves.

As we barrel down US-19 to our true destination of Bryson City, North Carolina, though, Cherokee is gone as quickly as it came.

The tourist traps give way to farmland, the Oconaluftee worming through their rusted out tractors and ancient iron bridges. The road crosses over the Tuckasegee River and then follows it west toward our destination.

Bryson City, North Carolina

As the wheels on our conversion van roll around and around, as we climb the foothills that make a yo yo / rolling pin hybrid of US Route 19, Bryson City unfolds. The outskirts of town are dotted with cabins and cottage rentals or advertisements for such, a few dilapidated motor lodges watch longingly as sparse traffic passes them by like a single episode of some season finale they can never stop watching. One such roadside distraction is completely covered in ivy, a motel shaped bush if you will. I dream of a day that I’ll be able to settle down and purchase something like this overgrown slice of Americana. And then it’s gone, too, another memory for my rear view mirror.

After the long drive, Bryson City is precisely what we’d hoped for.

A single stoplight in the center of town gives us enough pause to notice we’re meant to turn right to turn off of Main and onto Everett Street, the true “Main Street” of this little frontier town which missed the memo that we’ve lept into the 21st Century.

A coffee shop leans against the same supporting wall that an old school barber shop shares. Ivy still grows rampant throughout town, particularly in the hollows of the river valley below the bridge which crosses you back over the Tuckasegee. On this northern side of town is where all of the adventure thrives, as calm as an old man reading the paper outside of a local diner, but as ready to spring as a tiger at a gazelle’s surprise party.

Where the Train Still Lives

The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad is a remnant of an American right we’ve allowed to near extinction. Sometime in the first half of the 20th Century, we collectively decided that we’d all prefer to drive around in our own little cars than to hold onto the majesty of the railroad. We saw personal freedom and autonomous transportation as a higher prize than social experience and collective good. Concrete roads exploded across the nation, and railways were relegated to the domain of moving freight goods from one Walmart to another.

But while we were doubling and tripling the number of lanes, increasing the speed limits, and forgetting what the point of all of this personal freedom was in the first place (that is, to find our way in this life, not just to speed through it til we’ve been everywhere and seen nothing), the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad was here all along to remind us that there was an alternative to covering 500 miles of scenic guard rail in one day.

We waited alongside the tracks and admired the vintage steam engine and its long line of passenger cars. One by one we board and find our plush seats, each bench with oodles of leg room and set in pairs facing one another. Unlike car travel, the experience of riding trains was all about facing one another, engaging our fellow humans in our shared existence. On this old train the windows actually open to the air, and as the whistle blows and we head southwest along parallel steel rails to Nantahala Gorge.

I crack a beer while my Lady holds our baby’s arms so he can stand up wobbly and look out the window. Her mom sips a glass of pinot grigio. The other two boys kick their feet hanging from the seats and stick their hands out through the windows to feel the summer air flow over their fingers. Houseboats rise and fall throughout the year as seasonal changes in precipitation affect the water level of Fontana Lake.

We eventually stop and have an hour to explore the gorge itself, guys in specialized kayaks known as playboats navigate obstacle courses while less sporty folks dine in a riverside restaurant. The Smokies are in the full swing of summertime and after we’ve left our midday picnic for the travel home I doze off a bit dreaming of a world where every jaunt across town or the nation is powered by rail.

Later, the children all fast asleep in their portion of a large log cabin we rented for next to nothing–the benefits of staying in this lesser known rural alternative to Gatlinburg and Cherokee–the Lady and I decide to descend upon town to dip our toes in its nightlife.

So it was that we found them, the roller derby girls, in various clans of colors and pocketing whatever corners of the front deck and bar that make up the joined forces of the Tuckasegee Tavern and Nantahala Brewing Company. The former an old airplane hanger where long haired aging rockers played throwback hooks in homage of classic rock icons as locals traded four quarters worth of currency for cans of PBRs, the latter stocked with a band of young teenagers experimenting with the proper mix of locally brewed pale ales and digital funk. Beefy women in tight clothes and rollerskates laughed and smoked and drew temporary tonight’s tattoos on one another declaring their level of toxicity by the amount of Sharpie they allowed cover their forearms.

The next morning was happy to great me with a rising sun and a shining headache. The smallest of two coffee shops in town proclaimed “Hippies Welcome”, and at the site of a couple of hungover lefties, the old man of an owner shouted across the coffee bar to our approach. “We’ve got coffee!”

Still sounds good to me.