NORTH CAROLINA - TENNESSEE
On arriving at Charlotte Airport, we had to retrieve our hand luggage from the back of the plane, as our locker space had been taken up by the belongings of other people. As a response to the introduction of checked luggage fees, people are taking quite large cases and bags onboard as hand luggage. And staff appear to be making little attempt to stop them, although signs at the boarding gate and elsewhere stipulate just how much can be taken into the body of the plane.
Michael had booked a car with Enterprise, and it wasn’t difficult to find their office. From there we took a shuttle bus to where the Enterprise cars were held, picked up our pale blue Hyundai and were on our way. I had noted with interest that not only our hire cars, but most of our hosts’ vehicles, were Asian. Many owned Toyota hybrids.
After our experience getting lost in McAllen, Michael wisely decided to also hire a GPS, a good move. It spoke to us as we headed out of town. Fortunately, despite the GPS confusing us on a number of occasions, we found our way to Boone, named for Daniel. Don Pevsner, our host, had suggested we eat there before finding our way to their place. However, we couldn’t find the restaurant he suggested, and instead chose Murphy’s on King Street. The clam chowder was delicious, and my blackened steak was to die for. Indeed the meal was so good that we returned later in the week with Ros Pevsner.
Ros and I had been in touch with each other for a few years. She had heard of me through other friends, Drs Nicole Duplaix and Ellen Rudolph, who had come to Australia on an assignment for National Geographic. Ros had wanted to book me on her trip to the Top End. Unfortunately I was busy elsewhere, but we kept in touch. Ros had contacted Jesse Pope, president of the High Country Audubon Society, and Stewart Skeate, a lecture at Lees-McRae College, Banner Elk, about my visit, and consequently I was asked to lecture.
Like most hosts, Ros had bird feeders all around her house, and there we spotted many species we’d already seen. For the first time I got a good look at Pine Siskin, and knew that my identification of this species when staying in Los Angeles had been right. I also saw Catbird up close, a species I’d already seen elsewhere, but not well. There were Tufted Titmouse, one of my favourite species, and again Chipping sparrows. Ros had spotted a Mississippi Kite perched above her house only a couple of weeks before, a first for the area. However, unfortunately, it had moved on by the time we arrived. Most birds we had seen previously eg two species of chickadee, cardinals, Indigo Bunting, and American Goldfinch and three species of woodpecker.
I also got my first view of a raccoon that was visiting the bird feeders. However, it wasn’t the biggest visitor – that dubious honour belonged to a bear. A bear had never been recorded in this area before, but one morning Ros awoke to find a bird feeder on a cast iron pole bent to the ground. Another with a concrete base had been pulled right out.
My visit to Lees-McRae had been badly timed – it was the last week of college, and many students were sitting exams. Ros, Michael and I met first with Stewart Keate, a lecturer in ecology, and keen birder who had been to Australia. He showed us around the picturesque campus with its old stone buildings hewn from local rock. We then walked over a bridge to the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center where we met Nina. She had been a wildlife carer for many years before being asked to take over the centre and run courses for students. She had many cute and interesting patients.
There were raucous nestling Pileated Woodpeckers, several baby Screech Owls, a nestling Titmouse, some immature Red-tailed Hawks and an injured Mississippi Kite. The large wooden and wire cages and flight centre had been designed and built by students with a hand from a carpenter, and were most impressive. To end our visit there we visited the flight centre where several Red-tailed Hawks and a Turkey Vulture lived.
Over lunch Stewart asked about arranging a trip with his students to the Top End. He’d taken his students to other parts of Australia We talked about possibilities until time for the talk.
Considering that there we’d coming during exams, the lecture, on intercultural relations, was well-attended by both lecturers and students. Some approached me afterwards saying they wished to come to Australia, and as usual Michael handed out business cards. The students were very quiet and polite and Ros thought they might have been unable to grasp the information I was putting forward.
However, I could see their faces whereupon she couldn’t, and I think they well understood. Stewart and I later talked about the possibility of my coming back and giving a series of lectures, not only at Lees-McRae, but also at the Appalachian State University.
That night at the nearby La Quinta apartments I gave a presentation to the High Country Audubon. Jesse had told me that members were not only interested in birds but in other wildlife, and of course in my Aboriginal relatives. Most of those who attended were seniors, many of them couples, and they made for a very receptive, fun audience. There were many questions, and the last came from a man seated at the back of the auditorium, about my teaching computer skills to my Indigenous relatives. I knew him immediately.
Gary Kallback was a marketing expert, and we’d been in touch by email for nine years after I’d read a booklet put out by his firm. He had bought a painting from one of my Indigenous relatives, and had also spoken to them by phone. He had tried to interest his publishing firm in helping my Indigenous relatives, and felt it keenly when his superiors showed little interest. Gary is now retired. He and wife Connie greeted me with a great hug, and we agreed to meet in a couple of days, to drive together to Tennessee.
The Audubon members ordered several copies of Quiet Snake Dreaming (unfortunately we didn’t have any left). The interest in both this and the bird book have been quite pronounced in some places I’ve spoken, and it’s been quite gratifying to hear the positive comments.
Afterwards a member offered to treat us to dinner. There Jesse Pope joined us. On hearing that Michael and I would be staying with Ritchie Bell, Professor Emeritus, University of North Carolina, Jesse said that Ritchie was one of his “heroes”. I told Jesse that on reading Birds of Australia’s Top End Ritchie said it “set a new standard for natural history books”.
The next morning we joined the Audubon Society for a bird walk. For the first time we saw Cedar Waxwing and Red-eyed Vireo. While there were not many birds new to us, Michael and I were able to get better looks at some birds we’d already seen, like Northern Flicker and Downy Woodpecker, and Tree and Rough-winged swallows. Some of the women on the bird walk I'd met the night before, and as we parted one handed me a quartz and amethyst heart, to keep me safe, she said, and to remember them by. We hugged, promising to meet again.
The next day Michael and I spent wandering around the mountaintop gated community where Ros and Don lived. We found a pond that contained newts, my first look at these intriguing amphibians. The next day we met up with Gary and Connie at La Quinta, for the drive to their home on the other side of the mountains, in a small town called Weaverville.
After a night in Weaverville, we all drove through the Smokey Mountains to meet Dr Ellen Rudolph and her cousin Lesley Collins. Ellen and I have been in contact ever since she and Nicole Duplaix came to Australia in 2000, but as with Gary and Ros and Nicole, we'd never met. Ellten met us at the corner of her gated community high up in the Smokey Mountains in Tennessee, and I rode in her black sports car back to the log cabin she and Lesley have built. However, it’s hardly a cabin, being three-storeys high.
The construction was impressive, in every detail. All the cupboard drawers, for instance, were finely dovetailed. A Steinway piano stood in the main living-room and Ellen, a fine player, serenaded us with classical music.
The view from the cabin is stupendous, over a range of mountains. There are five different kinds of oak tree around the cabin plus many other plants. Lesley is very keen on native plants and has done a masterful job of learning them.
Ellen and Lesley have been here for over a year, but are now thinking of leaving. While they love the view, they both miss the ocean, and consequently are planning to sell and build again near Ellen's old stamping ground of Williamsburg,Virginia, on Chesapeake Bay.
My friends all bemoaned the election of Barack Obama so Michael and I generally stayed off the subject of politics!
The huge poles supporting the house and deck were coated in shiny aluminium to discourage racoons and bears. However, a racoon still managed to climb up, only to be trapped in a cage set for such “critters”! I awoke early one morning and sleepily blundered downstairs to find Ellen waiting for me. As soon as it was light, she told me, we'd release the racoon several miles from the house.
The racoon, a young male, sat calmly in his prison inside a large rubbish bin laid on its side – ostensibly the dark interior was to keep his quiet. However, he didn't seem at all disturbed by his predicament. We drove him several miles away and let him go near a pretty stream. He lost his calm demeanor as soon as the door of the cage was opened, shooting out like a rocket and into the stream, whereupon he swam frantically for the bank.
On the way home we found a dead colubrid, a very attractive black snake called a racer. Like most North American snakes the racer is harmless. I took several photographs and then to celebrate our morning's work we adjourned to a nearby cafe for hot coffee and a sausage biscuit, a new treat for me.
Lesley, Michael and I rambled around looking at native plants. Lesley particularly wanted to show me a Lady Slipper Orchid. However, we only found one flowering and that was past its best.
We took several drives together between my working on my next lectures. One was to the highest point of the Smokey Mountains – Clingman's Dome, and part of the Cherokee Trail of Tears. The Cherokee regarded the mountain as sacred. During the Indian Removal period of the 1800s they used the mountains as a refuge. Nola Hadley, the Indigenous American lecturer at Berkely City College, Oaklands, California, had told me about this. Several thousand Indigenous Americans – men, women and children – died during the Removal, and their survivors still grieve.
The air was very cold and misty as clouds swept up from below and covered the fir trees. We walked to the summit, a fairly steep climb, accompanied by cheerful bird song – Dark-eyed Juncos. On the way back we encountered the only new bird of that trip – Chestnut-sided Warbler.
Several people were also aiming for the summit. Some, obviously unfit or unused to the thin air, were puffing like steam trains. Several small children seemed to be much fitter than the adults accompanying them.
We had hoped to see a black bear on this trip but that had to wait a few days, until we visited Cades Cove, the site of early settlement in the area. We first stopped to admire an Eastern Meadowlark, singing his heart out on a fallen branch in a field, his fine butter-yellow breast almost glowing against the dried grasses. I spotted the bear as we turned off the main road. Even though a young bear, he was still impressive. We left the car to photograph him as he snuffled his way along the overgrown bank. Ellen warned me that we may have to run. However, I was careful not to approach the bear too closely, staying further back than Ellen did and watching his every move intently. My experiences with wild animals in the Top End had given me some skills at interpreting animal behaviour. On occasions my life had depended on reading animal behaviour correctly.
Before we left Ellen suggested that we look at doing a book together, perhaps on the Top End. She is presently working on her second Willie the Dog publication – this time Willie flies into space. For her research Ellen was invited by NASA to watch the launch of the space shuttle. It sounded most impressive although not the sort of thing I'd go out of my way to experience.
The next morning we left on our way to Virginia. Ellen drove me to the turnoff in his little black sports car, and there we promised to meet again as soon as possible.
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