When Gil Jackson said he knew of a place off trail and way back in the Smokies, a sacred site to his people, I had to go see for myself.
Gil grew up on the Qualla Boundary and lives now in Snowbird community. An educator and avid outdoorsman, he’s also a fluent speaker of Tsalagi or Cherokee, the intricate tongue only spoken now by about 200 remaining members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Gil has partnered with Barbara Duncan to teach Cherokee Level II at UNC Asheville. I’ve been sitting in on the evening classes, eager to learn the language that is native to the Blue Ridge before English was ever heard in these hills.
Gil had mentioned making a field trip to Medicine Lake. I’d read my James Mooney, the great anthropologist who had chronicled the Cherokee’s myths, history and sacred formulas. Mooney recorded several stories of encounters between men and bears and a mythic body of waters where bears healed themselves.
Families had handed down the tale of a old medicine man named Jaki-oo-sti, who earned his white hairs and wisdom with a chance encounter with a bear. Out hunting, he had shot the bear with his muzzleloader, but then the bruin started talking to him, pleading for him not to shoot again. “Something is wrong. We are not supposed to meet,” the bear told the man. “There is a fine line that divides our worlds and you have crossed over to mine.”
The wounded bear asked the man to accompany him to a magical lake for healing. At the lake, the bear immerses himself in the waters and then resurfaces with his wounds completely healed.
The bear shares a secret wisdom as to good plants, the wind, nature and animals. With the bear as his spiritual guide, the man sits in a cave with the Thunders, the beings who create the loud clashes in the sky during a storm. They use a long living snake as their bench. One by one, from youngest to oldest, the Thunders go out and make their noise, shaking the world.
Just another of those Just-So stories, many people might think, but walking through the Blue Ridge with the thunder int he distance, or the little sounds that the little People may be playing tricks on you, or if ever see the shambling shape of a great bear in the woods, you realize the Cherokee were talking about their realities, not just imagining stories for a good campfire. There are places in our woods where you can feel the thin spaces and believe that there are creatures watching from the other side.
Gil had heard of the place for decades. Oldtimers would say, “oh it’s just over the ridge there,” but no one seemed to know for certain. Then a healer from Oklahoma took him to a place in the Smokies, just above the Big Cove community on the Qualla Boundary. Gil later pinpointed the site on a topo map, as a place where three creeks flowed together at right angles from the north, east and south and headed west. X marked the magical spot.
“That has to be it,” Gil said. Trouble was it had taken him 12 hours of bushwacking down a overgrown manway to the pond and then up the mountain again back to his car.
But we were up for an adventure, all students wanting to learn more about the culture along with the worlds of Cherokee we were tasting on our tongues in our weekly classes. Out of the classrooms and not the woods seemed like a good idea.
Six of us got a late start on Good Friday, with a slight sprinkle though the trees, but the weather was promising for the weekend. It was around 8 p.m. and getting dark before we made the top of Hyatt Ridge. Rather than push on another mile in the dark to site 44, we decided to pitch camp on the flats. Snapping poles for tents, readying for the night, firing up some water for dehydrated chili, chicken and rice, apples and cheese. We were settling in for the evening.
Jordan brought out her well-worn paperback of scary stories to be told around campfires. Devon wanted to hear the one about the preacher in the haunted house. Will read the one about the Hook, and the escaped killer who leaves his signature hook in the side of a necking couple’s car. “The stories themselves aren’t so scary, said Jordan. “It’s what I think about them afterwards.”
Gil started talking about things he had seen. True tales are the scariest once you think about them
Like the old-timer he had brought to see the Medicine Lake. They had camped nearby, and they are sound asleep. Gil’s friend woke up, hearing the sound of footsteps in the woods. He could see a light floating toward the tent. Maybe it was the moon, but it came from the north and then retreated.
Gil shook his head.
Scary things happen on the reservation. Gil once hired some buddies to paint a rental house over in Big Cove. But they hastily left the house and wouldn’t go back. One man said he had sensed a presence, someone watching him. When he looked out the window, he saw the red bandana around the head of an old woman, but her feet wasn’t touching the ground. She was floating over the creek, glaring balefully at the paint crew.
"A levitating lady is mighty scary," I joked, but no one was really laughing.
We sat in the night, listening for what may be out in the woods.
“Deyvon, do you know why the old people wanted to sit with a body overnight?” Gil asked.
To keep witches away. When Gil’s father had passed, the family had sat vigil with the body in their small Baptist Church. His sister and brother-in-law feel asleep. But then the sister woke up and there was a wind that blew the door open. A man stood there. He came in and looked over the body of the dead man, but didn’t touch it, perhaps because it had been embalmed.
He may have been a witchdoctor in search of a fresh liver to steal and eat.
An owl hooted nearby, and we shuffled nervously on the logs we sat on, our headlamps peering out into the darkness of the Smokies, the endless nights over the mountains, the thin spaces between reality and imagination where things walk that haunt your dreams.
Will and Deyvon shared the story of Spearfinger, one of the Cherokee’s most terrifying monsters.
Spearfinger, once upon a time, could appear in any shape she wished, but underneath her guise was a stone monster whom no one could harm.
She was most dangerous in the autumn, for then she could walk out of the mountains hidden in smoke from bonfires. One day, late in October, out of that smoke she appeared to a group of children, disguised as an old woman.
She smiled at a little girl. "Sit on my lap, and I will brush your hair," she said. The innocent girl sat upon her lap and then, with her special stone finger, Spearfinger stabbed the child's side. The girl never felt a thing.
Later the girl walked home, and that night she grew very sick. Then the villagers knew. Spearfinger had struck again.
Fearing for their children, the people had a great council, and the medicine men came up with a scheme to dig a great pit. Then they made a huge bonfire, and when Spearfinger saw the smoke, she came down into the village and chased the young men right to the trap. Just as the medicine men had planned, she did not see the pit, and so she fell in.
The monster was coming out of the pit, threatening to eat all their livers. Then a chickadee alighted on the witch’s hand. So the warriors shot their arrows at that hand, and true enough, that was where Spearfinger's heart was located.
Spearfinger sank to the ground, slain at last. And the Cherokee still honor the chickadee, calling it ‘tsikilili or "truth teller."
When we went to bed, Jordyn slept in her hammock with her boots on, both to stay warm and ready to run if Spearfinger, or a bear or a ghost came into the campsite.
Gil kept seeing a bright light out of his tent and wondered why Jordyn was shining her headlight at him. But then he decided it was the moon.
From my tent, I heard only the snores of my fellows, and the owls hooting close by. Barn owls are called ugugu in Cherokee, but sometimes sgili, when someone suspects the calling predator is not just a feathered bird, but a shapeshifting spirit. It is the same word for witch or ghost.
The sun rose the next morning, reddening the eastern rim. We eat breakfast and set out for a day’s journey to find Medicine Lake. Coming down the trail to site 44, I see the bear bag cables strung by the trees, and the flash of a white tail ahead. “Awi tsigowatiha” "I see a deer."
A good sign, an omen. Gil said that he always knew he was close to Medicine Lake when he reached one of the forks of Raven Creek. Each time, he would see a rainbow trout leap up out of the water as if in greeting.
But the spirits of the place could be finicky. He had been up the same creek with a friend, Lamar Marshall of Wild South, who held a GPS in his hand. Gil warned against taking photos or mapping coordinates, which could disrespect or disrupt the power of the place.
Lamar had his GPS device swept out of his hand by the current. They scouted up and down the creek, but never found it.
We leave the Hyatt Ridge Trail and head west up over the ridge, finding a faint path marked with pink and blue ribbons. Later on the maps, I discover the name is Breakneck Ridge, perhaps an omen in itself. Wildflowers are in profusion with long views to the south.
Along the way, single file on the elusive trail, we chatted and learned about each other. Jordyn had her camera, snapping photos along the way. A media communications major, she had her eye on a job as a journalist.
Deyvon had finished his political science senior paper on tribal sovereignty and medical marijuana. Native Americans have built casinos in states that had previously outlawed gambling. Would tribes lead the nation in marijuana production?
Gil was a font of knowledge, stopping to point with his hiking pole at the profusion of wild geranium, triangular blooms of trillium both pink and white, delicate Dutchman’s breeches, yellow lilies hanging their heads, bloodroot and toothwort. He showed us socchan, the spring green savored by the Cherokee who boil and sauté the leaves. Wadsi, too, better known as ramps, the pungent onion-like herb that sprouts in spring across the Smokies.
The ribbons led up and out the ridge as we mad our way over windfalls, and blowdowns, toppled trees that blocked the trail.
We stopped at the top at a hog wallow - a muddy puddle where wild boars rolled around and then rubbed their bristly bellies against mud caked tree roots.
“That must be Medicine Lake,” we joked.
Suddenly, the ribbons gave out. We scouted out the edge of Breakneck Ridge, but there was no sign of the distinct trail that Gil had followed at least twice before. Could it be hidden by a blowdown? Or perhaps the Little People were playing tricks on us.
The sun drifted behind a gathering cloud cover. The space was feeling thinner.
No need to go bushwacking downhill. Rather than plunge ahead and get seriously lost, surrendering our current condition of seriously confused, we retraced our steps over the next couple of hours
We circled back to campsite 44 and ate our lunch. What had promised to be a warm day had taken on a slight chill as clouds covered the Smokies. We slipped on warmer shirts as our sweating bodies cooled off. Eating rolled-up tortillas with honey and peanut butter, we reached a consensus. We could go on down the trail and cut up the creek until we came to the Big Pond, but getting back out before dark was unlikely. Breakneck Ridge had been no picnic, no easy stroll. We were feeling the burn of hours of hard hiking.
So we made our way back to our base camp, packed up our tents and gear, and hiked down to the cars parked at the bridge at Straight Fork, then drove on home.
Gil apologized for not finding Medicine Lake, but there was no need for forgiveness.
We had gotten what we had come for. We returned with our livers safe from any monster or witch and with our hearts gladdened. Maybe the Little People had misled us, but we had found our own healing waters, soaking in the spirit of these woods, in the footsteps of the first people who had hiked these hills for centuries before us, and in the company of friends that day.
That was medicine enough.
Novelist, journalist, aficionado of all things Appalachian.