Before I leave for a new experience, I wait until last minute to pack and I worry about the upcoming events that lie ahead. A part of me was concerned about losing time at home with family and friends to volunteer in Tennessee for an Alternative Winter Break trip. Monday morning Katie and Missi got me from the hotel and we headed to pick up the rest of the group. After trying to stuff the car with an overload of bags, a new nickname developed for Vanessa, “chief big bag.” From the beginning of a fun car ride, I knew the trip was off to a great start.
The entire week was an absolute blast and a wonderful learning opportunity! We stayed with a loving couple in the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee. Our trip began on a hilarious note after playing a “heated” game of UNO before din din (RED = passionate…and, if I remember correctly, Missi and I competed for who would get second to last place, needless to say, the game was intense). However, Missi at least had an excuse for coming in almost-to-last place; she was distracted by the many eye drops she kept putting in her eyes, coining her name “Eye drop” for the rest of the trip.
Arleen and Ed are the names of the couple we stayed with in Tennessee. Their home, named Once Upon a Time, is truly a gem. The scenery surrounding the place is beautiful with solely trees and mountains in the distance. The first day was a day of firsts: we made blackberry jam (which was beyond amazing), fed hens and a rooster, and later helped split firewood with a machine…oh….and of course, split wood the old school way as well. By the end, we all successfully had chopped a piece of wood on our own!
During the trip we learned about different aspects of Cherokee culture from some motivational individuals. Archie, Ed’s friend, is a Cherokee warrior; he showed us his outfits, pictures, and authentic artifacts such as pipes, necklaces, and medicine bags. His knowledge and enthusiasm about the Cherokee culture is inspiring. Arleen and Ed also taught us a lot about Cherokee culture; we learned about the Cherokee language, the history of the Cherokee people, and their songs and dances. One day they took us to interact with the senior citizens and paint gourds with them. The senior citizens greatly appreciated our company and it was wonderful hearing their stories about growing up in the mountains. While at the senior center, we also had the chance to meet the Cherokee Chief! In order to get to the senior center, there is a HUGE, twisty, windy road called The Dragon – in fact, the road has 318 twists in 11 miles! Of course, I get super sick on rides that turn often at the fair and decided it would be a good idea to take Dramamine before hitting up The Dragon. Ed apparently thought this was comical and I was nicknamed “Dramamine Queen.”
Thursday was our day off – We ended up going to The Lost Sea, a really cool cave that has a huge body of water in it…the tour was a lot of fun, and I would love to go back and stay in the cave overnight with a group of people. We later ventured to Gatlinburg, TN where we tried this unreal chocolate chip cookie dough peanut butter and enjoyed giggling at the funny souvenirs. Al felt adventurous and decided to take a back road that led into the mountains. Even though at first I was scared for my life, the road led to a beautiful overlook of the mountains.
The last day we went on a really nice hike and brainstormed ideas to promote the trail to tourists and more community members. A 5K run came out to be an interesting idea, and it would be really great to see the 5K happen there in the next few years. Our last night was perfect: we ended up making s’mores in Ed’s shop house. We also learned Cherokee dances from Arleen as Ed was drumming; these dances brought out everyone’s personality and it was a fabulous way to end an unforgettable week of volunteering, being educated about a new culture, and becoming really close to an amazing group of Indiana University students.