In May 2013, I got a chance to visit the Appalachian mountains as part of a Buck-I-SERV trip. A group of 10 people including myself travelled to Ed and Arleen Decker’s mountain retreat near Maryville, Tennessee. Ed and Arleen call their wonderful abode “Once Upon a Time” and they have partnered with the alternative break organization Breakaway to provide students from college campuses around the country an enriching experience in the Great Smoky Mountains as well as an introduction to the culture of the Eastern band of the Cherokee.

Day 1

After a difficult week of dealing with finals, we drove to Tennessee in a brand new 10-seater van which only had 22 miles on it and boasted of a comfortable ride. After a seven hour drive which took us through downtown Cincinnati as well as beautiful mountainous terrain, we arrived at our destination and met Ed and Arleen. They introduced us to their two dogs Honey and Little Blue as well as their two cats Binky and Queenie. All four were very friendly stray animals that showed up and Ed and Arleen took them in. We were introduced to our cozy little Cabin called the Backpack Inn which contained bunk beds with a dining table and a fully functional attached kitchen. After washing up, we headed to dinner at the House where Ed told us that everything we could see was built by him. He built the House in 9 months from the timber he cut to make the clearing. All pieces of furniture from the tables to the chairs were also made by him and he also constructed the Backpack Inn. During the tour of the house, we were introduced to Piggy, a giant boar that Ed had hunted and had hanging over the living room. Arleen turned out to be an avid photographer and Ed was also revealed to be an Olympic shooter who excels with his rifle at 1000 yards. Ed also gave us a tour of the outhouses that we were going to be using for a week and the modern Shower House also built by him. We settled in after dinner to get ready for the next day.

Day 2

I woke up to a sunrise and chirping birds. After showering, four of us walked the Loop Trail which is a mile long trail that runs in the woods behind the house. Along the trail, we came upon a wonderful vista overlooking the little Tennessee river which you can observe at the top of this page. We also found Grandmother Tree, a 600 year old tree. I hugged something that was here before Christopher Columbus. It’s a nice thought. We had duties for setting up for breakfast and helped Arleen get the food ready and set the tables. After breakfast casserole and grits, we cleaned up and sang the Morning Song. It is a traditional Cherokke song sung at dawn four times by facing four directions. Goes kind of like this.


We packed sack lunches of PB&J sandwiches with fruit and snacks. The jelly was made of Muscadine grapes grown by Arlene in her garden. Shall I say that it was DELICIOUS!. We drove over to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Over 1 million acres, the park is the biggest piece of protected land east of the Mississippi river. We met up with two park rangers who had set out trees for us to plant. We planted over 131 small trees comprising of three species, it only took us about two hours. We then went to a creek running nearby to have our lunches. We found a nice looking bridge and ate our sandwiches while dangling our feet in the water. I fooled around for a bit, skipped some stones then we headed back home. I spent fifteen minutes relaxing on the hammock on our porch, then we headed back out to the loop trail to make a new trail that extended all the way to the little Tennessee river. We hacked branches, sawed down small trees, raked the forest floor and after three hours of hard hot labor, we finally reached the river. It was quite a welcome sight and I would have jumped right in had it not been as muddy due to recent rains. I only waded in up to my ankles, but quickly notices a snake heading our way. Turns out the reptile was not poisonous. Known as the king snake, it feasts on poisonous snakes and keeps the area safe. We watched the snake curl up on a tree and decided to head back. On the way back, Honey returned from the river with a turtle in her mouth. We saved the poor thing from her, but she only went and caught another one. We returned to showers and dinner and watched a quite informational documentary about the Cherokee. After debugging our cabin, we settled into bed.

Day 3

The Sleep Cycle app told me that my sleep quality had been a whopping high at 97%! I definitely felt well rested. After a breakfast of apple cinnamon walnut pancakes and pork sausage, we sang the morning song and packed lunches to get ready for the day. We went to pick strawberries at a local farm and brought back a mother lode of 53.75lbs. That is not counting the numerous delicious ones that went straight to my belly. We journeyed to Happy Valley next, valley between the Great Smoky Mountains that is not part of the protected park because it had too many people living there when the park was established. We set to remove invasive plant species such as Honeysuckle and Privet and proceeded to burn those suckers. It was tough work, but the results were quite satisfying. During lunch, I found an abandoned barn that enabled me to take my “wallpaper” picture. We continued to work after lunch and finally saved a whole section of fence from the invasive plants. During this, I also got the opportunity to drive my first Ford F-150 truck, one that had 350k miles on it! We returned home and cleaned up and had supper.


After supper, we went to the Hootenanny! Held in a converted elementary school, the Rocky Branch Bluegrass Community Club holds a gathering every Friday night where different bands set up in different classrooms and you get to enjoy whichever one you want. We sang, danced, got our “mojo” workin’, and had a LOT of fun. It was truly a glorious experience. People were so welcoming of us and everybody was there to have a good time. It was a great way to relax and wind down after a day’s hard work.

Day 4 - Free Day!

We had the day to ourselves, so naturally while everyone else was snoozing, I woke up early to go run with Eve, our advisor on the trip. We ran/jogged about two miles on the wide empty highway but both the dogs were following us and Honey almost got run over by a truck that happened to be passing by. So, we returned and ended up just hiking the loop trail again, this time following our created trail down to the river as well. After breakfast, we went to the Lost Sea Adventure, North America’s largest underground lake. First we took the general tour which took us through the caves with a tour guide. We learned that the caves used to have a tavern, fully equipped with a band situated in a room that spread the sound all around the caves. Apparently Civil War soldiers also used to mine for saltpeter to make gunpowder in the caves. We discovered U-Haul plants, plants that grow around the lights in the cave and are “hauled” in via the pollen and seeds collected on visitors. The tour concluded in a boat ride of the lake. The water depth went from 2 feet to 70+ feet at the deepest end. The rainbow trout inhabited the lake and were introduced as an experiment to see if they could find some food. After failure, the boat rides just started feeding the fish.

Lost Caves

After the tour was over, some of us chose to do the extended “wild” tour which involved crawling through caves. The crawling routes had names like “Cruncher”, “Meat Grinder”, “Fat Man’s Misery”, etc. The routes were challenging and had a lot of fear factor for anyone who is claustrophobic. We crawled through tiny spaces and narrow holes, slid down caverns, climbed up walls and had a lot of fun. At some points, mental checks were necessary to contain the panic that came with being trapped deep underground in a small space. At some points we had to crawl through a tine opening where we had to lay on one side and pull with only one arm. The most exciting part was the “Birth Canal”. It was about 4 foot long canal and only about 7-9 inches wide and the only way to go through was by emulating superman, both hands out, and dragging yourself through. I got stuck once and panicked, but finally got through and helped motivate others to do it too. At one point we turned off all our flash lights and experienced total darkness. This phenomenon only occurs at two places, deep underground caves and the deepest parts of the oceans. A human being can go blind if left in total darkness for two weeks because the retina just gives up looking for light. Overall, it was a truly awesome experience and I got to know my fellow Buckeyes better and just had a ton of fun. Later, we washed up and had dinner at a Mexican restaurant in a nearby town.

Day 5

The pattering rain on the roof of the cabin woke me today. The Mexican food from last night also headed to the outhouse pretty fast. Breakfast headed back in my belly to fill the void. Since it was raining and we could not do too much work outside, we stayed in and painted signs for the trail. We painted signs that identified flowers and different interest points along the trail. During the painting, Ed brought in a surprise for me. He made some space in the dining room and played some Punjabi music and asked me to dance. I did. It was weird but soon people joined me and we just moved around to the Bhangra beats and enjoyed ourselves. After we were done painting, we had a “jam” session. We made some home-grown blackberry jam. We mashed up the berries and mixed them with sugar and a resin and boiled the contents. We poured the jam into self-sealing jars which Arleen let us bring back with us. We then helped to move some firewood into storage and organized an assembly line to finish the task in under 30 minutes. As a reward, Ed gave us a tour of his workshop. Turns out the Ed is really a renaissance man. Not only did he build his house, workshop, outhouses, shower house and cabins, in addition to doing all the electric and plumbing work, he also makes his own bullets for shooting! He buys lead from junk yards, melts it down, molds bullets out of it, then sands them down. He shoots a target that is barely 2 feet in diameter from a distance of 1000 yards, about half a mile! He also introduced his rifle to us, a vintage gun that uses powder to propel the lead. He then showed us how he converts wood to the awesome furniture in his shop using various tools.

After his tour, Peter and I threw a Frisbee in the rain while waiting for others to clean up. Then we got ready for Archie Reynolds, a local Cherokee resident who arrived to give us a presentation about Cherokee history and culture. One particular thing I really like about the Cherokee culture is the value placed on humility. Every aspect of their culture shows how simple, humble, and respectful the people are. For example, if you invite someone to a party, you are supposed to give them gifts and not vice versa. Also, if someone gives you a gift, returning the favor is considered an insult. If a group is dancing, the youth always honor the elders by not dancing properly and messing up on purpose so that the elders can look good. He talked about Hollywood portrayals of the Indians and how they were creating a bad image for them. He talked about the historical horrors faced by the Cherokee and their treatment on the Trail of Tears. Archie also showed us some weapons, pipes, and jewellery made by the Cherokee Indians. It was a very enlightening and thoughtful presentation, and made me appreciate the Cherokee culture a lot more. After the presentation, we drove to Knoxville, TN to have dinner with an OSU alum. They had an appetizer of crackers with a spread that was made of moose meat and salmon. Oh boy, it was so DELICIOUS! I think I ate half of it myself. Then we had a lot of pizza, which was also good, because I was still hungry. After dinner, we helped them clean up, met their awesome pets, thanked them for the hospitality and returned home. We ended the night by doing reflections, which we did every night. It ususally involved taking a quote of the day and relating it to our daily experience and going through our happy-crappy moment of the day.

Day 6

We woke up early to drive to Snowbird, NC on the Dragon, a stretch of road in the Great Smoky Mountains that contains 381 curves over 11 miles. The day was foggy, so we did not get to enjoy the scenery much. We arrived at the Snowbird Senior Center and helped them sort and move stuff since they had just had their facilities painted. It was tedious work, organizing SO much stuff. An aunt I know would have had so much fun discarding everything :). After lunch, we drove to the church where we were spending the night and dropped off our belongings. We returned to the house of a Cherokee woman to help paint her house. We did a terrible job, it was awful. There was paint everywhere it wasn’t supposed to be, and the house did not look much better than we found it. I washed up in a Creek and then we headed to a beautiful park in the middle of the mountains to play the Fish Game. Traditionally a courtship game to determine the dynamics between a couple, guys and girls play the game together. A 24 foot pole is hoisted in the middle of a field with a wooden fish on top of it. Regardless of the weather, everybody plays barefoot and the guys also go shirtless. The guys have small 3-foot lacrosse style sticks that they use to pick up a golf-size ball and throw it at the fish. The girls can pick up the ball with their hands and throw it at the fish, but the guys are prohibited from touching the ball with their hands. Whoever hits the fish gets a point and the game is played until 12 points are accumulated by either team. There is one caveat: the guys must be gentlemen and not interfere with the ladies at all. In contrast, the ladies are allowed to kick, punch, or bite the guys or steal their stick and throw it away. The guys MUST not retaliate and should be able to take the abuse. Needless to say, the game was a LOT of fun. Seriously though. Probably the most fun I have had in a team sport. The guys lost 6-12, which we were told is pretty good, considering the one-sided odds. After the game was over, I plunged into a small tributary running nearby. The water was absolutely clear, fresh, and cold. I did end up losing one lens from my glasses after that plunge, but it was worth it. We returned to the church to have dinner with some Cherokee seniors who informed us more about their culture, religion, language, traditions, myths, etc. I was asleep before I was fully immersed in my sleeping bag.

Day 7

We cleaned up the church after ourselves and went over to the Snowbird Children’s Development Center to hang out with children ranging from the ages of baby to five. I got stickers on my face, Play-Doh in my beard, and my half-glasses chewed on. But it was a great experience enjoying the company of the young kids. After sending the children off to recess, we left to visit a souvenir store where I bough Moonshine Jelly and a Bow with Arrows. We also got to meet the local celebrity, Jim Tom. The guy was featured on Discovery Channel’s Moonshiners and he took pictures with us. Then he proceeded to hand out autographed photos and free T-shirts to us along with an invitation to share a keg with him whenever we wanted. Just like that, he left and went cruising the mountains on his scooter, with not a care in the world. It was quite an experience. We piled in the van and journeyed to Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest to hike a 2 mile trail and see the big trees. Home to more trees that are over 600 years old, the forest was absolutely beautiful in the spring-summer period. We goofed around, avoided poison ivy, took a lot of pictures and then returned home to Ed and Arleen’s house via the Dragon. I just slept through the nauseating turns this time. We cleaned up everything to make sure that we left the place better than we found it. Then we headed to our bonfire where we had the customary s’mores and did one last reflection. It was quite a moment with everyone recounting their tops and downs for the week and Ed and Arleen also relating their experience with us. I knew I was going to miss this group. Around midnight, we headed back, but Peter and I went for one last trek of the Loop Trail behind the house with our flash-lights. Our goal was to swim in the Little Tennessee. We missed the trail that we made to the river about two times before we finally descended it to reach the water. We dipped in the water, turned off our flash-lights and just stood in silence appreciating the peaceful sounds of a river at night. I will say that it was an absolutely fitting ending to a wonderful week. We woke up at 4 am to return to Columbus, said our goodbyes, promised to keep in touch, and headed back to our lives.

Thank You for Reading!