Gemstones and Dirtbags – Day 58

Gemstones and Dirtbags

Day 58 – May 28, 2003 – Wednesday

I stayed in Cherokee, North Carolina last night. Cherokee is the headquarters for the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians. The Indian culture is showcased in Cherokee in a number of ways.

The tribal headquarters for the Indians is in Cherokee as well as the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. A big attraction that had come highly recommended was to see the stage presentation “Unto These Hills,” which is the story of the forced removal of the Cherokee from this land in the 1830’s — better known as the Trail of Tears. Seeing it will be added to the list of things to do the next time we come to this area.

Cherokee is on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The drive from Cherokee to Gatlinburg is really pretty — very, very green trees, big trees, lots of trees. It’s a pleasantly winding road up through the mountains and then down into Gatlinburg on the other side of the Park. Water flows by the road at a number of points, and I caught a glimpse of a few little waterfalls. I’ve never seen road signs like several I saw along the drive, such as 450-degree loops and fish-hook-shaped turns. It wasn’t treacherous as the drive never goes along cliffs, but you do have to pay attention.

The story of the Park is an interesting one. Alarmed by commercial logging threats, Congress authorized the Park in 1926, and it was established in 1934. The states of North Carolina and Tennessee, private citizens and groups, and schools contributed money to purchase the land for donation to the Federal Government. The Park has an incredible variety of plants and animal species — 1,500 flowering plants, dozens of native fish, over 200 species of birds, and 60 species of mammals. The Park has maintained one of the nation’s largest collections of log structures along with many buildings constructed during the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps work program.

It was about 30 miles from Cherokee to Gatlinburg, but an hour’s drive on the winding two-lane road. There was no cell phone service in the middle of the Park, so I had to drive quickly through the Park to Gatlinburg to be available for the 10 am radio show with EZ 103.1 in Palm Springs, California. As a result, I only got the big picture view of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I can only imagine the great photo opportunities that I missed. “Few regrets” is our motto, but if I had realized how special this area is, I would have scheduled another day here to really see the sights in the Park.

DJ Dan McGrath called a little after 10 am (7 am Palm Springs time), and we had a live on-air discussion. “Wednesdays with the Windsors” is a new segment on the Morning Show on EZ 103.1. Dan asked a lot of questions. We discussed what we were doing on the trip and why, the overall statistics — 50 states, 2500 towns and over 25,000 miles. We talked about some of the sights we’d seen thus far and what we would be seeing in the Gatlinburg area. We then talked a bit about pie. I reported we had eaten 50 pieces of pie thus far, and I singled out the Key Lime Pie at Harry and the Natives as #1 followed by the Caramel Apple Raisin at the Plaza Restaurant in Santa Fe as a close second. For more information on Dan and the station, see We were scheduled to do this live report every week for the remainder of the trip.

We had thought about going to Gatlinburg for years, but we just never got there for some reason. The picture in my mind’s eye and the reality were quite different. I thought I would see miles of craft shops with local craftspeople displaying their handmade items. Instead, I saw miles of tourist-oriented gift shops, restaurants, and motels. Guinness and Ripley also have an assortment of attractions that dominate one portion of the Highway 441 corridor. These include the Star Cars Museum, Guinness World Records, Ripley’s 3D Moving Theater, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum, Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, and Ripley’s Haunted Adventure. I was amazed that I didn’t see much at all in the way of arts and crafts, though I was relieved later to learn that the arts and crafts community is located several blocks off the main drag on Glades Road and Buckhorn Road.

I like cars, so I enjoyed seeing some of the George Barris Collection of cars at Star Cars — the Love Bug, a convertible used in the new Charlie’s Angels, the General Lee from Dukes of Hazzard, the Beverly Hillbillies Jalopy, Grateful Dead’s limo, a police car from the Andy Griffith Show, and more.

Ripley’s Haunted Adventure was even better. I didn’t go in. I did, however, meet and talk with most of the folks working there as some of the monsters razzed me about my beads as I passed by. Most of the monsters were soon wearing Mardi Gras beads as I gave away about a dozen. We got quite a crowd at one point while several of us threw beads trying to get a string into the mouth of one of the monsters who had nothing but his head sticking out of a hole way up high on the top of the building. Nice young folks.

Gatlinburg has a Space Needle, so I took the obligatory photo. I also saw a significant number of wedding chapels; Gatlinburg seems to be like Vegas as a destination for those seeking a quick wedding.

Gatlinburg is situated along the Little Pigeon River, and in addition to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there are a lot of nature-oriented things to see and do.

I had a very enjoyable conversation with Carolyn, a timeshare promoter. Anyone who travels much will be well aware that timeshare salespeople masquerade as tourist information people on the streets of many big tourist areas. There were a number of these folks in Gatlinburg. These folks are usually most interested in getting you to a timeshare presentation, but Carolyn was a fountain of information (and brochures) about the sights to see in Gatlinburg (where she says the Aquarium is a must-see), Pigeon Forge, and Sevierville. My chance encounter with her shaped the rest of my day. So if you want to buy a timeshare, please go to Gatlinburg, and buy one from Carolyn!

After walking up and down the street and stopping at some of the shops and attractions in Gatlinburg, I drove on to Pigeon Forge — about 6 miles. Pigeon Forge is the home of Dollywood, and it is now much larger than Gatlinburg in terms of tourist-oriented attractions and shops. Arcades, miniature golf courses, laser tag, go-karts, race cars, car museums, pan for gold places — multiples of all of these. There are also several outlet malls and more pancake places than I’ve ever seen anywhere.

DollyWood operated as a number of other theme parks before it became DollyWood. I drove out to take a photo, but I didn’t go in. I read a couple of reviews that weren’t kind. Local folks told me they believe DollyWood is very successful. I sure hope so as she seems like a really nice person. I assume that she actually owns it, though folks could be just using her name and face for a fee.

Pigeon Forge has a number of country music theatres. Nothing like Branson, Missouri in terms of numbers or stars, but several shows that I am sure must be very entertaining.

Thanks to my timeshare promoter friend, lunch was at the Applewood Farmhouse Restaurant in Pigeon Forge. It was off the main highway, so I never would have seen it, though the Apple Barn is a big place and a very popular spot for tourists. (See for more information.) I walked in and a nice lady named Dean immediately asked about the beads. She was joined by Millie who asked about the beads. I was quite the celebrity during my hour there; nice folks kept coming over to my table, and when I left, they were all wearing beads and talking about being in the book. Kathy, Colleen, and Melissa were among the other ladies that I met in the restaurant. I had fried chicken, and it was really good. Since they grow apples right there and make and sell all kinds of apple products, it shouldn’t be surprising that the Apple Fritters and Apple Cobbler were excellent. They served the fritters in little balls about the size of hush puppies with apple butter, and they were fabulous. I enjoyed the Apple Cobbler, but it was strong — really spicy. Once again, it was the interaction with the folks who worked there that made it such an especially enjoyable experience. After lunch, I walked through the place. It’s big — all kinds of shops. There’s a big Cider Mill and General Store, a pie shop, an ice cream shop, a Christmas shop, a wine shop, and much more. I met Helen at the Christmas store — very interesting lady. I could have spent a lot more time speaking with her.

The Pigeon River Mine was next on my agenda. As I noted yesterday, I really wanted to pan for gold or diamonds or rubies or sapphires — whatever they had available. One of my fraternity brothers, Bubba Crutchfield, tells one of the funniest stories I have ever heard about his mother’s experience at one of the North Carolina “mines.” His mother saw these gem mining places all along the highways in North Carolina (and they seem to be everywhere there). She wanted to stop at every one of them; she was enamored with the idea of “panning for gold” and finding valuable gems in a pile of dirt. When they finally stopped at one, Mrs. Crutchfield sifted her pile of dirt in the water, and it produced a pile of rocks. When she went in to the office (that she may not have noticed looked a lot like a jewelry store), she was overjoyed to find that she had some valuable stones that could be cleaned and polished and made into beautiful gems. She was shown a wide variety of gold and silver settings for rings and bracelets and necklaces. She wanted to spend hundreds of dollars to get her lucky finds made into jewelry. As I recall, Bubba took his mother aside and explained that her rocks were worth little or nothing and that the whole deal was just a scam to get folks to buy overpriced jewelry. Bubba and Susan dragged Mrs. Crutchfield away from the mine, and she pouted for the rest of the trip — especially every time they passed another of these so-called mines. Bubba is one of the best storytellers ever, so it is a roll in the aisles story when he tells it!

I went to the Pigeon River Mine expecting to have a lot of laughs. When I first entered, I saw that I could buy bags of dirt from various mines that ranged from $6 a bag to $100 a bag. I joked around with Sabrina, the lady standing behind the little trays of running water. There was a nice lady in her 70’s standing to my right. I introduced myself, gave her my card, and I met Thelma. She was waiting for her son who was inside the office. I bought two $6 bags of dirt — one for me and one as a gift for Thelma.

Two couples walked up (Jim and Diane, Jule and Ruth). They asked how it was going, and though I had not yet opened my bag, I told them we were finding diamonds, rubies, emeralds, a Rolex watch…. They all bought their own bags of dirt and got at it. They give you a wooden tray with a screen bottom, and you pour your dirt into the tray (called a “sluice box”) and then lower it into the running stream of water to wash the dirt off to reveal stones.

Thelma assured me that I would indeed find wonderful gemstones. She told me she has done this a lot, and she has a lot of gemstones at home. She then proudly showed me a gold bracelet with red ruby-looking stones set all around it. This was made with stones that she was lucky enough to get right there from some of these same bags. Her son was inside picking up a ring he had made from a stone that he had gotten there.

Uh oh. So much for laughs. Thelma’s son, Bill, came out of the “office” and complained to Sabrina that the folks inside would not give him an appraisal that showed the value of his ring at “several times the price he paid,” as he indicated someone there told him it would be. Sabrina looked sick, and knowing that I was a writer might explain why she disappeared and was replaced by a sweet old man who looked exactly like every caricature you have ever seen of an old miner — bushy grey beard and kindly face. He told me folks call him Gem Dandy. He apologized that he was a little slow — caused by a stroke. He told us he only made it to the fourth grade in a one-room schoolhouse. He was as sweet as could be. He told us they hired him solely because of the way he looked. There might have been other reasons, too, as even the hardest of folks would have trouble complaining to him.

I washed my rocks and was interested to see that I had a really wide variety. I later noticed that everyone else seemed to have the same really wide variety.

Thelma told me about a mine somewhere else where a friend of hers says there are diamonds there just for the taking. I tried to tell her ever so gently that it was hard to believe that some businessperson would let folks come and get valuable diamonds for just a few dollar fee.

I thanked Thelma for showing me the ropes. I again complimented her beautiful bracelet, and I told Bill that his ring may not have a big appraisal, but it was very attractive, and it would always be special because it was made from a stone that he found right there in a bag of dirt. I gave Thelma pink beads to match her outfit. She told me they were really pretty…and she meant it. What a sweet lady!

Inside the building (aka jewelry store) is an “assay office” where a free evaluation of your find is made. Sherry was very nice. She showed me how I was fortunate to have gotten one of each type of stone — emerald (the most valuable), smoky quartz, corundum (ruby or sapphire), topaz, amethyst, citrine, garnet, and black onyx. I thought this was very convenient as I had the option of getting ANY of the pieces of jewelry that I was shown. I told Sherry that I wouldn’t be buying today, and she was kind enough to give me a brochure where I can order by mail as well as a card (normally $1.50) that will enable me to identify each of my stones. I noted that for just $22, I can order a Christmas Dirt Kit — a sluice box, two bags of mining ore (aka dirt), one instruction sheet, a Gem Dandy Mining Certificate, a Gemstone ID Card, and a Christmas gift card. I may have to get one for Bubba as a Christmas gift.

Thelma and Bill were believers. I choose to be a believer about a number of things, but not this. When you see these so-called mines on every corner, I would think that might serve as a clue to folks that this isn’t real. The Mine was packing them in. I just hope folks are going for a few laughs and understand that there is no way they will find something of real value in a clear plastic bag that someone filled with dirt and rocks to sell to them. It bothers me that many folks were spending hard-earned money to buy jewelry that they may not be able to afford because they thought they got a “gem” from a dirtbag.

Next stop: Sevierville. Dolly Parton was born here. I visited the town square, took a photo of the courthouse, and got a snapshot of the Dolly Parton statue.

Between Sevierville and Knoxville is Seymour, home of Big Mama’s Karaoke Cafe. I was in the mood for some laughs after the dirtbags, so I was excited when I walked in. No cameras. Back to my car to lock up the camera. Back in to find a $5 fee just to walk around in the place. There was only one couple there at 4 o’clock on a Wednesday, so I saved my $5 and headed down the road.

Knoxville is the home of the University of Tennessee. I waved as I drove by. Apologies to Knoxville, but I had very little sleep the night before, and I needed to get to Lexington, Kentucky at a decent hour so I could write and get a normal night’s sleep. Kentucky was state #17. It started raining about halfway, and it was still raining the following morning.

There are naive, sweet people in this world who are very trusting. They are believers who believe what others tell them. They’re the people we’ve see on our local news who were hoodwinked by a bogus contractor or who lost their life savings in some type of scam. You always wonder how folks could have been taken. And we see folks dropping quarter after quarter into slot machines and spending a lot of money buying lottery tickets in hopes they will get rich quick. I’ve always wondered why. Now I know.

The Daily Journal of Round America:

Each day, we collect our thoughts on a web page just like this. We drop in some of the photos from the day. Our goal with the Daily Journal is to write about the towns we visit, the sights we see, the people we meet, and the pie we eat. We write about where we are, where we’ve been, and where we are going, but we also make observations about what we’ve seen and done as well as about life in general.

You can follow our travels from the Daily Journal section of this website. Other pages of interest include the running report of “vital statistics” on the Trip Scorecard, our nominations for the Best & Worst of the trip, as well as a rating of the pie we eat. If you’d like to see information for a specific state or town, click here, and then click on the state of interest, and the full itinerary is shown.


More Information on the Sights Visited Today:Cherokee North Carolina — Great Smoky Mountains National Park — EZ 103.1 — Gatlinburg Tennessee — Pigeon Forge Tennessee — Applewood Farmhouse Restaurant — Pigeon River Mine — Sevierville Tennessee