Archived Mountain Voices

Looking out on a busy day in Bryson City

mtn voicesFor some, graveyards are morbid places. When I was a boy, I never liked to pass by or walk through one … especially in the dark. These days I rather enjoy visiting them ... for awhile. They are generally quiet. And unlike most modern cemeteries, which don’t have any trees at all, graveyards usually have a variety of old sometimes ancient trees.

Trees attract the birds every graveyard requires. If there are oaks — as is usually the instance — there will be squirrels. If there are squirrels, there will be blue jays. And if there are squirrels and blue jays, there will always be something going on. Graveyards can be pretty lively places.

I like best to visit the graveyard overlooking Bryson City. The official name as proclaimed on a sign at the entrance is “Bryson City Cemetery” — but, in reality, it’s an old-time graveyard. There are huge oaks, white cedars, yucca, and various shrubs. There are squirrels, blue jays, white-breasted nuthatches, and (in season) chipping sparrows. A red bird … the daughter of the sun in Cherokee lore … resides in the tangles on the lower slope of the knoll. Every graveyard needs a red bird.  

I have a favorite place to sit where I can lean back against a white oak and observe the goings-on in downtown Bryson City. The jays scream, and the squirrels scold. But soon enough they tire of watching me do nothing and go about their business.

What do I think about? Nothing much. I go there to sit and eat lunch and watch. Wednesday a week ago was an exceptionally busy day for Bryson City. Lots was going on down below. By way of prelude, the whistle of the excursion train on the far side of the river shrieked three times. I could see tourists waving from their windows the way real travelers never do when departing on a train that’s going somewhere.

From my vantage point, I watched a dog hike his leg and piss on the Federal Building wall. A hiker came out of Bojangles and gave him a biscuit. He smiled the way dogs do as he watched her walk away. Then he yawned … wheeled counterclockwise as if chasing his tail … and lay down all curled up in the sun by his wall.

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Twenty-six pigeons arose from under the lower bridge where they roost and circled the graveyard on flexed wings … the way pigeons do … before settling one by one on the gold copula atop the old courthouse where the clock was more or less accurate for a change.    

I should mention that this graveyard has a resident angel ... as every graveyard should. It was brought here long ago by Thomas Wolfe’s father. (I have written about the angel before and you can find her on the internet if you google “George Ellison + Thomas Wolfe + Angel.”) Usually I just sit and glance over at her from a distance.

Poised on one foot on a high foundation, she is almost life size. Her wings are just about to open but never do. Clasping a single stone lily in her right hand, she points upward towards the heavens with the other. Her eyes are turned slightly downward toward the earth. If you walk over to say hello, as I sometimes do, you look up into her eternal gaze. There is no “celestial fire” but she is the benevolent spirit of this graveyard and the surrounding mountains.    

As I said … it was an exceptionally busy day in Bryson City.


The curfew tolls the knell of parting day …

Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,

And all the air a solemn stillness holds …

Where heaves the turf in many a mould’ring heap,

Each in his narrow cell forever laid,

The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep …

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid

Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire.

By Thomas Gray (1716-1771)


George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..    

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