Two towns at a crossroads

For decades Maggie Valley and Dillsboro were two of the mountain’s most iconic tourist towns. Sadly, both relied heavily — too heavily — on a single cash-cow. When Ghost Town shut down in Maggie and the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad pulled out of Dillsboro, both lost tens of thousands of visitors once delivered to their doorsteps. Both towns are now struggling to find new identities.

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad’s Polar Express rides the rails in time for the holidays

Christmas is still two weeks away, but I’ve been rehearsing the dramatic tale of Santa’s arrival with my toddler for a month already.

“Talk about Santa on the roof again!” my 2-year-old daughter insists several times a day. It’s her first real Christmas, and her mind is busily plotting the scene that will play out that magical night, right down to the bowl of reindeer food she plans to leave on the front porch.

This year, for the first time since my own childhood, I was able to crack open the Christmas classic The Polar Express. The imaginative story follows a boy roused from his sleep on Christmas Eve by a train outside his window.

“All aboard!” the conductor cries. “Well, are you coming?”

“Where?” the little boy asks.

“Why to the North Pole, of course,” the conductor answers. “This is the Polar Express.”

The book is sheer brilliance, combining a child’s natural infatuation with train rides with a fantastical journey to the North Pole to see Santa. Santa gives the boy a silver bell from the reindeers’ harness — a bell that can only be heard by those who believe in Santa.

Equally brilliant is the effort by the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad in Bryson City to capitalize on the story, billing their very own Polar Express holiday excursion every Christmas season.

Trains are so popular with my toddler that we often race through town to the nearest railroad crossing whenever we hear a whistle in the distance. Throw in Santa, and the Polar Express train ride seemed like one holiday treat we just had to splurge for — especially at an age where the line separating reality and imagination is still so blurry.

In preparation for our big Polar Express adventure, my toddler and I spent days reading the book and watching the movie — often simultaneously — while sipping hot chocolate like the children in the train cars.

The morning of our train ride, I was a little nervous. I regretted talking up the trip on the Polar Express as much as I had. Would she be disappointed when we didn’t actually arrive at the North Pole, and didn’t actually see Santa fly away on his reindeer?

But I didn’t need to worry. The Polar Express excursion successfully brings the pages of the book to life.

For starters, kids get to wear their pajamas and slippers, just like the little boy in the book. They also get a golden boarding pass that’s the spitting image of the ones in the movie. As we stood in line along the tracks, I bent down and handed my daughter her special golden ticket, and for a second time stood still as she clasped it with both hands and stared, wide-eyed and speechless.

Once on board, a conductor dressed in a navy suit with a gold stop watch — just like in the movie — worked his way down the isles punching the children’s special tickets. Chefs in big white hats served up hot chocolate and passed out chocolate covered Santa’s with a marshmallow filling — another throwback to the book, where the children on the train eat “candies with nougat white as snow.” All the while, the soundtrack from the movie is played over the speakers.

When we arrived at the North Pole — which is actually a roadside way station in Whittier — a life-size diorama came into view, decked out with snow blanketing the ground, little elves and reindeer. There in the middle of it all was a real Santa, waving from his sleigh.

Children began squealing, pointing and shouting, “There he is!” Mine pressed her face to the window and mustered a breathless whisper: “Santa!” It was, after all, her first real encounter with a very special man indeed. Who else can fly through the sky on a sleigh pulled by reindeer or slide down chimneys with bags of presents?

Santa boarded the train and began making his way through the cars to visit each child — a departure from the actual storyline but hardly consequential given the frenzy over Santa’s imminent arrival.

Meanwhile, however, I braced myself for the magical journey to rapidly unravel. As much as she adored Santa from the safety of storybook pages, the real thing was an entirely different proposition. At best, I thought, my daughter will cower behind me, unwilling to even peek at the man in the white beard and red coat. At worst, she would begin wailing and burst into tears, a repeat of our failed attempt to visit Santa last Christmas.

As Santa walked down the aisle, he stopped at each child’s seat to hand them a large, silver bell just like the little boy in the book. It hung by a piece of brown leather, a nice touch since it had after all been cut off a reindeer’s leather harness.

I suppose my daughter wanted that bell pretty badly. When Santa stopped at our seat, she reached out her hand to meet his and promptly joined in the chorus of jingling heard throughout the train car by now.

When we got back home, she refused to relinquish her silver bell at bedtime. I worried she would never fall asleep with it in her crib, but the jingling sound eventually got softer and more intermittent and she finally dozed off. Our big Polar Express adventure was over, but it is one Christmas memory that will live on forever, at least for me.

As we were stringing lights on our Christmas tree last weekend, a layer of white snow in the yard outside, I noticed her peering out at the street from our living room window, absently ringing the silver bell in her hand. Perhaps she was merely marveling at the first snowfall of the year, but I think she was half expecting a train to pull up in front of the house, listening for those magical words shouted by the conductor: “All aboard!”

Gate goes up, Gorge community blocked out

By Julia Merchant • Staff writer

One day last October, Bud Dills, a longtime Nantahala Gorge resident, headed down to his favorite fishing spot. The area, located where the Nantahala River empties into Fontana Lake just past Wesser Falls, had long been popular with fishermen and paddlers. Dills, 63, had been fishing there since he was six years old.

But when he arrived, he was surprised to see a large, metal gate blocking the dirt road that was the only means of accessing the river shore.

The gate was erected by the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. Railroad representatives said people were camping there, trashing the site with beer cans and shooting off guns, forcing the railroad to restrict access.

“We’re not trying to keep the locals out to access the river or to go fishing or hiking,” said Kim Albritten, general manager of the railroad. “That’s not the purpose of the gate. The gate is to deter overnight camping. My concern is that the railroad owns the property, and if we continue to allow camping and gunfire there, what risk does that pus us at the liability level?”

The railroad’s reasoning hasn’t stopped locals from mourning the loss of a beloved fishing and paddling spot. Dills described the area as “extremely popular,” attracting thousands of visitors each year to fish, boat or simply hike. The dirt road allowed vehicles to tow larger boats down to the water. The spot was also popular with the elderly, handicapped, or families with kids, since they could ride down to the water rather than attempting the nearly one-mile trek.

Ken Kastorff, owner of Endless River Adventures, said he’s irked that most people didn’t know the gate was going up.

“The thing that bothers me the most about this is that after the usage for 60 odd years, they all of a sudden close it off, and not even talk to any of the community,” Kastorff said. “If there was a problem down there, the local community, as well as the rafting companies, would have all been more than happy to work with the train to do whatever is necessary to keep that area open.”

Some people, such as Dills, don’t buy the railroad’s explanation that people were trashing the area and shooting firearms.

“The railroad said people were down there dumping garbage,” Dills said. “That’s not true. It’s a very clean area. They said people were shooting, but anyone could have been down there hunting during October.”

Kastorff said regardless of the reasons the gate was put up, it wasn’t the best way to address the problem.

“The problem is that putting a gate up there isn’t going to solve any of that,” Kastorff said. “There are still people that are down there that are camping.”

Indeed that is the case. Just a couple of weeks ago, the sheriff’s department got a call about three men with a beer keg shooting their guns, Albritten said.

“This is an ongoing problem. There’s a lot of trash being left behind by campers — not just a beer can or two, but kegs of beer are being taken down there.”

Albirtten said people are still welcome to walk past the gate to fish or access the area during the day.


Unforeseen consequence

The railroad’s attempts to prevent access to the area have created another dilemma that has only emerged with the start of rafting season. The popular fishing and camping spot also served as a key location for rafting companies to retrieve boats and paddles that had been swept past the commercial boat takeout.

“If we lose a boat or a paddle, or if a boat flips at the falls and goes over Wesser, we used to be able to drive down there and recover it,” said Steve Augustine, manager of Endless River Adventures. “Now, you can’t do that.”

The loss of that access point could present a potential safety issue, since boats that travel over Class V Wesser Falls need to be reached as soon as possible.

“If our boats go over the falls, especially if there’s people in them, we have to get down there immediately,” said Dills.

The railroad has given Nantahala Outdoor Center a key to the gate to be shared by the rafting companies, said Albritten.

Albritten said she told Brenda Dills, president of the Gorge Outfitters Association, about the key’s location at the NOC retail store. Albritten said Dills wasn’t happy that she and other outfitters will have to rely on NOC to open the gate.

“That wasn’t the ideal situation for them,” said Albritten. “They’d like to go down the road and grab rafts or paddles, but I can’t make 19 keys available to all the rafting companies. There has to be some level of control. However, I’m not against having several keys for some of the larger outfitters who may need more access.”

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