The transformation of the city of Pontiac, Illinois

Located about an hour and a half southwest of Chicago is the small city of Pontiac Illinois. To be honest, the only mentions of this place that I ever heard growing up referred to the state prison located at the south end of town. In recent years however the city has made a concerted to transform itself into a tourism destination, and in my opinion is well on its way.

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Firstly, in the center of town is a very attractive turn of the century styled Town Hall.

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Until I approached it I hadn’t known that this was one of the towns included in the National Park Service’s Looking for Lincoln Trek.

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I also found it was quite attractive on the inside as well, although not quite as nice as on the outside (they need to work on that). It’s a bit too spartan (other than the floors) and why is Lincoln looking at the ground?IMG_0286.JPGAlso, one does not expect with a population of just shy of 12K people to have four museums (I went to two of them, the Auto museum and the Gilding arts one, and they were both worth the visit). In addition, the city has been embracing the tourism tactic of hiring artists to pain murals around the downtown area to beautify itIMG_0284.JPGAnd another very cute thing that they’ve done is to scatter these cars for kids on street corners around townIMG_0287

I really have to give my props to the Mayor and city consul of Pontiac Illinois for transforming their little town from a town whose major employer was a state prison into something worthy of extended visits from those doing the route 66 trek, as well day trips for people living in the Chicagoland area.

The Iconic Berghoff Resturant in Downtown Chicago, Illinois

The Berghoff Restaurant is a MUST visit traditional German restaurant in downtown Chicago, which is also one of the city’s landmarks. First opened in 1898 by Herman Joseph Berghoff, a recent immigrant from Germany, this restaurant has been run by successive generations of the founding family until it first closed 2006. Unrecognized by the family, the restaurant was so iconic to Chicago residents that its closing created something of major scandal, with outcries of horror and loss so resounding and vociferous that one of the great-grandchildren of the founders, who had not wanted to run it, changed her mind and reopened it shortly there after.

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In 2016 that same great-granddaughter (who REALLY had not wanted to run) sold it to her brother, but other than laying off the entire staff and only rehiring the ones who were NOT cantankerous old farts (I will say service has improved MARKEDLY since they did it) nothing has really changed.

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They have essentially kept the menu full of its old artery clogging classics, but have added some new newer, healthier options (when people ask me what German food is like I describe it thus, “meat, meat, meat… more meat, a bit more meat… and something white on the side.”). So if you look at the images below it is photos from two different visits one in 2013, with a friend visiting from China, and the other with a one I’ve known my whole life (I actually just went to the Shiva for her mother in law last night) where we got healthy food.

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Eating at the Berghoffs with friends: 2013 left, when we got a corned beef sandwich… and the difference in 2017, a healthy plate of grilled fish and veggies with very little oil, on the right

I remember the first time my mom took me here, I couldn’t have been more than seven or eight years old. If you look at the very first image of this post (see above), and look down the street between the tall building you’ll see the roof of what is the Art Institute of Chicago, which is not only one of the FINEST art museums in the world, it’s also my Alma Mater. Every time my mom took me there, that visit was almost always followed up by a meal the Berghoff.

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This time, like EVERY other, I got a mug of their Root-beer. I LOVE their root beer, it has a licorice taste to it which you don’t normally find in root beers. That said, during this last visit I noted they were installing a microbrewery INSIDE the restaurant. This place has ALWAYS had their own brew, but I guess having the huge brewing vat sitting in your place makes you a bit trendier (and hopefully more profitable) … but again, no substantial changes.

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All through the restaurant are murals and photographs of the Chicago world’s fair, including this one bottom left of the ORIGINAL Ferris Wheel (sometimes referred to as the Chicago Wheel), which served as an attraction back in 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exposition, i.e., the White City, i.e., the Chicago world’s fair, which was held along the lake on Chicago South’s side. In its honor Chicago has opened up one on Navy Pier by the lake, which offers some great views of the city

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One thing that I had never realized and this is one of my favorite places to go to where I have eaten at my whole life… is that the Adams street, where the Berghoff is located, is also one of the end points for Route 66… who knew?

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Grand Canyon, South Rim, Arizona

It’s the Grand Canyon, South Rim… it’s a classic! Rather than drive here, however, I took the train ride from Williams, AZ (on Route 66) where I was spending the night.

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To be honest, the three hours the Train service allowed me was ENOUGH, in large part because my pinky toe on my right foot was seriously unhappy with me (I had sprained it and rather than let it rest and keeping it elevated, I had been driving cross-country and doing a load of walking.) As such, rather than walk I first took the shuttle bus for invalids (organized by the train company) from the train to

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I LOVE the fact that an old-fashioned station wagon drove up just then, haven’t seen one of those since the 1970’s

El Tovar.. in order to get some lunch, and to see it because … HARVEY HOUSE!!!

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On the train I had asked the girl to suggest which of the restaurants had the best food, and she said the main restaurant at the El Tovar for sure… but I had done so much snacking on the way over that, while looking over their lunch menu, I found I wasn’t actually all that hungry, so I opted for the Onion Soup

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It was VERY good (definitely a cut above the average), and every person I spoke to at the surrounding tables was also extremely happy with their food. Let’s face it, you don’t expect food at restaurants like this actually be good, especially when the food prices are relatively reasonable. (You’re paying for the location, ambiance and view).IMG_0588

That said, the room is also quite spectacular…. both its interior and decorations,

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And of course if you’re very lucky (I wasn’t) you’ll be placed next to a widow with an amazing view.

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The bottom right image was from my table… I was WAY in the back but that said, ….Heh, my table was RIGHT next to the electric plug and my iPhone’s battery was down to 20% after the train ride.

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A bar, that also has a wonderful view

I wandered around the building a bit afterwards, cause it was gorgeous (and a Hardy House that had been kept authentic over time)… ‘

IMG_0597Directly adjacent to the El Tovar is Hopi House, which is also a historic landmark, that is used as store for mostly high-end Native American goods. It was designed by Mary Colter, the same woman who designed almost all of the Harvey Houses. IMG_0598IMG_8096IMG_0601After checking it out, I went to look at the rim…. pictures don’t do it justice, there’s something unreal about it.IMG_8107.jpgThat said, I was in AWE of how clear the view was. I kept saying to people, “do you realize that a few years ago you wouldn’t have seen this? That there was a horrible haze mucking it up? That its only because of the Clean air act, and the recent closing of some near by coal-burning power stations that you can see this so clearly” Apparently nobody did… Not only that but some Trump supporters actually started yelling at me (I’m shitting you not.)IMG_0602IMG_8114.jpg

IMG_8119.jpgMy weather karma is continuing— like I said it was supposed to be raining today…

IMG_8129IMG_0606IMG_0605IMG_8216At the other end of the part of the southern rim that I had walked along, is the Bright Angel Lodge which was also designed by Mary Colter, and this one has a very famous fireplace (that the one behind me in the images below)…. which again has amazing views at its restaurant… only the girl on the train told me the food isn’t quite as good.

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Adjacent to it is an ice-cream place that also serves sandwiches, and pretzels and snacks (all the food you’d eat while standing outside)… although while I was there mostly all people were buying was the ice cream.

IMG_0604 As they warned us on the train, there’s a HUGE fine, like $500 if they catch you feeding a squirrel… and that they will try to steal your food if you don’t watch out… what they neglected to mention is the little buggers bite, and will infect you with the plague!!!!

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After this I took an un-scenic shortcut back to the train station, because it was about time to go back to Williams, and if you miss the train you’re kind of screwed.

A stroll and a Cruise (Homes of the rich and famous, Miami style)

After having to head into the city to do some business: targetless wanderings through Miami’s downtown area, musings on her public transit system, and cruise …

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Today I had some errands to run in Miami proper that required I drag my ass out of bed obscenely early (for me) and get into town by 9:30 am. I wasn’t able to do what I needed (I showed up to the office without an appointment) but I was able to get a promise that they’d deal with me on Friday at 10am… so I’ll be heading there again then. However, since I was already downtown, I took to wandering.

First, I walked to the seashore (a block away), and then south along the coast; and, for the first time in my life saw a dolphin in the wild! Till now I’ve only ever seen them either in aquariums, or in caged up “swim with the dolphins” type things, which I find horrific, as they’re good for us and definitely not so great for them. This dolphin was getting jiggy with a seagull, they seemed to be almost playing with each other, and the dolphin practically swam right up to the walkway in the process. I was so stunned that I was slow to pull out my iPhone, and missed the interplay, but was able to get some pics of the dolphin as it swam away.

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Because of the recently concluded Art Basel Miami, essentially a viewing forum/event that lasts about a week where the world’s top art galleries can present their best wares to potential buyers (essentially the top 1% of income earners, and museums, etc.)  — it began shortly after I arrived on Nov. 28th and was pretty much over by Dec. 4th, there are still a whole slew of temporary outdoor art available for viewing along Miami’s ocean front.

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I had not known about the event before I arrived (the timing was completely coincidental) but I learned about it from my host, because a German couple (both artists) who were renting one of the downstairs rooms were both working it. (They both worked for one of the galleries that was showing work, although he’s apparently somewhat successful as a struggling painter in his own right — I don’t remember his name. When I went, it was mostly because I was in town that day anyway — more paperwork, although in sum it was rather like going to a very good but insanely expensive museum … $45 for one day’s entry — and there wasn’t even free wine and cheese.)

The next thing I discovered was that the downtown train system in Miami is free (BOGGLE!!). I had taken a Lyft/Uber type taxi into town, so I figured I would try out the rapid transit system which I had heard was pretty decent by US standards (in other words, lousy). I entered the system looking for where I was supposed to pay… kept looking, and still not finding, and then when the doors of a train opened I stuck my head in thinking “maybe there’s a conductor?” (the Metra system in Chicago still has old fashioned conductors)…  but there wasn’t. So I asked a woman siting on one of the few seats (only four per car), “is this free?” and she responded, “yup.” So I got in and road around, and… I’ll admit, I was using the ride to pick up some much needed balls from Pokémon stops — yup, still addicted to the game.

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After a while the train came to a halt at a station, and the loudspeaker informed us the system had broken down and please be patient… so I waited, and waited… and finally decided to just get out and walk. I found myself at what the city intends to be a museum park (like what we’ve already got in Chicago). They have an Modern Art museum … and they are in the process of building a (what I later learned was a new home for a) science museum — that had formerly been located in Coconut Grove across the street from Vizcaya Museum & Gardens; apparently, when it’s done, it is ultimately going to house the world largest shark tank (I have some thoughts on that, but they’re particularly cynical).

I had not yet had lunch (or any coffee for that matter), and according to my Yelp app, the Pérez Art Museum — which has very modern art, not really to my taste so I didn’t go in) also had fairly highly rated cafe, described as good enough so as to be worth eating at even if you weren’t going to see the art…I had Ceviche with pomegranate seeds, and iced coffee — and they were nice enough to give me a large plastic to-go cup of the iced coffee for my ‘refill’.

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Not long after, as I was walking along the shore line… one of my best friends, Carmi, who lives in Florida, called to chat, and when I told him about the train he said that it was considered by many Floridians to be an economic debacle. According to him, it cost so much and so few people actually ever use it, that the city could have instead offered free taxi fares within the same covered area – for life – to anyone who wanted one, and it would have been cheaper (and more likely to be utilized).

In fact, the city also put up a bicycle rental system scattered around the city, which is NOT free, and cost them a pittance by comparison to set up… which IS from what I could see taken full advantage of.

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Although I’ve seen similar systems in other places where the bikes are less to do with tourists and more to do lowering traffic on the roads and/or smog levels (China for instance)… and in those cases the first 15 or 20 minutes are usually free — like the train — only better because if you plan it right you have free access to a bike 24/hours a day with no worries about it being stolen.

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The yellow building is called The Freedom Tower (and should not be confused with the one in New York City which replaced the Twin Towers that were destroyed on 9/11) because it was used, at one point, as the processing facility for refugees from Castro‘s Cuba. Before that it was the offices of a newspaper, and now.. since we’re opening up normal relations with Cuba, it has become a museum — but ironically, not a history museum — instead it’s yet another modern art museum.

Next I headed towards the Bayside Marketplace, which my tripadvisor app was listing it as #12 of the best things to do in Miami (it’s sad how for a lot of towns in the USA the best thing to do is to go to the mall).  And as I walked through the stores that were NOT national chains — most of them were — I was like, “HEY, the 1970’s are back!”

Back when I was a kid my dad (a professor) had this one graduate student who was the consummate Hippie type. He and his wife were both these laid back granola types, and I used to love hanging out at their house. They loved, but couldn’t have, any kids of their own (this was before in vitro fertilization) and they weren’t stable enough economically to be allowed to to adopt —  back then they didn’t allow cross ethnic adoptions… so they set up their place up so that all the kids on their street would want come over there to hang out there. They had all these board games, and toys and cool stuff (like door handles with roses embedded in them). At one point, he and my dad were both presenting a paper at an academic conference in London, and the wife’s sister (who was her exact opposite) had flown over to hang out in London with us. Unlike the wife, who had married a Hippie, this sister had married a VERY rich guy from Beverly Hills, and was living THAT 70’s lifestyle; firstly, her husband apparently had NEVER seen her without her full face makeup applied, and — even in the cold of winter (or London summers) — she wore outfits so low cut that at least 1/2 of each breast was always exposed. My English male cousins, goggle eyed, would just stared at her with their jaws hanging open waiting for something to fall out. Walking around the Marketplace, half of the dresses there (in the locally owned shops) had neck lines that cut a deep V all the way down to the belly button, just like her outfits all used to do, so that if your wore them you’d risk your breasts being are completely exposed. Since then, the only time I’ve seen this sort of thing were on formal dresses at… like the Oscars, being worn by stars like JLo who are very proud of their bodies, but apparently in Miami these are now considered appropriate for daily wear.

However, one of the good things I found at the Market place was that there were like a few different cruise companies offering hour and a half tours of the bay for the VERY affordable price of $20 (I’m guessing this may have been due to it being a weekday during the off season) and 10% off of any drink from the bar.

So, I got myself a diet breaking virgin Mojito (normally I’m very careful to only drink black coffee or water) because this is Miami and I haven’t had once since I arrived…

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………….and then I’m went to go on a Bay side-cruise of the Port of Miami….

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…………that included what’s was described as a tour of millionaires row.

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This is apparently the Miami home of the singer Enrique Martín Morales, formerly of the boy band Menudo —  better known as, Ricky Martin

img_7614According to the tour guide, this rental property is popular with rappers and other stars who don’t already own homes in the area, as a place to throw parties.
—– It rents out for the low, low price of $30,000……. a WEEK!!!

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A great view of the Miami coastline, described by some as the third nicest in the U.S.A.  (after NYC and Chicago, of course) … we were all instructed to grab our camera’s for it

Then They took us to tour around Star Island.

img_7627And this is the home, supposedly (Wikipedia claims that some of the tour guides, including possibly my own, fib about who does or does not live in these homes) of one of the best selling artists of all time,  a singer/songwriter who with over 120 million records to his name worldwide; he has recorded in 14 languages, and has more than 400 gold and platinum records…..  Julio José Iglesias de la Cueva, better known as Julio Iglesias.

img_7631This estate is over 6 acres with a reported 31,615 sq ft of house and is lined with imported (and VERY erect) African Palm Trees is worth $122,000,000 and is (actually) the home of Dr Phillip Frost, who is on the Forbes wealthiest humans lists.
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Born of an observant Jewish family and served as the lieutenant commander for the U.S. Public Health Service at the National Cancer Institute, from 1963 to 1965… …..who, according to our tour guide used to own Pfizer — she called it the house Viagra built

img_7644And this comparatively modest home, apparently, belongs to Beckham’s David and Victoria… he being considered one of the greatest soccer players in the world, and she a former member of the Spice Girls.

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Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden

The former back yard of an artist: Remember the iconic talking heads album cover? Well this is the home of the Howard Finster, the Baptist ‘tent revival’ preacher who created those images.

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One of the most acclaimed (by the mass media — but not so much the art world) folk art artists of his day, he even did Jonnie Carson, Finster was the darling of the rock and roll world since REM filmed one of their early music videos in his back garden.

Howard Finster had been a tent revival preacher who felt a calling from God to pass ‘his’ word via art rather than in preaching… Creating art then became a compunction for Finster. He was initially ‘discovered’ by art professors at the university of Georgia, Athens.. And then by one of the most influential gallery owners in NYC (soho), and then by the likes of REM and the talking heads. According to the intro movie Keith Haring did a pilgrimage to here before he died and as you walk around you can see clear evidence of his handiwork.

 

When I got here originally I drove up and there was this smiling guy sitting on a grass cutter the kind you can drive around and according to go to the guy at the front door I was the first person to show up today. I had the place to myself, at least or a while. As soon as I got to the front door a big orange tabby walked up and demanded entrance and the guy working the front door dutifully let him in.

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When you first enter the museum you directed towards watch a half hour movie about the artist; it explains his life and motivation for his work (serving G-d). The moment I sat down to watch it the orange tabby came right over, jumped on my lap and proceeded to demand to be petted, so I scratched him about the ears for about 10 minutes, till he decided to get even more affectionate. Now I love cats, used to have three of them, but I have since been diagnosed as seriously allergic to them (which is why I no longer have any), so I had to nudge him to the floor. He gave me a pissed-off glance and walked away. Clearly from the cats perspective the job of any visitor is to pet him. As soon as the movie was over I ran to the bathroom, to wash my hands & arms which were now covered with cat, and splashed water on my eyes which had gone all itchy (I respect and obey cats to my own detriment). I later learned that there were in fact three orange tabbies who see it as your job as a visitor to pet them. 

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Otherwise, you are left alone to wander his mazelike gardens. Towards the back he constructed a house of mirrors that I suppose was intended to create the infinity of spirit ….
By the way, this is what I saw in the sky on the way driving to here

…. so that by the time I arrived to his Paradise Garden I was already predisposed to see ‘the spirit’ (if you will) in Finster’s art.  

All in all, this place was pretty amazing. Also, I had apparently unplugged the cork because after me a few car loads of artsy types just pulled in 

Booth Western Art Museum; Cartersville, GA

A Smithsonian Affiliate museum: while a lot of the art work here is ‘so-so,’ there are quite a few impressive pieces (often borrowed), especially among some of the modern art works.

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I’ve spent a fairly decent amount of time in the Southwest, in large part living on the Navajo Reservation, so I’m pretty familiar with this sort of work, and have seen better collections out there; that said, considering this is in the southeast I’m guessing its probably the best publicly viewable collection of Southwestern narrative art in this part of the country. It’s also a Smithsonian Affiliate which means they get to borrow things from that collection that the Smithsonian would otherwise keep in storage, like this incredibly racist piece which seems to have come from the Buffalo Bill Historical Center.

What I particularly enjoyed, were some of the modern art works.

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And this is a process I do not believe I have ever seen before, cast paper

The museums also contains some examples of paintings produced to be used for things such as book covers for western-genre literature, film posters, and magazine covers, etc. I found this particularly interesting as the wife of an old high-school friend of mine is an artist who specializes in the western genre and has had her work used for magazine covers, etc… so I checked to see if they had any of her work, but they did not.

What initially brought me the museum however was an Ansel Adams exhibition  (I was a photography major as an undergrad). It was an OK exhibition, it had a few of his photos and a collection of works by other who either influenced him, or were influenced by him. Of the latter, the most surprising ones were these:

And then this was one of the ones I might like in my own home

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Nacoochee Mound & Sautee Nacoochee, GA

While the Indian mound is essentially a mildly offensive tourist trap, the tiny village of Sautee — just down the street — is in my opinion well worth the visit:

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Located in Georgia, just outside of Helena, there is this Indian mound that really impressed me, at least until I learned from online sources (such as Atlas Obscura) that it had already been excavated, and then replaced (and is therefore a replica rather than the original) — a fact that none of the signs at the location tell you … nor one shared with me by locals.

The area in which it sits could best be described as countrified yuppie. It’s all gift shops and locally made artesian soaps cheeses and art etc., none of whom I suppose have any motivation to tell the truth about historical mound their shops are adjacent to. Not only did the locals not share the actual facts with me, I was, I would argue, actively misled by them. I can’t remember if it was the saleswoman at the racist antiques store across the street (which sold Sambo dolls and ‘Song of the South‘ DVD’s) or one of the other locals business people who initially assured me that the mound was an Indian burial mound that had been kept in “almost pristine condition” in large part because of the gazebo that a local farmer had opted to place on the top, that kept him and future farmers from leveling it.

In fact, if you look closely and read the sign, and then go to this site, you’ll discover that the sign is mostly a pack of lies!!!! There is no evidence that DeSoto visited, and archeologists are fairly certain that the mound predates any Cherokee habitation of the area.

Consider for instance “legend” that is associated to the mound:

“The legend of the Nacoochee Indian Mound states that Indian lovers from opposing tribes are buried within the mound.  Sautee, a brave of the Chicksaw Tribe, and Nacoochee, the daughter of a Cherokee Chief fell immediately and hopelessly in love when a Chicksaw band stopped in Cherokee territory at a designated resting place.  The two lovers met in the night and ran away to nearby Yonah Mountain to spend a few idyllic days together.  When they later confronted Nacoochee’s father with the idea of creating peace between the two nations, Chief Wahoo ordered Sautee thrown from the high cliffs of Yonah Mountain while Nacoochee was forced to watch.  Almost immediately, Nacoochee broke away from her father’s restraining hands and leaped from the cliff to join her lover.  At the foot of the cliff, the lovers dragged their broken bodies together and locked in a final embrace and died there.  The Chief, overcome with remorse realized the greatness of love and buried the lovers, still locked in death, near the banks of the Chattahoochee River as a burial mound.”
source: Southernhighroads.org

Seems a bit TOO Romeo and Juliet for my tastes… that and the fact that the mound is listed on the National registry of historical places may, in actuality, have more to do with it’s having been located on the estate of L.C. Hardman, a former Georgia Governor, than anything else. … none of which I learned till I started researching the location for this blog post.

I have to say that in retrospect, as someone who has deep personal connections to the Native American community, I felt a bit ‘ripped off’ by my experience at this location. On the upside, it’s not someplace I went out of my way to see, it just happened to be along the drive… but that said, some honesty would be appreciated! I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, considering this is located just outside of Helen, GA, (notable only for German architecture and restaurants — only one of which is any good — it is essentially a tourist trap aimed at anyone in search of a little touch of a Bavaria in the midst of the Appalachian foothills).

That said, directly adjacent is one of the actual gathering points (of which there were many) for the Trail of Tears… a forced relocation (that for those Native Americans not affluent enough to purchase transit devolved into an ultimately genocidal/ethnic cleansing) of the south eastern United states, during the administration of Andrew Jackson.

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That said, I did find one major “FIND” a bit further down Unicoi turnpike… first you’ll find a very cute “village/crossroads” (not more than few stores) of Sautee Nacoochee which includes the ridiculously picturesque Old Sautee’s Store and market,

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walking distance from which you’ll find the Folk Pottery Museum of Northeast Georgia, a museum for the Traditional pottery of the area, built as an annex to a converted historic school, which now serves as the Sautee Nacoochee Center, a gallery and visual arts center for local artists (and a lot of what they have for sale — and at affordable prices considering it’s original art…  are, at least in my opinion, really good)

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