Words and Photos by Lokelani Howe
Where do you go when you can't get home? Sometimes I can't imagine myself anywhere else, so I dig my heels into the mantra—there's no place like home.
When folks find out that my family is from Hawaiʻi, they often ask me, "How could you leave the islands? Don't you miss the waterfalls and the mountains?"
The answer is painfully obvious, although my homesickness ebbs and flows with the rhythms of daily life. Cooking and cleaning and writing and working. But also hearing the call—come home.
So I finally answered around this time last year. I purchased four round-trip tickets and bummed a place to stay. My kids daydreamed about exploring their ancestral homeland.
But then, the pandemic changed everything.
The summer blues lingered until an unexpected road trip provided an escape from our parched backyard. My husband drove, my brother navigated, and the kids did what kids do on road trips. Our last-minute adventure took us to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and then farther east, into the Nantahala National Forest. The gently winding road meandered alongside the Hiwassee River, past Rainbow Springs, and onward through Franklin, North Carolina.
There's no place like home, but the mountains and valleys of southwest North Carolina come pretty close. On our first pit stop, my son climbed out of the car and exclaimed, "Mom, the air!" He took in a deep breath to hold the sweet fragrance in his chest. "The air doesn't smell like this in Texas!"
As a native Hawaiian, I felt humbled to stand upon such sacred lands. I felt an instant kinship with the ancient mountains, as described by the Cherokee, "the great blue hills of God."
We found our Airbnb, a big blue bus, nestled in a verdant cove slightly north of the Nantahala Gorge. It's one of many features of Gorgeous Stays, a "glampground" owned and operated by a mother-daughter duo with fantastic taste on display in tiny homes, glamping tents, and more. The entire property is enchanting.
Within a few minutes of arriving, our family hiked a short distance to Euchella Cove to go fishing. The fish weren't biting, or perhaps we had the wrong bait, but the kids enjoyed casting their lines anyway. We stayed as long as we could to watch a golden mist round the bend of the river, hovering over the shimmering water like a good-night kiss.
Back at the bus, our kids claimed their bunks, both on top. Then my brother built a roaring campfire, and we toasted marshmallows under the stars. Under the smoky evening haze, even the kudzu vines seemed enchanted.
The next day, we played pool on the main lodge's open veranda, looked for tadpoles in the pond, and fished for rocks in the creek. Later that afternoon, we chased waterfalls and rainbows, following the Nantahala Gorge down to Dry Falls, past Bridal Falls. Then, we turned north toward Deep Creek to hike along Tom Branch Falls.
The forested valleys are dense and deep reservoirs of beauty. Dappled light and golden butterflies danced in the dark shadows of the gorge. Thunderous rapids whipped around glistening boulders. Even the soil sparkled. And when great blue herons descended from the mountain mists, my kids looked up with their blue eyes ablaze with wonder.
The Nantahala River is cold. Twice a day, water is released from the depths of the dam upstream. It's a chilly thrill for whitewater rafters—though not so much for small kids. But there's warm water nearby," said our host.
She sent us on a quick drive to the Little Tennessee River. Just as promised, we found warm waters to wade. The river moved long and wide and warm and smooth. My kids rushed into her depths, intent on wading the full width until their little feet slipped on the mossy riverbed and their big fears bubbled to the surface.
My husband kept an eye on us from the riverbank while working out a tangle of knots in the fishing lines. Usually, he'd be the first one to dive in with our kids following close behind. But that day, the water called me instead.
I held my ground among the great boulders that lay just beneath the surface of the water and called to my kids. Then I hugged them close, and they anchored me too. Together, we pressed our backs up against the ancient rocks and felt the embrace of kindred spirits near and far.