The inaugural festival was pretty elk-citing.

Elk in Field_Courtesy Visit NC Smokies
Credit: Visit NC Smokies

There's nothing quite like seeing an elk bugle in the misty morning fog in North Carolina's Smokies (Especially when you awoke at 5:00am to do so.) But in recent decades, these creatures weren't always flourishing in this mountainous Southern region. Following the elk population being obliterated in the middle of the 19th century due to over-hunting and lack of habitat, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and other partners such as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation teamed up in 2001 to restore the wild elk into the national park in Cataloochee Valley. Now, the initial 52 elk have blossomed into a herd of 150 and counting.

If that's not a reason to celebrate, you've got us stumped. Which is why this year, Visit NC Smokies put on the inaugural Smoky Mountain Elk Fest to toast the successful reintroduction of these majestic animals. With my boots—ahem, alpine hiking sneakers—on the ground for the Maggie Valley festival, here are three of my key takeaways.

Haywood County 1 Elk Fest
Credit: Visit NC Smokies

1. These mountains know things.

The Smoky Mountains are an estimated 1.2 billion-years-old (and I'm stressed about my upcoming 31st birthday) and standing in the cradle of the Maggie Valley Festival Grounds, you feel their omnipotence. Whether you're catching the Hillbilly Jam or an arts and crafts show here, the long-range views remind you of how infinitely tiny we are, chronologically, cosmically, spatially.

2. But, while we're alive, we might as well listen to good music.

This year's Elk Fest lineup featured bluegrass standouts like Ol' Dirty Bathtub and Brothers Gillespie along with country acts Jordan Brooker and Andy Griggs. As the saying goes in these parts, if you don't like the weather, wait ten minutes, but I happily enjoyed digging my heels in the grass during a brief thunderstorm, which gave way to a sunshower, before a bright golden sun burst out.

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3. There are characters at every corner.

In our hometowns, it's easy to ignore the unique personalities we encounter. When we travel, we're attuned to seek them out. Though I met countless lovely people during my travels in Haywood County, my favorite rendez-vous was with Herbert "Cowboy" Coward and his pet squirrel, Angel, who travels with him on a leash wherever he goes.

The bad news is, I couldn't convince Cowboy Coward to let me adopt Angel; the good news is, I'm already looking forward to reuniting at next year's Elk Fest.