We followed Leif outside and into a second building, constructed with modern wallboard and wood planks. Half the roof was taken up by big black solar panels. “This is our common house,” Leif said. Inside was a kitchen equipped with a restaurant-sized refrigerator and gas range. A woman was washing lettuce. Her dress was a kind of shapeless beige shift, embroidered with a Greek key pattern. Something was bubbling in a huge kettle on the stove. “Corinne,” said Leif, “this is Adrienne, Dante and Chloe. They’ll be staying with us tonight.”
“Hello,” said Corinne, smiling. “Welcome.” I thought I recognized her voice from the telephone call in which I’d arranged the visit.
An adjoining dining room held folding chairs and tables. “We eat most of our meals here,” Leif said. “You’ll see that tonight. And the furniture can be cleared aside for dancing or for indoor games or exercises when the weather is bad. On rainy weekends, this is where you’ll find most of the kids.”
“This building doesn’t look so Cherokee,” I said.
Leif nodded. “And you didn’t even see the bathroom and showers. Some examples are hard to follow. Would you like to see the houses?”
“Umm…” I felt let-down. The place was so small, so backward. What questions had I expected it to aaddress? But having come that far, I might as well see what there was to see. “Sure.” We left the main building and headed down a foot trail that wound from the trees back into the cornfields. The corn was almost overgrown with beans and squash. The stalks were several feet high, making it impossible to see the rest of the community from where we were walking, but we could hear shouts and laughter. In a few minutes we stepped out into a field of open grass with soccer goals at either end. A dozen children between the ages of three and twelve were running up and down the uneven turf, kicking. A couple of teenagers were playing catch with baseball mitts. “This is our playing field,” Leif said. “I’m told that in the beginning the Selu kids played Cherokee games, like lacrosse and chungke. Now it’s mostly soccer and baseball or tag and hide-and-go seek, that sort of thing.”
As we stepped into the open, a girl of about five, with waist-length pigtails turned to us. “Who are they?” she asked.
“These are Adrienne, Dante and Chloe,” he said. “Guests.”
“How long are they staying?”
“I don’t know,” Leif answered.
“We’ll just be here one night,” I reminded him. The place was pleasant enough, if you liked camping. But nothing I’d seen so far seemed to justify Ivor’s use of the word “resort.”
“Did you bring any toys?” the girl asked Dante.
He shook his head.
The girl turned to me. “Do you have any candy?”
“I’m sorry,” I said. She didn’t appear to be starving, but her expression was so eager it reminded me of working vacations I’ve taken as a volunteer in Guatemalan and Ugandan medical clinics. “No, wait.” I opened my purse to rummage in it. “Only a breath mint.”
She held out her hand. I glanced at Leif and he nodded, so I put a mint in the girl’s palm. Immediately the other children were crowding around. In a few seconds, the package was empty and the kids went back to their game. Leif led me around the field and into the woods again.
“How many children are there?” I asked.
“Fifteen,” he said. “That was most of them. A couple may be visiting friends in town. But generally they come here right after school, or they play in the creek or climb trees until it gets dark. Then they go into the common house for dinner and homework.”
Dante and Chloe were clinging close to me, but following the other kids with their eyes.
“You can play with them if you want,” Leif said to them.
“No thanks,” said Dante.
Chloe took my hand.
“Where do the kids here go to school?” I asked.
“We home-school most of them, but it’s up to the parents. Some of the teenagers go to the local high school.”
“Would it be too personal a question for me to ask why you’re trying to live like a Cherokee?”
He smiled diffidently. “I could give you an explanation. But in fifteen years of being a university professor, I found that hardly anybody remembered what I said. They only remembered what I showed them.” That’s the kind of response I got all afternoon. The Leif I remembered was always elaborating on his theories, testing them, arguing them with anyone who would listen. Now he seemed reluctant to explain anything, and the mysteriousness didn’t do much to put me at ease.
His tour took us to a half dozen other dwellings. After calling out to them from a distance, and either getting no answer or permission to come forward, Leif introduced us to various community members and showed me their homes. They were lean men with full beards and dreadlocks, or shaved heads and little goatees; and muscular women with hairy legs. Everyone was white, which I thought was ironic for people pretending to be Cherokee. Looking at their lodgings, I began to dread the night ahead of us. It had been years since I’d done any camping, and though I’d enjoyed it as a kid, I couldn’t imagine wanting to live that way indefinitely. I also couldn’t get out of my head the niggling fear that I’d blundered with my children into the kind of cult that might be eager for new recruits.