Pickett State Park, or isolation


Alone, walking.

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A rockhouse at Pickett State Park.

It’s been a while since I’ve been alone on a trail. And I like it. Who am I kidding by just saying “like”? It’s amazing.

Being alone, ducking under a massive rock overhang. Being alone seeing the beginnings of fall colors. Being alone watching crawdads dart backwards beneath Crystal Falls. Being alone going into deep green hemlock groves. Sure my thoughts might wander and sometimes getting them to truly focus on my surroundings might be harder with just me. But it is just me. No one to tell me to go back, not a slight bit of phone reception. Not a single other soul, save a trail runner briefly on the way back, no one.

Some people might not recommend this. Even out here away from muggers, if something happened to me, there would be no cell phone reception. But I’m restless. Restless to see new places, at least new to me. Too restless to check if anyone else wants to go with me. My feet just need to walk.

The route (roughly)

Starting at a group cabin area, my route begins on trails that have no official name heading on from there under a massive sandstone rock overhang beneath which the trail continues. It’s easily head-clunk-able, as the trail dips right beneath it.

The fall colors are beginning to show here but haven’t yet conquered the canopy.

Then, after a steep downhill trail, Crystal Falls itself. A series of drips rather than the kind of roaring mass of white like the more famous waterfalls around here. But it’s the sort of sacred-seeming place for sitting and meditating. Or for watching the crawdads … crayfish … crawfish … lobster thingies walk along the bottom of a transparent pool or jet backwards, perhaps in fear of me, although I cannot read their shell encrusted minds.

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Crystal Falls amid rhododendrons.

But I can’t stay. Restless, I walk on, through bare exposed rocky spots, through dark hemlock groves, heading onto the Sheltowee Trace trail, with its turtle logo.

Sheltowee, incidentally, is the name the natives called Daniel Boone, meaning “big turtle.” Possibly it was because he looked like a turtle, though most pictures of his usually-elderly face in portraits show no real resemblance to me anyway.

I say a bit more about Boone in my book “Wildly Strolling Along: Father-son Nature Adventures on Tennessee’s Cumberland Trail.

What is it that drives me to come out here? Is it beauty? Then why do I keep moving rather than stopping? Is it exercise? Then why did I drive all the way here rather than just walking or running near my home? No, I love what I love. I must keep walking. I must see what’s next. I must.

You are not me. I won’t force you to forest bathe, when you really may prefer bathing in a bathtub. But you might be like me. In which case, the trails of Pickett State Park may be perfect.

While my route wasn’t on the map picked up at the park office, it can be found on this map as part of the  “Hidden Passage Trail.” The link here is

Picket CCC Memorial State Park isn’t just trails and looming sandstone formations. It boasts a small museum with live turtles in a tank, a dramatic suspension bridge, boat rentals and many different cabins, not to mention a commemorative statue that, while skillfully made, looks like it came from a cheap romance novel cover. Visit it online here http://tnstateparks.com/parks/about/pickett.

Note: This stream of consciousness writing is an account of visiting in early autumn, which I had originally held off on posting until the next autumn. However, I’ve learned that trails change and close so often, it’s better to post sooner than later. You can look forward to more things posted out of order in the future, unless any of you really object. Do you? Please let me know if you do. In the meantime, enjoy your trails in the spring!

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Atlanta: The World of Coca-Cola


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Photo by Marco Correa – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39697095

What the world wants today
That’s the way it will stay
It’s the real thing.

So, what does the world want today? Might at least some of it want something sweet, fizzy, upbeat, cafinated-ly energizing, mass-produced and only about a bottle’s contents deep, but still … oddly uniting for people from multiple cultures? That, in a sentence, is the Atlanta World of Coca Cola, the most corporate of corporate museums and a guilty pleasure for me.  It stands In Pemberton Square, across from a massive aquarium, It has lots of memorabilia, a bottling plant coke related sculptures, and a room to taste Coke products from around the world.
It’s a happy place. Relentlessly happy. Beat you into happiness with a Coke six-pack happy. The sort of place that if it were a person, it would call Disneyland mopey and diagnose Disney World with a severe, un-treatable case of depression. That’s always been Coca-Cola’s corporate image though, the one unchanging thing in its ads, at least the ones the museum shows: Youth, friendship, sharing, happenin’-ness, nostalgia, but always joy. Also polar bears who want to hug your children not maul them.

“Nothing can ever bring me down,” as the current jingle goes. To be fair though, why wouldn’t it want to convey that image in its museum though? You don’t introduce yourself with everything you’ve done wrong as a corporation any more than Disney ever had any desire to portray its various battles, past and present with unions. Coke wants to put its best and fizziest foot forward.

You can’t even enter the place without at first chanting Coca-Cola, Co … Coca-Cola!” with an enthusiastic guide, then watching an almost totally irrelevant movie about skydivers, people throwing a basketball from a balcony high above the hoop, and a veteran home from Afghanistan, all of them finally ending by drinking Coke.

If I sound a little sardonic and resentful for someone who did pay $34 to return with his girlfriend (whose name, Yvonne, got left out of the recent bottles with names campaign as far as I know) that’s because the place invites it, regardless of the beautiful genuine artistry on display with the many coke-bottle shaped masterpieces representing cultures around the world and different artistic sensibilities, not to mention the also a bit off topic airline trays dedicated to Delta, Atlanta’s other big non-Turner corporation.

It’s just that the place is, in fact, all honeybees and apple trees and snow white turtledoves. Or rather all that, but not the bees. NOT THE BEES! Those can actually sting you. And get in your eyes.

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I could try to either be the next Joan Didion or Annie Dillard. Sometimes I aim for it. But no, now I’m making tired Nicolas Cage references. So sorry.

Any place as happy and full of sweet drinks and happy tourists from around the globe as the World of Coca-Cola, you can’t help but wonder if somewhere they might be just luring you in to feed you to the Slurm queen. You want to find the dark edges and they’re there, if you know where to look and if you can think in terms of context for some of the stuff on display. Some of it, like the above video ad, comes off as more poignant, if still calculated to fit with the mood of its time, 1971.

You’ll learn plenty of history and technology there. You’ll learn how carbonation and mechanical assembly lines work. You’ll learn about the de-centralized nature of the bottling process starting from the very beginning and giving Tennessee a probably better claim to being Coca-cola’s true birthplace (not that the museum says that in so many words but I’m a Tennessean with pride). It’s also (here’s my grim side again) led to the company claiming no responsibility for issues with specific plants such as occurred in Colombia a little over a decade ago. I use Wikipedia’s link here in part because it’s probably the best hub for other links about that mess. My sister even wrote a story about that for her college newspaper, although keep in mind the company does not control individual bottling plants. Except for the fun to watch one in the museum itself.

You’ll learn about the admittedly ingenious design of the first Coca Cola bottles, probably the first case of packaging becoming an iconic feature of a product.

You won’t learn about the early days of Pemberton’s original product “French Wine Cola” his being on the wrong side of the Civil War or the racially charged, at least according to The Atlantic Monthly reasons they took cocaine out of it.

But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t drink Coke, specifically Coke Zero usually, regularly without thinking about any of that history. I love drinking cokes at parties. I love the Olympic torches. I love the attempts to show Coke bottles as sophisticated sculptures.

What the world wants today. That’s the way it’ll stay. It’s the real thing.

The man who shot MLK slept here


With all my posts about Frozen Head, I’ve avoided posting about some of the more grim stuff nearby.  The area has held two prisons, one current and on my route,  the other abandoned and a little off it. It’s the old one that’s been on my mind.

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Brushy Mountain Prison as it was in 2012.

****

This year marks the assassination of a man hated in his own lifetime but beloved now. He deserves the love he has now and more. I am speaking about Martin Luther King Jr., a man who left his mark on our nation’s history and, for that matter, it’s landscape.

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This face just might ring a bell.

That’s not just to mention the signs that marked “whites” and “colored” coming down, just one of the many goals that man had. Markers and monuments show the places he walked, because people want to walk there and imagine him there too.

Even places far from where he walked bear his name. You can see many of them here.

But there are other kinds of people who make history. Case in point James Earl Ray, MLK’s murderer.

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This face probably doesn’t even if the name does.

I’ve passed and even stopped, in 2012, at the castle-like structure of the prison where he spent his life after murdering Martin Luther King: Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, now abandoned. I love hiking at Frozen Head State Park, so it tends to be near my route. It gets a mention in my book, but I never dwelt on James Earl Ray. I never discussed him with anyone during my travels there except for Goyo, a Mexican exchange student who happened to join us one day when we passed it.

“Do you know about Martin Luther King?” I asked him.

He nodded. And that was that. I never dwelt on him or the good doctor in the pages of my memoir Wildly Strolling Along involving father-son bonding on the Cumberland Trail.

James Earl Ray reportedly shot King in 1968. He always claimed he was just part of a broader conspiracy to kill the Civil Rights leader and King’s family also believed that.

That still doesn’t make him a hero though, just one of many villains working together. No one save a few alt-righters would probably really want to commemorate him. And, thankfully, no one does.

It’s true, killers hold a perverse fascination for the public, and they did even back in the 60s and 70s. And I’d be lying if I claimed they didn’t for me as well, looking at someone with whom I share a common bond of humanity, but who went in a different direction.

Ray’s history though doesn’t give the kind of good man gone wrong chills so many murderers do though. He was a crook, plain and simple, involved in armed robbery before his most infamous crime. His obsession with white-ruled nations in Africa seems predictably racist.

The most notable thing he did in all his time after being arrested was escape, drawing in FBI agents and inspiring a whole, strenous race based on mocking how little distance he covered, the Barkley Marathon.

But it’s a fleeting fascination. No one wants to point out with historical markers his escape route.

I know because I visit the area fairly often and I’m glad there’s no sign for that miserable fellow that I’ve noticed anywhere. He doesn’t deserve any. I want to look at Frozen Head State Park’s charming waterfalls, its flowers, its views of the surrounding mountains and escape from the prejudice and strife of the outside world. People who go to Frozen Head. to walk, run, camp, ride horses and play on playgrounds or fish do not need a reminder of that man and his nearby escape from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary.

The main remnant of the prison inside the park is the Prison Mine Trail, the site of a mutiny by the prisoners who operated it according to Augusta Grove Bell’s Circling Windrock Mountain, long before Ray’s time.
Ray is by far not the only person who every ended up there. I could go on and on about the stories of cruelty and crazy escapes. It makes me rather sad that the only tours there right now are Paranormal Tours and not tours involving real history, which would probably be far more interesting. Which brings me to the people running the place now. So what’s the place’s big draw, now? Whiskey.

In 2009 the old prison was decommissioned. In that same year the Tennessee General Assembly amended the statute that limited the distillation of drinkable spirits to just three counties. After the amendment, distillery businesses were established in 41 additional counties. A new bill was signed by the governor that allows for distilling in any county, including those of dry status. Distilling in a dry county such as Morgan County is now possible and will begin at the old Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in the near future.

Brushy is the perfect place for a little Tennessee whiskey to do its time.

Of course. What to do with an old prison site tied to racially troubling history? The same way to solve every other problem here in Tennessee! Whiskey! If it had been Dr. King who had spent time there and not his murderer, the place would not be trying to become the next Gatlinburg. But there’s a part of me that prefers Ray’s memory be trampled by people drunk on local booze on the edge of charming natural beauty. That seems somehow fitting. So here’s to James Earl Ray: May we remember to forget you.

Chasing waterfalls at Frozen Head State Park


Falling water calls to us, but why? Or rather why does it call to me, specifically?

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A cascade after rain, crossing paths with Panther Branch Trail.

Yvonne stood there, commenting on the cascade. On the layers of rock. On how it reminded her of an artificial one that stood in an art museum.

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“It’s great hiking with an art critic,” I responded. At least she had the words to describe it.

I stood there recording her, unclear on what I could say. Waterfalls are wordless. Streams are wordless. Trees are wordless. The insides of flowers are wordless. Mountains are wordless.

And here I go prattling on about wordlessness using words. I go out into nature to escape the things I blather on about. And then come back, trying to put words to it, failing.

After rain and in cool enough weather, our route at Frozen Head State Park was a celebration of water as it crashed over rocks, fell from heights and muddied our shoes as we crossed streams in our way. People like waterfalls for their momentum, sound, movement, even small ones. The reason we find them objects of beauty varies, I suppose, but for me, it’s all about the constant movement. Stillness isn’t the goal for me in nature, even if it is for some others. Movement, sound, change, all these are. Wild yet steady. Explosive yet constant. Does it symbolize anything? Does it really need to?

So after all that stream of consciousness about streams, here’s some of the basics of where we were and what we did.

Our goal was seeing Emory Gap Falls and DeBoard Falls. The recent rain meant they would not be just trickles but places worth visiting, even if they aren’t among the area’s largest. Wanderlust gets the better of us and after many days of fussing around with unloading boxes at our new Oak Ridge apartment, we figured we needed an escape.

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Deboard Falls

 

Here is a map of Frozen Head State Park, so you can see all of its many routes.

Rather than take the short way, we took the long way, starting out at the Old Mac Trailhead and hiking up the North Old Mac Trail through a forest of leafless gray and brown bark, but with glimpses of the hills beyond us. The green of mountain laurels and the red of acorns splitting open stood out more. It was just the start of spring. Small white flowers had started to open and we saw more as we went along. Yes “small white flowers.” My “kickass botanist” father would be ashamed of me for writing that, but it’s better than getting them wrong, since he wasn’t with me.

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Dad later helped me by identifying this one as a blood root. That was my original guess anyway.

In general, the North Old Mac route has many bridge-less stream crossings after rain, crossing water that cascades down the hill. After passing a campsite, we headed down Panther Branch Trail which has even more of that, some of it a bit eroded as far as the trail went, so be careful, but enjoy. One of these cascades is the one above. It wasn’t even what people call a conventionally impressive waterfall. It was just water rolling over rocks for a great length. As a note, this cascade may not be as impressive on most days as it is after rain. It might not even be there at all in dry periods.

We then headed on the .5 mile Emory Gap Trail, toward Emory Gap Falls, which free falls from a rock ledge before continuing to fall in a stream over rocks. The area is a rocky neighborhood of boulders, outcrops and overhangs.

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Emory Gap Falls

After hiking back that .5 miles and hiking an additional .75 miles the trail reaches Deboard Falls, another waterfall which crashes down white from an overhanging ledge, this one appearing to have more water and even falling to a shallow pool. Stairs lead down to the bottom of this one.

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Deboard Falls., from another angle.

“You made it sound like this was barely more than a greenway! That there wasn’t much to see!” Yvonne said in mock-anger. True, I had said these falls were not as big as Bald River Falls in terms of sheer volume. But Bald River Falls in Cherokee, being right by a parking lot, can be pretty crowded. It doesn’t have the romance of being alone, kissing and holding the one you love while hearing the water crash down.

Please note: I do not guarantee hikers will be alone here. It may have just been the late time we were there. Don’t sue me if it’s crowded, please!

A much smaller waterfall, nameless and not on the park map greeted us before we finally made it back to the trail head. After crossing a bridge, we walked back along the road, taking the park road back to our car, passing tents, picnic areas and playgrounds and chatting about plans for future camping trips. The park, especially these playgrounds has a great nostalgia factor for me, even if the current playgrounds replaced older ones in their places. As a child we came here often. And I look forward to many more trips here.

Frozen Head: North Old Mac and Spicewood trails


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Old, metal, standing in the middle of a mountain which makes it seem taller, all of that ready to make anyone afraid of heights even a little nervous. But it’s one of the best if not the best view Frozen Head State Park  has to offer.

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People call it the “fire tower” although its really an observation deck that replaced an old one about a decade ago.

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Not much to look at but a lot to look from.

The grayish shapes of mountains all around give a sense of just how amazing the Cumberlands can be and just how much “plateau” might seem a bad name for hills that do stretch on in places but at times jump up and down like a rounded roller-coster track getting bluish and hazy into the distance on all sides, even stretching into a view of the far more famous Great Smokies. It’s one of the few places you can see all around you. I look forward to seeing it again throughout the year.
There are many ways to the fire tower.
November in the Cumberlands which is when I visited is what some people might call drab. No icicles, the colored leaves only on a few of the trees, few evergreen plants at least on these trails. But the glory is the ability to see not just at overlooks but also glimpses through the trees, both of what’s further up and also what’s below. Now in March you can still see those kind of glimpses.

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My sister Jessie at an overlook before the big one. Photo courtesy of Judith Roitman.

Just to give you a good general map including the distances of what I’ll describe next, here’s one. The trails all have at least some connection to them, so if you get lost missed your route, it’s good to know the closest route to your destination may not involve backtracking.
Of course, I your intrepid guide never get lost. Except this time and plenty of other times. But I’ll get around to getting lost when it happened.
I left with Yvonne, Mom, Dad, my sister Jessie and my dog Zeke on Black Friday.
All the routes, or at least most of the obvious ones, to the firetower begin at the old mac trailhead, near a picnic area complemented by a playground (complete with plastic drums) and a small pond.
From there begins the Old Mac trail with the North Old Mac trail splitting off to the right. That was the route we took. Like any mountain hike it’s not exactly for beginners although it’s not the worst mountain on earth in terms of difficulty either. We then turned right on Lookout Tower Trail and continued on to the tower itself.

I did get separated from the others and lost on the way back, accidentally ending up on Chimney Top Trail but was able to consult my phone in an odd spot of reception and head back down in the dim light on Spicewood Trail, then a small piece of the Judge Branch Trail back to to the entrance trail and the picnic area and playground. In general, making a loop gives the route some variety anyway. The total route is about 8.3 miles.

Little Ponderosa Zoo


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Jack, a kangaroo at the Little Ponderosa Zoo and Rescue.  Photo by Yvonne Rogers

I wish I had some better reason to tell you about Little Ponderosa Zoo and Rescue. But no, I was there, petting animals, taking pictures, looking at zebus and zonkeys and getting spit on by a camel because of a memorial service for animals lost in a fire. I was there at my day job reporting for The Oak Ridger. The zoo’s founder, James Cox told me and other reporters the zoo would not open until spring. But if you want a small zoo with animals you can pet and feed, the place is superb and one of Clinton, Tennessee’s more unusual attractions. Don’t expect it to be big like the Knoxville Zoo, but it is fun.

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Bald River Falls in Winter


IMG_0321.JPGI could never create this. I could never make this up.

IMG_0316This is Bald Creek Falls in Cherokee National Forest transformed into glorious columns of ice with a few streams of water still left to remind us of what the falls had once been.

IMG_0318.JPGIt drew crowds, forcing us to walk up the road. After all, we’re Tennesseeans. Ice is a novelty to us.

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But the frozen falls was glorious, and so was the trail nearby. Stay tuned. More wintry photos of Cherokee National Forest. are on the way.