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: Brushy Mountain


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.

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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, strenuous 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. It could try to be serious instead.

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.