Farragut, Tenn.


An bright orange T-Rex stands in Farragut at a miniature golf course. It’s not a jolly, Barney type dinosaur. Instead he has pained eyes on the edge of tears and a wincing frown as he leans on his bone cane, as though he know’s the asteroid’s going to hit and his time is up. I like him, oddly, even if I don’t recall ever playing miniature golf there.

He seems out of place. While it has two miniature golf courses and plenty of children’s activities, Farragut is not a town of silly tourist traps and roadside nonsense.

Rather, it’s suburbia with no apologies: the precise kind of affluent “respectable” houses no one my age wants because we want to spend what tiny money we have on technology instead. And yet there is resistance in Farragut to apartments or even retirement homes, as I was able to see. Little pretty not-pink houses are the rule in Farragut. In other words, to me it comes off as a dinosaur itself. It’s what our parents and grandparents wanted.

But before the people of Farragut get mad at me, I realize that’s wrong to consider the town a dinosaur. Farragut continues to draw in people. The Chamber of Commerce in Oak Ridge, my current town which I prefer, view it as a threat, pulling away potential residents.

There are two kinds of places a travel writer can write about. There’s the popular destinations: Disney World, New York City, Paris, The Grand Canyon. The stuff everybody knows to go see. You stand there and feel like you’re in a three dimensional postcard, only with real wind blowing around you. Everybody knows this is the place to stand, to sit, to walk, to live!

Then there’s the towns around the blue highways that the great and awesomely named William Least-Heat Moon wrote about. The out of way places, and especially, their unique scrumptious or bizarre food you can claim to have discovered at their diners and restaurants. Plant your flag. You can declare yourself the discoverer. No one else noticed this place before. Doesn’t it feel good?

But seriously, what about places like Farragut? Writers don’t go wild about those ones. Right off the interstate, some decent shopping and restaurants, but nothing anybody goes out of their way to see. And yet it haunts me. Because I had to cover that town often. I got some pretty mixed feelings about it. So I’m writing about this just to get my thoughts out there.

I was stuck covering Farragut for “FarragutPress” because it was my job at that local paper. My editor really wanted me to specialize in things entirely within the town boundaries.

But what are those town boundaries? No one really seemed to know them. Signs didn’t mark them. And the most interesting places in town, like Concord Park or the Pinnacle movie theater were actually outside of town. Many people who lived in Farragut worked elsewhere and people who worked in Farragut lived elsewhere. Knox County Sheriff’s Office provides law enforcement. Lenoir City Utilities Board provides some of the utilities. Knox County also provided the schools and library system. Even the town hall’s receptionist’s desk has pictures of downtown Knoxville behind it.

The town was inhabited in the 19th Century and has one pre-Civil War building,  Campbell Station Inn. But the town, as a town was founded in 1980, in an attempt to avoid paying property taxes to Knoxville. Most of what’s there is pretty recent. My editor there received a call once blaming a threat to that city’s high school on bused in outsiders, something which seems rich given how everyone there is an outsider.

The town desperately wants more of its own identity, the way that older ones have. I sat in on meetings in which its Planning Commission struggled to make a short strip mall with a Starbucks look like a historic downtown. Starbucks wasn’t interested in playing along. Because it’s Starbucks. The exhibitionist mermaid knows no boss. I left the paper before I could learn how that shopping center turned out.

At the time I stayed as an objective journalist, trying to please my adopted town. But now I laugh at their attempt at an old timey Starbucks and furthermore their attempt to trick the public they were older than 1980. At the same time, I understand that desire. A local identity is important. Seeing Farragut struggle to create one made me realize just how powerful a local identity and history can be. To be fair most attempts at a local identity tend to pretend to be older than they are, be they mock-Greek, mock-Roman, mock-Medieval or mock-Mayberry.

Indeed Farragut’s own identity is in some ways quite unique and fascinating, and not at all the history people from other parts of the country would expect. Its statue of Admiral Farragut is one of the few Civil War statues Knox County has, and he fought for the north. He was born near present-day Farragut, long before it was a town. Tennesseeans here in the East were quite divided during that war.

That Starbucks dispute was hardly the only one that I saw which would make outsiders giggle about as first world problems. During another meeting, the citizens who lived behind the famous Turkey Creek development piled in to complain about garbage trucks running too early in the morning. A public housing resident laughed when I told her that story.

Of course, avoiding more serious problems isn’t exactly a bad thing.  Except for us journalists, no one really looks forward to things going really wrong. Indeed, Farragut has at least one thing to admire: through it’s homeowners associations, citizens have a way of organizing outside of government and bringing any issue, no matter how small, to its attention. They have a strength for community organizing of which Barrack Obama could only dream. Every once in a while though, I wish these people would have been more grateful for what they had.

The town has many hidden strengths. West Bicycles remains among my favorite places for bike repairs. The town has a good number of parks, pedestrian and cycling routes, most hidden a bit off the beaten path, but some like Mayor Bob Leonard Park, below, close to main routes.

However much I might mock certain people in Farragut, I have found most of its people quite friendly, whether at Rotary or Optimist Club. I do at times miss those folks and look forward to seeing them again whenever I can.

Farragut is overall an excellent town for the people who live there. It’s just not for me. I prefer my 1940s-era apartment in Oak Ridge with a park nearby that I don’t need to mow. I don’t need a lawn. I have strange but seemingly significant history all around me: an identity that while controversial is an identity that doesn’t have to be manufactured by making a Starbucks look old.* Besides, I’m close to Frozen Head, the Haw Ridge Trails and the Obed Wild and Scenic River and some excellent local restaurants here that Farragut and its charms don’t really hold much sway on me. I don’t want a place to settle down. I want places to explore. And that’s why Farragut’s not for me.

*It’s the site of uranium enrichment for the Manhattan Project. I’ll probably get more into that later.

 

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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, 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.

Eclipse near the Devil’s Step


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Yvonne Rogers, my other half, puts on her glasses to view the eclipse at Head of Sequachie.

I’m jealous of the eclipse. Why does it have to grab all the attention? Why? Did the moon spend years of its life writing a book called Wildly Strolling Along about the wonders of the Cumberland Trail State Park and the touching bonding experiences between an adult son and his amazing botanist father? Did the sun? Didn’t think so.

Anyway…

The sun wasn’t a blinding circle. For a moment, a black circle stood in its place, surrounded by white glowing loops, plasma in magnetic fields. For those few glasses-off minutes, the sky was a dim blue, neither day nor night. I was happy to be a rare member of the generation that saw it.

And in a few hours, I would feel jealous of that natural phenomenon, the total eclipse of the sun.

I was scheduled to speak at 3 p.m. The eclipse was at 1 p.m. While plenty of earlier events at Head of Sequachie got decent crowds, the ones afterwards? Not so much.

I remember standing there, looking at all these crowds, before the eclipse thinking: This has to be my big break. Who knows? Maybe they were here to see me. This was my chance.

Nope. It was the eclipse. Only a once in a lifetime event. Only the great dance of the Cosmos. Woop-de-do. I had a book! And a slideshow about the Cumberland Trail! Isn’t that more amazing?

Only five people came to my talk and only one person bought my book, Wildly Strolling Along. Which is an excellent work, but apparently did not grab any attention. I also had my books at the Cumberland Trails Conference table, but only one person bought one.
I don’t have any pictures of the eclipse. Why would I? So many people could do it better. But my day at Head of Sequachie was more than just those couple of minutes. The area is only open on a few days of the year.

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The head of the Sequachie River.

The area is, as its name implies at the head of the Sequachie River, as it leaves the ground in a channel that at one point was connected to a now nonexistent mill according to one of the rangers present, although the present walls along the channel are not the original ones.

On such a hot day it’s cool water was refreshing. I waded among children with their state park-service provided nets. They pulled in sculpins, crawdads and even a young, harmless water snake.

As a side note, crawdad is the scientifically accurate name. They are not craw or cray fish because they are not fish. They’re crustaceans. Happy to settle that debate.

A short trail, marked by bird glyph designs, leads to what signs stated was a sacred cave to the area’s ancient and modern indigenous peoples. The area is known as Devilstep Hollow Cave a name that seems like an insult to native beliefs, but one that seems pretty widespread, so I’m using it. The cave has various ancient carvings in its walls and drawings in charcoal and mud, none of it visible to the public. And that’s for the best, because no one really needs “Bob was here” or something more obscene next to some old, sacred carvings. But when the area’s open, you can still see the entrance, deep in a sinkhole.

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Devilstep Hollow Cave.

I hiked the trail twice, once with my mom, dad (who presented with me later) and girlfriend, and then as part of an interpretive trip with a ranger. While it was supposed to be a birding trip, we only spotted a distant vulture and a small hummingbird. A dung beetle grabbed the children’s attention, however. The area also had various summer wildflowers.
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Various other presenters had tents in the area as well. People shot arrows, made arrowheads, played old time music and engaged children in crafts.

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A beaver skin at center at the TWRA demonstration tent during the eclipse event.

I’ve just scraped the surface of history both human and natural of this area which is near Crossville. But I’ll be happy to return, with or without an eclipse. And the sun and moon can know I’ll get over my jealousy.  Some time.

Cades Cove


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Meadow in Cade’s Cove

With its fields surrounded by mountains, its trails, both very long and very short, its campground, its old buildings, including cemeteries, its bike shop and its sometimes wildlife, Cade’s Cove has lots going for it. It’s one of the few places with the kind of open scenery people crave, apart from the mountain tops.

What it doesn’t have is solitude.

Visitors to Cade’s Cove should expect crowds and traffic, even if my pictures don’t show it. Moving slow through a field amid mountains isn’t the worst thing on Earth though. Far from it. It’s actually amazing.  But people who want to get away from traffic jams and crowds? You’ve got the wrong place. Cade’s Cove isn’t an escape from other people, at least not in summer. It’s kind of like rush hour in Los Angeles, if Los Angeles was a field surrounded by lovely rounded mountains.

But that’s just it. Being stuck in beautiful scenery is glorious, at least to me. I may have just lost my Great Smoky Mountains hipster cred for loving a place that’s so well-traveled, but I still love it. There’s a part of me with restless legs that gets tired of being stuck in a car. But given how great my last trip there was in terms of scenery wildlife and just general beauty, I’m happy I went.

The area’s roads connect to many trails, some longer, some just short paths near cabins. As I was traveling with less long-walk inclined folks, my last trip there stuck entirely to the former.

Here are a few highlights of my last trip earlier this year. It’s not everything to see there, but I can always go back.

I will warn you the wildlife photos from the trip may not be the best. I’m the sort of person who will give wildlife a proper respectful distance. Unless it’s frogs. So just imagine what bear and turkeys look like. You probably know what bears and turkeys are.

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These distant birds are turkeys. Take my word for it. We saw them in May, and I’ve seen them on other trips in the Great Smoky Mountains and the Cumberlands.
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John Oliver Cabin

Above is the John Oliver cabin, no relation to the HBO comedian. John Oliver fought in the war of 1812, arrived in 1818 with the present cabin finished in 1820. The 1.4 mile fairly-level trail to this point is just the start of a far more foot-busting 8.5 mile hike, the 8.5 mile Rich Mountain Loop.

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As a short little stroll, the John Oliver Cabin route has much to recommend it, with an alternate route in the shade, shown below, and a route through a field, offering views of the surrounding mountains as in the first image on this blog.

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The shaded route to the John Oliver cabin.

The meadow was, in May, also a good place to spot butterflies.

Back in the car, we drove to Cade’s Cove Primitive Baptist Church, where John Oliver is buried. It’s on a bit of a side road.  We happened on good luck there, however, in that a bear was nearby.

Black bears often stop traffic in the Smokies in what are called “bear jams,” and this one was no exception. They’re the kind of cute, furry creatures that attract the kind of idiots who think they’re harmless and want to take selfies really close to them. Fortunately for me, I’m not one of those people. I prefer not to be torn to bloody bits. Unfortunately for you, that means you’ll have to make do with this mysterious shadow bear rather than something brighter. If you don’t know what a black bear looks like there’s always Google.

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This is a bear. Take my word for it.

Cade’s Cove is not a zoo. Animals don’t just show up to entertain you. So I suggest relaxing. You may see a bear. You may not. You may get a good picture. You may not. Enjoy what you see. Don’t expect it, and it may come.

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Primitive Baptist Church

I do not mean “Primitive” here as an insult. There are many kinds of Baptists and Primitive just means they consider themselves the original ones in their denomination as opposed to Missionary Baptists.
I appreciate Oliver’s grave’s honesty about John Oliver’s role and not ignoring the people who were in the area before him. It lists him as the “First permanent, white settler in the area, italics mine. Cemeteries like the one here make it clear how early people died back in those days too.
Here are some other cabins, barns and structures we saw while in Cade’s Cove.
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‘The Busy Body’ at Clarence Brown


It’s the story of two women escaping arranged marriages through trickery on both their and their actually desired husbands’ part and the random man who gets involved because he doesn’t want to be out of the loop. “The Busy Body” manages to be farcical without getting as complicated as this type of comedy can get. Then again, I did have a guide to the different characters.

Susanna Centlivre wrote The Busy Body: A Comedy in 1709. It can be tricky for a novice, or even just a nonnative speaker to 18th century language to always get the flow of what’s going on. It worked because it was funny. The broadness, the silly characters, it often worked.

Yet this is a play of its time and funny to us now, perhaps because it’s separate from our everyday lives. It’s a play about the abuses of arranged marriage, something that was actually real at the time, even if it was played with exaggeration and ended with an ending typical of this type of comedies from ancient Greece onward.

The play’s moral seems all the more relevant to us, because we know how terrible that old system of women as pure property could be and how we can now see past it.

 

Inherit the Wind


I recently saw the movie Inherit the Wind. Inherit the Wind is a movie based on a play which was based loosely on the Scopes “Monkey” Trial in Dayton Tennessee, in which a man went on trial for teaching about the evolution of humans from other animals.

I say loosely because all of the characters’ names are changed except for the single bit part of a boy named Howard and offstage characters like Charles Darwin. Even the town’s name is changed to Hillsborough. No matter how many lines and scenes got taken from the trial’s transcript, the play is a work of fiction with some characters invented completely. My upcoming book Ben and Larry in Cumberland will mention the Scopes trial, but won’t say much about Inherit the Wind, the play or the film. After all, the last thing I want to do is confuse readers with three different parallel universes.

The main issue that relates the trial to my book’s focus, the Cumberland Trail, is Dayton’s flagging coal industry. Coal doesn’t even figure into the movie or the play, which makes sense. Inspired by the House Un-American Activities committee, the movie is about the right to hold differing opinions, or as the movie puts it “The Right to be Wrong.”

What strikes me about the play and movie is not their relation to the era in which they were written and produced: The fifties and early sixties. When movies dealt with serious issues back then, they did so with optimism and full conviction. Inherit the Wind has characters making powerful speeches about science, education and open-mindedness. More recent movies about serious issues like Crash and Syriana have been more cynical. I do not know which approach is better.

Nothing and Everything


I stayed at the house of a former SAF intern’s mother. The road leaving our neighborhood crossed with another road. That road means more to me every time I think about it. In one direction: The interstate, the city of Columbia, and the new offices of South Carolina Primary Health Care, where I volunteered for the Migrant Health Project. People sat at their desks there in suits, dresses, and ties. Bars, fitness clubs, restaurants, and music clubs were all in that direction.

Columbia was a place of power. The State House stood there, with long sets of steps and tall columns.

Along its sides stood monuments which told an official version of state history. There were monuments to the confederate dead, and to Strom Thurmond. Other monuments  showed African-Americans’ long history from slaves in the fields of indigo, to achievements in the present day. Our landlady, Jennet, told us that in the other direction was “nothing.” For her, as for most people in Columbia it was nothing. It was more suburbs.Then it was sprawling fields of peaches, corn, cucumbers, tomatoes, and plants city people couldn’t tell apart from each other.

The change was nowhere near as sudden as it sounds. The countryside was not a wasteland. Big farms had offices and receptionists. Farmers and ran their fields like factories, only with hotter and tougher work.

The country was more random than the city. Downtown for one town was an old-fashioned-looking block of brick buildings that happened to include a Mexican popsicle store. In another town, the “center” of town seemed to be a white Victorian-style house serving as the office for an IGA store.

It could rain one minute out there, the next minute dust could be blowing around. The workers lived just in just about every arrangement one could think of: trailers, cinder houses, even log cabins in one place.The land was flat, but by the end of that summer, I could not see it as “nothing.” For many of the people I met there, it was everything, or at least everything that they saw of South Carolina.

People who had come from far away to work the land often had no way to drive anywhere else and no reason to do so. To them, the lights of Columbia and the steps of the capital were a faint rumor, if they were anything.