Natural Bridge, Va


Its massive 215 foot stone arch looms over the path below with its rows of benches. Birds nest inside it, and crowds pass below it on Sunday, giving it a sense of scale, while trees grow above and around. The James River passes below.

Natural Bridge
Natural Bridge with a few humans for scale.

It’s $6 to get onto the small trail system and you never get the feeling you’re out in unexplored territory, but rather just at a natural wonder that happens to be well developed as a tourist hot spot, kind of like Niagara Falls only a bit less built up and a different type of natural wonder.

While you can’t jump in the river, at least not at this point, the rocky shade of the arch itself itself provides a place to cool off from, what was in late July when we visited, sweltering heat.

The Monacan Nation lived here before Europeans came, a which only got federal recognition as a “tribe” last year. At present, just past the arch some wigwams, a garden, a trading area and craft areas give a chance for interpreters to explain about how the Monacans lived in the 17th century. I spent my time there asking about details of bead-making and the sea-shell trade between coastal and inland groups (including the clams used for wampum) and a demonstration of conch-shell blowing as well as cooking, food storage and wigwam protection against bears.

I overhead another interpreter behind me was going into depth about the full-history of the siouxan-language group of which the Monacans are a part, including far more recent and sadder stories further west like Custer and even the recent Standing Rock. That’s part of the site’s appeal: the interpreters can answer any kind of questions.

Thomas Jefferson, the later third US president, owned this land at one point in 1774, with staff at the gift shop telling me that he bought it from his later enemy King George III of England. For much of its history since then, it functioned as a private tourist attraction. As a side note it strikes me how different Virginia tourist architecture looks from its East-Tennessee equivalent. Virginia rest-stops, restaurants and local hotels often try to look like Montechello with bricks and white columns compared to the log cabin architecture they have in East Tennessee. This is true of the gift-shop, restaurant and small nature exhibit area that greets visitors to the site too.

The area still has a general Gatlinburg-y quality, with a zoo, a safari park, caverns and a dinosaur attraction, none of which we had time to visit and none of which were on the main trail. The Virginia state park service actually had to remove a foam replica of Stonehenge from the land it now manages.

Instead of silly replicas of English landmarks or exotic animals, the park’s trail, after passing the arch instead goes along a stream before ending at a waterfall, passing some historical and nature related displays, including a saltpeter cave. As it was summer, we could see butterflies fluttering near the stream.

The spectacle-for-tourists heritage of the area though is still charmingly present. Signs told us of a light show called the “Drama of Creation” performed after dark and dating back to the time of Calvin Coolidge. The signs claimed the presentation isn’t affiliated with the State Park, which makes sense as it uses text from the book of Genesis and might be interpreted as going against separation of church and state.

But I for one can appreciate the grandeur of creation just fine with the natural evening light. While we did have to leave to head back to Tennessee, it was hard to leave.

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Rugby, TN: utopia abandoned


The height of summer seems like a perfect time for visits to the Gentleman’s Swimming Hole. I’ve written about it, calling it “too perfect.” And indeed I still stand by that description. Rugby has many trails, which to me are the main attraction in town. I recently visited to look at wildflowers this April.

Church at Rugby
Rugby’s Episcopalian Church.

But I’ve realized I’ve never covered Rugby itself at length.

 

Rugby Printing Shop
Rugby Printing Shop

The town, at present, consists of a few craft stores, some homes and some historical buildings, including the old library, and a church. The architecture is an understated version of Victorian, meaning it’s not really showy in terms of color or even Victorian flourishes like towers. But some buildings have their charm. And since it doesn’t look at all like other Tennessee’s small towns it stands out.

The video at the top of this post goes through the history. A popular 19th Century author, Thomas Hughes, author of “Tom Brown’s School Days” intended the town as a utopian community for high-born sons who failed to inherit their families’ fortunes.

But these aristocrats failed at farming and the town floundered before being revived, more recently, as a sleepy, out-of-the-way town, with stores selling local crafts.

As a side note, Hughes named Rugby after a private school (or “public school”) he attended which is also the setting of his book and the origin of the game Rugby. Tom Brown’s School Days was an influential book back in its day, but nowadays is only remembered here in the US as a possible inspiration for “Harry Potter” and that probably only by people who read Wikipedia.

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My own book Wildly Strolling Along: Father Son Nature Adventures on Tennessee’s Cumberland Trail has a new home on the brick and mortar shelves of two stores there: the . While the book is not about Rugby, it is about the plants and animals of the Cumberland Plateau and you can learn quite a bit about some of the things you might see in the surrounding trails before heading out on them.

Harrow Road Cafe

Harrow Road Cafe

Rugby has exactly one restaurant: Harrow Road Café. After a rainy hike, some hot tea there was exactly what I needed.

The restaurant does have some burgers and pasta, but also, in keeping with its location, some English dishes such as fish and chips. It also riffs on English food at times, such as with its fisherman’s pie, like Shepheard’s pie but with fish.

Me? I went with the blackened catfish Salsalita salad, complete with pico, which I enjoyed.

Great Smoky Mountains: Cucumber Gap Loop.


A Smokies gallery of icicles
A smokies gallery of icicles.

As winter continues, I look back at the many-icicle strewn hikes I’ve taken through evergreen rhododendrons in the Great Smoky Mountains. Icicles are a glorious part of winter in the Smokies. Ice is rare here in Tennessee, but that makes its formations, in places where water drips over rocks, more special.

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Icicles form on water dripping over rocks.

Here is my story on Cucumber Gap Loop in the Elkmont Area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, nearly three years ago, in 2017. As usual, the News Sentinel can only scratch the surface of the pictures I took for the story. Here are some more views of the area.

First, we started out in Elkmont, which was at the time full of old abandoned vacation homes, no longer open, but one of the places where people first contemplated the park that would surround them.  I have not returned since 2017 and don’t know how many are still standing, but here they are, abandoned. It’s not the most popular set of cabins for photos, but indeed an out of towner “discovering” the town made headlines at Huffington Post to which a Knoxville TV station responded “We didn’t know it was missing.” To be fair, the word “discover” has multiple meanings. I continue to discover new things here in Tennessee and the Smokies.

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Beyond Elkmont is the natural charm of the Cucumber Gap Loop, with small, but beautiful waterfalls and the “sights and sound” of streams. Be warned you’ll have to cross one of them, but if you’re careful, even in the winter, everything should be all right. Overall, it was a quiet place to spend a winter day in the Smokies. Here’s a slideshow of some highlights, but you should go out and enjoy the route for yourself.

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Moonshine: America’s first drug war


We romanticize it. We make shows like “Dukes of Hazard” and films and songs like “Thunder Road.” I’ve heard old timers telling campfire tales of their liquor running adventures. We also ridicule it. We show cartoon hicks running around with bottles that show off strings of xs that later generations associate more with porn.

Nowadays in places like Gatlinburg, “moonshine” just means “unaged wiskey for tourists.” They have tasting rooms for flavored ‘shines. I’m not complaining. It’s a distinctive experience and I hope it’s more than just a fad. It makes Gatlinburg different from every other Ripley’s developed collection of roadside attractions.

Old Smoky Moonshine
Still, if it’s from a legal tax paying business, that just makes it … whiskey. But nice marketing.

For more on this issue, you can read what some people in the industry have to say here.

Even in the 1950s, long after prohibition, rural sheriffs considered it a serious matter to enforce liquor taxes. And moonshiners hid in under cover of forest in the mountains.

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The ruins of what might have been a distilling operation in Prentice Cooper.

During my 2012 hikes that inspired my book “Wildly Strolling Along” I remember seeing what might have been distilling-related ruins in Prentice Cooper State Forest near Chattanooga, probably related to the black market liquor industry.

Later on in the trail’s Soddy section, a hiking companion described a rusty truck we passed as a “hoopee,” a moonshine running truck.

Hoopee
A possible hoopee or car used for running bootleg liquor.

The book includes a short sidebar on Moonshine, which actually was at the request of my grandmother.

But I’m no archaeologist. I can’t recognize an illicit whisky operation from any other truck stuck in the woods or collection of pipes and barrel ribs that could just be for water for all my suburban mind knows. And I certainly can’t sort everything out by when it was from.

Given, I even confused a coke oven for a mine entrance in the book, and that was involving the legal coal industry, I can’t think of how bad I’d bee at identifying illegal stuff.

Mariah Prescott a trail builder for the recently opened Richie Hollow Trail recently told The Chattanooga Times Free Press about her wish for signs to highlight some of Prentice Cooper State Forest’s moonshine ruins.

Is it at all worthwhile to remember mere profit-seeking criminals? Especially when there is still an unpopular war on drugs, just different drugs?

I think so. If we can get past marketing gimmicks, silly caricatures and the like and dive into actual history, we’ll have a fuller picture of the past, the present and the future. History isn’t just about battles. Sometimes it’s about booze.

The Scopes Trial was about money


Scopes and Rappleyea
Photo from Smithsonian Institution Scopes, left and Rappleyea, right, apparently on their way to a Harry Potter convention.

I did not originally want this blog to be about religion. Or about politics. But I’ve found that I’ve written a book that intrudes on both of those without being about either. Wildly Strolling Along: Father Son Nature Adventures on Tennessee’s Cumberland Trail is a memoir of hiking with my Dad. But in researching the Laurel Snow trails, I hit on something regarding an event people love to site: The Scopes Trial. And along with much else, the book will give you a great overview on the real reasons that trial happened.

There are two versions of the Scopes trial, in which a man was convicted of teaching evolution, a crime at the time. There’s one story promoted by people who know history, and the other by people who want to promote either science or religion and love simplified narratives.

People imagine history as being simplified play of ideas bashing each other over the head. That’s a myth, and I should know it as should others. There are people and personal egos. There is land and resources. There’s that constant thing people always talk about and act about: money.

As a side note, completely unrelated to money, my book, available on Amazon is an excellent guide to the plants and animals of Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau as well as a quirky father-son bonding story. Get yours today!

OK, so some of the proceeds will go to me, while some will go to the Cumberland Trail Conference, which maintains the trail. But I was posting the above to point out just how much money has to do with things that are supposedly just about ideas.

I’ll admit, in my book, there was an error confusing a mine entrance visible from Laurel-Snow Pocket Wilderness with a coke oven. I have this on the authority of Bob Fulcher and other Cumberland Trail State Park staff. But it was that mining company that led to the trial happening. That’s something you usually don’t see in textbooks.

Karl Marx, however much else he might have gotten wrong, at least understood that money motivates conflicts. But now we get even supposed Marxists, writing whole articles where the role of Dayton’s mining and other businesses gets no mention at all.

To paraphrase William Jennings Bryan at the trial, people don’t think about the things they don’t think about.

I believe in evolution. The scientific evidence supports it. I do not, however, believe the account of the Scopes Trial people assume is true. And plus, the parts of the story that always gets cropped out of the trial story involves copperhead bites, mine explosions, people with names like George Washington Rappleyea and an Englishman named Titus Salt. Shouldn’t all that also be part of the story?

Anyway, here’s the myth:

  1. The Tennessee General Assembly made the Butler Act prohibiting the teaching that people were descended from other animals and expected to enforce it.
  2. The people of Dayton were genuinely mad at John Scopes for teaching about evolution and the trial was their idea.
  3. Dayton was an isolated pre-industrial rural town.
  4. The trial failed as a publicity stunt.

Here’s the truth:

  1. The Butler Act was one of the least thought through pieces of legislation ever written as there were no Creationist textbooks at the time. By default teachers had to use evolutionist ones.
  2. A mining engineer native to New York was stuck in town due to a copperhead bite and became the head of a struggling mining company, saw an ad from the ACLU offering to represent anyone convicted under the law. He promoted the idea to other local business leaders who agreed. They asked Scopes if he’d be a defendant and he agreed too. He never testified and never went to jail, because really, the trial wasn’t about him. What was it about? Here’s what F.E. Robinson, a drug store owner at the time said.

“Dayton would be woefully remiss in her duty to herself not to grasp this hour of her lime-light incandescence and make of it an occasion for self-aggrandizement with some incontrovertible facts about her products and natural resources.”

  1. Dayton like much of Appalachia at that time was actually an industrial coal mining and coke oven area, admittedly one on its last legs, due to those mine explosions. It was founded by an Englishman named Titus Salt.
  2. Thanks to the trial, the town got Bryan College, so it didn’t fail.

Artist’s Bluff, Franconia Notch State Park


IMG_20180718_192343271_HDR.jpgArtist’s Bluff, particularly the less than .5 miles just the bluff, is not that far a walk  but it has everything: grayish cliffs! Mountains of green trees! A bright blue lake! And that most scenic of things, an interstate!

I-93 from Artist's Bluff
I-93 from Artist’s Bluff, in the literal shadow of a much greater spectacle of mountains.

It’s another odd thing writing about hikes and National Parks. There are people like Bill Bryson in “A Walk in the Woods” who whine about being out in the woods too far away from any farms or villages — unlike in Europe — and want some human habitation for perspective. And then there’s people like Edward Abbey who demand that not a single car touch their perfect parks.

And then in the middle there’s me, an admirer of both writers, who just sits back and looks at that little shoelace of pavement I-93 with its hot wheels cars and trucks. They go by in the shadow of the mountains around them, dwarfed by the mountains that drew artists lugging their canvasses here almost a century ago. Neither they nor the ski slopes really steal from the area’s natural beauty that have brought people here for centuries.

Trail to Artist's Bluff
This is part of the actual trail.

Ladies in their frilly dresses climbed here. That’s at least what my guidebook told me, although imagining them on such a steep and rocky trail seems nonsensical. But even back then artists appreciated these views. Here’s a few comparisons of then and now.

Many people, people who are not trying to cram this hike in near sundown like I was, go on to Bald Mountain or stop at the bluff on their way down. Also, the nearby Echo Lake is a good way to cool off, again, if you’re visiting at a different time of day. For me though I have no regrets. Artist’s Bluff is a place to enjoy at your own pace.

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New Hampshire’s Old Man of the Mountain


The Old Man of the Mountain
Photo by Wikimedia Commons

“We humans are a self centered race. We see ourselves in everything. We assign identities and emotions where none exist. And we remake our world in our own image.” -Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics.

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You see him everywhere in New Hampshire and elsewhere representing the state. Highway signs. The state commemorative quarter. Thongs.

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Photo by Cafepress, just to prove I’m not making that up.

But the one place you don’t see him: On the actual mountain.

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Cannon Mountain, 2018. Photo by me.

The devotion people have to this set of ledges, a natural formation resembling a face, first recorded in 1805 is touching, in its own way. It’s not large when viewed from below and only visible from a certain angle. But it looked human. And to visitors that was what mattered.

Thanks to writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Daniel Webster though, who both wrote about it, and the natural desire to identify with things that look like us, people loved that face as though it was an actual person. In 1958 people tried to hold it up with steel rods and turnbuckles.

But in 2003 after years of being stuck on a mountain and unable to live free, the old man died. I had looked at him many times. But now I can’t.

The ledges crumbled, as ledges tend to do, despite many efforts to preserve the monument. Much of the country didn’t notice. After all, the Iraq war was starting that same year.

But people loved the old man and, they couldn’t just let it go unmarked.  Indeed you can still see The Old Man, but not as a rock. Instead, it’s a shape on a metal post, visible up there through a trick in perspective at Profile Plaza, as shown in these photos I took on site.

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I told you it was small from below.
Profile Plaza
Profile Plaza, all photos by me unless indicated otherwise.

Some people may wonder what all the fuss is about. But even without the Old man, the other less humanoid cliffs and mountains surrounding the area, visible nearby on the Franconia Notch Bike Path are magnificent. More on that later.

Mount Lafayette
The same bike path as The Old Man, not too far from it, a view of Mount Lafayette.