Pickett State Park, or isolation


Alone, walking.

IMG_0243
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.

IMG_0251
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!

IMG_0259.JPG

 

Advertisements

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.

Brushy Mountain
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.

martin_luther_king2c_jr
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.

330px-james_earl_ray
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.

Frost flowers aren’t litter


26231191_1301677016645286_5841089887967823170_n

26112001_1301678886645099_2371429304114258081_n
An ice flower in Loudon, Tennessee. This and other photo by Yvonne Rogers, the best girlfriend ever and not bad at photography either.

White clumps decorate the basses of blades of dried grass. Sometimes I passed them wondering if they were trash.
They’re not. They’re one of nature’s glorious temporary sculptures.
The weather channel calls them “rare and ellusive” in spite of just how many I’ve seen this winter near my Loudon Home. Delicate, spiraling, often with the texture of cotton candy but made of stringy ice. The water from the stems of plans leaks out, then freezes. If you’re in Tennessee or nearby right now, look for them.
26168047_1301668516646136_4148414721012080745_n

I love Gatlinburg! Come at me.


People call it tacky, a tourist trap, garish, overrated, commercial, lowest common denominatory. And I will nod my head and say, “Yeah. So?” I love it that way. And I hope it never leaves us, no matter how many fires it endures.

“This is a roadside attraction,’ said Wednesday. ‘One of the finest. Which means it is a place of power.’”

-Neil Gaiman, American Gods.

I’ve known it since I was young. We never really spent much time there. It was always a way into the park and a place to eat afterward, but never really our destination. My mother found Ober Gatlinburg’s ski resort to be overpriced for lessons which she wanted to offer me herself, although as an adult I’ve grown to appreciate that place’s slopes, terrain park and everything else more and more.

As for the rest of it, as a kid, I found the weird animatronics outside of a haunted attraction back then creepy and the other ones were just weird. The whole place generally surreal and foreign to me, with its airbrushed t-shirts and samurai swords. The aquarium though, which I encountered as a teenager, was beautiful, although not as original or unified an idea as the one in Chattanooga.

As an adult, I mock everything freely there in my head and to my girlfriend as I’ve walked by, especially on my last few visits. Tiny Gatlinburg Bible Museum with Arc of the Covenant? So that’s where they took it after that warehouse. Although that’s closed now, so I can’t make that joke anymore. Oh well. The World of Illusions? People don’t seem to like it, but at least it has Doc Brown with nipple clamps visible from outside.  Though, speaking of nipples, that exterior can’t compete with the one the Batman Forever Batmobile crashed into at Hollywood Star Cars, which apparently has cars from just about every blockbuster film ever. I should probably visit some time.

And while The Village features old world charm, it also features my lame attempts at making M. Night Shyamalan jokes.

“It’s perfectly simple,” said Wednesday. “In other countries, over the years, people recognized the places of power. Sometimes it would be a natural formation, sometimes it would just be a place that was, somehow, special. They knew that something important was happening there, that there was some focusing point, some channel, some window to the Immanent. And so they would build temples or cathedrals, or erect stone circles, or…well, you get the idea.” -Neil Gaiman American Gods.

Oh, and then there’s all the places selling corn liquor in all kinds of flavors and with tasting counters like in California’s wine country, rather ingeniously called “moonshine” for the tourists, even though it’s legal. Real moonshine, of course, has no health standards and sometimes includes dead pickled squirrels. This stuff doesn’t. But it is fun to get wasted beneath the mountains and there’s plenty of sidewalk room for walking back to avoid any DUI problems.

The place lacks a certain variety even of the kind typically seen at some tourist traps. It’s low on dance clubs, for example, and most of the larger amusement parks and attractions like Dollywood and the Great Smoky Mountains themselves are beyond its borders. But it’s Gatlinburg. It’s my land of delightful craziness beneath the rolling mountains. And I wish it will continue.

“In the USA, people still get the call, or some of them, and they feel themselves being called to from the transcendent void, and they respond to it by building a model out of beer bottles of somewhere they’ve never visited, or by erecting a gigantic bat house in some part of the country that bats have traditionally declined to visit. Roadside attractions: people feel themselves pulled to places where, in other parts of the world, they would recognize that part of themselves that is truly transcendent, and buy a hot dog, and walk around, feeling satisfied on a level they cannot truly describe, and profoundly dissatisfied on a level beneath that.” -Neil Gaiman, American Gods.

To all the Asheville folks who put it down: I prefer it to Biltmore Village and its overpriced estate to be honest. Much of Gatlinburg is silly stuff for the masses. But it never pretended to be anything else. And at the end of the day, I’m one of those masses, even if I pretend to be so ironically. So have at me, elites. Let me drop the irony and say, I love Gatlinburg. With all due respect to Neil Gaiman, I don’t feel profoundly dissatisfied beneath it.

It is more than a tourist place though. It’s where people, including both natives and immigrants call home and earn a living. And I feel sad for its recent loss and the second, smaller recent fire.

On my last trip, I saw a damaged resort by a stream flowing out of the park. I stood to contemplate the wreckage, the bravery of the firefighters who led rescue efforts, and the tragedy of the 14 lives lost.

But hearing the spooky music from the nearby Gatlinburg Mysterious Mansion, I felt another thing. Hope. And pride. Keep going, mountain strong. A place of power.

“Yesterday is gone, gone, but tomorrow is forever.”—Dolly Parton, in a quote I’m sorry to say Chattanooga Times Free Press has already used, but at least I’m the first with Neil Gaiman. Probably.

Robbins are a mystery?


People say they’re part of spring, but they were here in Loudon, Tennessee all winter. In fact, I saw them in flocks, their red breasts showing off against the darkening winter sky and the gray of their branches. They sat on branches and flew in clusters. Cornell Ornithology Lab, probably one of the best sources for birds said that’s typical behavior. These tree flocks can sometimes include a quarter million birds.

1977465_10155288612360492_7918557328565972029_n
The above photo was from near my home. The number only looks small here because I couldn’t get a crowd shot this pretty. Cornell says it can be up to a quarter million roosting in trees.

10369867_10155288637640492_1080066738224968659_n

See? Not quite as nice a picture.

They spend the fall and winter eating fruit. As a side note, too many honeysuckle berries can be like a drug for them.

Now I’ve begun to see them on the ground again, eating worms and insects. Soon, according to Cornell, they’ll leave their flocks, becoming territorial birds, mating, having children.

My main question has always been “Are these the same ones?”

Cornell’s answer: “Their patterns of movement are poorly understood.” So the winter roosting ones might be the same as the ones we see in the spring or they could be different.

10991403_10155288605170492_3444862635402875124_n

Odd how such a commonplace bird could be a mystery in any way. But here we are.

 

Fast and Slow


Originally published on “Into the Fields,” a blog about my time as an intern through Student Action with Farmworkers. For the full version of this post with a video that shows the pace of industrial corn picking, click here

Some people call the country life slow. In some ways it may be slow. People do talk slower, and nothing is a block away. Evenings and time off from work can be slow too. Too slow. If you can’t drive anywhere, you are stuck sitting around in the evening, watching TV, listening to music, or trying to strike up conversations. I sat with the workers in one camp, on a plastic bucket like them, as the light died down. As far as work goes, though it’s as fast as any factory or holiday-season checkout line, only with heat thrown in to make it worse. They do get breaks for water, but there’s nothing slow about the work itself.