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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Clingman’s Dome, Great Smoky Mountains


Ah, Clingman’s Dome, highest point in Tennessee! Climb the tower’s spiraling path above the spruce trees, up to the deck where you can see an amazing view of …

Foggy view from Clingman's dome
… nothing.
Clingman's Dome in the fog
This picture was in color. I swear.

But then, just as we were about to leave a wind whooshed away those clouds giving us this:

 

Sunset at Clingman's Dome, Great Smokey Mountains
This speaks for itself.

 

Clingman’s Dome is a rather odd place. It’s at the crossroads of the Appalachian Trail and a rather uphill but paved path leading up from an overcrowded parking lot. A spiraling path leads to the top of a viewing tower.

Indeed between its benches, its gift shop with cute stuffed foxes, bears and forest critters, and its interpretive signs it’s hard to think of a place less like the wild, narrow and uninterpreted AT.

The signs are unique in that they are bilingual, in English and Cherokee, using the syllable alphabet Sequoyah developed. As they explain the Cherokee found the spot to be a sacred place. Indeed the spot emphasizes the multiple traditions: scientific, Biblical and Cherokee describing the formation of the mountains.

The Cherokee tradition, as I explain in my book Wildly Strolling Along is as follows: a giant vulture shaped the land into mountains and valleys by accident through the force of his wings, feeling very sorry afterward. There’s a certain beauty to that — unintelligent design.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.