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.

Advertisements

Great Smoky Mountains: Laurel Falls Trail


I used to know a girlfriend who would panic at the possibility of crossing streams, or climbing over rocks in a way that might lead to broken bones.

She’s not the Yvonne Rogers I took with me to Laurel Falls last March.

We were sitting down below the part of the falls most people see, a bit off the main trail, but still with all the crowds above us.

Yvonne climbed over a rock, held on to a falling tree and grabbed a bottle that had fallen, held in an eddy.

“I didn’t really like being there all that much,” Yvonne tells me now. She still says she doesn’t like being in danger. But that bottle bothered her.

“Here, catch!” she shouted.

And then it tumbled down further. But, thankfully, it landed somewhere more convenient. She climbed down and grabbed it, later shoving it in my backpack.

Laurel Falls in the Great Smoky Mountains, one of many with that name in Tennessee, comes crashing down before a bridge crosses, then it crashes down further.

The path to it is paved, passing mountain views and lichen decorated-rock formations. Orange beetles gathered on them.
facebook_1548629594241.jpg

The falls is, for Tennessee, very crowded. The crowds are often people of many different ages, races and even languages and to me anyway, part of the place’s charm.

Still, seekers of solitude should keep walking. At least last March, once Yvonne and I passed the falls and climbed up on the dirt trail beyond it, we were alone.
The trail continues into old growth forest full of tall wide trees untouched by any recent ax.

Also near the falls, look out for salamanders. We saw one, briefly. It was brownish and probably a dusky, meaning as stated in my book, I should probably give up on finding the precise species.

Zoo Knoxville at 70ish


Zoo Knoxville through its promotions is considering this its 70th anniversary. That’s a little debatable, even by its own website. The News Sentinel, a local paper did, in 1948 launch an effort to start a zoo, which included various animals starting with an alligator, although the zoo’s own website dates the “modern zoo” to 1971.

That modern zoo, however was not the same as the present one. I know because I have been coming at different times throughout my life. The zoo has recently added playgrounds to make itself more exciting to children and sometimes even they’re related to exhibits, like monkey bars near gibbons.

The zoo is more or less divided by continent now as far as its major areas. Asia Trek is the zoo’s new showcase exhibit, showing off tigers …

gibbons …

langurs …

And red pandas who did not feel like posing for me, even though those racoon-like critters are a distinctive feature of the zoo. Don’t expect them to be bear sized.

Elsewhere the zoo boasts exotic beasts like giraffes and rhinos along with local favorites like otters.

Bristol: The Grand Guitar


On the way from Oak Ridge, TN in a recent trip north, I passed this landmark: the grand guitar in Bristol Tennessee.

The Grand Guitar
The Grand Guitar, photo from Facebook. I didn’t pull over to shoot one myself. We had ground to cover.

“I’ve always thought, why would anyone stop at a square building that looked like every other building?” Joe Morrell, creator of the Grand Guitar.

It’s on the National Register of Historic Places. Key word there is “historic.”  The building stands, a chipping ruin with broken strings and a parking lot covered in grass, even though the building only dates back to 1983.

Once an elaborate museum with a recording studio, it now joins probably many other buildings meant to advertise something no longer there, but so distinctive that it has to  stay up. That Roadside America link above gives an excellent history of this rather random landmark.

a616a2d47f6c616cc73d9527b5d5aa3b.jpg
This is what it looked like when it was still open, suposedly, according to some guy calling himself Dan. K on Pinterest. Again, sorry I don’t have something more definitive.

There actually is a name for buildings like this: mimetic architecture.  People associate it with silly old-timey highway side stuff to be enjoyed ironicaly. but even companies like Apple are getting in on the game. And in spite of the shamlessly commercial nature of this practice in nearly all of its forms, I have a soft spot for it.

Women's Basketball Hall of Fame
The Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville. Photo Creative Commons as shown on Wikipedia.

Simply put, it means buildings that look like things that they aren’t, usually things that the building is trying to sell or, in the case of a museum, like the one above, be about.

I’ve covered one other such building in my day job as a staff reporter for The Oak Ridger: the 1931 airplane filling station in Powell, now a barber shop and recently restored to its shiny glory. People sometimes think it had or has the ability to fly. It can’t. And even if it could the lack of a windshield is a problem.

IMG_0006

There are some things that straddle the line between mimetic architecture. Statues of course are always meant to resemble something but sometimes they can also be ads if they’re near a commercial building.

As frequent visitors to this blog (all three of you, but thanks!)  might note, I use every opportunity to shamelessly plug my book “Wildly Strolling Along: Father-Son Nature Adventures on Tennessee’s Cumberland Trail” (available now on Amazon!). I’m shameless.

While it’s not at all about Bristol or the grand guitar, it does go into detail about another specimen of  crazy roadside architecture that stands in Caryville Tennessee: George the Dragon. He’s a mascot for a fireworks store that burned down years ago.

I hope all these crazy architectural ads stay up and I hope you enjoy them. Share any examples you know in the comments!

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Times Square, New York City


Times Square is a place I’d never visited until this most recent trip to New York City.

Of course I’d seen it on TV and in pictures, many, many times, but actually being there amid the sensory overload of bright billboards is different.

In some ways, it’s like nothing at home. Packed with people at every hour of Saturday night and full of distinct buskers and performers, almost like a free version of Disney World. Indeed two of them dressed up like Mickey and Minnie Mouse. Although admittedly there was also a Donald Trump costume guy too and the aforementioned bikini gymnast, both of which Disney World would probably not have.

The New York Times and ABC News buildings, are giants compared to any of our newspaper or TV station buildings in Tennessee.

Also, to the best of my knowledge, no one sells Kit Kat bars the size of cafeteria trays — still labeled “Snack Size’ — like they do at Hershey’s Chocolate World. And our benches are, as a rule, not set into weird wrecked-ship-like sculptures.

It’s side streets have theaters showing the most high-profile plays and some of its billboards advertise other theater productions, including Spongebob Squarepants, which is almost unheard of in Knoxville. Theater productions high-profile enough to have billboard ads that is, not Spongebob Squarepants.

And yet at the same time, if you’re a Tennesseean who wants to really feel like you’re in another world, Times Square is probably the wrong place. The famous New Year’s Day ball drops on top of a building with a Walgreens on the bottom floor for instance. Similarly other stores here like Forever 21 and the Disney Store exist in Knoxville’s West Town Mall.

Although, running around the Disney Store, a bit of an expansion from the Tennessee version, with two other 30-somethings who were making stuffed animals dance to The Lion King music was actually a highlight of the trip.

At times I wondered if I had wandered into just a version of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge that didn’t close at night and where Spongebob had replaced the Bible as the main source of theater inspiration, if not also possibly religion as well. The area has both a Ripley’s Believe it or Not like Gatlinburg, and a wax museum, which would not have been out of place there.

At any rate enjoy this photo gallery of Times Square as it is in July 2018.

Disco singers
Disco singers stayin’ alive at Times Square