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

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.

IMG_20190420_140930663_HDR.jpg

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: 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.

Norris Dam


IMG_20190301_185417515IMG_20190301_183406798_BURST000_COVER_TOP.jpgIMG_20190301_182911077
Some time in the 1930s, Harold Roitman, my grandfather, Grampie as I called him when he was still alive, came all the way from Boston to visit this dam. My Chinese roommate in college knew about it. To them it was a symbol of progress, understood by both to be an unambiguous good movement forward, providing electricity to people who didn’t previously have it.
We can debate what progress is now, a debate I’m honestly not in the mood for now. Right now, I and others just want to look at and listen to the sheer volume of water spilling over the dam right now after all the recent rain.

In my day job, I’ve reported on the heavy recent rains and their effects on activities like rowing. From up above the dam though, I can just enjoy the view.

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.

Smokies Iciciles
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.

img_8985 elkmont cabin

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

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!