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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Norris Dam


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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.

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.

The Basin Cascade Trail


“This pothole is perhaps the most remarkable of its kind in New England,”

-Henry David Thoreau in one of his less memorable sentences, describing quite a memorable place.

Thoreau’s always this overwhelming presence for all of us who write about nature. Especially the ones of us, like me, who aren’t him.

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Although my beard tends to look equally silly when it grows out.

Thanks to Thoreau, a nature writer can’t confess to watching Marvel movies, or enjoying the cheesy ooze of a Taco Bell burrito, or admit that the song in his head he hikes to isn’t his own different drummer but a Justin Bieber EDM track.

We’re supposed to pretend we’re above it all, even if we’re really aren’t.

It is with this in mind that I confess I spent much of my time on the Basin Trail trying to “suck the marrow” to use Thoreau’s creepy phrase from Walden, out of the place in the most un-Thoreau way possible: by trying to see what it would look like captured on my phone, obsessing over the shots I could get, I had to force myself away from that thing and just enjoy the scenery for myself a few times. At least none of them were selfies. I hate my own face in photos, mostly.

But odds are you want to read about the trail itself, not about people with stupid-looking facial hair. And thankfully my pictures will probably help you see some of its highlights. It’s just 1.6 miles round trip, although it does involve climbing a hill. But the most famous part’s down at the bottom.

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The basin itself, what my New England Grammy calls “Where the Old Man of the Mountain washes his Feet” comes near the beginning of the walk, and while it’s not big as far as rock or water formations go, it’s charm comes from how melting glacers and whirring sand and rocks shaped the rock into a smooth curving surface.

“A luxurious bath fit for the ablutions of a goddess,” is how another 19th century writer, Samuel Eastman described it. A rail stops any visiting goddesses from actually jumping in though.

While less noted in signs, the whole area around the basin does have some shallower pools to play around in. The real highlight for me though was further up the trail, and harder to really show in photos.

While the trail stays in the shade, it has plenty of places to get out and be on a long slab of rock with a flowing stream down it, reaching down the mountainside. The water sprays out over rocks and smoothly glides through channels. Families come out here to picnic and splash about and rightly so. Pictures don’t really do it justice though. Which is why I kept trying. The sheer size of the smooth rock, like a wide river itself is what we enjoyed exploring, sliding down its rocks, climbing along streams, hiding in little rock formations. And that size is exactly what these pictures can’t show.

The shaded path has its charms too though, particularly chipmunks.

Kinsman falls was near the end of our rooty path and unlike my guidebook “AMC’s Best Day Hikes in the White Mountains” would indicate, the route to it was indeed marked.

There are waterfalls that make you feel like just a tiny drop. Then there are intimate fountains like Kinsman Falls that aren’t roaring so much as quiet escapes with deep, clear pools below. And Kinsman Falls was indeed an escape for us. Unlike the rest of the Basin Cascade Trail we were alone there.

Franconia Notch State Park


 

The mountains of Franconia Notch show off their granite slabs to visitors below and to climbers of its mountains.

They turn red at sunlight.

You can see them from the interstate, pull off and visit them from along a bike trail, swim in a lake below them, ski them in winter, hike them or rock climb them regardless, Franconia Notch State Park has something for many different tastes. Of course, most famously, people often view Franconia notch from above on the Appalachian Trail from Mount LaFayette.

As we were trying to speed run New Hampshire, we focused on two short hikes: The Basin and Artist’s Bluff. I will post them later. For now though, enjoy these images taken on and near the park’s bike trail which we used as a route to travel through some of park.

They aren’t representative. Much of the bike trail is wooded rather than wide open and it’s never far from the interstate. Still it’s a way to avoid interstate traffic and parking issues to get out and enjoy the park, walking to all of its trails.

Plus, it had one or two fresh raspberries still left which were certainly delicious.

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.