Monday, August 26, 2013

Walking: Appalachia

     I was asked by National Geographic Traveler to look for something to write about in east Tennessee, the opposite end of the long, skinny state where I was born. What I found was a lot more interesting than Dollywood:

    "Most people here were kin to me in one way or another, and almost all of them are gone." This mournful news was delivered with resignation but not defeat by a 77-year-old man with wavy white hair and eyebrows to match, one John Rice Irwin. The place he spoke of has mythic heft: Big Valley, a geologic crease in east Tennessee between the Smoky and Cumberland mountain ranges, about half of it under water since the mid-1930s, when the Tennessee Valley Authority dammed the Clinch and other rivers and created a huge reservoir called Norris Lake.
     The dam generated hydroelectric power for millions but also displaced people unlucky enough to be living below the lake's high-water mark. John calculated that as many as 500 of the displaced were family. "Uncle Rufus's wife, now she didn't know anything about the outside world. She said, 'I have three daughters buried under the cedar trees, and I would like to live out my days here. But if it will help a lot of people, we'll go.'"
    In some of those Appalachian homesteads, he added, "the fires had been kept going on the hearth for generations. One man stacked his possessions in a truck, then made a mound of dirt and put the coals on it and took them to his new house." Some of those families had been in Big Valley since colonial days, descendants of Scots-Irish, Welsh, and German settlers that included mountain men, farmers, musket-makers, and at least one poet, Martin Rice, John's distant cousin. He left Big Valley for Missouri in 1833 and returned 40 years later, to what he called, in Scenes of My Childhood, "That dearest spot upon the earth.../ Twas changed, but still was the same."
     In some ways it still was, despite the high-priced vacation homes on an 809-mile shoreline. "Thaf s where Martin's daddy's house once stood," said John, pointing to a big oak tree with Lone Mountain in the background. Up there, a friend of Martin Rice's great-grandfather, Henry Rice, was scalped by Cherokees in 1794 or so the story goes. The telling of it and others was casual, inconclusive, and attribution was usually lost in a rich but vanished past.
     John was making what he said will be his last trip to Big Valley. Age and chronic heart problems had limited his walking, and so we were traveling in a van on Sharps Chapel Road, through open country on a fine day in April, with little cedars in the fencerows and, in the fields, limestone outcroppings like elbows poking through a raveling green sweater. Farming was still done, and it involved sere gray barns and farmhouses with flowers in gourds swinging from porch eaves. Yes, there  were trailers, too, and a sign for the Hair Saloon and another for the Blue Springs Missionary Church, but it was easy to imagine life before the TVA, or the Continental Congress for that matter.
     We paused now and then to stroll in cemeteries where his forebearers lie under crude headstones with faint, runic inscriptions, I in my hiking gear and John in black cowboy boots and blazer with a red silk handkerchief in the pocket. With his pocketknife he cut two twigs from a wild cherry tree and peeled them, "so we'll have something to chew on." He was the founder of the Museum of Appalachia, just north of Knoxville, and the author of many books about local culture-craft, music, history-but it was family that preoccupied him, and his stories formed one loosely joined but continuous, clannish narrative.

     "About 80 percent of the people around here were on the Union side in the Civil War, like my great-grandfather, a footwashing Baptist with 17 children. There weren't many slaves, and everybody had kin that had fought in either the Revolutionary War or the War of 1812. They didn't want the Union destroyed."
     Tangents extend deep into the surrounding mountains. Of a community of worshippers in a neighboring valley, John said, "Lots of miracles over there. And the snake-handlers, they're all up on the Virginia line A little woman was slinging a rattler around, and I went up to get a better look, and they all wanted me to sit on the mourners' bench so they could pray for me."
     More common were those stories involving "spring water," a euphemism for homemade spirits sold against the ardent wishes of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms: an Irwin kinsman drying money on bedsheets spread in the sun, after escaping from "the law" by jumping into a lake. A banjo player selling spring water out of the trunk of his car while sheriff's deputies direct traffic. The permanent imprint of a .38 revolver in a distiller's trousers, sprouted corn spread over a cabin floor, Mason jars full of crystal clear liquid stacked in a cellar, smoke plumes in distant hills, and dark, fastmoving cars on midnight roads.
     Our destination was Lost Creek cemetery, in the 24,000-acre Chuck Swan Wildlife Management Area on the other side of the lake, a sharp, wild contrast to the development all around. This refuge is administered by the state, and we had to wait at the entrance for all the turkey hunters to check out of the woods before we could go in. The blossoms on the serviceberry trees had passed but wild dogwood was popping and gobblers still calling at noon. This leafy maze of former wagon roads felt empty, and timeless, with its view of mountains near the Cumberland Gap and mottled shade under tall, resurgent hardwoods.
     We found Rice Irwin Road; it led, appropriately, to Lost Creek Cemetery Road, a rough trip into Big Valley's founding enclave. This valley was settled before Knoxville, although the rudiments of that pioneer life - fortifications, water mill - were long gone. "My grandfather brought me here. Old Henry Rice was buried in Lost Creek in 1818, the second grave to be dug here. The first was for a friend of his who fought with Henry in the Revolutionary War but wasn't identified."
     He wanted to find his own august forebearer's ancient resting place, and we searched among some upright but mostly toppled headstones, among the lavender periwinkles and mayapples. The Daughters of the American Revolution put up a new marker in honor of this pioneer: Henry Rice 1717 - 1818, inscribed in polished granite quite different from its eroding limestone neighbors. "Some hunter's shot it," John adds, without rancor, referring to a bullet scar next to Henry's name.
     Henry's son, James Rice, was buried around there, too. 'This was once a vital place. There was a church," and John turned uphill, toward a foundation laid in 1885, and an "upping block" for assisting women onto horses. "There were people all around. Henry lived nearby, in what was called the loom house." He sighed. "Everywhere you go, a Shoney's or something has replaced a once unique landscape. But Lost Creek's much as it was 200 years ago. It's rare."
      The next day I went back alone to walk not just Rice Irwin Road but also Mossy Springs, Clear Creek, and Pond Hollow roads. There were no trail markers or posted explanations of local history, just miles of path leading through pretty woods to meadows and to more cemeteries, one with clear spring drinking water pouring from an old pipe. This elemental quality is found in most of rural America today, where natural beauty is accessible beyond everyday struggles, if you're determined to find it.
       Most walking in America is in fact done in places much like this - not in national parks or on jogging trails, but in uncelebrated byways where companions are most likely trees and birdsong, and the ghosts of generations past.

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