Road to Nowhere - with a dire warning
Below you'll find an excellent article by an actual journalist, not some hack blogger like yours sincerely. What I like about this article is the perspective of those who lost their land, and then the other side about those who don't want to lose part of what is now theirs.
It is interesting to note that the folks who lost their land 60 years ago believe that the road will somehow make things right. All the painful memories will vanish, if the road is built. How odd, for they will still not have their land. It will still belong to the People of the United States, only it will have 30 miles of blacktop. I obviously am missing something. I think people want to believe that their way is Right. That two wrongs do make a right, if our wrong is just. It is the "eye for an eye" conundrum. The woman in the article believes that God is on their side. I have no doubt in her belief.
A dire warning comes from the Earth First! fellow. He vows not to give an inch of the People's land to the Department of Transportation. I believe that to, will be the case.
I can sense an Appalachian Armageddon brewing on this issue. A war over Middle Earth that is the Smokies. Its roots lie in what some very different, but every bit American, people view on what is Right ...on what is Important. If the Bulldozers of the Apocalypse ever descend upon the Smokies to continue the Road to Nowhere there will be arrests. There may be violence, and possibly bloodshed. No one, and especially not God, wants any part of that. Let's pray that we don't fail this test of our free will.
The Road to Nowhere
What once was a Smoky Mountain hamlet has become a glorious wilderness for backpackers to explore -- but at a cost
By Tyler Currie
Post Sunday, May 1, 2005; W16
I'm looking forward to dinner number one, freeze-dried lasagna. The night after that there's freeze-dried beef stroganoff. Next, freeze-dried chicken enchiladas. On night four I'll be out of food. But by then I should also be out of the woods. If not, maybe I'll be eating tree bark.
I figure that I can hike across the North Shore of Fontana Lake in four days and three nights, as long as I stay close to the water, where the elevation doesn't change much. The North Shore forms, in part, the southern boundary of Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the North Carolina side, and it is one of the biggest pieces of roadless land in the Eastern United States. Starting two days from now, I plan to walk it end-to-end, covering about 40 miles of trail, and with any luck I won't see another soul for the better part of a week.
The timing of my trip is key, because a 62-year-old dispute is going to be settled in the next year, perhaps allowing a road to be built on the North Shore. In other words, the wilderness I'm about to visit may soon, in one sense, cease to exist.
Meanwhile I'm sitting on a curb in Sylva, N.C. The town of just a couple thousand residents is about a half-hour drive from the national park and is surrounded mostly by the Nantahala National Forest. The prevailing ruggedness of this region hasn't always been put to noble use. Eric Rudolph, who pleaded guilty to setting off a bomb at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, managed to evade the FBI for more than five years by hiding in these mountains.
Since my solo trek is a couple of days off, I have time to spend with Helen Vance, a 77-year-old great-grandmother who is an ardent supporter of building a road on the North Shore. In fact, today we're going to make a brief excursion to the North Shore, and Vance has offered to take me along.
Soon a sedan pulls up. Vance is riding with one of her younger sisters, Eleanor Rhinehart. The women greet me in the accent of Southern Appalachia, where the vowels are swallowed, like an Irish brogue crossed with a Southern drawl. There, for example, is pronounced thar. In Vance's handbag I spot a bouquet of brilliant flowers: a reminder that for her this trip is sanctified.
On the way out of Sylva, signs advertise "Mountain Heritage Day," a festival that includes fiddle-playing, clogging, and a beard and mustache contest. Traffic is already backing up--it seems that tiny Sylva wasn't meant for crowds. That's not the case, however, on the Tennessee side of the Smokies, where the towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, abutting the national park, attract millions of visitors with arcades, bumper cars, water slides, jamborees and Dollywood, a theme park named after Dolly Parton.
If the North Shore road is built, nearby Bryson City, N.C., will become an eastern gateway into the national park. Some have suggested that a wave of Tennessee-style development could follow.
"I hope that don't happen," Vance says. She looks out the window as we speed over a sparsely developed mountain byway. "We don't want Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge over here because it's just too much commercialism. We like the peace and the quiet." She calls herself an environmentalist. "Our family had to learn to live with the land and off the land. And they had to take care of it . . . At certain times of the year, our brothers were taught that they weren't allowed to hunt because the squirrels were having their young . . . We were resourceful. We tried to do things that wouldn't destroy the land."
Why, then, does she want a road built on the North Shore?
THIRTY MINUTES LATER we arrive at the edge of Fontana Lake, parking in the gravel lot of the Cable Cove marina. Low clouds obscure the sun and shroud the mountains that rise from the opposite shore. Vance shivers and pulls on a cap. We are waiting for a ferryboat to carry us over to the North Shore.
Our route across the lake will come close to passing over the remains of Vance's childhood home. Six decades ago, she lived on the North Shore. It wasn't called the North Shore back then because there was no lake--until the Tennessee Valley Authority condemned her family's home and hundreds of others to make way for a hydroelectric dam.
The North Shore is now so isolated that it can be reached only by a long hike or a boat ride. Going home was not supposed to be so difficult, Vance says. In 1943, the federal government promised to build a road around the lake so that the displaced residents could return for visits. The promise has not been kept.
"My dad and mother thought they'd see the road built in their lifetimes," Vance says. "Both my brothers died without seeing it."
Vance is a co-founder of the North Shore Cemetery Association. Every year she helps organize numerous trips across the lake to tend dozens of remote cemeteries that were left isolated. Such cemetery visits are called Decoration Days and are a common cultural practice across Appalachia. The purpose is to bring together families and neighbors and to honor departed ancestors. But Decoration Days on the North Shore have accrued an additional meaning. Vance and many of her former neighbors gathered here today are crossing the lake to keep alive the memory of a community that was washed off the map.
LESS THAN A MONTH after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Tennessee Valley Authority announced plans for construction of a 480-foot dam along the Little Tennessee River, whose electricity would power an aluminum plant in nearby Alcoa, Tenn. The resulting lake was going to displace hundreds of families, mostly those of poor farmers, miners and lumber workers. TVA paid about $20 an acre--a paltry rate, said many residents, whose dislocation was publicly justified as part of the war effort. One TVA poster read:
We are building this dam
To make the power
To roll the aluminum
To build the bombers
To beat the bastards.
Before the waters rose, the village of Proctor sat beside Hazel Creek in the Smoky Mountain hollows of western North Carolina, not far from the Tennessee border. Proctor boasted a theater, a school, three stores and a Baptist church, of which Helen Vance--then Helen Cable--was a member. The town had landed on hard times even before the ravages of the Great Depression. In 1927, the town's main employer, Ritter Lumber, closed its sawmill. By the end of the 1930s, the majority of families in Swain County, which included Proctor, were on relief rolls.
But Vance recalls growing up around Proctor with dignity. She lived with her parents and five siblings beyond the outskirts of town, near the river, in a two-story frame house that, like many in the area, had neither electricity nor running water. In summertime the children went barefoot, not wanting to wear thin their school shoes, whose purchase required scarce cash. Henry Cable, Vance's father, would make about a dollar a day, she says, working whenever he could in the region's sawmills. But the Cable family survived the bleakest days of the Depression mostly by farming and foraging. Canning season began in July, when the blackberry bushes teemed. Later, huckleberries ripened across the mountainsides, and Vance, along with her two older brothers, set out to fill their metal pails. Occasionally a bear would wander down from the mountains, get itself shot and provide the family with a plunder of meat. They may have been poor, she says, but so was everyone else in town, and ! the family never lacked food.
In 1942, the Cable family learned that its home sat in the flood zone. Henry Cable had started building the house in 1929. As the Depression took hold, construction became too expensive, and the house was never completed. Now the dam guaranteed it never would be. But TVA's roughly $70 million behemoth was not all bad news. Cable got a job helping to build Fontana Dam and earned more than $1 an hour, Vance says. "That was good money at that time."
When moving day came in the spring of 1944, Vance's brothers had already shipped off to war. So it fell to Vance and her sisters to help their father salvage lumber from the house, packing board after board onto a truck. They left Proctor for a new home about 50 miles away. Their hearts were heavy with loss, Vance says, but also filled with the pride of national purpose. "The TVA told us that we needed the power from the dam to win the war."
The story echoes across Southern Appalachia. By 1942, TVA had 12 hydroelectric projects under construction. For many families, the dams meant having electric lights and modern appliances for the first time. But for some, modernity came at a hefty price.
Soon the flood waters behind Fontana Dam destroyed North Carolina Highway 288, the only road leading to Proctor and the other mountain towns north of the new lake. More than 44,000 acres were effectively cut off, sandwiched between the national park and Fontana Lake. So even those with homes above the shoreline were forced to move. Before those residents left, however, the federal government agreed to build a new road north of the lake. "My dad pushed very hard for that road," says Vance. "He . . . didn't want to leave unless [we] could come back to the cemeteries."
But for years the promise of a new road went unfulfilled. The North Shore became part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the National Park Service officially opposed plowing a swath of pavement through what had become some of its most prized eastern back country. The former residents were outraged. Vance and her former neighbors tried suing, lobbying, demonstrating, all to little avail.
By 1972--nearly 30 years after the federal government had promised the road--only seven of roughly 40 miles had been built. Then the National Park Service canceled the construction, citing fiscal and environmental concerns. Locals now call this dead-end spur the Road to Nowhere. For a long time, the road project received little attention, although the Park Service recognized an obligation to the former residents and began hiring ferry boats to transport them across the lake. Then in 2000, Sen. Jesse Helms and Rep. Charles Taylor, both North Carolina Republicans, helped squeak $16 million into a multibillion-dollar appropriations bill "for construction of, and improvements to, North Shore Road."
Actual construction could not begin, however, until the completion of an environmental impact study, the results of which are due later this year. For now, Vance and her former neighbors get to their remote family cemeteries the hard way.
WE'RE GLIDING ACROSS FONTANA LAKE in a ferryboat. The water is like black glass, as it often is in the morning. As the day unfolds, westerly winds will barrel through the valley, whipping the lake's surface into a thick chop. The pilot promises that our return journey will not be so smooth. Above us a succession of ridges rise, eventually reaching more than 5,000 feet. From here, however, there's no telling the great dimensions of these mountains, and not just because the hills are shrouded in mist. The Smoky Mountains reveal themselves reluctantly, unlike their Western counterparts, which awe you in an instant. A good day in the Smokies--by my account--is ambling slowly through the forest, ever upward, until you reach one of the celebrated balds, which are the high treeless patches that define some of the highest peaks. There you can look out and, perhaps for the first time during your hike, fully realize the magnitude of your labor.
The ferryboat floats into a slender gully. Here, Hazel Creek used to empty into the Little Tennessee River. On the bank, a gnarled poplar hangs over the water, and Vance says that she can make out the contour of old Highway 288. She says that is where the bus used to pick her up for school.
"Most people come here and just see the mountains," Vance says. "But I see where all the people used to live."
Soon we land at the mouth of Hazel Creek and step onto the North Shore. It was only about 15 minutes across the narrow lake, and the ease of our arrival is, at for least me, a little dispiriting. This place is supposed to be an outpost of remoteness, yet here we are unloading coolers of Coke, potato chips and meatballs.
Vance and her sister join a small ring of people who arrived on one of the earlier ferries. Their other sister, Mildred Johnson, is here waiting, when up ahead a rickety beige short-bus chokes, coughs and sputters to a halt. That, Vance says, is our ride up the mountain.
Our destination is Bone Valley, some seven miles away, the bus driver says. He wears the dull green uniform of the National Park Service. Vance doesn't seem too impressed with the Park Service's willingness to supply the transportation.
We bump over a route called Hazel Creek Trail, more than a footpath but not much more than a packed horse trail. Vance calls it "an old country road" and doesn't know whether it ever had a more specific name. "It used to be in much better condition," she says. The sound of tree branches clawing the bus's metal body pierces the air, and the bus lists over the steep creek bank; one passenger jokes that we should lean our weight to the opposite side. Vance shares a seat with Johnson, and they keep knocking shoulders when the bus goes over the ruts. Johnson turns to me and says, "You see now why we need a road."
You should have been with us before, Vance says. Until several years ago, she explains, the National Park Service hauled visitors up the mountain in cattle cars.
Soon we pass through the heart of what was Proctor. "There goes the ballfield," Vance says. I see some mountain laurel but no sign of a ballfield. She points to where the general store stood, to where a social hall stood, to where some neighbors lived. "Amazing how tall these trees have grown up in 60 years," Vance says.
Several miles later, we approach a pair of backpackers standing at the edge of the trail. They remind me of my own impending trek across this backcountry, where I have every expectation of finding utter solitude. These two hikers expected the same, I guess. Certainly they couldn't have foreseen crossing paths with a loaded school bus. They must have heard the diesel engine from a half-mile off, but when we finally pass by, their looks of astonishment remain. What roadless wilderness?
I DON'T WANT TO TELL VANCE why I dislike her dream of a North Shore road. In explaining my view, I'd sound embarrassingly selfish. It is not, ultimately, about saving the trees, the water, the air, the plants or the animals. It's about taking comfort in the possibility of escape. Maybe I'll never return to the North Shore or, for that matter, never visit America's other great roadless lands. But I take comfort just knowing they exist.
Vesna Plakanis and her husband, Erik, are naturalists who own a business leading hikers through the national park. They have actively opposed the North Shore road. "Every year we take hundreds of people to Clingman's Dome, the second-highest point in Eastern North America, whose vista overlooks the North Shore area," says Vesna. "We always share with our clients that they are looking down into the largest roadless area in the East. This elicits a true sense of awe and, often, quiet whistles and exclamations."
I first backpacked through the Smokies in North Carolina with some friends about two years ago. It was the end of a day of steep hiking, and dusk was near, when we came to a fire tower at the summit of Mount Sterling in the eastern section of the Park. I climbed to the top, where the wind scattered a haze of gnats that had been buzzing my head. At an altitude of almost 6,000 feet, I looked down on the old mountains. They seemed like giants sleeping under green blankets. I felt small, like a fleck of dust. But I also thought: I am alive.
After some time, I climbed down and joined my friends at our campsite. Our packs hung on a wire between two trees, safe from the bears. In truth, I saw the chipmunks as a greater threat. That morning I had put my pack down and walked off for a few minutes. I came back to find that my lunch had been stolen; there was a small hole in the side pouch. One friend laughed at me: Chipmunks in the Smokies, she said, are crafty little bastards.
That night we wasted a whole pack of matches trying to start a fire. I broke out a bottle of gin, which kept us warm until the flames finally took hold. We huddled there inside a fine ball of heat and light, outside of which the darkness seemed to go on forever.
BY THE TIME THE BUS GROANS TO A STOP in Bone Valley, the fog that shrouded the mountains has given way to a wash of sunlight. Vance and her sisters step from the bus onto a flat clearing surrounded by soaring oaks, maples and poplars. There must be 100 people already gathered on a flat patch of ground beneath the forest canopy. Vance says that a man named Ike Welch used to live here. She says he lived in a white house and that beyond the nearby bank a cornfield grew. She points to one tree, all crooked over and apparently half dead. She says she remembers how it used to grow in Welch's front yard. I say I am amazed at how thoroughly the forest has erased the evidence that people ever lived here.
Well, Mother Nature had some assistance, Vance says. In the early 1950s, the Park Service came in to burn or raze any structures on the North Shore that hadn't already been salvaged.
Now the former residents and their descendants unpack lunch coolers and baskets, spreading meals across a bank of picnic tables, while the sounds of four fiddlers fill the woods. Vance passes out hymnals, and soon we gather around Chris Chandler, a homicide detective and amateur preacher from Waynes-ville, N.C., whose grandmother was raised on the North Shore. He leads the congregation in prayer. "This is our heritage. It's where we come from," Chandler says. He makes no reference to the North Shore road--but he doesn't have to. It seems like the most fashionable articles of clothing are hats and T-shirts that simply read: "Build the Road."
After lunch Vance takes her bouquet of flowers and suggests that we--along with her sisters--proceed to Bone Valley Cemetery, which is a quarter-mile hike.
That's kind of a spooky name for a cemetery, I say.
Not really, Vance says. In the late 19th century, a herd of cattle got trapped out here in a snowstorm and froze to death, she explains. By spring, scavengers had picked apart the cows' flesh, leaving nothing but bones in the valley.
Most of the other visitors are going to Hall Cemetery, which is up a different trail. The path to Bone Valley Cemetery is muddy and steep, switching back up toward a secondary ridge. Vance and Rhinehart get ahead of me and Johnson, who is quickly running out of breath and is taking slow, labored steps. She pauses to rest and says the new road would spare her this agony.
"The Lord is bigger than Washington, D.C., and the environmentalists," she says. "I think the Lord meant us to have a road."
I don't point out that even if a road were built, some hiking would still be necessary. There are more than 30 cemeteries scattered across the North Shore. A single road could never reach all of them. By now I'm thinking that the North Shore road holds as much symbolic as practical value. Vance, her sisters and the others who were tossed off their land seem to crave historical vindication as much as they do easy access to their cemeteries. Two years ago, the Swain County Commission suggested that the federal obligation could be settled with a cash payment. Vance, of course, rejects that solution. "The agreement said a road," she says.
The trail goes from muddy to dusty, ending in a patch of dirt that I wouldn't recognize as a cemetery were it not for the jagged little stones poking up and the dozens of American flags fluttering in the wind. About 80 graves are bunched tightly across the sloping ground. Small dirt mounds, like rows in a field, extend from the base of each headstone. I'm told this is a typically Appalachian style of grave construction. The mounds seem to symbolize the presence of bodies beneath. Many of the headstones show the resting places of Confederate veterans.
Vance walks among the graves ceremoniously and quietly. Some of them have newer polished headstones, which the North Shore Cemetery Association has furnished. At the far corner, Vance stops before the resting place of Frank Tipton. He was Vance's mother's cousin, killed in 1924 when a horse kicked him. Nearby is another distant relative, Dolly Curtis. Vance lays a few flowers, and the lonely graveyard seems oddly pretty. The pinks and blues of the flowers harmonize with the browns and greens of the indigenous flora. Among those placing flowers are three small children. They're a ray of hope, Vance says. "I know a lot of people don't remember this place," she says. "But it's good to see young people here."
We walk back down to the picnic area and wait for the bus. To pass time, I take out a large map of the North Shore. Vance shows me all the places she used to frequent, points to the spot on Fontana Lake where her family's home is buried. I ask if there is anywhere on the North Shore where she's never returned.
She runs her finger across the mapped ridges. "I haven't been back there," she says, pointing to a spot about 10 miles east of Bone Valley. She says that's where her aunt and uncle used to live. As children, she and her siblings used to visit. But now "it's just too far to walk," she says. "And the park ain't gonna take you there." I mark the spot with an inky black X.
NOW I'M BACK IN SYLVA, N.C., checking the latest weather report. My gear is carefully loaded into my massive backpack. Once again, I'm looking forward to eating my freeze-dried lasagna on some lonely crag above Fontana Lake. Unfortunately, the meteorologist is predicting that Hurricane Jeanne is on her way to the neighborhood. I tell myself that risk and survival are the marrow of any journey into the wild. Hell, I have a poncho.
A few hours later, I'm asleep in my car when John Johnson pulls up alongside. We are several miles west of Bryson City, N.C., near the point where the Road to Nowhere grinds to a halt. Johnson, 31, steps from his car looking like a young Santa Claus. His wild brown hair is gathered into a ponytail, and his beard brushes the top of his chest. He wears camouflage pants and a cast on one wrist that says in black marker, "Courtesy of the NYPD." Recently he was up in New York City protesting a gathering of Republicans and found himself on the losing end of a confrontation with several police officers.
Johnson is a member of Earth First!, a diffuse organization of environmentalists with a history of civil disobedience. I met Johnson, who lives nearby in Tennessee, via a series of mutual acquaintances. I was told that he knows the North Shore backcountry as well as anyone. So I've asked him to join me on my trip. He says he can't make the whole trip, but he'll at least go with me on a day hike.
We start walking down the last bit of the Road to Nowhere, passing through a 1,000-foot tunnel that was never opened to traffic. Inside it is black as deep space, except for the pinhole opening at the end, where the cracked asphalt ends and the footpath begins. Johnson says that if one inch of this road is extended, he and his fellow activists will take up residence on the North Shore. "We'll contest every inch of land," he says. I ask if they would resort to ecoterrorism. Would he, for example, pour sand into the gas tank of a bulldozer? No, he says. "But we wouldn't have a problem with anyone who did."
He quickly offers a piece of advice to the National Park Service, should road construction go forward. "Y'all better add a few million to your security budget. You're not just going to come in here and build a road."
We stop to look at my map. I study the inky black X, marking the homesite of Helen Vance's aunt and uncle. We decide to search for it. We'll gauge our progress by counting how many creeks we cross. It appears that creek No. 5 will be closest to the homesite.
More than an hour into the woods, Johnson stoops down over a pile of dung. He grabs a stick and pokes apart the pile, which is filled with undigested seeds. "Bear sign," he says.
I tell Johnson about my earlier trip with Helen Vance and the people who were kicked off this land 60 years ago. He's heard vaguely of the story. I tell him they were poor folks who had no chance of standing up to TVA, certainly not in a time of war. "I feel bad for those people," he says. "But they'd have to hike anyway, even if they did build the road. I feel like those ferry rides and van rides are compensation enough."
Finally, after nearly four hours of hiking, we reach the fifth stream and stand in a gully looking up the mountain. We step off the trail and begin climbing. We kick around, looking for traces of where the house might have been. Nearby we find the remains of a rusty wire fence, stuck in the bark of an oak tree. We sit down, leaning our backs against a rotting log. Our best guess is that this is the very spot that Vance had shown me on the map.
The rain begins softly. Johnson says it's the leading edge of the hurricane. By now I've already realized that pushing forward would be madness. Hundreds of shallow creeks will soon become impassable walls of white water. With enough wind, these trees and branches will start raining down like artillery. The wild has never seemed wilder. Soon Johnson and I rise and begin the long walk back to the road.
Tyler Currie is a contributing writer for the Magazine.
Posted by Ole Slew Foot at May 2, 2005 09:36 PM