Human Nature

Faith in the Appalachians: Baptist roots

Did you ever wonder how and why Baptists came to be the predominant religion in the Appalachians (in general) and the Cumberland Plateau (in particular)?

It’s a history that we (the Independent Herald) have been examining for our monthly religious focus series. In this part of the world, Baptist churches out-number all other denominations by overwhelming margins. In my home county on the northern Cumberland Plateau, for example, there is one Catholic congregation, one Presbyterian church, two Methodist churches, one Church of God, a couple of Churches of Christ — and nearly 200 Baptist churches.

As historian H. Clay Smith wrote in Dusty Bits of the Forgotten Past, the Baptist faith was carried to the Cumberlands by a minister named William Murphy, who preached at a newly-established Baptist church in what was then the town of Fincastle (just north of present-day LaFollette) in Campbell County. That was near the end of the 18th century. From there, Murphy’s teachings took root and off-shoots of the Fincastle Church included new Baptist churches on the western slopes of the Cumberland Mountains — in places like Sugar Grove, Buffalo and Jellico Creek. From there, Baptist churches began to spread throughout the area between the Cumberland Mountains and the Big South Fork River, frontier territory that was just beginning to be settled. And this region has been predominantly Baptist ever since.

But to understand how William Murphy came to the Cumberlands in the first place, one must start at the beginning — and the beginning was the 17th century Puritan-Separist movement within the Church of England.

In those days, well after Columbus sailed the ocean blue but while the New World colonies were still controlled by the crown, most English people were Catholic. The Roman Catholic Church had flourished in England for hundreds of years.

But by the 16th century, many Christians in England were demanding reform from the church. Key voices in this push for reform were Martin Luther (1483-1546) and John Calvin (1509-1564).

Beginnings of protestantism

It was in 1507, when Calvin was yet a kid, that the German monk Martin Luther pinned his 95 Theses to the door of his Catholic Church, denouncing the church’s practice of pardoning sins and questioning papal authority. He was summarily excommunicated, and so began the start of the Protestant Revolution.

The cry of reformists was for the church to return to its roots, through simpler adherence to the teachings of the New Testament. This was summed up by Luther’s views on the doctrine of justification. Through his studies of the writings of the Apostle Paul and others, Luther became convinced that God declared a sinner righteous by faith alone through His grace.

Even as Luther was being excommunicated by the church, 12-year-old Calvin was employed by the bishop as a clerk in France. By 1530, Calvin had been converted and had broken away from the Roman Catholic Church — even though his first reform writing would not be published for another six years.

Calvin and Luther were similar in their approach to a Christ-centered theology that focused redemption on faith and grace alone rather than works, and thus became the centerpiece of the Protestant Reformation. Both men played similar roles in restoring the Gospel to the church, and Calvin was undeniably influenced by Luther. But they were also different, with Calvin’s theology focusing on the depravity of man as a stark contrast with the glory of God. And thus gave rise to the doctrines that would come to be known as Calvinism.

Puritans vs. Separatists

Slowly, Protestants began to divide themselves into two groups: Puritans and Separatists. Puritans believed in the purity of doctrine and its practice within the church. Though they admitted that reform was needed, Puritans believed the Church of England could be saved. Separatists had given up on reform and separated from the official church to form their own independent congregations.

By the 1620s, more than a half-century after the death of both Luther and Calvin, there were several protestant movements: the Quakers, the Presbyterians and the Congregationalists were chief among them.

One of these independent protestant congregations adopted a practice of believer’s baptism. The idea was that only believers could be accepted into the church, and that they must be accepted through baptism. Their beliefs earned them the nickname “Baptists.” It was a derogatory reference made by their opponents, but it stuck.

General Baptists vs. Particular Baptists

From the beginning, there were two branches of Baptists: General Baptists and Particular Baptists. The General Baptists followed the teachings of Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609), who came after both Luther and Calvin. Arminius believed that Christ died for all, and that anyone who believed in Him would be saved. This was a forerunner to Arminianism.

The first General Baptist church was established in Amsterdam, Holland, in 1608. It was led by John Smyth, and was made up of refugees who fled England to escape religious persecution after rebelling against the church.

Smyth himself was a minister of the Church of England, but he developed Puritan views and, after failing to bring reform to the church, formed his own Separatist congregation near London. When it became too dangerous for his group to meet in worship, they divided into two groups. One of those groups moved to Scrooby Manor, and became the group of pilgrims who sailed to America on the Mayflower in search of religious freedom. Smyth led the other group, which migrated to Amsterdam to escape the wrath of King James I, who had pledged to punish anyone who refused to attend the Church of England.

In Amsterdam, Smyth’s group met a group of Dutch Mennonites who believed in the baptism of believers only. It was at this time that Smyth realized that since most of his group had been baptized as infants, they were not valid. The church, he decided, was based on a covenant and not an actual confession of faith. So he disbanded it, and founded a new church that followed believers’ baptism. Smyth baptized himself, then he baptized the others in the group. It wasn’t complete immersion; it was by sprinkling — a practice that would hardly be accepted by modern Baptists. But it was an act that was reserved for believers.

Eventually, Smith’s group returned to London and established the first Baptist church in England. By 1650, there were nearly four dozen Baptist churches in and around London.

The Particular Baptists came somewhat later. They were influenced heavily by the teachings of Calvin, and believed that Christ died for a particular, or predestined, group of people: the elect. Even though Baptists weren’t the only denomination to be influenced by Calvin’s teachings of limited atonement, the doctrine played heavily in the church.

By 1650, there were several Particular Baptist churches in and around London.

General Baptists were the Arminian arm of the Baptist faith; Particular Baptists were the Calvinist arm of the faith. But there were other differences as well. Perhaps chief among them: Particular Baptists believed that its preachers should be educated with formal theological training, and that they should deliver prepared sermons. General Baptists rejected the idea of formal training for its ministers, and preferred extemporaneous sermons, believing that prepared outlines would hinder the influence of the Holy Spirit. Their practice was justified by Luke 4:20, which recorded Jesus closing the sacred scroll before beginning to preach.

This is an important distinction because it begins to paint a picture of practices that survive even to this day in much of rural Appalachia. Many Baptist ministers in rural churches have held on to the approach of the early General Baptists that sermons should be delivered spontaneously instead of prepared. But the lines have also been blurred. More on that in a moment.

To America…

Baptists adopted one of the chief beliefs of the Mennonites, which was the idea that Christians were “a community of believers over who the king nor government held any power,” as John Sparks wrote in his book, The Roots of Appalachian Christianity.

This point of view didn’t go over well in England. Edward Wightman (1580-1612) was the last person to be burned at the stake after being condemned by King James I for heresy. He was a Baptist, or at least had Baptist leanings. As persecution increased in England, Baptists began seeking refuge in the American colonies.

Ironically, since America was founded on the idea of religious freedom, the new Baptist faith didn’t go over well in the New England colonies, either. While the first Baptist church had been established in Rhode Island by 1638, Baptists were considered a left-wing party of the Puritan movement. Their liberal faith was unpopular; Baptists and Quakers alike were viewed by Puritans in the colonies as heretical outcasts.

At the same time that the Baptist faith was being established in the new world, Particular Baptists were undergoing a great debate: Just how strongly should the doctrines of Calvinism be preached? Should ministers focus solely on foreordained election by grace? Or should they also incorporate man’s free will and accountability for his sins? It was a debate that would foreshadow the spreading of the Baptist faith into Appalachia by a minister named Shubal Stearns a century later.

A touch of Methodism

In 1705, Valentine Wightman — the great-grandson of the early Baptist martyr Edward Wightman, who was burned at the stake in England in 1612 — established Connecticut’s first Baptist church. His teachings would become prolific in the early 18th century, helping to grow the Baptist denomination in New England, even as the Puritans remain steadfastly opposed.

Reformation continued within the Church of England, meanwhile. The Methodist faith emerged as an evangelical minority party within the official church, right about the time of the Great Awakening.

One of the founders of Methodism, and of the evangelical movement as a whole, was Rev. George Whitefield, a British minister who worked closely with John Wesley.

Whitefield was a flamboyant and influential preacher who criss-crossed the Atlantic to spread the gospel in both Great Britain and the American colonies. Among the people Whitfield won over — though apparently never converted — was the American founding father Benjamin Franklin.

While Wesley, generally viewed as the father of Methodism, was strictly an Arminian, Whitefield tended towards the Calvinist doctrines. He became a key figure in the First Great Awakening, and his preaching helped to transform religion in the American colonies. From his influence came a feeling of separatism, and a rise of a new denomination: Separatist Congregationalists — a faith that gave rise to farmer-preachers with little formal training.

One of the people who sat under Whitefield’s sermons and was eventually converted was Shubal Stearns, a young minister who founded a Separatist church in Tolland, Connecticut.

Stearns was deeply influenced by Whitefield. In his book, Sparks described the dramatic flair with which Whitefield delivered his sermons as “a distinctive preaching cadence (with) emotive style and embellished in a singsong, almost hypnotic chant of ‘nasal quality.'”

Historian Robert Baylor Semple wrote of Whitefield’s style that those listening were often moved to “tears, trembling, screams and exclamations of grief and joy.”

Both the preaching style of Whitefield and the reactions of those listening who were said to have been moved by the Holy Spirit were relatively new phenomenons within the protestant movement.

The Methodism of George Whitefield was trending towards the Baptist teachings that his contemporaries would later promote, and the lines between General Baptists (preferring preachers with no formal training, but tending away from the teachings of Calvin) and Particular Baptists (preferring preachers with formal training, but embracing Calvinism) were becoming blurred. All of this, the blurring of theological lines and the preaching style of Whitefield and the reactions of his listeners, would heavily influence religion in the Appalachians. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves …

The reformation of Shubal Stearns

Shubal Stearns was heavily influenced by Whitefield and adopted his preaching style. Later, Stearns and his family were influenced by Wait Palmer, a disciple of Valentine Wightman, who had established Connecticut’s first Baptist church. Stearns traveled to hear Wightman preach and was converted, and he formed a Separate Baptist church in Tolland in 1751.

The evangelical churches that rose up from the Whitefield Revival that Stearns was a product of generally embraced only two “Gospel ordinances”: Baptism and communion. But Stearns and his congregation advocated for more: the laying of hands, foot-washing and anointing the sick with oil, to name but a few.

Later, Stearns would carry these practices to central Appalachia, and they remain traditional in many rural Baptist churches today. But, again, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Stearns was also an early father of fellowship within the church. He had his congregation begin a practice of embracing and shaking hands whenever they felt moved by the Holy Spirit. Today, fellowship handshakes are a staple of worship services in rural Appalachian Baptist churches.

Another tradition that took root among Stearns and his followers was closely-trimmed hair. The popular style of the mid 18th century was for shoulder-length hair, even among preachers. Stearns, though, kept his hair closely cropped.

Go (south)west, young man

In August 1754, Stearns, his family and many of his followers pulled up roots in Connecticut and began a migration southward. They believed that God had plans for them in the southwestern frontier. By this time, Stearns was a Whitefield-style evangelistic Calvinist who was also beginning to take on the more moderate beliefs of the General Baptists. Remember that debate among the Particular Baptists about just how strictly Calvinism should be preached? As Shubal Stearns prepared to spread the Baptist faith in Appalachia, he was blurring the lines between Calvinism and Arminianism.

Stearns and his convoy first settled in what is now West Virginia before traveling further south to central North Carolina. There, he teamed up with Herman Husbands, a Maryland Quaker who held large land holdings in the Sandy Creek area of upland North Carolina. Husbands envisioned a sort of backwoods New Jerusalem that would feature religious independence.

On November 22, 1755, Stearns founded the Sandy Creek Separate Baptist Church. And the settlers of the Carolina frontier, on the eastern slopes of the Appalachians, took to his preaching like moths to a flame.

Sparks wrote that the settlers “heard Stearns’ loud, melodious preaching chant and the corresponding singing, laughing, shouting and weeping of his small flock, the sights and sounds held them spellbound, convincing them that through the New Birth in Christ they, too, could experience a happiness and a joy beyond anything their precarious frontier experience could fling at them.”

The success of Stearns’ ministry was almost unbelievable. Within months, he had baptized 900 people. Of those, 590 joined the Sandy Creek Church. Stearns helped organize other churches, too. It was not long before his ministry had spread throughout North Carolina and South Carolina, as well as northward into Virginia.

Morgan Edwards, a Welsh minister who would become one of Stearns’ contemporaries, wrote in 1772 that Stearns’ voice was “musical and strong, which he managed in such a manner, as one while to make soft impressions on the heart, and fetch tears from the eyes in a mechanical way; and anon to shake the nerves, and to throw the animal system into tumults and perturbations. All the Separate ministers copy him in tones of voice and actions body; and some few exceed him.”

Through the descriptions of Stearns’ style, which was adapted from Whitefield’s style, it’s easy to see that his influence still exists among many Baptist ministers in rural Appalachia today. The same sing-song preaching style — and the resulting emotional responses that it invokes among the congregation — can be found in rural Baptist churches even in the 21st century.

Eventually, Stearns had a large group of ministers under his wing, helping to spread his ministry — men like James Younger, Daniel Marshall, Philip Mulkey and John Newton (not the British minister who wrote “Amazing Grace”).

The Baptist teachings spread

If there was a single event that helped Stearns’ influence spread from the Carolinas and Virginia into other parts of Appalachia, it was the Regulators War in the late 1760s. A catalyst to the Revolutionary War, the Regulators War changed the Carolinas forever. One of the unofficial leaders of the Regulators was Herman Husbands — the founder of the Sandy Creek settlement where Stearns’ Baptist ministry was based.

By the time of the Regulators War, Stearns’ influence was beginning to fade. Scandal and controversy within the church had diminished his ministry, and he was advancing in age. But with the exodus from the Carolinas that followed the British government’s squelching of the Regulators rebellion, many of Stearns’ followers wound up deeper in Appalachia as the frontier was expanded.

The Separate Baptists of the Sandy Creek area basically went two directions: north and south. Those who went north spread into the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, while others entered the Clinch and Holston River valleys of southwest Virginia and eventually traveled through the Cumberland Gap into Tennessee and Kentucky.

Many of the North Carolinians who moved to East Tennessee were the white settlers who were the first to set up homesteads on the Cumberland Plateau. And, with them, they brought the Baptist teachings, the preaching style and the religious traditions of Shubal Stearns.

Stearns died on November 20, 1771 — two days before the 16th anniversary of the constitution of the Sandy Creek Church. When he died, his once-powerful ministry had been greatly diminished. But his influence was well-established, and Shubal Stearns is a name that should be synonymous with the Christian faith in the central Appalachians. If not for Stearns, it is likely that Baptist churches wouldn’t be the predominant denomination in the Cumberlands and the Appalachians today. Further, Stearns’ theology was one that was later summed up well by Rev. John Leland, who wrote that the most successful and spiritual preaching was “the Sovereign Grace of God, mixed with a little of what is called Arminianism.”

If you go into many Baptist churches in rural Appalachia today, you’ll still find the blurred lines between Calvinism and Arminianism. You’ll still find the sing-song preaching cadence that Stearns adopted from Whitefield, the early Methodist minister who criss-crossed the Atlantic. You’ll still find fellowship handshakes that began with Stearns, as well as foot-washings and laying of hands and anointing with oil, although those practices are not universal in Baptist churches.

The Holston Association, Tennessee’s first association of Baptist churches, was directly born of the Sandy Creek Association that was founded by Stearns. Its first moderator was Tidence Lane, who succeeded Stearns as the pastor at Sandy Creek. William Murphy, the Baptist minister who would carry the denomination to the Cumberlands, played an early leadership role, as well.

The Holston conference nearly split over the question of Calvinism. In 1775, the question was formally posed: “Is salvation by Christ made possible for every individual of the human race?” Most of the association sided with the Arminian viewpoint. Murphy was one of those who stubbornly insisted that the answer was “no.” Later, his Calvinist leanings were carried to the Cumberlands when he became the first Baptist minister to preach here.

Ultimate influence

By the first decade of the 19th century, all of the Separate Baptist churches that had roots in the preachings at Sandy Creek had faded into various Baptist unions. Many of those unions, including the Holston, later became a part of the Southern Baptist Convention.

But the influence of Stearns and the Sandy Creek Association remains undeniable. And from the former Separate Baptist churches that had roots in the teachings from Sandy Creek came several denominations that remain familiar today. Among them:

• The Separate Baptists in Christ, which began in Russell Springs, Ky., west of Somerset.

• Churches of Christ, a conservative and autonomous group of congregations that sprang up largely as a rebellion against the Calvinist teachings of the 17th century and 18th century Baptists.

• United Baptists, well over 100 of which remain throughout Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee and were born of the Campbell Reform in Kentucky.

• Primitive Baptists, the strictest adherents of the Calvinist doctrines, and still prominent in parts of the lower Mississippi Valley, Texas and other parts of the Deep South, as well as along the Atlantic Coast.

• Old Regular Baptists.

• Free Will Baptists, which can’t be traced to Stearns but became prolific in central Appalachia as former churches influenced by Stearns looked for reform.

• The Church of God, born of a United Missionary Baptist Church in Turtletown, Tenn. in the late 19th century.

Destinations

Victims of a shocking double-murder buried on a forgotten mountainside

A view of the valley at Bull Creek from the edge of the most recent logging operation. Clear-cutting has left extensive scars along the mountainsides, and these operations result in New River (and the Big South Fork further downstream) being muddy much of the summer months, but the valley floor beneath the clear cuts is beautiful.

The older I get, the more of a fan I become of old cemeteries. Not the well-kept and often-visited cemeteries so much as the forgotten cemeteries that have become lost in the forest.

“Forgotten cemeteries” is a bit of a misnomer, of course. These cemeteries usually aren’t forgotten at all. But they’re neglected, left to return to nature, and as the years go by fewer and fewer people know where they exist. Someday, if their stories aren’t told and preserved, they truly will be forgotten. I’ve written about many of these backwoods cemeteries in Scott County (see here and here and here for starters).

I enjoy finding the old cemeteries, then trying to discover the stories that they’re waiting to tell. All of these old cemeteries tell the stories of our past — some of them stories heretofore untold … or, at least, forgotten.

Take, for example, the Harness Cemetery near the base of Round Mountain above Scott County’s historic Bull Creek settlement. I ventured back to find this old cemetery today, after last visiting it more than 20 years ago. I was shocked to discover the story it tells — the story of one of the most gruesome murders in Scott County’s history.

Once I stumbled across old newspaper clippings of the 1889 double murder, I recalled reading them before — though I’m not sure when or where. Likely as not, someone shared them on Facebook. I had long forgotten them, though, until after visiting the graves of the murder victims today.

A little back story

In the spring, as the coronavirus pandemic gripped America and everything was shut down, there was little to do but stare at the walls and risk going crazy. So, like millions of other Americans, we started getting outside to shake off the cabin fever. We took a few Jeep rides up Bull Creek. It was my first time up Bull Creek — at least, my first time beyond the end of the gravel road — even though I’ve lived in Scott County for 41 years. It’s a beautiful place.

On one of those trips, we started up the mountains. Then, after reaching the right-of-way for the TVA transmission lines that run the length of the main ridge dividing the New River Valley through Norma from Brimstone Valley, I decided it was irresponsible to try to get my Jeep the rest of the way up the mountain. So, we followed a couple of unnamed trails through a series of clear-cuts until we finally reached a road leading off the mountain to Bull Creek United Baptist Church.

Things had changed so much since the last time I was in this part of the Cumberland Mountains that I couldn’t get my bearings until a return trip, when I realized that the trail we were on was actually traversing land I had hunted extensively when I was in my late teens. Back then, the area had been freshly clear-cut, and the old strip mines above Bull Creek were still in the early stages of nature’s reclamation.

Once I realized where we were, I remembered old gravestones that I used to visit while hunting in the area. Back then, they were nothing more than a couple of stones in a small grove of trees that had been left untouched by timber-cutters due to the presence of the graves. I decided to go back and search for them. As it turned out, finding them was easy; someone — presumably, descendants of those buried there — had built a fence around the graves, and there was a faint trail leading to them from the main ATV trail.

An 1889 double murder

Goldenrod grows alongside the Bull Creek Settlement Trail on the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area.

I drove up the mountain from the Brimstone side, by way of Slick Rock, crossing over the “Four Lane” Trail #1) that runs from Brimstone Recreation onto the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area and entering TWRA’s Bull Creek Settlement Trail. As the Bull Creek Settlement Trail (Trail #17) starts to drop off the ridge towards Bull Creek Baptist Church, Jerry Trail cuts off and leads to the Rob Sexton Cemetery a couple of miles up the ridge, at the base of Round Mountain.

The last time I was here, 20-plus years ago, Jerry Trail wasn’t an ATV trail at all; rather, it was an old road left by timber-cutters after they had finished their work. I stalked and shot at a nice whitetail buck from the road bed one October morning.

Anyway…

Just off the trail, hidden by 20 years of growth except for the faint trail leading to it, are a pair of graves. The headstones read, “Peter Harness,” and “Almiry Brown Harness – Born 1854.”

This picture, date unknown, was taken by Alonzo Lawson and posted online. It shows a fence that was built around the Harness graves in the early 2000s.
This picture, taken by me, shows how much things have changed in 20 years, as the Harness gravestones disappear into the new growth.
Peter Harness was a mentally-disabled teenager when he was murdered in 1889.
Almiry Brown Harness was apparently Talitha Brown Harness, the mother of Peter Harness, although she was not born in 1854.

The Almiry Harness headstone is confusing. There are no genealogical records of an Almiry Brown or an Almiry Harness. Apparently, the headstone belongs to Talitha Brown Harness, although she was born in 1824 — not 1854.

So who were Peter and Almiry or Talitha Harness?

Talitha Brown Harness was the wife of Rev. Thomas Harness. Peter Harness was the youngest of her seven children (some genealogical sources list nine children). He is described by newspaper articles from the day as being a “halfwit,” which in 19th century terms usually meant someone with a mental handicap.

There is a lot of mystery surrounding exactly who Rev. Thomas Harness and his wife were; little is known about their ancestors. Some genealogists list Thomas Harness as the son of John Harness and Mary Wilson Harness, who were descended from the Harnish family that migrated from Germany to America in the 18th century. However, this has been declared untrue. Other genealogists suggest that Rev. Thomas was the grandson of John and Mary Wilson Harness. Doubt has been cast on this, as well, by people who have conducted DNA research.

In any event, it would seem improbable to assume that the Thomas and Talitha Harness were not connected to the rest of the Harnesses of Bull Creek and Byrges Creek. The Harness family was one of the largest families in that part of Scott County, Tenn. at the time, along with the Lawson family and a handful of other families.

At some point in early June 1889, two men — identified by authorities and newspapers as Elias Reynolds and Thomas J. Lloyd — went to the home with intent to rob Thomas Harness, who they apparently believed had a lot of money.

As it turned out, Thomas Harness was away from home that night. His wife and the youngest of their children — 17-year-old Peter — were at home alone.

21-year-old Thomas Lloyd and his uncle, 45-year-old Elias Reynolds, were described in newspaper accounts of the time as “noted hard cases.” They allegedly reached the Harness home at midnight on a Wednesday night, where Mrs. Harness and her son were sleeping. Newspaper accounts indicate that Lloyd and Reynolds broke down the door and entered the home, shooting Talitha Harness without provocation.

Young Peter, awakened by the noise, rushed out another door and into the night, but the men chased him down and beat him to death with a garden hoe. They then dragged his body back to the house and set fire to the home. The grisly news accounts stated that neighbors came upon the scene the next morning and found nothing remaining except Peter’s legs (he had been dragged partially through the front door, with his legs sticking out of the home).

Nothing was ever written about what pointed authorities towards Lloyd and Reynolds. But they were named immediately as suspects, and a manhunt was started. They were later arrested at a saloon in Jellico and taken back to the Scott County Jail in Huntsville. That same night, a mob took the two men out of jail and lynched them — murdering them before they could stand trial.

It isn’t known exactly where the Harness home was located, though it was presumably nearby the gravesite. Nor is it known exactly where Lloyd and Reynolds were buried after they were hanged. It was written that Lloyd was buried six miles up the river from Huntsville, which likely means the Crowley Cemetery at Winona. There are some graves there marked only by fieldstone, and that’s where several members of his family are buried. (His parents, James Jonathan Lloyd and Elisabeth Reynolds Lloyd, were buried at Fairview Cemetery.)

The Knoxville news called the Harness murders “one of the most brutal tragedies in the history of East Tennessee,” and it would’ve certainly been one of the most brutal crimes in Scott County’s history — an elderly woman shot to death, her teenage son hacked to death with a garden hoe, and their bodies burned in an effort to cover up the crime.

Back down the mountain

After finding the Harness graves, I headed back down the mountain to the Bull Creek church. This trail has become one of my favorites in all of the Cumberland Mountains, traveling through the old strip pits along a ridge that eventually peters out at the church. I’m not sure how much longer the trail will be in good enough shape for my Jeep to make the trip; it’s getting rough now, and with no gas wells in operation in the area and no timber left to cut, there’s no reason for it to be kept up. It may soon become impassible except for SXS vehicles and ATVs that are better suited for off-road jaunts than my old Jeep.

In the meantime, this is a beautiful area. But it seems somewhat depressing that two people who met such tragic ends on this mountainside have no one left to tend to their graves, far off the beaten path.

A field of asters bloom in a reclaimed strip mine above Bull Creek.
The trail leading off the mountain at Bull Creek passes through a unique forest in an old strip pit.
A view of the valley at Bull Creek from the edge of the most recent logging operation. Clear-cutting has left extensive scars along the mountainsides, and these operations result in New River (and the Big South Fork further downstream) being muddy much of the summer months, but the valley floor beneath the clear cuts is beautiful.

An old newspaper story from June 1889…

A HORRIBLE CRIME

Frightful Work of Two Scott County Desperadoes

A minister’s aged wife and son slain in cold blood

The purpose of the fiends was a pitiful robbery

KNOXVILLE, JUNE 7 — Particulars of one of the most brutal tragedies in the history of East Tennessee has just reached here from an out-of-the-way section of Scott County. E. R. Reynolds, aged 45, and Thos. J. Lloyd, aged 21, both noted hard cases, went to the house of Rev. Jacob Harness, a Baptist minister, believing him to have a large amount of money concealed in the house. They reached the house about midnight on Wednesday night and demanded admission.

Rev. Harness was away from home, and his wife and a half-witted son aged 16 were sleeping in the same room. Mrs. Harness, who was about 50 years of age, went to the door and told the drunken cutthroats that they must leave. They broke down the door and rushed in, shooting the old lady dead in her tracks the first thing. The boy, awakened by the noise, rushed out at another door. They followed him out and, overtaking him, beat him to death with a garden hoe. They then carried him back and threw him in the doorway, his legs protruding. They next ransacked the house, secured $74, and, to cover up their horrible crime, applied the torch. Neighbors next morning found the limbs of the young man and that was all.

The murderers were arrested in a saloon at Jellico last night and officers started to Huntsville, the county seat of Scott, with the prisoners. It is reported here tonight that they were taken from jail at an early hour this morning and lynched. The rumor has not been confirmed.

Destinations

The mountains are calling: Climbing to the top of Scott County, Tenn.

A panoramic view from an unnamed mountain peak that is the sixth-highest point in Scott County.

“The mountains are calling and I must go.”

Well over 100 years since John Muir’s death, that famous quote by the great American conservationist still rings true. For all who have the mountains in their blood, the mystique of these towering landforms still draws us.

The mountains have been calling me for a while, but it’s been nearly impossible to get away from work. On Wednesday, I decided, I would make time to get away. So after finishing up some chores before lunch, I jumped in my Jeep and hit the road for the mountains.

Climb to the top of the 10 highest mountain peaks in Scott County, Tenn. That’s what I want to do. I knew I couldn’t knock out all 10 in half a day; not even close. In fact, that’s a task that’s best reserved for the cold season, when there are no snakes out. I’m not especially afraid of snakes, but visiting Scott County’s tallest peaks involves wading through lots of reclaimed strip pits, where you can’t see your feet below you, and the depths of the Cumberland Mountains are home to the largest timber rattlers in Tennessee. (As an added bonus, this may be the worst year for seed ticks — those tiny satan’s spawn that emerge in early autumn — that I’ve ever seen.)

This was more of a scouting trip — an opportunity to gather general information about the best places to leave the road and start hoofing it near the base of each peak. And if I could knock a couple of them out, without getting snake-bitten or tick-eaten, all the better. Besides, there’s a little extra incentive for traveling into the mountains this time of year. While many folks will tell you that mid-to-late October is the best time to be in the mountains (and it’s certainly a good time; I’ll not argue that point), a month to six weeks earlier is pretty good, too. It’s this time of year that the mountains come alive with late-season wildflowers. And this summer — relatively cool and relatively wet — has made for an excellent early-autumn wildflower season. I could stand on some peaks on Wednesday and see swaths of color in power line rights-of-way and old surface mines near other peaks over a mile away. Most of the wildflowers were asters and ironweed, but there were also goldenrods and many others.

Ironweed blooms alongside Trail #1 along the tops of the mountains.

While most of my exploring is done in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, I’ve had a growing fascination with the Cumberland Mountains, and especially with the communities surrounding them, for the past several years. I grew up hunting and roaming along the western slopes of the Cumberlands, primarily in places like Brimstone and Indian Fork. I have vague memories of my father driving us deeper into the mountain — places like Gobey — on leaf-peeping tours when I was a kid and he worked for West Coal Corporation, which mined a lot of the Cumberland Mountains. More recently, I’ve begun to familiarize myself with places like Smokey Creek and Bull Creek, and the peaks that tower over those places. Their beauty is incomprehensible.

The Appalachian Mountains, of course, pale to the Rockies. And, within the Appalachians, the Cumberland Mountains pale to the Smokies. But in mountains large or small, there’s mystique. Perhaps it’s because there is no taming a mountain. These giants have been stripped of their timber, stripped for their coal, left scarred and battered by generations of human activity, and still they stand — tall and proud. It’s little wonder John Muir was so infatuated by mountains.

A variety of wild sunflower blooms along the mountaintops.

Muir, who was so in love with America’s mountain ranges that he became known as “John of the Mountains,” first laid eyes on mountains right here in the Cumberlands, during his 1867 journey to the Gulf of Mexico, which he wrote about extensively in his diary. He called these mountains the “most sublime and comprehensive picture that ever entered my eyes.”

The tallest peaks in the Cumberlands stand only a little more than 3,500 ft. in elevation. Within Scott County, there are seven peaks that are above 3,000 ft. in elevation, ranging from 3,030 ft. to 3,250 ft. All seven — and the 10 highest peaks in the county overall — are located between Brimstone and Smokey Junction. They are, in order:

• Burge Mountain (elevation 3,250 ft.)
• Walnut Knob (elevation 3,250 ft.)
• Guinea Hill Knob (elevation 3,250 ft.)
• An unnamed peak close to Smoky Mountain (elevation 3,210 ft.)
• High Point (elevation 3,190 ft.)
• An unnamed peak above Mill Creek (elevation 3,110 ft.)
• Norman Pond Knob (elevation 3,030 ft.)
• Signal Mountain (elevation 2,914 ft.)
• An unnamed peak just north of the 3,110 ft. unnamed peak (elevation 2,910 ft.)
• Gibson Knob (elevation 2,904 ft.)

Those are the peaks I want to visit. To determine the 10 tallest peaks, I used the definitions of the Union Internationale des Associations d’Alpinisme (UIAA, or the International Climbing & Mountaineering Federation), which defines a mountain peak as having a prominence of at least 30 meters (90 ft.). That is to say, the peak rises at least 90 ft. above the surrounding terrain. Several of the ridgelines in this part of the Cumberlands are tall enough to fall within the 10 highest elevations in Scott County, but they don’t classify as a mountain peak. For example, there’s a point on the ridgeline overlooking Smokey Creek where the elevation is 3,010 ft., the eighth-highest elevation in Scott County. But the knoll — Bear Knob — has a prominence of only 80 ft., which hardly makes it a peak.

By contrast, nearby Burge Mountain has a prominence of 390 ft., Walnut Knob has a prominence of 360 ft. and Guinea Hill Knob has a prominence of 340 ft. The large prominence of any of the peaks in this area is Signal Mountain. At 482 ft., this peak stands as high over the surrounding ridgeline as a typical overlook in the Big South Fork NRRA stands over the river.

(Fun fact: By UIAA definitions, a summit is required to have a prominence of 300 meters, or 980 ft. By this definition, Scott County has only one summit. That will be the subject of a future post.)

To get to the mountains, I headed south on Brimstone Road before exiting the main road at Chimney Hollow, where the old Brimstone Railroad siding and coal tipple used to be, and climbing to the top of the ridge about 1,000 ft. in elevation above Brimstone Creek.

The road emerges on the ridgetop near the base of Signal Mountain, one of the 10 highest mountain peaks in Scott County (elevation 2,914 ft.). It merges with Trail #1, the old coal haul road that runs the length of the ridge from near Huntsville into Anderson County, beginning on Brimstone Recreation and continuing onto the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area.

My trip was 34 miles from the time I exited Brimstone Road until the time I arrived at U.S. Hwy. 27 north of Wartburg. I had planned to drive to the highest point in Scott County, before exiting the mountains by way of the Emory River Valley into Morgan County.

This is not a fun trip for hard-core off-road adventurers because the entire trip is on gravel — former coal haul roads that have since been maintained for hauling timber out of the mountains and also so that Atlas Energy Co. can keep check on its numerous natural gas wells in the mountains.

One of the many natural gas wells along the ridgetops.

There are several ways to enter and exit this part of the country and many of them are gravel roads: Slick Rock, via Brimstone Road; Chimney Hollow, via Brimstone Road; Lone Mountain, via Brimstone Road; Smokey Creek; Gobey; and S.R. 116 in Anderson County. There are plenty of technical and some not-so-technical ATV trails in the mountains, but the gravel roads traverse the entire range. To be sure, these aren’t roads you would want to take your daily-driver SUV on, but they also aren’t roads that require you to engage 4WD at any point most of the year. (An exception is around the base of Round Mountain if you’re taking Trail #1 south from closer to Huntsville. As the road climbs several hundred feet, it is usually quite rutted and 4WD is needed.) There is some mud, even during this time of year. Mainly, though, there are overhanging weeds and branches that can scratch the clear-coat, and plenty of ruts and potholes that will jar your nuts off their bolts.

It would be interesting to know how the various peaks in these mountains came by their names. The first one, Signal Mountain, is obvious. Even today, there is a radio transmission tower at the peak, making it easily identifiable from miles away.

Most of the peaks that are among Scott County’s 10 highest are situated along the main ridge that runs north-to-south from just south of Huntsville all the way to Beech Grove in Anderson County, along S.R. 116. Interestingly, New River borders this ridge on either end; its headwaters are located along S.R. 116 on the south end of the ridge and the river divides the ridge from Huntsville on the north end. There are several mountains that extend off this ridge to either the east or the west. The ridge itself stands between Brimstone and Norma/Smokey Junction, and it peters out just across the river from Huntsville. At Guinea Hill Knob, where Scott, Morgan and Anderson counties all meet, another ridge line heads northeast, eventually petering out at Smokey Junction. The remaining of Scott County’s 10 highest peaks are located along that ridgeline. To the south of Guinea Hill Knob, another ridge line extends through Frozen Head State Forest and deep into Morgan County before petering out near Petros and the old Brushy Mountain prison. The three ridges merge at Guinea Hill Knob, my destination for the day.

Signal Mountain is the second mountain peak along the main ridge south of Huntsville, as it starts to climb higher into the sky. The first is Round Mountain, above Bull Creek — which, with an elevation of 2,727 ft., is the 16th-highest peak in Scott County.

This picture doesn’t do justice to the size of this landslide, which took out the side of the mountain and left the natural gas pipeline exposed. It’s a gigantic slide that is hard to depict with a 2D picture.

Trail #1, this area’s original coal haul road, goes out of its way to curve around the extensive west slopes of Signal Mountain, which extend like a finger pointing directly at Lone Mountain in the valley below. There are occasional gaps where views of the valley below — and the mountains beyond — can be seen. Among the mountaintops that can be viewed in the distance are Lowe Mountain, Griffith Mountain and Flower Mountain.

Eventually, Trail #1 passes below the next peak: Gibson Knob (elevation 2,904, the 10th highest peak in Scott County). Gibson Knob is the mountain that towers over the headwaters of Bull Creek. In fact, Bull Creek is formed by the waters flowing off Gibson Knob’s north slopes.

It is surprising that the mountain on which Gibson Knob is situated doesn’t have a name; it is one of the most prominent mountains, in terms of overall land mass, in the area.

The Cumberland Mountains as seen from a TVA right-of-way just south of Signal Mountain.

In any event, south of Gibson Knob, Trail #1 continues along a saddle that becomes so narrow you can actually see off into the Smokey Creek Valley to the left and into the Brimstone Creek Valley to the right. It’s the narrowest the main ridge is at any point. The actual valley to the left is Little Brimstone Creek, which empties into Smokey Creek between Cave Branch and Shack’s Creek.

The next peak along the route is an unnamed peak that stands at 2,910 ft. in elevation, making it the ninth-highest peak in Scott County. Beyond that peak, the ridge again narrows between the headwaters of Shack’s Creek to the east and Second Laurel Branch to the right, which empties into Mill Creek above Lone Mountain.

For the entirety of the trip thus far, Trail #1 has stayed on the Brimstone side of the ridge. But beyond the headwaters of Shack’s Creek, Mill Creek Valley disappears to the right, as the road moves to the Smokey Creek side of the ridge to traverse the base of another unnamed peak. This one is part of a larger unnamed mountain (again, it’s somewhat surprising that it isn’t named) that stands at 3,110 ft. in elevation, making it the sixth-highest peak in Scott County.

Flower Mountain, as seen from an unnamed mountain peak across the valley.

It isn’t a name that’s ever going to appear on a topographical map, but I’m going to refer to this mountain as Beetle Mountain, named for some sort of noisy flying beetle that I encountered as I was hiking to the peak. I’ve never seen these bugs outside the mountains. They let out a scream of sorts when they take flight, and nearly scared the pants off me every time they burst out of a tree next to me. Standing near the peak of Beetle Mountain, you can see Sandy Gap Mountain to the south, Flower Mountain to the west and, beyond Flower Mountain, farmland in Morgan and Fentress counties is just visible through the late summer haze.

A panoramic view from an unnamed mountain peak that is the sixth-highest point in Scott County.

On the south side of Beetle Mountain, Trail #1 switches back twice as it drops in elevation and meets the old road that climbs up the mountain from the head of Mill Creek, above Lone Mountain. A short distance beyond this, the road meets the Scott-Morgan county line for the first time. It is at this location that surveyors back in 1849 — when Scott County was formed by act of the Tennessee General Assembly — for reasons unknown made a straight line northwest from the ridge on which we’re driving, across Mill Creek and across Brimstone Creek, to the southern tip of Griffith Mountain.

This is the largest snake skin I’ve ever seen. I’m not disappointed that I didn’t run into the dude who outgrew it. Located near the top of Beetle Mountain.

For the duration of this trip, the road will roughly follow the Scott County line. When surveyors drew the county line in 1849, they stayed atop the ridge lines, generally traveling along the peak of each mountain. At Guinea Hill Knob, which is the highest point in Scott County, they turned to the east and began following another ridge line that towers over Smokey Creek to the south as it heads back to New River above Smokey Junction.

An elk rub near the top of Beetle Mountain.

Jehu Phillips (1821-1910) was part of the surveying team. He described their efforts this way: “We began at a point on the east bank of New River and about two miles from the mouth of Beech Fork then ran southwest crossing Smokey Creek in all about eight miles to the Morgan County line on the mountain between Smokey and Brimstone then Northwest about ten miles crossing Clear Fork just below the mouth of Skull Creek then on to New River at the mouth of Hone Creek, then down New River (or Big South Fork of the Cumberland River) about six miles to the mouth of Anderson’s Branch, thence northwest about nineteen miles to the Kentucky line.”

Bear poop near the top of Beetle Mountain.

Just to the south of where the road meets the county line, Sandy Gap Mountain towers to the right. The mountain is easily recognizable by the mostly treeless east-facing slope. The elevation of the peak is 3,170 ft. It would be one of the tallest peaks in Scott County, but it is actually located in Morgan County.

At the base of Sandy Gap Mountain’s peak is where West Coal Company’s Brimstone coal washer once stood. This general area was the site of some of the most extensive strip mining in the Cumberlands — around the slopes of Sandy Gap, Smoky Mountain, and the ridgelines in between.

Beyond Sandy Gap, the road begins traveling around the headwaters of the Emory River. There was once a railroad that ran along the Emory, and cable cars were used to transport coal off the mountain near Norman Pond Knob (elevation 3,030 ft., the seventh-highest peak in Scott County), which is the next peak along the way. It is Norman Pond Knob that towers over the headwaters of Smokey Creek.

From Norman Pond Knob, the road continues along Ligias Ridge, the highest point of this ridgetop aside from the mountain peaks. At 2,970 ft. in elevation, Ligias Ridge would stand as the ninth-highest peak in Scott County if it could be defined as a mountain peak. However, the highest point of Ligias Ridge has a prominence of only 80 ft. and therefore isn’t actually a mountain peak according to UIAA standards.

Next along the route is Walnut Knob (elevation 3,250 ft.). As was the case at Norman Pond Knob and Guinea Hill Knob, the surveyors in 1849 walked to the top of the peak instead of going around the base of the peaks.

Flowers bloom along the mountaintop.

At 3,250 ft., Walnut Knob (and Burge Mountain between Smokey Creek and New River) are tied with Guinea Hill Knob for the highest point in Scott County. Burge Mountain is usually listed first because it has the largest prominence (390 ft.), followed by Walnut Knob (360 ft.) and Guinea Hill Knob (340 ft.). But Guinea Hill Knob is the most interesting of the peaks because it’s one of the few spots in the Cumberlands where you can stand in three counties at the same time. Scott, Morgan and Anderson counties all come together on this peak.

Just past Walnut Knob, the elevation dips ever so slightly. This is Guinea Gap, the saddle that divides the headwaters of Asher Fork, which empties into Smokey Creek, from the headwaters of the Emory River. And, rising just beyond Guinea Gap, is Guinea Ridge Knob.

The boundary line of the North Cumberland WMA.

Leaving my Jeep in an old strip pit on the west side of Guinea Hill Knob, I begin the 340 ft. climb to the peak. It isn’t the first time I’ve visited Guinea Hill, nor will it be the last. There’s too much vegetation at the top to say that the view from here is stunning. But by picking and choosing your vantage points, you can see the Emory River headwaters to the southwest (and on the ridge on the opposite side of the valley is the Frozen Head State Forest), the Buffalo Mountain Wind Farm to the south, and the headwaters of Smokey Creek to the east.

Bluffs line the peak at Guinea Hill Knob.
This picture is from my last visit to Guinea Hill Knob, four years ago.
Old power lines that once supplied electricity to a radio transmission tower atop Guinea Hill Knob.
The concrete base for an old radio transmission tower, which I would imagine was installed by West Coal Company.
The TVA windmills at Buffalo Mountain are visible from Guinea Ridge Knob.
More ironweed blooming along the mountaintop.

From Guinea Ridge Knob, I retrace my route for a short distance until I meet the old coal haul road that climbs the mountain from the headwaters of the Emory River above Gobey. Lyme Timber, the company that originally purchased Brimstone before much of it was incorporated into the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area, is cutting the last of the available timber from the Emory River tract on the mountains’ west slopes. As I made my way towards the valley below, I bumped into Lyme’s night watchman — an old friend who I hadn’t seen in nearly 20 years, who isn’t even from this area and, last I knew, lived in McMinn County. These mountains hold surprises in more ways than one.

The first time I can recall coming off the mountain here was in October 1988. In fact, I can tell you the exact date: October 22, 1988. The University of Tennessee football team was playing at Memphis State that day. The Vols were 0-6, almost unthinkable. Someone named Joe had climbed onto the roof of a Wartburg convenience store and was threatening to not come down until Tennessee won a game (it was a spinoff stunt that was being done elsewhere, too). Tennessee beat Memphis that day, 38-25, to start a 5-game winning streak to end the season and set the stage for the greatest decade in the history of the Vols’ football program. That day was the first time I can recall listening to John Ward and Bill Anderson, Tennessee’s legendary broadcast team, as their voices wafted into the car from WECO Radio in the valley as we traveled through the mountains.

This part of Morgan County is one of the most beautiful places in East Tennessee. In fact, the Emory River was the first mountain stream that John Muir encountered, and it inspired him to write this passage:

“Its banks are luxuriantly peopled with rare and lovely flowers and overreaching trees, making one of nature’s coolest and most hospitable places. Every tree, every flower, every ripple and eddy of this lovely stream seemed solemnly to feel the presence of the great Creator. Lingered in this sanctuary a long time thanking the Lord with all my heart for his goodness in allowing me to enter and enjoy it.”

Asters bloom along the Cumberland Trail, just to the south of Guinea Ridge Knob.
Destinations, Outdoors

The Chimney Rocks fire fundamentally changed ‘The Leaners’ at Station Camp

Flames illuminate the famed Chimney Rocks at Station Camp in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area during the 2016 wildfire named for the landform. (National Park Service photo; all others on this page taken by the author.)

It has been four years since the devastating 2016 wildfire season that left an indelible impact on much of East Tennessee. The deadly Chimney Tops Fire that began in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Gatlinburg and eventually spread into Gatlinburg was the most famous example, and the damage from the fire can still be seen simply by driving along the parkway through downtown Gatlinburg and looking at the mountains that tower over the town. But there were plenty of others with long-lasting impacts, like the fire that charred the area around the Devils Racetrack on the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area near Caryville, and, closer to home, the Chimney Rocks Fire that burned several thousand acres of the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area.

On the rim of the gorge encasing the Big South Fork River, just above the Station Camp crossing (as the crow flies), is a feature called “The Leaners.” Essentially, this is a rock formation where years of erosion left pieces of the sandstone cap rock exposed and jutting out above the ridge-top surrounding it, creating a maze of free-standing rocks pockmarked with natural passageways of varying sizes.

The Leaners is easily a Top 10 landform (in my book, at least) in a national park that is jam-packed with spectacular landforms. I used to visit the rock formation every year about this time — around Labor Day, when pawpaws are ripe and ready to be harvested. There was a reason for my visit: On the east edge of The Leaners was a pawpaw tree. It was a bit unusual; pawpaws are usually found near water — 500 ft. below, along the riverbank, not up here, on the edge of the plateau. But there it was, and the novelty of it made it an enticing visit.

Pawpaws were an important native fruit for our Appalachian ancestors. A soft fruit with tropical qualities, chilled pawpaws were said to be George Washington’s favorite dessert, and Thomas Jefferson had a grove of pawpaw trees planted at his Monticello estate. Their fragile nature make them unsuitable for commercial marketing, so most people have never gotten to experience the unique taste of a pawpaw fruit. But they’re good — as long as you take care to not eat the seeds, which contain toxins.

A pawpaw from a tree growing among The Leaners, a rock formation near Station Camp in the Big South Fork NRRA.

Sunday afternoon marked my first trip to The Leaners since the Chimney Rocks Fire. It never occurred to me that the area may have been damaged by the fire, until I was making the drive down Station Camp Road. Then it dawned on me that, in fact, the fire had probably scorched the forest around the rock formation, because it was within the containment zone that was established by National Park Service firefighters.

Most wildfires in this part of the country quickly burn themselves out, or are quickly contained. They usually burn only the available fuel (leaf matter and dead trees) in the understory, their flames seldom crowning and creating the sort of raging infernos that can easily claim lives and property, like we see on an annual basis in the western U.S.

But 2016 was far from a typical year — as the Gatlinburg fire showed us. Like so many of the other fires in East Tennessee that year, including the one at Chimney Tops and the Devils Racetrack, the Chimney Rocks fire in the Big South Fork destroyed large stands of mature timber, either because the flames crowned, or because they burned hot enough and long enough to kill the trees at their base.

Old Station Road — the roadbed that marked the original route into the old Station Camp community along the Big South Fork River — was used by the NPS as a firebreak.

Old Station Road, the original road that transported horses and buggies — and, later, automobiles — from the top of the plateau into the river gorge and the Station Camp community along the river itself, was used by the National Park Service firefighters as a firebreak. It had been decades since the roadbed had seen vehicular traffic, but was used by local horseback riders as a shortcut to get from the Station Camp Trailhead to the river crossing. Firefighters used a dozer to build a containment line along the roadbed, which traverses the ridge-tops south of the modern road before entering the gorge along its eastern escarpment.

Old Station Road is being left to return to nature since it was used as a containment line for the Chimney Rocks Fire in 2016.

There is no equestrian traffic on Old Station Road these days. Following its use as a containment line for the Chimney Rocks Fire, the National Park Service gated the roadbed on either end to prevent access by trail riders. As the forest canopy has died out since the fire, the unshaded roadbed has become a wild tangle of weeds in places; in other places, it’s covered in grasses (as seen above). It’s still usable as a footpath, despite the many fallen trees that block the route, but that will change in the years ahead as nature continues to take its course.

The forest within the Chimney Rocks Fire containment zone looks like a logging area, with much of its mature timber now gone.

I had seen the impacts of the Chimney Rocks Fire from vehicle on my many trips along Station Camp Road in the past four years, but that didn’t necessarily prepare me for what I saw as I strolled along the edge of the fire containment zone. The roadbed, used as a firebreak, offered a sharp contrast for the forest surrounding it. The forests on its east and south sides were as they’ve always been: deep and lush, a mix of the oaks and pines that are typical of the upland forests within the Big South Fork region, their understory comprised of stands of laurel and berry bushes like huckleberry and blueberry. The forests on its north and west sides more closely resembled the clear-cuts I’m accustomed to in my old stomping grounds of the Cumberland Mountains, devoid of much of the mature timber that once covered the ridge tops.

I’m used to seeing wildfires wipe out the forest understory; I’m not used to seeing them take the forest canopy, as well. But by the time the Chimney Rocks Fire began in 2016, we were well into the worst drought this region had seen in a decade. The forests were tinderboxes, where wildfires could burn fast and hot. And the rugged terrain hampered efforts to combat the fire at Station Camp. Air support was utilized to some extent, but for the most part firefighters were forced to build a containment line, set backfires, and then let the fire simply burn itself out. It was the best approach to prevent the fire from scorching even more territory than it did, but the collateral damage within the containment zone was substantial.

The charred remains of dead timber along a ridge top above the Big South Fork River, with the understory already being reclaimed with weeds and thorns.

Even as the Big South Fork NRRA — established by Congress in 1974, its lands acquired and facilities constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers over the next decade-plus — continues to recover from years of mining and timber-cutting that depleted most of its natural resources, there have been several events of the past generation that have helped shape this geologically-rich and biologically-diverse wilderness area.

The first was the major — and completely unpredicted — winter storm of February 1998, when nearly 20 inches of wet, heavy snow accumulated after a phenomenon known as dynamic cooling caused what was expected to be more than an inch of rain into an extremely damaging snowstorm. It was the most damaging winter storm in the history of the northern Cumberland Plateau, taking out virtually every power line and blocking every roadway in the region. Within the Big South Fork, it toppled countless shortleaf pines and caused extensive tree damage in other species, as well.

Less than 18 months later, the Southern pine beetle infestation was well underway in the region, killing all of the mature loblolly pines that hadn’t been taken out by the previous year’s winter storm. Together, the winter storm and the pine beetle created impenetrable thickets on many of the ridge tops within the BSF that hamper free movement within the backcountry to this very day, more than two decades later. Most of the backcountry roads that remained open outside the gorge, up until that point, were rendered impassible by the deadfall and were never reopened. The result, on most ridge tops where trails haven’t been cleared, is huge thickets where pine forests once dominated, tangles of mountain laurel with jumbled, rotting pine logs littering the forest floor, that can be as dangerous as they are inconvenient. Most hikers never leave the trails to experience these thickets, but hunters and off-trail wanderers will be quick to tell you that they’re enough to make preachers cuss, and that there are places where even black bears and wild hogs won’t venture.

More recently, the hemlock woolly adelgid infestation began. It continues to this day and, except for areas around trails and points of interest that are being protected by NPS botanists, this event is also transforming the forests in an extremely unfortunate way.

And, then, in 2016, the Chimney Rocks Fire fundamentally changed the forest as far as it could reach, completely wiping out the understory and killing much of the mature timber, as well. What has resulted as the dead trees have begun to fall and the new growth has created a tangle of unforgiving briars and brambles are impenetrable thickets much the same as those created by the events of 1998 and 1999, except on a broader scale within the impacted area.

Areas scorched by the Chimney Rocks Fire in 2016 are mostly impenetrable today.
Old Station Road dips into a drainage and crosses a small stream about halfway between Station Camp Road and the rim of the river gorge.

About halfway along the 1.6-mile length of Old Station Road between Station Camp Road and where it turns down the steep escarpment of the river gorge, the roadbed dips into a drainage and crosses a small stream. As the elevation drops, the damage caused by the fire becomes less evident. In fact, with four years of new leaf litter covering the forest floor, the forest looks largely unchanged, except for an occasional charred stump. The fire burned through the forest understory here, but didn’t impact the canopy. If not for the mountain laurel — it still grows lush and green on the south side of the firebreak; it is dead and resembles tangled wooden skeletons on the north side — the fire’s impact would hardly be visible at all.

As the road dips further into the drainage, the fire damage becomes less obvious. Within a few years, it won’t be visible at all. And one hopes that the stream below served as a natural firebreak; that there wasn’t enough wind or that the fire wasn’t hot enough to jump the branch and continue burning on the opposite side.

But then, as the early evening sun beats down, a south-facing slope comes into view, like a hiker who is venturing upon a clear-cut area in a mountain forest. This is where the hottest part of the fire swept through the landscape as it burned from north to south four years ago.

Old Station Road climbs back to the top of the plateau, passing beneath a bluff wall that was once a beautiful, lush opening filled with ferns but is now a thorny, charred mess.

Near where Old Station Road dips into the BSF river gorge, the fire broke containment and the roadbed today is impassible through that area.

As Old Station Road nears the eastern rim of the river gorge, the roadbed disappears into a wild growth of weeds and tangles. It is here that the Chimney Rocks Fire broke containment, leaping across the firebreak and continuing south the ridge tops that stand sentry over the river below.

The charred remain of a hemlock tree is proof that the fire burned through the understory within the gorge area, but the forest canopy in the background is proof that the fire wasn’t as hot at this elevation.

As I left the roadway and wandered beneath the first bluff line that signifies the rim of the gorge, I notice that the fire damage is far less apparent off the ridge tops than it is on it. For whatever reason, the fire didn’t burn as hot at these lower elevations. That gives me hope that The Leaners might have been spared. They’re technically still on the ridge top, but separated from the main ridge by a bluff line; they’re at the same elevation that I’m standing now. Besides, I’m reminded that even if the fire burned right up to the edge of the bluff above, the breaks in the rock might have served as a natural firebreak and spared the trees on top of the freestanding rocks.

Then I round a bend in the bluff, The Leaners come into view, and it’s immediately apparent that the fire didn’t spare this incredible landform, after all.

Before the fire: A picture from The Leaners in 2013.
After the fire: A picture from The Leaners in 2020.

I’m not sure what I expected, but I sure didn’t expect what I saw. The Leaners were still there, of course; rocks don’t just melt from the heat of fire. But the landform is fundamentally, characteristically changed. Before, this was a maze of rocks that was shaded by hemlocks growing inside the maze and the mixed oak forest that grew atop the massive, free-standing sandstone. Those trees are almost entirely gone. In the absence of the shade that the forest canopy once provided, new growth is prevalent. The forest floor inside The Leaners was once open and clean; now it is being taken over by weeds and brambles and thorny thickets.

Before the fire: The Leaners in 2013.
After the fire: The Leaners in 2020.
Before the fire: The Leaners in 2013.
After the fire: The Leaners in 2020.

I can name on one hand the places within the Big South Fork that I enjoy exploring as much as The Leaners. So I was almost physically sick when I discovered how much the fire had changed this point overlooking the river gorge below.

And the pawpaw tree, where I used to race to beat the raccoons and bears for the tender fruit that it produced around the end of August or the first of September each year, was gone, of course. It fell victim to the fire like so many of the other trees that once grew in these woods.

Overlooking the Big South Fork River gorge from the south side of The Leaners. The terrain beyond would once have been invisible during the summer months, but now most of the mature forest is dead or dying as a result of the 2016 wildfire.
New growth: A bigleaf magnolia grows where wildfire once scorched the forest understory.

Nature is resilient, of course. The forests have already begun to regrow, which is why the thorny and weedy tangles exist. Just outside The Leaners is a young bigleaf magnolia — the tree with the largest leaf and largest flower of any tree in North America, and found only in the Big South Fork and limited other areas in the Southeast and parts of Mexico. There’s also a massive hemlock and massive white oak growing side-by-side on the edge of the deeper forest where the fire didn’t impact the canopy. These trees somehow managed to escape the timber-cutters saws in the early 20th century, and also escaped the Chimney Rocks Fire in 2016.

A massive hemlock and massive white oak grow side by side on the fringe of the deeper forest where the canopy wasn’t impacted by the 2016 wildfire.

On the ground, small, newly-fallen acorns are scattered about from the oak tree that towers overhead. Some of these acorns will take root, become seedlings, and grow into oak trees that will help replenish the forest as it continues to regrow and reshape in the aftermath of the fire.

At some point, years from now, The Leaners will look exactly as they did when I last visited them in 2016, just weeks before the destructive wildfire. The rocks will be shaded by massive stands of timber that grow overhead, the hemlocks that benefit from their shade will grow between them, and the areas between the rocks will more closely resemble a picnic area than a wild thicket.

But that change will take decades, and won’t be completed until well after I’ve left this earth — and perhaps my kids, as well.

As for the pawpaw tree that once drew me here, the renegade tree so out of place away from the groves of his brethren that grow along the swampy and marshy bottomland areas, will a passing bird or bear ever drop another seed here that grows into a fruit-producing pawpaw much like the ones once enjoyed by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson?

The odds are against it. But the new forest that results from the Chimney Rocks Fire will hold its own secrets that await discovery. Maybe someday my grandkids will happen through here and wonder — much like I did the first time I was here — if they’re the first person to ever step foot on this place.

A lush stand of ferns grows where there was only black, charred ground just four years ago.
Weather

A super rarity: Twin hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico?

The experts were calling for a strong finish to the 2020 hurricane season in the Atlantic basin, and it looks like things are about to get really interesting in the Gulf of Mexico.

It looks increasingly likely that there will be two organized tropical cyclones in the GOMEX simultaneously next week.

The first is Tropical Depression 14, which formed a few days ago and is currently getting its act together in the Caribbean. It may briefly reach hurricane strength before reaching the Yucatan Peninsula Saturday evening, and then is currently forecast to regain strength as it reemerges over the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico and takes aim at the Texas coast. The current forecast brings it ashore east of Houston late in the day on Tuesday as a weak, Category 1 hurricane.

The second is Tropical Depression 13. It actually formed first out of the two disturbances, and has been marching across the Atlantic high seas. It is likely to be a tropical storm by late Friday, as it deals an indirect blow to the northern Leeward Islands.

As Tropical Depression 14 is potentially making landfall near Houston, TD 13 could be preparing to make landfall somewhere along the Florida panhandle. Currently, it is forecast to make landfall as a weak, Category 1 hurricane. But if either of these storms is going to rapidly develop and become a stronger storm, it seems like TD 13 has the most potential.

The next few days will be interesting. TD 13 is traveling over some very warm waters that are ripe for development. However, there should be sufficient mid-level wind shear to inhibit that development somewhat. If and when that wind shear relaxes, then conditions will be better for this developing storm to become a hurricane. If it were to strengthen more than expected, or more quickly than expected, it could wind up dealing a direct blow to South Florida before it potentially gets into the Gulf of Mexico.

As of this evening, models showed a pretty wide range of possibilities with this storm. Some solutions actually sheared it apart completely, while others showed it becoming a major hurricane.

Having two hurricanes ongoing simultaneously in the Atlantic basin is somewhat unusual — though certainly not unheard of nor necessarily uncommon. But having two hurricanes at once in the Gulf of Mexico would be rare indeed. In fact, it appears that it’s never happened before.

The most interesting scenario with these two storms is the Fujiwhara Effect. That’s where two cyclones that are close together actually feed off one another and close the distance between themselves. It has happened only twice that meteorologists are aware of: In September 1933 and in June 1959. One important thing to note: If the Fujiwhara Effect were to happen, it would not cause the two storms to become one and form a monster hurricane; that’s the stuff of SciFi movies. In fact, just the opposite is likely: the Fujiwhara Effect would possibly cause one of the storms or even both of them to weaken.

A Pinch of Politics

America’s tightening presidential race

As a University of Tennessee football fan in the 2000s, “prevent defense” became feared terminology in my house. We ripped John Chavis (then the defensive coordinator at UT) for his Mustang package (which was just another way of saying dime defense, where an extra defensive back is added on the field).

Chavis was a fine defensive coordinator for three stops in the SEC — Tennessee, LSU and, to a much lesser extent, Texas A&M — before his career petered out at Arkansas, but for Vols fans in the early 2000s, the Mustang package become synonymous with soft coverage and prevent defense.

There was more than anecdotal evidence to back up fans’ fear of Tennessee’s penchant for jumping into a prevent defense a little bit too soon, but none of the losses hurt worse than Georgia in 2001. Travis Stephens had ripped off a big touchdown run after a short-yardage pass from quarterback Casey Clausen late in the fourth quarter, and the Vols appeared to have snatched victory from Mark Richt’s Bulldogs. But Georgia marched swiftly back down the field against Tennessee’s soft coverage, scoring with just seconds remaining in what became known as The Hobnail Boot game (courtesy of the late Larry Munson, the UGA broadcaster who gleefully yelled that Georgia had stomped on Tennessee’s face with a hobnail boot).

Although there are plenty of times when it makes plenty of sense to use a prevent defense in football, there’s another phrase that can be used when teams ease up on the aggression too soon: playing not to lose.

Right now, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden is playing not to lose. And one can’t help wondering if President Donald Trump is about to perform his own hobnail boot trick.

Credit for the prevent defense analogy goes to Michael McKenna, who wrote for The Washington Times today that Biden is losing momentum by playing prevent defense.

He’s right. If you follow the poll averages at Real Clear Politics — and I do, religiously — you’ve noticed that the race between Biden and Trump is narrowing. Once up by more than 8 percentage points, Biden is now up by just 6.4 points in the RCP poll average.

That’s still a modest lead, but it can no longer be called a comfortable lead. And, perhaps shockingly, given everything that has happened in recent months, Trump is trailing Biden by less at this moment than he trailed Hillary Clinton at this same moment in 2016 (Clinton was up 7.3 points at this point).

There’s more. In an average of polls from the top battleground states, Biden’s lead has dipped to just 5 points. Again, it’s still a modest lead. But it’s now only 0.7 points ahead of where Clinton was at this point in 2016 — and we know how that turned out.

To be sure, Trump’s path to victory remains narrow and winding. Biden should be a considerable favorite, and he is (58.9-39 are the latest betting odds). But there’s another old football analogy, too: If you let an underdog hang around until the fourth quarter, anything can happen.

We aren’t in the fourth quarter yet, but we’re late in the third, and Donald Trump is still very much hanging around, easily within striking distance.

Here’s why this is important: A growing number of Democrats are calling for Biden to avoid debating Trump in the run-up to the November election. I have long predicted that there would be no debates this year, and as long as Biden was comfortably ahead of Trump in the polls, that strategy made perfect sense. Why give Trump an advantage to exploit what might be your biggest weakness? It would be akin to sending a safety blitz when you’re up a couple of touchdowns late in the game. You risk giving up a big play that can let your opponent back in it.

As the polls tighten, though, not debating Trump becomes an unfeasible strategy, even as calls for it are gaining momentum.

In January, Tennessee battled back from down 22-9 late in the fourth quarter of the TaxSlayer Bowl against Indiana in Jacksonville. The Vols scored, recovered an onside kick, and scored again to take a 23-22 lead. With less than a minute and no time outs remaining, the Hoosiers needed to move the length of the field to at least get into field goal range if they were going to have a chance to win the game. With Tennessee in its prevent defense (to avoid a big strike where a receiver slips past the coverage), Indiana needed just two big plays to move to the Vols’ side of the 50-yard-line with still plenty of time remaining. At that point, Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt had two options: switch to a more aggressive defense, or let Indiana continue chipping away at the field and win the game. Prevent defense was no longer a viable option. Pruitt, a defensive specialist, switched his defense, sent pressure, and forced Indiana into four consecutive incomplete passes. Game over.

Joe Biden is in a position where — unless Trump fumbles or throws an interception — he’s probably going to have to come out of his prevent defense. Which means we’re probably going to have presidential debates in the weeks ahead. (For the record, Biden has agreed to a three-appearance debate schedule, while Trump is the one holding out. But Trump won’t continue to hold out; to do so would be the closest thing to campaign suicide at this point.)

A necessity for the debates is certainly not a bad thing. No matter what your politics are, we can surely agree that America needs to hear from its presidential candidates. There was a time, long ago, when we voted for presidential candidates without hearing their message. In the era of mass communications, it’s unfathomable that we would head to the polls to vote without each candidate being put to the test and facing scrutiny under a bright spotlight. We have a reasonable idea of what Biden’s platform is, but so far he hasn’t faced much scrutiny. Furthermore, he hasn’t handled the little scrutiny he has been under very well (remember this and this?), and he’s refused to subject himself to an interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace, which would provide a healthy dose of scrutiny. (Despite being a Fox News reporter, Wallace is the toughest and perhaps the fairest journalist in TV news today, and he absolutely ripped up Trump a few weeks ago.)

A debate between Biden and Trump will absolutely be entertaining. It’s likely to make voters of all persuasions cringe a few times, because there will certainly be some off-the-rails moments for either candidate. But at the end of the day, Trump’s preference for speaking without a filter and Biden’s penchant for gaffes is what will make the debates must-watch TV.

In the meantime, for all that talk about how the election was going to be a blow-out … well, that’s just not going to happen. And it probably never was, if we’re being realistic; America’s political ideologies are chiseled in stone. Sure, there are a few Never-Trumpers who traditionally vote Republican but will not pull the lever for Trump unless it’s a cold day in hell — just as there are a few Rust Belt Democrats who traditionally vote blue who supported Trump in 2016 and likely will again in 2020. But, for the most part, America’s elections are decided by a relatively small number of moderate and independent voters.

If we’re talking odds, there’s still a better chance for a Biden blowout win than for a Trump blowout win, certainly. If everything fell the right way, Biden could wind up with more than 350 electoral votes — maybe even closer to 400 if tight polls in Texas and Georgia are to be believed. But, barring an October surprise of monumental proportions, that’s not likely to happen. And given everything we know about Trump at this point, all of the punches that his opponents have landed, and the coronavirus and economic setbacks we’ve endured in 2020, an October surprise seems incredibly unlikely.

In other words: We have a real race, after all.

A Pinch of Politics

Tennessee forgot Reagan’s 11th commandment

In 2018, Tennessee voters seemed to reject gutter politics. In 2020, unfortunately, it seems that we took a big step back by embracing that same style of politics.

By “gutter politics,” I mean vicious attack ads, mud-slinging, falsehoods, etc.

In 2018, Tennessee’s Republican primary for governor was a full-on assault of one another by frontrunners Randy Boyd and Diane Black. And a little-known political newcomer from Middle Tennessee, Bill Lee, took advantage by flying under the radar while Boyd and Black were emptying their war chests to attack each other. Late in the race, when it became obvious that Lee was a serious contender, Boyd and Black turned their attacks on him. But he stayed true to his message, promoted his platform, and won a shocking upset. Now he’s the governor of Tennessee.

I remember saying at the time that Tennessee’s voters had sent a message that they were tired of the attack ads. One of Diane Black’s supporters within the Republican establishment privately told me after the election that he disagreed with her campaign’s decision to go the attack route, felt like she had gotten some bad advice, and believed that had cost her the election.

But here we are, two years later, and it feels an awful lot like we’ve embraced the same gutter politics that we appeared to reject in 2018. Bill Hagerty won the GOP primary for U.S. Senate, with 51% of the vote. Dr. Manny Sethi received just 39%.

Hagerty — who is now almost a shoo-in to win the general election in November — may well prove to be a fine Senator. But he ran the most deceitful primary campaign that I can remember in a Republican race. Attacks are one thing — and Sethi certainly can’t lay any claim to having ran a clean race; he did his fair share of attacking — but attacks that are based on falsehoods have no place in an election, particularly in a primary, which is by its very nature a war between “friendly” rivals.

Sethi, a trauma surgeon at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and the son of Indian immigrants, was very much a long-shot candidate. Hagerty, a former member of Gov. Bill Haslam’s cabinet and the U.S. Ambassador to Japan, had all the name recognition — not to mention the endorsement of President Donald Trump and the support of a Republican establishment willing to throw all its weight behind him.

Yet, with six weeks remaining before the election, it felt very much like Sethi had the momentum. Polls began to show a tight race, within the margin of error, which is an essential tie. He had a groundswell of endorsements from prominent conservative outsiders like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. I tweeted that it felt like deja vu — a looming repeat of that 2018 upset by Bill Lee.

And then the attacks started.

To be fair, it might not have been the deceitful attacks by the Hagerty camp so much as the weight of the Trump support that sank Sethi. Tennessee loves Trump, and voters were bombarded by daily robocalls from the president, U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, and other prominent Republicans.

To underscore the point, Trump received more than 80% of the vote in my home county in 2016; he won here by the second-largest margin of any county in Tennessee. And on Thursday, Hagerty received more than 60% of the vote here, well above what he captured across the state as a whole. That was in spite of not visiting the county and tying up almost no resources here.

It was disappointing — and a bit surreal, to be honest — to watch the Republican establishment work so hard to nominate Hagerty. That support would’ve been understandable in the general election, and it would’ve been understandable if Hagerty were an incumbent who was facing a primary challenger. But neither of those things were true. The primary race was a battle between two non-incumbents, both of whom boasted equally conservative credentials. Yet, there was the entire establishment — including several of the Republicans in Congress and the state legislature who represent my district — lobbying hard for Hagerty as he lobbed deceitful attack ads and engaged in a nasty campaign meant to destroy a fellow Republican.

It is as though Republicans forgot President Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment: “Though shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” To be fair, that phrase wasn’t coined by Reagan, though it was Reagan who made it prominent. It was actually born with California Republican Party Chairman Gaylord Parkinson. And, to be fair, Reagan espoused that sentiment through the first five nominating contests of the 1976 primary campaign — and lost them all to Gerald Ford. He would later abandon that strategy and begin “speaking ill” of his fellow Republican, which helped him pick up a much-needed win and swing the momentum … but it was too little, too late, and Ford won the nomination (and went on to lose to President Jimmy Carter).

But Reagan’s sentiment wasn’t wrong, even if he didn’t always follow through with it. (As long as we’re being fair, his attacks on Ford in the 1976 primary campaign and on George H.W. Bush in the 1980 primary campaign were mild compared to the modern attacks we’re seeing in Republican primaries. And throughout his political career, Reagan used attack ads when he had to but he was better suited as a jovial, optimistic candidate.)

What was especially weird to watch during the Hagerty-Sethi battle was the wholeheartedness with which President Trump entered the fray. On one hand, Hagerty was Trump’s pick for ambassador, so he undoubtedly felt a degree of loyalty there. On the other hand, there was Trump, eagerly joining forces with “the establishment” that was hellbent on seeing its hand-picked replacement for Lamar Alexander win — the same establishment that Trump vowed to take on once he got to the White House. (Remember “drain the swamp”?)

As I watched the primary play out between Hagerty and Sethi, I was reminded — not for the first time — of how much Tennesseans will miss Lamar Alexander. Yes, he’s often criticized by conservatives for not being conservative enough and for sometimes parting with the president on matters of policy. But besides being a decent leader, he’s a fine human being and a statesman. The latter seem to be two things we’re losing in modern politics.

Republicans have been their own worst enemy in recent years. Members of the party who don’t tow a certain line are castigated as being too liberal, and they’re thrown to the wolves. We saw it with Jeff Flake in Arizona, and with Bob Corker in Tennessee. Both were highly effective U.S. Senators who were essentially forced from office for not being conservative enough.

But at what cost? Tennesseans replaced Corker with Marsha Blackburn, but can they name one thing Blackburn has been able to accomplish to advance the interests of Tennesseans? She’s a conservative firebrand, sure, but effective government is about more than towing ideological lines. Blackburn may be a pro at generating sound bytes that are the equivalent of throwing red meat to the conservative base, and at generating media coverage, but can she reach across the aisle to work with Democrats?

Think about the great Republican leaders of the past era: men like Reagan, Howard Baker, and Fred Thompson. Could any of them survive in the current environment? Or would they be branded as “RINOs,” and join men like Flake and Alexander under the wheels of the bus? Reagan is hailed as a hero of modern conservatism — and indeed he is — but it’s also easy to forget that, aside from Reaganomics and his hawkish approach to foreign policy, Reagan was quite moderate. He supported gun control and other legislation that would have him labeled a liberal in today’s environment.

Because this shift towards extremism isn’t only occurring on the right, but also on the left, we need to stop and examine where it’s leading us as a country. The 1990s may well go down as the last decade of true American exceptionalism. The economy was booming and the country’s interests were being advanced. Why? Because a Democratic president (Bill Clinton), who was quite liberal for his time, and a Republican congress, who had leaders (Newt Gingrich) quite conservative for their time, worked together to accomplish what needed to be accomplished.

Can you imagine the two sides working together in that same spirit in this day and age? I blame the Republicans’ impeachment proceedings against Clinton in 1999 for beginning the fracas that has led us to where we’re at today. It was a dumb political stunt, not in the least because Clinton was term-limited and nearing the end of his presidency. After that, American politics became a tit-for-tat, with each side trying to out-extreme the other, up and until the Democrats launched similarly short-sighted impeachment proceedings against Trump.

The only thing that will reign in this extremism is by placing people in Congress who are even-keeled, who realize that we’re all Americans, first and foremost, and that the primary focus should be on what unites us instead of what divides us. That’s where people like Lamar Alexander come into play. Tennessee is going to miss him, and this primary battle ended yesterday is proof enough of that.

Human Nature, Uncategorized

The power of testimony

This is powerful stuff. Jordan Jeffers is my son’s high school basketball coach and he has a pretty incredible story to tell. A star athlete who attended college on an athletic scholarship, he found himself addicted to drugs, kicked out of school, and trying to take his own life. This past year, he led the Highlanders’ basketball team to their best-ever start and a Top 5 state ranking.

His story inspired a song by award-winning contemporary Christian artist Matthew West, Hello My Name Is, which went to No. 1 on the U.S. Christian music charts.

Edit: The video won’t embed properly, so here’s a link to the video on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/matthewwest/videos/888610491664499/

Outdoors

Places I’ve left behind

The very first outdoors column I published in our weekly newspaper. I had published some pieces in various regional outdoors publications, but this was my break into the newspaper industry — the launch of a weekly column that would eventually lead to me taking on a role as a sports writer and, later, a full-time journalist position.

Looking back on it now, it all seems so distant and far away.

Yet I know that just over the next hill lies this remembered place that I am writing about, separated from me only by the inability to go back.

It is a place where the fields are filled with wildflowers and clover, disturbed only by the deer that feed there — and the bobwhites, cottontails and woodchucks that make their home there—as if humans never set foot on the place.

The evergreen groves beyond the field provide a dark, damp place full of shadows and mystical imaginations that only the human mind can conjure. Beyond that, the terrain opens into rolling hills of hardwoods, which eventually end abruptly at a cliff’s edge. It is here that you will find whitetail deer, wild turkey, ruffled grouse, wild boar, graytail and fox squirrels, redheaded woodpeckers, raccoons, foxes, coyotes, red-tail hawks, an occasional bald eagle and even a bear or two.

I only wonder how many more creatures call this their home, unbeknownst to man. Many claim to have seen or heard cougars here. Others swear that they have heard the cry of a gray wolf on a late summer night. The old man in the cabin up by Walker’s Grove even says that he saw a Sasquatch take down a fawn in the back pasture one morning … but common sense refuses to let me believe that.

My mind takes me back to sitting on the cliff’s edge, tossing rocks over the side and watching as they fall out of sight. It is here, perched high above the river that roars below, that you can watch the eagle soar across the canyon and listen to its piercing cry. If you look close enough, you can almost see a smallmouth bass surface in the deep, dark pool of water hundreds of feet below.

At night, you can sit here on the same rock and watch the moon rise across the sky as a coyote howls somewhere across the divide. You can continue watching as the moon descends out of sight, like the time that we have spent here. Soon, all we have left are memories, kept alive by our love for the outdoors and fueled by our longing to go back.

I think of the oak tree on the hill, the tree from which I deer-hunted last fall. The oak tree sits on the same hill all the year round. He sees the dogwoods bloom in the spring, the bright stars on a clear summer night, the golden leaves of autumn dropping into the clear pool in the creek, just below the roaring rapids. He watches as the stream’s flow becomes more and more sluggish, finally succumbing to winter’s freeze. He then watches as the snow blankets the forest floor against the dead silence of winter.

Spring mornings bring the turkey’s thunderous gobble and the sound of a beaver slapping the water with his tail somewhere upstream. An otter slides down the muddy bank and into the water across the way.

Something is missing … the sound of an elk’s bugle cutting through the morning still, perhaps. Other than that, this might very well be heaven on earth.

Although I’m sure time has colored the way it really was, it seems there was not a care to be had; just me and the outdoors, a man absorbed by nature. That is life and I, for one, wouldn’t have it any other way.

What happened to this place? It’s still there. Just over the next hill. A little free time and I’ll be back there again, just as I was last week.

But looking back on it now, it all seems so distant and far away.

Cross-posted at Medium.com