Charles "Shroomer" Bledsoe, known as Fort Dickerson Quarry Park's unofficial ranger, groundskeeper, lifeguard, historian, and artist-in-residence, received an eviction notice around 7 a.m. last Friday morning. Knoxville police told him he has until Wednesday to remove his books and things, then the stacked-stone cabin he built himself over the last three years will be torn down.
Bledsoe—nicknamed Shroomer, he says, because he is a "fun guy," (a pun on "fungi")—was awakened when his dog, Booger, started growling. He recognized the voice of a police officer he knew calling his name, and says he had a feeling it was bad news.
When Bledsoe came outside, more than eight cops were standing around his cabin. He knew most of them by name. When Bledsoe moved to the Fort Dickerson quarry three years ago, he was trespassing on private land. Now the land is owned by the city, and is heavily patrolled by KPD. With the police were several firemen, and Joe Walsh, director of the city's Parks and Recreation Department.
"They were as friendly as can be," says Bledsoe, who says he plans to go peacefully.
Bledsoe invited Walsh into his cabin, and showed him around. Frank Lloyd Wright is a hero of Bledsoe's, and an influence on his building style. Walsh seemed impressed.
"I feel for him," says Walsh, "He's built a formidable structure there. But now that we know he's there, we can't continue to let him live in the park."
Walsh cites city laws against public camping and sanitation codes (Bledsoe has no running water) for the eviction, which he calls a joint decision among Police Chief David Rausch, Fire Chief Stan Sharp, and Mayor Rogero's office.
The stone cabin, with glass and Plexiglas windows, is situated inside a hidden compound screened by brush piles and stretched blankets. An attached storage shed holds tools, his bike, and building materials. Flower bulbs grow on the living roof.
Bledsoe built the house alone, carving a shelter out of the side of the cliff with an iron bar. The stones in the walls, patio, and steps are dry-stacked, meaning Bledsoe had to find ones that fit together.
"I know where every stone in this building came from," Bledsoe says.
Stone steps lead up to a stone porch decorated with a mounted bass and old metal signs reading "Danger!" and "Warning: Toxic and Radioactive...Keep Out!" To enter the living quarters, one passes between two young live trees. The inside is cool, and a little damp. The small interior, dim light, and raw natural materials make the room feel ancient and sacred.
"One Nation Under God," reads a sign inside, meant to be taken more seriously than the tongue-in-cheek porch decorations.
The ceiling is insulated by a layer of wool blankets supported by a network of wooden beams spiraling out from a main column. The stone floor is covered with old carpet. The step-down kitchen has a propane stove, coolers of food, and hanging bags of produce. A kitchen remodel was to be his next project. He sleeps on a loft bed surround on two sides by windows, with storage underneath. He has a guest bed (a repurposed psychiatrist's couch) along one wall, mostly used by Booger.
The first thing visitors see when they enter is the bookshelf filled with books. Bledsoe's shelf holds several Bibles, classic novels, and history. He especially admires and identifies with Cormac McCarthy's Suttree, a novel set in Knoxville about squatters and social outsiders, given to him by a volunteer at Angelic Ministries.
Every morning Bledsoe sits on the couch under the bookshelf drinking his coffee and looking out the open door onto his "million dollar" view of the quarry lake.
As Fort Dickerson becomes more of a public destination, most of the other homeless camps have been cleared out by KPD. But police seemed flummoxed by Bledsoe. When police patrol the area, Bledsoe shows them around, and tries to impress upon them his value to the park. Bledsoe disapproves of homeless camps full of trash and hard drugs. His site is clearly not a flop, it's a homestead.
Bledsoe believes the police appreciate what he does. He says Carol Evans, executive director of Legacy Parks, the organization that bought the land around the quarry and donated it to the city, has been an advocate of him and his work.
"Shroomer is a fascinating character—much in the spirit of the colorful characters that make Knoxville such an interesting city," says Evans. "He certainly has shown his artistic creativity and passion for the environment at Fort Dickerson and has made many friends along the way. I know he will continue to enjoy an adventuresome life wherever he and his pup, Booger, reside."
It's true that probably no one loves and cares for the quarry park more than Bledsoe. Until Friday, he held out hope he might be allowed to stay in an official caretaker capacity. Walsh says there is no chance this will happen.
Visitors to the quarry before and after Shroomer took up residence can see the difference he made on the place. Today there is no trash in sight. With his iron bar, Shroomer removed loose rocks to form stone steps down to the quarry. I have witnessed him admonishing young men for unsafe swimming practices, and warning visitors about the habits of the native wildlife. One posted sign warns, "Those rock steps you're standing on are the home to a three foot pit viper, also known as a cottonmouth." Once I did see a water snake near those rocks. Bledsoe acknowledges that the snake that lives there is really a nonvenomous banded water snake. But the sign gets people's attention.
Bledsoe says he has rescued several people from drowning in the quarry lake. One Sunday a park visitor, "Alan," shows off scars he says are from the time he injured his sternum jumping from a 60-foot cliff. He says Bledsoe pulled him to safety.
Bledsoe has constructed some handrails in the woods to assist hikers over rough terrain. He also made the stacked-stone cairns, stick tee-pee, and bottle tree—a Japanese honeysuckle bush decorated mostly with blue Bud Light Platinum beer bottles.
According to Bledsoe, he was born in California in 1957 and had a hard-knock childhood. He says his past includes several drug convictions and prison time, although he hasn't "been on the dope" for a long time.
Bledsoe likes riddles and is sometimes reluctant to reveal personal information. Last spring, he says he spent nine days in jail while KPD tried to figure out his real name. He wasn't revealing anything at the time, but lately he feels he has little left to lose.
"My life is an open book," Bledsoe says.
Bledsoe lived at the quarry year-round. His summers were full of swimming and the company of visitors. On the days I visited this fall, several friends dropped by to say hello.
He admits winters can be hard. This was to be his fourth winter.
"In the winter you really have to want it," he says, but adds the beauty and solitude is worth it. Also, he has his animal companions.
He says near the beginning of his first winter, a storm left an injured snow goose on the quarry lake. Bledsoe befriended the snow goose and named him Judge. For the migrating water birds to breach over the high stone walls of the quarry, they have to make a loop around the lake, spiraling up and out, and Judge could not get enough height. Though the goose was well enough to fly out of the quarry the next spring, Bledsoe says still sees him around. Of all the stories Shroomer tells, this one is the more otherworldly and fantastical. One of my neighbors, John Mowbray, confirms that in November he accompanied Bledsoe to the docks at Calhoun's, saw him call for Judge, and watched a white goose came skimming over the water towards him.
Another animal story: Scratched into a rock, close to the sign about the water viper, are the words "I miss you Booger" surrounded by mushroom pictographs. Bledsoe says when he was arrested by KPD in June 2012, he wasn't given any time to make arrangements for his dog. A visitor to the quarry witnessing the arrest volunteered to take Booger on the spot. When Bledsoe got out of jail nine days later, the only thing he knew about the woman was her first name, Suzanne. The day he carved his memorial into the rock, he was sitting by a shallow spot near the southern edge of the quarry, heard a voice and turned around.
"Then Booger hit me in the chest, and we both went down," says Bledsoe.
Now two years old, Booger is a quiet, well-behaved dog, good around children and other dogs. His favorite activity is chasing and catching tennis balls. Booger and Shroomer make a cameo in a YouTube video shot at the quarry.
One Saturday afternoon Bledsoe is giving visitors a tour of the park. The limestone cliffs glow in the golden light and the still water reflects the horizon like a mirror.
He tells visitors the quarry was mined for 150 years, until groundwater poured in and filled the hole. He seems to delight in the way Mother Nature has retaken the former industrial site.
"Mom's comin' round to put it back the way it ought to be," Bledsoe says, quoting Maynard Keenan of the band Tool. "Learn to swim!"
He has seen changes in the quarry in just the time he's lived there, watched cracks in the limestone cliff appear and widen.
"She survived long before I got here, and she'll survive long after I'm gone," says Bledsoe, but he is not sure what he is going to do now.
"I'm homeless again," he tells a friend.
To his chagrin, Bledsoe is "back on the grid." He recently got a job doing construction, and even has a cell phone. He says he wants to continue building and fixing up abandoned, neglected places but never again wants to be in a situation in which his home can be taken away from him, and his hard work toppled.
Perched on the cliff beside the old quarry, Shroomer's Cabin is an example to visitors of the different ways humans used the Tennessee limestone to make their mark on the world.
Standing on the solid stone steps overlooking the quarry lake, I feel an unexpectedly personal sense of loss. As the park becomes more regulated and "family friendly," oddball existences like Bledsoe's are winking out. Maybe that's what people mean when they make the plea to "Keep Knoxville Scruffy"—this feeling that if his oddball way of living is unwelcome, maybe one day mine will be, too.