gamut (2005-39)

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Pioneer conservationist John Muir’s first impressions of an East Tennessee September

BRUSH WITH GREATNESS: Mark Twain, a.k.a. Samuel Clemens, is believed to have been sired in Jamestown.

TENNESSEE’S PHILADELPHIA: Above, a post office and a second-hand-shop, among the few things open downtown; below, an old factory building, now overgrown.

John Muir in 1893.

by Jack Neely

In the San Francisco Bay area, you see his name everywhere, especially in the vicinity of Marin County’s famous redwood forest, Muir Woods. His name is on nearby Muir Beach, part of which is designated by long-standing custom to be a nude beach. His name is even on a brand of mountain bike of a style he never saw in his lifetime; mountain bikes were invented to travel over the rocky hills he explored.

One of America’s original conservationists, John Muir co-founded the Sierra Club and promoted the creation of our National Park system. He’s most famous for his explorations of Yosemite, the Sierra Nevadas and even Alaska. His home was in flat Wisconsin, a long way from the Southern Appalachians. But it was here he found himself, 138 years ago this month, exalting in an East Tennessee fall, and the first real mountains he’d ever seen, and a little surprised at how the people were living. He was alone, and he was on foot. And when he was hiking through the Cumberlands and the Smokies, visiting small villages in Fentress and Roane and Loudon Counties, he was on his way to Cuba.

Muir was 29, a Scottish-born Wisconsin farm boy, a long-bearded college dropout with a passion for botany and geology. Somehow he got it into his mind that he wanted to walk from the Ohio River to the Gulf Coast, where he was willing to give up the idea of walking long enough to take a boat to Havana. He set out from bustling, urban, Louisville, Kentucky, on the second day of September, 1867, with nothing but a compass and a map and a couple of books. “My plan was simply to push on in a general southward direction by the wildest, leafiest, and least-trodden way I could find....”

He was also unarmed. That fact might seem remarkable, just two years after Appomattox, when northerners in general weren’t popular in the South, and at the most violent peak of the Ku Klux Klan’s terrorist reign, lynchings of both blacks and whites were in the papers. But Muir relied on the kindness of strangers. Throughout his trip, his hosts warned him that “there were a good many people living like wild beasts on whatever they could steal....”

The stories didn’t seem to scare John Muir. For such a naive pilgrim, he encountered surprising success. We know about his trek by way of his journals of it, published under the title, A Thousand-Mile Walk To the Gulf .

After six days, he found himself at Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave, which awed him. As he approached Tennessee, Muir encountered the Cumberlands, the first real mountains John Muir had ever seen. A highwayman attempted to rob the unarmed man, but was frustrated to find that Muir carried no money and little of value, only a Bible and books of poetry by Milton and Burns.

Across the border in Fentress County, Muir passed the “poor, rickety, thrice-dead village of Jamestown, an incredibly dreary place.” Invited to stay with the family of a blacksmith nearby, the smithy asked the pedestrian what he did for a living. Muir replied that he was studying plants. “Surely you are able to do something better than wander over the country and look at weeds and blossoms,” the practical Tennessean asked. “These are hard times, and real work is required of every man that is able.”

Muir asked the man if he believed in the Bible, and the blacksmith replied that he did. “Now, whose advice am I to take, yours, or Christ’s? Christ says, ‘Consider the lilies.’ You say, ‘Don’t consider them.’”

That was apparently enough for the blacksmith, who didn’t bother Muir any further.

On a sunny fall day in 2005, Jamestown doesn’t seem like such a dreary place—even though, to judge from the way locals talk, the place has dieda few more times since Muir loped through town. Catastrophic fires, failing coal mines, industrial decline, the perpetual recession the afflicts many of our more remote regions. The old place has never really been able to get anything going for long. Still, it’s the seat of Fentress County, pop. 16,000; downtown Jamestown, largely constructed of large blocks of native sandstone, has an interesting old courthouse, a small hotel, and a couple of thriving restaurants: the Formosa Gourmet is right next to Ralph’s Barber Shop.

The Jamestown Chamber of Commerce is located in a Victorian Chamber of Horrors. Mixing cultural references, it’s labeled as “Ye Ole Jail.” The bars on the grim cells preserved upstairs were fashioned out of railroad iron.

Myra Smith, who tends the historical side of the place, speculates about how old-fashioned justice might deal with today’s problems. Like many rural communities, Jamestown has a significant drug problem, especially methamphetamines. “We have 57 churches here; you’d think we would find a way to deal with it.”

For a lady who works for the chamber, Smith’s refreshingly frank. “Unless you like the outdoors, there’s not much for you here,” she says. Jamestown is practically adjacent to Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, which has a reputation among serious hikers similar to that of the Smokies in the 1930s. Pickett State Park, with its famous natural bridge, and Daniel Boone National Forest, are also close at hand. Jamestown itself does have some distinctions. The folks at the chamber are aware of the Muir connection and are quick to direct visitors to the John Muir Trail in Big South Fork. Famous in overnight hiking circles, the trail marked with Muir’s bearded silhouette in blue paint, is over 42 miles long. The Jamestown area was home to World War I hero Alvin York and Secretary of State Cordell Hull, who led the founding of the United Nations. The biggest name in Jamestown, though, is that of a guy who never even visited the place. The hotel on Main Street is the Mark Twain Inn. There’s a Mark Twain Avenue, a Mark Twain Park.

Mark Twain’s connection to Jamestown is chiefly fetal. His parents, the Clemenses, lived in Jamestown for about a decade before moving to Missouri, and math suggests that the author was conceived here.

The Clemens cabin, where the conception likely took place, once held a position of honor in downtown Jamestown. However, a couple of years ago, the town sold and transported it to the Museum of Appalachia in Norris, about 50 miles away.

At the time, it was apparently the oldest building still standing in Jamestown. Smith says none of the buildings Muir would have seen in 1867 are still standing.

Muir seemed to slow his pace a little in Fentress County, enjoying a meal of string beans, buttermilk, and cornbread with a black family, and sleeping “with the trees in the one great bedroom of the open night.”

Though a young filmmaker attempted to trace Muir’s 1,000-mile-walk for a public-television special a few years ago, no road approximates Muir’s overland hike through East Tennessee. We can only guess at his route, by connecting the dots of towns he mentions.

From Jamestown Muir passed “Montgomery, a shabby village at the head of the east slope of the Cumberland Mountains.” Montgomery’s no longer on maps, but history books tell us it was just west of Wartburg, and though then a town of only 300, was the Fentress County seat.

Farther on, Muir “crossed a wide cool stream, a branch of the Clinch River. There is nothing more eloquent in Nature than a mountain stream, and this is the first I ever saw.” Later, he “forded the Clinch, a beautiful clear stream, that knows many of the dearest mountain retreats that ever heard the music of running water.”

He was walking at a pretty good clip then, covering 20 or 30 miles a day. In Kingston, Muir mailed some of his more interesting plant samples back to his brother in Wisconsin. He doesn’t say much about Kingston, the biggest town he saw in East Tennessee. For reasons he doesn’t explain, he was trying to get to Philadelphia, Tenn., a tiny mill town of about 300 just a few miles south of Kingston. It’s unclear whether Muir knew or cared that almost four years earlier, Philadelphia had been a battlefield, the site of a significant skirmish just before the Confederate siege of Knoxville, when Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry charged in and defeated a Union cavalry unit, taking 500 prisoners. (South Knoxville’s Fort Stanley is named for a Union officer killed at Philadelphia.)

For Muir, the quest to reach Philadelphia was a frustrating exercise. “The roads never seem to proceed with any fixed purpose, but wander as if lost.”

With the help of a black teamster, Muir found Philadelphia, and found it to be “a very filthy village in a beautiful situation.”

Philadelphia today is not far off of I-75, on which it still has a directing sign, but it’s not doing too well. It still supports an elementary school and a post office, but not much else.

Today, the only thing open downtown is the post office and, next door, a flea market. The postal clerk apologizes that there’s nowhere in town to get a bite to eat. “You’d have to go to Loudon, or Sweetwater,” he says. “It’s like a lot of small towns in the South,” he says. “After the mill closed, there’s not much left.”

The Philadelphia Hosiery Mill closed a long time ago. On Mill Street are the ruins of a sizable factory. It obviously dates from long after Muir’s trip, but today it looks very old. Its high walls house a forest of trees, like an unkempt conservatory.

There are other ruins. A block away, the remnants of a large furniture store looms over what was once the main street. Part of the streetfront facade has fallen backward into the building. As our photographer framed a shot, a couple stopped their car and asked, perhaps hopefully, “Are you going to tear that down?”

But there are still comfortable-looking old brick homes around here, some of them ante-bellum in style. Unlike Jamestown, Philadelphia probably does have a little bit of the town Muir saw.

The same day he puzzled about Philadelphia, Muir reached “Madisonville, a brisk village,” another 10 miles south of Philadelphia.

And that fast-paced day, he had his first view of the mountains then known as the Unakas: “a magnificent sight,” he said. “Most glorious billowy mountain scenery. Made many a halt at open places to take breath and to admire.” We know the Unakas as the Smokies. Muir stayed for a couple of days with a mountaineer near Tellico Plains.

The people lived off cornbread, bacon, and coffee, which was “the greatest luxury which these people knew.” In the Hiwassee Valley, a host informed Muir that “the paleness of most of the women in his neighborhood, and the mountains in general hereabouts, was caused chiefly by smoking and what is called ‘dipping.’ I had never even heard of dipping. The term simply describes the application of snuff to the gum by means of a small swab.”

For a man so simple in his own personal habits, Muir surprises us with his observations of mountain spinning and weaving—which in 1867 he considered a mark of “backwardness.” He describes the works of a mountain gristmill as “homemade, boyish-looking....”

“All the machines of Kentucky and Tennessee are far behind the age,” he wrote. “There is scarce a trace of that restless spirit of speculation and inventiveness so characteristic of the North.” Around here there was only one way of doing things, he said, “as if laws had been passed making attempts at improvement a crime.”

This from a young man who was carrying only a comb, a brush, a towel, and some soap. His complaints about country backwardness may seem disingenuous, considering his stated purpose to adhere to “the least-trodden way I could find.”

Despite his lifelong quest for the simple and the natural, and his adoration of the mountains themselves, Muir seemsappalled by the customs of the mountain people. He may have borne some prejudice against them, and he may have encountered a particularly ornery lot of them. But it does raise an interesting question.

Appalachian historians make much of mountaineers’ resourcefulness in the face of isolation. But Muir’s observations can make you wonder how much mountaineers’ isolation was a purely willful sort of thing.

After all, 1867 was the noisy Victorian era of telegraphy and steamboats and photographic studios and railroads. Muir’s journey shows that all that was just a couple of days away, even for those who didn’t have a horse. They were sights many of these mountain people would never see in their lives—even though most could have, in a few days’ walk.

As much as he loved the scenery, Muir was also astonished at these people’s devotion to their unproductive farmland, finding reasons to stay on the worked-out soil as if in the faith that it must contain gold or something else of value.

He observed that some mountain people subsisted by living off ‘sang,’: “that is ginseng,” Muir explains, “which found a market in far-off China.” In that way, at least, these mountain people were not quite as remote as they seemed.

In Murphy, N.C., the sheriff mistook Muir for a foreigner. “Since the war, every other stranger in these lonely parts is supposed to be a criminal, and all are objects of curiosity or apprehensive concern.” Some things haven’t changed too much. On our trip last week, one rural car-repair shop owner approached our photographer, telling her not to take a photograph of his place of business.

“This is the most primitive country I have seen, primitive in everything,” Muir adds. “The remotest parts of Wisconsin are far in advance of the mountain regions of Tennessee and North Carolina.”

But Muir was agog at the sheer beauty of the natural environment.

“The scenery is far grander than any I ever before beheld. The view extends from the Cumberland Mountains on the north far into Georgia and North Carolina to the south, an area of about 5,000 square miles. Such an ocean of wooded, waving, swelling mountain beauty and grandeur is not to be described....”

Later, he wrote of “mysteriously charming and beautiful” streams. “Their channels are interestingly sculptured, far more so than the grandest architectural works of man. The finest of the forests are usually found along their banks, and in the multitude of falls and rapids the wilderness finds a voice. Such a river is the Hiwassee, with its surface broken to a thousand sparkling gems, and its forest walls vine-draped and flowery as Eden. And how fine the songs it sings!”

Occasionally, the young botanist did find an opportunity to consider some lilies: “Found a number of rare and strange plants on the rocky banks of the river Hiwassee,” he wrote.

He didn’t like Blairsville, Ga., “a shapeless and insignificant village”; he did like Gainesville, Ga., a “comfortable, finely shaded little town.” Muir’s walk from the Ohio River at Louisville, across Kentucky, Tennessee, a corner of North Carolina, and into Georgia—crossing the Cumberland and the Smokies in the bargain—had taken only three weeks. Though a serious bout of malaria in Florida late that fall delayed his trip, he did make it to Cuba that January. He spent part of the winter studying the lush flora of Cuba and the “crooked, labyrinthine, and exceedingly narrow” streets of Havana.

Muir devoted much of the rest of his life to contemplating even bigger mountains out west. But in 1898, as a 60-year-old man suffering from chronic bronchitis, Muir returned to the Smokies, when he and some friends hiked up Grandfather Mountain. On the top, he wrote, “I couldn’t hold in, and began to jump about and sing and glory in it all.” His companion, a dignified Bostonian, was startled at Muir’s behavior.

“I think I could walk ten miles and not be tired,” he wrote his wife. “The air has healed me.” On that return trip, he was a little like a kid. Down in Chattanooga, Muir even took a ride on the new Incline Railway.

Muir helped found the national park movement—but he wouldn’t live to see his first mountain range become part of it. He died in 1914, at the age of 76, in the very earliest days of the movement to make a national park, patterned on those Muir had helped establish out west, of the Smokies, the mountain range he first beheld in a September almost half a century earlier:

“Such an ocean of wooded, waving, swelling mountain beauty and grandeur is not to be described,” he wrote in 1867, but then tried anyway: “Countless forest-clad hills, side by side in rows and groups, seemed to be enjoying the rich sunshine.... All were united by curves and slopes of inimitible softness and beauty. Oh, these forest gardens of our Father! What perfection, what divinity, in their architecture! What simplicity and mysterious complexity of detail!”

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