Urban Wilderness is an oxymoron, of course, a basic contradiction in terms. Carol Evans, a bit of a paradox herself, is pushing the concept for all it's worth.
On a perfect evening, you can get a hint of it at the eastern end of Volunteer Landing.
Here, alongside one of Knoxville's poshest eateries, and within easy walking distance of the Marriott, is the Outdoor Knoxville Adventure Center. How adventurous can it be, really?
On a Tuesday at about 6 p.m., the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club, a venerable and seasoned bunch, shows up at the center. After signing waivers holding no one responsible for what happens to them, nine graying adventurers carry nine kayaks down to the marina. Life vests secure, they set out on a weekday-evening expedition toward Island Home, avoiding a few waterfalls and gushing bilge from the Volunteer Princess. A couple of stories above the kayakers, the uniformed crew of the huge luxury yacht prepares to depart with a load of air-conditioned partiers.
Then, just after the kayakers, a couple of very young women in bikinis follow, with a tattooed guide, standing on what look like heavy surfboards as they paddle. They're perhaps 40 years younger than any of the kayakers. As they leave in the gloaming, the leisurely paddlers could pass for Samoan maidens hunting for pearls. They delicately avoid the spewing bilge from the towering yacht as, framing the scene just across the river, an asphalt barge big as a factory flies a Texas flag. It's a bizarre, outlandish, and ridiculously appealing scene.
Sometimes there are other sorts. "The other day I looked out and saw four kayaks, two paddleboards, and two scullers," says Evans. "At 6. It could have been a promotional shot." They usually go upstream; Dickinson Island, and Ijams Nature Center, about two miles away, is a typical destination of a weekday evening paddle.
Who would have thought of this? It's a new paradigm for Knoxville, this business of urban adventure.
Earlier the same day, about three miles to the southeast, about 200 people, among them Mayors Burchett and Rogero and Ambassador Victor Ashe, stood in a quiet and remote South Knoxville cul-de-sac to witness the grand opening of what's currently being called the South Loop, a modest name for an unlikely 11.5-mile circuit that connects through a supposedly inhabited part of the city, as if through some lush seventh dimension. These suburban woods are so thick they can pass, in long stretches, for wilderness.
Greenway initiatives are happening in most major cities, but what's happening in Knoxville may be something beyond typical.
The September issue of San Francisco-based Backpacker magazine features editor Jonathan Dorn's column, "Big City Wilderness," entirely about Knoxville, and Legacy Parks' projects, including the Adventure Center and wild South Knoxville—described as "a barely developed playground of ravines and creeks and temperate rainforest." Knoxville's greenway initiatives, he states, are "a model collaboration between government, business, and disparate user groups."
Carol Evans was at the opening of the South Loop, too, it turns out. She was master of ceremonies, because it was largely through her offices that the trail was completed.
She may be the only human fit to connect all these dots. A lot of people have been volunteering time to blaze trails, build bridges, give money, property, and legal advice, but she's the one in charge of this multi-dimensional chess game that's making Knoxville a standout among cities known for their outdoor amenities.
She has a hard time sitting still. Her office at the new Outdoor Adventure Center is unlike any other downtown; it's an open place, with glass walls. She has not a desk, but a glass table with a bowl of oranges. Otherwise her office furniture consists mainly of what appear to be chic lawn chairs. People don't sit around here very much.
On her wall is a framed motto: "We don't stop playing because we get old. We get old because we stop playing."
She talks faster than Tennesseans have any right to, and seems always to be suppressing some inner turbine that would run too hot if she didn't keep a throttle on it.
"I came from a high-energy family," she admits. "But outdoorsy? I'm not. Hiking, a lot of it's new to me. That's how I maintain my enthusiasm. I'm also the one that will get lost." She's lean, physical, and wears a gymnast's haircut. You might guess she's been mountain biking since she was 3.
"Mountain biking—I thought it was a bunch of crazy guys riding over rocks in the woods," she says of this pursuit she discovered in her 50s. As "trail riding"—her preferred term, especially since Knoxville's trails don't include much in the way of actual mountains—she enjoys it. But in encouraging mountain biking, she has an ulterior motive. "It's a backdoor to conservation," she says. "They ride it, they value it, they want to protect it. These trails are in line with our overall mission."
Her mission is that of Legacy Parks, of which she's executive director. The nonprofit, founded in 2005, aims to conserve green land, partly by making it public. Legacy Parks still seems brand new, though Evans says the idea of making Knoxville an outdoor destination began as a germ of an idea more than a decade ago with the Knox County Parks Advisory Board, pushed by Chamber executive Mark Field and Knox County Parks director Doug Bataille. A few years ago, city Mayor Bill Haslam and county Mayor Mike Ragsdale encouraged it with $50,000 a year, each, in seed money. Originally it was under the rubric of the East Tennessee Foundation, but within a year the larger foundation, kicked Legacy out of the nest. "They said, ‘You don't need us,'" Evans says. An especially popular idea, Legacy Parks was making its own living, with lots of volunteers and private donations. Pilot Corporation is its biggest donor.
Legacy Parks assisted in establishing the Seven Islands area as a public park and wildlife preserve along the French Broad in East Knox County. Legacy Parks manages that 400-acre paradise of woods and fields and broken shoreline.
Evans considers Knoxville's access to the outdoors the city's most striking asset. "You can be on Market Square, having lunch, and in 30 minutes be in the Great Smoky Mountains. Or Big South Fork. You can be working at a bank at 5, and in a few minutes be heading toward Island Home on a paddleboard. If I spontaneously decide, on a Saturday morning, to go to the mountains, I can do it."
"Chattanoogans are coming here for ideas," she says. "That's a first."
Evans had the privilege of making one of the most astonishing announcements of the century so far in 2008, when she told an unsuspecting luncheon group, convening outside at Caswell Park—in the crowd were local dignitaries former Sen. Howard Baker—that Legacy Parks was planning a major "heritage trail" on the south side of the river. Crossing land not yet within the public domain, a greenway would connecting the remnants of three Civil War forts—Dickerson, Stanley, and Higley, the latter two of which were remote and rarely seen by the public—with gorgeous but rarely seen quarries and bluffs on the south side of the river, and eventually to expanding Ijams Nature Center. In concept it would be, everyone present agreed, like nothing anywhere.
She worked on that project, working on grants and purchases and easements. In short order, Legacy, with a major assist from the charitable Aslan Foundation, gained access to a large tract of what was known as the Rose Property, including the bluffs, and Union Fort Higley, a tiny Union outpost with discernible earthworks, never threatened by Confederates but recently threatened by out-of-state developers.
The quarry near Fort Dickerson is a pocket lake that looks like a fantasy from a James Cameron movie. Its color is an uncanny hue of blue and green. It doesn't look real. It's reportedly 200 feet deep.
A city park since the 1970s, it's hard to get to, off limits to vehicles. In 2010 Evans organized a viewing of a city asset heretofore seen by beery kids looking to do a little midnight skinny dipping or cliff diving.
About 550 people, including movers and shakers, appeared. Then-Mayor Bill Haslam asked the crowd, "How many of you ever knew about this?" Only a few raised their hands. The guest of honor, British adventurer Sir Peter Hillary, expressed his awe at the site. An outdoors industry visitor from Colorado marveled at the spectacle as "a diamond in the rough," comparing it to New York's Central Park.
"We're starting to get good uses in here," Evans says. "Up to now, we've gotten bad ones, primarily."
The Fort Dickerson quarry is currently the domain of an eccentric known as Shroomer, whom Evans calls the quarry's "unofficial park ranger." He was the one responsible for a carefully lettered sign. "Warning! Those rock steps you're standing on are the home to a three-foot pit viper!"
Evans has been here many times, but still seems enthralled with it. "It's such a difficult proposition to think of where you are right now," she says. "It's strangely quiet, isn't it?" She points to the top of a steep ridge. "But that's McDonald's, on Chapman Highway, right over there."
It will one day be easier to get to, part of the Battlefield Loop, a walking and biking trail. But that project comes with complications, not the least of which is that much of it involves what might be considered prime real estate, with stunning views of downtown Knoxville. She warned that in spite of major successes in acquiring land, it would be years in completion.
As it happened, another project Evans didn't yet know much about would be finished first, and that she would be one of its prime leaders.
An unusual woman with an unusual résumé, Evans grew up on the move, an army brat living for a time in New York, but more on the West Coast, especially California and Washington State, then attending high school and college in Georgia.
Originally in television production, she parlayed her electric smile into a job as a TV weathercaster in Fairbanks, Alaska; she claims to have been "terrible" at the job. She came to Knoxville, first, the year of the World's Fair, to work with the University of Tennessee's veterinary school, but moved to Seattle, a mecca for talented professionals, in the 1980s. "Moving there was a longtime dream," she says. But once she and her husband John started a family, Knoxville started to look better. "Knoxville was more affordable, easy to get around. Big cities are great, if you're just visiting." (Her ex-husband, John, is deceased; their daughters, now grown, live in Atlanta and Nashville.)
Twenty years ago, she was working for the Lady Vols, as Pat Summitt's first marketing director, when the women's basketball team became so popular it set national attendance records. On her spare office wall is a framed photograph of her shaking hands with President Clinton, on a 1996 trip to Washington, D.C., after one of the Lady Vols' several national championships.
She later directed communications for the Knoxville Area Chamber Partnership, and for the Dogwood Arts Festival, and for a time worked with Scripps/HGTV. She also held positions with public relations and consulting firms, including the high-powered Ingram Group. She probably knows the inside of every boardroom downtown.
In those days, she was more likely to wear power suits than shorts and flip flops.
"She clearly loves what she's doing," says Mayor Madeline Rogero. "She has a great ability to share the vision and share the enthusiasm. And she can also deliver on the product." Vision and practical effectiveness don't always coincide in one individual. Rogero adds that Evans excels in creating seemingly unlikely partnerships between governmental entities, grassroots organizations, and private businesses.
Down the spiral staircase from her office is an unusual store run by gear stalwart River Sports, an outlet of upscale outdoor apparel, from bandannas to down jackets, separated by brand: Mountain Hardwear, The North Face, Patagonia, SmartWool. "It's Macy's-style," Evans says, "Concept shops within a shop, a different kind of retail than what we have in Knoxville. It's a draw."
That part's new, opening just last week. But since April they've been renting kayaks and paddleboards for river excursions from the same room. River Sports, led by owner Ed McAllister, is heavily involved in several Legacy Parks projects.
It's all in the modern building on Volunteer Landing, the multi-story place designed 15 years ago that first served as a tourist center. "This development down here was originally supposed to be retail," Evans says, "but it was a little ahead of its time."
Evans says she's pleased with how things have been working, in their four months on site, but last Tuesday evening's mini-hubbub isn't typical. She doesn't have handy figures to brag about yet, and it's hard to know how well it will do here. Despite its geographical location—downtown, sort of, and just off Volunteer Landing—most Knoxvillians couldn't tell you how to get there without some head-scratching. An obscure elevator does connect the Adventure Center with the lonesome end of the Hill Avenue Viaduct, and getting there by car requires some confidence about the route. (Google suggests Hall of Fame Drive, which at its south end turns into Volunteer Landing Lane.)
The center already serves as meeting venue for a motley assortment of groups, from the League of Women Voters to ornithological clubs.
"We will have a film night, and pint nights, once a month. A speaker series, adventure films, modern-day travelogues, like the guy who ran the Appalachian Trail, the guy who paddled the ocean," Evans says.
The Adventure Center's connection to South Knoxville's trails may not seem obvious to the first-time visitor. But the most common kayak destination from here is Ijams Nature Center, which is part of the South Loop. It may one day be part of the Battlefield Loop, too.
The paradoxical phrase "urban wilderness" seems so Knoxvillian that some assume it was coined here. It wasn't, but Knoxville may offer more extreme definitions of the term than can be found in the urban wildernesses of Portland, Ore., or New York.
Knoxville's an oddity, if you haven't noticed yet, partly thanks to its unyielding topography. From its urban kernel, Knoxville has been growing outward for more than two centuries, but not evenly. Steep hilltops and ravines, big areas where it's hard to build roads, have been left alone. Some other sections, like those associated with the marble-quarry industry, were developed but then abandoned, even forgotten. On the south side especially are huge tracts of pristine green that even neighbors seem hardly aware of. Within a mile, as the crow flies, of busy, noisy, downtown are places that can seem utterly wild. It's estimated that Knoxville has 1,000 acres of urban wilderness.
Brian Hann was a young construction specialist who spent his time off riding mountain bikes. In 2005, he and his wife, Mary Beth, moved onto an old 116-acre farm just beyond the southeastern city limits, just south of the Forks of the River Wildlife Management Area, with its Will Skelton Greenway. He could bike to it from his property. A friend at the Metropolitan Planning Commission happened to show him a map indicating expanses of undeveloped land among the subdivisions, much of it invisible from the road.
Hann became one of the 30-odd members of the reviving Appalachian Mountain Bike Club, which launched an effort to put a bicycling trail in obscure Hastie Park.
Mayor Victor Ashe had already known about South Knoxville's pocket wildernesses. He came to office in 1988, fresh from a stint as executive director of the Reagan Administration's Americans Outdoors Commission, looking for ways to improve Knoxville's greenways, with a conviction that successful recreational amenities start with initiatives at the local level.
One part of town had great swaths of undeveloped green. "Because the geographical terrain doesn't lend itself to development, roads, sewer systems, and so on, South Knoxville has never developed, residentially and commercially, to the same level of activity and density as most of the city," Ashe says. By the end of his long administration, he had worked deals to establish a couple of new parks in forgotten corners.
Hastie Park, a 1960s subdivision project abandoned when developers realized it was too hilly to be feasible, got city-park status in 2002. Ashe named it for William Hastie (1904-76), the federal judge, born in Knoxville, who in 1946 became the governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands, and thereby the first black man to govern a U.S. territory. Hastie spent much of his youth in South Knoxville.
It wasn't used much until Hann and his cohorts established a three-mile mountain-bike loop around Hastie Park, with the permission of city parks director Joe Walsh. From there they started picturing ways to link to Marie Myers Park, another Ashe administration park named for a nature lover whose family sold the property to the city.
Hastie wasn't controversial, Ashe says today. Marie Myers was. "People said, ‘You're only doing that to stop the South Knoxville connector. Which I was happy to stop," he admits. "The cost-benefit ratio was way out of line. Hopefully that project is now dead."
Ashe, ambassador to Poland beginning in 2004, wasn't around when Hann got started imagining links between parks and greenways.
With his bike club, Hann and company began connecting dots, getting permissions to cross private property with their trails. "We had no idea what Legacy was doing, and they had no idea what we were doing," Hann says.
When Legacy Parks' urban wilderness trails were first announced, they were concentrated along the riverfront sites of old forts. Hann's efforts were a couple of miles away, but offered potential links.
"We needed firepower," Hann says. "We needed Carol Evans."
Hann says Evans wasn't instantly sold on the bike club's South Loop proposal as a Legacy Parks project, but as she learned more about their initiative, she became convinced that the unusual effort was exactly what Legacy Parks was about. With her leadership, the project shifted into high gear, as she brought potential funders and her own negotiating skills into the mix.
In approaching property owners to allow construction of a bike trail in their backyards, Hann and Evans worked as an effective duo.
"She is an amazing individual," Hann says. "We'd go into people's living rooms. I'm good with some people, she's good with the other people. Not a single person had any resistance to the project," in spite of South Knoxville's old reputation for skepticism of cooperative projects. "It was crazy. It's been the most fulfilling experience to get this done with her."
They did much of the early building by hand, but with architect Matthew Kellogg in charge, a Ditch Witch FK-650 and a Yanmar mini-excavator, they finished it before many Knoxvillians even knew it was in the works. They completed the trails to the standards of the International Mountain Bicycling Association.
Randy Farmer, who they call "Southside," is a professional carpenter who turned out to be an expert at building bridges. Jay Basile, a steel fabricator, also did some bridgework. It all seems remote from downtown, but Hann, Farmer, and Basile all work with downtown developer David Dewhirst, who owns land on which he offered an easement.
Today, the Hastie Natural Area connects to Marie Myers Park, which connects to the Ross Marble Quarry, which is now part of Ijams, which connects to the Forks of the River Wildlife Management Area—which, by a network of private easements and, near Anderson School, a quiet interim of roadway crossing old Sevierville Pike, connects back to Hastie Natural Area. The loop is 11.5 miles in itself, with about 24 more miles worth of auxiliary trails that connect with the arterial loop like capillaries.
Evans says funding for the work was about two-thirds private, about a third public, including some federal funding. Mayor Rogero emphasizes the volunteer effort. "The Appalachian Biking Club put hundreds and hundreds of hours—and quite a few cases of beer—into building trails all of us can enjoy," says Rogero, who says she's no mountain biker, but that she has already hiked a few miles of the new trail. She proclaims it "pretty neat."
Mountain bikers built the new trails, and we can bet they'll use them. But everyone insists they're multi-use trails that don't favor bicyclists over joggers or walkers. Hann says they'll monitor the trails so they don't "rut up" and he doesn't expect his cohorts to bother pedestrians. "The cycling community is educated enough to know hikers have the right of way."
As a retired ambassador of 67, Ashe is a major financial contributor to the South Loop project, part of which is named for him.
"Brian Hann has these ideas and turns them into reality," Ashe says, then adds a bold comparison to the attorney who relentlessly pushed for greenways, one of which was eventually named for him. "Brian Hann is the new Will Skelton."
Now retired, Skelton himself was onhand to survey Hann's work last week, and seemed to approve.
Ashe adds, though, that as important as Hann and Evans are to the effort, that public leadership, especially from the city and county mayors, will be the long-term keys to its success. "It will move at the pace at which they push it. It will not move faster or slower."
For her part, Mayor Rogero, who professed pushing the urban-wilderness concept as a priority in her inaugural address, is sold on the importance of it. "I think it's huge, in terms of impact on our quality of life," she says. She also remarks on the burgeoning outdoor tourism industry, estimated at $6 billion annually in Tennessee. "We should get our share of that and grow it," she says.
The urban wilderness movement is national, and as Ashe admits, most cities Knoxville's size now have a system of greenways. But in several regards, Legacy Parks' efforts take Knoxville a little beyond the city's traditional role of playing catch-up. Some bicyclists familiar with the new South Loop claim the city now has more extensive trails than Boulder, Colo., which is famous for them.
Knoxville's unusual topography and development patterns have offered the city an unusual advantage, in terms of handy greenways, and with effort, public and private, it's becoming more an asset than a weedy magnet for garbage and crime.
Boosters describe the effort's eventual economic impact in the millions, but often projections are fuzzy, connected to the 9.1 million who visit the Smokies, most perhaps without ever stepping out of the car in Knox County. It remains to be seen, of course, whether large numbers of people will come to the city itself, motivated by its unusual outdoor opportunities. Last month, Little Rock-based travel writer Rebecca McCormick wrote, "I can vouch that Legacy Parks has definitely made Knoxville a better place to visit.... Congratulations, Knoxville. You made me want to get out and play!"
Next fall, thanks to Legacy Parks' progress, the national Grassroots Outdoor Alliance will hold its annual meeting in Knoxville, bringing about 200 independent outdoor-industry leaders to town.
Maybe it's a long shot to imagine Knoxville, the city, as a national outdoors destination, especially in a region in which Asheville and Chattanooga have staked their own claims as outdoor-recreation centers. But for the time being, it rings with promise, and what Legacy Parks has wrought is at least a welcome amenity to the people who live here.