Into the Wild: A Personal Journey Through East Tennessee's Wilderness

The summer asphalt is cool and damp after a July downpour. I'm barefoot and on the run.

I split from the family campsite after an argument with my stepfather, walking up the dirt road connecting Lake Santeetlah and Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. There I turn toward Robbinsville, N.C., hiking along the rural highway as the sun hangs low over the state line.

***

That was summer of 1980. I was 10 years old, and I remember wanting to see what it looked like just over the mountain in Tennessee.

I imagined a vast jungle of rhododendrons, moss, and ferns. The evidence was there: the coonskin-capped history, the Trail of Tears, the Cherokees who hid out in these wildest corners of the Southern Appalachians.

Today there are few true hideaways left. Tennessee's Upper Bald River, above Tellico Plains, sits at the top of my list. It's one of the last great alpine jungles we have, and it lies to the southwest from the campsite I shared with my family back in 1980. It's my childhood dream of wild Tennessee come true.

The Upper Bald River resides in the big leagues of Southern trout water, not necessarily because the fish are big, but because this unbroken watershed is so necessary. For clean drinking water, for bobcats and flying squirrels. Those are necessities. But for me, this place remains essential because it's fired my imagination for decades, even though I never visited until 2012.

I started daydreaming about Tennessee wilderness as a kid without knowing much about it. I just knew it existed in what I believed to be a higher state of wildness. And that is one of the gifts wilderness gives us: It delivers comfort through knowing there are other, wilder places out there.

There are many important wilderness proposals currently swirling in the indecisive eddies of Congress. I support them all, but feel a personal connection to the Tennessee Wilderness Act. It proposes wilderness protections—the highest form of protection we grant our public lands—for the Upper Bald River and five other treasured swaths of Cherokee National Forest.

These lands are already managed consistent with wilderness guidelines, and there is no apparent opposition to making these protections permanent with an act of Congress.

Tennessee's two Republican U.S. senators value these places, and that's why they first sponsored the Tennessee Wilderness Act in 2011. Hunters, anglers, hikers, quilters, cloggers, birders, budding capitalists, corporate dropouts, aspiring Navy SEALs, leading climate scientists and assorted daydreamers support the Tennessee Wilderness Act. It requires no budget to pass, and will protect nearly 20,000 acres of dense forest and cascading streams.

Just imagine 40 beautiful places the size of 500-acre House Mountain State Natural Area, a favorite Knoxville getaway up Rutledge Pike. From the top of House Mountain you can see downtown Knoxville. Wading the Upper Bald River, you can see only wilderness.

Last summer, Sen. Alexander told a gathering of supporters in Washington D.C. the act is "a real model example of how a coalition of people who care about the outdoors can do so well."

The Tennessee Wilderness Act didn't do so well during the last Congress. But nothing did. The last Congress was the first one since the 1960s to not pass a single wilderness bill. Those closely tracking the Tennessee Wilderness Act believe the bill will be reintroduced during the current Congress. After all, next year marks the 50th Anniversary of the original 1964 Wilderness Act—the one that allows all kinds of people to come together and protect all kinds of wild places. With the big Five-O fast approaching, what better time to pass the Tennessee Wilderness Act?

The idea that eventually became the 1964 Wilderness Act was hatched in a forest outside Knoxville back in 1934. And today, Sen. Alexander likes to remind folks: "Egypt has its pyramids. England has its history. Rome has its art. The United States has the great American outdoors. So [the Tennessee Wilderness Act] has broad support."

Last fall I interviewed Sen. Alexander at a scenic pullover on the Foothills Parkway. He wore his signature red and black woodsman's jacket, and the backdrop showed unbroken forest. It was a mix of early autumn color, with green slowly giving way to reds, yellows and oranges.

Alexander talked about the 1964 Wilderness Act, and about how when he thinks about the Upper Bald River and the five other wild places protected under his legislation, "It just makes sense to put them all together and give them the protection of the Wilderness Act. It was designed to protect areas like this."

The Upper Bald River remains an intact rainforest-like watershed. "These headwaters eventually feed into the Tennessee River, providing hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans with clean drinking water," reads The Wilderness Society's website.

I produced video for that site. That's why, in 2012, I set out to explore half the areas protected by Alexander's bill.

This trip was my chance to finally experience what I'd known only as "the other side of the border" when I camped with my family in the furthest reaches of North Carolina. I felt incredibly lucky when I got the chance to produce a series of Web videos 30 years later. I wanted to campaign for these places, even though I'd never visited any of them. But I knew they were there, and that lit my imagination as a kid.

The following is a collection of moments from my youth and young adulthood—and from my trip into the Tennessee wilderness last summer. The snapshots from my distant past are italicized, maybe because that's how they reside in my memory, where I've designated them as special and worth saving.

Mixed in are new memories and characters—sketches from my recent tour of wild places in the Tennessee and North Carolina mountains. They come together here in a collection of old and new growth, existing naturally, like wilderness itself.

***

The night I run away from the family's campsite on Lake Santeetlah, I find an orange amphibian specimen—maybe a newt, maybe a salamander. I watch it warm itself on the damp blacktop road. The gorgeous creature eventually waddles off the pavement and I keep walking until a large station wagon pulls up beside me.

Inside sits a 50-something Native American man. I imagine he has one of the Cherokee names hand-painted on the mailboxes outside Robbinsville. He asks me where I'm going, and not knowing what to say, I mumble something about walking to the store.

The closest mini mart is several miles away, and the man says, "You don't want to go that far, but I'll take you to the top of the hill."

So I climb in.

Today, as a father of a second-grader and a kindergartener, this memory gives me the shivers. I get in a car with a stranger and drive off, climbing toward Santeetlah Gap. I remember him talking about his kids, and how sometimes they just want to take off, even if they don't know where they are going.

At the top of the rise, where a backwoods road would eventually become the Cherohala Skyway, I hop out and the man drives off. Nothing dramatic, no Carlos Castaneda moment with a true son of this wild country. Just me alone, looking west up a lonely road that bares little resemblance to the scenic byway it would become. There I watch the sky turn the same mix of orange and purple I'd later see on a Tennessee license plate.

After dark, I wander back to camp, kind of frightened, but also kind of thrilled.

***

I moved to Knoxville in 1999 looking to reconnect with the wild places locked inside some of my favorite memories. As soon as I could, I drove from my little ranch house in Island Home through Maryville and Pumpkin Center, then up the Dragon's Tail to the place my family camped that summer when I ran away.

On the drive up I imagined the site spreading out beneath a canopy of poplar, hemlock, red and white oak, basswood, beech and sycamore. Avery Branch flowed right there. I recalled watching crawfish come out from hiding to feast on fish scraps while my stepfather cleaned the day's catch.

When I was 10, a fit, grandfatherly guy from Florida occupied the spot across the road. He lent me a scuba mask, gave me a few pieces of white bread, then sent me to where Avery Branch flows into Lake Santeetlah. With the bread, I summoned minnows and fingerlings to where the cold creek water blended into the warm reservoir.

I wanted to swim with the minnows again. So I drove to my family's campsite nearly two decades later and discovered the place is now something else. It appeared to be a logging road. It looked brighter and felt hotter. The water glimmered less clearly compared to my memory. I envisioned orange surveyor's tape tied to a stake in a place I wanted to see flaming azalea.

I picture this campsite to be a wilder version of the yard around my childhood home in Chapel Hill, N.C. In the creek by my house, I'd hunt salamanders with my best friend Jeff Warren. These were tiny things, some a bit yellow like a leopard frog, others deep black. We'd flip over a Frisbee and stage amphibian vs. crustacean gladiatorial showdowns between salamanders and crawfish. It usually wasn't very fair for the salamanders.

But there is a salamander that literally eats crawdads for lunch: the supernatural hellbender, whose survival depends on watersheds like the Upper Bald River. Locals call these mini dinosaurs "snot otters" and I once tried to catch one.

***

It's the size of a trinket lizard from the state fair—about 10 inches long—and it's plodding slowly upstream under six inches of water. I stare and wonder if it bites, then instinctively come in from behind, snatching it out of the water. My grip is gentle with my thumb and pointer finger tucked just under the creature's front limbs. In an instant, it's clear I'm no match for a hellbender.

Suddenly the amphibian's muscles flex with a surprising amount of force. My fingers spread in shock, and the hellbender drops back into the current.

I take several strides toward shore, then continue casting my black and silver Rooster Tail. With a flicking sidearm, I place the feathered combination of hook and spoon delicately under creekside awnings of rhodo and spruce. They line the bank, where underneath, the creek carves out deep, dark other worlds.

I want my spinner bait to catch the last rays of sunlight as it sinks. I want it to flash and lure out a rainbow, brown, or brook trout. I want to catch something I know how to handle.

***

Until the summer of 2012, I'd never really explored Cherokee National Forest. While living in Knoxville, I'd hike the Cumberland Plateau or someplace in North Carolina instead, often right off of I-40. Anyone driving this corridor might think North Carolina is a wilder place than Tennessee because the mountains roll on for more highway miles.

But that's not how I saw it as a kid, and it's not how I see it now. Especially after last summer when I set off for Sampson Mountain Wilderness near Tusculum, on assignment to produce videos for Tennessee Wild and The Wilderness Society.

The Tennessee Wilderness Act will expand the Sampson Mountain area by 2,922 acres. That's a big deal if you love black bears, because Sampson Mountain is some of the best black bear habitat in the South. It's a fertile, undulating place defined by steep slopes descending near the Appalachian Trail. It deserves permanent protection.

The road in offers a few monuments to impermanence: burned out trailers and roadways eroding into creek beds. I park and hike in with my old friend Jeff, who lives in Knoxville and goes by Dr. Jeffrey Warren, Ph.D. At ORNL, Jeff leads research into the ways trees and plants deal with the unfortunate symptoms of a warming planet.

I believe Jeff to be an ideal hiking companion whose knowledge of the forest is fascinating. He's incredibly patient when I hover over wildflowers with my camera and wait for the light to change. I'm there to capture vivid footage that makes others believe in this place when they see it on YouTube, and Jeff is there to cheer me on.

We follow a narrow drainage into the proposed wilderness expansion. A little ways up I duck into a low-hanging tunnel of mountain laurel and rhododendrons to scout the trail ahead. There, just a couple of feet from my bulging eyes, is a timber rattlesnake.

I jump away, and it feels like a close call. As I'm catching my breath and getting ready to snap a few photos, a sharp pain suddenly shoots up from left ankle. I jump again as Jeff tries to contain his laughter. He's reached down and pinched me hard.

It's a hilarious prank, and I laugh along with Jeff. What feels like a snakebite turns out to be as harmless as a crawdad in an upside-down Frisbee.

***

Next stop: The Upper Bald River where I meet Jeff Hunter, who left a corporate job with Verizon in 2003 to become an activist. In 2008, he focused on Tennessee wilderness, and as the campaign director for the advocacy group Tennessee Wild he's led dozens hikes into the Upper Bald River.

This is it. I'm on the other side of the Tennessee line from where I grew up camping and dreaming. It's a wild oasis with native orchids and rare trout waters. It's not exactly one-of-a-kind. There are other watersheds we shield from development. But few are this complete and verdant and so convincingly "rainforest." I'm delighted to be here finally.

Jeff Hunter likes to take visitors to what he jokingly refers to as Alexander Falls. It's an unnamed pour-over that looks like a slightly smaller version of those scenic 90-degree drops on the Tellico River. The nickname is a tribute to our senior senator, and I'm guessing it might stick.

"This is an original piece of Americana," says Hunter into the camera, trying to stoke imaginations like mine.

Later he tells me, "This is something real in a world where that's increasingly hard to find. It's big. It's rugged. And it's still here. Let's keep it that way."

***

After leaving the Upper Bald River, I make my way up to Farr Gap, where the proposed expansion of Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness drops away in a tight parallel bunch of topo lines.

The Tennessee Wilderness Act will add 1,836 acres of steep forest to Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock. It includes swoopingly scenic elevation drops from 3,100 feet above sea level to 1,100 feet down on the reservoir.

Like the other proposed designations specified in the Tennessee Wilderness Act—more than 3,000 acres on Iron Mountain near Elizabethton, 348 acres along Lick Log Ridge in the Big Frog Wilderness, 978 acres in the Little Frog Wilderness—the expansion of Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock makes common sense because it supports all the wildness around it.

It protects viewsheds for those who want to escape their daily commute down I-40, or some other annoyance of everyday life. In many ways, places like this cure what ails you.

***

I'm hung-over, so I decide to hike the Hangover Lead. It's a long daytrip, and that's why it works. I descend from the parking lot toward Slickrock Creek. Then I follow the trail along the creek bed before scaling up an extremely steep route back toward the Hangover Lead Overlook.

Backpacker Magazine describes the fun like this: "The upper section of the Slickrock Creek Trail is widely considered the hardest hike in the southern Appalachians. Its nickname among local hikers is ‘The Ballbuster.'"

Balls unbroken, I arrive at the top of the trail and find a tiny white owl staring at me through the undergrowth. It flies ahead and I lope after it tired but refreshed.

The trail finally tops out and you can head toward the Overlook. I arrive at this incredible perch and gaze across a sea of waving green branches. Fresh air and sweat, adrenaline and awe. Best cure I know.

***

In the summer of 2012, Bill Hodge invited me back to Slickrock. He's a big guy who used to pace a luxury box in Neyland Stadium wondering how he might make a bigger splash. He was in marketing, a world of crowds and attention. It was life in a bullhorn. And eventually Bill decided to find someplace quieter. Someplace not so Neyland.

But he needed a tool to sever himself from his professional life. That tool turned out to be a saw.

Bill is one of the founding forces behind the Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards (SAWS), a campaign dedicated to maintaining wilderness trails—clearing them of downed trees, evening the grade—while also advocating for more wilderness protections.

"The areas we're trying to protect with the Tennessee Wilderness Act," says Bill, who teaches classes in how to use a two-man crosscut saw, "they are some of the most bio-diverse places on the planet. It's something that needs to be done."

When I meet a SAWS crew rebuilding a trail into the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Creek Wilderness, Bill tells me about a 19-year-old crew member named Jose Arroyo. Bill says he once lived in a cardboard box behind a Toys R Us in New York.

Today, Arroyo is working to become a Navy SEAL.

Arroyo tells me that when he lived on the street, he was too poor for brand-name Cheerios. But he did sometimes eat the off-brand Toasty Os. On the back of the Toasty Os boxes were pictures of national parks. For Arroyo, these cereal box photos of wild places did not deliver a full daily allowance of wildness. But they really got him thinking.

"I was just like, man I wish I could be there," Arroyo says. "But here I was homeless."

When I interview him on the bank of Slickrock Creek, Arroyo looks around and says, "For me to know that this is mine, I'm going to take care of it. And I'm going to fight, and fight and keep fighting."

Later some of the other SAWS crew members from New York tell me Arroyo never used to smile. But in wilderness, that changed.

For proof, I hand him a waterproof GoPro camera as he heads off with his buddies for a swim. They gather where Slickrock Creek pours into Calderwood Lake, and in the footage, Arroyo splashes and laughs. He's clearly at ease, clearly at home.

***

Hunter Hartwell is, according to his bumper sticker, "American by birth, Southern by the grace of God." He is an exceptionally sharp guy majoring in political science and economics who sometimes gets free donuts because an alumnus from his fraternity is a bigwig at Krispy Kreme.

Hunter picks me up in his aging Toyota 4runner with a Georgia license plate celebrating the Sons of Confederate Veterans. We head toward the mountains from Knoxville and talk about fishing and politics and how the Tennessee Wilderness Act is wisely informed by both.

This rising college senior just finished up an internship with Tennessee Wild. So last year, Hunter was the face of wilderness on campus at Vanderbilt. This year, he's interning for McKinsey & Company, the blue-chip consulting firm.

Hunter wants to help "improve the way people spend their money," and this summer in Atlanta, he will ride elevators and pound the pavement beneath the towering corporate skyline, daydreaming about getting back to the Tennessee woods.

"We all need places to get away from the world," he says.

***

It's September 11, 2001. I'm supposed to fly from Knoxville to Salt Lake City. Instead, I'm glued to CNN with the rest of my co-workers at Jupiter Entertainment out on Northshore Drive. I watch for a while, and then I can't take it any more. I get in my gold Honda Accord and drive to the Cherohala Skyway.

It's easily 10 degrees cooler and it's totally quiet, except for beeps coming from a telemetry antenna in the hands of a houndsman standing near my car at a scenic overlook. The man's dog has a radio collar on, and from this pullout along the Skyway, the houndsman scans the Santeetlah Creek drainage in search of a clear signal.

Seems the hound, which might be used to hunt bears or boars, is missing. All that connects the dog to the outside world is a faint signal. When a frequency emitted by the dog's radio collar reaches the houndsman's antenna, the telemetry gear lets out a slight intermittent beep. It's a lonely sound, and a reminder that this place is still big enough to swallow you up and let you disappear. And on 9/11, that offers a bit of comfort.

***

Earth Day marks a joyous anniversary of conservation-minded Americans coming together to celebrate the natural world—and the need to protect what's left.

So this Earth Day, please go to Tennessee Wild's website and marvel at Dr. Reid Blackwelder's beard. It's pure wildness framing a handsome smile. Dr. Blackwelder, like Jose Arroyo and Hunter Hartwell, wants you to believe in the Tennessee Wilderness Act.

"In addition to protecting beautiful parts of our state from logging and development," writes Dr. Blackwelder in an editorial published by the Kingsport Times News, "passage of the [Tennessee Wilderness Act] would not close any roads, would not require new appropriations, and would not cause any loss of taxes to local communities."

So why does this unopposed, all-upside bill languish in Congress? It's a particularly frustrating situation because many of us associate wilderness with head-clearing breakthroughs, with healing and moving on.

Especially if you're 10 years old and you like to fish.

***

I make it back to the family campsite sometime before dawn. My bare feet hurt. I'm exhausted, so I climb into my sleeping bag inside a pop-up camper. My mom and stepfather's tent sits up the hill, and they come to check on me. I've worried them plenty. But they let me sleep as morning rain patters on the canvass over my head.

Sometime before lunch I get up. My stepfather and I look to put yesterday's fight behind us, so we go fishing.

I know the rain has washed food into Santeetlah Creek. The trout are feeding, and I choose a brown Rooster Tail with a gold spoon. It blends in with its wild surroundings because the creek is running just a bit muddy.

Near Rattler Ford Campground I toss the Rooster Tail upstream and crank the lure past an undercut rock. From the turbid darkness, a brown trout rises to take the bait. I set the hook and reel in a dream fish. I feel a rush of excitement. I breathe in the rain-soaked mountain air. I experience pure happiness while examining the trout's bright orange spots, there on a mossy rock, in a wild place not far from the Tennessee line.

Ed. Note: Stop by Tennessee Wild's booths at EarthFest on April 20 at Pellissippi State Community College's Hardin Valley campus, and the following week during Earth Day festivities in Oak Ridge on April 27. There you can fill out a postcard to Congress expressing your support for the bill.