As we drive west from Highway 27 I look up at the ridge high above and immediately begin to wonder what I’ve gotten myself into. We cross the railroad tracks and drop down into the flats, black-green with the dense vegetation. The brown, ropy, kudzu vines twisting up and over anything in their path have not yet leafed-yet. Once they do, even more of this already secretive and shadowy land will be obscured.
Off the narrow roads, nestled in the foliage, are homes. Some of the homes are ramshackle, wooden affairs with chipped and peeling paint. Many residences are trailers, some of which seem to be unlivable. The yards are often nothing more than dirt, the grass worn away, with all manner of animals, children, and appliances strewn about. Some are nearly totally obscured by cars, beaten hulks sitting wheel-less on cinder blocks, the various components removed and laid nearby, as if they might somehow be useful once again. In many yards there are fires, and thin wisps of gray smoke waft through the trees as litter and debris smolders. Later I am told that Rhea County is one of the poorest counties in Tennessee. Despite this apparent poverty, most residences have a late model car or truck parked nearby, a sign of the primacy of movement in the modern age, a necessity requiring any cost or privation.
Everywhere there are churches of all denominations and creeds; Evangelical, Pentecostal, Methodist, and, naturally, Baptist. The church buildings are of all shapes, sizes, and conditions, and the sheer number of them makes it difficult to believe there are enough people to support them all. Yet each must have their congregants and outside these places of worship, as well as hung in front of homes and nailed to various trees, there are signs: “Prepare to meet thy God,” Know Jesus, know peace; no Jesus, no peace,” and often simply, “Repent!”
We pass through and begin to climb Walden’s Ridge, the road a steep switchback. Once on top you can see clear across the Tennessee Valley, the river snaking into the distance, the mountains of North Carolina on the horizon. The roads we travel are used by no one save the people who live near them. On top of the ridge are farms, horse lots, and immaculately rendered homes that resemble old-fashioned log cabins. We follow a dirt road alongside a farm, cows watching us from the field adjacent, and pass through a gate. Beyond the gate is a huge clearcut, the ground littered with shattered timber. Small clumps of scrawny, dead snags dot the landscape. It looks as if a bomb has been detonated on this place.
We park the truck at the end of an old logging road and head toward a pocket of live trees, the terrain too steep and rocky for the logging equipment to have accessed. These are the areas we will be walking and from here on out each will seem steeper and rockier than the one previous. It will not be for the last time that I wonder what I’ve gotten myself into.