Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Hamilton County, May 2006 (Part I)

It is the end of May when somehow, miraculously, we finish surveying Aetna Mountain. For the last week we have had a four-person crew, but Carl is due to leave on a two-month trip to Chile in a couple days, so we will drop back to three people. Allison, who has been feeling worse and worse as the days have gone on, has finally gone to see a doctor and has been told that she’s suffering from a severe allergy to something she’s encountered in the forest. The doctor prescribes steroids and tells her she can come back to work. It doesn’t occur to me right off the bat that the doctor has no idea what he’s talking about, but it will soon enough.

Carl is still with us as we do our initial recon of our first Hamilton County site. After Aetna Mountain we figure things have to get easier. We will figure something like this after completing each county and we’ll be wrong every time. Just finding the site is a piece of work. The roads we need are either not on our Tennessee Gazetteer or named something different on the maps than the actual street signage would indicate. Our forestry maps, on the other hand, show logging roads that may no longer exist or may be so treacherous as to be impassable. Of course, there’s no way to determine if a logging road is impassable other than driving down the thing and hoping you’ll notice your impending doom before it’s too late to turn back. But at this point we’re just trying to wind our way through a labyrinthine set of neighborhood roads that turn back and forth in every direction, now seemingly leading us to our destination, now leading us away. We make wrong turns and follow roads to their abrupt ends. We use our GPS machines and compasses to try to stay on course, but these tools are most helpful when we can travel as-the-crow-flies, something we can’t even come close to doing at the moment. People stop what they’re doing and watch us pass, wondering why someone they don’t know is driving down their street. At times like this we’d be hard put to answer them in a way that didn’t sound crazy. At one point we go under a bridge that would seem to lead to our destination, but there is no obvious way up to the bridge. It sits wholly unused above us, apparently coming out of nowhere and almost certainly leading there as well.

Finally, we emerge from a series of roads that have taken us everywhere but straight ahead. We pass a ramshackle barn and a shed filled with old car parts. Ahead of us is the mysterious bridge, a bridge that, while constructed of poured concrete like any highway overpass, appears to serve no function but to drop us onto a deeply rutted dirt road. Then immediately the scene begins to look like home. To the east the landscape drops away and trees stretch out into the distance. A now-familiar queasiness wells up in the belly as the terrain that has to be walked is assessed. This area is more remote than Aetna Mountain, a lost forest tract that we might never be found in, no matter how many helicopters and search dogs were brought out. Some of the transects we need to walk are short; others are over a mile long. There isn’t a cloud in the sky and the day is only beginning to hint at the heat to come later in the summer. Carl laughs and shakes his head, making no secret of the fact that he’s looking forward to getting out of this job and getting to Chile, where it’s surely much safer. We pass a strange house sitting silent at the bottom of a hill. The home looks fairly nice and is surprisingly large but there has clearly been no activity anywhere near it for some time. Along the road sits a dust-covered van and it is anyone’s guess as to why someone chose to build out here. The owner of the house may have driven his van up months ago and promptly died--stroke, heart attack, murder--and no one would ever know. We’re not about to look into it.

We’ve spent so much time trying to find our location that there isn’t much time to survey, so we choose some of the shorter transects and get a taste of what we’re in for; steep hills banked by hemlock and pine beetle kills ringed by blackberry bramble. As what he thinks will be his last act as a forest surveyor, Carl jogs a couple transects to polish off a remote corner. We don’t know yet that we’ll be down to a two-person crew in a matter of days and Carl will eventually find himself back in the woods. We finish up and head back to Knoxville, finally calling it a week, but quickly find that one of the roads we came in on has been torn up over the last couple hours and our path is now blocked by a bulldozer and several dump trucks. We wait some time for the crew to acknowledge us and then wait a little longer for the dozer to grade us a path out. It seems that for the duration of the summer no road will ever be certain.

The first photo is a shot of Kelly's Inn, our home in Dayton, TN until we depleted our travel budget and had to start sleeping on air mattresses at a wildlife refuge. The second shot is a rare appearance of your hapless host and, while taken in Hamilton County, it's not the site described above. I could've saved it for a more appropriate post, but I was kinda in the mood to post it. Note the GPS machine in my left hand--the coordinate we needed to find was above me, on top of all that rock. Fun! We'll get to that later. The last shot is of Young Rd., the torn up street I mentioned. Since I had a couple minutes right then I figured I'd snap a shot.

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