Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

The Lands Further Off: Following Athowominee (Part 1)

Casey Clabough

I have learnt from experience that the established Authority of any government in America, and the policy of Government at home, are both insufficient to restrain the Americans; and that they do and will remove as their avidity and restlessness incite them. They acquire no attachment to Place: But wandering about Seems engrafted in their Nature; and it is a weakness incident to it, that they should for ever imagine the Lands further off . . . .
      –Lord (John Murray) Dunmore, last royal governor of Virginia, 1773

During the summer of 2004 I performed nearly six hundred miles of hiking, following secondary roads along a route hugging the western slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains and descending into the Holston River Valley (from western Maryland to eastern Tennessee) that once was called Athowominee or "the Warrior’s Path." At one time it connected the nations of the Iroquois in the northeast and the Cherokee in the south, and was used by the first European settlers to enter and settle what was then considered the frontier. My own German ancestors had followed the path from the Catoctin Mountain area of Maryland to the Smoky Mountains at the end of the eighteenth century, and I resolved to make the same trip, comparing that portion of contemporary eastern Appalachia against the accounts of early explorers. I sought to tell the story of the natural and cultural development of that region and connect those historical variables to the cultural and environmental realities that exist in the area now–the ongoing relevance of a place fundamental to the history of the United States and most individual Americans. What follows is an excerpt from my journey which recounts my tracing of the areas between Draper’s Mountain, south of Pulaski, and Rural Retreat.

Here, in southwest Virginia, having departed the scenic overlooks atop Draper Mountain–the long, memorable prospects of the Blue Ridge and Alleghany ranges, east and west, respectively–I descend the south face, following Highway 11, into a small valley of the same name, both natural features memorializing John Draper, an early frontiersman who had survived unscathed the Shawnee incursion to the north in the summer of 1755 and later came to settle in this area. Cornered in a cabin while her husband toiled in the fields, Draper’s wife, Bettie, and their infant son were not so fortunate when the Shawnee swept through, the woman sustaining a bullet wound to the arm, before witnessing the agonizing death of her baby at the blunt end of a rock-hewn tomahawk. Yet, Bettie’s life ultimately was spared and she was spirited west across the Alleghany mountains to the Shawnee villages, though, unlike her neighbor Mary Ingles, she would not be so fortunate as to effect a quick escape. Enduring an initial period of hostility and abuse, Bettie eventually distinguished herself as a squaw of some importance among the Shawnee, a result of her skill with the needle and in preparing food. Though her husband constantly inquired after her and sought out friendly Indians for information, she would not be reunited with him for six years, at which time he finally located her and purchased her freedom.

It seems the further I follow this highway built along and upon the ancient Indian footpath Athowominee, the more bloody and lamentable episodes of the North American colonial frontier I find myself recounting–an apparent natural outgrowth of the fact that it was on this route that the first frontier settlers, including my own German ancestors, sought new lives and lands, though the places they sometimes settled upon had been home to other lives for generations: a fact from which great suffering often arose. Indians protected their places for they feared losing them, so much lost already, wrested away through the lies and treachery of colonial officials. Western settlers moved on because it was all they could do, walking or riding away from death, their goods in a wagon and their hopes on the horizon, the cultures into which many of them had been born severed now by an ocean, the so-called civilized lands to the east beyond their means to purchase.

When, a mile or so from the foot of Draper Mountain, Route 11 merges into Interstate 81, the point is brought home that people are still moving, wandering on a grand scale, today–cars and trucks, coinciding caravans of them, hurtling and roaring, commanded at extraordinary speeds, toward the sundry destinations of their operators. The American interstate system represents the federal government’s mid-twentieth century attempt to channel and funnel that wanderlust into a flowing, efficient, closely monitored grid. As its government creators pointed out, the interstate system was as much a philosophical construction as a practical one:

Construction of this modern road network . . . involves many problems and radical changes in thought . . . . The benefits of controlled-access construction are numerous. A modern, controlled-access road transforms, in many ways, the area through which it passes . . . . This type of road promotes safety, saves travel time, reduces the strain on drivers and aids the economic development of the area.

Built upon these abstract assumptions, the interstate system has turned out to be much different in actual application than any of its builders likely imagined. Controlled access often means driving on unnecessarily, sometimes for many miles, if a desired exit is missed; economic development at access points can be problematic or even undesirable; and safety amid these corridors of large speeding trucks, inattentive drivers, and seedy rest stops often is wanting–an irony that many people now eschew the interstate for the old secondary roads it was designed to bypass, trading the speed and anxiety of the big road for considerations of safety and slower, more relaxed traffic.

Most all systems are arbitrary or become so in time, arising as they do out of incomplete, finite philosophies. The German thinker Johann Fichte pointed out that system makers “proceed from some concept or other. Without caring in the least where they got it from or whence they have concocted it, they analyze it, combine it with others to whose origin they are equally indifferent, and in reasonings such as these their philosophy itself is composed.” Amid such variously drawn hodgepodges of thought, much inevitably is either misinterpreted, misapplied, or altogether overlooked. Here, standing before Interstate 81, I constitute one such wayward variable: an agent not allowed for in the creation of the system, for 81 is banned to all foot travel and those typically glimpsed illegally walking along such thoroughfares usually are labeled immediately as bums or pariahs–destitute, aimless people lacking the means to drive, rather than purposeful travelers, exercising a rational preference for hiking. Fortunately, a service road running parallel to the interstate allows me to trace the congested corridor without literally being on it–a prospect ultimately more dangerous for me than the system’s fearful drivers, disturbed and perhaps a little inquisitive, at the strange figure passed: fading in the rearview mirror, walking alongside, moving in slow motion amid, the furious velocity of heavy modern traffic.

The quiet service road carries me, vehement traffic flanking me all the way, to Fort Chiswell, the site of an outpost built under the direction of William Byrd III in 1759, largely on account of its position in a natural pass between Lick Mountain to the south and, to the north, Ramsay Mountain, the northwest tip of which pushes up against the village of Max Meadows, the location of one of the earliest frontier academies, founded in 1792. Here, Athowominee met with another old, albeit less-traveled, path running north and south. The fort was named for Byrd’s friend, John Chiswell, who would discover lead mines several miles to the south along the New River, near present-day Austinville, in the 1760s that would later supply colonial forces during the American Revolution. He also was responsible for widening Athowominee south of Wytheville, all the way to Long Island (now Kingsport, Tennessee), so that it would better accommodate wagon traffic, the great tide of western development. On January 30, 1775 Fort Chiswell was the meeting place of the “Freeholders of Fincastle County,” who established a number of local resolutions in concert with the wishes of the First Continental Congress. The agenda of that meeting also reflects the history and concerns of the area’s people at that time, their simultaneous proud, hard-won independence and united willingness to serve the other colonies, as well as their joyful relief that the Indians were “now happily terminated.”

Progress has its price, an inevitability ever relegated, pushed, to the fringes of collective human consciousness. The Virginia frontier was gradually becoming settled but with it came machinations that would alter, deprive, and scar the land forever. Closing in on Wytheville, walking by turns along service roads and upon grassy fields, tracing the course of the interstate which–incredibly–is also Athowominee’s, I encounter a blasted quarry area, glimpsed off to the left, south of 81: gray barren rock jutting out from a clawed hillside, bereft of foliage, surrounded by loose and eroded brownish-red soil. It is but a small suggestion of the long practice of mining–that mad industry that gripped, dug its human fingers deeply into, southwestern Virginia, West Virginia, and many other places–and continues to do so. Mining–its appearance, science, techniques, everything about it–has always suggested to me an ecological form of rape. Even the industry’s terminology, words like “strip mining” and “mountaintop removal,” imply wanton destruction, total acquisition. For the land that is mined there is no recompense, advantage, or silver lining–it is irrevocably maimed and torn, though the wounds may be so deep as to appear all but invisible, save for the brackish, acidic ground water and befouled wells, the inexplicable sink holes in the terrain–the uprooted trees, the suddenly eroded slopes.

Most of this peculiar destruction lies west of here, the regions that truly may be called coal country, crumbling landscapes with mountains toppling evermore, from which the centuries will burn rich loads under which the people of those places have groaned. They are surreal areas, remote wastelands of the industrial era, twisted nightmarish episodes of rural Appalachia briefly turned modern and then abandoned: small dilapidated company houses pressed against rusty railroads, centered by a slightly less-decomposed company store; all–the homes, the railroad, the store, even the roads that lead to them–now partially sunken in and defunct, the rare figure or vehicle that moves among them suggestive of an unlikely survivor from some twentieth century apocalypse.

I once spent some time in McDowell County, West Virginia–the poorest district in the state, its county line less than fifty miles northwest of Wytheville–passing most of my days in the coal villages of Caretta and War, or between them, drinking beer at Cecil Johnson’s roadside Rock View Inn. Once flourishing towns, home to every modern convenience, they are now ghostly places, hollows where steel cankers and vines wrap about the broken sidewalks and abandoned railroad tracks–trees grown up through roofless houses and schools, among the best that could be built when their foundations were laid in the 1920s and 1930s. The population is aged, the youth having fled in search of work, a different kind of life, propelled by an indefinite need to escape–many of those remaining indigent and unemployed, drugged out and uneducated, subjected to conditions worse than many Third World countries in a county that lies three hundred miles from the capital of the United States.

The people who settled McDowell County were similar to my own frontier ancestors: independent, stoic, poor folk arrived to a place where they could finally afford land, carve a living, however humble, out of the close-pressed ridges and hollows of the Appalachian mountains. And so they got by, enduring rather than prospering, but doing so on their own terms, decade after decade. The arrival of modern coal operations dramatically altered the traditional local economy from one of hardscrabble agricultural subsistence to an even more tenuous, crude, industrial one. The land and/or what lay beneath it was steadily acquired–coercively as well as forcibly–by absentee coal barons, the people herded into coal camps, they or their children eventually compelled to mine, the terraced hillside rows abandoned for dark subterranean passages, cribbed with lumber, water dripping amid the creaking of timbers.

People often were paid for their underground labor in script, which allowed them to buy goods only from the company store. The company provided everything, ensuring that all or most of the real money it paid and spent upon miners and their families eventually made its way back into the coffers of the company one way or another: if not the company store, then the company doctor, the company church, etc. The psychological impact of such a society was much worse than its nefarious practical exploitation, for over time it encouraged and produced an unhealthy culture of paternalism, miners expecting the company to provide everything, stripped of the formidable initiative and independence of their forefathers. When industry failed and the companies pulled out of the region, few knew where even to begin; the lucky ones moving away, those who remained struggling with poverty and unemployment, the slow disintegration of their communities–many of them yearning in despair for the return of the very system that exploited them.

Today, in McDowell County–rated one of the top ten poorest counties in the United States, eight-tenths of its land owned by people who don’t live there, home to staggering rates of illness and illiteracy–there exists, to some degree, a troubling marketing of victimization, an advertised human deprivation that openly attracts and recruits philanthropic groups and tolerates their various ideologies for the purpose of attaining whatever material benefits may be involved. Sometimes, a measure of genuine good is accomplished. Overall though, one can’t help but feel troubled that those who arrive with aid are, in some sense, not all that different in their paternalistic material capacities from the coal companies of old: a new benevolent crutch to replace the old malignant one, though a crutch remains a crutch, as the saying goes.

Despite the excruciating toll exacted by the mining industry on both the land and the psyches of the people who continue to live upon it, there exist many individuals who maintain enviable reservoirs of resilience, independence, and self-sufficiency. Cecil Johnson–ageless barkeep of the Rock View, who, well into his nineties, grows his own tobacco and vegetables–is one, or the Muncy sisters, leaders in their local church and dedicated ATV enthusiasts, who have constructed a family compound in the hills above War and spent an entire afternoon riding a friend and me around the summits and gas fields of all the local ridges, telling us about the people who once lived there, showing us the rusty ruins of an old still. “Virginia is way over there on the other side of them hills,” one of the sisters told me, pointing into the evening sun from the mountaintop where we stood. “We can take four-wheeler trails anywhere you want to go. Point and we’ll go there . . . I could ride you all the way to Grundy.” There are still such people in McDowell County, those capable of gazing beyond their poignant history and suffering, oracles who scan the horizon, for whom there are still possibilities.

Mining operations persist in many regions of Appalachia today, the black specter of coal omnipresent though often shy, the smaller, modern operations tucked back among the hills, grinding and clanking, loaded down Mack trucks hustling along, brakes burning–the odor of roasting rubber and hydraulics–as the heavy vehicles rumble down the mountain, going in slow, bursting out of, switchback curves. Schopenhauer said, “The world is my idea–this is a truth for every man, since the world as it is depends for its character and existence upon the mind that knows it.” My notion of the coal fields remains an ill-defined, incomplete one, for it is an Appalachia I still struggle to know, one generally removed from where I now tread, to which I remain a foreigner, a stranger with another past, for whom the people of these areas are, by turns, familiar and alien. Appalachian coal country is a different kind of Appalachia, from what people eat and think about all the way down to the traditional means of heating one’s house, the smell of coalsmoke on the evening autumn air having long ago replaced the sharp sweet odor of kindling aflame or the slow, smoky simmering of wet wood, set for the night at the back of the woodstove. Though it remains a mystery to me, it is a region that plays upon my mind whenever I encounter denuded terrain or venture very far into southwest Virginia. Here, the hills are intact, but not far to the west, at days end, the waning sun sinks behind hollowed mounds–tragic, riddled peaks, the wounded heights West Virginia writer William Hoffman once called “the dark mountains.”

It is breezy and cooler in Wytheville, the town’s elevation of nearly twenty-three hundred feet the highest of any municipality through which I have passed. Downtown, I eat at Skeeter’s World Famous Hot Dogs, the reputation well earned, and load up later on water and nuts at the ACME Market. South of town, Route 11 emerges again from the interstate, its own road once more, defined by languid, infrequent traffic and the welcome provincial quality of the roadside–the delightful fresh fruit I buy from the Wythe Produce fruit stand. The recently ripened goods are inexpensive, probably due to the fact that the fruit stand rests a considerable distance from the interstate. In fact, a similar local situation existed on a much grander scale at the end of the eighteenth century, when the immense distance to large markets and the problems of traveling with goods made the overall price of vegetables and livestock in the region very low: a bushel of corn or wheat bringing as little as twenty-five cents, a healthy steer only five dollars.

Later, eating strawberries as I cool my feet in the cold water of Reed Creek’s north fork, my thoughts turn to something that has occupied me periodically over the course of my journey: the idea of what I am experiencing as opposed to what is experiencing me–my presence in these places, however unobtrusive, ever as insidious and as palpable as the displacement created by my feet in the waters of Reed Creek. The philosopher Edmund Husserl claimed that in order “to distinguish within experience that which experiences from that which is experienced, one must suspend natural beliefs; this suspension of belief is made possible by a method of bracketing by which we talk not about trees and selves as items external to experience but of the ‘trees’ and the ‘perceptions’ of experience.” Such thoughts serve, on the one hand, as healthy and humble reminders of the finite human ability to comprehend our most basic surroundings, and, on the other, as formulas for despair, for to what limited degree may we really overcome ourselves, our unconscious beliefs, our human limitations, and their manifold relations to the puny, incomplete degrees to which we experience the images of reality? What shaky value lies in our respective surface recognitions of a thing in its being and our erratic and divergent human perceptions of it?

Back on the road, these questions give way to a belated literal perception: the prominence, here–valley to the south, long Pine Ridge off to my right–of occasional German-style barns, standing in fields or on hillsides, painted or weathered, in various stages of use and decay. The builders of such structures often took advantage of slopes and direction in choosing construction sites, frequently including a long overhang or forebay on one side, often the warm south face, in order to protect livestock from bad weather–the wood hammered with wrought-iron nails, the roof dry and tight, perhaps significantly better than the one atop the house, its functionality essential to protecting the valuable hay, livestock, and other goods beneath.

As I pass these barns amid the heavy haze of late summer, they all appear motionless, no creaking doors or cattle swishing their tales in the shade–not so much as the slightest swirl of tall grass, the flutter of a leaf. Of course, all the while, beyond my perceptions, there exists the reminder of constant, furious activity–energy unfolding: a barely perceptible breeze, the breaking down of cow manure, termites gnawing at the lower boards. Yet, these events may only be surmised. To my limited eyes the barns appear as frozen images, possessed of the stillness of objects unchanging. The Deist philosopher Gotthold Lessing maintained, “Since painting, because its signs or means of imitation can be combined only in space, must relinquish all representations of time, therefore progressive actions, as such, cannot come within its range. It must content itself with actions in space; in other words, with mere bodies, whose attitude lets us infer their action.” Sometimes vision can be the same in the quality of images it paints upon the canvas of the mind, the limited gaze of human eyes met with the illusion of motionlessness, the actions it cannot see left to the devices of the imagination, summoned like ghosts from the hollow depths of perished experience.

In the evening, I am greeted by the literal human arrangement of images when, several miles down the road, I walk into the Hiland Drive-in, an outdoor cinema, its screen a consistent source of entertainment since 1952, improvements to it over the years having conspired to make it the largest viewing surface in the state of Virginia. Though I do not have a vehicle to sit in, the ticketman permits my entry, after which I walk about in the cool, deepening dusk, trying to find the best unoccupied piece of ground to sit on before the lights go down. In the midst of this search I am invited to climb into the long bed of a large pick-up truck, its three friendly occupants kindly motioning me to an empty lawn chair. They are local folks from nearby Rural Retreat, the man a garage owner, one of the women a waitress. Settling in comfortably, sipping something fruity and strong from an offered thermos, I think of the last chair I had sat in at the Dogwood Lodge, now half a hundred miles to the north. This night, I fancy I am probably the most grateful lawn chair occupant in the entire state of Virginia.

Drowsing through the film previews, I try to focus as best I can on the evening’s main draw, Alien Vs. Predator, remaining conscious enough at least to establish the plot–how the vast, super-wealthy, yet somehow bumbling, Weyland Corporation, an obvious amalgamation of any number of familiar big American businesses, detects a large, ancient pyramid buried beneath the arctic wastes, which turns out to be a spawning ground for a species of aliens bred for the sole purpose of being hunted once every century or so by another, more militant race of advanced anthropomorphic beings. The ill-fated Weyland employees–stocked, clichéd, and boring (in other words, startlingly realistic corporate administrators)–get generous screentime early in the film–sharing photos of family members, exchanging bad dialogue, and so on, as the director makes a few half-hearted attempts at generating empathy for the cast before having them systematically impregnated and/or maimed and slaughtered by the warring extraterrestrials.

I fall asleep perhaps a little over halfway into the film, though I am nudged back into consciousness with time enough to light my pipe and witness the irrelevant conclusion. As the epigraph reads on the movie poster outside the drive-in, “Whoever wins . . . we lose,” which was chosen I suppose to draw the viewer in and make human existence seem tenuous and suspenseful, but speaks to me instead as a kind of unintended warning, a guarantee, that this film will let you down regardless of the outcome. Infinitely more interesting explorations of the movie’s themes appear in little known, cinematic science-fiction hiccups of decades past, such as 1965’s Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster, the script of which–composed, incidentally, in the Virginia foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains–insinuates violence and impregnation rather than graphically conveying them, the desperate band of aliens from a war-ravaged sterile planet having landed in Puerto Rico for the purpose of abducting bikini-clad earth women as breeding stock to the tune of a British Invasion soundtrack. Forty years before Alien Vs. Predator a particularly grim, autocratic character from Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster named General Fred Bowers bluntly summed up the role of the beleaguered earth dwellers in both films: “It’s time to fish or cut bait.”

It is fun to consider aliens, our ideas and images of them–the mirror we can never seem to escape even in the most outlandish of our creations–sitting here among my own kind. How often–even now, with access to a staggering array of visual technology–the villainous, eldritch creatures of science fiction and horror continue to appear as human-like bipeds rather than truly alien, perhaps wholly unrecognizable, forms of life. Or perhaps this is altogether appropriate, since, more often than not, the creatures end up coming across as not so foreign after all, having traveled not from another galaxy, but rather from the looking glass at the bottom of the archetypal abyss that attracts our darker ruminations–the distorted images, foreignness made literal, of that which exists inside us. It reminds me too that, even were this drive-in empty, in viewing this outrageous film I would still somehow be in the company of humanity–something I have trouble remembering from time to time out there along the open lonely stretches of road. As the German philosopher Martin Heidegger put it, “Man is a being-in-the world, in that by participation and involvement the world becomes constitutive of man’s being.” As the credits begin to roll, the woman sitting next to me passes the plaid thermos of vodka-laced jungle juice. “Kill it!” she says. The liquid, warm in my mouth and stomach, emanates throughout my body, a heady reminder of all my parts as well as the bodies of those who surround me–an ill-defined feeling of human fellowship among strangers: the people in the truck, the drive-in, even the imagined denizens of the region, of our world, lonely in its circuitous journey through the frigid void of space. However superficial or finite our interactions may be, the world that we live in remains a world shared with others.


Casey Clabough is a scholar and college professor whose writing has evolved gradually from intellectual academic topics toward creative nonfiction. His scholarly literary books from university presses include Elements: The Novels of James Dickey, Experimentation and Versatility: The Early Novels and Short Fiction of Fred Chappell, and Liberating Voice: The Art of Gayl Jones (forthcoming). He also has work forthcoming in quarterlies, such as The Sewanee Review and Virginia Quarterly Review.

The above essay is a self-contained excerpt from a book-length work of narrative nonfiction tentatively titled The Warrior’s Path: Reflections Along Athowominee, which dramatizes the five hundred miles of hiking he did along a route hugging the western slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains and descending into the Holston River Valley (from western Maryland to eastern Tennessee) that was once called Athowominee or "the Warrior’s Path." At one time it connected the nations of the Iroquois in the northeast and the Cherokee in the south, and was used by the first European settlers to enter and settle what was then considered the frontier. Clabough's German ancestors had followed the path from the Catoctin Mountain area of Maryland to the Smoky Mountains at the end of the eighteenth century, and the book recounts his tracing of their footsteps, comparing that portion of contemporary eastern Appalachia against the accounts of early explorers.

© Casey Clabough

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012