Biblical billboards, translucent spiders, TV moonshiners, wartime demand, spin-casting grandparents, disappearing contrails, flame azaleas, Tiger King, unfashionable wallpaper & the Nunna daul Tsuny.
I swear I meant to visit for a week or two, but I stayed so long this time that even the power lines became beautiful.
In the afternoons, I often floated beneath them, imagining waves of energy flickering across the wires, picking up speed. If I floated long enough, the lines themselves would move, appearing and dissipating like contrails from an overhead plane. The nose of my mom’s fishing kayak spun beneath them in the changing winds like a compass needle. I had all kinds of time these days, time for figuring the direction of the wind, which never occurred to me before, or to simply lie supine for hours, watching objects fall earthward: a dusting of yellow pollen, insect wings, juneberry petals. Even in the middle of the lake, I was never far from the trees.
Lake Santeetlah, like all lakes in Western North Carolina, is man-made. The Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA) squeezed it from the wild river Cheoah like a beaver who woke up one day and mistook himself for God. The logging industry had already arrived in the Smokies, agape and sputtering at the sight of so much primordial hardwood forest. Logging, particularly the practice of floating logs downriver through Class IV rapids, was a dangerous business—six times more dangerous than other industries at the turn of the century. Ron Rash’s novel Serena describes a Southern Appalachian logging camp: “If you could gather up all the severed body parts and sew them together, you’d gain an extra worker every month.”
The lake is a stagnant flood land now, a blood clot of hammered silver.
With the zombie loggers came the solution of railroads, and with the railroads and the First World War came ALCOA. The wartime demand for aluminum facilitated the construction of four hydroelectric power dams along the Cheoah and Little Tennessee rivers, dams that promptly flooded the land and destroyed the railroads and worker communities that made them possible at all. Studying the topography of Southern Appalachia is maddening, like peeling a wall in search of original wood beams and finding only more layers of unfashionable wallpaper.
When a northwest wind pushes the surface of Lake Santeetlah southward in smooth, glittering ripples, she still looks like a fat old river. To talk to my neighbors, I have to stand at the edge of my floating dock and shout across eighty yards of imaginary current.
“WHAT?” My voice reverberates against the squat hills behind my neighbor’s neat stone-cladding house. Pine trees on the lower half of the hills have been cleared, and the upturned red clay gives way to a seeded lawn, a retaining wall of loose concrete blocks, and a bobbing plastic dock identical to my own.
“I CAUGHT A FISH TODAY,” yells Bubba, who looks about ten. He holds up a red-and-white Playmate Deluxe cooler with both arms. I brush a translucent spider off of my arm and give him a thumbs-up. A trout rises near the far corner of my dock where there is a single sneakered footprint burned in the plastic.
I had all kinds of time these days, time for figuring the direction of the wind, which never occurred to me before, or to simply lie supine for hours, watching objects fall earthward: a dusting of yellow pollen, insect wings, juneberry petals.
Just as the sun rolls over the Smokies’ bruised shoulders, pairs of fly-fishermen begin to arrive in metal dories. They cut their engines right where the wider section of lake chokes into our narrow cove, and they drift quietly past our docks, facing each other like lovers on the Venice canals. An old blue truck pulls up at the end of the cove next to the abandoned school bus and a family clambers out, kids searching for treasures amidst broken glass and waterlogged bits of Styrofoam, grandparents spin-casting from a wooden dock rotting into the water.
The lake is a stagnant flood land now, a blood clot of hammered silver. Trout bubble the surface, hungry for some pixie-winged insect, and a striped cottonmouth swims quietly through a thick film of pine needles and congealed pollen. The beauty of this place lodges itself in the warm folds of your groin like a shiny tick. It muddies you until your feet are sopping with it, until you are trailing dark footprints all across the house.
The Nunna daul Tsuny, “The Trail Where They Cried,” lies partially beneath Santeetlah, buried somewhere underneath the power lines. On land, it winds southwest through Tatham Road Gap, a still-functioning road built by the U.S. government for Native American removal. Around seven hundred Cherokee followed the Cheoah upstream to disappear into the mountains they had inhabited for more than thirteen thousand years. The Army swarmed over the Smokies, a stronghold of Cherokee resistance, looking for Native Americans the way kids unearth rocks for salamanders.
Those who were found were shot, incarcerated or forced to join the rest of their tribe on the Trail of Tears, three months of walking and sometimes dying to reach the cracked, barren earth of their new reservation. Legend has it that some took one loveless look at the beige plains of Steinbeck’s Oklahoma, turned around and walked all the way back home.
During a pandemic, all my usual shortcuts for sinking into a place are illegal, so I collect church signs, Facebook posts and newspaper clippings. I research my neighbors from their docks and their whalers and their screened-in porches. My efforts Frankenstein together, fleeting and remiss memories of momentary and incomplete selves. The result is unreliable, but that is always a bit of the problem with trying to understand a place that is not your home, not really, even if it colors the best bits of your childhood. Or the most embarrassing ones, like when the girl down the street found out you were a Christmas-and-Easter Catholic and tried to baptize you in her mom’s bathtub.
On the three-hour drive between the Atlanta airport and my mom’s cabin on Lake Santeetlah, I pass hundreds of Baptist churches. Near the North Carolina state line I stop at a squat stone Missionary Baptist church with a low roof, the Mineral Bluff House of Prayer. The sun-faded letter sign stuck in its weedy front lawn reads:
C H U R C H E S A R E C L O S E D
S A T A N I S S M I L I N G
And, on the opposite side,
I F M Y P E O P L E W I L L
P R A Y
I W I L L H E A L T H E I R L A N D G O D
It’s Sunday and the church is closed, probably for the first time since the 1918 Spanish flu, which killed ten times as many North Carolinians than the combat of the First World War. Many closed churches actually became hospitals, mask-wearing pastors still standing by to bless the crowded dying.
Five miles north, a small Primitive Baptist church with white paneling and a green metal roof offers another message in an equally weeded lawn:
P R A Y ! W A S H Y O U R H A N D S. G E R M S
A N D J E S U S A R E E V E R Y W H E R E
The weedy lawns and low roofs and sardonic signs always comfort me, even with all that business about the bathtub.
On March 25, 2020, Graham County, North Carolina, becomes the second county in the United States to completely close its borders to non-residents, even non-resident property owners, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Physical barriers are erected on the Cherohala Skyway, a mountain pass that leads west to Tennessee, and on the Tail of the Dragon, a narrow, serpentine road favored by motorcyclists traveling north/south. Police checkpoints are set up on the two remaining entry points to the county: anyone without a business permit or a Graham County address on their driver’s license is turned away.
I call my dad to let him know I won’t be allowed to visit him in neighboring Swain County until the ban lifts. He thinks for a moment.
“I could pick you up on Lake Fontana,” he offers. “Nobody is gonna be watching the county line on the lake. Even the law knows better than to fuck with the fishermen.”
The Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA) squeezed it from the wild river Cheoah like a beaver who woke up one day and mistook himself for God.
At the time the ban is signed and authorized, Graham County has zero reported COVID-19 cases. It also has a single grocery store, no hospital and only two ambulances, run by twelve EMS employees. I scroll the comments section of an online ABC News article announcing the closure.
One reader comments, The documentary TIGER KING is based on you people, right?!
To which another reader replies, Glad you think so…don’t go there…
In pandemic times and otherwise, Graham County’s largest town, Robbinsville, seems to wear its unofficial title, “Unfriendliest Town in America,” as both badge and shield. Peter Jenkins’ 1979 bestseller, A Walk Across America, has provided Robbinsville with forty-one years of free advertising.
Jenkins writes, “[My arrival in Robbinsville] became a news flash, received about the way a raiding party from outer space would be. Most perplexing was the number of people I tried to tell about my walk across America who wouldn’t believe me. Most thought it was a clever city-boy trick to cover up drug dealing. Around every corner and behind every window, I was being watched.…I was guilty for the crime of being a stranger.”
Perhaps it is not so unusual that the citizens of Robbinsville couldn’t grasp why a young, educated Connecticut man chose to leave his upper-middle-class opportunities and walk to Southern Appalachia on foot. Jenkins was trying on poverty like a polyester button-down in a mall department store, ready to cast it aside when the weather turned too hot for long-sleeve shirts. Appalachians sweltered in the same polyester shirt at work on Friday and at church on Sunday.
Also, I wonder if Jenkins genuinely did look strung-out: he was still recovering from a strain of flu that would kill an unusually high number of North Carolinians that season. After sweating in an Appalachian Trail shelter for four days, he walked straight into a Robbinsville diner to ask for free food. Before he left town, he used a pay phone to arrange for his parents to wire him money.
A closed-borders debate begins to form, echoing Graham County’s century-old Prohibition discourse: the four horsemen of tradition, religion, safety and locality on one side and a scythe-wielding spectre of economic interest on the other.
Graham County typically clocks the worst unemployment rate in the state. The majority of residents live below the poverty line, driving across county lines whenever they need to work an odd job in construction, buy whiskey or let off some steam at a poker table. Dennis Crisp, whose last name adorns various local street signs, is quoted in an August 2014 issue of the Asheville-based Citizen-Times: “I’ve always had to leave the county to make a dollar.…You can’t make it here.”
Whether he blames his county’s disabled economy on its dry laws or on the seaward march of factory work, whose back has been turned to the Smokies for the last half-century, the article doesn’t say.
The Army swarmed over the Smokies, a stronghold of Cherokee resistance, looking for Native Americans the way kids unearth rocks for salamanders.
Joe Waldroup, a Graham County resident and star of the HBO hit series Moonshiners, is photographed in another Citizen-Times article drinking coffee from a white Styrofoam cup outside the Time-Out gas station on Robbinsville’s main street, flanked by fellow HBO moonshiner Roy Grooms and their buddy Tom Orr. Waldroup quips, “The smartest people that come from Graham County are the ones who graduated and got out of here.”
Swampy rain-flooded riverbanks, thickets of mountain laurel, and otherworldly, low-slung fog have always hidden both abject poverty and illegally distilled grain from the eyes of urban America. Every so often, some hungry green sheriff would come poking his nose in the Smokies. He might happen upon a stone and tin-roofed shack, smoke billowing from the chimney, and cross the creaking front porch. The sheriff would lean for a moment on a railing of crisscrossed rhododendron branches, surveying the yard: thick sweetshrub shading an adjacent woodshed, a rusted Ford without tires, a pile of scrap metal. Down a ways, there is a wooden platform on the creek’s edge for trout fishing. Up a ways, several stills of moonshine are hidden by the waxy, corpse-white blossoms of a dogwood tree.
One afternoon I think I recognize Waldroup’s buddy Tom Orr, a tall, imposing man with a white beard and denim overalls, at the Ingles grocery store, wearing a camo-printed face mask. I Google him and am rewarded with the discovery that he is both writer and moonshine historian. In a 2017 article in the Blueridge Times authored by Orr, he uncovers a letter to the editor clipped from the Citizen-Times, “yellowed with age.” The dateless letter, by one Frederick Rutledge, inquires about moonshine operations in the “dark corner” of the Carolinas.
The letter received a nameless reply, which was also included in the newspaper. “Many people say or think they are only a bunch of bad men, deserters, moonshiners, jail birds, drunkards and murderers,” the letter reads. “But they don’t know they were strong, brave men, the finest kind of soldiers.…Now as for being moonshiners—they were.”
They cut their engines right where the wider section of lake chokes into our narrow cove, and they drift quietly past our docks, facing each other like lovers on the Venice canals.
The writer goes on to tell the story of a moonshine raid. A chicken-shit sheriff from the city hires a young man to venture into Appalachia and act as a long arm of the law. He breaks up seven stills without issue, but, two days later, he receives a warning: if he should return to the dark corner, he might find himself unable to leave a second time. Motivated by his prior success and the sheriff’s bounty, the young man ignores the warning and is shot and killed, his body left slumped against an abandoned still.
The mysterious letter sympathizes: “They felt they had a right to plant their patches of corn and rye and make what brought the most profit, law or no law. As for being murderers, they usually gave notice first, especially to a revenue officer who was disturbing their business.”
By the time the dogwood trees drop their waxy blossoms and the flame azaleas erupt in obscene pink-orange, Graham County has opened its borders once again. I drive across the county line to buy beer, past Little Snowbird Baptist on the edge of the tribal lands that make up the Cherokee Snowbird Community. White double doors and windows in the shape of half-moons open to a heavily shaded front lawn strewn with rotting flower petals. The letter sign is stuck out back, facing the road:
F A I T H I S L I K E A R U B B E R B A N D
I T M U S T B E S T R E T C H E D
Michelle DeLong is an MFA candidate at San Diego State University who grew up wandering and writing in the Great Smoky Mountains. This story was a finalist for Nowhere’s Spring 2020 Travel Writing Prize.
Lead image: Omar Roque