A View from The End of the World

Seeking “the meaning of life” is as human an activity as breathing, and wrestling with why things aren’t as good as they could (should?) be follows close behind. For better or for worse, I can’t stop reading books that propose to answer the pervasive sense of foreboding about the status quo that so many of us feel.

As someone who stands up in church every Sunday to confess that I believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting, this habit of watching for the end of a certain world seems a bit incongruous. I’d like to think I’m in good company with prophets (like Daniel, Ezekiel, and Micah) and apostles (like Peter and John) in looking for the Day of the Lord. They remind us that it is possible to raise up a Jeremiad with joy and to temper handwringing with hope.

So I keep reading and listening. This is true whether these works come from a political science perspective (like Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed), a sociological perspective (like Charles Murray’s Coming Apart), a religious perspective (like Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option), a personal memoir (like J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me), the agrarian (all of Wendell Berry’s work), the poetic (like W.H. Auden’s Age of Anxiety), the dystopian (like P.D. James’ Children of Men), and even the historical (like Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning). Look in any direction and it’s existential crises for days, but there’s always something to learn.

One thing all of these books have in common is an explanatory posture—they attempt to make sense of the loss and the dread and offer some semblance of a way to the good (looking back for some, forward for others, and grasping at things not yet seen for a few). Most start from a place of reminding the reader what society stands to lose if we’re not careful, a warning to the privileged that their inheritance is spending down faster than it is accruing value. Others point out that what we’ve inherited was never what we thought to begin with.

Of all the “here’s what’s gone wrong w/America” takes, however, Chris Arnade’s recent book Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America is one of the most honest I’ve seen. Though the author (a former Wall-Street banker who also holds a Ph. D. in physics from Johns Hopkins) possesses greater privilege than many others in this group of writers, Dignity takes pains to  center with humility and humanness those for whom America has gone most wrong. Those who are being ground up get the focus and the voice here; those who’ve lost already, not those who merely fear what they may lose.

Some of this comes from the book’s format. It’s not an academic or even a narrative work, but rather a travelogue weaving episodes and itinerant thoughts with personal stories from all over the U.S. It’s also a sort of coffee-table book: Arnade is an accomplished photographer, and the faces and places he encounters feature prominently throughout the book, giving the words flesh and feeling.

At first, Arnade appears to be launching into memoir as he recounts the beginnings of this project in his long walks in New York, farther and farther afield from his Manhattan office. At some level, he never leaves this mode, stickA1UfDx8SR9L copying around to narrate, to tie together disparate interviews, and to offer an epilogue of his visit back to his hometown.

His voice, though, isn’t the thing you take with you. It’s the words of Takeesha, Imani, Luther, Jeanette, Beauty, Fowisa, Jo-Jo (all street names or pseudonyms to protect their identities), and the others you meet in these pages. It’s the drugs, chemicals of every kind that can be swallowed, snorted, smoked, or shot up. It’s the emptiness of homes, factories, cities, and towns that once held a fuller life. It’s the inexplicable persistence of community in McDonald’s, churches, bars, abandoned buildings, and parks. It’s the clear-eyed pictures of racial injustice that still pervade America and the ways its evil seeps into and drives other class and culture issues.

The photos-and-snippets motif Arnade chose invites comparisons to Depression-era narrative shapers like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. He is justly in their company in terms of his photographic eye, but his artistic aims are more subdued. He paints people not as victims in need of assistance or pawns in a political game, but as they are—human beings, broken and beautiful, navigating the life they’ve got with the tools they have. This gives the book a strikingly agenda-less quality. Yes, he addresses globalization, crony capitalism, automation, family fragmentation, drug policy and other macro-level trends that have contributed to the plight of his subjects in some way, but he shies away from any prescriptive action steps. Some may find this (and the attendant lack of concrete “solutions” to “problems”) frustrating, but I think it is a critical posture for the observations Arnade makes to be taken seriously.

Throughout the book, he presents the key divide in American society as that between the “front row” (educated, workaholic, powerful, cosmopolitan, upwardly mobile, rootless) and the “back row” (underemployed, powerless, bound to place, loyal, struggling). Arnade uses these terms descriptively, but neither is intended derisively—front row and back row America both have values and vices, but their cultural currencies and drugs of choice differ widely. Both can provide meaning and community, but both battle despair and can be toxic to outsiders.

It is in the question of values—or rather value—where Arnade makes his most helpful contribution to our national conversation. The front row, he says, lives by “credentialed” value. A person is welcomed into that community based on their gifts and abilities, their degrees, their accomplishments, and their contributions to others’ well-being and success. This world is competitive and rewarding, but also insecure. In the back row, value is “non-credentialed.” Your identity and worth comes from things you are born with (family, ethnicity, work-ethic, local roots) or from belonging to groups that are accessible to almost anyone willing to join (a church, a drug community, a gang, becoming a parent).

At present, the high places of cultural influence and power are open only to the front row, and the non-credentialed bona fides of the back row aren’t likely to earn you a seat at the table or a steady job. If there is an ax to grind here, it is Arnade’s persistent message to his fellow front-row-ites that the meritocracy at the helm of American society today is a much, much more closed system than they’d like to believe. His forays into the back row—whether in Bakersfield, Calif., Johnson City, Tenn., Selma, Ala., Portsmouth, Ohio, or even neighborhoods of front-row cities like New York—demonstrate how the solutions of the front row (“get an education,” “move away,” “get clean,” “learn new skills,” etc.) are much higher mountains to climb from this different perspective. What seems like common sense to one group is to another group a command to turn one’s back on everything they’ve ever known. The repetition of this theme comes both from his desire to make this known, but also because his interviewees so frequently have been confronted by this stark divide.

Dignity matters, not as another explainer of “how we got Trump” or a push for better government and nonprofit programs for poverty alleviation (though it has implications for those discussions), but as a step toward helping us as a country see all of our neighbors as brothers and sisters. Arnade does not claim to be a Christian, but he is implicitly calling us to recover the imago dei as the final arbiter of one another’s value.

Arnade’s lack of professed faith also makes his assessment of the real value of congregational life and earnest beliefs in the churches (and mosques) of the back row that much more remarkable. In an excerpt from the book published in First Things, he writes: “My biases were limiting a deeper understanding: that perhaps religion was right, or at least as right as anything could be…. On the streets, few can delude themselves into thinking they have it under control. You cannot ignore death there, and you cannot ignore human fallibility. It is easier to see that everyone is a sinner, everyone is fallible, and everyone is mortal. It is easier to see that there are things just too deep, too important, or too great for us to know.”

His chapter on religion hit closest to home for me and the work that I do. The churches he visited in the back row certainly don’t check all the theological or cultural boxes front row Christians deem necessary, but they all reflect the person of Jesus Christ in loving their neighbors and being faithfully present with them. Too often, front-row Christianity (whether conservative or liberal in theology, whether high-church or low-church in polity) has trouble doing this—we’re not quite sure what we’d do if someone from the cultural back row walked in and wanted to join. We don’t often have a story of change that would work for them. Doctrine, expected behaviors, and appropriate political positions we can get our minds around; Jesus gives us heartburn.

So where do we go from here? How do we build up? As I said, Dignity is long on observation and short on solutions. Many others are starting to digest the realities on the ground and work toward tying some of these threads together in ways that can repair the breach and bring people back to the wholeness we were designed to experience together. I’ve highlighted some of these on Twitter (that paragon of civil discourse), and in other writings, and I’m sure it’s a theme I’ll take up again. Moreover, this is no small part of the mission of the ministry where I work.

For now, though, let Dignity soak in and open your heart to those you might otherwise be tempted to forget.

Image: Abandoned farm equipment, Channel Islands National Park, California, June 2019

 

Into the Woods: Big Frog

I’m a self-confessed fan of winter hikes. Occasionally, however, I go hiking when it’s actually cold.

To those of you not from the South who think “cold” means 45 degrees to us down here, I have a word for you: A-L-T-I-T-U-D-E. Turns out, no matter how far south you go, if you go up high enough, the weather changes. This is why there are snow-capped mountains in Ecuador and ski resorts in SoCal. Though the Mountains in the Southeast don’t quite compare to those feats of skyscraping, you’d be amazed at what a 2,000 – 3,000′ climb does for your thermometer.

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Stylish, I know.

Knowing this full-well, I set out this weekend for one of our near-neighbor peaks—Big Frog (so called because of its supposed resemblance to a sleeping amphibian in profile. Make of this what you will)This week marked the first real cooldown of the winter so far. The morning of the hike, it was 18 degrees (F) at home in Chattanooga. My nose and frozen Camelback valve jointly guess at a temperature of around 5 once I reached the summit (4,224′) in early afternoon. Typically, I shed layers through the day, even as I ascend. This time, I had to put them back on.

This is a small inconvenience in the grand scheme of things. Hiking in the cold has tremendous benefits. First is the obvious joy that is the absence of insects, arachnids, and reptiles. Second, as any frequent traveler in the Southern Appalachians knows, trails around here get very muddy. Set out when the mercury drops, though, and it’s all crisp and crunchy. Third and most impressive, is that—when the conditions are right—the payoff of your effort can be a beauty that defies description (and doesn’t respond too well to efforts to photograph it either).

Rime is something that almost has to be witnessed to be believed. Frost curls are equally impressive, but you don’t have to go hunting for these extrusions solely at altitude.

There is plenty else to catch the senses beyond the weather. There are huge white pines on side slopes, and stout, spring-fed oaks and tulip poplars in north-facing coves. There is a tunnel through an ancient slick of rhododendrons just below the summit that is alone worth the hike. This time of year, there are periodic views through gaps in the trees that extend from the Unicoi Mountains to the northeast all the way to Lookout Mountain and the Cumberland Plateau to the southwest. Best of all, though, is the silence. Big Frog is isolated. It’s got a topographic prominence of 2,480′; it’s in a federally designated wilderness area, nearly 10 miles from the nearest paved road; it’s a tough enough hike to keep crowds to a minimum. At the top, you have to strain to hear anything but the occasional wheeze of the wind.

As to the trail itself, the quickest route to the summit is via a combination of trails starting with USFS trail #64 (aptly named the “Big Frog Trail”), which cover 5.5 miles and about 2,200 ft. of elevation gain from the trailhead off FS road 221. The middle 2 miles of the path does most of the climbing in a quick assault on the north ridge of the mountain after a gentle mile-and-a-half on an old logging road at the beginning. The last two miles join the Benton MacKaye Trail for a steady, smooth ascent, including a nearly flat half-mile to finish.

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Winter is not without its difficulties

It’s been nearly five years since I’ve done this one (and that time was in a driving summer downpour), and I’d forgotten what a good stretch of the legs that middle section is—a consistent 10-12 % grade. Some of the upper portion is narrow, slippery, and has a strong cross-trail tilt in places.

Overall, though, this is an accessible approach to a hidden gem close to home, well worth anyone’s time.

Into the Woods: Unicoi Mountains

If you’ve read any of my other hiking posts, you’ll notice that I have an unabashed fondness for “special places”—spots where quirks of terrain, climate, or human use (and abuse) of land combine to create a niche environment not easily replicated. (Full disclosure, the USFS has started using this term as an official designation for certain spots, but I’m going to keep it, too.) Bonus features of such places include a relative anonymity and inaccessibility, leaving me to enjoy them in quiet solitude as often as not.

Most of my favorite such spots are far from home, closer to where I grew up than to where I live now, but I’ve been exploring.

Huckleberry Knob
One location that has become near and dear of late is the Unicoi range in the far southwest of the Appalachians on the NC/TN line. The only road through here is the Cherohala Skyway (a state route named in portmanteau of the two national forests it passes through—Cherokee on the Tennessee side, Nantahala in North Carolina), a steep, winding 43 mile traverse from Tellico Plains to Robbinsville. Mercifully, for my purposes, though this route is extremely popular with motorcyclists, most of the traffic is there to test the curves, not to park and walk.

Along this route, I typically opt for a hike at Huckleberry Knob. At 5,560, it’s the highest peak in the Unicois, and the farthest west you can be that high above sea level until you get to the Black Hills and far west high plains. Again, though there are better overall hikes elsewhere, this one has become a favorite by virtue of proximity. It’s only a 2 hour and 10 minute drive from Chattanooga. In addition, as our crew has multiplied, finding places that adults and kids can enjoy together is important.IMG_20181019_150330396

Among the features Huckleberry Knob boasts are:

  • Acres of grass, allowing for 360-degree views and lots of cartwheels (if you bring your kids)
  • A bona-fide grave at the summit (from a logger who decided to walk over the mountain to get home for Christmas, got drunk, and froze to death in a blizzard, back in 1899).
  • Wide, relatively low-impact trail from parking to summit. Even our four-year-old made it all the way to the top (+/- 3 miles total).
  • The aforementioned grass is great for picnics, or frisbee, too.
  • It’s not hot up here, making for a perfect summer afternoon getaway.
  • Plenty of flora and fauna to satiate your inner naturalist (including the southernmost Fraser firs I’ve ever found).

It’s a place we’ve been coming back to often, even making it an autumn tradition to quest for the peak fall color (which arrives there long before it makes it to the lowlands of the Tennessee Valley. In sharing it with you, I trust you won’t abuse the place.

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest
Once you’ve committed to the Skyway, you may as well go all the way to the eastern end and visit the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness. We typically tack this on when we head that way.

It’s a bit odd for a forest to be named after a person, but the USFS thought Kilmer worthy of the honor. The popular journalist and poet, best known for his work “Trees“, was overcome with patriotic zest and joined the Army during World War I. After this endeavor resulted in his death 100 years ago at the second Battle of the Marne, his local veterans association petitioned that a patch of forest be dedicated to his memory. In the late 1930s, the USFS at last selected a 3,800-acre unlogged cove of old growth woodland along Little Santeetlah Creek as the wordsmith’s living tombstone.

Before you dismiss this as so much kitsch, I should point out that this patch of woodland should absolutely have been preserved, under any pretext necessary. Some of the tulip poplars here clock in at over 500 years old, and their height and girth are the closest thing many Easterners will see to the Redwoods.

In former times, these giant polars were joined by Eastern Hemlocks of similar size, but the hemlock wooly adelgid has done its dirty work here as in so many creekside coves throughout Appalachia. Moreover, a series of disasters have taken their toll here in recent years. In 2011, an exceptionally rare tornado touched down here, taking out several grand specimens. Goaded on by the storm debris and a later extensive drought, a wildfire torched the eastern slope of the forest in 2016, leaving the forest much-altered from when I first visited in 2007.

Even still, some of the largest trees remain untouched, and they never fail to inspire. The big’uns are accessible by a 2-mile figure-8 loop. It’s muddy, sometimes narrow, but never terribly steep. I’ve taken kids all the way around with minimal difficulty.

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Both these spots are within day-trip range of Chattanooga, Atlanta, Knoxville, Asheville, or Charlotte, but the motion-sickness-inducing road access keeps crowds down to the truly dedicated. If you’ve got more time to spend, there are several fine USFS and private campgrounds lining nearby Santeetlah Lake.

If, to paraphrase Kilmer, hiking blogs are made by “fools like me,” then you owe it to yourself to come up to the Unicoi range and see some of the more impressive things God has made to grace our corner of the universe.

 

 

 

 

Into the Woods: Lewis Fork Wilderness

I like special places, spots where quirks of geography, climate, and culture create worlds within worlds. More often than not, at least in the US, these places require access by foot—anyplace we can drive right up to is inevitably overused. No, as Wendell Berry reminds us, one must get “out of your car, off your horse” to truly know a place.

One such place that I’ve returned to time and again over the last two decades is the Mt. Rogers massif in Southwestern Virginia, contained in an overlapping array of federal lands (Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area, Jefferson National Forest, and Lewis Fork Wilderness). It’s not the highest mountain in the region (though it is the highest in Virginia), nor the most picturesque—just a long, gentle rise to a dome of dark green in the midst of open fields and brambles—four miles from the nearest road and a few miles north of the North Carolina line.

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What makes it special then?

  • To the intrepid souls who attempt a through-hike on the Appalachian Trail (which runs across the massif from west to east), Mt. Rogers is the 1/4-way point for the normal South-North route.
  • To day-hikers from all over the area, it’s the place to come see the ponies—a barely managed herd of small horses allowed to run wild across the mountain to keep the historically bald areas free of of encroaching forest.
  • To naturalists, it’s the farthest north outpost of Appalachian spruce-fir forest.
  • To the solitude-seeker, it is among the quietest places in an otherwise heavily populated part of the world—a long way from highways and flyways, a little slice of “out West” in the Southeast.
  • To me it’s been a place for walking and thinking, vista contemplating, berry picking, and thunderstorm dodging, alone or with family and friends.

Visiting my family in NC last month, I took a jaunt up into Virginia to see it again. Rather than fight the sometimes-heavy summer crowds that can clog the trail on the Grayson Highlands State Park side of the mountain, I started from the Elk Garden trailhead on the west slope.

From the road, the trail is an almost continuous ascent, never too steep—first through open fields (watch for cow pies), then a mixed hardwood forest, then high balds, and finally the close darkness of the spruce-fir forest. These four miles of the AT are much less travelled than the wide, gravelly paths on the east side of the mountain, with brush and grasses closing in and barely leaving enough room to pass another hiker. Of course, that’s not terribly likely—I passed nary a soul on the way up, and only 3-4 people on the way back.

After summiting Rogers, I decided to walk along the ridge to Rhododendron Gap, making a total there and back of 13 miles. There were ponies aplenty, and deer, and birds (ravens, songbirds of all varieties, and even a pair of Canada jays, which are supposedly not even found that far south). It was a bit late for most wildflowers and a bit early for blueberries (though ferns and fungi are always in season), but the overall experience of this place was just as magical as ever.

There’s hardly a better spot to spend a day wandering this side of the Mississippi. It’s a little world unto itself.