Monday, January 4, 2010

Remembering the Barnes Girls, Part 2 of 2

There is one place in the Smokies, one obscure set of grave stones, that strikes me with a deep sadness, the sadness that comes with the death of children…

After about an hour on the trail that begins on the road to Ramsey Cascades, you will arrive at the saddest place in the Smokies: the Barnes graves. Some folks call this the Barnes Cemetery, and I suppose that’s technically true, but I can’t bring myself to call three small graves a cemetery. The entire gravesite consists of a small plot about 6’ x 6’, so it’s a tiny monument to human frailty in a vast ocean of ancient forests and mountains, not unlike the tiny speck called Earth floating in the midst of that vast expanse we call the Universe.

This sense of isolation is enhanced by the fact that it takes some effort to reach this spot – about an hour-long walk on an old trail. Just as a waterfall or vista is better if it requires some effort to reach, the impact of a lonely cemetery is magnified by sweat and distance. And, like most sites in the park, the more sweat and distance, the lonelier the destination will be. Death and loneliness are a powerful combination, and nowhere in the park is that more apparent than at the Barnes cemetery.

But the real impact of the Barnes cemetery is the names and dates on those three, small graves: Delia Lenora Barnes, Oct 25, 1897 – Dec 25, 1898; Julies Barnes, Dec 25, 1899 – Feb 7, 1901; Rosey Barnes, Aug 18, 1915 – Sept 17, 1922. Two fourteen month old girls, one seven year old girl. Being a guy with a precious, young granddaughter, that hits me pretty hard.

The Barnes Girls
This is one of those moments where an historically-informed, vivid imagination can help us to experience the sadness of the tragedy that hit the John and Isabelle Barnes family, perhaps the entire Greenbrier community, in the winters of 1898/9 and 1900/1. Maybe those two winters were no worse than any other, but for the Barnes they were devastating. The days and sleepless nights in December, 1898, nursing a sick child. The tears. The prayers. The loss. Then on Christmas Day one year later having the chance to start over with little Julies. It must have felt like a gift from God to give birth to a second child exactly one year after the death of their first. Merry Christmas! And then, the following winter, their family history was repeated, with a vengeance. Their second little girl, gone after fourteen months, just like the first. Imagine the fear and apprehension that must have accompanied their third pregnancy.

Local oral history says there were several more children and several death-free years after Julies. Perhaps John and Isabelle thought they had finally moved past their personal tragedy, or knowing the vagaries of life in the mountains, perhaps they knew better than to assume that their tragedies had come to an end. Then came 1922 and the death of seven year old Rosey. I’ve been told that she somehow became lost and died of exposure, perhaps in an early snow. If you read much Smoky Mountain history, that’s a scenario that has happened many times in the past 100+ years – farmers, herders, hunters, hikers, and children lost outdoors and dying of hypothermia in these dangerously beautiful mountains.

It’s the kind of thing that gets you to thinking about the brevity and meaning of life and our feeble efforts to be remembered by those who are yet to come – the same things that Solomon was thinking when he wrote “all is vanity, a chasing after the wind.” All of us will end up in graveyards marked with stones that will erode and that people will forget. These mountain cemeteries are full of stones that are so old and worn that no words are visible, the final, fitting remnants of lives lived quietly and unremarkably in a mountain cove.

It’s ironic that one of the simmering controversies arising from the creation of the national park has been providing adequate access to these cemeteries. Some Smoky Mountain families still resent the government intrusion that took their land and family cemeteries from them. And yet, knowing the way children and grandchildren move away to jobs in the city and lose their connection to the family homeplace, if the land had not been taken by the government and a national park created, these rocks and graves today might be covered by pavement, condos, and strip malls, and thus gone forever. Instead, the forced sacrifice by those mountain families has provided us all with the opportunity to put on our boots, walk to a quiet corner of the mountains, to imagine the lives and tragedies of those families… and to keep their memory alive.

Note: I recently (spring, 2013) made an unusual discovery... one of the Barnes girls is a boy! Julies is perhaps misspelled. Should be Jules or even Julius. I spoke to a Barnes descendant recently. Julies is a boy, born to John Barnes first wife. The other two are girls, born to John and his second wife. See my August 16, 2013 blog for the correction.

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On the dirt road in the Greenbrier section of the park, there’s a split in the road. Straight goes to the Porters Creek Trail; left goes to Ramsey Cascades Trail. Go left. Almost half a mile from this split, on the road that leads to Ramsey, there’s an obscure, but visible, trail that departs from the left side of the road. (The GPS coordinates are 35.70668, 83.37505.) This is the trail to the Barnes homesite; although, it is sometimes called the Cat Stairs trail because it actually passes through the Barnes homesite on its way up the western end of Greenbrier Pinnacle. Like many great sites in the park, the NPS pretends that the Barnes homesite doesn’t exist. It’s never mentioned in any of their tourist information, and the trail is not marked on any of their maps.

The hike from the road to the Barnes cemetery takes about an hour. For the first minute or two the trail parallels the road but quickly turns left, away from the road. For the next five or ten minutes the trail is obvious, paralleling old rock walls. (You should be headed north.) After 10 or 15 minutes from the start of this hike the trail crosses Bird Branch, a modest creek a mere five or six feet wide and usually only about ankle or calf deep. (It’s important to take special notice of this spot where the trail crosses Bird Branch, perhaps marking it with a bandana or pile of rocks or a GPS waypoint, because if you happen to get lost or bewildered, your exit strategy would be to walk downhill (south) back to this creek, and follow it downstream until you reach this spot, where you would leave the creek and rejoin the trail back to your car.)

The trail can get a bit hazy at this spot where you cross Bird Branch, so pay attention. When you cross the creek go straight uphill for about 10 yards. The trail will reappear and will bear right, paralleling the creek. If in doubt, keep this in mind: for the next 15 minutes the trail generally parallels Bird Branch, staying about 10 or 20 yards above and to the left of this creek as you walk upstream which is generally northeast. In other words, the creek will be below you and 10 or 20 yards to your right for the next 15 minutes.

About 15 minutes after you crossed Bird Branch, the worn path turns left away from Bird Branch. (This left turn can be hard to see because there’s actually a split in the trail. One fork goes straight and continues to parallel the creek. The left fork is the one you should take. There’s a small remnant of a wall or modest pile of rocks at this split.) If you’ll look carefully, you’ll see an X carved about eye level into a tree (a dying hemlock) just 10 or 20 feet up this trail to the left. (For the next 30 minutes you will follow this path which is usually very obvious, but does occasionally get a bit vague.) About five minutes after you turn left away from Bird Branch, you’ll join a different, smaller, unnamed creek. At this point you are about half way to the Barnes graves. You’ll follow this small creek up, so if the trail gets hazy, just keep following this creek’s small valley uphill. (This creek might be waterless in dry seasons. If so, just follow the creekbed where the water would have been.)

For the final 10 minutes of this hike, the trail heads to the right, away from this small creek. At this point in the hike the trail is well-worn and obvious, so when you notice the trail bear to the right away from the creekbed, follow the trail. It leads directly to the graves. The GPS location of the Barnes Cemetery is: 35.71828, 83.35930.

Beyond the graves, you can follow the trail a couple of minutes to the old homesite where a chimney still stands.
Note: This is a fairly tame adventure, but the trail does get hazy in a few places. Always bring a map and compass or, preferably, a GPS (and knowledge of how to use them). Always tell someone at home where you are going and when to expect you back. It’s best not to do this or any off-trail hike alone. When lost, two heads are usually better than one. For this particular hike, spring and summer are the best options because the trail is less likely to be hidden under several inches of freshly fallen leaves.

Exploring farther: If you look carefully, the trail continues from behind the chimney. It goes north to a spot on Copeland Divide where you can make a sharp right turn and follow this ridge up through the Cat Stairs to the top of Greenbrier Pinnacle. The GPS location of this sharp right turn is 35.7259, 83.3619. But beware, if you return by the same route you came up, the path down Copeland Divide through the Cat Stairs can be tricky. In short, it’s almost impossible to get lost when you go up a ridge. However, it’s very easy to get off course when you go down a ridge. (It’s the same reason – but in reverse – that it’s easy to get off track when you go up a creek, but not down.) If that doesn’t make sense, you probably haven’t done enough off-trail hiking to try the Cat Stairs section of this extended hike (unless you have a GPS that you can use to mark routes and waypoints).

By the way, there are other, harder, interesting routes among the cliffs on western face of Greenbrier Pinnacle.

For more info, you can contact me at .

The Saddest Place in the Smokies (Part 1 of 2)

Because the Smoky Mountains have not only a natural history but a human history as well, there are occasional glimpses of common elements of human society: work and play, wealth and poverty, joy and sorrow, industry and subsistence, justice and injustice, life and death. This human side of these mountains can be observed in museums, old photographs, pioneer cabins, resort cabins, rock walls, railroad tracks, mine shafts, swimmin’ holes, school houses, and cemeteries.

In the broad sweep of history, there’s probably nothing sadder than the injustice perpetrated upon the Cherokee people by Andrew Jackson (with a lot of help from the state of Georgia, aggressive white settlers, and President Van Buren) in the 1830s. The Congressional record calls it the Indian Removal Act of 1830 which is coldly accurate but less poignant than its more familiar name: The Trail of Tears. And while we may be tempted to declare past generations guilty and our own innocent and enlightened, let us not forget that most of us live on land that was taken from the Cherokee. We are the prime beneficiaries of that past injustice and are, in a sense, guilty of dealing in stolen property.

To see this tragedy in our national park requires a solid understanding of regional history supplemented by a sharp imagination because there’s very little physical evidence of the Trail of Tears in the park simply because most of the Cherokee settlements and government internment camps were south and west of the park in today’s Nantahala and Cherokee National Forests. There are, however, rumors of a rocky overhang on the southern slopes of Clingmans Dome where Tsali and his family hid after killing a couple of soldiers who were transporting them down the Little Tennessee River under today’s Fontana Lake.

On a more personal, punch-you-in-the-gut level, there’s a lingering sorrow in the cemeteries that are scattered around the park. For instance, a one mile walk up Porters Creek Trail leads to a small cemetery in which one of the first grave stones you’ll encounter provides a stark reminder of the harshness of life without advanced medicine. It simply says: Mary Whaley, Born & Died, Aug 11, 1909. Far too many grave stones in rural communities of the early 1900s have a single date etched on their surface, accompanied by that hauntingly familiar phrase: “Born & Died.” The Smokies were no exception and because of their ruggedness may have been worse than most.

I suppose there’s no way of proving that one graveyard is sadder than the next. The grave stones of every cemetery are squares of a quilt that tells the story of an interwoven community in which the life and death of each member touched the hearts and lives of nearly everyone else in the cove. That closeness and connectedness which we associate with small, rural communities also created vulnerability. The death of a neighbor left a palpable void in the lives of those who remained, just as tearing a square from a quilt not only leaves a hole but also diminishes the loveliness of the pattern. Every Smokies cemetery tells a sad story.

And yet, there is one place in the Smokies, one obscure set of grave stones, that strikes me with a dull, repressed sadness. It’s the same feeling I get when I hear the low tones of violin music in a minor key, the feeling of some dark memory struggling – and once again failing – to make itself known. But in the case of this graveyard, it’s the sadness that accompanies the death of children.

The trail to this tiny cemetery begins on the road leading to Ramsey Cascades. For the first few minutes the trail is obvious, paralleling old rock walls, evidence of lives spent clearing fields and farming the land. Other evidence of human habitation is an occasional clump of daffodils, a holly bush, or an unnatural pile of rocks. After 10 or 15 minutes the trail joins Bird Branch, a modest creek which serves as the most significant natural landmark on this hike.

About 30 minutes into this hike the worn path turns left away from Bird Branch and crosses a low ridge to join a tiny, unnamed creek that my partners and I call Barnes Branch. The path sticks with this small creekbed for about 20 minutes before turning away to make its final, brief ascent to the old Barnes homesite and the graves of three young girls. [To be continued]

Three Generations of Hikers, Part 2 of 2

After hiking up Parton Peaks, defiling a Crimson Tide hat on the trail, and climbing up rocks and through bushes, we encountered a group of folks relaxing at Myrtle Point on Mount LeConte. Greg, Keith, and his son, Matt, arrived first. When I emerged from the bushes several minutes later, everyone turned and looked. After a brief pause, the young lady of the tourist group smiled and said, “So, are you three generations of hikers?”

It took exactly two seconds for the weight of that statement to sink in. I hung my head in dejection as Keith and Greg exploded into laughter. The fact that this woman thought I might be Keith’s (or Greg’s) father and Matt’s grandfather was, of course, depressing. The fact that she made this comment in front of them was nearly fatal. I get enough verbal abuse from them on a good day, even on the Sabbath! This “three generations” comment would provide them with enough material to last well into my retirement years. If I knew how to enroll in a witness protection program, I’d do it, just to get a breather.

I considered telling everyone at Myrtle that her “three generations” comment was a lot like the time I asked a woman when her baby was due… only to discover that she wasn’t pregnant. A well-meaning comment gone bad. But then I had a brilliant idea: don’t tell them the story. Just walk up to the lady and ask when her baby was due. I thought everyone would get the joke. So I said it… and everyone got it… except her.

She hesitated. I saw the hesitation. I started to explain that I was just kidding, but of course it all got lost amidst the laughter and chatter from Greg and Keith. (Once they get started, they are as loud and annoying as a tree full of starlings.) I came across as a mean, old man with a sharp tongue, which of course can’t possibly be true but would give Keith and Greg even more ammunition for future tauntings.

Eventually, Keith – extracting every bit of humor and humiliation as possible from this scene – spoke confidentially to the woman, but in a voice loud enough for all to hear: “I want to apologize for the old guy. You had no way of knowing that he’ll snap over the slightest offense. His filters don’t work like they should. It happens all the time. Of course, we’re used to it, but that doesn’t excuse his behavior….”

Naturally, the lady didn’t know that Keith was just wringing the last bit of blood from my wounded psyche, so she apologized: “No, no. It was my fault. I drew first blood!”

I wanted to explain to her that I had been kidding, that Keith was kidding, that I knew she wasn’t pregnant, that we are all nice, normal people. But why bother? The damage was done. With a little luck we’d all never see each other again. So, just like Vietnam, I declared victory, cut my losses, and evacuated the premises.

I guess the moral of the story is… well, I don’t know if there is a moral. Maybe it’s “Don’t go hiking.” But if you do go hiking, don’t end your trip where you’ll encounter tourists you don’t know. But if you do encounter any, don’t talk to them. But if you do talk to them, don’t try to be funny. But if you do try to be funny, well… you’ve been warned, and whatever happens is your own stinkin’ fault.

As we were leaving our tourist friends at Myrtle Point, Keith was wishing them well and happened to ask where they were from. Their answer: Birmingham. As in, Birmingham, Alabama. As in, the Alabama Crimson Tide.

We were nearly back to the car before we realized that the defiled Crimson Tide hat by the side of the trail probably belonged to one of them. I wondered aloud if anyone would think less of me if I admitted that deep down in the dark corners of my conscience, I hoped the hat belonged to the young lady.

Keith and Greg’s response was blunt and immediate: “Well, Grampy…” (yes, they’ve started calling me Grampy) “…there’s nothing you could possibly do to make us think less of you.”

I don’t think they meant it as a compliment.