Exploring the eerie statues of Palmyra, Tennessee

Having turned off the highway a while ago, we had been flying through empty fields ever since. Fields that in a few months would be bursting with color and activity, today were empty and void of life. The world around us was monochrome, all grays and browns. The air was the same- seasonless. Neither hot nor cold, breathing it in felt like taking a breath of gray. It was one of those days that gave the feeling of being suspended in time.

The road wound it’s way through the farmland; twisting and turning around crumbing stone walls and barbed wire fences. We passed very few cars and saw even fewer people. But we had cows and horses and one smelly chicken farm to keep us company as we made our way to the statues.

The statues were the reason we were driving on this country road. Somewhere, hidden deep in these rolling hills were the E.T. Wickham statues of Palmyra, Tennessee.

Enoch Tanner Wickham was a tobacco farmer who was born in 1883. In the 1950’s, at the age of 67, he decided to try sculpture, building his first statue of the Virgin Mary crushing a snake out of cement, chicken wire, and rebar. From there he continued to create statues. These statues were life sized and placed on huge bases along the road. He sculpted everything from historical figures like Tecumseh (an Indian chief) and Sitting Bull to Andrew Jackson and Daniel Boone, and even Bobby and Jack Kennedy. He also created a monument to the son he lost in World War II and a statue of himself riding a giant bull.

E.T. Wickham, who was self taught, was very proud of his creations and enjoyed showing them to visitors. He did not stop sculpting until his death in 1970. By the end, he had created over 30 statues which were set up along two roads in Palmyra. Unfortunately, with no one left to watch over the massive statues when he was gone, they slowly deteriorated with time and weather and especially vandalism.

We drove around a bend and there they were, E.T. Wickham’s statues standing on a ridge, looking out at empty rolling hills. We parked the car and got out to take a closer look. It was a lonely place and the gray of the day seemed to engulf us and fill the silence around us. The statues, once proud and colorful I’m sure, looked macabre.

The cement statues, all headless and many missing limbs, were slowly decaying back into the earth. Water stained and covered with moss, they had the look of something ancient. Something timeless. You got the eerie sense that E.T. Wickham’s statues had always been. They guarded the fields and hills and cows high up on this ridge. Despite being headless, they watched and knew and protected.

We got back in the car and drove down the road to the next set of Wickham’s stone statues. They were in the same state as the first group, slowly falling apart and crumbling. Weather is one thing, but it was sad to see how much they have been vandalized . Let’s hope that has stopped! They are such great examples of folk art. A beautifully lonely legacy of a man who took to sculpting late in life. A legacy of rural life and of hero’s both local and national. A reminder of a simpler, less cynical time. There’s not a lot left like this.

We drove home, back through the twisting roads and empty fields and staring cows. The sun set, the day slipping from gray to black almost unnoticed as we returned to “civilization”. I pictured the decaying statues out there in the dark, guarding the rural countryside, and smiled, happy to have had the chance to visit them.

You can learn more about E.T. Wickham and his statues and see pictures of them in their original state here.

The statues of Wickham Stone Park are located on Buck Smith Hill Road and Oak Ridge Road, in Palmyra, Tn, about an hour northwest of Nashville.

To all who love a road trip

To anyone who has gone on a road trip or longs to do so:

It’s dark out as you pull your car onto your street.  You pass by neighbor’s blackened windows wishing, for a second, that you too are still in bed fast asleep.  But then you think of what lies ahead.  You remember the road trip and all thoughts of sleep vanish.  You reach for your coffee and punch the gas. Continue reading “To all who love a road trip”

Our favorite hike in Arkansas: the Lost Valley Trail

The cool, rainy morning was a relief after a number of brutally hot and humid days.  Not that the heat and humidity should have surprised us, this was Arkansas after all.  

We had come to the Ozark Mountains for a long weekend of hiking and exploring.  Crossing the Mississippi River in Memphis, we immediately hit the flat, fertile flood planes of Arkansas.  Rice paddies (who knew?!!) stretched out in front of us for miles and it was a long time before we entered the hills of the Ozark Mountains.  Fields gave way to pines and the small towns grew further apart.  The road curved sharply, climbing higher as we passed vacation homes clinging to the sides of the mountains.  

We stopped for gas at a station with an amazing view and a dog blocking the entrance of the store.  He raised his head and looked at us with half open eyes as we entered, but did not move.  The two women behind the counter, excited, it seemed, to have a customer, told us of a hidden waterfall nearby that they had just explored.  The waterfall sounded great, but we had to keep moving.  We reached our hotel just as storms rolled in and watched the rain fall in sheets from the dry safety of our room.

The rain stopped mid-morning the next day as we drove through rolling farmland.  A misty fog clung to the hills as we passed dirt roads leading to small farms set among fields filled with cows.   It seemed hard to believe that there was a hike set among the farms, but soon we entered a lush hollow and saw the sign for the trailhead named, appropriately, Lost Valley Trail.

Lost Valley Trail, located within Lost Valley State Park, is a great hike that at just 2.2 miles R/T is accessible to anyone.  It’s a popular hike, so the trail is often crowded.  But the great thing about the hike, the reason we decided it was our favorite, is that it is so varied.  There is just so much to explore on this short hike.

The first half mile or so of the trail is flat and handicap accessible.  There are even a few benches to sit and rest and enjoy the cool quiet of a hardwood forest and the Clark Creek.  After that the trail becomes less level and starts to climb some.

The entire hike is through a box canyon which might have once all been underground.  High bluffs surrounded us on both sides.  Many of the feature on the trail point to this, such as our first stop to look at massive stone blocks that fell long ago from the surrounding bluffs.

We hiked some more and soon came to a natural bridge.  Here the creek has carved through limestone to create an arch.  The water was low enough that we were able to climb through the “tunnel”.  The sun came out, rapidly burning off the remaining fog and the day started to heat up, so we stopped to rock hop and play in the creek. 

Our next stop on the hike was Cob Cave.   It’s not actually a cave, but rather a giant bluff shelter once used by Native Americans that gets its name from corn cobbs found on site.  We spent some time exploring the cave and marveling at the sheer size of it.  It was easy to imagine this being used as a shelter and place to stop and rest for the night.

Stop number four on the hike was Eden Falls.  It’s a series of four waterfalls that plummets 170 feet down the bluffs.  The hike brought us to the base of the falls and then turned to steeply climb out, providing good views of the entire waterfall.

The trail climbed some more, up a set of mossy stone stairs.  They twisted around large boulders and disappeared into the green forest.  Water from last night’s storm still dripped down on us as we stared up at the canyon walls.  They surrounded us and made us feel very small.

Lost Valley.  Here, you could feel how the area got its name.  Standing quietly in the forest, you had a sense of timelessness.  Of the ancient hitting against the present; unchanged by time.  It was comforting to know a place like this still existed!

We hiked on, still climbing some until we reached the last stop of the hike; Eden Falls Cave.  Water from Clark Creek flowed out of the entrance to a small underground cave.  We crossed the creek and climbed up a ledge which the water flowed over, creating a small waterfall.  Peering inside the murkiness of the cave, we were excited.  It was time to go explore!

 The cave has been carved by the stream but there is still a good deal of dry land to walk on.  We strapped on our headlights and began to walk back into the darkness.  You definitely need a flashlight to explore the cave as it is very dark once inside.  We decided to head to the left and soon were on our hands and knees crawling because the ceiling of the cave was so low.  

After a couple minutes of crawling we reached a large room in which we could easily stand.  This is the waterfall room which is about 200 feet back from the entrance of the cave.  We could just make out the 35 foot falls through our headlights.  It was really neat to see a waterfall so deep in a wild cave. (I included a picture of it but it was difficult to get a good one with an iPhone in a dark cave!)

We turned to head out of the cave and realized that there was a narrow passage to our left that we could take that did not require us to crawl.  It was so much easier! So, if you don’t want to crawl, take the passage to the right when you first enter the cave.  You might need to stoop here and there, but will stay on your feet.

We exited the cave, blinking against the shock of bright sunlight after the darkness of the cave, and crossed back over the creek to the trail.  Eden Falls Cave is the end of the trail, so we headed back; a quick one mile hike out through the forest.  The cool solitude of the forest was enjoyable and before we knew it, we had reached our car.

This was a great little hike!  Definitely a must do if you’re ever in Arkansas.  I’ve included a link to the trail information and location below.  Have fun exploring!

Lost Valley Trail

the road to nowhere

Lakeside Drive.  It was a typical enough road, climbing out of downtown as it took us past a school and houses and farms.  Typical enough, at least, until we rounded a corner and saw the sign that let us know we were on the Road to Nowhere.

Fontana Lake is beautiful.  Mountains drop straight down to its’ tourquoise-green waters while fish jump and bald eagles fly overhead.  It twists and turns through 30 miles and is so remote that you rarely see another boat.  But, it’s what’s underneath the lake that is the most interesting.

In the 1940’s, WWII had finally reached America and an increase in aluminum was needed for wartime efforts.  The rugged and remote valley of the Little Tennessee River was chosen to create a dam to produce electricity for the ALCOA aluminum plant in Tennessee as well as for Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Manhattan Project.  

The valley was filled with small towns.  People who had been there for generations, working in mines or for lumber companies.  People who loved the beauty and isolation of the area.  Old Highway 288 connected these communities to each other and to their cemeteries.  But, because of the war, things moved fast and, before they knew it, more than 1300 families were forced to leave the area.  The TVA built the dam, the tallest in the east, in a little over two years and Fontana Lake was formed, submerging the towns and Highway 288 far below.

The towns were gone but the Federal government promised to replace Highway 288 with a new road.  The road was to hug the north shore of Fontana Lake from Bryson City to Fontana, providing a way for the former residents to have access to the generations that remained behind in the old family cemeteries.

Construction began on Lakeview Drive in Bryson City.  The road entered the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and everything was going well until an environmental issue halted construction.  The issue was eventually resolved, but construction of the road never resumed.

The road now follows the lake about six miles into the park and abruptly ends at a tunnel.  It truly is a “Road to Nowhere”.   You can now park at the tunnel and hike through it.  Once through the tunnel, the asphalt ends and half finished guard rails give way to hiking trails that continue around the lake.  

 And the cemeteries still remain, more quiet and isolated than ever.  The only way to access them is by hiking in or taking a ferry that the Park Service offers during the summer so former residents can visit their ancestors.  One of the only reminders that this was once a valley filled with small towns bustling with activity.
Below is a map of the area.  You can reach the tunnel by taking Lakeview Dr. East (aka the Road to Nowhere) out of Bryson City.  The road ends at a parking area near the tunnel.

the most romantic picnic spot

It’s difficult to find a more beautiful place than the Smoky Mountains in June.  Spring’s lush green is everywhere.  Colorful wildflowers blanket the hillside.  The sun sets late, slipping slowly behind the mountains as lightening bugs flicker in the evening sky.  The heat and humidity of later months has yet to arrive.  And, best of all, the rhododendrons are in full bloom.

Catawba Rhododendrons, native to the Southern Appalachians, bloom in late-May at lower elevations and in mid-June higher up. The purple-pink bloom lasts only for a short time but is beautiful. One of the best places to view them is at the Roan Mountain Gardens on the North Carolina side of the NC/TN state line.  

Here you can wander through a naturally occurring rhododendron garden high up at an elevation of over 6000 feet. The main path is paved so it is accessible to most people. The bushes are dense and, when in bloom, make for a magical hike.

But the best part are the picnic areas. Tucked away in corners of the park are picnic areas. Moss covered tables nestled under pines and the rhodendrons. As the flowers fall they cover the ground creating a pink carpet. A fairytale setting for a romantic picnic!

You can find more information about Roan Mountain Gardens, including its exact location, here.

road trip

To anyone who has gone on a road trip or longs to do so:

It’s dark out as you pull your car onto your street.  You pass by neighbor’s blackened windows wishing, for a second, that you too are still in bed fast asleep.  But then you think of what lies ahead.  You remember the road trip and all thoughts of sleep vanish.  You reach for your coffee and punch the gas. Continue reading “road trip”

virtual vs reality

I want to go to Torres del Paine national park in Chile.  The park is within Patagonia and was unmapped until the 1930’s.    The landscape is untamed and beautiful; filled with teal-colored lakes, rushing rivers, glaciers, tower-shaped mountains, and fjords.  A trip there would be amazing but not likely to happen any time soon.  So, I sit down in front of my computer in my sweats with a cup of coffee, turn on Pandora, and do a quick search on Bing.  I type in “torres del paine national park” and up pops everything I could possibly want to know about the park.  Pictures-so many gorgeous photographs, maps, the current weather, travel advice, hiking trails, hotels, information on the locals, what animals inhabit the park, blogs from people who have been there, the best local food, etc., etc.  By the time I am finished I know everything about Torres del Paine national park.  I am an expert who has seen all of the best sites and listened to all the local sounds.  I have an understanding of the culture and people and have even purchased some souvenirs.  Then I turn off the computer and go make dinner.

What an amazing time to live!  We have access to the world from our own living room.  But it is also causing us to lose out on so much.  Continue reading “virtual vs reality”

New Years Day

Over the weekend we went to visit friends in Virginia.  They are good friends, the kind where it doesn’t matter how long you have been apart, you just pick right back up where you left off.  The kind of friends where we feel comfortable doing just about anything together; or nothing at all.  Between the two  couples we have eight children!  This was not even a thought in our minds eleven years ago when we were on a road trip from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon.  Just the four of us on parts of Route 66.  So much fun doing what we wanted, making it up as we went along!  Yet here we are with two ten year old boys, a nine year old boy, an 8 year old girl, twin seven year old girls, a five year old boy, and a three year old girl between us.  It’s pretty much constant noise and chaos when we’re together now!

After a relaxing day (if you can’t hear the sarcasm, see above paragraph) of hanging out at their house, catching up on life and celebrating the new year, we decided it was time to go somewhere.  Our friends are like us in that they do not restrict what they do because of the children, they simply work them into their hobbies and activities, so all of our kids are always pretty much up for anything!  January 1, 2012 in Northern Virginia was beautiful, sunny, and in the 50’s. A real treat for this time of year.  We decided a trip to Mount Vernon would be a fun activity for the day.  George Washington’s home on the Potomac River.  So we piled in our two cars, girls in one and boys in the other, and we were off.  On the way movies were watched, games were played on a new Kindle Fire,  two separate bathroom stops were made plus one U-turn, but we made it eventually.

Mount Vernon is extensive.  It contains the estate with the mansion, outbuildings, gardens, museums, animals, a pioneer farmer site, a wharf with boat rides in the summer, Washington’s tomb, trails, a food court, a restaurant, and, of course, no less than three gift shops!  According to the Mount Vernon website it is the most popular historic estate in America.  I think two days would be needed to really see everything.  We had 4-5 hours since it was winter and everything is closed by 5pm when it is dark.  I thought the cost was typical, $15 for adults, $7 for children, and free to 5 and under (woo-hoo 2 free tickets!).  We started with an orientation movie, “We Fight to Be Free” which was 25 minutes long and included an 18 minute movie of Washington getting ready to cross the Delaware River on Christmas Eve while having flash backs of how he had reached this point including meeting Martha, his home, and a battle scene during the French Indian War which was very realistic and the Indians scared my three year old some!  We were warned with signs outside of the movie about this scene.  The movie also threw off my ten year old because, since it takes place on the Delaware, he thought that we were on that river and not the Potomac!  Oh well, better than my eight year old, she thought George Washington was the 2nd president of the US and Thomas Jefferson was the first!  Please don’t tell her teacher!

After the movie we spent a long time wandering the grounds and an even longer time feeding sheep.  Then came the “I’m starving” whines and collapses in the middle of walking because they could not walk any further without food.  I mean it had been 3 hours since food had crossed their lips so how could we expect them to move!  So my husband and his friend went to grab snacks with half the the kids who were on bathroom trip #3 in the same three hour time span while the rest of us fed some more sheep (and went to a different bathroom).  The guys came back after spending $20 on water, chips, and two cookies and we checked out the tomb (interesting) and the wharf on the Potomac (dirty, the tire floating in the river had my fiver year old worried about where the rest of the car was).  It was then time to tour the house.

When you purchase your tickets, the ticket prints out a time for you to get in line to tour the mansion.  This allows for the whole experience to be very organized and keeps things moving along.  We filed through the house in one never ending line only to stop for 30 seconds in a room while a guide stationed in the room described it.  The guides varied from friendly to grumpy, from interesting to rote.  The entire tour took about fifteen minutes, but was interesting and honestly a perfect amount of time for kids.  We only got yelled at once for hanging on ropes and only set one room alarm off due to leaning on the divider so I call the tour successful!

After the tour we checked out the outhouse which created a number of “George Washington sat here” jokes from the boys, then headed for a quick walk on the Forest Trail as dusk was settling in.  We stopped to pet some cows and continued on to a bridge that spanned a high ravine.  The boys searched for the biggest rock they could find and had fun dropping it down onto the rocks below.  The warmth of the day had gathered here, making it a nice place to sit a bit, but it was getting dark fast and we decided it was time to go.  On the way out we stopped at a camel.  I guess George Washington had a camel brought in one Christmas, so now, every year at Christmas, there is a camel.  It is a very friendly camel and he made my three year old’s day because she got to hug his neck while he licked her!  A good ending to a fun day!

Mount Vernon is open 365 days and you can get more information at Mount Vernon’s website.