A Jaunt Through Dixie and the Gut of America

I just returned from my inaugural jaunt through Dixie and the ‘real’ South. It is in every way the gut of America. Not gut as in fat or dirty or even nasty or anything like that. But just real, in a way things around here don’t feel very real anymore. Dixie is uniquely American in a way that nothing I’ve ever seen is American. By that I mean there are places in New Jersey and California and Florida and Maine that are not all that dissimilar from things on the other side of the globe. There is no Dixie in Turkey.

I came across the phrase ‘gut of America’ during my first run from Jesse Stuart Lodge at Greenbo Lake in Kentucky. I was on the Michael Tygart trail, ostensibly a 7.8 mile loop which circled the lake and the park boundary (park-folk down there measure trail lengths with a ruler on a map, not taking into account mileage accumulated by switchbacks and winding turns). At the entrance to The Tygart, as I came to call it so that I could try to convince myself it was some kind of Amazonian tribal path – such self-inflicted delusions are part of what makes running exciting – there was a large sign with detailed rattlesnake warnings, and an extensive description of how to tell a nonpoisonous snake from a poisonous one. Kentucky is rattlesnake capital of the continent. Even Jesse Stuart, the writer for whom the lodge was named, dealt extensively with the way his county had a rattlesnake culture, human and lizard affected equally by the other.

Immediately below the description read: “Treat the fauna of the park with respect. Do not approach any wild animal. If it has to change its behavior because of you, then you have already caused damage to the balance of Greenbo ecosystem.” Which got me to thinking, then why the hell do you go through the trouble of examining thedifference? Because yes, when I am bit by a rattlesnake, the first thing I’m going to do is bend my face down closer to its likely-neurotoxic fangs to examine whether or not the slit in its eyes is vertical or horizontal. Not to mention the paradoxicalside effects of claiming nature is only natural when humans are absent from it (see William Cronon).

The first run through a new and strange wilderness is always intimidating. Last summer, running up the steep, sandy path at John Muir Beach outside San Francisco, there was a sign with an even more dire warning: “Marin County is home to a variety of wildlife. Bobcats, coyotes, and rattlesnakes are all frequent occurrences within the Marin Headlands. Please use caution at all times.” They never tell you the statistical odds of even sighting dangerous wildlife are miniscule – that’s not important. Rather, they do what America has always done best – scare you – except this time it’s actually something you have cause to be scared about. Not to mention the more people which that sign turns around, the less there are wandering the wilderness, which is always a good thing.

At Muir, when you crested the summit of the coastal cliff after a mile and a half of winding trail, you came to a flat mesa and a view of the Pacific Ocean that made you no longer care about your chances of stepping on a rattler’s rattle or being mauled in the face by a mountain lion. When you see something like the biggest ocean on the planet from a thousand feet above, your perspective starts to change. Not only are little things no longer important. But even big things are no longer important. For a few seconds I seriously did not care if I was killed by wildlife during the run to Pirate’s Canyon, the cove a few miles down the coastline that was my ultimate destination.

Back to the Tygart. I stopped stepping with caution at Muir because the natural spectacle was literally overwhelming and life-changing. In the American South, such views may exist in well established, accessible-by-car, crowded-with-day-tripping-family parks like Shenandoah, or along Skyline Drive and the infamous Blue Ridge Parkway. But that is not the gut of America. The gut is down in the heavy and thickened green woods, where there isn’t a sightline for miles, where you always seem to be going up or down without end, where the deerflies swarm your every movement, where a cloud of humidity makes the air heavy to breathe in your lungs and sweat covers you like an extra blanket.

At the Marin Headlands, you may feel in the presence of God – even for the hardened atheist, it is difficult to not marvel like a child. But in Dixie, in Americana, you are human. Unadulterated human. You feel real again. Every feeling is magnified, everything good, everything bad, every pain and pleasure is magnified to the realer proportions which Northern civilization has forgotten in the midst of their cities and technologies. There is nothing to rescue you down here. The Tygart trail borders farmland which stretches green and undulating and spotted with hayseed for miles – so many miles that if I were bitten by a rattlesnake I would not know where to find the farmhouse.

But the fear I felt first stepping on to the Tygart slowly slipped away as I ran, and there was no scenic view. Running in any new place is a matter of becoming, of accepting. Of the new land accepting you as a part of it and of you accepting the new land as part of you. You almost feel, once this transformation is complete, that now you are untouchable, invulnerable. You are a cemented-in part of the landscape, and no longer a stranger. Once you have assured the woods that you are nonthreatening, there no longer looms the danger of a Timber rattler beneath every clump of rocks. Maybe the feeling comes from nothing more than a few good miles without seeing a snake, of establishing a familiarity, with feeling nothing but the buzz of the flies drowning in the sweat by your ear. The danger you sense upon entering is a warning, a test of merit, a cautionary measure. For both place and person.

Everyone undergoes a similar test the first time they encounter new surroundings, even if it be a city or a town. Something in the mystery is not exactly unfriendly, but somehow cold in its unfamiliarity. Multiply that several times over and you have Dixie.

To get out of Dixie is not easy by foot. I see at as a valley, a huge gap running in and amongst the larger foothills and mountains of Appalachia. To escape you must go up – straight up for as long as you can, avoiding all downhills if you can – and eventually the landscape starts to change. The forest which was once impenetrably thick begins to open, the sky is suddenly a reality beyond the foggy canopy of misty branches covering the wood, the earth is open and clear and there is no place for black bears or even rattlers to hide. In Kentucky itself there are few such places. It wasn’t until I penetrated further south to the Roan Highlands in Tennessee that I saw real mountains, and a way out of this new and harsher world.

Southerners live in the wilderness, but in the forested hills, not the mountains. As you go up you see why. The terrain is very difficult. Original settlers, after displacing many of the local Cherokee tribe (white folk have graciously split the Roan Highlands into Tennessee’s “Cherokee National Forest” and North Carolina’s “Pisgah National Forest”, as Carver’s Gap, near the peak of Roan itself, actually straddles the two states), did not desire to move farther west for fear of the Appalachians. They are not mountains as you would imagine a mountain would exist in the eastern United States. I of course did not believe this. Part of me was bitter that I was running up an Eastern mountain, because of course nothing could compare to the Rockies or the landscape in the American West.

My first morning in the Roan I woke up to the 8:30 shining sun, with the moon still shining palely, almost phosphorescent in the blue sky. I was being very arrogant about the whole deal. I had planned my route out the night before and did not bring a map with me even though I had never been to these woods before, nevermind Dixie itself. I’d gone at least 12 miles when I came to the foot of the Chestnut Ridge trail, the one which billed itself as the most difficult in the Highlands and which warned that only experienced hikers should continue forth. Even though at that point I should have known better, I made the sharp turn up the hill.

I consider myself a mountain goat (while running – otherwise it is of course mountain ‘monkey’) but I was soon having trouble staying on my feet. The trail began on a winding mile long climb over jagged granite, mossy scree and rich, black Dixie mud. What I was doing was a poor excuse for running and I was humiliated into stopping on a few occasions (stopping on a run for me is like if you were in a foul shooting competition and made twenty in a row and then started intentionally missing shots – that’s the best metaphor I can imagine up) and literally crawling. Then the trail began to head downhill, sharply downhill, which was discouraging as I knew I would have run back up the downhill on the return journey. At no point could I see the summit I was running towards. Halfway up the Chestnut I was hoping for rattlesnake bite, because then I truly would not be able to run.

I had been very foolish but I did not yet realize just how foolish I had been. I forced myself to the top, still feeling arrogant and thinking thoughts like ‘I can run as far as feel like, it does not matter how tired I get, there are no more college races to save my body for’ – and the sheen of invincibility that had been wearing thin was reengaged. When I did reach the top, dripping and gasping and my body pulsing and numbed by the effort, I knew instantly that I had for the first time truly escaped Dixie. The view of the Highlands was incredible, the air was cooler, the humidity vanished with the winds blowing off the top of the bald earth. Far below was the gut of America, below in the heavy air and the thickening green that contains the most thoroughly diverse ecosystem on the North American continent.

Running across the summit I soon realized that I literally had no energy left. The run up had been rewarding, but it was very draining to try to leave Dixie. I had not had good respect for just how draining it would be. I had underestimated the mountains very much. I do not know how long I was able to run for after that. I managed to stumble down the mountain and with a great effort make it back over most of the Forest Road Trail that returned to the highway. I tried to take a shortcut on the roads and immediately found myself in a trailer park, swaddled by Seventh Day Adventist and Southern Baptist congregations, both fully in session.

I had to walk then. Maybe something about seeing all the earnest church folk made me lose my faith in myself. But my head was swimming now and I thought of the boy who was going to run for William and Mary and was running a workout in the middle of the summer before along a country road and collapsed in the bushes from heat exhaustion. He wasn’t found until he was dead. I saw a picture once and he looked exactly like me.

My return journey was a long, lonesome, shameful walk through the heart of Dixie. Above me the peak of Strawberry was invisible and I was surrounded on all sides by a cavernous thicket of ancient pines and sweetgums. I had run twenty-five miles, thirteen more than I intended to, but some part of me realized, soon after I had water again an hour later at the tent, that near death experiences are what make up a good life. I’ve never felt more completely evaporated of every scrap of energy, never been so ravaged by an attack on a landscape which backfired so spectacularly. And I’ve (almost) never been so happy with myself lying down to sleep at night.

I knew that it had not been only a near death experience. Like Tyler Durden might say, it had been a near life experience as well. Things like that are hard to come by around here. Stay in Dixie a week and the gut of America is bound to show you something you won’t forget.