Monday, July 28, 2008

Waterfalls, the Blue Ridge and Valley & Ridge

One of the common misperceptions about Blacksburg is that it's "in the Blue Ridge Mountains." It's not uncommon to label this part of the Virginia Highlands the "Blue Ridge," when in fact Blacksburg is in the valley & ridge geologic range, between the Blue Ridge to the east and the Appalachian Plateau in West Virginia. The Blue Ridge is the eastern most range in Virginia and northwest North Carolina, being that part of the mountains that drains into the Piedmont. Hence, lots of streams and creeks tumble off the Blue Ridge.

Blacksburg is in the Valley & Ridge area, which is just what it implies - a series of long ridges/mountains with valleys between them that run in a southwest to northeast line. Brush Mountain, a classic ridge-mountain, runs beside Blacksburg, extending many miles north of town and terminating with at the New River. You can get some sense of how the ridges run from this photo, taken from the overlook on War Spur Trail. Along the left is Potts Mountain, with War Spur Creek draining into the valley below. On the right, out of view behind the trees, is John's Creek Mountain.

View from the overlook on War Spur Loop Trail
Drainage (that would be creeks and rivers) runs a bit differently in the Blue Ridge than in the Valley & Ridge sections of Appalachia. While there are plenty of creeks and rivers in our neck of the mountains (like the famous Cascades on Little Stony Creek in Giles County), typically they aren't as robust as the streams that drain off the Blue Ridge into the Piedmont. The reasons? Gravity and height - tumbling off the Blue Ridge typically involves a steeper, longer plunge downhill than draining off a ridgeside into a valley. Sure, that's simplified a bit, but there are plenty of examples, one being Rock Castle Creek and the Gorge it carved, described in an earlier post.

Some of the most spectacular, and easily accessible, Blue Ridge creeks are found in North Carolina, particularly in the Pisgah National Forest near Grandfather Mountain. Lost Cove Creek, Harper Creek, Prong Creek, and Wilson Creek drain through the Pisgah National Forest, and there are dozens of miles of streamside trials. There are also many waterfalls, and we made the trek to two of them in June.

Through the merry rhododendron groves along Lost Cove Trail
Our first hike was on Lost Cove Trail, which goes along Prong Creek. There's a great series of waterfalls on Prong Creek, each a small tumble into a great little swimming hole. The uppermost of this series is pictured below.

But the real gem is the popular Hunt Fish Falls waterfall and swimming hold extraordinaire. I've been going here for over 30 years, and it's always a treat. If you're lucky and go mid-week you'll miss the crowds that come down the short, .8 mile hike to the stream. We had such luck in June when we found the place deserted. Here are some photos:

The view from the rocks near the top of the falls, looking down to the swimming hole. It's deep enough to dive just below here. To the left is the second fall. Turning around from here, you'll see the falls pictured below.
Take another step to the left and you're looking at the waterfall from eye-level. Here's the view upstream. Our favorite campsite is upstream to the right.
Asta's not much of a water dog - nary a bit of Lab blood in her that we can detect. But she really enjoyed the water when were here, wading into the pool, chest-high, to fetch sticks, and scampering across the low rapids at the other end of the swimming hole. Here she eyes the waterfall and warily steps back.
View from across the swimming hole to the falls.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

July morning in Blacksburg

Some photos from the golf course hill near my house, all taken around 7 AM on July mornings. All of these were taken with my little Fuji Finepix A610 point and shoot, which tucks into my pocket rather nicely.
Blacksburg and Brush Mountain, with a hint of rising fog in the distance.

Perhaps the most fun guy to ever naturally inhabit a golf course.

View east with fog in the Catawba Valley.

Squirrels cavorting in the power lines.
Lost lens, dew-covered on the golf cart trail.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Brainfood #2: Ron Rash

Back to "Brainfood," snapshots of the words and music currently capturing my attention.

Ron Rash's novel The World Made Straight is a beautiful, moving Appalachian coming-of-age novel. It opens with this evocative paragraph:
Travis came upon the marijuana plants while fishing Caney Creek. It was a Saturday, the first week of August, and after helping his father sucker tobacco all morning he'd had the rest of the day to himself. He'd changed into his fishing clothes and driven three miles of dirt road to the French Broad River. Travis drove fast, the rod and reel clattering in the truck bed, red dust rising in his wake. The Marlin .22 slid on its makeshift gun rack with each hard curve. He had the windows down, and if the radio worked he would have had it blasting. The truck was a '66 Ford, battered from a dozen years of farm use. Travis had paid a neighbor five hundred dollars for it three months earlier.
Rash says so much in this paragraph, giving a succinct snapshot of an Appalachian farm boy. He's into fishing, has his .22 in the gun rack, he works on his father's farm, and is self-reliant enough to have bought his own truck. Yet Travis is much deeper than this snapshot - he wants far more from his life than you might surmise. Finding the dope leads him to Leonard, who on one level is a drug dealer hiding from his own past. As Leonard befriends Travis, he transforms himself from small-time dealer to Travis' mentor, bettering himself and the world around him in the process.

Each chapter opens with a passage from the diary of Leonard's Civil War-era ancestor, a doctor who practiced in the region and served as a medic in the war. Through this device the past creeps into the narrative, as the characters each discover that their ancestors played a part in the Civil War's infamous Shelton Laurel Massacre (Travis himself is a Shelton). The novel's characters eventually come to terms with their collective history, sorting out the legacy of the Civil War and the roles their ancestors played.

Rash paints a realistic, detailed portrait of contemporary Appalachia, where demons and redemption come from unexpected sources. A well-told tale that reveals much about how the past and present shape Appalachian life, with wonderfully wrought characters, The World Made Straight captivated me until the end. Highly recommended.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land"- the real national anthem

It’s Independence Day here in the USA, the anniversary of signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, when Thomas Jefferson and a bunch of white male colonists severed the political bonds with Great Britain. From this bold act emerged the USA, buoyant, blemished, and most certainly bellicose. And in case you doubt the bellicosity, just give one listen to the "Star Spangled Banner," our official National Anthem. Bombs bursting in the air with all that proud hailing and stuff. Oh, and it’s so easy to sing! (I'm especially fond of the version by Lt. Frank Drebin in the Naked Gun.)

So, like many others before, I say it’s time to retire the “Star Spangled Banner” and replace with Woody Guthrie’s magnificent, easy-to-sing populist anthem, “This Land Is Your Land.”

A bit of history of this fine tune: Guthrie originally wrote this on February 23, 1940, in a run-down New York hotel room. Woody had been traveling the countryside for years, living with the people hit hardest by the Depression, which was still raging in the US. Meanwhile, Europe and Asia were engulfed in warfare. And what was on the radio and on jukeboxes across the country? Kate Smith’s version of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.”

Woody hated “God Bless America,” and despised Berlin’s Tin Pan Alley patriotism. Woody decided to write a response. Borrowing the melody from a Carter Family song “Little Darlin’ Of Mine,” which was based on the old Baptist hymn “Oh My Lovin’ Brother,” Woody sat down and knocked out a song he originally called “God Blessed America.” Here are the original lyrics:

This land is your land, this land is my land,
From California to the New York island,
From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters;
God blessed America for me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway
And saw above me that endless skyway,
And saw below me the golden valley, I said:
God blessed America for me.

I roamed and rambled, and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts,
And all around me a voice was sounding:
God blessed America for me.

Was a great high wall there that tried to stop me
A sign was painted said: Private Property,
But on the back side it didn't say nothing-
God blessed America for me.

When the sun come shining, then I was strolling
In wheat fields waving, and dust clouds rolling;
The voice was chanting as the fog was lifting:
God blessed America for me.

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
By the relief office I saw my people-
As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if
God blessed America for me.

After writing this in 1940, Woody did not do anything with it until 1944, when he finally recorded it for Asch Records (later to become Folkways). By then he had changed the title to what we know now: “This Land is Your Land,” and changed the refrain to “This land was made for you and me.” Woody played with the lyrics over the next several years, adding some verses, changing a few words, but always keeping a strong populist protest element to it. He recorded what many consider the definitive version in 1951. Others have tinkered with it over the years, and Pete Seeger added a few verses with an environmental slant.

And what of Woody's great national anthem? Can we have a national anthem that celebrates the common person, embraces the idea of sharing resources for the common good, and blatantly attacks crass capitalism and greed?

The version of "This Land..." that’s in common circulation has been somewhat sanitized. John Whitmer notes: “Of course “This Land is Your Land” is now sung in classrooms throughout the nation as a nationalist song and the verses critiquing private property are left out as are references to Guthrie’s affiliation with the labor movement.”

Even watered down, as it were, Woody’s iconic tune is deeply woven into American life and culture, and reflects the American ideal of equality far better than that beastly bomb written by Francis Scott Key. It's high time to replace bellicosity with humanity. Here's to Woody Guthrie!

This version of "This Land Is Your Land" is from the official Woody Guthrie website, followed by a film clip of Woody singing it.

Happy Independence Day!

This Land Is Your Land

This land is your land This land is my land
From California to the New York island;
From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and Me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway,
I saw above me that endless skyway:
I saw below me that golden valley:
This land was made for you and me.

I've roamed and rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts;
And all around me a voice was sounding:
This land was made for you and me.

When the sun came shining, and I was strolling,
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling,
As the fog was lifting a voice was chanting:
This land was made for you and me.

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
But on the other side it didn't say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.

Woody Guthrie singing "This Land Is Your Land:"


1) Woody Guthrie: A Life. By Joe Klein. New York: Knopf. 1980.
2) “Is This Song You Song Anymore?: Revisioning Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land Is Your Land’” by Mark Allen Jackson, American Music, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Autumn, 2002), pp. 249-276.
3) What Exactly Are We Celebrating on Constitution Day? By John Whitmer. History News Network.
4) Official Woody Guthrie website.