High Points

June 28, 2021

The rain was light, misting, when I found the parking area at a place called Laurel Valley. The sky was deep gray, a thick, ominous overhead that promised a downpour any moment. I was 50 miles from home in South Carolina’s Jocassee Gorges Management Area, maybe a half-dozen miles due south of the state line.

I stepped out of the van and looked around. I heard only the clicking of the drops hitting the ground. I was alone, who else would be anywhere near this place on a day like this. I pulled on my light shell, stowed my map and a couple of candy bars in my hydration pack, and walked a quarter-mile down a gravel road to U.S. 178. The course would be close to five rocky, winding miles to the northwest to Sassafras Mountain, an elevation gain of about 1,800 feet. Then the return.

I could see the trail across the road, narrow and steep, leading into dark forest. I looked for the white blazes of the Foothills Trail.

The Blue Ridge rises quickly from South to North Carolina. The trails are steep, twisting, narrow chutes; the rocks are sharp or blunt instruments. Mount Mitchell, just northeast of Asheville, is 6,680 feet to the summit, a tad higher than Tennessee’s Clingman’s Dome, crown of Great Smoky Mountains National Park at 6,640. Mount Rogers in southwest Virginia comes in at about 5,700. Sassafras Mountain, South Carolina’s highest point, straddling the state line, is 3,550 feet. Mount Cheaha in Alabama, where the mountains slope into rolling piedmont, is down at 2,400.

At Sassafras Mountain

These ancient Eastern mountains seem minor league next to the far-younger peaks of the Rockies and the West Coast. Mount Whitney in California’s Sierra Nevada, highest point in the contiguous U.S., is 14,500 feet high. Pike’s Peak, not the highest place in the Rockies at 14,115, is yet better-known than Mount Elbert, which at 14,440 feet is a tad higher than Washington’s Mount Rainer at 14,411.

I’ve been to a few of these places. They draw men and women who come for their own reasons: the mystery and grandeur of nature, the challenge of the climb, the wildlife, the serenity, sometimes the danger. All find, in their own way, communion with God, the power of his presence in these wild places, where treacherous trails wind among giant boulders and cross rushing streams. Wilderness, the power, the opaqueness, both the relentless hardness and exquisite beauty of it, calls us to act, to move forward, to overcome. It teaches or reminds us of our humanity, of our place in the world.

I pushed on from Laurel Valley, high and higher, hard step in front of hard step, foot by foot, achieving a brief stretch of level or near-level trail then slogging upward again. In some unclimbable places wooden steps had been installed to help the climber cheat the elevation. At a half-mile the heavens opened and the rain fell in a steady, thunderous roar, thwacking on leaves and branches. The rain soaked through my shell, my shirt, my cap, my shoes. I kept my head down as the water dribbled from my cap into my eyes and down my chin. A thin mist rose from the underbrush to the treetops, obscuring the trail. I whispered a few Hail Marys.

At one hour I reached the halfway point, called Chimneytop Gap, a road crossing marked by a sign. As I approached I could see the road hundreds of feet below, a thin ribbon of asphalt. A car looking the size of a dime passed and disappeared. The trail widened a bit, I descended in a rough trot.

Getting to the road picked up my mood, I dropped the thought of turning back. On the other side the trail sloped gently but that didn’t last, it twisted again sharply upward, huge rocks formed obstacles to be climbed over, revealing the route through the deep columns of oak, maple, poplar. An idea dawned: ditch the trail, take the road back. I recalled the course moves away from the Sassafras Mountain Road and my parking place. No way but to backtrack.

The rain fell in sheets and I moved on, using my trek poles to push the overgrowth aside to avoid being dumped on further, alert any bears in the area, and evade ticks waiting in the long grass. The trail opened up a bit then narrowed again. An hour from the Gap I began to see flashes of sky through the treetops. Progress. I turned onto a short level stretch and found the end of Sassafras Mountain Road, the route to the observation deck at the summit. But the blazes took me back into the woods for another half-mile for more climbing, up, up, around a dark bend. Then the summit.

I stood for a moment in a fog-shrouded meadow then moved forward, still following the blazes. For a few moments I crossed into North Carolina. As the mist wafted around me a chilling breeze rose. The observation deck, straddling the state line, was a gray-white silhouette. The small parking area was empty. No one in his right mind was coming up here today.

Still soaked, I leaned against a boulder and pulled a candy bar from my pack and looked around. The view from the deck, where on clear days visitors can look north and east for a hundred miles across two states, was closed in by an impenetrable cloud.

The breeze picked up, I shivered. I looked around. The tall grass waved. Not a soul for miles. The silence was absolute. I took a deep breath and stood and adjusted my pack. A chill was setting in. Nature was warning me. I stepped back on the trail.

Furniture Fun

June 21, 2021

We all have our hopes and dreams, our triumphs and defeats, our moments of pure exhilaration, of bewilderment, of disappointment and despair. We at times take ourselves too seriously, become preoccupied with trivia, fail to see enough of the world around us or take the long view. I remind myself of all this. Sometimes, though, we pirouette from the sublime to the absurd. Absurd is where we are right now.

I was still looking back wistfully on our Tennessee road trip when our new sofa was delivered. It didn’t fit in the room, didn’t even come close. While we stared, stunned, the delivery guys tossed it back on the truck and drove away.

We knew we would need furniture for our new South Carolina home when, still in Virginia, we gave away our old stuff. The sofa we had owned for 25 years went to a gang of young guys who didn’t speak English, but saw our ad offering it for free. They showed up in a pickup truck shorter than the sofa, but managed to tie it down securely enough to drive away slowly.

We set out to replace the sofa in early April, after moving into this place. The idea was to create a sort of den-TV room in one of the spare bedrooms. We looked at furniture store websites. I measured the length of the wall in the room where we planned to stow the new sofa—well over eight feet or 96 inches. Looked simple.

We landed at Rooms To Go, which is big in the Southeast. A salesman hit us up as soon as we walked in. We strolled impatiently with him past extravagant displays of sectional sofas, bedframes, and giant cushioned chairs. We had thought about getting a sofabed, but dropped the idea when we saw the prices. 

We found a sofa we liked, in a color we thought would work with the room. I said let’s stop looking. The price seemed reasonable and we tacked on the maintenance contract and delivery. We paid for it. Then the salesman advised it couldn’t be delivered until June 12.

Why the delay, we asked. The factory is in Florida, he said. They get to these things when they get to them. We grumbled, but left.

June 12 arrived with a flurry of emails and text messages announcing the delivery was imminent. I removed the door to the room in which we wanted the sofa. The delivery guys hauled it through the front door and down the hall. That’s as far as they got. The sofa was ten inches longer than the height of the doorframe, which I had never considered checking. “You need an ‘apartment sofa,’” the head honcho said. “Go back to the store and pick one, we’ll bring it right over.” He sent a text to the store about the failed delivery. That was the last we saw of our sofa.

“Apartment sofa?” What’s that, we wondered. We shlepped back to the store, ten miles of hellish traffic and summer heat. Our salesman stared for a moment, then recognized us. “Apartment sofa—that’s just an expression,” he said. “We have sofas and we have loveseats.” We now knew a full-size sofa wouldn’t work. Sandy looked at loveseats; nothing in the color we wanted. She said we’ll think about it.

“Try Big Lots,” our Colorado daughter suggested. We drove over there, a huge, slightly grim place crammed with off-label durable goods, furniture, and discount groceries and housewares. I saw more employees than customers.

We spotted a loveseat close to the right color. The price was about $250 less than the Rooms To Go sofa. At that point I was interested, showing my own priorities. A saleswoman approached. “We have one of these in stock if you want to pick it up today,” she said. I was not in the mood for hoisting furniture. But I took a tape measure and in the broiling sun checked the dimensions of the van. The loveseat would fit lengthwise if we took the center seats out. I wasn’t sure about height and width. “How about store delivery,” I asked, sweating.

Store delivery meant, like everything else in life, creating an account on the store website, a user ID, and a password. Sandy had done that at home but couldn’t remember the password. She handed me her phone. Squinting, I got to the internet. I set up an account and a password, the one I use with all accounts I’ll never use again. I tapped “Next.” The phone lost the internet. The saleswoman took the phone and expertly maneuvered back to the website and tapped a few times. Saying nothing but still holding the phone, she turned and walked to the front of the store.

We slouched on the loveseat we wanted to buy, waiting. Finally she was back. “I’m sorry, the system crashed. You’ll have to call customer service. Or, if you have a computer at home, you can try going to the site when it comes back up and ordering online. The store delivery price is $149.” I recalled Rooms to Go had charged $59 for delivery. Why so much, I asked. “We use a third-party contractor for deliveries. You have to go to their ‘app’ to arrange delivery. We don’t have any control over that. It probably would take four weeks.”

I could take the center seats, each weighing about 50 pounds, out of the van to make room for the Big Lots loveseat—a complicated, backbreaking chore. But we’re not sure if they’ll still have the one unit in stock. Then too, they have a cart at the store, but how would I get it in the house?

The next morning we pushed a loveseat we already own from the living room into the space in which we had planned to put the sofa. Then we canceled the Rooms To Go order. That day in April has receded into the distant past. We’re getting used to the long empty space formerly occupied by the loveseat we shifted to the back room.

Yesterday, in a quiet moment, we stepped back to another world. We talked about the Tennessee trip. Summoning long-dormant memories, Sandy said that the students at her elementary school in Winchester and the nuns who taught there believed the building was haunted. Suddenly, she said, the church next to the school burned down. I smiled at the anecdote, rich with the history and mystery of that remote place, and quit thinking about furniture.

Back to Cowan

June 14, 2021

It was time to go to Cowan, Tennessee, Sandy’s hometown. It’s a spot on the map in Franklin County, 100 miles southeast of Nashville, 40 miles west of Chattanooga, tucked in below the long Cumberland Plateau, which stretches from the Smokies down to Alabama. I use those references to place it for others and get mostly baffled nods. We took the grandsons, my idea of a different kind of vacation for inquisitive seven- and four-year-old boys.

Cowan is a humble place, now about 900 souls, down from 2,000, once with three stoplights, now none. Many years ago, when we were first married and living in Nashville, we went often to visit Sandy’s parents. Then a couple of local employers moved away or went out of business and my father-in-law was laid off. Although the house was paid for, he and Sandy’s mom sold it, pulled up roots, and moved to Nashville. A few years later we were living in Virginia. Two decades passed, then they were gone.

We went back a couple of times a few years ago, detouring from trips to Nashville. For a while the place seemed to be perking up. A nice Italian restaurant opened, then a bagel and coffee shop. A local guy refurbished a historic downtown home as a bed & breakfast. But it didn’t last. The state built a bypass outside town. Traffic on Cowan’s main street, U.S. 41A, once a main route north and east, dried up. So did the new businesses. They’ve all disappeared. Young people who as kids attended Cowan Elementary went to high school in Winchester, the county seat. Then they left for good.

Cowan was well situated to be prosperous, a stop on the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis railroad, which attracted industry starting in the 1840s when local leaders recognized the area needed something to replace cotton-harvesting.  Cowan was the last stop for trains climbing the steep Cumberland Plateau and the site where pusher engines were hooked up. The Cowan Mountain Tunnel was finished in 1852. Marquette Cement Manufacturing Company, called Cumberland Cement, opened a Cowan plant in 1926. At its operating peak the plant could produce two thousand barrels of Portland cement every day. At some point the plant was owned by Gulf + Western Industries, which had a big office in Nashville. Then G+W was acquired and disappeared. So did the plant.

Cowan always has had a spark for me, not just because Sandy grew up there. The Plateau, called Monteagle Mountain, seems to keep the weather mild when the upper reaches get snow. Cowan’s famous neighbor is the University of the South, the prestigious Episcopal school at Sewanee, six steep winding miles up 41A on the Plateau. The school, simply called Sewanee, occupies 1,000 gorgeously wooded acres of gorgeous Gothic architecture. The place seems literally an ivy tower without ivy, an otherworldly island of academia between gritty Franklin and Marion Counties. I once gave a talk to students there. A colleague rented a house on campus, now hidden by new forest.   

Franklin County’s and Cowan’s history has its hard points. Markers at Sewanee and around the county bring up the tragic story of the Trail of Tears, when in the 1830s the U.S. Army uprooted the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and other Native American tribes in nine Southeastern states and forced them to walk to bleak reservations in Oklahoma. Tennessee was a primary route. The signs strike a dissonant note within walking distance of Sewanee’s lush greenery.

We stayed in Monteagle, at the top of the Plateau, just off I-24, about eight miles out of Cowan. For our Sewanee visit we drove slowly through the stately stone gate and past the academic buildings. Since the students had just left, the streets and walkways were empty and serene. We turned onto Tennessee Street, which ends at the edge of the Plateau, and gawked at the spectacular 50-mile view of deep-green Middle Tennessee farmland.  The boys and I stretched our legs on a nearby trail, then stopped at the university bookstore to let the older one browse.

That evening after dinner we took a drive from Monteagle down a mountain road I had never traveled. We passed into neighboring Grundy County, where the road stretches from the foot of the mountain out into the rich farm and pastureland of Middle Tennessee. New corn grew along the road for miles, cattle grazed near prosperous-looking homesteads. It was a pretty evening. Farmers were still out working their machines.

I didn’t remember how the road down the mountain twists sharply and steeply until it spins us onto the straightway into Cowan. We drove through Sandy’s old neighborhood and stopped at her childhood home, pleased to see it had been nicely kept up by the same couple who bought it from her parents. But up and down the street, houses showed the wear of hard times.

We stopped at the railroad museum across the tracks in the center of town where you can learn about the prosperity of former years, when the place was a minor rail hub. The boys climbed over an old engine and fuel car, balancing along the ledge where coalmen used to stand. We stood near the tracks and watched a 100-car CSX coal train chug through, heading up the mountain powered by three locomotives, the engineer sounding his claxon and waving at the boys.

The five-mile drive into Winchester, the county seat, took us past a couple of shut-down factories and the former site of a popular motel, now a vacant lot. The roadside burger joint where Sandy worked as a teenager is long gone. The Catholic school she attended has been closed, the church now is hemmed in by drive-in banks. The city streets are busy, but 41A continues as a dreary stretch of the usual small-town dreck: fast food, car dealerships and car washes, storefront Mexican eateries, 7-Elevens, payday loan shops, and, of course, a giant Walmart.

Hard to say when or if we’ll see Cowan again. Sandy has lost interest, but the place still has a strange attraction. We looked back at a complicated world, a mix of affluence and depression, rough seams of poverty and rich history, the unique history of the Mountain South. The kids seemed to enjoy it, although I’m not sure exactly what part they enjoyed. Someday, when they’re older, maybe we’ll go back.   

The Spy

June 7, 2021

Who reads works of non-fiction twice? Well, some do. I do. Who has read The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre twice?  I have. I hope others have, and will. It takes at least two reads to grasp fully its profound impact.

Macintyre tells the chillingly true, but both tragic and heroic story of Oleg Gordievsky, who grew to maturity inside the Soviet Union’s spy agency, the KGB. In 1974 Gordievsky, while still a KGB agent in Copenhagen and later in London, became a deep-cover source for MI6, Great Britain’s spy service. Until 1985 he passed Soviet secrets to the Brits. After the KGB learned that he was a double agent but before he could be executed, MI6, in a brilliant operation, “exfiltrated” him from Moscow through Finland. He still lives near London under an assumed name.

As much as Western governments valued his service, given at the risk of his life through those 11 years, the question persists: apart from his evolving political beliefs, was he fundamentally a traitor? To escape he abandoned his wife and two daughters, who knew nothing of his second life, leaving them to hostility, deprivation, and misery in Moscow. Six years later they were reunited, but had become strangers, and he and his wife quickly divorced.

Gordievsky’s defenders point to his motive: although groomed as a spy nearly from childhood (his father was a Stalin-era agent and hatchet man, his brother also KGB), after the Berlin Wall was erected he became disgusted with the Soviet system: its cruelty, its moral poverty, its hostility to the human spirit. They point by contrast to the American suspected of betraying him, CIA official Aldrich Ames, who said bluntly, “I did it for the money.” Ames now is doing life without parole in a federal penitentiary.

Yet Gordievsky also acknowledged that when he first posted to Copenhagen he fell in love with the personal freedom, the vibrant cultural scene, the rich standard of living that so starkly set off the grubbiness of Soviet life.

Macintyre and others argue that the secrets Gordievsky delivered helped NATO to counter Soviet military plans and eventually win the Cold War. He was celebrated and decorated by Western governments. Meanwhile, even Russians who despised the Soviet system considered Gordievsky a duplicitous conniver who used friends and family in his betrayal and escape.

We know Gordievsky and Ames both lied in their own conscious, deliberate ways. Right now, we see lies everywhere. Trump and his subalterns lied about the election and still are lying. We know that, based on dozens of investigations and court rulings. Theirs are calculated, cold-blooded lies. We know of pathetic, shameful lies, like those of Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, who said two weeks ago that wearing masks to avoid covid is the equivalent of Nazis forcing Jews to wear yellow stars. But then, Trump’s and Greene’s audience have their own notions of truth and falsehood.

In these examples, lying is aimed at a larger end. For Trump and Greene, the larger end is a twisted perception of American political values. In the espionage world, Macintyre writes, the lying is aimed at helping one political system gain advantage over another.

Many spies anesthetize their duplicity. Macintyre calls attention, again and again, to alcohol abuse by intelligence officials, both Soviet and Western. Heavy drinking was a way of life in the KGB. Gordievsky’s KGB brother drank himself to death at 39. The British traitor Kim Philby, who defected to the USSR in 1963 regularly “drank himself into a stupor,” says Macintyre. Ames drank. The booze, in his and other cases precipitated treason and helped reveal it. The spies who were drunks drank to blot out the pressures of life distorted by falsehood and pretense.

Gordievsky deceived his KGB superiors, his colleagues, his friends, his family, day after day, year after year. For all his skills at duplicity, he lived a private hell. He confronted the agonizing question: what is truth? He built his career on lies, persevering in the conviction that he was battling a regime that enslaved and murdered its own citizens. He knew from the moment he crossed over that a careless step or word would mean a bullet in the back of the head.

Puttering in my suburban South Carolina backyard, I wonder about these things. We ourselves all have said things that we know are not true, sometimes when we see a higher purpose—sometimes not. Again, the question: what is truth? As Gordievsky defined it in the 1970s and 1980s, truth was the recognition of the nobility of democracy standing against the bleakness of Soviet totalitarianism, that is, truth versus falsehood. The political leadership of the West stood up and defended him.

Today in the U.S., we are challenged to recognize and defend truth or surrender to lies. Our choice, compared to Gordievsky’s, may seem mundane and obscure. But we can see that truth now, today, is defined by some as doing and saying anything necessary to reclaim political office, to elevate political party over country and Constitution. The country now endures a blizzard of lies wrapped in platitudes that conceal ignorance, bigotry, greed. We may not grasp the essence of Gordievsky’s struggle. But we can understand that truth, his and ours, emerges when forged in sacrifice and courage. Only then it endures.