|o stand on the Easternmost point of Tennessee. To be at that very point where Tennessee begins and spreads South and West. Where is it? What is at that point? How do you get there from here?|
|Lamar Alexander walked "across" Tennessee during his campaign for governor some 20 or so years ago, and although it was but a campaign strategy (which did work), he really did not walk all the way across the state as we know.
But, what if he really did start at the easternmost point? Would it have been a hike rather than a walk? Is there a survey marker there of some sort, official or merely geographical? Does it have any archeological or other distinctive significance?
It must be there, and some of us must admit to having that fleeting feeling of going in search of it.
So, what of this easternmost point of Tennessee today? The U.S. Geological Survey has defined the point on the map as being northeast of Mountain City, in Johnson County, Tennessee, or southwest of Green Cove in Washington County in Southwestern Virginia.
The area is a part of the Cherokee National Forest and of the Iron Mountain range. The northern edge of the Tennessee State boundary line separates the Cherokee National Forest from the Mount Rogers National Recreational Area.
The "point," which lies five miles or so from the community of Sugar Creek, Tennessee, does not appear from any map to be approachable by motorized vehicle from within Tennessee. On the Virginia side, the point appears to be about a half mile from the old Green Cove depot on the Virginia Creeper nature trail.
The nearest town of any size, though, is Damascus, Virginia, whose downtown district is threaded by the Appalachian Trail. The Virginia Creeper Trail heads east out of Damascus and circles part way around Tennessee's easternmost point into Virginia and then into North Carolina. Apparently, at one time, the Creeper Trail had been a logging railroad track. So, our point is there, for sure, and it's surrounded by an abundance of natural resources.
My searches had yet to discover much of substance about the easternmost point until I found an article written for retirees of the Tennessee Valley Authority, "Easy Riders," written about the Virginia Creeper.
The piece states: The shuttle ride up to Whitetop Station winds through the woods, along the creek, and past tidy farmhouses and lush pastures. If it's a clear day, ask the driver to point out the rocky promontory that marks the easternmost point in Tennessee.
I awoke early on a Saturday morning with the solitariness of mind to go there.
Armed with Mapquest© search results and my internet-generated notes on the subject, I departed my present environs in search of this point. I learned that experience is the most important teacher.
Getting to Abington on I-81 was easy, and getting to Damascus was simple, but getting to Green Cove from Damascus was like any automobile trip across the Southern Appalachians...winding and a torture. But to my pleasant surprise, all of the roads are marked with names and state highway numbers. U.S. Highway 58 takes you from Abington through Damascus where it becomes the J.E.B. Stuart Highway across Mount Rogers. The Appalachian Trail (or "the AT" as the hikers call it) is a path beside the highway. When you get to Green Cove Road, State Route 600 (after all the turns), you can turn right, and after a short piece, there it is, Discovery Road, State Route 862, on the left. At the end I would surely see the point.
Discovery Road ends with a row of mailboxes on the right and a barn with a slew of old Virginia license tags neatly affixed. But there was a big hill at the end of Discovery Road, blocking my way to the point. In this neck of the woods, friends, a hill is just a hill.
A house sits to the right of this dead end, and a road marked "Private Drive" on the left. Behind the sign looks like the beginnings of a commercial Christmas Tree farm. No rocky promontory, no point of East Tennessee.
Surely there is a way to get there, I thought. So after some silent grumbling, I turned around and drove the short distance back to the Green Cove Station, a renovated Virginia Creeper depot. No one was there. No one was at the community center, either. Also, no one was at the bed and breakfast ("Open May 1st" the sign said).
So I drove back to Highway 58 to see where it would take me traveling southeast. I ended up at the Grayson County line, which was due east of the point about two or three hundred yards. But I was then looking at a steep bank beside the road in that direction.
Undaunted, I turned right off Highway 58 just past the county line onto a state highway looking for some elusive entrance, but all I found was a gravel driveway to some very fortunate mountain dweller's home...and the southern edge of the Christmas tree farm.
So I continued down this highway until I found White Top Station, the other renovated Creeper depot, and I got out to ask directions and found three elderly ladies chatting on the back loading deck.
These being the first humans I'd seen since I had a hamburger at the new Food City back in Damascus, I asked one if she was the proprietor, and she affirmatively replied. I told her I was from Maryville, Tennessee and asked her if she knew where that was, and told me that she knew where Tennessee was.
I explained my purpose in being there, and she asked me if this "point" was a place, and did it have a name?
"No," I said, "it's just the easternmost point or corner of Tennessee, where it juts up into Washington County, Virginia," as if this Epicenter of the World was at the forefront of thought of every person alive.
Well, she said, I don't know about it, but she did know about the Tennessee-North Carolina-Virginia corner, "where you can see three states. It's on Pond Mountain."
I glanced at the souvenir post cards and quilts she had for sale and realized I wasn't getting anywhere, and then she said, "Why don't you go back down Green Cove Road and cross Chestnut Mountain and talk to the man that runs the store over there in Taylor's Valley. He probably can help you."
So off I go, but before I get to Chestnut Mountain, I see a sign that says "Buckeye Hollow Branch Road" (SR 777). This rang a very faint bell for me as being very close to the point. Wasn't this place referred to in the Tennessee Blue Book years ago? My hopes were charged up. I drove up the very narrow hollow until I saw a sign that said "Private Property." Again. I later found out that this sign is on the Tennessee state boundary.
So I looked over to the right, and to the far right of a very steep, tall ridge with unmelted snow at its foot was a rocky, rutted and almost impassable roadway of some sort.
This was where Thomas Jefferson's father, the surveyor, trekked to find his starting point, I conjured to myself. This is it, I thought and began driving up that path. There is a very fast-moving creek just to the right and the car was bouncing at every advance.
This is crazy; I'm certainly not in a Hummer, but I got too far up to back out. So I stopped and got out and hiked a short distance until mud and slippery rocks told me I needed to adjust my plans. Ah, nature!
I found a spot on the path that could handle an eight-point turn-around maneuver and I bounced back down to the safety of Route 777. Whew! I wrote down the name and address on one of the mailboxes near the sign and got back out to Green Cove Road to head over Chestnut Mountain. But, at the critical turn, I went right instead of straight (this is directions, friends, not politics), and ended up again on Highway 58. After all the twists and turns, I find myself close to Damascus. So I decided to chalk it up, at least for the next 10 or 15 minutes, until I arrived at Laurel Bloomery, Tennessee.
I took a state highway into Johnson County, Tennessee and upon my arrival, I pulled in the "A - Z Market & Deli," the only place in town that had one of those Tennessee Lottery banners out front. I started to ask the lady running the cash register if she knew where the easternmost point of Tennessee was, but I stopped myself. Instead, I asked her, "Where is Sugar Creek?"
The road leading to it, she said, was right across the road from the front of the store.
"Turn right at the end of that road, Gentry Creek Road," she said, "and you're at Sugar Creek." I was re-charged.
If I cannot get to the point through Virginia, then by Lamar Alexander, I'll get there through Tennessee! All the maps I had seen reflected that Sugar Creek was the end of the line to the point in Johnson County and still fell short of it, but I pressed on, not knowing what I would find.
But Sugar Creek Road did not stop; in fact, it changed into Taylor's Valley Road and crossed the Virginia State Line as it traversed downward a long incline.
Oh no! The elusive point was now somewhere behind my right shoulder and there was yet another steep bank beside the roadway in that direction. At the foot of the incline, I crossed a little bridge and turned right into the heart of Taylor's Valley. I drove just a short piece and saw Widener's General Store and pulled into the front.
The man was sitting out front, reading a magazine, and as I got out of the car, he reacted as if he was expecting me. He stood up and turned and walked in and held the door open for me.
The store, Widener's Grocery, was crowded with merchandise and dimly-lit, like from the 1930's or 40's. He slipped into the space behind the well-worn, wooden counter that had a huge number of tins of snuff for sale on it. The late-day sun shown through the high windows on the south entrance wall, providing the only light in the place.
I introduced myself and told him my business. Surely, I thought, this man is going to know where to find the point.
"You mean the three-state point?" he said.
"No," I replied, "that little sliver of land that juts up into Washington County, Virginia."
He went on, "I've been to the three-state point, well, a long time ago. It's up on Pond Mountain. They used to have a gate up there you had to walk through, and then, there you are...there's a little monument there that you can see. Three states."
He pulled out a map, an eight-and-a-half-by-eleven rendering of the entire eastern half of the United States, and, trying to stay focused, I showed him the "notch" of East Tennessee and its point, barely perceptible on his map.
"There it is, see?" I said, making the point.
"Hmmm," he uttered, "I've never thought about that before, but you know, it does jut up there a little bit, doesn't it?"
A customer came in with a baby on her hip which had eyes as big as saucers and stared at me like I had a hole in my head. He called her by her first name and asked her if she knew where the point was "where Tennessee goes up into Washington County?"
She said, "No," looked at the map and asked him, "Did you get those diapers, yet?" and he affirmatively nodded.
He then told me that the "ladies" back at the White Top depot, "where they rent the bicycles during the summer" could help me more than he could.
So I asked him where the road out front led to and he told me it went over Chestnut Mountain and back to Green Cove. At this point (excuse me) I was getting very oriented to this area, but I was beginning to realize that my search may be over for that day.
I left to take a drive over Chestnut Mountain. It is a graveled road over a mountain with steep grades and only a minimal number of turns--much less torturous than Highway 58 east of Damascus. It was very forested, and at the pinnacle, the road builders had cut a pathway through a pointed rock. "Rocky promontory," I laughed to myself.
With the figurative last gasp of the day, I drove past the entrance to Buckeye Hollow Road to Discovery Road and sat there trying to burn the image of the area unto my memory. It was a blustery, early March day, and the clouds kept moving in and out all day long, not unlike the roller-coaster my hopes had entertained.
"I'll be back," I said to myself to make a point, and returned to Laurel Bloomery, by way of Taylor's Valley. I waved to the man and his magazine on my way out.
I am relentless though, if nothing else. It was still daylight, and if I can find any route, I'll take a final stab at it. Back on the road to Sugar Creek, I found Dry Gap Road, which runs back up the incline to the left, closer, if anything, to the point. I would not be denied.
Dry Gap, though, is a different type of road when you get into it; it starts out with good pavement like Taylor's Valley, but it gets steeper, narrower and the pavement gets noticeably thinner.
Then it started looking like a narrow driveway, with rocks and serious bumps. This is déjà vu, friends, and I was not driving a Hummer. So I backed out to find room to do another maneuver and headed home. But this is my point, and I will find it.
On my way back home, I stopped at my mother's place in Johnson City to lick my psychic wounds and get some consolement (in the form of KFC fried pies). She has tolerated a lot of these "up-and-bolts" of mine in the past, like the time I hitchhiked to New York City...but I digress.
I had assumed that it would be a relatively easy goal to meet, like getting up to Clingman's Dome or straddling the state line up there. I had bolted up to the northeasternmost point with the idea of finding a holy grail of sorts, like Lewis and Clark...I knew it was there and had a fairly good idea of where it was. All I had to do was gas up the car and head off. This was going to take a different level of effort. The explorer in me told me to do it all myself, to hammer away at the goal until I reached the point, but that had not worked. This would be a long row for me to hoe. I had to admit that I needed help. Even Lewis and Clark had Sacagawea.
I called the Johnson County Property Assessor's Office and talked with the county mapper, Mr. Stout. His familiarity with Johnson County is likened to the back of his own hand, I figured. It is his job to know. I explained my predicament to Mr. Stout, about how I had traversed to the entire northeastern part of his county looking for the point, and at first he thought I was talking about the three-state point on Pond Mountain. He said the tri-point was a "pretty far piece" from Green Cove, and that I needed to get to White Top Mountain before I could get there. Again, I explained that I was only interested in the point, "where it juts up into Washington County, Virginia." Mr. Stout understood, and he told me that he had a difficult time getting there himself.
"Can you get there from within Johnson County?" I asked, hoping for some real information.
"If you can, I don't know how," he said, "the property is surrounded by the Cherokee National Forest, and you would really have to know exactly where you were going in order to get there from here." At the least, my efforts had not been stupid ones, only ignorant ones.
I asked if he had ever been to Buckeye Hollow Branch Road, and he said he had, so I asked about the rocky trail on which I had impetuously attempted to conquer.
"That's just an old road that goes to a house back there," he said. So much for my following the footsteps of Thomas Jefferson's father.
Mr. Stout told me that he, too, had gone down Discovery Road and had seen the Christmas tree farm and the "Private Road" sign. He went on back anyway, he said, and got to the point.
I asked if the property owners had any objection and he laughed, "No, nobody shot at me."
I asked him if there was any kind of a rock there at the point, and he reckoned that he could not "rightly recall." It had been a while, he said.
After some more searching, I spoke with Roby Phillippi, a Park Ranger with the Cherokee National Forest. I told him I was a "hiker" to mask my impetuosity with credibility, and that I needed information about Tennessee's easternmost point.
He knew about it, said it was part of the first areas purchased by the Federal Government when the Forest came into existence. Roby initially thought I was asking about the tri-point and gave me the hiking directions from the terminus of Gentry Creek Road in Johnson County; logging roads and the Rogers Ridge Horse Trail up to Cat Face Mountain and Pond Mountain.
"No," I said, "I'm talking about the far northeast point, where it juts up into Virginia." I was wearing out this phrase for sure.
He was aware of it, he said, "I helped paint the state boundary line there."
I asked him if there was any type of rocky point there, and he answered in the negative, stating that the only large rocks were at the tri-point. He said there was no trail to the Easternmost point, that the area from Gentry Creek Road that led to it included open forest areas and dense rhododendron growth, and that the point was probably three to four miles from Gentry Creek, and he added the implied warning "cross country."
"Roby," I whined to myself, "I spent an entire day trying to locate the point when I was up there; hiking three or four miles with a compass will be a cake-walk, comparatively speaking." Not that I was, at this time, electing or foregoing that option, of course. But I digress.
My earlier flailing about up there was imbued with hope and expectancy, but had not gotten me to the point. Thus charged with my new information, I figured I ought to determine if the property at the point was privately owned.
That row of mail boxes up there at Buckeye Hollow which I had noted was the clue I needed to pursue, and my making a flurry of phone calls (an easy task for me) provoked the coup de grâce of my search. The point and the 66 acres surrounding it are privately owned and had been in one family for at least 44 years. And it is easily reached by Buckeye Hollow Branch Road.
The point of East Tennessee was most easily reachable only by crossing into Virginia. So after all this fighting over the proper boundary, Virginia is getting the last laugh!
I had been within ten feet of the Tennessee state line, which led to the point, before I had earlier charged up the rocky, slippery Pork Chop hill of my zealous search.
The words "rag land" came to mind. Professor Joe Mac Ragland, of Winchester, Tennessee had taught me in law school, so I had looked up the etymology of the words. "Rag land" refers to a remote, poorly defined provincial boundary line, usually at a frontier. Was this easternmost point Tennessee's rag land? In ancient times, provinces went to war over the right to claim the rag lands. And Virginia and Tennessee had fought in the courts over the right to claim the area as its own. I knew only too well that the area is remote and not easily traveled. Even finding it has evoked travail.
Rag land indeed!
The owner of the property on which rests Tennessee's easternmost point told me that if I had walked to mile marker 32 on the Virginia Creeper trail (just down from Green Cove) and walked down a little trail from there, I would have come up to the point from behind his property.
"I've fenced it off," he told me, and I can see it just out my window here. Those mail boxes out there that you saw, they are at the state line. We have Virginia phone service and the post office in Virginia delivers our mail. But I live right here in Tennessee."
"That's just real good," I replied to emphasize the point.
But this really made me think: If you can't drive to East Tennessee's point from anywhere within Tennessee and the folks up there get all of their public services from Virginia, doesn't the point in all fairness belong to Virginia? Shouldn't they have it back?
Better yet, shouldn't Tennessee or the Cherokee National Forest in Johnson County consider making the area more easily accessible from within the State?
I can see it now: "The East Tennessee Trace," or "Hike to the Point," or better yet, "Take a Hummer to the Point," but I digress.
Or maybe I don't.
On my way, I was forced to assess this matter. Was this scenario a metaphor for something? Were there lessons here for me? Or was I just wringing out pent-up spontaneity and riding a crest of accomplishment, be it innocently hay-wired or blustery hog heaven?
I felt in my innermost self that the easternmost point of Tennessee was a very significant place on the face of the earth, and I wanted to get there.
What citizen who refers to him or herself as an East Tennessean would not want to see and stand at the point? Perhaps it is no more than the mountain climber's mantra, "because it's there."
This is why I searched it out. For this and because my blood runs Tennessee orange and for no other reasons. There are many tri-points, many state extreme points, many points of geo-politico-psychological significance, but there is only one easternmost point of Tennessee, and my course was set.
We made it to Green Cove via Mount Rogers. With single-minded discipline, I trekked two miles up the Virginia Creeper Trail to Mile Post 32, dodging the bicyclists and other hikers. I passed Mile Post 31 and at places off the trail, I could see the vastness of the Christmas tree farm.
Engraved on Mile Post 32 were the letters "A.T.," which I presumed to be a reference to the Appalachian Trail. But there was no trail beginning there which led to the point. Undeterred, I struck off west, southwesterly down a steep embankment of very shale-y soil. Remember, this trail had been the foundation of a railroad track.
Without a compass and my Boy Scout training on how to use it, I would have been very lost, but after some climbing and hiking through rough, forested terrain, I saw a stone fence about yea high, which I followed for a short distance.
Finally, after all this, I saw Tennessee's easternmost point, a stone marker with a large "T" on it. Here at the top of a ridge, in the most rustic, unceremonious of surroundings, was the point at which our great state begins.
I am indeed struck by the sheer difficulty required to get here. I was forced to sit and ponder a bit: Because of its remote, wilderness-like location, this very spot could easily be, for example, up a steep climb on Clinch Mountain or off many of the trails in the Great Smokies. The point is marked, but although it is such an important place, you really would not know it.
The owners of this property will remain anonymous, but they permitted me to see the point from their front porch on Buckeye Hollow Road. There were neat rows of old Tennessee license tags affixed to the barn. Now I know the reason that East Tennessee is associated with hills.
"What do people do here for a living?" I asked.
"We drive away every day to work somewhere else," Paul, the son, replied, "I drive to Bristol and back every day.
When I was a boy, I would go up there and sit and watch the Creeper go by," he continued.
"Do you ever get down Knoxville way?" I asked, hoping to prompt a rapport with the owner of the world's Epicenter.
"Naw, can't say that I do," he replied. I gave him my calling card.
We may never know the reason that Tennessee's powers-that-were fought for the point. It is, to this day, remotely secluded from the remainder of our state, and is accessible only from Virginia, and the residents there are dependent upon Virginia.
Obviously, sovereignty had much to dictate about it. North Carolina's northern state line apparently has strict "longitudinal integrity" (its a straight line from the Atlantic Ocean to Pond Mountain, folks) so I can't help thinking that part of the reason is that Tennessee refused to "conform" to this line, independents such as we are.
"No," they said, "we're Tennesseans, and we ain't a-gonna go along with this line stuff just to be nice or to please King George II. Right here is where we draw the line."
Sounds good to me.
Stephen T. Hyder is an attorney engaged in the private practice of law in Maryville, Tennessee. He is originally from Rogersville, Tennessee, the State's second oldest town, and he infrequently writes on a wide variety of subjects.
©Copyright 2004 David Ray Skinner/SouthernReader. All rights reserved.