This is only the third time I’ve driven by my burned-down house. It’s not burned-down anymore. In fact, it was rebuilt within 6 months of the fire in 2012. But to me it will always be The House That Burned.
I’ve got my dog Ashley in the car and we both look out the window in wonder at how different it looks. It’s beautiful. They’ve painted it gray and added the obligatory craftsman-style details to make it look like every other house in Lake Arrowhead. There are two new houses next to it, in what used to be the woods where Cassie and I played. It’s not the same place.
But place holds memory, place is a door to time, and it takes me back to the day I pulled up to the smoking ruin. Cassie and I were in Maine when the fire happened. I flew back the day after I got the phone call.
The entire street reeked with smoke. The fire had consumed the top floor and part of the roof. The rest of the house was sooty and waterlogged. I walked into the hot, smoky carcass of my house and fell to my knees at the bottom of the stairs that led to the charred skeleton of our bedrooms.
This is why this is only the third time I’ve driven by since I moved away after the house was rebuilt. Just driving down the street, I am on my knees again.
But this is also the scene of many of the happiest days of my life, especially in the woods behind the house, where I used to walk every day with Cassie and the dogs. I drive around the corner to where the “Wilderness Trail” starts and let Ashley out. We will walk the way we used to walk.
The title “Wilderness Trail” is a bit of a joke, because the developers created it in 2008 after they cut down a large tract of forest at the foot of Pine Log Mountain to put in the new golf course and new roads for houses. Because my house was at what was then the back of Lake Arrowhead, closest to the mountain, I heard the saws and bulldozers massacre the forest every day for a year.
What they left is the “Wilderness Trail.” It’s what developers call a “Beauty Strip,” and years ago I wrote a poem by that title which I’ll paste in at the bottom of this blog. A “Beauty Strip” is a corridor of trees between roads in a development. When they strip away most of the beauty, they leave a token strip.
This one is still lovely, winding along the creeks which are wetlands and require a wider buffer zone for building. I let Ashley off the leash, since there is no one else out here on this misty morning, and I wonder if she remembers this place, if the smells bring back memories.
For me it is like stepping back in time. I remember every boulder, every laurel thicket, every turn of the creek. I have this feeling of coinciding but not coinciding with the person I was at that time. It’s as if I have had 7 lives, 7 selves, and I’m revisiting one of the earlier ones. I think about the horcruxes Voldemort used in Harry Potter, to scatter pieces of himself in different places so that if one was killed he still had some of himself left.
I am visiting one of my horcruxes. I know that for a dark wizard the price of creating a horcrux is committing a murder, but maybe they can also be created when a person is shattered into pieces. I love the woman that I was at that time, as clueless and benighted as she was, and I wish I could go back and help her. My face is heavy with the tears of those years.
Ashley is 10 now, born here, a puppy who followed me on one of my walks one day and stayed. The product of a miniature collie named Buck and a stray mutt named Sasha, the only one of Sasha’s puppies who survived. At 10 she is still lithe and fast, ecstatic to run these trails and splash around in the creek. She remembers.
The creek is low and it makes me wonder how the new development in Lake Arrowhead is affecting the creeks. When they cleared the forest in 2007-2008 and put in the new golf course, the formerly pristine creeks silted up, and the ones near the golf course developed stagnant pools of oily rainbows and suds. 2007-2008 was also the year of one of Georgia’s worst droughts, and the creeks at that time went completely dry. We’re not in drought now, and the creeks should not be so low. Each time they build more houses back here, the erosion sends more silt into these creeks and into the lake, which used to be blue and at times now is brown.
I know that part of the pilgrimage I am on now is a grief process. Looking for the lost and drowned towns of North Georgia is a way of dealing with my own lost house and lost life.
In thick layers of irony, Lake Arrowhead, where my house burned, was actually really called Lost Town, until it was drowned by flooding Lost Town Creek and Shut-In Creek to make the lake in the early 1970s. It was called Lost Town, I think, because it is hidden in a bowl of mountains formed by Pine Log and its neighbors Bear Mountain, Hanging Mountain, and Little Pine Log Mountain.
Right before the Trail of Tears, there were over 100 Cherokee living here, and I believe they were hiding. In the 1835 census the Lost Town Cherokee listed are Chauluca, Rising Fawn, Watty, Harry Stinger, Dreadful Water, Elizabeth Welch, Charles, Chicken, Tarapin, Tachacha, Arch, Squat, Jack, Nataha, Tahchausa and Waister. These men and women were listed as heads of households and each had 8 or 9 people in their household. All but Elizabeth Welch are listed in the census as full-blooded Cherokee, in contrast to the mixed-blood Cherokee who owned large plantations and slaves and were running the Cherokee nation at that time. I like to think of the Lost Town Cherokee as the anti-assimilationists who hoped the mountains would provide a refuge.
In fact, the road into Lake Arrowhead is called Little Refuge Road. I am told that it was named after Refuge Baptist Church and that parts of the road, at least, were built by the CCC in the late 1930s. But there had to have been a road into the Cherokee settlement.
The mountain did not prove to be a refuge to any of us. They were all sent on the Trail of Tears, and I lost my family and my house, first to divorce and then, three months later, to fire.
Like them, I experienced violent dislocation and loss. But the comparison breaks down there. No one made me walk 1000 miles to Oklahoma. There was nothing redemptive about the Trail of Tears. They had no choice. Their land was stolen.
My house was rebuilt with insurance money. I chose to leave it, but I was not forced to and I was not destitute. And my path since then has been filled with redemption.
But I think about the Cherokee who lived here a lot, and I want to know their names and remember them. If this place holds the memory of my life here and the trauma of my burned-down house, how much more does it hold the memory of their lives here and the trauma of their forced removal?
When my house burned down, and during the divorce that preceded it, I realized how oblivious I had been to the buried truths of my own life. My walls were all destroyed, first metaphorically and then literally. I was left exposed. Whatever my whitewashed pretense of a life had been, it was over.
I’ve thought about calling my book project “Bubble Girl Gets a Clue.” I think I was particularly clueless, but I think that most of us live in a bubble, definitely historically and environmentally but often personally. We live in our subdivision houses, never get off the asphalt corridors that lead to our jobs and stores, have no idea of basic things like what used to be here or where our water comes from or where the woods go or what life is like in that trailer park or city neighborhood we drive past with our car doors locked. Our window of awareness is tiny, both in time and place.
It’s comfortable to be that insulated, but I don’t think it leads to wisdom, either personally or collectively.
I am hungry now to see.
Fire has always been a problem on Pine Log Mountain. In researching the Pine Log CCC camp, I found out that they built the fire tower on top of Pine Log because it burned every year. Hunters lit careless fires and nearby farmers set fires to try to burn out the boll weevils that had devastated their cotton crops. After the CCC built the road and the fire tower and a ranger house and installed a phone line up the mountain, they appointed Charlie Griggs of Waleska to be the Tower Man. When he spotted a fire, he’d call Cherokee Forest Ranger T.P. Reinhardt, and they’d get the fire put out, sometimes with the help of the CCC men and Reinhardt College students. After that, there were no more large fires. The scorched portions of the mountain grew back to health.
When I first moved to Lake Arrowhead, the fire tower was still there. It was rickety, the ladder missing rungs and the floorboards at the top rotting out, but you could see all the way to Stone Mountain, all the way to Fort Mountain, all the way to Sharptop in Jasper. You could see the lake at the mountain’s feet and the Lake Allatoona and the Etowah ten miles out. You could see the lay of the land.
I’d like to be the Tower Man. I’d like to see the fires when they are small and we can still do something about them. I’d like to gather up good people to put them out before it is too late. I’d like to guard the places where mothers and fathers and children walked in peace, the springs from which they drank, all the way back to the Cherokee, all the way back to the Paleo Indians who walked here 10,000 years ago. Make sure it’s more than a Strip.
(published in Sugar Mule: Women Writing Nature Issue 41 2012)
The ads proclaimed a “Mountain Paradise.”
A golf course, a club house, 2000 homes,
an Olympic-sized pool. Great Festival Park.
The bulldozers roared from dawn to dusk.
Six days a week, they knocked down trees.
I learned some words I didn’t want to know:
“Fellerbuncher”: a giant scissors on wheels
that cuts and stacks the timber.
“Beauty strip”: the corridor of trees
between clearcut and clearcut.
I trespassed in the wreckage,
that summer of the drought.
Felled trees sprawled at wrong angles
like broken legs. Roots exposed like bones.
I tripped and cut my shin on a bent blade.
Walked the slashed valley to Pine Log Creek:
an empty socket. Nothing but rocks.
Beware of heaven, its straight streets,
its trees in rows, its identical houses.
Its children huddled in front of screens.
The golf course dips and rolls in the mountain’s shadow.
The old men are afraid to fall and stay away.
High brown grass bides its time beside smooth turf
and sand pits. The sprinkler shoots two streams
of water in long arcs, wets acrid white crystals.
The grass grows lush and juicy, a waxed apple.
Follow the run-off to the silted creek. Oily rainbows
shimmer in stagnant water. Fragments of boulders
rolled to a standstill in the toxic bed.
Dead giants. I stand on their backs.
The hill above is flat for a cul de sac.
Pipe stubs mark the homesites. Made in our image.
On which day will we call it good and rest?