Dan DeBord bends to look at a spot where the dead leaves have been scuffed and the soil raked. “This is turkey,” Dan tells me. “It’s not wild hogs. They root around and tear up the ground. Turkeys just scratch in the dirt and leaves.”
Dan is my guide today up the southeast slope of Pine Log Mountain, along the part of the CCC road I have not yet walked. It turns out his hunting stand is right where I need to go. So I’m getting a lesson today in both history and hunting.
And how to read the land, which is common to both pursuits. A whole different kind of “reading” than the kind I’ve spent my own life doing.
Dan tells me that he’s been hunting up here since the 1970s. He and his buddies discovered that there were what he calls “hippie cabins” on the west side of Pine Log, where young men smoked dope and girls went topless all day long. They would just wave to Dan and his friends when they walked by. Which they did. A lot.
Dan said he and his friends used to dislodge heavy boulders at the top of the mountain just to watch them roll down the steep side, crashing through the trees. Like many who grew up in this area, Dan tells me that in those days the mountain was his playground.
The result is that he knows every ridge and holler. He knows them the way I want to know them.
His uncle, Mac DeBord, was a tower man in the 1940s, one of those guys who sat up there and watched for fires. In fact, that’s how Dan and I connected. I found an article about Mac DeBord in the Atlanta Constitution from 1945:
“It is desolate here these January nights,” the article reads, “when the biting wind sweeps up from the valley and howls over the wild white cliffs. Max DeBord, the fire towerman, has laid in a stack of firewood and kindling in anticipation of a snow.”
Further down, the article’s author, David Snell, writes: “On his high throne DeBord feels himself close to the Almighty. He follows the tracks of deer and wild hogs, and spends hours wandering through the trees and gazing at the land.”
Almost 75 years later, the tower man’s nephew and I will be doing the same thing.
Before we set out up the mountain, we drive into Lake Arrowhead to find a stone bridge the CCC had built. The CCC built the Tower Road from Little Refuge Road up to the fire tower, and it came through what is now part of Lake Arrowhead – Delaney Pine Drive and Pinebrook Drive. There is a house on Pinebrook with a CCC bridge in its front yard.
As we pull up to this house, I can hardly believe it. The wooden bridge across Lost Town Creek is buttressed by CCC stonework walls that are about 10 feet high and maybe 8 feet wide. It’s the most extensive CCC stonework I’ve seen on the mountain. Dan tells me that the wood on the bridge has been replaced over time, but all that stone has been there since the late 1930s.
We pull down the driveway and I get out and knock on the front door. No one is home. I feel a bit bad to be traipsing through someone’s front yard, but I can’t help myself. I have to go and look at this. I climb down the steep bank to the creek and take a bunch of pictures. I wonder if the homeowners have any idea about that the CCC built their bridge?
We pile back into Dan’s truck and drive over to the property the Shoal Creek Hunting Club leases from the Moore family, which owns thousands of acres on the southeast side of the mountain. Only members of the Hunting Club are allowed back there, and I am lucky that Dan has agreed to take me.
“I was surprised that you wanted to know about the mountain,” Dan tells me as we pull on coats and start the up the dirt road. “I thought you academic types just read about stuff in books.”
He’s mostly right. Why am I different? I get it from my father, who took me and my brother and sister camping in the Adirondacks or Northern Maine every summer. My Dad still spends the summers in an isolated cabin on a lake near Mount Katahdin, a tower man of sorts, himself.
My greatest peace and joy was always in the woods. My Dad would spot a bear and hold up his hand and signal for us to hush, then point at the bear lumbering through the trees. Or in Maine we’d walk along the swampy banks of lakes in search of moose, preferably at a distance, a few times too close for comfort.
From my Dad, I know how to be quiet and watch. These were lessons in observation and reverence. In solitude and the companionship which needs no words.
My Dad never hunted, so it’s only since I moved to Georgia in 1997 that I’ve been around hunters. I came with the preconceptions of a person brought up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.: that hunters were brutal, drunk and ignorant. That’s one of the many things I was wrong about. Most of the hunters I’ve encountered in Georgia know the land far better than any environmentalist I’ve ever met, and when they kill an animal, either their family eats it or they give it to someone else (often homeless shelters) to eat.
Dan confesses to me that he doesn’t kill much these days, just the occasional turkey. “You’re not against hunting, are you?” he asks. “Anti-gun?”
I tell him that I got a gun for Christmas. My husband thinks it’s not safe for me to walk the mountain alone without a gun. Too many wild hogs.
“That’s right,” he agrees, pulling out his Luger to show me. He hands it to me and I heft it, pointing the business end away from us.
“If we see any hogs today, just stand back,” he says.
“I’ll do that,” I promise, handing it back.
The thrill of hunting (or really, tracking) and the thrill of research are similar. Discovery. Seeking hidden things. Getting out of the comfort zone, the rut of everyday life, taking the risk of venturing into the unknown. Looking at things firsthand, without medium or media or someone else’s version of reality. Being present in the moment, where you are. A hunt can also be a kind of pilgrimage.
When I search for fragments of flint and pottery along the creek that runs through my farm, I am completely absorbed and present, thinking of nothing else. It is a kind of meditation.
At the base of the mountain, Dan shows me a stand of longleaf pine trees, which are very rare in this part of Georgia. He picks up one of the huge cones, which is longer than my hand, prehistoric- looking in comparison to a normal pine cone. Most of the longleaf pines are gone from North Georgia. There is just a small stand near Lake Allatoona being cultivated by the Army Corps of Engineers, supplemented by some transplants from Alabama.
The mountain is home to a number of plants and animals rare in North Georgia. Because it is on the borderline between the Southern Appalachian, Piedmont, and Ridge and Valley regions, and because even though it has been timbered it has remained relatively undeveloped, the mountain has some unusual species.
In 1972, when Diamondhead Corporation first began to develop Lake Arrowhead on the east side of the mountain, local botanist Eugene Cline and seven others sued to keep Diamondhead from developing Lake Arrowhead all the way up to the summit. They won the lawsuit, and that is why there is a 528-acre Botanical Preserve at the top of the mountain. In their suit, Cline and the others cited several unusual plants that grow on the mountain, including a rare fern called lycodium palmatum, a rare dwarf version of the Virginia pine, and a rare lichen that is black on one side and tan or white on the other side.
The mountain is also home to a wide variety of animals, some of them not often seen in this area. Dan tells me there are fox squirrels — big fat squirrels, twice as big as a gray squirrel, red or black, with big fluffy tails. I’ve never seen one. But I have seen rattle snakes, copperheads, bears, coyotes and wild pigs.
As we walk, Dan pulls out a moon phase chart from his pocket and studies it. Hunters use moon charts, he explains, because it’s easiest to see game when the moon is full. Turkey season starts in a few weeks. He’ll be ready.
The first CCC stonework we come to is a culvert where a sparkling brook runs beneath the road. Even in February, with everything still winter bleak, the moss and ferns and laurels along the creek make it lush and verdant, more like the Shire in The Hobbit than the outskirts of metro Atlanta. The water is only a few inches deep and perfectly clear, so you can see the pebbled bottom. Small waterfalls turn it white where it splashes from stone to stone.
The CCC men built stacked rock walls, about five feet tall, surrounding the culvert pipe on each side, and the rockwork also seems to belong to a magical world. The CCC men dug the stones from the mountain itself and carefully fit stone upon stone, filling in the gaps with concrete now lined with moss.
If you have seen CCC stone work at Fort Mountain State Park or Vogel or any of the other parks built by the CCC, you know what I am talking about. But this one, all the stonework on Pine Log, is forgotten. Only Dan and a handful of others in the Shoal Creek Hunting Club even know that it is here.
Dan is fascinated by the kind of work they were able to do in this remote location. Where did they make the concrete, he wonders? How did they move the dirt to create level roads out of the steep slopes? What kind of tools did they have?
I tell him about the CCC camp inspection reports that I’ve read, which list heavy equipment such as tractors, graders, air compressors and cement mixers. But when I interviewed Ernie Palmer, whose father Joe Palmer had been one of the CCC men who built the roads, Ernie said his father mentioned using mules to go up the mountain.
We come to a sheer rock face where the road makes a hairpin turn, and it’s clear that the CCC guys had to cut into it in order to bring the road through. We speculate about whether they blasted the rock or just hacked into it. I’ve read about other CCC road crews using dynamite to blast rock, but I haven’t yet found documentary evidence that they did this on Pine Log.
Dan bends to look at a pipe jutting out of the road, the same kind of concrete-studded-with-creek-pebbles pipe that the CCC used all over the mountain. “Did they make this on the mountain?” he wonders. “How did they get it up here?”
Each time we come to another CCC rock wall (there are four of them on this part of the CCC road), Dan insists that I climb down the bank and get some close-up photos. He shares my fear that this will all be destroyed without any record that it was even here. Some of the walls are 15 or 20 feet long. Not held together with concrete, but merely stacked with precision.
Making a flat and passable road out of the steep and rocky mountainside was a monumental task, and this is only one section of a road that has to be at least ten miles long.
Dan notices some scat in the road. “Turkey,” he tells me, studying it. “A female. Hens’ droppings are round. Male droppings are longer and shaped like a J.” I file this information in my brain under “stuff I need to know in case society collapses.” My chances of survival are as slim as most of my suburban-born brethren, but I’m learning.
As we near the top of the mountain, Dan points to a plateau with only scrub trees growing on it and explains that this was called the “Froneberger New Ground,” a plot of land where the Froneberger family grew crops during the Great Depression. It seems crazy that anyone would be planting crops on the top of a mountain, but in my CCC research I’ve learned that “old ground” was soil that was depleted by cotton and could no longer be used, and farmers would create “new ground” to plant, sometimes by logging and often by burning. This was part of the reason that Pine Log Mountain had burned so many times.
Near the Froneberger New Ground is Dan’s hunting stand. We have to bushwhack through some woods to get there, following a barely discernible old roadbed.
“Always look back to see what it looks like where you came from,” Dan advises me. “Otherwise you’ll get lost.”
“I know,” I say, “I’ve learned that the hard way. Sometimes I put two branches in the shape of a cross to mark my path.”
“Three stacked rocks,” he tells me, “That’s my sign. I’ve had people tell me they came across Indian rock piles in the woods. I just let them think that.”
He shows me a large rock lodged in the crook of a tree. “Another DeBord rock,” he says. “I think it’s a part of the tree now.”
We hear a rustling noise a ways off and Dan freezes and puts his finger to his lips. “Turkey,” he whispers, and we wait but hear nothing more.
He’ll be back here next month, when turkey season starts. He will walk this ridge or sit in his stand, not unlike his tower man uncle, waiting for a glimpse, maybe a shot, at one of the gangly brown birds. Mostly, watching over the mountain, reading rocks and tracks and scat. Being there.