Thursday, December 19, 2013

After the Flood

Running on what's left of Blackburn Fork Road

Zion Road bridge, the only modern structure spanning Blackburn Fork, was destroyed

This mattress from a destroyed house was left balanced on a snag

Josh wanted sixteen, and I had fourteen. That is, he wanted to go for a sixteen mile run, and I had a fourteen mile loop. My fourteen-mile loop went into Jackson County, a rural place where the dogs run free; and past Cummins Falls where the water runs wild.
The water of Blackburn Fork jumps off the falls and meanders down a narrow valley for ten miles before it joins Roaring River. You might call the valley a gorge; it is pretty narrow at the bottom and bounded by steep wooded slopes with some bluff outcroppings. A road surfaced with creek gravel, paved in places, follows the stream on its journey.
But I didn’t even mean to go there, down the gorge, I mean. The fourteen mile loop stayed above the valley. It merely went past the falls, staying on top. But, see, Josh wanted sixteen miles that morning.
The weather was hot, August hot. One bottle in a waist pack is not enough for such heat. The well-equipped ultra runner made preparations. I dug out the backpack I use for journey runs and such. It’s a tiny thing probably designed for the shorter torso of a woman. But it is just right. It is short enough to leave room for my regular waist pack below it. So I can go with both the waist pack for my bottle and still have a bit of cargo room in the little backpack.
The backpack is large enough to hold a pair of long pants, a wind jacket, a pair of gloves and emergency medical kit. The pack was a bladder pack before I took the bladder out. Now it’s just a pack. It’s what I use for ultra marathons; so I don’t need drop bags, or for a crew to meet me two hours before or two hours after I need an item. I travel light and carry everything I need. That way, I have it when I want it.
What Josh needed was sixteen miles. In August that distance crosses the line for a one-bottle run. So I duly filled two extra bottles and put them in the little pack. Just in case. Those two bottles may be responsible for what happened, because without them, I doubt we would’ve made the decision we made that day. Or, more accurately, failed to make the decision we should have made.
Because he did say sixteen, and once I’m pretty sure I further heard “or more,” and I only had fourteen. I figured we’d just run down a side road for a mile—“or more”—and add that excursion to the fourteen miles of the loop. Which side road exactly I didn’t know. We could take our pick.
So we shoved off at my house into the building heat, heading toward Jackson County, each runner with a bottle strapped to his waist and with two extra bottles in the pack I was wearing.
Six miles into the run we were approaching Blackburn Fork, when we made the decision on which side road we’d pick for our extra-distance excursion. The signpost said Blackburn Fork Rd. I was very familiar with the road from having ridden my bike all over Jackson County. The road stays up on the rim for a mile and a half before it drops suddenly into the gorge, making sharp turns and switchbacks.
We headed down it. Soon a pickup approached from behind, pulling a farm implement. We edged over.
“Dallas, you going all the way? the driver asked, stopping.
“Nah, we’re just going part way.”
I’d never seen the man before. I shook his hand and redundantly told him my name. He said he recognized me from having read my newspaper stories. He had a reason for asking his question, because the road was closed. On back roads in that country, what road closure signifies is not so much a legal condition as a physical one—it’s impossible to travel it.
We knew a little of what had happened on upper Blackburn Fork, at least its two branches near Cookeville. Ten days earlier, a strong flood had covered roads, disrupted travel and work and school schedules. The two main branches of Blackburn Fork pass into Jackson and converge maybe a mile above the falls. The concentrated energy of the two branches had combined in a catastrophic way. The flood had gathered strength downstream to a degree that Josh and I didn’t yet imagine. 
I’d actually seen some of the damage on the end of the gorge near where Blackburn Fork joins Roaring River. But most of the gorge was closed off.  Only a few people live in it, and generally speaking the gorge lies beyond the experience of most of the local population. People didn’t know what had happened there.
So I thought maybe Josh and I could penetrate just a little ways and then cut and climb back out.  I was carrying two extra bottles of water, after all. The road I had in mind crossed the stream on a single-lane bridge and climbed up to a ridge called Seven Knobs in Jackson County. So I asked,
“What about the bridge…”
“It ain’t there,” the man cut me off—his way of telling me I had a poor idea of what was down there. That bridge had been there since 1937, I believe he said. He mentioned how deep the mud was, and he talked about how he’d once enjoyed canoeing on the stream. Then he drove on, turning in to his house just up the road. Josh and I resumed our run.
Another three-quarters-mile brought us to the edge of the rim, where the road dipped sharply down. There in the road stood the obligatory Road Closed sign that people in this part of the country simply ignore and drive around.
Half way down the hill we came to a view of the valley floor, although screened and obscured by dense tree foliage. Through the leaves, we saw tan. Where the fields and pastures below should have been green, we saw expansive desert tan, desert in Tennessee. The flood had stripped away green living plants and replaced then with acres of deposited gravel bars, or gouged out the bottom land to bedrock, in either case replacing the green background with an alien tan overlay, at least from our distant view. Although no stranger to floods, it was the first time I’d realized that a flood can change the very color of environs.
We rounded a switchback, the hill’s last sharp curve, and leveled out on the valley floor. Approaching the place where the creek swings in close to the road, the creek on our left and steep hillside on our right. (And here, I’ve used the work “creek” for the first time. Some will argue with that, because the state legislature has designated the stream a Scenic River. So they claim it’s a “River.” But in my experience, locals refer to the stream as a creek, the legislature notwithstanding. I’ll continue favoring the local and historical “creek” over the legislative term.)
The road disappeared into a dark chaos of tangled trees uprooted by the flood and swept into random piles. The road surface vanished under a deep layer of mud, now rutted by truck tracks, but the tracks didn’t go much farther.
There sat a car. Josh and I picked our way through, to find a young man and his girlfriend. The young man appeared quite drunk. They were just standing around looking in amazement, as we approached. We were at a one-lane bridge where a branch known as Dry Creek flows underneath just before its confluence with Blackburn Fork. The bridge was partially covered by uprooted and broken trees. The branch had washed out the approach on the other side. End of road.
After talking a bit with the man and woman, Josh climbed down the other end of the bridge. It was a three or four foot drop. As I followed, the over-solicitous young man insisted on helping ease the old gent down and grabbed hold of my upper arm, which had the unhelpful effect of depriving me of the use of one hand. Nonetheless, I made it down without breaking an ankle. Josh and I picked our way though some more downed trees and broke out on the road again.
“He’s been drinking Mimosa juice,” said Josh, the former bartender.
“He wanted to help me. I didn’t need it, but he wanted to. That’s okay.”
The road curved left, hard against vertical bluffs. The flood had gone high up on those rocks far above our heads. The creek, calm and pastoral now burbled across the gravel shoals below us innocent of all the violence it had brought. I looked for the right place because I wanted to show Josh something about the bluff.
“These are the bluffs I’m running in front of on the cover of my book, Falling Forward,” I told Josh.” This is where we made the picture, these bluffs.” I showed Josh the place where my friend Charles Denning had gotten the low angle by stepping part way down the creek bank, to a low angle from below the road.
“He photographed me running up and down the road in front of these bluffs.” In one frame, the shadow of a tree on the bluff had loomed menacingly over the motion-blurred runner. The runner’s shadow ran across the rocks. Although the runner was blurred, his shadow on the rocks was jarringly sharp; it was reduced in size and preceded the runner as if the runner rushed toward his diminished future. These fleeting shadows, the ephemeral quickness of life caught in images cast against timeless rocks and threatened by the looming darkness filled the photo with metaphor. The picture inspires me yet. Its feeling of menace had come true—this location had drowned under fifteen feet of rushing water.
Farther down the road, the roadbed simply disappeared, gouged away by the flood’s force, the road bed itself replaced by gullies and ridges. Josh and I picked our way through. In the distance I could see where a small rustic bridge had spanned the creek. It was gone. One steel girder remained, its end cast in the near abutment and held tight. The flood had bent the three-foot-deep girder like a noodle and aligned it with the flow direction. Charles and I had made running pictures on that bridge, too. He had laid down the floor and made a photo showing the splintered wooden floor as I ran by. Now Josh and I had no way to even record the bridge’s absence, or any of the other devastation around us. We had no camera; Josh wasn’t carrying his cell phone as he usually does.
A white frame house sits on higher ground on the right. Two dogs came tearing out barking invectives. I don’t worry about dogs when I run with Josh, although Jackson County is full of unleashed menacing dogs. He has a black belt in Karate. I trot happily on, leaving him to deal with any malevolence. I figure he’ll just kick the shit out of one out if he needs to. There is a danger in that too. The owner may come after you with a deer rifle in his hand and vengeance in his heart. He places the welfare of his dog a couple of rungs above that of two strangers on foot. But these two dogs I just sweet-talked, and they turned into tail-wagging pussycats. Their owner was more guarded,
“Who are you guys?” she wanted to know. So we stopped and talked, and convinced her we were harmless. They’d gone without power for seven days after the flood, she told us. During those days her husband had stayed up guarding the darkened house. They’d had suspicious-looking men come around late at night, would-be looters they’d figured. She had a reason to be cautious with strangers.
We went on, running through devastation like we’d not seen before. Whole groves of mature trees swept down and flattened like so many corn stalks. Stretches of the creek bank had been denuded, the trees uprooted or broken off and carried downstream and left in house-sized piles. Just past the woman’s house a creek bottom cultivated in soybeans had been simply erased, gouged to bedrock in places, buried by gravel and television-sized rocks a few feet deep in other places. It was as if the Colorado River had coursed through this narrow canyon and scoured it out.
River bottoms and creek bottoms have existed ever since humans first occupied this land, thousands of years ago. I believe this because you can find stone points thousands of years old on the surface or in the top few inches of the soil. The soybean field experienced a flood it had not seen in a similar span of time. By coincidence, only two months had passed since Nashville had endured what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers called a 1,000-year flood. Josh and I had run the Strolling Jim 41-mile ultramarathon at Wartrace, fifty miles south of Nashville, that very day. And now this place, hit by a similar flood. But Josh and I were not talking about that—until suddenly we were. We were trotting along in amazed and morose silence, when out of the blue he spoke,
“Global warming’s not happening, right?”
We were being ironic. Climate scientists have told us for twenty-five years that global warming will bring storms of enhanced intensity and frequency. Within two months, Blackburn Fork and Nashville had both obeyed that prediction. Severe weather is here. We’ll have to get used to it. We’ve done nothing to stop it. And it’s too late now. It will only get worse. The polluters and their lobbyists together with their stupid and dishonest politicians have won.
We passed where the seventy-year-old bridge leading to Seven Knobs used to stand. No sign of it was left, no abutments, nothing.
Josh had become the mule now, carrying my little pack. It contained two empty water bottles. We each were running low on our last bottle. The creek water wasn’t safe to drink, we knew.
About half way through the gorge, Zion Road comes in from the east rim and joins the main road, which crosses the creek there. But not anymore; the bridge was gone, the main road cut in two at that point. Left of the bridge approach is a grassy lawn where a brick house had stood. It had been cleanly swept away, its pieces, bricks and all, scattered downstream. The concrete walks remained like the house’s silent signature.
The bridge at Zion was the most emblematic scene of the flood’s power. It had been the only modern structure spanning the creek. Its entire three-span deck, still attached to the beams underneath, had been swept downstream sixty yards and spun into a skewed alignment with the creek, the near end left resting on the bank, the far end out in the water. Even the two piers, hammer-head-shaped monoliths, had been toppled and carried downstream sixty yards or so and left lying in the water like giant overturned mushrooms.
The bridge had been of routine construction like dozens of such structures I’d designed myself working for the then-Tennessee Department of Highways. This one was worth maybe half a million dollars. Its near abutment was the only part of the entire three spans left in place. That abutment was now covered by a house-sized pile of trees.
Josh and I worked our way through downed trees to a point upstream where the creek flowed shallow over a gravel shoals. We waded across the creek and climbed up to the road on the far side and ran on.
For a long time now Josh and I had been past turning back and rejoining our loop home, even though we were running low on water. We’d gone too far. We were committed to wherever we ended up now. And we’d not even discussed that decision. We simply kept going forward, too fascinated at the destruction to turn back. It’s a safe bet no one had ever before run the length of this remote road. It’s an equal bet we were seeing the destruction in its entirety like no one yet had. We could only run on now, the town of Gainesboro our likely target—for the reason that it was the only one possible, however far it was. It was a hot day, and our lack of water was becoming worrisome
You are never prepared. I’m not. We were running on gravels, dirt and washed-out gullies, and wading the creek. And what was I wearing? Why the lightest pair of lightweight trainers I’d been able to buy, not trail shoes. That is a good way to break an ankle. Both of mine have been broken, but I think they recovered stronger than before. Sometimes I get away with negligence.
There’s a memory on this road I told Josh about. Many years ago I made a special ride on my mountain bike through here. It was one of the most alluring valleys in Tennessee and a favorite place of mine. I guess that changes now. Jim Smith and I rode our mountain bikes through here, as we later did many times. What made that particular trip memorable was that my youngest son Joel, maybe nine, rode with us, as did Jim’s son Andy, a few months older than Joel. Andy had muscular dystrophy which affected his legs, and he couldn’t ride a bike. He came along on his all-terrain-vehicle, a three wheeler.
There was a place in the road then where a flowing branch came into the road, turned and ran with the road. Branch and road were one for a few feet. You rode down into the water, followed it a bit and then it turned from the road and went on while you climbed back onto the roadbed. At the start of the trip Jim and I told Joel and Andy about that place, about how they’d have to go through the water. They got excited. You’d think we’d told them they’d see Santa Claus. While we rode alongside the creek that day, they kept asking about when we were going to ride through the water. And, of course, they did love it once we got there, splashing the water and whooping.
The three-wheeler was a blessing for Andy, allowing him to participate in trips like the ride we took that day. A year later he was killed on it, when a school bus hit him on the subdivision road near his house. Jim lived in a rural development called Dry Creek then and I still owned a house there myself, having recently moved. Our houses were on the head of the same Dry Creek that flows into Blackburn Fork where Josh and I entered the gorge on our run today.
At that place where Andy and Joel had enjoyed the water there stood a faded old house close beside the road, one surrounded by outbuilding, and fruit trees, the home place of an old-time family. Josh and I were running by that place as I told him the story. The house was now gone, swept away by the flood and scattered in pieces. An old woman had lived there alone, I’ve heard. She was lucky enough to take refuge in a barn on higher ground. A young man on an ATV, successor of Andy’s, rode down, apparently on a trail through the woods, and rescued her from the barn.
Down the road a hundred yards from the house site, Josh and I discovered a giant pile of trees thrown up against still-standing trees beside the road. Mixed into the pile and scattered beyond it were items from the house: a microwave oven, floor fan and so on, and articles of clothing hanging like prayer flags from the brush. We found home-canned jars of green beans and pears, muddy but looking perfectly good to eat once wiped off.
“Something’s dead,” Josh said. I noticed the scent about the same time. We began looking, wondering if it was the body of a human, a pet, or a farm animal. Josh and I spread out. We poked around in the piles of brush. The scent came and went. I began back tracking the wind. Concentrating, I was aware a car passed. (The one bridge left standing was the last one near Roaring River Road and crews had repaired the road on that end enough that cars could come in from there.) I followed the scent to a depression against the road bank, and found a collection of minnows that had been trapped and died there when the flood receded. I called Josh over and we stood looking down at little fish that stunk out of proportion to their actual size. Mystery solved without drama.
“Was that two women in a red convertible?” I asked.
“They were not attractive.”
When you hold an ace in the hole, you need to be certain it actually is an ace. Charles Denning and I once went hiking in the mountains in the dead of winter where it can get dangerously cold. Our route was long and the sun got low and we began to wonder if we’d make it to the truck before dark. Spending a night in the wilderness began to seem a possibility. There were many overhanging bluffs and caves where we could take shelter. If need be we’d just build a fire for warmth and light. For Charles’ benefit I dramatically produced the butane cigarette lighter I carry for such emergencies, held it up and gave it a flick. Results were notable for their absolute absence: no flame. Flick, flick, flick, flick, and still no flame. In fact, no flame ever came from that traitor of a lighter. I should have checked it beforehand. It had been stored with my hiking stuff for a long time and had lost its pressure, I reckon.
By the time Josh and I crossed the only bridge left standing on Blackburn Fork—out of four—our water was nearly gone. We’d been stretching it out. But, of course, that only allows one to get more dehydrated and does little to conserve the total combined fluids contained in bottle and body.
My ace in the hole was just one half mile farther. A spring seeps out of the bluffs beside the road. An ancient plumber of springs had stuck an iron pipe in the bluff crevice decades ago, capturing and running the pattering little stream right out to the thirsty traveler. Just stick your bottle under it. And you don’t even have to turn off the faucet that the plumber didn’t provide to the everlasting spring that never stops.
When we got there, the everlasting spring that forever brings cold, life-giving water, that non-ending stream of the thirsty runner’s dream, that very spring had, in point of fact, gone bone dry. We’d get no water there. I’ve filled my bike bottle there. I’d never seen it dry before. My ace had turned into a joker.
It was a half mile further to the Roaring River Road, and from there, an uncertain distance on to Gainesboro—maybe in the range of six to seven miles, I vaguely figured from my memory of riding the road. My guess would prove to be not bad wrong, and would end up pushing our total distance to twenty-one miles by the time we reached Gainesboro.
We headed down the two-lane blacktop, fully catching the sun’s heat now, running beside Roaring River. Our lack of water began to tell. Josh is half my age, hence, more able than I to shuck off the heat and dehydration. Nonetheless, we ran together down that road carrying empty bottles in our waist packs and Josh carrying two empties in the backpack, little more now than relics of a water-blessed past.
Occasionally we walked, getting gradually tired and slow. Josh ran on. I began to trail behind. Cramps had set in on my legs. I could only go so fast before the cramps seized hard. I did what I could.
“Josh, go on. Don’t wait for me.” But he did wait.
“The first thing you’ll come to is a liquor store,” I said.
It was true. On the lower end of Roaring River—preceding the town itself—sits a campground belonging to the Corps of Engineers. The liquor store, as well as a companion grocery store, sat across the road from it. Because of the campers, that had once been a good location. Then the campground closed, followed by the grocery store. Now, only the liquor store remained.
“At least I hope it’s still there.”
But I didn’t know for sure. I hoped we could fill our bottle there. But I feared it might have dried up like the spring.
Ultra-runners know you can log a long distance if you simply keep going forward. We were getting closer, but also getting thirstier. So thirsty, that Josh took a chance. We came to a house on a hill above the road. We could see a frost-free faucet standing in the yard beside the house. Josh carried the empty bottles across the yard. I stood in the road watching to see if he was going to be shot. He lifted the faucet handle. Not one drop of water came out. Apparently it had been disconnected.
He looked around and found a coiled water hose connected to a faucet on the house’s foundation. Now he was really pushing his luck. If anybody was home, they’d likely hear the water flowing in the pipes under the floor. Josh turned on the faucet and filled all four bottles. He came walking back smiling. Nobody showed up waving a shotgun.
“You were taking a chance.”
“I figured it was die of thirst or be shot.”
I took a long swig. And at once spit it out on the hot pavement. The water out of that hot hose tasted like water out of a tractor tire, full of chemicals, the taste thereof anyway.  
“That stuff’ll kill you!”
We trudged morosely on, still thirsty, carrying the weight we didn’t need of the water we didn’t dare drink. But we were getting close. Soon we came to the closed campground, the gated roads and weeds between camp sites. And I knew we were there.
The liquor store was, too, and still open, even though there were no customers until we walked in. Yes, we were customers. Josh had revealed his ace in the hole—an emergency twenty-dollar bill. A lone woman sat behind the counter.
“You got any Cokes or Dr. Pepper?” I asked.
“We don’t sell anything but liquor.” That’s all their license permits, she told us.
“Well can we fill up our bottles? You got a bathroom or something?”
She took me to bathroom in an unfinished utility room at the back, and turned on a light. While I was pouring out bad water and filling bottles with good water, Josh was prowling around in the cooler. He found a drink called Jim Beam Cola in an aluminum can, and a daiquiri by Jose Cuervo in a plastic bottle. I saw him purchase two of the colas. Then he called his wife Martha on the store’s land line to see if she could drive to Gainesboro and pick us up. Arrangements were made: we’d meet her at the Marathon station, which, with a name like that, was the appropriate place.
We walked out of there smiling, and drinking the colas, in violation of open container laws, I am sure. It was afternoon now and we’d had nothing to eat, but the cold colas compensated for that. We had about a mile to go, and we walked down the shoulder sipping on the cans. Josh and I happened to actually be talking about how we were surely violating the law when the sheriff’s car passed.
“There goes the sheriff, Josh said. And then, “Well, he’s not stopping.”
“I don’t give a damn if he does.” My patience with all things contrary was worn out.
Suddenly Josh crushed his can.
“Man, you finished that in a hurry. I’m sipping on mine to make it last longer.”
“I got a couple of those daiquiris in the pack.”
So we opened the daiquiris, kept walking, and finished them too. When we hit the Marathon station we saw Martha pulling in at the lot. She’d been prompt. Josh and I had just had two quick drinks on empty stomachs. We went in the station’s store.
“Want to get some beer, Dallas?” Josh said. He had a ten spot left from the emergency twenty. We went to the cooler.
“Budweiser is what you want,” I said. I pulled out a quart can. Josh grabbed a quart of Corona Extra. We sat them on the counter and got in line to pay behind a couple of other customers. A uniformed officer, a woman with a badge and a gun got in line behind me. I turned.
“Catch any crooks today?”
Nope, she didn’t. I was telling her we’d run from Cookeville, that we’d come through the flood damage on Blackburn Fork, and had she been up there to see it yet, and she hadn’t, and then I became aware of a querulous discussion going on behind my back. I turned to see what in the world was going on now.
Josh was holding the ten out, but the clerk wouldn’t take it. He was demanding an ID, and Josh was trying to tell him we’d been running and didn’t have any and…
My patience really was exhausted. I didn’t want to hear it. I snatched the ten out of Josh’s hand and thrust in at the clerk.
“Here, I’m buying this stuff. Do I look old enough?”
The clerk made a slow grin, took the ten and gave me the change. I turned and dropped it into Josh’s hand. We scooped up our beers and dashed out. Martha was waiting.
Josh and I drank the quarts while Martha drove us back to Cookeville. She dropped us off at my house, turned around and left us standing in the driveway. It was mid-afternoon. We’d now each had the equivalent of four drinks on an empty stomach. I unfolded a couple of yard chairs in the shade in front of Josh’s car, where he’d parked it that morning.
“Josh, you want another beer?”  I had a refrigerator stocked in the garage.
So that’s how we finished the day, sitting in the shade and nursing a beer each, talking about the day’s astonishing scenes. We’d seen a remote rustic valley, one of my favorite places, devastated by flood damage unprecedented in our experience. We’d run twenty-one miles on a hot August day with not enough to drink, and with nothing to eat—on a run we’d never intended to make in the first place. We’d spent extra time exploring damage, and, thus, had gotten more dehydrated than twenty-one miles would usually indicate.
Around three-thirty we finally got something to eat. Jo Ann brought out sandwiches, ham on croissant.