Half-an-hour or so after noting that this particular hike, taken on a chilly early-March morning, may be the quietest one I had yet experienced in Middle Tennessee, a vicious rumbly roar issued from an indefinite distance. This was not an animal’s roar. It was manmade–the product of explosives. The big sound shook me from my reverie, and I searched for its source. Through an opening in the bare-branched canopy I watched a wide cloud of gray-brown smoke disperse upward off a faraway hillside and take slow flight on the breeze. A dynamite explosion, perhaps, for some mining or quarrying process, was my first assumption. Unexpected outbursts often startle, but in this wooded sanctuary, it was plain unnerving. After a period of bemusement, there was nothing to do but trudge onward.
An ominous air had already insinuated itself upon the morning, beginning when, en route to the trailhead, I turned onto a narrow, shoulderless two-laner named Dark Hollow Road. It seemed the kind of remote rural backroad that has some grim legend attached, the details of which the locals are familiar but outsiders are regrettably unaware. Once on the trail, the total absence of other hikers lent its own eerie charm to the labyrinthian limestone, and a fresh, sizable set of canine pawprints, big as my forefoot, was a nice touch. I measured a print at four-and-a-half inches long, which is well within range of a mature wolf’s. The tracks may have belonged to a large, friendly dog, but being in a spooky frame of mind, I was picturing a red wolf that had migrated west from the Smoky Mountains, hunting these very woods. All of this just adds to the enjoyment of a solitary hike, however. These dangers are mostly imaginary and provide the same brand of innocent thrills one may experience on a trek through a haunted forest during the Halloween season.
Later, having lunch on the mountain, in a sublime natural amphitheater made of enormous boulders, the earlier disruption was becoming a memory. Peace had been restored. Buzzards circled overhead, their shadows crossing the ground endlessly before me–yet another spooky element. But in spite of these things that may seem scary to the imagination, the very real and present danger seemed to be the explosion that had occurred that morning. It carried a violence that the backroads and rocks and wolves and buzzards did not. A question came to mind: Is this progress? Is this the way to steward the earth’s resources? It feels like a perversion of stewardship. It seems that as our kind advances with its technology, the goal should be to come into harmony with nature, not to destroy it in an attempt to take what it does not readily give.
It is naive to think we have reached a place in our collective journey where we are ready to stop taking resources from the earth. But maybe there is a better way to do it than by blowing up vast tracts of wilderness. Maybe a mind more technical than mine already has the solutions, and maybe those solutions will plod through the muck of bureaucratic special interests and come to light before our wild places disappear completely. Maybe.