Christopher Martin lives in Acworth, Georgia, with his wife and son. He is a first-year student in the M.A. in Professional Writing program at Kennesaw State University, and his essay, “Phos Hilaron,” which in many ways anticipates “Walking the White Tail,” was recently published in Loose Change Literary Magazine. Whether the Appalachian foothills near his home like Red Top Mountain, or Georgia’s Blue Ridge a little farther north, the Mountain South is very dear to Chris and his family, as they enjoy spending time outdoors. In addition to the natural beauty, Chris is also grateful for the literary heritage of the region, and is currently at work on a project about the north Georgia poet Byron Herbert Reece (see Still 4: Fall 2010).
Walking the White Tail
Water oak leaves crackle underfoot as I tread down the faded green porch steps, child in my arms, into the light of late October.
A wren regards the boy and me from a scrap pile against the house, the thin woods about us distilling birdsong and the clamor of a howling train. I load up my son for a drive to Red Top Mountain State Park, just outside the town of Emerson among the rust-red foothills of northwest Georgia. It is a special day for us—the first of what I intend to be weekly outings for breakfast and hiking, just him and me.
Waffle House is already crowded by the time we get there, so we cross the interstate and head to the next one, less than a mile from the first and with no crowd at all. The folks sitting at the bar and the servers and cooks all smile and wave at my son and tell me what a precious thing he is; I thank them and try to get him to wave back, but he just grins and bashfully nestles his face against my shoulder.
I sit him in a highchair and order our breakfast. As we await our waffle, hash browns, and grits, an elderly woman stops to talk to my son, asking me his name. I tell her it is Cannon, and she tells me what a handsome name it is, that it suits him, and wonders whether it is a family name. It’s after his great-grandmother’s maiden name, I reply, and she says just how pretty. She waves and says goodbye and baby-talks my son a little more on her way out. He watches her, eyes intent and dark as those of a speckled fawn, so soft a face breaking forth to smile for some inaudible hilarity, as though ghosts of those who’ve gone before him were whispering glad tidings in his ear.
Our breakfast arrives, and, as his buttery grits cool, I break bits of waffle for Cannon and drop the pieces before him as one would feed a sparrow. He takes the broken bread, smeared with syrup and butter, and meticulously tucks it bit by bit in his cheek, sucking his syrupy fingers all the while. This is new, feeding himself like this, the taste of syrup newer still. I feed him his grits in between waffle bites as I finish my own breakfast, and before too long we are full. The server who takes our check says she’d ask how everything was but for the grits and syrup on my son’s face. Clearly, it was good.
From the thick aroma of coffee and grease, the soft conversation and country music, my son and I head out into the cool air tinged with gasoline and exhaust, the engines rumbling and stereos thumping from across the parking lot on Highway 92, and we join it all.
We approach Red Top from the east, winding through a series of abandoned strip malls and trailer parks, past small churches with names like Antioch Baptist Bible and Son-Shine Apostolic, past convenience stores marketing bait and tackle and cold beer, past car garages fenced in barbed wire, past campgrounds and boat ramps operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Many of the roadside yards are filled with plastic gravestones for Halloween; all the roadside ditches are filled, for no holiday in particular, with plastic of one kind or another. To the west lie the mini-mansions, the yacht clubs, the gated communities on razed hillsides, some looming clear across the lake from gray patches in the autumnal woods.
We cross the state park boundary not too long after passing the Dollar General and turn off the highway down a steep road toward the lake. Red Top Mountain State Park sits on nearly 2,000 acres of peninsula jutting into Lake Allatoona, a reservoir created by the damming of the Etowah River in the late 1940s. As part of the Flood Control Acts passed in the middle of the last century, the creation of Lake Allatoona—along with similar damming projects throughout the country—was managed from a distance by the War Department. Because the park’s main draw is the lake and its shoreline, Red Top Mountain is perhaps as unnatural as state parks come.
Yet beauty endures. Despite the reservoir’s violent beginnings, despite the troubled economic times that have visited this and all of Georgia’s state parks, beauty endures, if in no other place than beneath a young oak in the middle of a landscaped island in the parking lot where children are gathering leaves when Cannon and I pull up. I park, open the back door, and my son smiles a toothy smile, squinting as the sunlight dances across his face. He always smiles when I open the door.
I take out his off-road stroller and pack him up, placing a water bottle and a diaper in the basket under his seat. The children beneath the oak laugh and play as we pass, and I push my boy into the woods on the White Tail Trail.
The White Tail is short, traversing the length of a minor peninsula about a half-mile into the reservoir. We follow the trail as it dips into a cove along a dried-up rivulet full of weeds and saplings; the lake is low and has been for a while. The downhill portion of the trail slants crossways, approaching forty-five degrees at times. Cannon adjusts himself with each tip and turn and never makes a fuss.
The trail spills from the hilly forest to level ground at the lakeshore. We cross an old footbridge hugged by the roots of a great beech; where these roots once rested in water, they now shine in caked mud like gasping catfish. All the water east of the bridge is gone. To the northwest, bare, brittle shores flicker in the sun until at last they melt into Allatoona.
We are folded into that which was and that which should not be—the ugly ground to the east where there is no water and was none before war men dammed the Etowah, the picture to the northwest where water remains where it never was. Tall white poles break from the lake to warn boaters of rocks and hills. We straddle the line between it all in the shadow of October trees, the tarnished copper leaves of the oaks, the ruby branches of dogwoods smoldering like once-flaming swords dropped and forgotten by some Edenic angel.
The trail ends on a pine bluff overlooking the choppy water. I park the stroller and pick up my son, who notices a lavender butterfly riding the breeze. He’s only recently started noticing things so small. We sit for a minute on a rock and then I think it might be fun to take him down to the water’s edge so he can crawl in the sand. Crawling is another recent discovery of his, and he has never really crawled outside, at least not on a sandy lakeshore—so that settles it.
I hold him tightly as I can and together we scramble down boulders and rock pilings. His mother would have had a fit seeing us do it, but we make it safely to the sand without so much as a stumble. With the low water, the shoreline is wider than normal—if normal applies to a manmade lake—and has become a bone yard of pines. We find a soft spot amid the rocks and sit down as a speed boat sends ripples our way.
To Cannon, this place is new and I imagine his love encompasses it all—the noisy helicopter overhead no less than the water he watches in wonder. This is a holy place, scarred though it may be. We sit and breathe for a moment together, the breeze blowing his wispy hair in a way that breaks my heart, his hands on my arm, we two looking out at the lake in the wind by which drift the smells of mussel beds and piney woods, of smoke and baby skin.
But he gets bored with the transcendental after awhile—as he should—and crawls from my lap onto the red clay sand mixed with mica and shards of rock. He loves the sand, which he shows by excitedly flapping his arms and grunting. He props himself up against me and begins patting the ground.
Once he realizes the sand is pliable, he sticks his hands beneath it, sweeps it in his lap, squeezes it in his palms. On the tops of his hands are patterns that rise from beneath his skin, scarlet lines of pulsing blood that prove he is of my tribe though somewhat different, a little closer than me to the origin of things, far more innocent than men of my age.
If only I could think back so far, to my beginnings, to a time when my hands, too, were traced with so intricate a map penned by maker of the world. I worry about this world, about my place in it, about what it will hold for my son. Perhaps I’m predisposed to pessimism, I don’t know, but though I’ve shed my adolescent skin of Christian literalism, I can’t help but think that we’ve been banished from something altogether lovely and right and that we will just keep trying, with our wars and our progress, to compensate for the fact that we don’t know what this little boy putting dirty sand in his mouth knows.
My son swallows a little bit of that sand and I laugh. He finds it all funny, so he reaches down for another handful to put in his mouth, but I figure I’d better stop him this time. Eventually, he gives up the sand, flaps his arms like they are mallard wings, and starts to crawl. He hasn’t crawled two feet before he finds a brown pine needle to play with; he reaches for it and grasps it with his blush, marbled, fragile hand and holds it in the air, waving it this way and that.
After awhile I pick my son up and we climb back to the bluff. A green anole, turned brown to match its surroundings, rests on a pine clinging to a boulder beside the parked stroller. I hold my son out and he reaches for the lizard, grazing its tail as it retreats to a crevice.
My child is asleep well before we reach the footbridge, rocked in his stroller to the rhythms of roots. In the quiet of the woods, I think back to the shore, to my son swaying the pine needle, and I remember the Genesis story. It is a fine story, I suppose, for everywhere there is evidence of something awry, a kind of brokenness that is felt more than specified. We are never quite ourselves. Perhaps we are on the outside of an Eden, then, whether we have banished ourselves or been banished by God. I cannot say.
But the story of the Fall is one that has served its purpose, and walking the White Tail as Cannon sleeps, I have a different vision. The entrance to paradise is not blocked by cherubim with a flaming sword; it is not blocked by anything. Rather, at the threshold of the garden there sits a little child, holding a pine needle which he turns every way, bidding us enter.