Day 20 - McMinn and Polk Counties – June 26, 2013

It has been a whirlwind of activity over the past month, and the final day is already here. I can't believe how fast the time has zipped by. We started our day in McMinn County in the city of Athens where we met up with community leaders and volunteers for our last litter pick up of the tour. We met some really nice folks who had recently graduated from the local business leadership program and were happy to give of their time to keep their community clean and beautiful. I was also impressed with the local government representatives we met with and in the city and county's commitment to clean and sustainable practices.

Pickin' up on a busy road in McMinn County

Pickin' up on a busy road in McMinn County

The city of Athens is only an hour from my home, but this is actually the first time I've visited. Like so many small towns we have visited on this tour, Athens has a very charming downtown, but also one with its economic challenges. As is too often the case, chain restaurants and big box stores by the interstate have adversely impacted the downtown core of these communities. When we planned the tour, Marge, Linda and I made a conscientious effort to go out of our way, if necessary, to support locally-owned businesses in every town we visited. In most cases, these businesses are located away from the interstates and in the more historic, interesting, and less traffic-clogged parts of town anyway. So, to me it just makes more sense to have a meal or grab coffee at a locally-owned establishment away from the strip malls and box stores. You may pay a few dimes more and go a little out of your way if you're traveling on the interstate, but you are sending a strong message to these communities that you care about locally-owned business and want to support their downtown business district. This is a practice I urge anyone reading this to employ on a daily basis in your travels. Your life will be richer for it in so many ways, although it will sometimes take a little work to find the places that the locals like to frequent. If in doubt, just roll the window down and ask someone where they recommend getting a bite to eat.

As one more thing to ponder, the vast majority of roadside litter that we encountered throughout this tour came from these primary sources – chain convenience stores/ gas stations (beer bottles/ cans, soft drink bottles/ cans, potato chip bags) and fast food restaurants (paper waste). Needless to say, these establishments cater to the fast crowd that often can't be bothered to properly dispose of their waste. These same people are also too much in a hurry getting from point A to point B and do not have the time/ desire to investigate anything about the local communities they are driving through, hence they have little incentive to invest anything, even taking a five minute trip out of the way to visit a locally-owned mom and pop restaurant closer to the heart of town. We're all guilty of being on this fast track all too often. I certainly am, but if anything, this tour has reminded me to slow it down and enjoy the journey, not focus so much on getting to the destination as fast as possible. In the process, I will be in a better position to support these local communities. Today, we were able to do just that – purposefully driving back into town after the clean-up to have lunch at a recommended spot – Java on the Square. Our food and the service was excellent and I was happy to have an alternative to the usual fast food fare. Sadly, as I write this blog entry many weeks later, I have found out that the restaurant has recently closed. I'm not sure about the particulars of its closure, but it would not be surprising if it had something to do with the difficulty of staying afloat with foot traffic that cannot match that of establishments closer to the interstate.

Evidence of our fast food and convenience store culture

Evidence of our fast food and convenience store culture

Our next destination, Polk County, is an example of a community who's entire economy depends upon people patronizing locally-owned businesses. The economic engine of the county is focused on eco-tourism, namely river rafting and related support services, such as hotels and restaurants. In Reliance, we met up with Harold Webb of the Webb Brothers Float Service. They were the first rafting company in the region, setting up shop in the 1960's. In relating how he keeps his waterfront property litter-free, Harold offered a bit of universal wisdom – keep it clean and people will respect it. There has certainly been ample evidence throughout our tour of this fact. The areas with the worst ongoing litter problems are places that are not regularly cleaned up. As many people told us throughout the tour, if someone doesn't pick up the trash immediately, it will start to accumulate very quickly. People who would not normally throw trash out the car window are more tempted to do so when they already see litter on the road. This is the core psychology of the litter problem.

Today, there are now at least a dozen or more rafting companies that service the Hiwassee and Ocoee Rivers and it has grown into the lifeblood industry of the county. Here is the perfect example of a very low-impact, sustainable industry that creates many direct and ancillary jobs and most, if not all of the rafting companies are locally, family-owned.

Old abandoned Higdon Hotel near the Hiwassee River in Reliance

Old abandoned Higdon Hotel near the Hiwassee River in Reliance

The Hiwassee River is a state designated scenic river. This is an honor only bestowed upon 12 other rivers in the state. According to its website, the state Scenic Rivers Program “seeks to preserve valuable selected rivers, or sections thereof, in their free-flowing natural or scenic conditions and to protect their water quality and adjacent lands. The program seeks to preserve within the scenic rivers system itself, several different types and examples of river areas, including mountain streams and deep gorges of east Tennessee, the pastoral rivers of middle Tennessee, and the swamp rivers of west Tennessee.“ Together, portions of the Hiwassee and Ocoee Rivers are administered as the Hiwassee/Ocoee State Park.

Later on, in Copperhill, we were treated to a musical performance by Playing on the Planet and Matt Tooni. Playing on the Planet self-describes their music as “Cosmic Rockin' BoogieGrass” and I would say that is an apt description. I certainly wouldn't know how else to describe it. It was fun and engaging and it wouldn't be complete without the hula hoop artist's accompaniment. The setting for the music was in the middle of the Cherokee National Forest at the Ocoee Whitewater Center. This an elaborate whitewater course constructed for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. The flow of water on this portion of the Ocoee is highly controlled to enable world-class whitewater canoe and kayak events, but it does so without marring the natural landscape. The layout of the man-made rock formations that create the whitewater is almost seamless with the natural surroundings.

Playing on the Planet at the Ocoee Whitewater Center near Copperhill

Playing on the Planet at the Ocoee Whitewater Center near Copperhill

The other artist performing for us today was Matt Tooni, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and he is a master of the Native American flute. To our astonishment, he improvised everything he played and it was truly enchanting, if not haunting music. With the river and forested mountain slopes behind him, it was the perfect setting to reflect on the proud heritage of the Cherokee people in this region and on their traditional, sustainable way of living with the land and its offerings. And at the same time, I couldn't help by think about the wrongs perpetrated on the Cherokee so many generations ago.

With the roar of the whitewater still filling our ears, we packed up our gear, said our goodbyes to Marge and drove the R/V an hour south to our home in Chattanooga. After four weeks on the road, our tour had come to an end, but the lifetime of memories had just begun.