Saturday, 14 January 2012


'Cheaha’, from the indigenous first nations, meaning ‘high point'. In a state like Alabama, that I think I know for swamps, mosquitoes and craw fish pie, it comes as surprise to find these highlands of crystalline quartzite extrusions. They’re the coccyx to the Appalachian backbone. The spine that runs north through the eastern states, border crossing and forming the swayback of the Gaspe, then to submerge into the ocean, only to resurface once again with the crennellated vertebrae and multiple pates of Beinn Eighe in Torridon, Scotland.

'Cheaha: the high place', to credit one piece of optimistic tourist propaganda, suggests that it has ‘probably' the best view in the USA. Note 'probably' not 'possibly'. where possibly is a euphemism for ‘only’. ‘Only’, as in ‘only view of Alabama'. It is a good vista, a high overview of the complicated geography of low eroded, mounded, forested hills that mingle and mash together like a lumpy pudding. A topography that leads to a perpetual roller-coaster road that, like a stotting ball will bounce all the way to the great southern rivers. Steep slow climbs, fast near instant descents. No bends, the tarmac stretching long and far into the distance. Roads populated by hunters in day-glo caps, the occasional logging truck and barking dog. A road that progresses through an open, bare deciduous forest of denuded red oak and southern pine. Which in a summer’s full leaf, might become claustrophobic, is in this hibernating season, open and inviting. The elongated shadows thrown by the silver grey trunks seem to trap the cold of the early morning frosts, the slow rising sun, melting the glaze, forming railings of crystals that beat time to the flicker of the strobing light, and give a thin encouragement of impending warmth.

Then it happens quite suddenly. My fingertips that have stubbornly refused to thaw, the frost on the handlebars that glistens but won’t melt, the thermometer that’s been cruising along in the minus zone, all change. The tingling of blessed relief, dry grab-on, and an escalating mercury. From frost nip to mosquito bite in less time than it takes to pluck a banjo. From a clear midwinter morn to a Scottish summer’s Sunday. A hike of over thirty degrees, old money.

‘Cheaha- the high point’, protected by it’s State Park status, is, like so much of the US’s wild lands, a place of natural beauty and a bibliotheca of 'do-nots' that help to create the antithesis to the world down in the valley, down in mall central on Interstate USA. It’s these extremes of culture and conditions that make for such intriguing travelling, bouncing between each and waiting for the subtle minglings. We end up camped right under one such.

‘Cheaha’ the high point’ has one obvious attribute: it’s a mountain in a sea of mole hills. So like any other protruberance that acquires the audacity to reach above the surrounding plane, procures a comms tower of Transylvanian proportions. A stake to skewer a mountain.

'Cheaha- the high point', whilst not the physical start to this journey, does make for a good metaphorical beginning. It’s downhill, with lots of re-ascends to further highs, a rolling journey, with a search for the terminating, concluding 'Cheaha'.