[Ken Kifer's Writing Pages]

ARTICLES: Around Jacksonville

A series of light essays which I wrote for the school newspaper while a student while a student with the purpose of showing that there was plenty to do around Jacksonville.

Around Jacksonville


During my senior year at Jacksonville State College/University in Jacksonville, Alabama, I was the Associate Editor of the school newspaper, the Collegian/Chanticleer (the school was upgraded to a university during the year, and the name of the paper was changed for the same reason). Since students continually gripped about nothing to do, I decided to write a column about the activities that I was enjoying. These articles were enjoyed by some and disliked by others. They are all examples of casual essays and usually include some descriptive writing as well.

The Room

October 24, 1966

Last year there were several articles in the Collegian discussing why students "run home" every weekend. The ones staying on campus thought the others should too, but nonetheless about two-thirds of the students were leaving. From my experience, both living in and visiting the dormitories on weekends, I think I know the reason why.

Normally the boys sleep in late on Saturdays, and when they do get up, they join the nearest bull session until lunch. After lunch they waste time for a while and then "go study," which is usually another name for wasting time. At night, they go on a date. The girls are seen only at lunch, and probably have as much to do as the boys. These same students tell me there isn't any "action" near Jacksonville. And after staying in their rooms a few weekends, they quit staying week-ends at all.

But there's also another group of students. These kids are off before breakfast, skip lunch, and come back only for dinner. Since my first day on campus, I've been one of these students. To me the problem isn't finding something to do, it's finding time to do it in. I couldn't be bothered less that there isn't much "action" around town; I wouldn't have time for it. And I feel that the problem of students isn't that there isn't anything to do, but that they can't think of anything to do. And so I am beginning a series of articles on what I do around Jacksonville.

The first thing you've got to realize is that whether you like Jacksonville or not, you're stuck here for nine months of every year. Try running home every weekend, and you'll find you belong neither here nor there. If you want to live right, you'll have to make this your home. Your room is the first thing you should change. Ideally, you should move out everything you don't like and move in everything you do. In practice, however, moving out your roommate and moving in your liquor chest will only get you into trouble -- if you live on campus. But the dorm mother can only object to your new arrangement if it isn't neat, or if it violates the rules. Many a house mother has to put up with the snakes, frogs, and turtles of her biology students.

Some of the rooms do live up to their owners' interests. A birdwatcher has charts on a bulletin board showing migration patterns and has stuffed birds around the room. Two other boys have everything from cannon shells to an ubiquitous insect collection. One boy, off campus, for atmosphere, has nets hanging from the ceiling. And of course, all boys have pinups... I consider my own room a center of operations. On rainy days or at nights, I have all my favorite records and over 100 books to keep me happy. In one corner of the room is my writing desk with all my notes, papers, and manuscripts inside, and my 20 favorite books on top. On the wall are maps showing my bike tours in eastern North America and in Alabama. Around the room, I have mineral specimens ranging from chalcedony and onyx bookends to limestone fossils to aragonite crystals. In one of my drawers are county maps and topographical maps to help me plan my trips. And, in my closet, I have bicycle equipment, caving gear, helmets, lights, ropes, and assorted bottles for spelunking. All in all, my room is arranged to help me live, work, and explore -- around Jacksonville.

Chimney Peak

November 7, 1966

Whether a person first approaches Jacksonville from the direction of Piedmont, Crystal Springs, Alexandria, or Anniston, the thing most likely to catch his attention is the mountain -- or to be more specific, Chimney Peak -- rising behind the town. In the winter, most of the trees on its slopes are bare, and the rocks forming the bones of the mountain are visible; in the spring the new leaves on the trees dress the mountain in Easter green; but at this time of year the greens and grays are smothered by reds and browns and golds.

Nearly everyone makes at least one trip to the fire tower. Some drive up the mountain road as far as they can, some walk along the road, and some walk up through the woods. Going through the woods is, of course, the most interesting route. I remember that during my first week here, I was so busy exploring that I only ate two meals in three days. I also remember taking groups up the mountain and having to practically pull the girls to the top.

Last weekend I felt the urge to climb the mountain once more. I put on some old clothes and my boots, got out my camera and walking stick, and started out. When I lived on campus, I could make it to the mountain through the woods, but now the old route is too round about, and so I decided to ride my bike that far. On a day when the fog pours over the mountain the separate ridges are clearly visible. One of these ridges slopes up from the edge of town to the fire tower, and this was the route I took, after I left my bike. I followed an old trail along the side of the ridge, walking first on sand, then on pine straw, and finally on loose rock. Around me were the pinks of the maples, the yellows of the sassafras, the browns of the oaks, the reds of the dogwoods, and the green of the pines. Once I stopped to look for persimmons; another time I left the trail and climbed to the top of the ridge to take pictures of the mountain and valley. I ran atop the ridge, jumping from rock to rock, stopping to watch a vulture glide over and around, and then rejoined the trail. At its end, I started up toward the tower, using my walking stick to help push me forward, and looking back toward the valley often. When I reached the fire tower I ran up the steps to the top, looked around with my telescope, and took some pictures. On the Jacksonville side, the air was foggy from the chemicals at the Fort, but on the other side, the ridges were clear and begged to be walked on. Everyone climbs to the fire tower, but I've never met anyone on the other side of the mountain in three years. But today even I didn't feel like going further, and so I said goodbye and started back.

I ran down the slope that leads back to the trail I came up along and then ran back along my favorite ridge. When I turned off to get a drink of water, I almost stepped on a snake. We both shocked each other, but I was the curious one and he the cautious, and so he ended up running away. He was black with a white belly.

I had a good cool drink from the creek and finished my trip home. In the afternoon I went with a friend to look for squirrels. The mountain road was jammed with cars. We passed some of the tired adventurers walking back. Climbing the mountain is no feat, but it is fun.

Walking at Night

November 21, 1966

One of the best times to see the woods is at night, not because the night is lovelier than day, but because it's stranger, and we notice its qualities more. By day you may pass a tree that's a riot of greens and reds and yellows and never see it. By night the same tree, with the wind slowly moving its limbs and the dim light giving a suggestion of its colors, will be beautiful in a sense you never called beauty before. At night even your favorite path belongs to another world.

Yet as pretty as the night is, few people try hiking then. Most think that the night's too dark to see by. Several years ago, I began night walking with a head lamp and discovered that while a light was almost a necessity moving through thick brush, on trails and in the open -- even on cloudy and moonless nights -- there is plenty of light. One year some friends and I led several large groups up the mountain at night, and no one had trouble seeing. But even then, everyone stuck together and talked and laughed loudly, as if trying to ignore the darkness around them. Thoreau said, "I believe that men are generally still afraid of the dark, though the witches are all hung, and Christianity and candles have been introduced." When starting my moonlight jaunts, I have been seriously asked if I didn't need a gun for protection! Against what, shadows?

I took my own walk on a stormy night when rolls of black clouds smothered the sky. I started slowly to get used to the dark, and then walked with my stick between my eyes and invisible branches. A path is easy to follow at night. In grass, it winds black along the ground; here on the mountain trail, it was white from over-turned and trampled leaves. After I climbed higher, it grew lighter, and I noticed that the direct light from Jacksonville was strong enough to cast a very faint shadow. Higher still the light grew dimmer. Clouds of fog were sweeping over the mountain. Now I could see only a short distance ahead. A roaring caused by air being compressed as it moved over the ridge sounded like a nearby waterfall.

When I reached the top, the wind was blowing well but not hard. It didn't bother me as I climbed the fire tower once again, and the tower only leaned slightly with the wind. I've been there at night when the wind pushed hard enough to blow me off and the tower swayed and shook. Below me, puffs of clouds took their turn sliding over the mountain. In the sky four light patches gleamed: one Anniston, one Gadsden, one Centre, and one Piedmont. On a clearer night there would have been a cone of light for each city; on a cloudless night there would have been a dome. Looking to the east there was a larger, softer patch. This was not a city. Instead, a large mass of white clouds had been "trapped" against the flank of another ridge. It was from this mass that the smaller clouds had been drifting.

But I had to go back. In the day, I would have run most of the way, but in this light, I had to use my walking stick as a cane and feel for my balance. Further on down, I met with a pack of dogs; when they moved closer, I hit a bush and yelled. They ran off like all the harmless things we fear. When I reached home, it began to rain.

The Bicycle

December 12, 1966

There are, I'm sure, many students on campus who, like myself, can't afford the costs or the inconvenience of owning an automobile. But at the same time I imagine that they often can't get to where they want to go. I discovered a couple of years ago that a bicycle is the solution to the problem. On a bike I can get to town before my friends, make it to Anniston in an hour, and ride to Gadsden in two hours every time. Upkeep is nothing, and cost -- if you've had to replace a set of car tires you've paid as much as you would for a bicycle.

Only a few misconceptions keep bikes from being popular. One is that they are toys for children and aren't good for anything else. But any machine that can travel better than 100 miles a day and average 25 miles an hour in town and 15 mph on trips isn't a toy but an opportunity.

Another wrong idea is that riding a bike is too hard of work. This idea arises from many people remembering when they were little and pushed oversized bikes. On a multiple-geared light-weight bike and with some practice at correct riding methods, you can climb most hills without much effort. Of course, you couldn't ride 70 miles your first day, but you could build up to it easily. Why even my seven-year-old nephew rode seven miles in an hour and a half on his first day out.

But we shouldn't consider the bike a method of transportation only. Several faculty members (and one minister in town) own cars and yet ride bikes for recreation. A motorist drives too fast to notice the world around him; a cyclist even knows when he scares field mice as he passes. I ride because of the exhilaration I get from using my muscles, because I want to know what's on the other side of the next ridge, and because of the satisfaction I get knowing I've been there on my own, with no motor taking me.

A trip near Jacksonville can go anywhere; primary and secondary roads lead off in every direction. I ride to where I can go hiking, cave crawling, rock hunting, or bird watching. I might climb a mountain for the view, visit a spring for a drink, ride to a creek for a swim, or stop at a pine woods to look around and to think. Whenever the whim hits me, I can ride.

The other day, I tore out of town on the old Anniston road (I outrun the police and don't get tickets) and turned up the road to White's Gap. I slowed down because of the grade and then climbed over the mountain, pushing my feet slowly and riding in low gear. The idea is not to work anymore going uphill than down and not to quit pedaling anytime. I rode into the valley but the rough road absorbed my speed. Down a good hill and smooth road, I often make over 50. I stopped for water and climbed a hill heading east.

And what did I see? What I wanted to -- a little more road. No lakes, no springs, no great forests. But the air was cool and my engine warm. I did stop to take a walk, look at a lone chimney, and take some pictures. I did see some woods covered hills, some attractive bends in the road, and some unusual houses. But all that wasn't it. It was that was the world and I was out in it.


January 30, 1967

"Check that rock to see if it's loose. Kick it hard. 0. K. Make sure the rope is clear. Ready? I'm going over."

Among the "sports" enjoyed by the "I've-gotta-keep-busy-on- Saturday" group, some are, or seem, more dangerous than others. This "sport" was one of them. I was barely perched on the edge of a 6O-foot limestone cliff and was slowly sliding off. Above, David Cory was tending my ropes and calling me an idiot. Below, Alvis Tidwell and Ralph Walker were standing back to keep clear falling rocks, but were ready to rush forward if I began to fall. What were we up to? Well, that's a story.

Although most people picture caves as having horizontal entrances, there are many that begin as pits. To get down into them, it used to be necessary to lower everyone with a winch or to make a cable ladder which could reach to the bottom. Finally rappelling was borrowed from mountaineering. Now cavers can descend to great depths on a single rope without involved equipment. So we had come to this quarry to practice climbing down its walls.

David and Ralph began to use one method of rappelling. One of them would straddle the rope facing uphill and would put the free end over his left shoulder, across his chest, and would hold it in his right hand behind his back. Then he would step backward over the cliff, letting the friction of the rope against his body control his descent.

Alvis, when it was his turn, wound the nylon rope around a large steel ring attached to his belt, gripped the free end in his hand, and slid off the cliff. In this case the rope was controlled by friction against the ring. We started on a 25-foot and then moved over to a 40-foot drop. At each place Alvis and Ralph (who were doing most of the rappelling) had several ledges they could stop on. On the 40-foot drop, they used the ring to descend an overhang. And at all times, they had a sliding Prusik safety in case they should loose control. This device is a special knot which slides freely on the rope and yet will tighten like a Chinese finger trap to stop whoever falls. Several of these knots used together can be and are used for climbing.

Finally it was my turn to descend. I had had more experience with rappelling than the others (in fact I have the tree in front of my room rigged so that I can climb up 25 feet on Prusik knots and then rappel down). I wanted to try something harder than what they had, and so I ended up slipping off where the cliff overhung a 60-foot drop. As I slid over I began knocking rocks off. One as big as a cat let go, burst on the rocks below and sent a piece flying 20 feet toward Alvis. Then I swung free. I held my safety knot and let the rope run through my hand. I dropped faster than I walk, bumped into a ledge or two, and was down, The suspense was over before it began.

Next time I'll try climbing back up.

More Rappelling

February 13, 1967

In the last paper, I said that next time I'd try climbing back up my 60 foot cliff. Well, I haven't been either up or down that cliff again but I have been busy converting my nylon rope from a silk-like white to a well-worn black.

One of my favorite places to do this is in the tree in front of my room. I toss the rope over a limb and try to con someone into going up it. Seven different people besides me have been up in that tree--as many as three at a time. Thoreau's builders can raise loftier structures, I'm sure my climbers will one day climb taller trees.

Of course my victims can't be expected to climb as high as I want them to, hand over hand. Instead I give each one special climbing knots called Prusik knots. Three of these knots are tied to the rope, loops from two go over the climber's feet and a large loop from the third goes around his chest. By sliding up the two knots connected to the feet and next sliding up the knot supporting the chest, the poor soul can struggle upward. If he jams his knots half-way up, he has the choice of either jumping or letting us cut the rope. (Actually this has never happened, though it hasn't been for the lack of the beginner trying.) After he has reached the top he can rappel back down and start over.

Over the weekend, Steve Spencer and I went to try our luck rappelling at Noccalulu Falls in Gadsden. We had a mile of cliff to choose from and finally decided on a place about 70 feet high. We both used the rappelling ring to go down, letting the friction of the rope twisting through the ring control our descent. At all times the cliff face was right next to us, and when Steve climbed on the knots he found they jammed against it. While he was working up I got an idea -- I knew these cliffs but Steve didn't -- I'd give him a real cliff to go over. When we reached the place I'd chosen, Steve decided it would be better for him to go first. Now Steve is used to the older rappel with the rope controlled by body friction and using this method he must keep in contact with the cliff to keep from falling. Also Steve had never gone over an overhang. So I gave him a real overhang -- a 25-foot one -- and didn't tell him about it. Steve went down five feet, and then a bit more, and let out a yell. When he got down, he shouted up, "Why didn't you tell me it was going to be like this?" And I hollered back, "You didn't ask."

When I descended and passed under the cliff, though, I knew what he was talking about. To be so far from any support and to know that nothing but five gloved fingers hold you up. I wonder what the same thing must feel like in a cave when your light is a tiny beam in the dark and the ground is five times -- or five lifetimes -- further away.

Anyway, we had to leave, and I left, as promised, by climbing that 60 feet of rope.

The Caves of Newsome Sinks

April 3, 1967

During the break between semesters, five boys -- Steve Spencer, Ray Busler, Frank Beverly, Alvis Tidwell, and I -- arrived at the south end of Newsome Sinks, 30 miles below Huntsville. The Sinks form a valley over three miles long, between half and one mile wide, and 250 feet deep. They were created by the underground solution of limestone and the collapse of the weakened sandstone above. At present some 41 caves, with eight miles of passageways and crawlways have been explored. Four of the caves are over a mile long.

We had driven there from Jacksonville to explore the caves, but our first interest was to find one to sleep in, out of the cold weather. We split up to look for one of the larger ones in the area, Hughes Cave, and soon Steve and Alvis were yelling that they found it. While the others checked out a smaller cave, Alvis and I slid down a slope and under an overhang into the 60 degree warmness of the cave. When we finally managed to light our lamps, we found ourselves at one end of a long passageway, 30 feet high and 60 feet wide.

Next everyone began moving equipment into the cave and setting up camp. After eating, we pushed on to the end of the cave where, after climbing down through breakdown, Fred and I crawled up one tight crawlway, and I followed some meander curves that led deeper and deeper. But the others had turned back, and so we all returned to camp and went to bed. Everyone shivered all night and especially in the morning except for Steve, who had an arctic sleeping bag. From then on, Steve's life and Steve's arctic bag were in danger.

The next day, we examined more easy passages and decided to move on to other caves. Because of this and that, we didn't reach the next cave -- Wolf -- until after sundown. Wolf Cave is in the north end of Newsome, at the end of a 20 foot deep trench at the bottom of a 30 foot deep, cliff-lined sink. A waterfall storms at the entrance and its water runs inside and quickly disappears. Inside the cave, the trench continues in the form of high fluted walls. Further in is another waterfall which sprays down from a weak spot in the ceiling, 60 feet above the floor. This steam also disappears, and the passage continues up a steep clay bank to a large room much like the one in Hughes.

We unpacked and ate and then followed the large passage until it became almost perfectly flat. There we found a "river" of flowstone, created by the gradual precipitation of calcite by slowly tricking water. The passage split and we followed one route until it ended in a mud wall, and then we turned back and followed the other until it did the same. There we found stalactites and stalagmites and some rimstone dams - - actual miniature dams formed from calcite precipitated in eddys. Back at camp the others were too tired to continue and so only Steve and I went on to explore Mike's Wolf Cave. But after two hours looking we were dead tired, and so gave up and got to bed at midnight.

The next day we returned home.

But I had expected to see more than that. We had only visited four caves out of 41 and hadn't seen them well. So I decided to revisit the Sinks over AEA. Since I would be alone, I wouldn't be able to travel anything but the easiest and safest routes. But at the same time, I would be able to devote every moment to locating and examining the caves.

On my way to the Sinks, I stopped to look at Cave Mountain Cave, which is in a long cliff nearly in sight of Guntersville Dam. I unloaded my gear from my bike's pannier bags and put on my white coveralls. I loaded my carbide lamp with fuel and fastened it and my electric lamp on my helmet. Finally, I tied my handlight on my one side and the ammunition case carrying my camera on the other and started into the cave.

The cave was easy walking, at first over loose stones and then plastic mud, with the exception of a short, fine dirt- and dust-filled crawlway. The light of the entrance penetrated far into the dark of the cave. The best example of this is in Collinsville, where a caver can sit in a cave under Highway 68 with the cars faintly rumbling overhead and still see light from the entrance 100 yards away. But the cave turned to the right, and I was left with only the glow of the handlight. As I walked, I could hear the sounds of my boots, of my clothes, of my heart, and even -- it seemed -- of my thoughts. I squeezed between some flowstone and found myself above a steep slope. If I should have trouble on that, there would be no one to help me, and so I turned back. The night was warm, and I camped on a mountain side above the river. I ate a good dinner, my bike was near me, the blankets were cozy, and the stars were out. What more could I want?

The next day, I reached Newsome and explored some of the caves in the same Sink as Wolf. Gopher Cave consisted of long crawlways like a gopher would make, and Rabbit Cave, near the top of the waterfall, was pretty much of a rabbit hole, although It did have one wall thick with cave crickets. From the little ones I went to Wolf, making the grand tour. I found one new passage which led out 50 feet above the entrance route at the second waterfall. When I stumbled back outside, I was amazed to find it night already. Some boys warned me, while I was cooking hotdogs, that the temperature was going down to 20 degrees. And so I camped in the cave without a watch and wondering how I'd know if it were daylight.

In the morning I began a trip from one end of Newsome to the other. I started into the 80 foot deep Bullfrog pit, crawled and walked and climbed a short distance into the more than a mile long Turtle, wasted my time checking out the miserable Washtub, passed countless sinks, splashed very wet and happy down one of the entrances to Chapel, tried to hunt out Fox's Lost (which can stay lost), and arrived at Hughes to take some pictures. When my flash wouldn't work, I walked the three miles back to Wolf in the dark and slept outside in spite of the cold. The next day I packed my pannier bags and started out of the Sinks. Now if I could only explore all the caves I'd seen.

Beyond Chimney Peak

May 22, 1967

Although -- as I said in a much earlier article -- almost everyone has been to the top of Chimney Peak and climbed the fire tower, few have been beyond it. In over three years of hiking in those woods, the only people I've seen in them went with me.

The reason is obvious if you've been up the mountain. The first time I climbed Chimney Peak (through the woods, of course) was the first day I lived on campus. When I reached the top, I looked down on both sides of the peak. The west side -- which I'd come up -- could be climbed gradually from the edge of town by following a ridge. The east side -- which I wanted to go down -- left no alternative than to climb straight down its steep and rugged slope to the valley 1,000 feet below. It looked so steep that it seemed that a person could actually fall off. The sides are covered with rock slides, and I later made a hobby of rolling some of these rocks down and listening to them crash their way through brush far below. That first day, I'll admit, I turned back. It was too steep. But the next day, I came back more determined and picked my way down. And so for three years, I've crossed the mountain where others stopped. I camped in the valleys, drank the water of the creeks, climbed the ridges, and tracked through the snow. One time I camped beyond the ridge beyond Chimney Peak and walked back on a drizzly morning only to find, when I crossed the ridge, that all 1,000 feet of Chimney Peak had been completely swallowed by the fog. One time I walked around the mountain in the snow and pushed my way through snow covered branches until my pants legs were frozen tubes of ice.

Last weekend, I made my last trip over the mountain. After crossing the ridge at the fire tower, I started down. Three years of crossing the mountain have taught me how to descend a slope. By using sort of a shuffle, I descended faster than I walk on level ground. I crossed the small creek at the bottom and there had a drink of water. Then I started up the old lumber road that circles two hills and climbs north along the second ridge. At the end of the road, I was near the top of the ridge, already further from Chimney Peak than Jacksonville is. Here, the wind often pours over and around the mountain like a river floods around an island.

I followed a side ridge, walking over last year's leaves, first sloping down and then up until I reached a pulpit-like rock. A Fort McClellan fog hung over the opposite hills, and I could see little further than the highway below Merrilton. So, I had only the pretty valley below me to look at. As I rested there, I thought of all the places that I'd been to and all the things that I'd done while at Jacksonville. Now I was graduating. I began the year telling about my room, but my room was already partially stripped for packing. Somewhere else I'll find another mountain to climb and someone else will climb this one. I hope he discovers that the east side of Chimney Peak is covered with masses of blueberries in the summer. I hope he finds the sweetest streams to drink.

At any rate, it was getting late and I needed to return. If I'm the only one to come here, I thought, it's to my gain and their loss. I stopped to get a drink in the valley below -- not because I needed one, but because I wanted to drink there once more -- and then headed back toward home.

When I reached the fire tower, it was already dark, and I walked down into a shadowy woods. The night is always lovelier than the day because it is r. Eventually, my tired feet and I arrived home at 10 o'clock.

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