Outside magazine, June 1998
You sure don't seem like evil anti-environmental extremists," I told Ralph and Sandra Hann as we sat sipping hot tea in their cheerful kitchen. They laughed, he with an amiable honk, she tittering like a friendly aunt.
Actually, I sort of meant it. When I think anti-environmental extremist, I think angry western landowner or radicalized logger grunt. The Hanns were more like perky mall-walkers. They were happy, plump grayheads who had retired to the rolling country near Franklin, North Carolina, way out west where the state narrows into a mountainous wedge that pokes impudently between Georgia and Tennessee. They weren't my-land-is-my-bunker types or extraction-industry volk. Seven years ago they'd moved up from near Orlando, where they both held blue-collar jobs at a hypodermic-needle factory. Now, thanks to an inheritance, they had come to rest on this heavenly retirement patch, tucked away amid woodsy back roads. Their house was an attractive country-Victorian contraption perched on a soft Appalachian foothill with a gargling, spring-fed stream.
But alas, the Hanns did harbor rather alarming thoughts about environmentalism, and they had become locally notorious for airing their sparky views on billboards and by crashing public meetings of greens. They were absolutely convinced that an unlikely combination of agents — including the United Nations, Dave Foreman, radical enviros, and Adam Werbach, the gee-whiz boy president of the Sierra Club — was conspiring to take all this away and give it back to the animals, forcing patriotic private-property-owning Americans into distant, dreary cities or communist-style collectivist hamlets. Ralph showed me a map that illustrated the goals of the plot with stark color-coding. Red showed the areas fated for "Core Wilderness Reserves" allowing "Little to No Use" by humans. The Hanns' home territory, Macon County, was awash in crimson.
Squinting at the map, I suggested that maybe the Hanns were worrying too much, that no such plot exists.
"They say they're going to do it," Ralph replied, pointing to a 1992 article in an environmental journal called Wild Earth that featured big talk about knocking down dams and tearing up roads in southern Appalachia. "So what more can be said?"
"I'm quoting Werbach," Sandra added, her features crinkling with worry. "Their motto is, 'Act first, apologize later.'"
I visited the Hanns during a long weekend in late March, as part of an impromptu inspection tour of western North Carolina, which earlier this year started giving off strange signals. Normally, if people consider the region at all, it's as a sort of magnet for outdoorsy types. Almost everything west of Asheville, the gateway city to the state's western tip, shows up green on the road atlas. This is where the Smoky Mountains and the Blue Ridge meet in a dramatic geological scrum, and the area is home to some of the prettiest and most rugged territory in the southern Appalachians.
Over the past 20 years, this part of the state has become hugely popular with everybody from hook-and-bullet types to golf-playing retirees to millionaire resort-home owners to ever-expanding hordes of mountain bikers, hikers, climbers, trout fishermen, and paddlers. A 1996 Forest Service assessment of recreation in the southern Appalachians noted that sports use has dramatically diversified beyond the old standbys of hunting and hiking. Great Smoky Mountains National Park draws ten million people a year, as many visitors as Yosemite and Yellowstone get combined. The Nantahala River has become one of the world's most rafted — 5,000 people float it on a typical summer weekend, in a bumper-to-bumper display of bright kayaks, yellow inflatables, and orange safety vests. The result of it all is a beautiful place that feels a bit overtaxed, scuffed.
It's also home to a few fairly strange characters, the strangest being Eric Robert Rudolph, the alleged bomber of a women's health-care clinic in Birmingham, Alabama, who is thought to have gone into hiding in Cherokee County, North Carolina. Rudolph is accused of planting a nail-shrapnel bomb on January 29 that killed a security guard and severely maimed a nurse. He's also wanted for questioning in connection with the fatal bombing at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. But Rudolph instead vanished into the misty woods, which he seemed to know well. His family had moved to western North Carolina from Florida when he was a kid, and he was said to be an experienced outdoorsman and army-trained survivalist.
On February 8, hunters found Rudolph's abandoned truck not far from the town of Murphy, about 50 miles west of Franklin. Flak-jacketed federales descended in droves to comb the countryside. But they didn't find their man, who was presumably lying low somewhere in the thick forests, high peaks, and deep, shadowy folds of the 528,000-acre Nantahala National Forest. Some theories had him holed up in a dark, dripping cave. Others figured he was lurking in one of the area's thousands of then-empty summer homes.
While the manhunt dragged on, the media embraced the notion that North Carolina's western counties had become a "haven" for far-right extremists. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a watchdog outfit based in Montgomery, Alabama, announced that Rudolph was an "active follower" of Nord Davis Jr., the deceased founder of the Northpoint Tactical Teams, an antigovernment, reputedly racist, and apocalyptic-minded group bivouacked in and around a fortified "compound" north of Murphy, in Andrews. The SPLC declined to offer evidence for the claim, though, which only added to the mystery.
Right around that time, the much milder strain of Hann-style disgruntlement emerged to help derail a proposal to honor the French Broad River, a scenic waterway that starts near Brevard, runs to Asheville, and squiggles picturesquely west over into Tennessee, slicing through mountains and featuring a popular whitewater run. The French Broad was a candidate for designation as an American Heritage River, part of a rah-rah Clinton administration program designed to salute waterways that seem special — for their natural beauty, comeback-from-pollution sagas, whatever — and thus boost their eligibility for federal cleanup and preservation funds. In North Carolina this seemingly innocuous idea generated mainstream support as well as a surprising firestorm of criticism. Leading the pro side was an Asheville-based nonpartisan group called RiverLink. Every elected body and chamber of commerce in the French Broad watershed's seven counties was for it, as was the state tourism development bureau and even the Episcopal diocese of western North Carolina.
Opponents like the Hanns, however, characterized the proposal as a government ploy to sneak in and boot-stomp property rights. Last fall they formed an ad hoc alliance to raise the temperature on the issue, using straightforward political tools such as petitions, public meetings, and phone calls. Saucy billboards also went up, warning of a "Washington takeover" of the French Broad, while other citizens howled about even darker outcomes. Jack Wadham, a member of a Waynesville-area group called Citizens to Keep Our U.S. Sovereignty, flatly told the Asheville Citizen-Times that the river initiative was a UN plot.
"The terminology all comes from the United Nations," he warned. "They are the ones that are behind a lot of this."
IF WESTERN NORTH CAROLINA HAD INdeed gone a little loco, my hunch was the paranoia was more import than home brew. Mountains don't seem to produce oddballs so much as attract them.
Of course, western North Carolina's mountains attract pretty much everybody. One bright, chirrupy morning, I rode around with Bob Scott, a vigorous man in his fifties who is a public-affairs official with the Macon County sheriff's department and a former reporter for the Citizen-Times. He drove me through a portion of the Nantahala National Forest south of Franklin, curving up, around, and down dense slopes of hardwood forest decorated with huge swishing stands of rhododendron. The Appalachian Trail runs right through here, he said, pointing to a sylvan footpath. An hour and a half to the north looms Great Smoky Mountains park, home to additional staggeringly beautiful terrain. Yeah, I'd heard. Having come down from New Jersey, I was already mini-convulsing with envy.
Obviously, others feel similar pangs. Western North Carolina is growing fast, and most of the immigrants, like Rudolph's family, have recently fled Florida. I'd heard them referred to as "halfbacks" — they move to Florida from the north, decide it sucks, and then go "halfway back," stopping here.
"Macon County grew 17 percent since the last census," Scott said. Most newcomers are fine, upstanding citizens, he added, but "you've also got this real small fringe element that's moved in here, and Lord only knows what attracted them."
Scott used to cover the far right in his newspaper days. He said there was no doubt that "a couple hundred" racists and boing-eyed goofs had settled into the region in recent decades, but he thought the media had overdone the "haven" angle. After all, two of the most infamous righties — Nord Davis and a man named Ben Klassen, who founded a racist religion called the Church of the Creator — were now dead. Scott had met Davis years before and found him more pathetic than terrifying. "I always thought Nord was basically in it for the money, selling pamphlets and books," he said, slurping Hardee's coffee. "He never really did anything, though he thought everything — and I mean everything — was a conspiracy."
What about Eric Rudolph: Was he scary? Well, yeah, Scott allowed. Together we reviewed some of the chilling news highlights, including an extreme act of fraternal solidarity performed by Eric's brother Daniel on March 9. To protest what he saw as FBI and media harassment of Eric, Daniel cut off his own left hand with a circular saw.
"Where do you think Eric Rudolph is now?" I asked.
"My theory is he's dead," Scott said. "I may be wrong, but I think the reason his brother cut his hand off was because Eric probably notified the family in some way that he was gonna kill himself. I mean, just because your brother's being sought by the FBI — even to a wacko — is not enough to cut your hand off."
That afternoon I headed west to Andrews, a small, scruffy town at the base of taller, wilder-looking peaks than those around Franklin. The FBI and ATF manhunt reportedly had been scaled back, but local papers were still running pictures of law-enforcement people suiting up at trailheads to scour the woods, and wanted posters advertising Rudolph's strangely smug face were tacked up in stores and gas stations. I decided to focus on meeting whoever was still lurking about at the Northpoint compound.
The Northpoint people are supposedly big adherents of Christian Identity, a religious belief — about as outr‰ as it gets — which says that white Anglo-Saxons are the Chosen People. Some Identity believers (not all) hold to what's called seedline doctrine, according to which the Jews are direct, literal descendants of Satan. At its very worst, Identity is virulently anti-Semitic and broodingly apocalyptic.
Whoever was at Northpoint, they weren't answering their phone, so in Andrews I pulled up to the first local I saw, a bespectacled fortysomething man working on a construction site, and asked if he knew the way to the Teams' property.
He said yeah, he did. I mentioned the reports of rampant extremists in the region. What did he think? "They're true. Hell, I could show you where they all are."I invited him to do so, but he only had time to lead the way to Northpoint.
About a mile outside town, the man pointed and I turned left, following a country road until it petered out at the Northpoint entrance. A gray-rock road curved left and vanished, so you couldn't see any buildings. There was also an empty guardhouse, a flag, a metal cross, and a gate. The gate was open, but a red-and-white sign said, NO DROP-IN VISITORS TODAY. NORTHPOINT TEAMS.
Best to heed that. I left a note, telling the "teams" I would come by the next day. They could leave word if it was OK for me to tootle up the road.
THE HANNS' IDEAS AREN'T NEARLY AS strange as those of the Northpoint followers, but they're equally baseless, and what happened with the French Broad dispute is a vivid reminder that fringe theories can have an effect when they get stirred into a real-world political debate. One afternoon I drove over to the United Methodist Church in Franklin, where an environmental group called the Western North Carolina Alliance was holding a membership meeting and potluck. The Hanns specifically mentioned its president, Brownie Newman, as a Wildlands/UN co-conspirator, but he didn't fit the bill as a New World Order mastermind. He's an outdoorsy-looking 26-year-old who uses political tactics, not terror tactics, to fight his fights, which mainly involve what the Alliance considers misguided logging sales in national forests. He smiled ruefully when I showed him the color-coded conspiracy map.
"Nope," he assured me, "we're not planning to clear the county of human inhabitants anytime soon." Newman didn't much care for the Hanns, saying they were part of an anti-environmental wave trying to lump conservationists in with big government in a calculated bid to increase paranoia. "It can have an effect," he said. "It did with the river initiative. Now it has been shot down over completely bogus fears about property rights."
Newman said this rhetoric didn't originate in North Carolina, and he was right. During localized fracases about the American Heritage Rivers initiative, similar talk arose in Florida, Texas, Idaho, and California, among other places. Wherever it started, it undoubtedly helped defeat the French Broad nomination. (The Tennessee portion of the river is still in the running, one of more than 100 waterways a White House-appointed advisory panel will cull down to ten American Heritage Rivers before summer.) Congressman Charles Taylor, a conservative Republican timberman, sat on the initiative, much to the surprise of RiverLink, its not-at-all-radical boosters.
Did Taylor buy the conspiracy talk? That's hard to say, but he didn't do much to dampen it. In January the Franklin Press ran an addle-brained story that reported, straight-faced, that "the United Nations is planning to evacuate Macon County." Roughly a week later Taylor issued a statement telling people not to worry. He'd signed on to a bill sponsored by Alaska Congressman Don Young that would subject all "international land use designations" to congressional approval. "While the idea of the UN taking over [Great Smoky Mountains National Park] is troubling," the statement soothed, "in reality, it will never happen."
SEVEN O'CLOCK ON A WEEKDAY MORNING, in the studios of Matt Cole and Matt Mittan, a pair of conservative Christian talk-radio hosts on WTZY in Asheville, who were in the thick of the Borking of the American Heritage Rivers initiative during its peak months. Like the Hanns, Matt and Matt seemed like nice people, though they affected a naughty scourge-of-liberals 'tude that probably hadn't contributed much to the debate's civility level. Matt Cole, a stocky, sandy-haired 32-year-old with frat-boy good looks, was bored with the French Broad issue — that was over — but he gamely revived it on the air at my request, teeing off on RiverLink until the callers rose to the bait.
"Go and look at the Biosphere land around!" one woman caller yelled. "It's under the auspices of the United Nations!" During a break, I asked Matt Mittan, a dark-haired, chuckling, 27-year-old air force veteran, what he thought of all the "haven for extremists" talk. He didn't like it. To him it was the media's attempt to smear conservative Christians by calling them extremists, too. He said just as many left-wing extremists were around.
Yeah? Like who?
"New Age people," he said. It might make more sense to call that "astral wing" rather than "left wing," but he had a point. The conversation turned to a group of New Agers in Maggie Valley, an hour west, who believe in an obscure millennial theology called Earth Changes, which holds that the planet is sentient, is angry with mankind, and is literally trying to kill us off with plagues, earthquakes, tornadoes, volcanoes, and global warming. "Hmmm," said Mittan; he hadn't heard of this before. Earth Changes just might be dissed heartily in a future broadcast.
I spent the rest of my time zipping around the region trying to meet as many people as I could, and what struck me was how congenial everyone was, even if they were weird. Like the two Matts, the vast majority of people in western North Carolina, "extremists" or otherwise, might growl, but they won't bite.
Among others, I spoke with an Earth Changes believer; Sheriff Jack Thompson, the crotchety lawman helping the FBI in its ongoing hunt for Rudolph; a river-loving environmental zealot named Peg Jones, who took me to meet an elderly pair of bona-fide mountain people who hospitably stuffed me with pink ice cream and pound cake; an "unreconstructed Southerner" named Kirk Lyons, who shared his vision of a day when Texas secedes from the Union; and a Christian Identity believer named Ed Chandler, a quiet bachelor who lived in a tidy basement apartment full of Christian Identity books and cataloged lecture tapes.
I asked Ed how many Identity people lived around Andrews and Murphy.
"Hundreds," he said, adding that most of them headed for the hills because they believe that the biblically prophesied "great tribulation" is coming soon. But in Ed's view, most of the Identity people — a lot of them immigrants from Florida — had too many problems of their own to cause trouble. Above all, they needed to find jobs so they could afford to stay put. Ed touched on an important point. For the most part, the area's extremists do little but talk, perhaps because they don't want to risk having to move away. The place is too cozy and nice to give up.
Aprˆs Ed, I floored it back to Andrews, eager to see if my note had teased a response from the Northpoint Teams. But no, it was right where I'd left it, under a rock. As I stood there, forlorn, I heard a low, growly clanking coming from up the road. Was it a Northpoint armored personnel carrier coming to shoo me away?
Wrong again. The vehicle was a tiny car filled with mountain people laughing so hard that the vehicle itself appeared to be jiggling with their mirth. I don't know if they were Northpoint "operatives," friendly sympathizers, or what, but they weren't real scary. Rolling slowly up beside where I had parked, they came to a stop. A dark-haired man in the back rolled down his window and shouted, "Hey! You need any hailp?"
"No, but thanks. I'm fine."
"All right. Holler if you do!" They drove off, still grinning hilariously and waving. I mentally filed the moment. The body or soul of Eric Rudolph might still be lurking in the North Carolina woods. But fortunately, so was a right neighborly spirit.
Alex Heard's Apocalypse Pretty Soon will be published by in January by W. W. Norton.
Photographs by Kyle Hood