Field Notes: Strange Bedfellows
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Outside magazine, June 1998
Field Notes: Strange Bedfellows
Quiz: The Carolina hills are (a) an outdoor mecca, (b) a bizarro magnet, (c) both
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
“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