Sam Burnham, Curator
The Camp Fire in California is now reportedly the costliest fire in that state’s history. One story that stands out from this tragedy is the town of Paradise. I really didn’t understand the scope of it until I heard a radio interview with Loren Lighthall, principal of Paradise High School. Lighthall says his family has lost everything, including their home.
From what I’ve gathered, Paradise was much like the towns we celebrate at ABG. It was a small town in a rural area about three and a half hours north of Sacramento. I say was because the town isn’t there anymore. When NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro asked Lighthall about the reported 85% of homes destroyed by the fire, he said that assessment was most likely low. He knew of very few homes that had not been destroyed.
That was shocking.
But he wasn’t finished. He shared what he had heard from local authorities and also seen with his own eyes. Paradise was gone. Garcia-Navarro asked what he was going to do and he didn’t know. While the school buildings survived the fire, the town it serves is gone. There’s nowhere to live or work. He is unsure if there will ever again be students to attend the school.
It's saddening to ponder the fate of dead towns. We’ve come across more abandoned, ruined, or demolished towns than we can remember. But most of those were lost over a span of years. People woke up one morning in Paradise and it was gone that night. The Camp Fire claimed about 6700 structures in Paradise. So far the fire has taken 29 lives*.
Its easy to sit looking from far away and point to land management, development in interface areas, and other factors that contribute to wildfires. But the losses are too human to trivialize with politics. The death and destruction are staggering. There’s a loss of dignity that goes with leaving one’s hometown on these terms. Leaving for better opportunities is one thing. Leaving because there’s no reason to stay is another altogether. But that’s a decision many Paradise residents now face.
I’m not sure what the future holds for this small town. I'm not sure what I’d do in their place. Say a prayer or two for these folks. They certainly need it.
*A friend in California messaged to say the death toll has risen to 42 and is expected to rise. 3 firefighters have been injured and at least 228 people are missing.
Sam Burnham, Curator
The first time I ever visited Dade County was by accident. At least it was somewhat by accident. I was one of a group of guys headed to hike at Cloudland Canyon. The guy who knew where we were going wasn’t with us yet. We were going to pick him up from Covenant College which is atop Lookout Mountain but definitely in Georgia. But we weren’t sure exactly where. Our directions were foggy at best and we wound up in Chattanooga - I-24, then 59, then an exit somewhere in Dade County where a polite man in a shirt and hat that each read “Praise Yahweh” put us on the right road with clear directions. We went back into Tennessee up the mountain, into Walker County, Georgia, retrieved our companion who directed us southwest along the mountain ridge, back into Dade County, where we enjoyed a lovely day of hiking.
That’s a fair introduction to Dade.
The border of the county tracks Lookout Mountain from the state line of Alabama to is counterpart at the disputed border of Tennessee (how hard is it to understand “35th Parallel?”). The most direct routes into the county are via I-59 from Alabama or Tennessee. The only other real option is to take GA 136 up over the mountain, past Cloudland Canyon State Park and down through the switchbacks into Trenton. If it’s foggy up there, that’s a bad idea. It’s the perfect geographical and geological barrier for the “Independent State of Dade.”
There’s a legend (probably at least partially based on actual events) that says Dade County leaders got a little anxious during the secession debates of 1860 and voted to secede from Georgia and therefore the Union. They we're either tired of waiting or worried that Stephens and his types would keep Georgia in the Union. The legend continues that the county leaders in 1945, some 85 years later, realized Dade’s secession had never been reversed and then voted to rejoin Georgia and therefore the Union.
Today Dade County is still a bit remote with the natural barriers and all. The courthouse square in Trenton is about a 20 minute drive from Downtown Chattanooga. That’s not a bad commute by any stretch. But this area has not seen the development and growth that closer border towns like Rossville and Ringgold have experienced. Perhaps out of sight is out of mind.
While the development has mostly overlooked Dade, that’s not always a bad thing. Downtown Trenton has maintained its small town feel. There are local businesses and traffic along Main Street certainly isn’t dead. You can find plenty of old architecture in the area. Vernacular and Folk Victorian homes are commonplace. Several older commercial buildings are occupied while more seem to be vacant. While the bones are there to offer promise of building a stronger economy, sometimes the better option is to be left alone. Dade can offer an opportunity to get away from the noise and bustle of Chattanooga or their fellow Georgia counties over the mountain.
As my younger brother said, “Beautiful place. Tough place to get a win in any sport. People that live there LOVE being from there. Shame they got left off of the Georgia state quarter.” (Fact check: Dade was indeed omitted from the depiction of Georgia on our state quarter.) Danny has been there several times and has a pretty good feel for the place. My experiences there pretty much reflect his sentiments.
I stopped in at Cloudland Canyon on my way up. The ceiling was high for the overcast conditions so I took the 136 route up. The park was being well utilized. There was not a single available campsite, I encountered several hikers, and I can only assume the cottages were all booked as well.
The canyon is a gem of Dade County. The rift in the face of Lookout Mountain opens up allowing Daniel and Bear Creeks to join and flow through Sitton’s Gulch and out into Lookout Valley. The fall colors are breathtaking. I was reminded as I heard the falls on the canyon floor of the description in Ezekiel 43:2 of God’s voice as the “noise of many waters.” The sound was substantial and powerful. It could not be ignored, yet it was still peaceful and calming. That is the essence of the canyon. The vast breach, the roaring waters, and yet, peace. A stop there is highly recommended.
All in all, we consider this county, up in the far northwest corner, “The TAG (Tennessee , Alabama, Georgia) Corner,” if you will, to be among our favorite places. How could we not?
Sam Burnham, Curator
I typically like my drama to be in the movie rather than about the movie. So I’ve been curious about First Man. With so many complaints about the depiction of the flag planting, the portrayal (or lack) of Neil Armstrong’s patriotism, and whatever else has been stirring, I really wanted to see this one.
From a stylistic standpoint, this is a well made film. The use of camera effects and angles, music, perspective, all contribute to the storytelling. Building drama in this story is hard because (spoiler alert) Apollo 11 was successful. Making a well-known success still be suspenseful is hard. But this film does that. One of the greatest triumphs in human history has you on the edge of your seat, even 50 years later.
As hindsight is 20/20, it is easy for us to think the moon shot was an simple task. In our mind, there was no chance that Michael Collins would have to return to Earth alone, leaving his two teammates to remain forever at rest on the lunar surface. There is no thought of something going wrong somewhere along the half a million miles the mission covered from the Earth to the moon and back. It could have easily gone very differently. This film shakes your assurances and awakens you to the truth that Apollo 11 was a frighteningly dangerous mission. In doing so it gives a picture of the courage and adventurous spirit that was required to pull it off.
While there has been much talk about the flag, it’s there. You plainly see if standing proud alongside The Eagle at Tranquility Base. There is no scene depicting Armstrong and Aldrin planting it but that is not something I missed in the story. I didn’t walk away thinking that the story suffered from that omission.
On the contrary, this story is not about the flag, it’s really only about the moon because walking on the moon is what Armstrong is famous for. He is the subject of the movie. And the story gave me an appreciation for him as a person. Seeing the man struggle with so much while pressing forward into iconic status in the pantheon of American history. Armstrong is a pragmatic engineer with a stoic outward appearance but a deeply emotional core. Viewers are privy to his inner thoughts and emotions while those who love him most are often left curious. But the Armstrong we get to know in First Man is the hero America needs. He’s not arrogant or selfish. He’s confident without bragging and courageous without carelessness. He’s quiet and reflective yet competent and inspiring.
Ryan Gosling sold me Neil Armstrong. I bought it. With a larger than life character, that’s no easy task. But he does well with it and helps you emotionally connect with an American legend.
Claire Foy, who was so convincing as Queen Elizabeth in The Crown, never gives a hint of the Queen’s English. Her passionate portrayal should get her some buzz come awards season.
Jason Clarke, who I loved in Mudbound, is excellent in his supporting role as Ed White.
You can’t make a NASA movie without Deke Slayton and Kyle Chandler is quite convincing in that role.
At the risk of being repetitive, the key to appreciating First Man is to read the title again. It’s not about America. It’s not about the moon, the moon landing, or the space program. It’s about Neil Armstrong. It accomplishes that task thoroughly. If you go in expecting that, you can’t be disappointed.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire