Completed film, finished trail point to value of perseverance


Jeff Keeling, Assistant Editor

All people really need are food, water, shelter and companionship. There is much truth in that thought, related to me recently by an old friend, Sam Henegar.

Sam’s words – spoken as he told me about his years-long creation of a now-complete documentary, “The Appalachian Trail: An American Legacy” – have played over in my head several times the past few days. They’ve mingled with thoughts about how long it took Sam to produce his labor of love. Add in this weekend’s opening of the Tweetsie Trail after years of effort by many people, and it seems a good time to pay tribute to the virtues of endurance and simplicity.

Sam was just in high school when we played together in a band back before the turn of the century. We’ve spoken infrequently through the years, but Sam has told me several times about the documentary he was producing. His dad Steve, a water quality specialist with the state agriculture department, instilled in Sam a love of the AT.trail1

Around 2006, as some Johnson City leaders and area trail advocates began the long, slow process that would culminate in this weekend’s opening of the multi-use Tweetsie Trail along the railbed of the old East Tennessee & Western North Carolina (Tweetsie) line, Sam’s project began germinating in his mind.

Folks had done rails-to-trails projects, and folks had made documentaries about the AT. The highly popular Virginia Creeper Trail was just an hour away in Southwest Virginia. The “life on the trail” film, particularly when it dealt with through-hikers, was already at risk of being overdone.

Furthermore, the old Tweetsie line was owned by a railroad company, budgets were tight and there were about umpteen other reasons to just let the idea subside. In Sam’s case, he had to make a living, and pouring most of his spare time and money into a self-funded documentary – albeit one that diverged from the through-hiker motif – probably seemed a little crazy to him at times.

But this is Southern Appalachia. People didn’t thrive in these isolated mountains without an extra helping of perseverance and ingenuity. Nor did they generally get impatient as they made a hard living from the land or built its small cities. And more than most, I like to think, as revolutions swirled around them – industrial, cultural, technological – they remembered that we have enough when we have food, water, shelter and companionship.

Without that perseverance and ingenuity, the ET&WNC probably never would have been completed. It was chartered in 1866 but not completed until 1882, even though it was just 35 miles long. It utilized a narrow, 3-foot-gauge to get through the rugged mountains between Johnson City and Cranberry, N.C. (eventually spanning another 30 miles to Boone, N.C.)

And without that appreciation of the true necessities in life, the “Eat Taters and Wear No Clothes,” as the Tweetsie was also called, probably would not be remembered today as the kind of railroad whose personnel shopped in Johnson City for residents of the mountain villages, or gave free rides during the Depression.

The establishment of the Appalachian Trail required a similar level of ingenuity and perseverance. (I plan to see Sam’s documentary and learn more about it.) Like the Tweetsie, it took 16 years (1921 to 1937) from vision to initial completion, and it was another three decades before the AT achieved true federal protection.

Without that story, in which Kingsporter Stan Murray played a significant part, all these trendy documentaries about through-hikers wouldn’t exist. And it’s that story of the AT’s history that Sam tells in his nearly hour-long movie. It has the Appalachian Trail Conservancy impressed enough to be screening it in D.C., Atlanta, Cincinnati, Charlotte and Carlisle, PA during this fall’s “Relive the Legacy” membership drive. The ATC website calls Sam’s work “an incredible film.”

Sam plans to donate a hefty portion of any proceeds to the ATC. For him, any enjoyment people get out of learning more about the roots of this 3-foot-wide, 2,180-mile American treasure will be payback enough for his labors.

The same internal satisfaction applies, I suspect, for the people who, in the Tweetsie Trail, have delivered this area’s residents a gift they will enjoy for generations. As the lovely and talented Angela and I biked its length and back Sunday, it was a joy to see many dozens of people enjoying the trail. I hope that as we battle our healthcare challenges here regionally, we will see ever more folks out biking, running and walking not just on the Tweetsie but all over the place.

If you get a chance, go enjoy the Tweetsie Trail and the AT both. Bring some food, some water, and a companion. See if you don’t leave fulfilled.



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