By Jeff Keeling
The late Tom Dosser left no shortage of marks on the community. One of them, though, may stand out above the rest by virtue of two attributes – the breathtaking, commanding view from its summit, and the sheer volume of love and energy the lifelong woodsman poured into its construction and maintenance.
It’s the Lone Oak Trail, and without it, Buffalo Mountain Park would have no hiking access from the west side. Starting 1.7 miles up Lone Oak/Dry Creek Road from its intersection with Cherokee Road, the 1.8 mile-long trail serves as a testament to the skill and commitment of Dosser.
His widow, Janie, says Dosser, “just got it in his head that there ought to be one up this side. There were trails up the other side and there should be one on this side.”
It was the late 1990s, and Dosser – with his best friend of more than 50 years, Frank Knisley, approached the city to learn whether the land deeded to it by the Forest Service for Buffalo Mountain Park’s creation included the area where they wanted to build the trail. As it turned out, the city land came right to where the unnamed tributary of Sinking Creek came into Dry Creek Road.
“He was thrilled to death because he could start the trail right there on that road,” Janie Dosser recalls.
“They’d start, and work, and then change their mind about stuff. He worked hard on those switchbacks. I’ve only been up on it partway a time or two, but those switchbacks killed me, they’re so steep.”
Indeed, like most of the park, the west side is steep going until one reaches White Rock Ridge, which runs between about 3,000 and 3,300 feet elevation. Lone Oak Trail starts at around 2,050 feet and almost immediately leaves the tributary, ascending quickly in a series of switchbacks before reaching a flank of White Rock Ridge at around 2,550 feet of elevation. Oak, sassafras, wild blueberries and wildflowers offer delightful sights, smells and sounds along the way, easing the 1,200-plus foot elevation gain.
Knisley met Dosser when the two were teenagers, and has nothing but praise for the dedication of his late friend, who spent more than five decades as a Boy Scout scoutmaster. The two were involved in several trail projects and were inaugural members of Johnson City’s committee for Bikeways – a critical precursor to the Tweetsie Trail.
“He taught me everything I knew about being a woodsman,” Knisley says. “Tom was a man who said what he meant and meant what he said. You could depend on him. He never changed, and that’s good in his case.”
It certainly shows in the Lone Oak Trail, though Janie Dosser says her husband considered it a work in progress to the end.
“When somebody would say, ‘when is it going to be done?’ he’d say, ‘oh, that thing’s never going to be done.’”
The extremely well-constructed trail passes through significant standing deadwood left over from the large forest fire of 2008. After ascending the flank below White Rock Ridge, it crosses the upper end of the branch before rejoining the shoulder of the ridge, where several excellent views of the peaks of Sampson Mountain Wilderness offer some of the only west-facing views in the entire park.
It summits at Tip Top, the highest point in the park at just above 3,300 feet, with excellent views of Unaka Mountain just a few miles to the southeast. From there, hikers can return to Dry Creek or head east and north into the rest of the park, where around a half dozen trails beckon.
“He was passionate about it,” Janie Dosser says. “After he really got going on it and knew exactly what he was going to do, he was there every day that it wasn’t pouring rain – sometimes when it was.”
Dosser would carry a mattock and a small saw along for his labors of love. “He pretty much did it himself. He would have scouts from time to time, and the hiking clubs would come sometimes, but as far as digging it out, he had that little thing on his back, that short-handled pick. When there was a tree in the way, he would take his saw and chop down the tree.”
Dosser, who met Janie in her native Ohio while he was completing an engineering degree after World War II, eventually took over his father’s moving and storage business. “He worked very hard,” Janie says, but still found time to help her raise six children, lead Boy Scouts, advocate for and build trails, and be an involved member of Munsey United Methodist Church.
Janie Dosser says the Lone Oak Trail was a particular favorite of Tom’s, who died at 87 last Aug. 30 – the day another of his favorite things, the Tweetsie Trail, officially opened. “It made him happy,” she says of the Lone Oak Trail.
“He was concerned about the maintenance. I have some friends that are in the hiking clubs and do it, and one the other day said, ‘we went up Tom’s trail the other day, and I said, ‘did you do any maintenance?’”