Cover of The Best American Travel Writing 2009

The Last Wild River

One need not weep romantic tears for them,
But when the last moonshiner buys his radio,
And the last, lost wild-rabbit of a girl
Is civilized with a mail-order dress,
Something will pass that was American,
And all the movies will not bring it back.

-Stephen Vincent Benet, “John Brown's Body”

Thick strokes of early-evening crimson smeared across the rolling mountains of Rabun County as I drove up Highway 23 from Atlanta toward Clayton. The whole world looked like it was burning up right behind the horizon line. It was the nine-degree, molar-rattling middle of January in North Georgia, and I was on my way to visit the Chattooga River, fifty-seven miles of fierce backcountry water and etched stone where the film of my father's first novel, Deliverance, was shot in the summer of 1971.

When I read some months back that a lawsuit brought by a boating organization called American Whitewater had prompted the Forest Service to consider opening the river's headwaters to boaters, an unexpected sadness came over me. It was a variant of what I felt years ago when I learned that my childhood home had been torn down and rebuilt into something I couldn't recognize. The Chattooga River is generally recognized to be the wildest, most unforgiving in Southern Appalachia; its headwaters flow through some of the toughest terrain in the region. It's a twenty-one-mile stretch of swirling water where the battalions of rafters, kayakers, and canoeists who float the rest of the river every year can't go, or at least not legally. According to American Whitewater, it's the only piece of river in the entire National Forest system, in fact, where boaters aren't allowed. For reasons that differ according to who you ask, the Forest Service banned boating on the upper third of the river in 1976, two years after the Chattooga was designated a Wild and Scenic River by Congress, in order to prevent boaters and fishermen from getting in one another's way. That laws and lawsuits and controversy could extend even into the North Georgia backcountry was a reminder for me that the outside world was always pressing in on the Chattooga and on the people who lived around it.

The Chattooga River, 2008. Photograph by Peter McIntosh

Really, though, the outside world has been pressing in for over a century-the devastating logging period after the Civil War, the TVA dams following the Great Depression, the ever-increasing numbers of vacation homes going up-but it started pressing a lot harder when Deliverance hit theaters in 1972, and with that fact comes, for me, a twinge of guilt.

I wasn't born until ten years after Deliverance was filmed. What I knew of the river-and by extension, what I knew of Southern Appalachia-I knew only from the film and from memories of my father: the stories he told me and the bluegrass ballads he picked out on his guitar every morning before he worked on his writing. Both of my parents' families had at one point come down from the hills, from North Georgia on my father's side and East Tennessee on my mother's. They used to say that the mountains are something you carry in your blood. If that was true for me I couldn't feel it.

But the Chattooga I did carry with me. Ever since I was old enough to watch Deliverance, the river-called the Cahulawassee in the story-thundered through my imagination and, perhaps more importantly, pooled in a certain corner of my heart. It was where my father's work came alive for millions of people and lodged itself permanently in the American brain, for better and for worse. Every time I watch the film and I see the Aintry sheriff, my father at a healthy forty-eight years old, standing on the banks of the river, I want to reach right through the screen. And when I hear some version of the old spiritual "Shall We Gather at the River," I remember him playing it on his twelve-string, and I imagine the river in the song is the Chattooga. The two are forever fused in my mind. That I can't help.

I wanted to see the river while it remained, as it was called in the movie, "the last wild...river in the South." I wanted the place that lived for me only in film and photographs and secondhand stories to live for me in a real way, in the winter, after the tourists had gone.

The free-flowing waters of the Chattooga are the color of faded denim, so wide and flat in places that it looks like you could walk right out on them and so boulder-strewn in others that it looks like a bruise-colored sculpture garden, half-submerged. The river begins near Cashiers, North Carolina, then stretches along to form a good bit of the Georgia-South Carolina border before it turns back into Georgia, joins with the Tallulah River and surrenders to Lake Tugaloo about seven miles south of Clayton. Its boiling rapids say as much about the people who named them as they do about the treacherous topography of the river itself: Warwoman, Bull Sluice, Sock 'Em Dog, Rock Jumble, Raven Chute, Jawbone, Dead Man's Pool.

"It is," Buzz Williams, one of the principal founders of the Chattooga Conservancy, kept reminding me when he took me up into the headwaters, "a killer river." He meant that thirty-nine people have drowned in it since the Forest Service started keeping records on river fatalities in the '70s. Several rapids are considered "certain death" if you are unlucky enough to fall into them. Some of the people who fell out of their boats or fell in trying to cross the river were sucked into hydraulics or "strainers" (a piece of wood jammed into a rapid) so dangerous that their bodies couldn't be recovered.

Before Deliverance was released only a few hundred people traveled down the river every year; after, that number jumped into the thousands and then the tens of thousands, and when a drowning occurred, it was attributed to "Deliverance-fever." Despite the river's dangers-or maybe because of them-the lower Chattooga quickly became one of the most popular whitewater destinations in the country; in the past two decades, over a million people have floated it. The fever may be gone, but there's no question that the mystique of the Deliverance river endures.

Many of the locals were none too pleased with the flood of outsiders that arrived during the making of the film and for years following its release, especially when they began to see that the rest of America viewed them as violent, inbred rednecks. In much the same way as Jaws tapped into a primal fear of what lies under water, Deliverance tapped into a collective unconscious fear of the watcher in the woods that is as old as American literature itself. A person is most afraid when he is the most vulnerable, and never is he more vulnerable than when he is at the mercy of the wild.

The sadistic mountain men in Deliverance were, of course, fictional, as were the town of Aintry and the Cahulawassee River, but the residents of Rabun County were left to contend with the peculiar legacy of the film long after the cameras stopped rolling. The theme from the movie, "Dueling Banjos," is used in commercials to sell everything from dish detergent to SUVs. PADDLE FASTER, I HEAR BANJO MUSIC is printed on T-shirts and bumper stickers all over the South. The character actor Bill McKinney, who uttered the improvised line "squeal like a pig" (the line does not appear in either the novel or original screenplay), now maintains his official website at www.squeallikeapig.com. It's hard to get away from.

When Congress designated the Chattooga a Wild and Scenic River-the only one in Georgia-that brought its own tensions. The designation protected the river watershed from industrial and commercial development, but also placed it under the control of the Forest Service, making some of the locals feel that the river had been taken from them and given to the federal government. New regulations on how the river could be used chafed against old mountain traditions. No cars were allowed within a quarter mile of the water, for example, which discouraged large family gatherings like baptisms. "With that government corridor they've created a desert," one local resident told John Lane when he was working on his book, Chattooga: Descending into the Myth of Deliverance River, "and nobody can make a living out there but a bunch of rich kids with colorful boats."

Most of the paddlers who flocked to the river were from elsewhere, and they soon became the lightning rod for local resentment. People told me stories of boaters who left their cars in parking areas near river put-ins and came back to smashed windows and slashed tires. Even as late as the mid-'80s, they said, arson was a problem. So was theft. Backwoods roughnecks trying to scare off paddlers sometimes fired warning shots from the bank, strung barbed wire across the river to slash up rafts, or even hauled boats right out of the water.

Jon Voight in Deliverance (1972). Courtesy of Warner Bros./Photofest

Buzz drove me up to where the headwaters ended and the rest of the river began, at the Highway 28 bridge, the dividing line between where boaters are allowed and where they aren't. The bridge isn't far from Chattooga Old Town, the site of the former Cherokee village for which the river was named. No one is completely certain, but most believe that the word Chattooga is related to a Cherokee word for crossing, tsatugi, meaning either "we have crossed here" or "he has crossed the river and come out upon the other side." European disease and forced displacement wiped out the Old Town's ninety or so inhabitants by 1775. All that is left is a flattened patch of grass, hardly bigger than a high-school football field, a place where something used to be.

Originally from nearby Pendleton, Buzz has been coming to the river "since he could stick his thumb out," and worked on it as both a raft guide and a Forest Service employee before he focused on conservation. There's a saying down on Cumberland Island that the devil has his tail wrapped around the place, and that's sort of how Buzz feels about the Chattooga. "There's always something threatening it," he said. He has a deep respect for the people who live near the river and a stronger understanding than most of the circumstances affecting their lives: Skyrocketing property taxes, for example, force many to pick up and move from the land their families farmed before the mountains represented the luxury of weekend getaways. When rich folks build million-dollar vacation homes on similarly expensive lots, land values and property taxes for everyone go up, and that happens with more frequency every year. "If you're a farmer and your land is worth two million dollars," Buzz said, "how are you gonna grow enough to compete with that?"

As we drove from place to place in his pickup, Buzz pointed out who lived where and how long they'd been there, whose barn he helped build, who spent a third of his life in the pen, who had a still out back, whose moonshine was better than whose. One woman kept a deer in her fenced yard.

We talked some about a story I'd read about a Forest Service employee who claimed to have been chased into the Chattooga by a cougar last fall. I'd heard several people in Clayton joking around about the sighting, playfully warning each other to "watch out for the cougar." The Eastern cougar is believed to be extinct in the South; no one has seen any proof of one for decades. Buzz didn't think there was any chance that a big cat was prowling around the backcountry of North Georgia. "Probably just a bobcat," he said. Small ranch-style and A-frame houses with dusty pickups out front intermittently dotted the snow-dusted hillsides, smoke curling from their brick chimneys. Barns with rusted tin roofs listed at precarious angles. A power line near the road sagged under the weight of two hefty red-tailed hawks.

You can feel it when you leave the pavement in North Georgia. Even in the dead of winter, the air wraps around you with the smell of mountain laurel, hemlock, and rhododendron, a smell just a notch sweeter than that of fresh-cut grass. The world unfolds in sheaves of green and gray and blue and brown, then folds back up in layers of shadow. The dirt road drops off steeply to either side, without the added security of guardrails. Radio stations come in infrequently, if at all. Walk half an hour into the woods, and you're away from ninety percent of the population. Walk an hour into it, and you leave behind ninety-nine percent. It's just you and the limitless indifference of a vast, tangled country.

I was in the South, certainly, but it was not the suburban South I grew up in or even a South I recognized. It was a place where people accepted the dictates of the land they were living on and understood its character, a place free-at least for now-of the gated communities and department stores, happy hours and hustle that make so many cities interchangeable. There is a sense in the hills that things are built to last.

We stopped for lunch in the town of Highlands, about ten miles from where the river actually begins, and I saw for a moment what could be on the horizon for Rabun County. Heavy gates and thick walls began appearing around large, lavish houses, some with FOR SALE signs from "Country Club Properties" staked into their yards. The shops downtown boasted faux-Tudor storefronts. At Buck's Café, I ate a mozzarella and basil sandwich while the lilting horns of loungey jazz played on the stereo. In the corner, heavily accessorized blonde women with glossy polished nails picked at scones and nursed cappuccinos. The mounted deer head on the wall looked, if anything, like an ironic touch. There was no doubt that we were in high-dollar country.

On the way back to Clayton, we passed an old sign, so faded that I struggled to read it: AMUSEMENTS, PICNICS, COLD BEER, USED CARS. Buzz told me it was the sign for Burrell's Place, a small bar where everyone used to sit out on the front porch and drink beer while a guy named Junior Crowe played the banjo. Before it closed years ago, all kinds of people gathered at Burrell's: rich kids from Highlands, hippie river guides, old-timers and farmers from the mountains. It was the sort of place that doesn't exist in Chattooga country anymore.

"It's magic out there," Dave Perrin said of the headwaters when I met up with him at his office one afternoon, speaking of it with the tenderness one usually reserves for a first love. Perrin is the Chattooga Outpost Manager of the Nantahala Outdoor Center, one of three commercial rafting companies that are allowed to run trips on the river. Just like Buzz and most of the other people I met who have dedicated their lives to the Chattooga, Dave started out decades back as a longhaired raft guide, and like them, the river got under his skin.

Even though there had been no talk of allowing commercial outfitters to run trips on the headwaters, Dave felt that private boaters (whose interests American Whitewater represents) should be allowed access to it. "How can anyone want to protect what they can't even see?" he asked. Moreover, in his view, floating a river in a boat was the most low-impact vantage point from But the headwaters controversy struck me as an issue of supply and demand that goes on in all the unkempt corners of America: The demand is getting stronger while the supply is getting smaller. which to explore it. "Boating," he remarked, "is not evil. You take people out on the Chattooga, and you can see the river affect them. You can see the light bulbs go on. Most people come from a computer-driven world, and this is something that isn't virtual. It's not a computer game. If I'm taking kids out of their urban environment and they go home and they appreciate [nature] differently, that's a win."

I remembered how exhilarating and edifying my own whitewater trips had been, on rivers in North Carolina and Oregon, and how much they informed my feelings about the outdoors and I couldn't disagree with him. Could I really blame anyone in techno-heavy 2008 who longed to "get back to nature?" I'd do it more if I could. But I also thought about the Nantahala and Ocoee Rivers near the Chattooga, two once-wild rivers that are now essentially water parks, clogged with tourists looking for "wilderness adventures."

It was true: No one was trying to dam up the Chattooga or build a shopping mall on it. And it was also true that the Forest Service restricted how many people could or could not travel down it in a given year. But the headwaters controversy struck me as an issue of supply and demand that goes on in all the unkempt corners of America: The demand is getting stronger while the supply is getting smaller. Once the land is fought over like it's private property, like it's just another view lot, who draws the lines and where do they draw them?

Sometimes the only way to keep something wild, I thought, is to keep as many people out of it as you can. There was no doubt that everyone I talked to loved the Chattooga. But I began to worry that some of them, in a phrase I heard many times that week, would love it to death.

Driving through the backcountry reminded me of the first scene in the novel of Deliverance, where the four main characters, Atlanta suburbanites, are sitting in a bar planning a canoe trip in the mountains. Lewis, the hard-edged survivalist of the group who lacks the pure instinct for actual survival, points to the Cahulawassee on his map, set to be dammed up and turned into a lake for hydroelectric power (as so many rivers were back then) and explains to the others that, "Right now it's wild. And I mean wild. It looks like something up in Alaska. We really ought to go up there before the real estate people get hold of it and make it over into one of their heavens." Famously, this is a trip that throws the men into a horrifying struggle for their lives: One is raped, another shatters his leg, another is killed on the river.

My father didn't talk much about wilderness, it was "wildness" he was interested in. Wilderness, to him, was just an idea, a romantic falsification of nature rather than the untamed, untamable thing itself. Wildness was a place where man risked everything; it wasn't a theme park or a toy you played around with or a place you ventured into for thrills. It could kill you. The characters in Deliverance were prepared only for wilderness, and they found wildness. Wildness bites back.

"I think a river is the most beautiful thing in nature," my father wrote in one of his journals, right before the novel was published in 1970. "Any river is more beautiful than anything else I know." He was drawn to writers who felt similarly inspired by water, like Melville and Conrad. Heraclitus's philosophy of universal flux and his famous dictum, "you cannot step into the same river twice," particularly moved him. But there were few things that terrified my father as much as man's ever-growing intrusion into the natural world. "We're never going to be able to get out of the 'man world,'" he said in a documentary back in the '70s, "if we don't have any place to go to from the man world. That's why we need these rivers and streams and creeks and woods and mountains. You need to be in contact with nature as it was made by something else than men." As much as Deliverance was a story of survival, or, as so many define it, a story of "man against nature," it was a story about the commercial destruction of a rugged, primordial landscape and a part of the South that was slipping away, even back then.

Right across the river from Clayton, the Long Creek Bar is a plain, white box of a building that looks like it might have been converted from something else, like a warehouse for three-wheelers. Inside, the place has concrete floors and the ratty shine of exposed ductwork on the ceiling. The weak lamps above the two pool tables give off the only light in the room, and, on the night I stopped in with Buzz to grab a beer, leftover Christmas garland sagged off tables in the back, waves of cigarette smoke stung my eyes, and two guys in trucker caps shot pool while AC/DC's "Shoot to Thrill" played feebly on the jukebox.

Buzz ordered a Budweiser and sat down at the bar next to a sixty-something-year-old man with a bushy beard and camo cap whom he knew from the old days at Burrell's Place. The man had clearly had a few, and when the subject turned to the fight over the upper Chattooga (which he pronounced Chatt-ooga), he took a long drag from his Winston and became agitated, like he couldn't stand to hear another word about it. "All I wanna know is," he said, "if they open up that upper river, who's gonna pay to get the bodies out?"

Buzz asked him what some of the old-timers from Burrell's might have thought about all the controversy, and the guy shook his head and rested his hands on his pack of cigarettes. "I don't know about that, but I do know that the worst thing that ever happened to this area was that-" I knew what was coming. "-that Deliverance."

I was silently grateful that he didn't know who I was. Half of me wanted to apologize to him for something, and half of me didn't feel there was anything to apologize for. That was a feeling that I walked around with my entire time in Chattooga country: a shadow of guilt about the lasting legacy of Deliverance doing battle with the pride of my father's work. I've often wondered what it must be like to have grown up in North Georgia and to see your life, your town, your way of living flattened out for someone else's purposes and eventually turned into a national punch line. Hollywood has not been kind to Southern Appalachia in this sense. Even before Deliverance, there were the Kettle clan from the '40s and the Clampetts, but the shocking violence of Deliverance, in the imagination of so many, ratcheted up the stereotype.

It's hard for me to read much of what is written about Appalachia in popular media, because it tends to be written in a cartoonish "them-thar-hills" vernacular, always something about a "feisty, clannish" people who sit around a-drinkin' and a-stompin' and a-pickin' on the banjo. Some of that's true, sure, but some of it isn't. It's as though Southern Appalachia is the corner of America that America forgot, and the virtues that are generally lauded as defining the American frontier identity-self-reliance, resourcefulness, hard work-are now ripe material for ridicule. If the people around the Chattooga River had no particular love for the rest of the world, I couldn't really blame them.

More than the guilt/pride, though, I had to contend with the sharp pangs of loneliness that were setting in. As enraptured as I was by the Chattooga, I couldn't know it the way the locals, the paddlers, the fishermen, and the activists knew it, because they knew it like they knew a person: its moods, its temper. This is a part of the world that I always thought would feel familiar to me, but it didn't. That stuff my parents told me about the mountains being in the blood didn't feel true. I realized, slowly, that everything I did-from the clothing I wore to how I put my hair up to the way I spoke-marked me as a person who wasn't from here, and I was in a place where being "from here" mattered.

On my last day in North Georgia, I drove over to Mountain Rest, South Carolina, to meet up with Butch Clay, who wrote a guidebook on the river and possesses an intimate knowledge of the headwaters area. He was fighting off strep throat, but felt so strongly talking with me about preserving the wildness up there that he filled a thermos with lime juice, honey, and a bit of Jack Daniels and insisted we hike down into a place called the Rock Gorge. "You're lucky," he said, "that I have to save my voice."

He and I drove to a small parking area near the Chattooga River Trailhead, packed up two sets of hip waders and some lunch, and started our hike to the gorge, some of the most intractable wilderness on the entire river. It was not far from the Rock Gorge, incidentally, where the Forest Service employee claimed he had seen the cougar. "If there is one around, it'd be up here," Butch said, the naturalist in him sounding hopeful. "Lots of overhanging cliffs for it to drag food into."

The hike was a sweaty, slippery, merciless hour-long climb down, with all the potential to be twice that coming back up. "There are no roads in it, and no roads to it," Butch kept saying of the gorge, speaking more philosophically than to me. "If you want to see it then you have to earn it." In the words of Dwight Yoakam, we were a thousand miles from nowhere, a fact that sank in when Butch told me that if I broke an ankle, he'd build me a fire and leave me his gun.

The gorge looked like a hulking rock coliseum, with the pine-covered mountains forming a steep V on either side that the noonday sun blanketed with light. The wind galloped straight through with as much purpose as the river did, chilling my skin under all the layers of sweat-soaked clothes. Once we picked our way down to the water, we saw that there were thin sheets of ice all over it, looking like someone had encased the scene in glass. "Rime ice," Butch said, as he broke off some of it with his boot. Ever so often a huge sheet of ice would break off of a ledge somewhere in the gorge and crash into the water, and I would wheel around, thinking it was a bear or a wild hog.

The water was about two-and-a-half to three-feet deep and, from the bank, didn't seem to be moving too fast. Butch and I pulled on our hip waders and slowly stepped out into the river. The carpet of rounded rocks on the riverbed was too slick for the traction on my waders to grip, and the current so strong it felt like someone had a rope around my waist and was pulling at it, hard. I tilted and stumbled. My arms reached out, though there was nothing to grab onto. The water spilled over the tops of my waders and was so cold that my body didn't register it as cold but as scorching heat; it burned the tops of my legs and painted my skin bright red. If the river wanted to take me, it could have.

I wanted to lock the wildness of the river into the sandstone somehow so that it couldn't be touched...and climb back out-straight up-through the mud and undergrowth, crawling over decayed logs, tripping over vines, my lungs burning from the effort because there weren't any roads. Eventually, we made the crossing, climbed onto an imposing boulder, and talked while we ate lunch about the people who wanted to bring boats to the upper river. The tide of tourism seemed inevitable: The three major cities nearby-Atlanta, Asheville, Chattanooga-are growing all the time, as are the popularity of whitewater sports and the technology with which those sports can be enjoyed. Rapids that were unrunnable thirty years ago are easy to navigate in today's smaller boats. Really, there was no empirical evidence to make a convincing case against boaters using the headwaters. Aside from the possibility for the sort of pollution that comes with every outdoor activity, I didn't feel that boaters represented more of a threat to the landscape than, say, the hunters and campers in the headwaters did. It all came down to gut feeling, not reasoning: Either you wanted people up there or you wanted people to stay away; either you wanted things to change or you wanted things to stay the same.

"Everyone is asking, 'What's in it for me?'" Butch said. "No one is saying 'What can I give up?'" Perhaps thinking of his young son, he continued, "Where else are we gonna teach our children about this kind of wilderness? There is nowhere else." I asked him if he thought there was anything that could be done about it. He paused for a second, looking out onto the water. "I believe someone with deep pockets and a stout heart could hold 'em off for a while, and I'll stick right there with 'em." He sliced off a piece of cheese and some sausage. "But I ain't got the deep pockets."

The last time my father saw the river was in 1988, when he visited it on a snowy winter weekend to participate in a short film about his career. Buzz Williams showed him around, and some months later, after the documentary aired in Columbia, Buzz told me that my father shook his hand at the screening and said, "Say goodbye to the river for me." In a dark twist on that line from Heraclitus, he knew that he could never step into the same river twice, and the Chattooga that existed as a site for Deliverance tourism wasn't the same river he stepped into back in 1971.

Sitting in the Rock Gorge, I looked around at the ice-sheathed cliffs and fallen trees spanning the water and wanted everything I could see to stay right like it was, as my father had once seen it. I wanted to lock the wildness of the river into the sandstone somehow so that it couldn't be touched by men, and climb back out-straight up-through the mud and undergrowth, crawling over decayed logs, tripping over vines, my lungs burning from the effort because there weren't any roads. In my heart, if not my head, I wanted the glittering, jade eyes of the last cougar in the South to study me from under a ledge. I wanted to feel that cold fear that sluices through your veins when you realize you're truly alone out in the wild-or that you aren't. Emerging from the woods at dark-thirty (the Appalachian term for half past sunset), looking rougher, as my dad used to say, than a night in jail, I wanted to drive back down out of the mountains knowing that the people who had been living there for generations weren't in any danger of being forced out, because I didn't want to walk around in fifty years and see flattened patches of grass where the farmers and moonshiners and hellraisers used to live. And, before I arrived home, I wanted to stop at Burrell's Place and drink a beer out on the porch while Junior Crowe played songs that sounded familiar to me. "Shall We Gather at the River," maybe. That's one I know.

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Photos Credits: Jon Voight in Deliverance (1972). Courtesy of Warner Bros./Photofest