How “Deliverance” changed the way that we play
Creek men and women joke that we were out wandering through the woods as soon as we could walk. Learning how to wear shoes came later! My “later” came at age 10 when I stepped, barefoot, on a broken Coca Cola bottle. However, that was not how most people in the United States played and lived before 1972, when “Deliverance” was released to the world.
Part Five of the Series on “Deliverance” and the enigma of Burt Reynolds
(Includes excerpts taken from © The Lord of Cumberland by Richard L. Thornton)
Journalists, movie-reviewers and bloggers today just don’t get it! The author of Deliverance, James Dickey, was for his day a social radical. The mere act of four businessmen putting a canoe in a Southern Appalachian river was highly unusual. Just seeing someone in a canoe in a river would cause traffic on a highway to stop and watch. The North Carolina and Georgia Mountains were formerly deserted from the end of October to early May. Most Southerners were terrified of being on a mountain highway, if it snowed . . . and on a mountain river, anytime of year.
Construction of some ski resorts in North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia, plus Alpine Helen, GA in the 1960s had begun to draw some winter time visitors, but the economic bases of virtually all towns in the region were textile and lumber mills. All of these plants would be closed within a couple of years after the signing of the North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA) at the end of the George W. Bush presidency in 1992. However, the tri-lateral treaty was actually proposed by Ronald Reagan in 1981.
Dickey was from the South Carolina Low Country, but as a teen, lived for a few years in the Cherry Log Creek area of Gilmer County, GA. The Cherry Creek Valley is between Ellijay and Blue Ridge. This is where he fell in love with the Appalachians. In fact, his most famous poem, Cherry Log Road, was inspired by after school afternoon trysts in an old abandoned car with a local mountain gal. You can watch him read the poem at the end of this article.
This love of the mountains soon transcended into a love of whitewater canoeing. His favorite canoeing river was the Coosawattee River, which was near Cherry Log. Dicky was horrified when local Boss Hogg’s produced enough political pressure to get approval for Carters Dam, which would back up the Coosawattee River and Talking Rock Creek, plus cover MANY nationally significant Native American town sites. The creation of Carters Dam was the inspiration for the book. Completion of the dam and the book were concurrent. Oh, did we mention that at the time Carters Dam was the largest earthen dam in the world and that it was built over a fault line in an active earthquake zone?
The Back to Nature Movement
In 1970, if a young man had asked the typical young lady to go hiking in the National Forest or canoeing on a mountain river with some friends, she would have quickly punched the “weird” button . . . and claimed to have other plans. Two years later, she would have punched the “cool dude” or “man of my dreams” button . . . especially if she has already gone to see “Deliverance.” In fact, I distinctly remember asking an Emory University coed for a first date in 1970, in which we would eat at the Smith House Restaurant in Dahlonega then look at the spring flowers and waterfalls along the highway to Blood Mountain. She laughed at me and told me to find some hick girl for such an outing.
Within a couple of years after the release of “Deliverance,” many young people had “coupled up” and moved to the mountains or at least some fertile valley to live off the land. Yes, the change in values was that sudden. After I temporarily settled into the abandoned chicken house near Track Rock Gap, I was astonished to encounter many of my classmates from high school, who had been living in the mountains since the mid-1970s.
One of my cousins received his Masters degree in Computer Science from Georgia State University in Downtown Atlanta then soon, along with his new bride, was running a cow dairy farm in the Northwest Georgia Mountains. He eventually owned a livestock and feed store then became a county agricultural agent then a professor of Agricultural Science at the University of Tennessee. Two years after I received my Masters in Urban Planning from Georgia State, my bride and I were restoring an old mountain farm in the Reems Creek Valley, north of Asheville. We soon would start the second state-licensed goat cheese creamery in the United States and later the first federally-licensed goat cheese creamery in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. All along, I was a full- time architect and urban designer, but my heart was in Nature and farming. Yes . . . that meant long hours of work after the architecture work was done.
One of my classmates, who was studying Industrial Science, started the Atlanta Area’s first outdoor recreation, camping and canoeing store after watching Deliverance just before graduation. Yes, that’s right. At the time in 1971, when Deliverance was filmed, there is was not a single store in Georgia that specialized in outdoor recreation . . . other than hunting and fishing. Prior to then, if you wanted a tent or canoe, you could either buy it from Sears or Western Auto or else order it by mail from a catalogue. My fraternity brother openly admitted that the big change in his life occurred the day we first skipped afternoon classes to go watch the filming of Deliverance on the Chattooga River.
A disdain for the Hippie Movement
The Hippie Movement began in San Francisco, but by the time that James Dickey was teaching English Literature at Georgia Tech in 1969, the nation’s largest Hippie Colony (30,000+) was in Midtown Atlanta, across the Downtown Expressway from Georgia Tech. Dickey had nothing good to say about what was happening across the expressway. It was an artificial circus in which most participants play-acted by putting on gaudy clothing and proclaiming an anti-materialistic lifestyle, fueled by a wide range of drugs. Like a 24 hour a day, seven day a week carnival, the sidewalks were packed with people . . . a dozen rock bands and a legend of guitars blending together in the background. The reality was a parade of drug-overdoses, murders, rapes, mental breakdowns, unwanted pregnancies and disillusionment.
Dickey told us that mankind was never meant to be packed together like rats at war with nature. Even though he, himself, was an alcoholic, he was especially condemning of the use of hard drugs to gain enlightenment. He said that his high was obtained by being on a mountain river. Little by little, as he showed us color slides of the mountains and the South Atlantic Coast, we began to understand what he was saying. Many of the things he told Georgia Tech students would appear two years later in the words spoken by characters in Deliverance.
A little over a year after I last heard James Dickey share his worldview with students, I was standing in the plaza in front of the Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacan. Something happened on a sunny June morning in Mexico. I suddenly had the urge to break free of the un-natural constraints put on me by “civilization” . . . just as Dickey described. I saw the mountaintop of Cerro Gordo looming in the background and wanted to be there. Without a canteen or a map, I marched over the Pyramid of the Moon and down the forbidden other side then continued northward across an ancient landscape, covered in broken pottery and stone tools. It was the first time that I had hiked in the countryside since age 14, when I was a Senior Patrol Leader and Eagle Scout with a Boy Scout troop. That love of nature had been concealed by the attraction for girls, football, girls, sock hops, parties, girls, good times, plus becoming a man and a professional architect. Now it was back and there to stay. By the end of the summer, I was hiking alone in the jungles of Central America, with nothing to protect me but the fearlessness of youth and a US Navy K-bar knife. My life would never been the same. I had gone down my own Coosahatchee River.
Looking back all those years ago, I still can’t decide if James Dickey’s book and movie changed the world we knew or if Dickey somehow sensed that the world was about to change and so wrote a book about it. Mother Earth News Magazine was first published exactly when the book, Deliverance, was first published. Whatever the case, there is was an instantaneous change in North America and Western Europe after Deliverance wowed the movie theaters in the spring of 1972. Young people started viewing hiking, canoeing and camping in groups as the most preferred form of casual dating. Suddenly, one began seeing more and more people on the Appalachian Trail during the winter and early spring. Department stores drastically expanded their selection of camping equipment and supplies. Stores, specializing in outdoor activities other than hunting and fishing sprang up all over the nation. Politicians suddenly began approving construction of more hiking trails and canoe access sites for rivers. State and national parks had to expand their camping facilities.
Soon the next phase appeared. After spending so much time in the wilderness, hundreds of thousands of young people decided that they wanted to live with nature all the time. They would live off the land and grow their own food. They bought canoes and trail bikes. Some gave up after one season. Recognizing that the Southern Highlands contained the greatest concentration of these “Back-to-the-Landers, Mother Earth News moved to Hendersonville, NC in 1979 and established an experimental “Eco-village.” In our section of the mountains, farmsteaders were highly organized socially. Almost every weekend, we held potluck dinners, musical jam sessions, volleyball matches, picnics or dance parties. The skilled farmers, especially those with Native American roots, stayed on the land throughout that decade . . . until the first child came.
Then young couples discovered that doctors, hospitals, supermarkets, car dealers and tax collectors were not interested in bartering organic vegetables in lieu of cash. There was a horrific recession during the first two years of the Reagan Administration (1981-82) that was instigated by the interest on loans being allowed to rise to as much as 23%. Many middle class entrepreneurs went bankrupt, while still running successful agribusinesses, because they couldn’t pay the interest. That recession pretty much permanently ended the widespread involvement of middle class families in entrepreneurship and speculative agribusiness. Some Back-to-the-Landers stayed on the land, but drove into town to work at conventional jobs, which would pay for their rural lifestyle. A few were able to expand their original pioneer efforts into commercial businesses such as smoked trout factories, licensed cheese creameries, large organic farms and rural industrial plants for canning preserves, etc. The joy of being part of thousands of young people, taking part in the Back-To-The-Land Revolution, was gone.
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