The New Road


JD Thomas Walking Away from his Burning Home Place, Sprinkle Creek, Madison County, NC 1997

I know while JD's momma was still at home, after his dad died, I said, 'Momma, what if that road comes through your land?' And she said, 'Aw, woman. It'll never change. It'll never happen. We'll never have a road like that; it'll never be. I'm not worried about it.' It's just unreal. We used to walk over all those hills. We used to go after school and on the weekends, and we'd walk all the way to Big Knob. We'd play, and we'd go up in the fields and pick apples and grapes and all that stuff off the farm. It never even dawned on me that this was going to happen to that place. He won't admit this, but I knew that night they burned the house I could see tears. It hurt him. It really did.
                                                              Lela Thomas, Sprinkle Creek
                                                              - from The New Road: I-26 and the Footprints of Progress in Appalachia 


The New Road: I-26 and the Footprints of Progress in Appalachia will soon be out of print. This is Book Two of my proposed trilogy of books from Madison County. The book uses photographs, oral histories and narrative writing to tell the detailed story of the largest earth-moving project in North Carolina history. If you have yet to add this book to your collection, now is the time to do so. I will gladly sign and inscribe as you wish. Go to for information.


Supervisors Inspecting


Supervisors Inspecting site of a recent blast, Buckner Gap, Madison County, NC 1997
- from The New Road: I-26 and the Footprints of Progress in Appalachia

A worker stops, surprised to see me photographing among the just shattered rock. He warns me to watch out for unexploded blasting caps that could still detonate, if I were to step on them. 


Unidentified Infant Graves


Unidentified Infant Graves, Woody Cemetery, Mars Hill, NC 1996
- from The New Road: I-26 and the Footprints of Progress in Appalachia


I've thought often of these two children
In the twenty years since I pictured their graves.
One boxed. One shrouded.
Shrouded -
It's how I want to be laid to rest. 

But what of these two?
Born, lived, and died
At a time when this place was raw.
Probably the mid 1800s. But who knows?
No markers.
We don't know their names,
If even they had names.
Much less their ages.
Or cause of death. 

They weren't on this earth long,
judging by the size of the holes.
Maybe they died in childbirth.
Many did back then.
We can figure something of their lives,
a close proximation, at least.
From history, and stories, and
The shape of this place.

Birthed in a small cabin made of chestnut logs,
Perhaps with a midwife, but probably not.
Likely, their parents were farmers, subsistence, poor,
growing enough to survive, little more.
Maybe new immigrants, from Scotland or Ireland.
About to be caught up in the Civil War,
Or already lived through it.

The exhuming crew probes and prods and soon
uncovers the graves.
There's little evidence but for the shape of the holes.
A button, a remaining sliver of wood.
No bones or cloth. 
They box what they find with
a few shovels of dirt, to be
moved to a new unmarked grave. 
Away from the new road that's taking their resting place.





I-26 at Buckner Gap, Madison County, NC 2008.

ShatterZone will open on Friday, November 7, at the Pink Dog Creative Gallery in Asheville's River Arts District. The address is 348 Depot Street and the reception runs from 5-8 pm on the 7th. This weekend is also Gallery Stroll Weekend throughout the River Arts District and most artists and studios will be open to the public. I will be at Pink Dog Creative on both Saturday the 8th and Sunday the 9th, after 10:30 on both days, if you'd like to stop by. I hope you will.

The project, ShatterZone, has been in my head for a while now, but remains a work-in-progress. This exhibit has offered me the opportunity to bring together a large grouping of images that speaks to this theme. It's been valuable in moving the whole project forward. Thanks go out to Randy Shull and Hedy Fischer, the owners and operators of Pink Dog Creative. And my friend, Ralph Burns, who stepped in at a moment's notice to handle the multiple things that go into putting on even a small show. Additionally, for me personally, Ralph's long understanding of my work, his critical comments and thoughts, and enthusiastic support made the process easy and comfortable. Lastly, I cannot say enough about Jamie Paul, my associate for over four years who had a hand in every part of this project. It simply wouldn't have come together without him. 


Driving Lessons with Kate, PawPaw, Madison County, NC 2009.


Madison County - A Bloody Jewel


Historical Marker, NC Highway 212, Madison County, NC, 2010

Madison County, North Carolina, earned the moniker Bloody Madison in the Civil War, specifically in January 1863, at the well documented, and well remembered, Shelton Laurel Massacre. That terrible and fearful time in our county’s personal past is thankfully long gone. The nickname, however, has stayed with us and some people would say for good reason.

I don’t know if we have more violence and mayhem in Madison than other places of comparable size and demographics, but we certainly have our fair share. Here are a few notable instances from years past. The year before I moved here, 1972, Nancy Morgan, a young VISTA worker, was murdered and left hogtied in her car on Hot Springs Mountain – a case that remains officially unsolved. Five years later, Philip Turpin and Lorenzo Crews murdered two Yancey County men passing through the county on their way to Greenville, Tennessee. The bodies were found some weeks later in an abandoned stone quarry on Highway 208 after the murderers were overheard bragging in a Cripple Creek, Colorado bar about “getting away with murder in North Carolina.” Then there were the elderly Gahagan siblings who were killed in their home near the Belva community and the man who murdered his daughter by feeding her food laced with pesticides. And one only has to look at the weekly arrest report in the newspaper to realize there are people living here, as there are everywhere, who believe violence is the answer to their problems. Wildness and isolation tend to be defining elements for much of Madison County and I think people, non-residents especially, associate those characteristics with the idea of Bloody Madison - a place where people tend to deal with their own problems.

              Convicted Murderers, Phillip Turpin and Lorenzo Crews, being led from the

Madison County Courthouse to the jail, Marshall, 1978.

There has been a concerted effort over the last fifteen years to temper the county’s image and it has since been reborn as The Jewel of the Blue Ridge. This extreme makeover corresponds with the construction and opening of I-26 and efforts to make the county more appealing to developers, small businesses, and new residents; a program that was largely successful until the economic collapse of 2008 altered the dynamic. Since then, most new, gated communities have gone belly up and the initial flood of new people has slowed. One has to wonder if those developers, as they ponder their red-inked balance sheets, or the county itself, as we mourn our bloodied landscape and lost tax revenues, still think of Madison as a jewel.

It’s not that I dislike the name, The Jewel of the Blue Ridge, or what it represents. I know I live in a jewel of a place - safe and comfortable, with generous, welcoming people. But I also know this can be a hard place to live and that it’s not for everyone. A jewel connotes a certain ease, a station in life, that doesn’t quite mesh with our sometimes hardscrabble reality in Madison County.

 Welcome Sign, Highway 25-70 West, near the Ivy River, Madison County, NC, 2013

But Bloody Madison continues to ring true for me - not the mayhem and violence associated with it, but the name itself. It’s a name with guts and character. For me, it speaks of wildness, and isolation, and a certain unknown, or unmapped, quality. We live in an environment where the natural world plays an influential role in our daily lives. Those influences – the air, water, and soil, the quiet, the mountains and forests, and the culture itself – are the Jewel we speak of. They are our reasons for being here. But without care, attention, and an openness to change, or simply because the world can be brutally unforgiving, as it was in 1863, that jewel can be tarnished and dulled, and oftentimes is Bloody.


Victims, Phillip Paludan. An excellent book on the Shelton Laurel Massacre.

The Kingdom of Madison, Manley Wade Wellman. Popular history of Madison County.

Mystical Madison - The History of a Mountain Region, Milton Ready. A new non-academic history by Professor Emeritus at UNCA.

Sodom Laurel Album - Rob Amberg

The New Road: I-26 and the Footprints of Progress in Appalachia - Rob Amberg