It was common knowledge in our neighborhood that an abandoned mica mine was located somewhere on the mountain above my parents’ house. Despite a decade of roaming the woods, I’d never found the mine. It wasn’t for lack of trying.
I was allowed to explore on my own as long as I was within earshot of mother’s whistle—a good 200 yards in any direction. I had a favorite grapevine sturdy enough for swinging. I unearthed the artifacts of an old springhouse under a thick blanket of periwinkle. I knew where to avoid the ancient rusty springs of a long-ago discarded mattress and where grew the brambles, trilliums, and ground cedar, a member of the clubmoss family colloquially known as turkey foot.
As well as I knew the landscape, the mine eluded me until one holiday forced my father and me to wash dishes together at the kitchen sink, above which there was a window that looked out on the mountainside. Through the trees I saw a darkened indentation.
“Look!” I said to my dad, my soapy dishwater covered hand pointing out the window. “Look!”
“What?” he asked.
“It’s the mine!”
“There, just like right THERE,” I said, emphatically pointing.
We immediately launched an expedition. Shoes tightly laced, my father and I trudged straight up the mountainside. Closer up, it was easy to see why the spot had never drawn my attention. It wasn’t much to look at—red clay mud, roots, dead leaves, and small cakes of mica surrounded a hole not much taller than I.
“Should we go in?” I asked.
“Do you think we can?” Dad replied.
“At least for a little ways,” I said.
“It’s probably not safe,” Dad said.
“Well … no,” even my teenage self had sense enough to say.
Dad clambered a bit further up the mountain.
“Here’s another entrance,” he yelled back down to me.
I headed up hill too. Dad was standing by a long-since caved in dent in the mountain.
“This must be the top of it,” Dad said.
“Yeah,” I agreed, the two of us clearly demonstrating our vast knowledge of mica mine operations.
The caved in dent was much less interesting than the open hole below, so I scrambled back down and, while Dad wasn’t looking, inched my way closer to the opening and finally about a foot inside.
“Hey, hey, hey, gumball,” Dad admonished me. “Gumball” was one of his nicknames for me, bearing different connotations based on its tone and inflection. Either I was being cute, or mildly more intelligent than chewing gum. “Get away from there.”
“It goes way in,” I said, still hunched in the mouth of the hole.
“Yeah, well it’s probably full of bats,” Dad said.
Deterred and muddy, I backed out.
It took several more months of cajoling and my enlistment of a high school friend as a fellow explorer before I again was allowed to approach the mine. With a battery powered Coleman lantern and a sturdy flashlight in tow, we climbed the mountain and stood negotiating by the mine’s entrance—the concept of death by mine collapse was not unfamiliar to us. Our “plan” was that if anything seemed amiss, we would hightail it out.
I held the lantern in front of my face and ducked inside. The shaft opened enough to allow us to stand upright, though we still had to walk single file into the mountain. There was a small incline, and from about 20 feet in we no longer could see the entrance. Our lantern and flashlight, once so bright and powerful, then made us seem ridiculously ill equipped. We followed the shaft as it curved to the left. We each grew silent, neither of us willing to say to the other that the expedition was a tremendously bad idea. And just as my heart beat a little faster, the mineshaft ended.
“Awww,” I said. “Guess this is as far as we can go.”
We stood next to one another in a space about six feet tall and five feet wide.
“Turn off your flashlight,” I said, clicking off the switch on the lantern.
We were plunged into darkness. It was darker than dark. It was the kind of dark I’d never been in before and have only been in since when tour leaders at commercial caves like Linville Caverns like to pull the trick of turning out all the lights to scare the bejeezus out of tourists. It works. Inside that mountain, the phrase, “so dark you can’t see your hand in front of your face,” took on a very distinct new meaning.
“Okay. Let’s get out of here,” I said.
We headed out of the mine much more quickly than we had entered. Daylight was a welcome sight. We scuttled down the mountain, breeched the yard, and made it back to the house unscathed.
“How was it,” Mom asked.
“It was pretty cool,” I said.
My appreciation for those brave souls who made their living—and all too often died—mining deep within the earth is rooted in this memory, which in turn is responsible for this issue of Smoky Mountain Living’s overall theme of industry. Mountaineers were not sissies, and today the region bears an abiding respect for the hard work that shaped it and the industrious nature that redefines it.