A Digital Journal

Photography by Tony Triolo

The Dismals

Recently, I took my grandson on a visit to the Dismals Canyon in northwest Alabama. I have been there many times, going back at least thirty years, but this was my grandson’s first visit. I’ve never really known why the place was given such an unlikely name as it is anything but a “dismal” place. In fact, it is one of my favorite places to visit in the entire state and I feel fortunate that I live only ninety minutes away. Located in Franklin County, near the town of Phil Campbell, the Dismals is a limestone gorge which exhibits a topography quite unlike any other place in north Alabama. There are towering rock cliffs, caves, grottos, a meandering stream and a stunning waterfall which empties into a shallow pool, perfect for cooling hot summer feet. The canyon is also the home to the insects known as “dismalites”. The larval forms of these flies emit a bright blue-green light to attract food and mates. They cover the canyon walls and are quite a sight to see on a warm summer evening. The bugs have been the subject of a Discovery Channel documentary as they are quite rare and can be found in only a couple of places. Nightly torchlight tours are conducted in order to view the dismalites up close and personal.

Dismal Canyon was declared a National Natural Landmark in May 1974. The history of the canyon is quite interesting. Over 10,000 years ago cavemen inhabited a bluff shelter on the canyon floor. Several Indian tribes like the Chickasaw and Cherokee followed making the Dismals home, but in 1832 they were forced from these ancestral lands as part of the Trail of Tears migration westward.

Unfortunately, the Dismals has become a very popular place to visit, especially during this time of COVID-19 and our need to social distance. Getting out in nature is one activity most people seem to think comes with minimal risk. The day I took my grandson there, it was very busy, and although the property comprises over 85 acres, it still seemed crowded. It was a far cry from visits years ago, when often I would be the only person in the park. Nevertheless, my grandson and I had a good time just exploring and taking photos. Following the map that we received when we arrived, my grandson blazed the trail, although I could probably have hiked the 1.5-mile trail blindfolded. He got into the history of the place, which was recounted in great detail on the opposite side of the map. He enjoyed learning about the few bandits and desperados who used the canyon as their hideout after a bank robbery or worse. I’m not sure how many of those stories are based in fact or are just the fanciful dreams of some tourism promoter.

If you plan a visit to the Dismal Canyon, please be aware that it is located on private property and there is an entrance fee. There is a gift shop, soda fountain (closed during COVID-19), rental cabins and rest rooms on site.

Here are a few images from my most recent visit to the Dismals Canyon.


Rainbow Falls at the Dismals


Entrance to Pulpit Rock


Indian Head Rock


Dismals Branch


Rainbow Falls Bathers


The “Impossible Tree”


Rainbow Falls and Swinging Bridge

August 16, 2020 Posted by | Alabama, Franklin County, Historic Alabama, Landscape, Nature, Phil Campbell, Photography, Travel | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tennessee Color Tour

       What is it about autumn that makes one want to pick up their camera and just head out the door. With no real destination in mind, that’s just what I did this past week. The only thing I was certain of, was that I would head north – to Tennessee. I thought that the fall colors would be better there, as nature’s display here in Alabama has been less than impressive this year. Unfortunately, it didn’t take me long to realize that our northern neighbor was not fairing any better than we were. In fact, it might have been worse. I had to wonder if I was too early in the season, too late, or was this just one of those years where Mother Nature sort of takes a vacation, choosing to stay indoors and not display her finest frock. I could have bought that argument except for the fact that my sister, who recently returned from a week in Vermont, could not stop talking about the incredible, vibrant colors she witnessed there. So, was it that Mother Nature only had enough energy this year to glorify states north of the Mason-Dixon line? Did we have too much rain? Has it been too warm? Who knew? All I knew was that I was not going to be able to count on the autumn colors to carry the day. Color would no longer be the overriding element in my photographs, but it could still play a supporting role if I were lucky enough to find any. Now, granted, I did see some patches of color – a lone crimson maple or spectacular golden ginkgo tree, but usually they were located in front of a trailer park or a gas station, not places photographers normally aim their lenses. So, I would have to find things to photograph which offered something other than just colorful fall foliage.

Burgess Falls

Burgess Falls

I thought that I might make water the star of this show. With all the rain we have experienced here in the south, I thought that chances were good that the waterfalls and streams would be flowing well. As it turned out, I was not disappointed. While the rains conspired to wreck our autumn colors this year, they did produce some impressive displays, powering the hundreds of waterfalls, springs, rivers and creeks throughout Tennessee. I only had to count the number of fellow photographers who had taken up positions along the river banks with me to know that this was indeed a unique opportunity, and one I should not pass up. Fortunately, I had brought along my collection of neutral density filters.  I would need those to slow down my camera shutter sufficiently in order to get those wispy smooth, ethereal water shots. I was also blessed with mostly overcast skies which is what you want when you are photographing waterfalls and flowing streams. Dappled light is not your friend when you are trying to capture water. My polarizing filter would help to eliminate reflections and punch up what little color I did see.

Foster Falls

Foster Falls

As I said before, I did not have a route mapped out before I left home. I only knew I planned to stay within Tennessee’s borders. As it turned out, I didn’t really venture far at all in the three days of my trip. I did make it as far as the Kentucky border, but I stayed within what would be considered middle Tennessee. My first stop was Falls Mill near Belvidere, a place I have been many times. The falls themselves were flowing well, but I had arrived too early in the day and the waterwheel was still in shadow. Falls Mill is a working mill and they were grinding flour when I arrived. Thus, the wheel was turning. That’s great for the tourists to see a spinning waterwheel, but it really messes with photographers when they’re needing to shoot at very slow shutter speeds in order to capture the waterfalls in that flowing, cotton-candy way I mentioned. Although the waterwheel turns quite slowly, it would still be a blur in the photo. So maybe, it was just as well that the wheel was cast in shadow. Then, I could concentrate on the falls themselves, which is exactly what I did.

From Belvidere, I headed over to Sewanee and the University of the South. As with Falls Mill, I had been there before, including one time to photograph visiting President George Bush (41) when I worked for the Huntsville Times. Another time, I photographed Bishop Desmond Tutu, the South African activist and opponent of apartheid. He was there to give a speech hoping to drum up support to overthrow the repressive government in South Africa. The university is one of the prettiest in the South, reminiscent of those ivy-league schools up in the northeast. Its granite buildings and open courtyards remind me of Princeton, albeit on a much smaller scale. Unfortunately, without much in the way of fall color, the university just didn’t offer much to photograph other than the buildings themselves. After a quick couple of tours around campus, I left and headed towards the towns of Monteagle and Tracy City, both of which sit high up on the Cumberland Plateau. Coming back down off the plateau at Whitwell, I picked up State Road 28, one of the prettiest roads you will drive anywhere. I headed north past the cliffs of the Cumberland Plateau which were trying hard to make a colorful show but just couldn’t pull it off. I could only imagine what a glorious display that must be when conditions are far better for fall color.

Tobacco Barn

Tobacco Barn

Tobacco Barn Door

Barn Door and Drying Tobacco

Heading north, I began to see more barns, specifically tobacco barns. I think we generally associate Kentucky with tobacco production, but Tennessee is no slouch in growing that burley leaf, even though the crop is no longer king as it once was. I came upon many barns and barn-like structures all full of hanging tobacco. Doors were open to help facilitate the drying of the crop. Most barns in Tennessee are painted red, but not always. Some are left to weather naturally, and many have barn quilts, a tradition that goes back hundreds of years. These are usually a single pattern, a geometric pattern that you might see on a  quilted bed comforter. It can be painted directly on the barn itself, but more often is painted on plywood and nailed above the doors. The practice is not often seen in Alabama, but it is quite common in this part of Tennessee.


Rock Island Twin Falls

Continuing north, I drove through Rhea and Cumberland counties ending up in Cookeville where I spent the night. The next morning I continued to head north, past Livingston and Jamestown, until I arrived at the town of Pall Mall. Pall Mall is the home of Sergeant Alvin York, the highly decorated World War I hero whose exploits were immortalized in the 1941 movie starring Gary Cooper. York was one of the most highly decorated American soldiers in WWI.  He led an attack against a German machine gun nest, taking out 32 machine guns, killing 20 German soldiers and capturing 132 more. For his exploits, York received the Medal of Honor as well as the Croix de Guerre. After the war, he returned home to Pall Mall  and kept busy operating a sizable farm, the grist mill and a general store. He remained in Tennessee until his death in 1964.

Alvin York Grist Mill

Alvin York Grist Mill in Pall Mall

While I always love to strike out and explore places I’ve never been, there is one thing that always challenges me. Since I try to avoid major highways and stick to the secondary roads (that’s where the pictures are), I am constantly frustrated by the fact that when I do see something that calls out to be photographed, the road I’m on is usually so “unimproved” that there is absolutely no place to pull off. It’s always a two-lane road with no shoulder. Drainage ditches closely parallel both sides of the road. In order to stop, I’ve got to drive until I come to either a driveway or pull-out, which are not too common this far off the beaten track. When I do find a place to pull off, it’s usually quite a distance away and requires a good hike back to the place where I originally spotted my subject. In some cases, once I finally make it there, I realize it’s not that great after all, so I hike back to the truck without taking a single exposure. That’s the life of a country photographer, I guess.

Rock Island Tree

Rock Island Tree

The town of Pall Mall is close to the Kentucky border and it was as far north as I ventured on this trip. I needed to start heading back towards home, but before I did, I planned to make two more stops. The next day was overcast, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to shoot some more water. After spending the night in Gordonsville, I drove to Burgess Falls State Park near the town of Bakers Crossroads. As I expected, the water on the Falling Water River was flowing well due to all the recent rainfall. While I was the first photographer on the scene, I was assuredly not the last. Before I left my spot on the river, at least six other serious shutterbugs arrived to try to capture an image worthy of John Sexton. I knew they were serious photographers because they all had tripods – a sure sign. Unfortunately, I was unable to photograph the middle falls or big falls at Burgess due to extensive flooding that occurred there in July. The water caused extensive damage to the overlooks and the stairway which leads down to the base of the big falls. It wasn’t until I’d made the hike to both locations that I discovered this out as there were no signs at the trailhead to alert hikers or photographers of this fact. So, the only photos I was able to get at Burgess were of the smaller upper falls.

The last stop for the day and what turned out to be my last stop for the entire trip, was at Rock Island State Park located directly south of Burgess Falls near Sparta. What’s so great about Rock Island is that you can actually see the main falls right from the parking lot. At his point in my trip, that was just fine. A short walk takes you to the base of the falls, which are pretty spectacular. There are really twin falls and each has its their own unique personality. One is strong and powerful, while the other is slower and more delicate offering multiple cascades. They are both worth photographing. The falls powered an old cotton mill over 100 years ago but now are part of the state parks system.

Rock Island Falls

Rock Island Twin Falls

Despite the frustrations of not finding great fall color, I still enjoyed my quick jaunt around Tennessee. It really is one of the most beautiful states, and that’s in any season. The rolling hills, the expansive farmlands, the picturesque towns and villages combined with wonderful natural attractions make the state one of my favorite. I can’t wait until next year or when the urge suddenly takes me to venture forth and pay her another visit. Maybe Mother Nature will be more cooperative next year and produce a display of seasonal color befitting such a spectacular state.

November 7, 2015 Posted by | Photography | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments