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Back to Nature

Dismals Canyon in Alabama is like no place else.



Two and a half hours from Memphis and eons away from modern life is Dismals Canyon in northwest Alabama. It isn't just old; it's primeval. Any changes in the landscape have been directed by nature itself -- this is nature as it has chosen to be.

A privately owned and operated conservatory that has been named a National Natural Landmark by the National Park Service, Dismals Canyon is a fascinating glimpse at a lesser-known crossroads in the human narrative and a powerful reminder of the beauty we've abandoned for city life.

Potsherds and arrowheads have been found that date to the Paleo Indians (around 8000 B.C.), but no real archaeological excavation has been conducted in the canyon, reinforcing the feeling that this is a pristine land. You can walk the trail, take in the scenery, and see virtually the same thing that humans did 10,000 years ago.

Much later, Chickasaw Indians lived in the canyon. In 1838, the U.S. government captured the region's Chickasaw and held them captive in the canyon for two weeks before taking them to nearby Muscle Shoals. From there, the Chickasaw began the long forced march known as the Trail of Tears.

The canyon has also been home, at least for a while, to a couple of America's most famous outlaws. You can see where ex-Vice President Aaron Burr put down his bedroll for a while not long after killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Jesse James is also thought to have hid out for a time at Dismals.

The canyon is gorgeous, an explosion of green and gold as sunlight filters through the canopy in ribbons and pools on the foliage. And along the hiking path, towering above you in ever-changing, deliriously uncommon ways, is the canyon wall, slabs of rock, and other geological formations that make you feel small even if that hadn't already been impressed upon you by life in the canyon.

(In addition to the visual fireworks, it must be mentioned, especially to any escaping Memphian, that it's about 15 degrees cooler in the basin than it is topside.)

Arguably the most interesting things are the "dismalites," tiny creatures that glow in the dark and populate the mossy walls. These "glow worms" exist only in this canyon and in certain parts of New Zealand and China. A dismalite, the larvae stage of the fungus gnat, is a hair-sized thing that builds a tiny web and glows in the dark to attract insects for food. They glow green-blue and look like a field of stars (or at least glowing-star stickers on the ceiling of a kid's bedroom).

Tour guide Royce Crowell leads you into the canyon during a night tour to view the dismalites, along the way filling your imagination with tales of the people who have visited and settled in this neck of the South, the natural history of the area, the biology of the dismalites themselves, and even a tall tale or two.

As you descend into the canyon, your flashlight catches glimpses of natural wonder, but the periphery of its light can't begin to capture the scale of the rocky walls or penetrate the jet-black distance between the sides of the canyon. When you finally penetrate into the heart of the canyon and arrive at a grotto-like overhang known as Burr's Hideout, you turn off your light. The instant your eyes adjust to the dark, you can see the dismalites all around you on the walls and ceiling.

The constellation of creatures is beautiful, and it strikes you, as the sound of a nearby waterfall rushes on, that this is something that literally can't be experienced anywhere else.

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