Roy Exum: My Indian ‘Path Tree’

Sunday, November 26, 2017 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

I have loved the land and nature all of my life and every day as I go about my business, there is one particular tree on Lookout Mountain that catches my eye. No other tree that I know of is like it because it defies nature’s design yet defines that of mankind. This certain oak tree is straight for the first four feet, takes a hard 90-degree angle to one side for another four feet, and then – in another hard 90-degree – it again points straight to the sky. That is simply not natural.

Think about it. In sniper school among the first rules you are taught is to focus on straight lines, sharp angles. Those are the physical differences in man and nature. This is the truth. You want to find your target – look for "mankind shapes." If you are a hunter, the trick is to see horizontal "lines," such as the back of a deer in the distance.

So I have wondered much more than twice -- what is the mystery of this wacky tree? In the November issue of Appalachian Magazine, my mystery was delightfully solved. In my morning readings, I was dumbstruck to learn that centuries ago, the Cherokee Indians didn’t have any maps, road signs, GPS devices, telephone nor telegraph but could find their way around almost better than we can today.

Get this: They travelled with great accuracy throughout the Appalachians by simply going from one "path tree" to the next. Seriously, these modified and unmistakable trees actually pointed to the next "path tree," then the next.

Moreover, a massive network of paths and routes by Native Americans predates Christopher Columbus. What they would do is pick oak and maple trees—due to their flexibility when young, and their permanence and ability to retain shape. They bent trees over to form an arch, and secured them to a stake in the ground or tied them to a large stone with a leather strap or vine, according to Wikipedia.

Then they would trim most of the limbs away, leaving one to grow skyward from the top of the arch, and what had been the "top" of the bent tree would grow back into the ground, forming a new trunk. As the harsh angles developed, they would bend the tree more until they could remove the old trunk from the tree, leaving a knob which is the best way to identify a trail tree.

Believe me, it took years of patience to contort a strong hardwood tree into a "path tree" that pointed in the right direction. But because of the sharp angles the Indians would create, a Native American’s eye could see them from a good distance away. They were high enough to be seen in a deep snow and study enough to endure most storms. Who would have ever believed the signs would last this long?

One of America’s blackest moments was the Indian Removal Act. Almost half of the Cherokee Nation was killed in the brutal and reprehensible march to Oklahoma so the tree that I see every morning isn’t big but it has to date back to two centuries ago. Looking at it now, I hate to admit it but darned if it ain’t 10 times better than Rock City or Ruby Falls.

The Mountain Stewards Trail Project has about 1,700 trees in its registry and, while they have documented trees up the Eastern Seaboard to Canada, the most are in Arkansas’ Ozarks and … drumroll please … North Georgia and Eastern Tennessee. (If you know of one, please contact

From "Mountain Steward" we learn white settlers later called them "prayer trees," or "crooked trees." College professors call them "culturally-modified trees." In some places between Canada and Florida they are "trail trees," or "trail marker" trees but on Lookout Mountain they are "path trees" because …, well, that's what we’ve got.

"Mountain Steward" writes, "Hiking along the crest of our mountain ridge in North Georgia, one has little question that the bent trees along the path are the living relics of a lost civilization. Even a century and a half after the Cherokees were shipped west along the Trail of Tears, the shape of the trees themselves maintain the sharp angles that characterize human design rather than the gentle curves that nature carves with wind and climate – curves amply expressed in the neighboring trees.

He adds that the "path trees" in the North Georgia, Alabama and East Tennessee region "seem to connect well-known Cherokee tribal sites."

Dave Tabler, an Appalachian historian, adds, "It is unfortunate that these old Indian landmarks are fast disappearing. The ages of many of them antedate that of our government. Only a short time longer, and the last of them will have disappeared forever from our midst, as did the Indians who bent them."

I vaguely remember seeing a few other "path trees" but, now that I know what I am looking for, I’ll be more vigilant. What a delicious melt of nature and history, not to mention "staying on the straight and narrow path," this Sunday morning.

* * *

CHRISTMAS SUGGESTION: Appalachian Magazine has a tremendous book: "MOUNTAIN VOICE 2017: A Collection of Memories, Histories and Tall Tales of Appalachia. It’s available on Amazon.

A "Path Tree"
A "Path Tree"
- Photo2 by Roy Exum

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