Originally created 12/15/03

'Trail trees': native guideposts or quicks of nature?



NORCROSS, Ga. -- Unusually shaped trees found around the state may be more than just an interesting photograph subject or child's hobbyhorse.

Some say the trunks - some bending at 90-degree angles or with knobs pointing out in the distance - are remnants of a time when American Indians would use them as guideposts to navigate through the continent.

Members of woodlands tribes, including the Cherokee, Creek and Algonquin, are believed to have traveled through a series of paths, using the specially formed hardwoods to keep them headed in the right direction.

"They had their own interstate system in place, with signs directing the way," said Judy Dyer, who has photographed more than 30 trail trees, as they're called, near her Norcross home.

But skeptics say many of the unusual trees are too young to have formed more than a century ago. They also question whether American Indians, renowned for their woodland skills, needed signs to tell them where to go.

Skeptics believe that trail trees are, in fact, just quirks of nature.

"What you're looking at is a growth anomaly," said Quentin Bass, an archaeologist with the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee. "We're talking about folklore."

Trail tree enthusiasts, including Dyer, say there are too many of them to be accidental.

One of Dyer's finds is in a Gwinnett subdivision - an old hardwood with its mossy trunk thick as a full-grown man.

Dyer said it's a classic trail tree: It rises vertically for about 5 feet, then bends at a right angle to extend horizontally for about 8 feet before turning skyward again. The tree also has a "nose," a football-size growth, located at the angle where the trunk rises again.

"It's pointing at something," Dyer said.

Time and development, she reasoned, have eliminated the landmarks it had been created to highlight.

But many scholars are withholding conclusions until more information is collected.

Anne Rogers, an anthropology professor at Western Carolina University, which has an extensive Cherokees studies program, said she hasn't found enough concrete evidence of trail trees to be convinced.

"It's anybody's guess," Rogers said. "It's nearly impossible to prove, but it's a good story."