ONE HUNDRED AND THIRTY YEARS AGO, several thousand spectators gathered on the rim of Georgia’s Tallulah Gorge to watch the self-monikered “Professor Leon” walk a tightrope across the chasm. Guests lined the balconies of the new tourist hotels that had sprung up when the railroad finally came nearby. The trains brought thousands more from Atlanta and Athens, and more than a little speculation money changed hands through the crowd.
Everyone got what they came for when the Professor lost his footing. Some say a betting man tried to influence Lady Luck by cutting the guy wire. No one ever spilled the beans. But, the professor made it across, just in time to catch his fainting wife, and the rest is history.
The gorge has been many things over the decades—a Georgia landmark, a roadside attraction, a movie location (scenes in Deliverance). Being geographically fortunate, located in the rolling hills of the Southern Appalachians, travelers making their way from cold northern winters to the beckoning warmth of Florida used to use the gorge as a waypoint.
But what makes people want to walk across this crack in the earth on a thin wire? In 1970, the great Karl Wallenda crossed the gorge in 616 steps, each one counted aloud by the crowd of 30,000. Showoff that he was, Wallenda upped the ante and outdid the Professor by performing two headstands along the way.
Crowds don’t come to Tallulah today like they used to, and the Tallulah Point Overlook is a bit of a free-for-all. You won’t see any National Park Service do-this-don’t-do-that signage. Instead, there’s a refreshing attitude of “respect the place, but you’re on your own.” In fact, the hand-lettered signage is downright friendly, encouraging visitors in uneven lettering to recycle and not to litter, and surely not to fall over the edge (it’s bad for repeat business).
Daredevils may feed off adrenalin, but there seems to be some amount of attraction to life on the edge in all of us. Why else would we halt our forward travel motion, take time out of “making good time” to feel that jolt low in the stomach that comes when standing on the brink of 1,000-foot cliff? Of course, it helps that the locals have anticipated and provided for human needs beyond thrills, with BBQ, cold soda, gorge-branded paraphernalia and a decent place to ensure another hundred miles without a stop. We humans love these natural wonders— the kind that make us feel small and vulnerable. Yes, we all have a little of the Professor, Wallenda or even Knievel in us, mostly just enough to appreciate being alive.
Not as many people travel U.S. 23 these days. This pathway through north Georgia is part of the original 1926 U.S. highway system and runs from Michigan to Florida. Some say the tourists disappeared when Interstate 85 started whisking travelers to and from Atlanta on a more easterly route, where the land is flatter and it’s cheaper to build a road. The price of progress. Sure, making good time is a worthy goal; it has its place and purpose. But, a little Georgia BBQ, an ice-cold glass bottle of coke and a side of adrenalin rush is the kind of trip I want to take.