Explore the uncharted hills and valleys of this area long enough, and you’re liable to find some unusual flora and fauna, or else get shot at – or both. It isn’t every springtime day, though, that you stumble across a first class moonshine-making still and live to tell the tale.
On the side of Bays Mountain, in sight of Kingsport’s industrial might, only a mile as the crow flies (briars, barbed wire, and steep slopes aside) from a classy subdivision, nestles a cleverly concealed example of Appalachian enterprise.
Located in a narrow hollow, beside one of numerous small streams feeding from the top of the mountain, the operation must have been built by somebody with a flair for camouflage, an eye for engineering, a thirst for white lightning, a gambler’s guts, and the strength to lug heavy equipment up several miles of rocky stream beds and slippery paths.
A trail of sorts begins from a debris-strewn meadow at the bottom, where strings of junked cars in the stream bed furnish raw materials. A few booted footprints along the banks, and for a while a single track (made by a wheelbarrow, maybe) wind upward, criss-crossing the stream.
There’s no telltale trash except a couple of broken gallon jugs (a careless customer?), and you’d never spot the still site until you’re upon it. There’s a look of business-like permanence about the operation.
A roof of stout saplings wrapped in sheets of heavy black plastic shelters the stone fireplace with it’s cone-shaped dome and chimney. The barrels full of mud-colored, grainy mash are sunk in level with the ground beside the shelter and covered with plastic and sugar and feed sacks secured with rocks to keep the dirt out or the smell in.
The aroma is potent – the rank odor of plant juices fermenting. No electricity, but a ready supply of running water from the spring that emerges up the hollow a few yards, fed by gravity by garden hoses down to a metal drum in the stream.
A trail up the ridge behind the shelter leads to a cache of kerosene cans. Evidently this isn’t a wood-burning operation at all, since the fuel oil makes less incriminating smoke.
An intruder thrashing through the dry leaves on the surrounding hillsides or plodding upstream would make an easy target for a moonshiner guarding his treasure. Shoot first; ask questions later. Brrrrr. But the luck of the foolish was with us. The only sounds were the stream’s trickle and the faint clatter of bare branches.
Strange though, that there weren’t signs of recent production. A few empty quart jars lying around, dozens of gallons of mash cozily working in the vats, the apparatus stashed or standing ready. Business bad, spring vacation beckoning, or just waiting for the dark of the moon?
Well, since the manufacturers weren’t around to provide free samples or a backside full of buckshot, we left behind the sylvan setting, using the overland route for safety.
Between the revenooers, the bird watchers, the wildflower walkers, and the builders, it’s a wonder there’s any place left in Kingsport a fellow can make a dishonest dollar.