By Hal Herring
The summer I got my first driver’s license, I spent a lot of days fishing alone on Alabama’s Paint Rock River. I’d leave our house before dawn and drive east and north up the Paint Rock Valley, park at one of the old fords and wade-fish upstream, catching rock bass, shellcrackers, largemouths, once in a while a smallmouth, which was as exotic to me as a sailfish. Midmorning, heat rising fast, cicadas yelling in every tree, I’d go downstream to where the river was bigger, tie up a bottom rig and cast nightcrawlers or catalpa worms (we called them “tobby worms”) for channel cats, river drum, redhorse, whatever came by.
That river was pure adventure to me, clean, born of subterranean streams and highland creeks that lay unseen in the emerald jungle of hardwoods that covered the low mountains on either side of the valley. It took me awhile to work my way north to the Paint Rock’s headwaters in the Walls of Jericho, that dramatic and isolated canyon system, with its caves and ether-clear water and perfect plunge pools for swimming, the bizarrely-colored darters and sculpins flitting among the smooth rocks of the creek bed.
Not long after I began to explore the Walls, the road in was closed. Mud bogging and hillclimbing in the big 4WD pickups with the then-popular Co-Op Grip-Spur tires (yes, my friends and I were a part of that problem) had made the old trail impassable and littered with beer cans and even a busted truck or two. For the next 15 years or so, the Walls were inaccessible, and the mountain land that surrounded the canyons changed hands among paper and timber companies more than once. It was one of the natural wonders of the South, the forested headwaters of one of the most biologically rich rivers left on the planet, and very few people even knew it existed.