The Great Wall of Alabama
Text published in Departures Magazine
Photographs by Gael Towey
Thirty years ago one man started laying down a stone for every footstep his
ancestor took on the Trail of Tears. His still-growing memorial is now one of the country’s most spectacular—and unknown—pieces of land art.
There is no sign for the Wichahpi Wall, just an inconspicuous dirt-and-gravel drive off the Natchez Trace Parkway outside Florence, in northwestern Alabama, a two-hour drive from Birmingham. The structure is nestled in the forest as if it has always been there, like an ancient ruin. It consists of two parallel walls that meander into the woodland as far as the eye can see, undulating through trees and twisting into secluded alcoves. The walls are about four feet high, built with limestone and sandstone rocks and specked with pillows of moss. Light refracts among the white and red oaks, and sweet gum and beech trees that arch overhead. The whole place seems to vibrate underfoot.
Though little known outside Florence, it is a work of spectacular scale and power, rivaling the greatest pieces of American land art, from Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, on the shore of Utah’s Great Salt Lake, to Andy Goldsworthy’s 2,278-foot-long stone wall at the Storm King Art Center in New York’s Hudson River Valley. And yet those names mean little to Tom Hendrix, who began building his wall more than 30 years ago for reasons having nothing to do with art. He conceived it as a memorial to his great-great-grandmother Te-lah-nay, a Yuchi Indian healer who was swept up in the Trail of Tears in the 1830s. She was one of the millions of southeastern Native Americans driven by force to the new Indian Territories west of the Mississippi following Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act. The wall is a tribute to her journey to Oklahoma and her five-year, 700-mile walk back east, with each stone representing one footstep. Hendrix, now 82, moved every stone himself. If you were to straighten it out, the Wichahpi Wall would measure 6,600 feet.
Hendrix strides to the end of his driveway and welcomes visitors with a Yuchi Indian greeting: “Aglaysaha—it’s a good day.” He is about six feet tall with wavy white hair, a friendly face, long arms and huge, well-used hands. “Of course, if you are as old as I am, every day is a good day,” he says. He grew up listening to his grand-mother tell stories about Te-lah-nay. Sitting by his Ford pickup truck with his two pit bulls, Hendrix continues that oral tradition.
Around 1985, Hendrix says, he began having a recurring dream about an Indian woman who repeatedly touched her hand to her mouth. Hendrix’s Irish wife, Doreen, suggested that it was Te-lah-nay, asking him to tell her story. That year at a Native American craft show in Lebanon, Tennessee, he met a very old Yuchi woman, one of the five remaining speakers of the Yuchi language. He told her the tale of his great-great-grandmother and expressed his desire to build a memorial. She responded, “We shall all pass this earth, Tom, but only the stones will remain.” It was his if-you-build-it-they-will-come moment.
Although Hendrix worked with his hands at the Ford Motor Company as a die caster for 20 years, he had never built a stone wall. He didn’t draw up any blueprints; he just started piling rocks and improvised as he went along, like a good storyteller. He estimates that the wall consists of nine million pounds of stone.
Many indigenous people have visited the Wichahpi Wall—wichapi is Navajo for “like the stars”—and made contributions. Eighteen years ago a Lakota man visited and suggested Hendrix add a stone circle, which the man called an ishatae, or “spiritual place.” He drew the outline on a piece of paper and Hendrix built it as designed. It has four layers of stone, each of a different design, to represent the circle of life: birth, life, death and rebirth.