Bran Potter celebrates the dedication of “Potter’s Ridge Trail” with his wife, Cindy. Photos courtesy of Buck Butler (C’89).
By Vanessa Moss
For decades, Professor of Geology Bran Potter has descended into Lost Cove on a self-made path, picking his way down the cove between two creeks (even skiing down it, when graced with a few inches of snow and a pair of worn-out skis). Over the four decades of his teaching at Sewanee, Potter has guided countless students and faculty into the cove through this long-held secret of a trail.
On November 14, through a collaboration between the Earth and Environmental Systems Department, the Office of Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability, the Sewanee Outing Program, and Potter’s wife, Cindy, the trail was renamed “Potter’s Ridge Trail.”
“Bran made it pretty clear to me last year when he decided he was going to retire that he didn’t want any sort of special events,” Professor of Forestry, Ken Smith, prefaced. “So, I am totally ignoring that request.”
Over 30 people were invited to the trailhead to surprise Potter with this dedication, from friends to community members, current faculty and staff, and a handful of students. “Bran, you are totally surrounded by friends,” Smith continued. “Outside, where we should be.”
Potter walked up, red-faced, smiling, and stunned to silence. He let out a wheezing laugh, spinning to look from person to person.
“This is overwhelmingly wonderful,” he let out, only toward the end of the ceremony. “Every time I look up I see another wonderful friend––I am so happy.”
He spinned to Professor Emeritus, Laurence Alvarez, “There are people standing here who were present when I arrived in this place. We walked up the road and we met Laurence! I was amazed, he’d been here 17 years, he’d said. And ‘Oh,’ I thought. ‘That was an eternity!’”
Used primarily in his Walking the Land course and sedimentology classes, the hike begins leisurely, following the shallow gradient of an old carriage road before reaching Point Disappointment. From the point, the trail follows a ridge; a ‘V’ shaped finger of the plateau, eroding on both sides by Depot and Barnes Branch. The walk steepens and twists around boulders, straightening for a section toward the terminus of the ‘V’ that yields a brilliant winter view from either side of the ridge.
“It’s a wonderful and short walk out to the point, is that what we might do?” Potter asked Smith, eagerly looking around the crowd. “Some of us?”
Any veteran of Potter’s classes will recognize the irony inherent in this trail dedication: Possibly the most trail-averse professor of Sewanee now has a permanent path dedicated in his name. Sometimes mid-sentence he will pivot and march off, shoulders squared and head slightly down, in a seemingly arbitrary direction of the woods. His students look at each other, shrug, and follow.
Even when colleagues ask him to mark his treks to some old home site or geologic feature, he’s apt to say no—following GPS points would unintentionally tramp down a new trail, and he’d rather have people familiarize themselves with the landscape through their scrambling.
Potter resisted the creation of the Caldwell Rim Trail and his own Ridge Trail. “Has Benson told you how selfish I was about this trail?” he asked the crowd. “No! It’s terrible! I didn’t want it to be a trail. I was selfishly using it,” he laughed. “I’m being rewarded for selfish reasons.”
Students and alumni welcome Potter to the trailhead.
Potter used both the Ridge Trail and the Caldwell Rim trail for his labs, and continues to. In 2011, the Caldwell Rim trail was opened. Potter named it after Hue Caldwell, a sporty philosophy professor who founded the Sewanee Ski and Outing Program (now the SOP). Caldwell was the captain of the faculty softball team in the 1970’s––recruiting Potter for the team in 1980––-and would even refer to his departmental conferences as “Intercollegiate Varsity Philosophy Meets.”
“That’s the Old Guard,” Potter explained to the few students present. “To be in the same league with Caldwell is pretty amazing for me.”
Dr. Eric Keen (C’08) and SOP director John Benson both read excerpts in honor of Dr. Potter’s commitment to bringing students outside in different capacities, “all with the aim of making the best persons,” said Benson, echoing a Walt Whitman quote.
Keen read from The Gentle Art of Tramping, a text he was assigned by Potter during Walking the Land in 2008. “The best companions are those who make you freest,” he read. “They teach you the art of life by their readiness to accommodate themselves. After freedom, I enjoy in a companion a well-stocked mind or observant eyes or woodlore of any kind. It is nice sometimes to tramp with a living book.”
Potter is, undoubtedly, one such living book: Open, generous, informative, and resolute. This dedication is the first of many similar celebrations of Potter’s four decades at Sewanee.