New Book and Song Support Safe Passage Movement

13 May

Most of my writing is now part of my work in the Smokies. I blog at Smokies LIVE and write a regular column called “Word from the Smokies” for the Asheville Citizen Times. But I realized that I still needed to post here—where my essays began—about my new book and song that are helping to make people aware that we need a paradigm shift when it comes to roadkill.

As most of you know, I grew up in Eastern Kentucky at a summer camp for which my parents acted as overseers. I spent summer days swimming, canoeing, hiking, and horseback riding, immersing myself in a landscape of Appalachian wildlife. The only sadness I recall was seeing animals hit and killed on roads.

In my 30s and 40s, I traveled the world as a tourism professional, and lived for a period of time in both Canada and Costa Rica. These experiences raised my awareness of wildlife road mortality as a global problem.

Not long after I began working in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I got involved with a group of federal, state, tribal, and non-governmental organizations discussing the need for wildlife-crossing structures along Interstate 40 near the park boundary—in the Pigeon River Gorge between Asheville and Knoxville. I was drawn to this group because I had been seeing black bear, white-tailed deer, and even an elk killed on Interstate 26 north of Asheville, near my home in Flag Pond, Tennessee.

Flash forward to late March of 2020. The pandemic ground most of my travel and social interaction to a halt. But sitting out by the creek on my six-acre property, Taylor Barnhill popped a startling question: “When are you going to write a children’s book about the need for wildlife crossings?”

I must have spewed a five-minute litany of protests. At the apex of my career as a creative director managing five leading-edge innovators, being involved in a plethora of engaging projects with my colleagues at Great Smoky Mountains Association and in the National Park Service, how could I begin to think about taking on such a project?

The next day, I found myself at the creek again with a yellow legal pad and a pen. I filled six and a half pages with a story draft, and about six more with detailed notes. I created an outline for eight chapters, drew a crude map, and charted out personality types for 16 characters of various species. This was just the beginning: For the next six weekends, I typed on my computer, finishing the narrative of a children’s story in early May, now one year ago.

But it wasn’t just for kids! I was writing something that my mother and I would have enjoyed reading to one another when I was about age 11 or 12. And I was including humor, allusion, and allegory that epitomized my education as an English Literature major and would appeal to others who love great books with a journey motif.

A Search for Safe Passage tells the story of best friends Bear and Deer who grew up together on the North side of a beautiful Appalachian gorge. In the time of their grandparents, animals could travel freely on either side of a fast-flowing river, but now the dangerous Human Highway divides their home range into the North and South sides.

Many animals have died on the Human Highway trying to follow the ancient trails. So, to keep everyone safe, Turtle, the elder, has created a law forbidding anyone to try to cross, and a Forest Council has been formed to look for solutions. Hawk and Owl scout the area each day for other ways to travel from North to South, with no luck. But on the night of a full moon, two strangers arrive from the South with news that will lead to tough decisions, a life-changing adventure, and new friends joining in a search for safe passage.

To book’s illustrator is Emma DuFort, a publications specialist on my staff at Great Smoky Mountains Association. This is her first book to design and illustrate, and I’m so thrilled with the result of all her efforts from May 2020 through January of 2021. She rendered my characters with perceptive grace, understanding them as dignified, smart, and sensitive and conveying this in her anatomically accurate portrayals.

The story is fiction, but it is based on the real-life problem. The setting is a microcosm of the Pigeon River Gorge, a beautiful, wild landscape with a treacherous highway bisecting ancient wildlife corridors. In the back of the book is an interpretive section about the real-life animals and their actual wildlife crossing needs.

And there is also a song: Safe Passage: Animals Need a Hand. It came together through a songwriting retreat with Jonathan Byrd of White Cross, North Carolina. I’m getting ready to produce a music video of the song performed by the Asheville band The Fates, who performed it in March on Jonathan Byrd’s Shake Sugaree Americana Residency. My dear friend Laura Rod in Lausanne, Switzerland, just made a wonderful video of her band, Smile, doing a Laura Nyro-esque version of the song with a completely different melody than the one I originally composed. I welcome others to record their own versions so it can become an anthem for the wildlife crossing movement.

All the while I was preparing the book for publication by GSMA, I was supporting the collaborative effort to collect data, plan, and help implement wildlife crossings along the dangerous 28-mile stretch of highway in western North Carolina and east Tennessee. On February 25, the public became aware of Safe Passage: The I-40 Pigeon River Gorge Wildlife Crossing Project. Six partners—The Conservation Fund, Defenders of Wildlife, Great Smoky Mountains Association, National Parks Conservation Association, North Carolina Wildlife Federation, and Wildlands Network—have made it possible for donations to be collected for future road mitigation and wildlife crossing structures via a fund at

Through all this work, I have come to the realization that humans must refuse to accept roadkill as a natural part of traveling in our modern world. There are viable and affordable solutions that have succeeded all over the planet—and the time has come to do something about this issue in our biologically diverse Southern Appalachian landscape.

If this work interests you, here are many articles where you can read more about road ecology and the work being done in the Pigeon River Gorge. You can purchase A Search For Safe Passage at If you would like to buy it with a bookplate signed by me and illustrator Emma DuFort, you can call 865.436.7318 Ext 226 and the awesome folks at the GSMA warehouse will take your card number and ship you a signed copy.


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