Let’s say you’ve heard the lore about Doll’s Head Trail, due south of East Atlanta, but you don’t know much. You want to experience it, maybe talk to people there who frequently visit. What is it about this place? you might ask. Why do you come?
You head out on a drizzly summer evening, midweek. You are alone.
Slipping down the hills of Moreland Avenue, you pass junkyards, a Piggly Wiggly, the Trap House Auto Parlor, the shuttered Deer Meat Tavern, The Office Gentleman’s Club, and the Starlight Six Drive-In theater, in all its throwback glory.
You branch off Moreland onto a white-gravel road that feels nothing like ITP Atlanta anymore. This is Constitution Lakes Park, with a leafy, ample gravel parking lot like you might find at popular trailheads in the North Georgia mountains. But yours is the only car here.
A tiny sign points the way in handwritten black Sharpie. Well, you think, here goes nothin’.
Now you are surrounded by dark, cool woods. Stormy skies billow and spit. The woods darken more. You worry about cell phone reception. No one could possibly hear you otherwise.
Why am I such a wimp right now? you wonder.
Deeper within the woods you encounter the humidity of a small bathroom, after a long shower. Birdsongs high overhead mingle with the throaty rumble of jets off to the right, from the massive airport. Buffered away by so many leaves, Moreland emits a low thunder, too. A meandering concrete path slithers through the hardwoods, near one of Atlanta’s largest willow oaks.
Art begins to emerge in the form of junk (plastic vehicle rims, cups) painted with quips and brightly colored swirls. The birdsongs are so abundant now they sound artificial, like the piped-in ambiance of a zoo jungle.
You come upon a tree—two trees—that appear to have been altered by an artist’s hand. Or maybe not.
Is this an accident of nature, you wonder, or does it depict someone screaming?
You come to a lake and boardwalk, both lovely but teaming with dragonflies. Recent rains have disturbed the water into something the color of chocolate milk. It’s a nice, elevated boardwalk, you realize, where one feels safely beyond the bite of whatever dwells beneath.
Something splashes heavily in the water. You just know it’s reptilian by the way you can’t see it.
The intense, sonic disturbances of jets continue as you trek farther on the elevated path, where turtles plop off logs and discarded tires. Water bugs dance around the tubular relic of a Pringles can.
Insect repellant is your friend in this swampy realm. You have applied no such thing.
Horseflies nip at your skull, your neck. Despite the heat, you button your collar over your throat. You clutch your camera ever tighter, so as to better weaponize it, should something spring from the kudzu and poison ivy.
Where are these damn little dolls? you wonder.
And then, instructions:
You recall, vaguely, how this all started when a broken man stumbled into these woods, seeking respite from the Great Recession, found a disembodied doll’s head and, eventually, a new purpose centered on communal folk art, as the AJC relayed a few years ago.
It’s been described by artists—especially those entering alone—as inspirationally spooky, or “kind of ‘Blair Witch-y.’”
Suddenly, a metallic wail rises in the distance, nearing rapidly, and for an instant, you’re convinced the woods are screaming. But it’s just a freight train, loaded with oil tanks and graffiti, on unseen tracks.
Trinkets, bracelets, inner tubes, and crude circles made of garden hoses dangle in the trees. Someone has painted Sponge Bob on a busted terra cotta tube. Old telephone cords and thin hoses curl like constrictors around branches.
And then, dolls.
It’s a menagerie of trash made hauntingly human, with quips and song lyrics and whatever else scripted upon it all by anyone who obeys the few rules of Doll’s Head Trail. Fishing bobbers, toy guns, a stroller and newspaper stand, a macabre Elmo doll—it’s all been spit up by the nearby South River or left behind by park fisherman to eventually fall into the lakes.
Baby dolls, it turns out, are particularly buoyant, and in their silent afterlife presence they send an ecological message: Don’t just leave us behind.
In the context of darkening woods, where you stumble on a mysterious well and one branch-rattling gray squirrel after the next, the dolls are also creepy as hell.
But yet you are enthralled.
For a moment, despite the signage, you fear you’re lost. The horsefly legions have been bolstered by mosquito brethren.
Then you come upon a beautiful boardwalk, a breath of fresh air.
The boardwalk traverses wetlands where snakes, in particular, are known to flourish, and a tiny sign toward the end of it signals what you’re dying to see: “<<<< PARKING LOT.”
The occasional, quirky installation dots a thin trail that seems to meander across the entire 125-acre property, which DeKalb County bought for park use in 2003. A brickyard, now shuttered for 50 years, had cleaved pits into the clay here, which have filled with rainwater and now provide respite for so much wildlife.
Hustling through the overgrown trail, darting over the occasion bridge, your skin is welted with fly bites. You’ve have enough of wildlife for this day.
At last, you spill back into the parking lot. And you see—lo!—other human beings.
They are East Atlanta residents Tayla Krumholz and Kait Fogerty, who’ve knocked off work early and decided to go for a walk here, at the advice of a friend. They’ve never been before. They have no idea what’s in the woods.
You say apply that bug spray thick. And you give a quick, verbal preview.
“Oh, dolls?” says Fogerty. “That’s why it’s called ‘DH Trail,’ on that sign?’ We really don’t know what’s happening.”
They laugh. But then Fogerty cocks her head, ditches her smile.
“So, wait,” she says. “There’s a bunch of doll heads in there?”