2020 Resolved

If New Year’s resolutions are actual, binding commitments, then no, I would say I’m not inclined to make them.

To the extent the close of one year is a time of reflection on the 12 months just ended with thoughts on goals or what I could do better in the 12 months ahead, then yes, I almost always do that.

Even though it should go without saying, I have a weight loss goal for 2020. Twenty pounds.

I had a weight loss goal in 2017, and I met it and held steady for about 18 months. Then came a lot of disruption in 2018–moving, job change, lot of job-related events that ate into exercise time and put fattening food in front of me that I ate into. Plus, one of Bill’s ways of being supportive and encouraging as I settled in to the new job was to make sure a good meal was always waiting at dinner time. Next thing you know, 10 pounds has crept back on–just like that–and I can’t ignore it because I had almost everything I own altered to fit after losing much more than 10 pounds in 2017.

In about 20 pounds, I should have all of my closet available again, not just the “fat” clothes. Which is a pretty good motivator, since I refuse to buy bigger sizes.

So there, now you know. That’s my intention, too, since I’m sharing this goal as a means of accountability.

Similarly, I am resolving to swear less in 2020 and from now on. And now that I know that you know, that’s also a means of accountability. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t “cuss like a sailor,” but I don’t need to drop swear words in frustration–or not–with a frequency that is all too frequent. Swear words don’t mean I’m a bad person, or uncouth, and they certainly don’t mean I’m not a person of faith. But they don’t reflect well on any person, and their usage is probably confusing to others’ observations of someone who is supposed to be a person of faith. In me, they’re just a bad, weak habit to break.

Other goals:

Better time management and productivity at work. I’m not a time-waster and I tend to be fairly high-output, but I need to be more intentional about priorities and how I will keep those in mind as time-killing distractions arise.

Read more. At work, my time is spent reading, writing or in meetings. The kind of reading I do at work is not what I’m hoping to do more of. I probably didn’t read more than three books in 2019, and I intend to put the smart phone down and pick up books more often in 2020.

Increase hiking and walking mileage. I’m a pretty faithful 10,000-steps-a-day person already, so I’m starting from a decent threshold. But 10K-a-day is only about 4.5 miles for me, and if I can do better at the preceding two goals, I might be able combine them with this one and succeed in all three.

Such as, be more productive at work and better preserve after-hours time for fun, like listening to audiobooks while getting in more weekday mileage. My friend, Hank, has had a goal of hiking at least 50 miles a month ever since he retired almost eight years ago. For me to do that means averaging 12 miles hiked every weekend, since weekends are my only real opportunity except for holidays and days off. Once February rolls around, I’m gonna see if I can target at least 40 miles a month on average.

I’m also going to get back on the bike this year. I have a spinner bike for indoor training and I have a high-end road bike on which I once logged 3,000 miles a year–no, I’m not kidding–but I haven’t gotten onto either of them in at least two or three years. That changes this year. My goal is to be on my wheels as a participant in the October Cycle Sequatchie Century Ride. Century rides are 100 miles. I’ve done many before, and I want to do this one this year.

I can’t commit to a goal, but I do strongly hope that Bill and I may find a church home in Chattanooga sometime in 2020.

We were part of an incredible church family we loved in Knoxville for 20 years until a doctrinal issue led to a separation in the congregation in 2014. For the most part, the division was respectful disagreement, but the reality of it still was painful.

Yet we remained among a group of at least 100 we had been worshiping with since 1995, and that group added some fine new people we got to know and saw every week until we moved to Chattanooga in 2018. I never realized how special that group was before discovering the difficulty of finding a place here with the potential to mean as much. We’re still looking and have decided we’ll know when we find the place we’re supposed to be.

Finally, as always, I want to work on relationship with God and with people. I want to strengthen my prayer life and have it strengthen me in my effort toward effective and kind relationships with everybody.

Like a great mentor has often told me, when a coffee cup is bumped, what spills out is what’s inside it.

When life bumps me, I want what spills out to be the result of a prayer life that instills the fruits of the spirit.

 

 

Auld Lang Syne to the Good Times

In a few hours and with a flip of the calendar, it’ll be 2020.

Just like that, we’re already closing the door on the first 20 years of the 21st century.

And don’t look now, but here comes a leap year, an Olympics year and another election year. I won’t necessarily leap; I definitely won’t take the field of athletic competition; and the last time I ran for an election was as a freshman senator in college.

On this occasion to see one year out and a new year in, I’m stopping to remember all the good that came my way in 2019. Set aside the fact we’re also rolling over into a new decade, 12 months is long enough to recount.

Hank, Bill, Jerry, me, Woody, Hank and Don

First, in chronological order, Bill and I got to spend a long January weekend with some exceptionally good, and good-hearted, people. Also known as “the Porch Gang,” for the group’s virtual–if not often, actual–gathering to support, pray with and encourage one another. It’s like the five best uncles I could have: two Hanks, a Woody, a Don and a Jerry. Plus Bill. Plus me.

We got together at Hank’s family’s mountain cabin. We cooked, we ate, we talked, we laughed, we hiked and we shared prayer concerns and prayers of thanksgiving.

The time was precious.

Then came the annual “Ladies Night” for us women alumni of the Knoxville News Sentinel. Sadly, only one of us still works at the newspaper, but we share a bond as friends, not just former co-workers, that brings us together once a year for the sole purpose of catching up. This year marks 20 since I left the paper, and I look forward more every year to gathering with this feisty bunch.

Springtime in the Great Smoky Mountains brought a day among the wildflowers with the most fun pair of hiking wildflower experts I know. Living in Chattanooga keeps me from getting to hike with Tami and Jennifer as much as I’d like, so I jump at any chance.

Chase Bradley Lankford at 2 weeks old.

Yes! She did it!

Almost too many good things to count came in May, starting with this little guy’s entry into the world. Pleased to meet you, Chase Bradley Lankford.

At work, I officially staffed spring commencement for the first time in May. A perk of the job, in my opinion. I took this photo and, every time I look at it, I remember having this feeling myself, though I never took my shoes off when I graduated.

At the two-week period in late May and early June when our wedding anniversary comes in between our birthdays, Bill and I treated ourselves to a long weekend at Cataloochee Ranch. It’s a patch of paradise high on the North Carolina side of the Smoky Mountains. The treat was because May 22 wasn’t just any anniversary–it was our 25th.

That’s right. The Big Two Five. The Silver Showdown. Celebrating Cataloochee-style was just our speed: Scratch-made meals; a cabin for two under starry skies; wildflower-lined hiking trails; and Hemphill Bald.

25th anniversary sky at Cataloochee Ranch

If you ever have the chance to go there, run, don’t walk.

 

And while we were in the neighborhood, we also got to swing by and visit with some of our favorite people and hiking partners–who kept the celebration rolling.

Good times with good people at work

Speaking of anniversaries, I marked my first at UTC, too. It had been a good year and I get to work with good people, so what to do? Order a delicious custom cake baked by the exceptionally talented partner of one of my co-workers, of course.

As summer got going, Bill and I got adventurous–looking up and checking out the trails to be hiked in, around and beyond the Scenic City. We hiked Signal Mountain; Lookout Mountain; the Chickamauga Creek greenways; Cold Mountain, North Carolina; Fort Mountain, Georgia; Sewanee, Tennessee; and even the infamous Fiery Gizzard trail on Monteagle Mountain.

Here’s a secret people who haven’t hiked the Fiery Gizzard don’t know: It’s not as bad as its reputation. Keep that to yourself, though–there’s a legend to maintain.

But the Mac-Daddy adventure of our entire summer came on July 3. That’s when we buckled up life jackets, climbed into kayaks for the first time, paddled three miles down the Tennessee River to downtown Chattanooga and took in the fireworks show from the water. Bobbling in comfort under the rockets’ red glare. That remains the most fun thing we’ve yet done in Chattanooga, and it was a good time I’ll never forget.

You can check it out here:

We also enjoyed visits from old, dear friends. We loved getting to see them and eagerly await the next times.

Tucked beneath “Umbrella Rock”

Where my enthusiasm for hiking and my job met, I took on the opportunity to talk about hiking with Chattanooga’s public radio audience. WUTC-FM is the Chattanooga National Public Radio affiliate and on the UTC campus. Its oversight is part of the Communications and Marketing Division–of which I’m a part–and when asked to contribute regular hiking segments to the daily interview program Scenic Roots I got to work.

Spending a little more time with the radio station team gave me a greater exposure to some of their special projects and underwriting partners. Voila! I learned about an annual benefit for Point Park, part of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park Site. Bill and I went to the informal party on the mountaintop and got to know more about this local gem and other gem-appreciating people.

Plus, we got to go behind the locked gate to “Umbrella Rock” — unlocked on this one day each year — and check out the remarkable balancing boulder up close for ourselves.

View from Mount Cammerer, stunning in any color.

We looked forward to hosting Thanksgiving for the first time at our place in Chattanooga and stayed busy through fall working to finish some projects on the house and make it ready for company.

But we still made time to get back to Great Smoky Mountains National Park for a hike up Mount Cammerer in all its fall glory.

Only summer didn’t know when to quit and temperatures were reaching 95 and 100 degrees even in the first week of October.

That put fall glory at least a couple of weeks late, but what are you gonna do? I had the time we had planned for the third week in October, and that’s when we went. Mount Cammerer was still glorious, even if not in a full fall foliage kind of way.

Next thing you know, Thanksgiving was here and we had a lot of fun feeding family and friends around our table.

And, since Thanksgiving came right at the end of November this year, Christmas got here just three weeks later.

We had a good one, better than we deserved and every bit appreciated.

On this last day of the year which also ends a decade, I’m remembering hearing of a New Year’s Eve tradition once when we spent that holiday with dear old friends who then lived in Columbia, Missouri.

The city’s organized festivities included an opportunity to write your burdens of the year ending onto pieces of paper and then toss them into a fire–symbolically casting off those burdens and starting the new year with a clean slate.

I’ve been intrigued by that notion ever since. I’ve wondered if its origins might be in this verse from the 55th Psalm, verse 22:

“Cast your burden on the Lord,
And He shall sustain you;
He shall never permit the righteous to be moved.”

I’m not always good at remembering to leave things to God or that what happens is according to His will, but in the year ahead I want to strengthen my prayer life toward being more in step with and seeking His will. Because whether there are pictures or video to prove it, every day of every year brings a blessing.

 

 

 

 

Happy birthday, Jack

Trying not to get hit by a football, 2015.

On this date a few decades ago, I got a two-fer: a baby brother who grew up to be one of my favorite friends.

Jack is the only person in the world who calls me “Sis,” and today is his birthday.

With Jack on our wedding day, May 22, 1994.

I am four and a half years older than Jack, so I can only vaguely recall meeting him for the first time. What I remember is that my older brother and I had spent the night with our grandparents, and we were having our breakfast of gravy and biscuits when our parents pulled up to take us home. We dashed out into snow flurries swirling as we climbed into the backseat of the car. My mother had a big bundle of blanket in her lap, and Jack was inside that bundle.

I liked holding him, giving him his bottle–though I did get in trouble once for giving him Pepsi in his bottle–and kissing him goodnight.

We played together a fair amount as little kids, but he was quick to push my hand away whenever I tried to put my arm around his shoulder as we might be walking along somewhere.

Until he was well into elementary school, he refused to eat much of anything except French fries–one of many indulgences given as the baby of the family. Oh yes, he definitely was spoiled, but it didn’t hurt him in the long run.

About to climb Mt. Cammerer, 2011.

He was popular in high school–voted “cutest” boy in his senior class. The cutest boy never lacked female companionship, either.

I should have graduated from college at least a year before Jack graduated from high school, but my life took a couple of turns that prevented that from happening. Jack even lived with me for about a year while I was on one of those turns.

One of the funniest things he and I have ever laughed about happened during that time. I had a house cat, and Jack came home late one night with his dinner in a McDonald’s drive-through bag. Preparing to spread out on the floor in front of the TV, he took out his burger, opened it to add salt and discovered he didn’t have any salt packets. He stood up and went to get the salt shaker and, when he returned, he found a growling cat dragging away the hamburger patty.

Jack and Carrie, people who show up for the big things.

He moved back to our hometown and started college and, not long after, I moved back close to there and resumed college. We were both going to Tennessee Tech and when we ended up taking an English lit class together, that was one of the most fun experiences of my time in college.

We’ve gone to football games, baseball games, bowl games, movies, concerts, beaches and mountains together. We have a knack for making one another laugh.

We aren’t 100 percent, exactly alike, but we have a lot more in common than blood.

Today, I’m very glad to say, he has been married for barely more than one year. After spending the majority of his adult life as a self-employed bachelor and being OK with that, he met Carrie through a business transaction. After a while, they began dating and after a few years, they got married in December 2018. He’s a guy who can take care of himself, but he has a big heart, too. It makes me glad to see him in such a strong and loving relationship, one in which his big heart is happy.

So, happy, happy birthday to my (big) little brother!

 

‘Twas the Night After Christmas

We’ve had ourselves a merry little Christmas.

Just the right size after another fast-paced, busy year. Not to mention we just celebrated Christmas with my family on Sunday, and three weeks earlier, we did Thanksgiving up right. Here at home.

We went to our first Christmas Eve church service here in Chattanooga last night. It not only felt right, it felt like a turning point. Like when we were finally ready for Christmas church in Chattanooga, we finally had a place to go. We haven’t come close to a decision on a congregation to join, but at least there are a couple of places we feel familiar and good about going.

And the church service we attended last night was just right–lessons and carols–wonderful to hear and sing along with them.

To me, there’s nothing as special as going to bed on Christmas Eve following time spent in Luke reviewing how the Light of the world came to be in the world to change the future of the world.

I hope your Christmas brought you some of what is most special and meaningful to you, too.

 

‘Twas the night after Christmas,

Bellies full–make that fat,

Not a creature was stirring,

Not even one cat.

With I in my gym pants,

and Bill in his sweats,

We settled right in

To watch movies and rest.

The day started late,

After plenty of sleep,

An extravagant breakfast,

And small gifts to keep.

Bill gave socks, tights and earrings,

Just as I’d asked,

And for him I had boxers,

A warm scarf and warm hat.

All year we’ve been gifting

Ourselves through our house.

Nothing else really needed,

Not a shoe, book or blouse.

The kitties got treats, 

As we did from our neighbors.

We took a long walk,

The weather all in our favor.

There were calls and messages

From family all day,

And on social media friends and loved ones

Had plenty to say.

We didn’t go to a gathering,

Just kept to ourselves.

It’s been a Merry Little Christmas

And a Joyous Noel.

             *****

Déja Vu All Oven Again

I can’t remember the last time before this year that Bill and I hosted for Thanksgiving. But I’ll never forget the first time.

We’d been married just a little more than two years; we’d rented a table and some extra chairs to accommodate the 15 who were coming; and we were both registered to run the Thanksgiving morning Turkey Trot 5K. Enough about the easy stuff.

Wednesday night, less than 24 hours before we would open the door to both our families, we began preparing for the star of the show–an oven-roasted turkey. As 6 p.m. approached, I was up to my elbows in a kitchen sink full of warm water, unwrapping a nearly-thawed turkey, digging for the package of parts hidden deep in the “cavity.” Bill asked what he could do to help, and I asked him to start the oven preheating and gave him the recommended temperature.

In that kitchen set-up, the stove and sink faced each other, so my back was to the oven when Bill asked if it was supposed to “sparkle.”

Of course not, I told him, assuming he was making a joke.

“Well, it is,” he said.

In no mood for jokes, I turned around just in time to look through the oven window and see the bright-orange burner turning to black just behind the ball of sparks winding its way from one end of the burner to the other. Just like a lit 4th of July sparkler. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it myself and, even so, I still had trouble believing it. How do you cook a turkey–much less, Thanksgiving dinner–without an oven?

Well, how we did it was to load up the raw turkey and its roasting pan and drive the six miles or so to Bill’s niece and nephew’s house. They were coming to our house the next day, so their oven was available. Even better, it worked!

All we had to do was return in about four hours to take the turkey out of their oven and get it and its hot pan and juices safely into and out of our car six miles later. Success.

Next morning, we went ahead and actually ran the 8 a.m. 5K, then came home and began trying to see how good a broiler was in place of an oven. The answer is not very, but between the broiler and the microwave, we managed.

Over the years since, we’ve done Thanksgiving in every way imaginable. At our house with a few people, a lot of people, just us, and away at the homes of various family members.

This year, we wanted to give our family members a reason to visit us in our new place in Chattanooga so we put the word out that would be hosting for Thanksgiving.

Not to whine, but I’m just being honest when I say that getting our new nest made has seemed like almost a second job ever since we moved here. After two unsuccessful attempts at buying bookshelves from furniture stores, we had built-ins made for a space that needed them.

We worked in the yard, installed pavers for the gas grill to stand on, planted bulbs, hung ceiling fans, hung curtains, hung sun-blocking shades on our back porch, wall-size printed a few of my photographs to hang here and there. Then came the big decision.

You can’t see surround sound, but sit here and you’ll hear it.

After putting it off since moving in, we went ahead and got surround sound installed in the upstairs “TV room” and family room downstairs that were pre-wired for it.

Seems like most weekends of 2019 were spent on one or more of the above.

Then, as Thanksgiving approached, there were weekends of extra-detail cleaning with the weekend before Thanksgiving devoted to grocery shopping and baking.

We were gonna have turkey AND ham and all the trimmings. We prepped and cooked on Wednesday, and we started again bright and early Thanksgiving morning. And unlike all those years ago in Knoxville, we decided to forgo the neighborhood run that morning. Experience has taught me that people who have time to go out and run a 5K on Thanksgiving morning either are not hosting, or they’re much better at it than I am.

Finally, 1 p.m. came and so did our guests. We had my parents and my younger brother and his wife; and Bill’s nephew and niece–of can-we-borrow-your-oven fame, and their son. We had loads of laughs–including at the life-size Darth Vader Christmas inflatable standing guard next door. Pam brought some amazing corn and my mother brought her homemade pecan pie that can’t be beat.

I have a new appreciation for my mother and all her years of hosting my entire extended family. Same as her, I wouldn’t have allowed my guests to clean the kitchen and I wouldn’t have gone to bed that night unless the kitchen was spotless. But that really took some doing. By the time we were finally finished, Bill and I both felt like we’d had our hands in dishwater since 1974.

None of our guests stayed over, so Friday was a day to rest and re-load for the second, but smaller, round on Saturday.

Bill’s daughter, Rita, and her son and daughter-in-law–expecting Rita’s first grandchild–arrived about noon Saturday. We’d cooked a couple of new dishes on the stove top and were able to fit most everything else, including the plentiful leftover turkey and ham into the oven to warm.

Then, guess what. Go ahead, guess.

We discovered the oven wasn’t working. No kidding.

This time it was a gas model, so no burner sparkling, but the stove is barely 18 months old! Same as more than 18 years ago, we still had a broiler, so there we were, warming the very tops of the piles of ham and turkey and zapping everything else in the microwave. Again.

I mean, what are the chances? Tell me how many times you’ve had people for Thanksgiving and how many of those times your oven died, and I’m pretty sure our ratio will have you beat.

Carrie, Jack, Bill and me, back row. Pam, Trey, Mother and Dad, front row. (Photo by Cecil, not pictured)

Still, it was special, both times.

My dad’s not in the best health these days, so I’m just glad they were able to make the trip. I don’t know how many more of those he has in him. My brother, Jack, and his wife, Carrie, were just on the eve of their first wedding anniversary. Cecil had visited Bill once before, but Pam and Trey hadn’t yet been here.

Rita had come to visit her dad for lunch a while back, but her son, Austin, and his wife, Melissa, hadn’t been here yet, and we hadn’t gotten to see them since she learned she’s expecting in February.

It was a great time, even if we do have the worst luck with ovens.

Mount Cammerer: It’s Time to Climb

Ascending Mount Cammerer is one of my very favorite hikes in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s also one of the hardest.

2010: With Jack and Bill

My first ascent was in 2010 with Bill and my brother, Jack, along. I’ve gone back at least four more times prior to this year.

In 2012, Bill, Jack and I were part of a group outing that included Carrie, who has since become Jack’s wife; Candace White, a former UT professor of mine; Nick Simson, a former UT co-worker of mine; and Hank Dye, the man who first hired me at UT.

I wouldn’t really have known about Mount Cammerer if it weren’t for Hank, who shares my love of the mountains and enjoyment of hiking. The 2012 hike came about three months after he retired from UT and as my boss.

 

2012: Before Jack and Carrie decided to marry

With Pat, Hank, Sarah and Dave

In 2013, Hank and I were back, along with another recent UT retiree, Sarah Weeks; longtime friend of Hank’s–and fellow UT retiree–Dave Roberts; and Hank’s brother-in-law, Pat Morrison.

2014: Hank and Steve

In 2014, it was Hank, me and Hank’s neighbor and hiking enthusiast, Steve Cook. The next year, Steve’s wife, Vicky, came along with Steve, Hank and me for the 2015 assault.

2015: Steve and Vicky

Every one of those involved a challenging climb, spectacular scenery, fun, fellowship and 12-plus miles roundtrip on foot. In 2016 and 2017, Bill and I went out west to visit some breathtaking, bucket-list, Rocky Mountain hiking destinations over four U.S. national parks and one in Canada. Our wow meters were well-worn, then came busy fall calendars that kept us from returning to Mount Cammerer in either of those years.

Why does the fall calendar matter?

Because that’s been our traditional Mount Cammerer hiking season, drawing us for the possibility of the patchwork of red, yellow and orange painted as far as our eyes can see from that high perch. Not to mention, the hike is tough enough without the heat and humidity of summer; nor the treachery of winter cold and icy conditions. Spring might be the lone good alternative to fall, but I haven’t tried it.

In the fall of 2018, we were just a few months into our move to Chattanooga–another super-busy time, not to mention the extra travel distance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But I missed making a fall hike up Mount Cammerer, and I resolved to get back there in 2019.

And, by golly, Bill and I just did that a week or so ago.

What is the draw to Mount Cammerer and its brutal climb, you may ask?

Some background: Mount Cammerer is a massive rock outcropping at 4,928 feet elevation near the Tennessee-North Carolina border that runs through the national park. You know you’ve reached its peak when you reach its fire tower, both named for Arno Cammerer, director of the U.S. National Park Service from 1933 to 1940.

The fire tower is one of those great products of the Civilian Conservation Corps between 1937 and 1939. It is one of 10 built by the CCC throughout the park in the 1930s. For the 30 years or so they were in use, a watchman lived in the tower for about three weeks at a time, until he was relieved by another watchman.

The towers had no electricity and no running water. A battery-powered, two-way radio was the only means of communication. Mirrors were used for signaling in the daytime and flashlights at night when the radio battery was dead. Fire towers on Mount Cammerer and Mount Sterling–about four miles away in North Carolina–are among the four that remain today of the original 10.

In addition to being a signature climb in the Smokies, Mount Cammerer has been called by multiple hiking experts “one of the best hikes in the Southern Appalachian mountains.”

Far be it from me to differ with the experts.

Same as every other time I’ve gone, Bill and I took the popular Low Gap Trail from the Cosby Campground in the park, near Cosby, Tennessee. The trail is a little more than 11 miles roundtrip and includes a 3,000-foot elevation gain over prolonged stretches of rocky surface. It’s strenuous and not for beginners. This year made almost 10 since Bill’s last–and only–climb up Mount Cammerer. He told me he might have to sit out part of it, or not go all the way to the top.

Spoiler alert: he made it.

The fire tower has a lookout deck about one story higher than the trail surface, and you can clamber onto it via a rock scramble. It wraps around the structure, offering the possibility of a 360-degree view of the mountains and ridges spreading out below.

I made our October hiking plans back in February of this year. When the possibility of fall color during the traditional third week of October peak in East Tennessee seemed a safe bet. Then came triple-digit high temps in the summer that were still hanging around into the first week of October. Leaf color is set in motion by clear days and cool nights. Not enough of those had happened to bring fall foliage into technicolor focus by the time of our trip to the mountains, but what were we going to do? Not go was not an option.

Our Happy Hovel

We did do one thing we had never, ever done before: We left for the trail at 10:30 a.m.

After I had sat down to and eaten a full breakfast–something else I’ve never done before hiking Cammerer, or most any other hike. That’s because: 1) I was on much-needed time off with an alarm clock ban, and 2) our cabin was only 30 minutes from the trail head. Much closer than the 90-minute drive we used to make from our house in West Knoxville, to say nothing of the idea of driving there from Chattanooga.

The forecast called for spotty showers–not the weather I would have chosen, but not a reason not to go. We took rain gear but didn’t really need it until we were almost off the trail after 12 miles and change. Temps were pleasant and hints of color were beginning to appear. There was the one constant: 3,000 feet of elevation gain during five and a half miles of climb.

For all his self-doubt, Bill did remarkably well. We both plugged away for the first three miles or so–unrelenting up–until the Low Gap Trail ran into a section of the Appalachian Trail that continues on toward the Mount Cammerer Fire Tower. Reaching the Appalachian Trail there means you have reached the end of the most difficult part of the hike. Woo-hoo! We planted ourselves on some sitting rocks and had a snack.

The rest of the way is shorter than the way you’ve already come, but you’d swear otherwise as you hit yet another little rise, another little meander through some woods, another step up some built-up steps. It must seem shorter in my mind than it is because it’s so much less steep than the three-mile ascent it follows.

When we finally reached the fire tower, we clambered up the rock pile to reach the observation deck, and I was surprised to find the door locked to the interior room surrounded by the deck.

I jiggled the handle a little, and a young man inside opened the door. He said he is a UT Knoxville student (the campus was on fall break at the time) and forestry major who enjoys visiting the fire tower.

He had a straw broom in his hands and he said he was just sweeping up the mess he’d made. FYI, neither the fire tower nor that publicly accessible room are for “camping.” I can’t tell you the student was camping or contemplating doing so, but I can tell you I’ve never encountered a person dancing with a straw broom up there before. Nor have I ever seen a broom anywhere at the fire tower before.

Oh, well. He was a bright, charming kid, clearly and he asked lots of good questions about hiking in the Smokies and about UT Knoxville. It would be good for forests if he ends up in forestry.

After about an hour to eat the sandwiches and snacks we’d brought for lunch, and hearing the start of a shower, Bill and I bid our future forester friend adieu and hit the trail.

We made great time and almost the entire descent without a mishap. But it did get a little dark toward the end–we were back to our car about 7:30 p.m.–and the increasingly heavy rain created some slippery spots. One of those caused Bill to take a spill. Mostly just a loss of balance, no severe crash. We were both ready to be off our feet, though.

It did us both a lot of good to get back up there. Bill surprised himself at being able to do more than he expected he could. And I love going up Mount Cammerer because it is part of one of my favorite good news stories, ever.

The fire tower was restored in 1995 with funds donated by the non-profit Friends of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The group organized in 1993, and the fire tower restoration is the first project it funded.

Sadly, vandals—who I don’t even understand being among hikers—have in more recent years damaged the structure again. The North Carolina chapter of the national “Forest Fire Lookout Association” has come through with a $500 grant to Friends of the Smokies to repair the damage.

Because Mount Cammerer has a lot of friends throughout the Smokies. Including us.

First fall color beginning to show from top of Mount Cammerer

Early fall glory from another direction

 

Actual view from coffee on the back porch of our cabin

Fair Enough

If you grew up in Tennessee and, certainly if you grew up with Tennessee 4H, you more than likely have been to a county fair more than once.

I don’t know exactly how many times I have been to a county fair, but the number would have been at least 12 or so by the time I moved out of my parents’ house for college. In the small town of Sparta, where I grew up, everybody went to the White County Fair, at least once every year. The younger you were, the more times you went.

The White County Fair always began on Labor Day and ended on the following Saturday. I would help my mother and grandmother complete entry forms for canned or baked goods or needlework they would enter into competition. Entry was free, and winning entries earned $2 or $3 each. My mother usually brought home $20 or $30 in winnings, making it worth the effort to her and my grandmother.

My older brother and a high school boyfriend of mine competed in the cattle show. You’d be surprised at the extent of cosmetic measures involved—shampooing, coat oil, black spray paint for the hooves and buttons left from de-horning—in making solid, healthy cows look their show-worthy best.

I usually had a supporting role in various 4H activities going on throughout the week. Except for a couple of years when I ventured into new territory for the first time.

At the age of 11, I entered a new talent contest in its debut year. I had to try out before the fair committee to qualify, and my a cappella singing of an Olivia Newton-John hit ended up winning first place and $50. That was the first money I ever made. Six years later, I was slightly less successful in competition.

Second-in-line to the County Fair crown.

My then-boyfriend urged me to enter the beauty contest—the Fairest of the Fair.

I’d never been interested in such a thing, based on my thinking that a girl had to think of herself as a prize-winning beauty to enter a beauty contest. My boyfriend insisted, despite it being little more than 24 hours until the contest, which always kicked off the Labor Day first night of the fair. After Sunday church, I went to the home of a couple who organized the contest, filled out the application and got word of a contestants’ luncheon the next day.

I didn’t own a pageant-type dress. Immediately after the Monday luncheon, my mother took me to a local store to look for a dress to wear on stage in a few hours. We found something acceptable and—bonus—it was on clearance and cost $5. I ended up being named second runner-up. That was it for my competitive beauty career.

Saturday night—the last night—at the fair always drew the biggest crowd.

People seldom seen in public otherwise would be seen wandering the midway, playing the shooting, throwing or sledgehammer-banging games; having a burger and fries at the Lions Club food concession.

I once heard a charismatic gospel preacher decry it as “a place of sin and beggars.”

As a teenager, it was a place to observe all the new couplings and uncouplings of high school romance that may have occurred over the summer just ended.

Since moving away from my hometown, I’ve never lived in a place where fair-going was so widely practiced. I went to the “Mid-South Fair” once while living in Memphis and the “Tennessee Valley Fair” a couple of times while living in Knoxville. That’s it—until venturing to the Hamilton County Fair this weekend.

It was the first time the county fair in Chattanooga – annually on the last weekend of September – happened since we moved here in June 2018. Unlike the near-drought conditions we find ourselves in today, torrential rains in 2018 began on Labor Day weekend and seldom stopped until March. Last year’s Hamilton County Fair was rained out for the first time in history.

Only you…

When I saw that this year’s is described as the 30thanniversary fair, I was puzzled. How could Chattanooga not have had a county fair prior to 1989? Turns out, the anniversary is of when the fair began being staged in Hamilton County’s Chester Frost Park after a history of being relocated several times since the first one in 1915.

One is real…

Chester Frost Park is a popular boating, camping and fishing spot only about four miles from our house, so we were both curious and convenient to check it out.

Fair-bound shuttle

Shuttle buses manage traffic and the limited parking, since the park is still home to dozens of campers and the same number of fishing and recreational boats buzzing across Chickamauga Lake.

Other than the unusual location—shared with a lake, fishermen and campers at a public park—and no midway, this fair offered all the usual agricultural, livestock and home-centered competitions.

It had a fairly diverse collection of farm animals, and I surprised myself approaching animals I grew up around as if I were at a petting zoo.

Guess I’ve been gone from the farm longer than I thought.

It’s only a two-day event, and I’m glad for the live animals that this is so, since the weather is ungodly hot and the animals are confined in pretty tight spaces to allow the 50,000 of us who’ll visit the fair this weekend to get an up-close look.

Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Bill and I didn’t get there until about 4 p.m. on Saturday.

Though it was actually Bill’s idea to go, he said arriving at 4 p.m. was plenty early since he didn’t plan on spending more than a couple of hours there.

Unfortunately, our timing was too late for the two editions of Mayfield’s Ice Cream Eating contest, and we missed the racing, swimming pig shows.

Oh, well. Next time.

 

Hiker College

Lookout Mountain. Signal Mountain. Raccoon Mountain. Chattanooga rests in the laps of multiple mountains, so why would hikers in Chattanooga go out of state looking for a mountain to climb?

In the case of a hike Bill and I recently took with the Chattanooga Hiking Club, which has members living as far as 50 to 75 miles from the city, driving to Berry College to hike was as much about accommodating member hikers who live there as it was about a change of scenery.

Away they go, with Bill setting the pace.

Berry is a private, liberal arts college of about 2,000 students that is technically in Mount Berry, Georgia. For all practical purposes, though, it’s in Rome, Georgia, about a 90-minute drive from Chattanooga.

Berry also has the world’s largest college campus in terms of land area. It sits on more than 27,000 acres of woodland, fields and streams.

That vast acreage includes Berry’s “Mountain Campus,” and parts of that are open to the public for hiking, bicycling and horseback riding. Bill and I made our first trip there to meet up with the Chattanooga Hiking Club.

The hike was led by Barbara McCollum, a club member who lives in Rome, Georgia. Barbara also just happens to be a Berry alum and past president of its alumni association. She is a fountain of Berry fun facts and of energy.

The meet-up time was 9 a.m. That meant Bill and I had to leave Chattanooga by 7:30 a.m. and get up even earlier, on a Saturday. When we arrived at 9, Barbara and a handful of other hikers had already knocked out an extra three miles they wanted to log before pushing off with us and the larger group for another 10 miles. Plus, they got in three more miles after the group hike. We learned that’s because Barbara and the mileage-adding others were less than a week from leaving for Spain to hike about 360 miles of the famed Camino de Santiago in about 30 days.

I’ve known about and wanted to walk the Camino for 20 years. I’m jealous, but the fact six members of the club were about to go and do it told me these are my kind of hikers.

Inside Frost Chapel

The Berry Mountain Campus has a network of 80 miles of hiking, biking and horseback riding trails, and two frisbee golf courses.

After you pass through the main campus entrance, you meander through three miles of Gothic stone buildings, open fields and groves of trees until you arrive at the mountain campus.

We met at Frost Chapel, a campus landmark built by Berry students in 1937.

Frost Chapel entrance

The chapel was open, so we took a look inside. The heavy wood-beamed ceiling, flagstone floor, slate roof and stained-glass windows made it look like an Appalachian, fairy-tale version of a church, and it was definitely worth a look.

From there, we walked to the nearby “House of Dreams gravel access/fire road.” That began an eight-mile loop, following the gentle, but insistent ascent of almost 1,000 feet in 2.5 miles up Lavendar Mountain.

The campus is known for having a population of 1,500-2,000 deer, and we saw several members of that community on our winding climb.

Up on Lavendar Mountain, we reached the cottage and gardens known as the House O’ Dreams. Both once belonged to Miss Martha Berry, who founded the college. The House O’ Dreams–yes, that’s how it’s spelled–was built by Berry students in 1922 as a gift to Miss Martha on the school’s 20th anniversary. Born to a Georgia family of wealth amassed from decades as wholesale grocers and cotton brokers, Miss Martha was an advocate for education, especially for those who might not easily have access.

House O’ Dreams and gardens with koi pond

The House O’ Dreams sits at 1,360 feet elevation, by far the highest for 360 degrees all around. It looks out on the town of Rome, and toward Alabama in one direction and back toward Tennessee in another.

Firetower atop Lavender Mountain

In fact, I could make out some mountains in the distance toward Chattanooga, so I fired up a $5 app on my phone: A.R. Peak Finder. You open it and hold your phone as if taking a picture of a mountain horizon in front of you. On your phone screen, you see a photographic image, but it also has the names of mountain peaks in the image.

It uses GPS coordinates to determine the location of the phone and the peaks you aim at.

Garden archway on Lavender Mountain

I learned about it from my fellow avid hiker and close friend, Hank Dye, and it’s a nifty little tool I recommend to anybody who wants to know more about mountain geography in front of them because it will work on any topography around the world.

It was pretty amazing to see confirmation that one of the peaks I was looking at—from 75 miles away—was Lookout Mountain back in Chattanooga. That’s how far and clear the view was from Lavendar Mountain.

From the House O’ Dreams, we began our descent on a wooded trail used by hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders.

That trail took us past a lake reservoir, a project financed by Henry Ford, one of Miss Martha’s affluent and cause-minded friends.

The lake that Henry Ford built

Bill at The Mill

We continued to what’s called the Old Mill with its 3-story-sized water wheel and reportedly the most-photographed spot on the campus.

Shortly thereafter, we were strolling among the buildings of a Chick-Fil-A-funded marriage and family center, then our eight miles were logged and our loop was complete.

Just for fun, and because it was Labor Day Weekend and the traditional start of football season, the hiking club had asked participants to bring food contributions for a post-hike tailgate.

Newbies, like us, were told we were off the hook to bring food, but Bill and I imagined a cold, healthy fruit salad might be a hit. We brought it, and it was.

Travel+Leisure magazine rates Berry as one of the most beautiful college campuses in the country. I have to agree. Not to mention it dedicates thousands of wooded acres to outdoor pursuits–that’s a college any hiker ought to want to get into.

The Party With Purpose

Hand-held high heels for party hiking

Over the 15 months since we moved to Chattanooga, Bill and I have steadily discovered more and more of what makes this area so highly acclaimed for its outdoor offerings.

Mountains, valleys, lakes, rivers—calm and wild, it’s all here if you want to do it. And there are a whole lot of do-ers, like us. There also are a lot of people who are less do-ers than they are advocates for preserving the beautiful places that attract do-ers. Those places are called national treasures by still another group around here and, when we joined them for a recent benefit party, we knew we’d found our people.

Point Park entry: Replica of Army Corps of Engineers insignia

The 11thAnnual National Treasures Party at Point Park supported National Park Partners, a local group of movers and shakers behind conservation of the natural, historic and cultural resources of Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park, which includes the Moccasin Bend National Archeological District.

Point Park is a 10-acre treasure on top of Lookout Mountain. In that park, all people are created equal—hikers, rock climbers, wheelchair-bound, the elderly, whomever—when it comes to taking in spectacularly beautiful scenery. You can easily drive up the mountain right to the gates of the park and walk on in. When hikers talk about whether a view can be had on a “windshield tour,” this place is a windshield tour bonanza.

It’s part of the National Park Service’s Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park, and an entry fee of a few dollars is charged. The views are a bargain at any price.

Point Park’s name is derived from its northern tip—the point overlook on Lookout Mountain—on which Civil War Confederate soldiers perched confidently as the Union Army was caught below, for a time, in the city of Chattanooga. The federal soldiers’ ability to ascend and defeat Confederates on the slopes of Lookout Mountain is a stunning thing to contemplate.

No battles were fought at the Party at Point Park, but permanent placards and replica cannons positioned throughout document the place’s history.

National Public Radio affiliate WUTC-FM is a part of the UT Chattanooga Division of Communications and Marketing where I work, and I’m pleased to say that I learned about the Point Park shindig from underwriting (like advertising on commercial radio) by National Park Partners on our station. As soon as I heard about the place and the purpose, I was in.

The weather could not have been more perfect—dry and breezy as the sun was setting. Party planners clearly had thought of every detail.

A park ranger was stationed at a social media selfie site overlooking the valley. Four long tables were laden with silent auction items.

Dozens of round tables were draped with cheerful red-and-white checked tablecloths and nestled in a grove of tall, mature trees. Pulled pork, chicken and some vegetarian/tofu—this is Chattanooga, after all, where vegetarians are plentiful—versions of barbecue were served. Along with all the traditional sides and then some, and all of it buffet-style. Fruit salad, hand-dipped ice cream cones and banana pudding were the dessert options. I can vouch for the authenticity and deliciosity of the banana pudding.

Seating was unassigned, and we joined a local, Lookout Mountain-dwelling couple, seated with another local resident and the couple’s dog, which was napping inside a doggie stroller. They were warm and friendly. So was the other couple—also Lookout Mountaineers—who then joined us. For context, it’s necessary to point out that Chattanoogans who own property and live on Lookout Mountain are understood to be wealthy. Extremely so. Lots, alone, can sell for multiple millions, thanks to the million-dollar views. All five of our new friends—plus the stroller-napping Jack Russell Terrier—were engaging and delightful.

Umbrella Rock

After taking in the meal, Bill and I took in more of the sights. We made a bee-line for the once-a-year opportunity to approach and be photographed on iconic Umbrella Rock. It appears to me the result of a massive rock serving as a pillar on which an almost-bigger, horizontal slab of a rock must have landed and now rests.

The park keeps it locked behind a gate 364 days a year—to protect either from personal injury or from vandalism, I guess. The party is the one day a year when the gate is unlocked, and—happy surprise!—we got our rare chance to check out Umbrella Rock and get pictures in the most perfect conditions.

It’s next to the Ochs Observatory and Museum.

That observatory—essentially a vast stone deck—offers the single-most spectacular scenic view in all of Chattanooga, in my opinion.

From that lofty perch, you can look down at Moccasin Bend, the Tennessee River Valley, Chattanooga, earth. If you can’t see at least seven states from there, I’d be surprised.

And can you guess who’s behind the Ochs name of the overlook? Yes, that would be the legendary Adolph S. Ochs. I see his name on a lot of things in Chattanooga, usually acknowledging that he founded the Chattanooga Times newspaper. Which is important and true, but it’s only a piece of his story in Tennessee.

I used to see his name on a Tennessee Historical Commission placard in Knoxville almost every day for about eight years. That’s how long I worked for the newspaper there, and a placard just outside the building noted the site of what used to be Staub’s Theater and that Arthur S. Ochs—later the publisher of the New York Times—was its first chief usher.

Staub’s Theatre Marker notes Adolph Ochs’ presence in Knoxville.

Ochs was born in Cincinnati before his family moved to Knoxville, where he was raised as his parents operated a struggling business in the years just after the Civil War. In 1869 and at the age of 11, Ochs began delivering papers before he learned to set lead type. Of course, he did go on to establish the Chattanooga Times, with a merger since then resulting in the Times Free Press, today’s best newspaper in Tennessee, and later he became publisher of the New York Times, one of the best newspapers in the world. I was already a fan of Ochs. The fact he made enough money in the newspaper business that he could pay to make one of Chattanooga’s most spectacular views accessible to the public—what’s not to love?

According to the National Park Partners organization, more than 945,000 people from around the world visited the six units of Lookout Mountain’s National Park – Chickamauga Battlefield, Lookout Mountain Battlefield, Missionary Ridge, Moccasin Bend, Orchard Knob and Signal Point in Point Park in 2018..

I know of two more who’ve already been multiple times in 2019 and will keep going back in 2020 and beyond.

Last of a Long Goodbye

Mary Arthur Anderson would have turned 91 years old on August 31, had she not passed away this year on Easter Sunday.

She was the first of five siblings that include Bill, of which he is second-to-last born. His younger sister, Hazel, and he are the two surviving siblings.

Mary was a faithful wife of 50 years to her husband, Cecil, on whom she waited and cared for when his health declined toward the end of his life. After his death, her strong bond with her children and grandchildren grew stronger as they drew even closer to her, making sure she never had a need nor a moment of loneliness.

Mary came to know a gentleman friend who kept her company, under the ever-watchful eye of her family. She was, hands-down, Bill’s favorite cook, whose versions of fried chicken, chicken and dumplings, rhubarb pie and banana pudding were his favorites. Look up the word “pistol,” as used to describe a human and not a firearm, and you’ll see Mary.

I wish I had a dollar for every time she told me how glad she was Bill and I had found each other.

Bill with his father, brother and sisters at our wedding.

She and Bill adored each other, her from a maternal orientation. Her father died when Mary was a small child, and several years passed before her mother married Bill’s father. After their parents had a baby boy, then a boy who died as a toddler, Bill finally came along. He was a toddler still sleeping in a crib when Mary married Cecil. On her wedding night, she made her new husband take her to her parents’ house so that she could kiss baby Bill goodnight and tuck him in.

Celebrating Mary’s birthday with her grandson, three sons, brother and man friend.

Birthday kiss

Her birthday was celebrated almost every year up to the last three or four, when her memory began to fade.

When memory loss progressed to the point she could no longer recall how to cook her family-favorite classics, or much else, her three sons arranged for a home health aide to stay with her over the work week. Her sons shared rotating duty for sitting with her on weekends.

Along with memory, time stole some of her pistol quality, but her eyes never lost their twinkle.

They looked out on Douglas Lake from her house with that spectacular view.

Her three sons and their Uncle Bill and I spent a Saturday there a couple of weeks ago, at the estate sale of her belongings and home furnishings–minus everybody’s sentimental favorites and heirlooms.

As much as such family business is routine and happening every day, somewhere, it still felt really personal and a little strange.

Strangers pulling up, walking through a grandmother’s home, turning over rugs and sliding clothes hangers over rods, picking up knick knacks and stacking up dishes.

I don’t have to tell you how odd it feels to answer a buyer’s question about an object at the same time it conjures a memory you’re keeping to yourself.

Or to stand by as people walk through parts of Mary’s house few but she and her husband ever occupied.

The day was hot, the sun relentless and the stream of buyers steady. We were scheduled to shut down at 4 p.m., but people were still buying until at least 5 p.m. Lots of buyers also were interested in the house. Which isn’t for sale, yet, but I expect to sell quickly, based on the number of inquiries. Not to mention the incredible, lakeside location.

Family birthday party, 2014.

We made the 2.5-hour drive up from Chattanooga that morning, and we were returning that night. On our way home, first, a Taste of Dandridge. That’s the actual name of the restaurant picked out by Mary’s son, Mike, where we had dinner before heading off on our separate ways. With Mike and his wife, Velina, that would be home in Strawberry Plains. Mary’s eldest, Cecil Jr., and his wife, Pam, live in Farragut. Her son, Mark, and his wife, Linda, live in Dandridge, only a few miles from Mary’s house.

The restaurant was good, so was the food, and the company was even better. It was a perfect ending to the day. We shared stories about Mary that still make us laugh.

If she’d been there, she would have laughed loudest.

 

 

Operation Move In

When I showed up as a freshman to get the key to my room in Crawford Hall on the campus of Tennessee Tech University, a couple of student workers welcomed me to college and pointed me to the stair well closest to room 311.

The three-story building didn’t have air conditioning, had one wall phone for each hallway, communal showers in two big, shared bathrooms on each floor and one laundry area in the basement. I had a set of bed linens, too many clothes, an electric typewriter and my textbooks–more stuff than my mother wanted me to take, but almost nothing by today’s standards.

Modest version of today’s student residence

Today, college residence hall nest-making is big business. Retailers from Lowe’s to Wal-Mart to Bed, Bath & Beyond start early in summer trying to sell students on the idea that they aren’t just moving onto campus, they’re making their own, first homes.

And over the three decades since I went away to school, colleges have adapted to changing preferences for more apartment-like and less dorm room-like accommodations.

Universities have also realized the opportunity they have to reach out and make students feel welcome by declaring a “move-in day” and showing up en masse with smiles and helping hands.

Which brings us to UTC’s 2019 “Operation Move In.” It took place on Thursday, Aug. 15, before the Monday that classes began on Aug. 19. The scheduling is to enable parents a weekend, if they need it, to help their new college kids get fully situated in their homes away from home. The weekend also lets students get a feel for campus and its surroundings.

Just a few weeks on the job, I wasn’t able to help at move-in day 2018. The big doin’s are coordinated by campus housing officials, known formally as the Office of Housing and Residence Life. This year, as in all years, that office began recruiting volunteers in June. Hearing the effort was still about 200 helpers short at the first of August, I signed up both Bill and myself.

Almost a dozen student housing complexes are home to about a third of the student body of roughly 12,000. That includes approximately 1,500 freshmen who are required to live on campus if their hometowns are 45 miles or more from UTC.

Among the remaining volunteer locations when I signed us up was Decosimo Apartments. Those mean something to me because that’s where I lived for a month in 2018 before Bill and I got moved from Knoxville to Chattanooga.

Bill’s 2018 move-in stint at Decosimo.

How did I have this much stuff to move in just for a month?

My very un-decorated Decosimo apartment of 2018.

I know my way around the building and the parking area there, so I signed myself up to help students carry in their belongings and for Bill to help direct traffic as parents had 20 minutes to unload cars at building entrances before finding long-term parking. Bill was OK with that assignment, he told me, emphasizing he wanted no part of lugging stuff into the building or up its stairwells.

Nope, no elevators in ‘Dee-co.’

All across campus, hundreds of volunteering employees–and their spouses, in many cases such as mine–made up a well-established system of coordination. Students with even-numbered room assignments were installed in the morning, odd-numbered assignments in the afternoon.

Bill inspects belongings to organize for hauling.

I knew the majority of my fellow employees we volunteered with and, per usual, Bill didn’t meet a stranger. He soon was pointing out the shortcut to this or the easiest way to that, and carrying loads inside despite swearing he wouldn’t be hauling anything.

 

Linens and clothing were just the start. Flat-screen TVs, cookware, dishes, shelving and every kind of blinged-out decor item went up the stairs that day. Cardboard from all the newly unboxed stuff and all the moving boxes had to be carried outside to a dumpster. Far too much of that flying to toss it into trash chutes. The dumpster outside had to be emptied at least once in the middle of the day.

Even the chancellor helped.

Parents mostly were too busy to get choked up about the milestone moment they were in the midst of, and students mostly were excited about the milestone moment they had long anticipated.

Representatives of student organizations surfed by every residence complex, handing out freebies and invitations to join this or that group.

Even Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke stopped by to greet some of the few thousand of his city’s newest residents.

Mayor Berke welcomes a Nashville couple and their son to campus and the city.

On-campus living bears little residence to the time when I was a student living on a campus, but helping this generation get settled was fun for Bill and me, and it was a great window into what students care about and the people who care about them.

Call It Work

“That’s why they call it work.”

You’ve probably heard that expression, often used as a verbal shrug after summarizing something done not by choice but by job requirement. I have to plenty to do by job that’s not by choice, but every once in a while, my job offers a really choice assignment. A recent Wednesday brought one of those.

Because a UTC biologist and a grad student are involved, I went along—for purposes of documenting their work—as a whole passel of academics and state and federal biologists visited the secret location where hundreds of rare white fringeless orchids have been transplanted.

Yes, secret.

Platanthera Integrilabia

That’s because the wild flowers, platanthera integrilabia, also known as “monkeyface” orchids, are so rare they’re on the federal Endangered Species List. The transplanting is part of a long-term study to determine what may be preferable conditions for their viability–basically, research in progress. In an undisclosed location. Unless your work makes it necessary for you to visit.

Truth be told, I’m not sure I could find the site again on my own, but I can tell you it’s in the vast Bridgestone – Firestone Wildlife Management Area that lies where White and Cumberland counties meet at the edge of the Cumberland Plateau. That’s an area I know better than you might expect because it’s basically where I grew up, and it’s just down the road from where I went to 4-H camp every year from age 10 to 16. Having a work-related reason to visit—even if only for a day—made it fun and special to get to go back there.

The origin of the research is TVA’s compliance with the Endangered Species Act when work by the federal utility involves construction or similar work that could disturb wildlife or plant life. The orchids planted at Bridgestone—in an area I grew up calling Scott’s Gulf—were discovered in 2015 on a TVA power line right-of-way now “retired” near Spencer, Tennessee. TVA biologists had to find a suitable habitat for the orchids, which would be killed off by competition from other plants that would grow in as the right-of-way reverts to its natural state.

As you might expect, TVA had to assemble a conservation team for the project. A large team, including experts with the Atlanta Botanical Garden, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, Tennessee Department of Conservation and Environment, US Fish and Wildlife Service and researchers at UTC.

Those researchers include distinguished biologist and environmental scientist Dr. Jennifer Boyd and Savanna Wooten, a graduate student pursuing a master’s in biology. Savanna has spent the last two years visiting the site once a month to record data on how the orchids are faring and, as of August 2019, she has completed the 24 months of observation she will document and analyze in her master’s thesis this fall before graduating in December.

Except, ironically, on the August visit by the cadre of experts from TVA, TDEC, TWRA and USFW, Savanna wasn’t able to make the trip from Chattanooga and Dr. Boyd was in Italy. UTC was represented that day by me and my colleague, Will Davis, who recorded interviews and environmental sound for a piece he put together for the National Public Radio station on campus and operated by UTC, WUTC-FM.

Will is an Ohio native who’s lived in Chattanooga a little more than two years. The towns of Dunlap, Spencer and Sparta that I drove us through on the way to the wilderness area all were new to him, but old hat to me. I grew up in Sparta.

Our TVA contact had given us essentially GPS coordinates to find the spot. At one point that seemed to be in the middle of nowhere, but the Scott’s Gulf side of nowhere, I stopped at a TWRA equipment shed when I saw a man in uniform there. I told him our business, and he said we were the second party to approach for assistance finding the orchid expedition. The road I wasn’t sure was the right turn a little ways back was, in fact, the turn I should have made.

Then, since we were in the county where I grew up, I had to ask the young man about his people. He’s one of the Underwoods scattered about the area, he told me, and he’d just moved back there from Cassville about six months ago. Cassville? What the, hey, that’s the remote corner of the county where I grew up about 15 miles away! I could have talked a little longer, but we had somewhere to be, so Will and I headed off to meet the experts.

We found them in about 10 minutes. Will’s not an outdoorsy type, and he was dressed in jeans and sneakers—similar to what he wears to work most days. I was in hiking clothes and really glad not to be wearing what I wear to work most days. And I soon realized I was the one and only person in shorts, because everybody else knew the propensity for ticks—big ones, medium ones, and little-bitty sesame seed-sized ones. Oh, well. Nothing to do but put on my hiking boots and keep a sharp eye.

In about 10 minutes of walking through very dense foliage, we came upon what looked from some distance like PVC pipe-versions of traps I’ve seen set for wild hogs in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Our leader, TVA biologist Adam Dattilo, explained those are “exostructures” built to both mark and protect the rare orchids.

And then, yes, there they were! Tiny little bunches of blooms spilling from a delicate green stalk about a foot tall.

The exostructures varied from solely a PVC frame, to frames with their top halves covered in chicken wire, to those covered entirely in chicken wire. The variations were to determine how the plants fared with no protection from herbivores—such as rabbits and deer—to partial to complete protection. Some were planted amid dense foliage, some not. Some were set within shady areas thick with tall trees, some in more open, sunlit areas. Some were in lower-lying, more-saturated plots, some were higher and drier.

The researchers plan to visit the area next year to collect more data. Then they’ll determine a schedule to visit the site every few years.

Will and I were the only non-scientists in the group, save one: TWRA technician Paul Stockton. I was delighted to meet him and learn he’s a Sparta boy. He lost his job when a local factory shut down and was exceptionally fortunate to have been hired by TWRA.

Paul and me

Our “who’s your people” conversation led to the discovery that he is the grandson of a farmer next door to the farm where I grew up, he knows my younger brother, Jack, and that Paul would be attending a party the coming Saturday night at my cousins’ Lee and Lori Broyles’ house. It’s nice to be back on the home stomping grounds and meet someone you feel like you already know and learn good things have happened for him.

All together, we walked about three miles through the woods, meandering among various plots of the 400 or so orchids. After a couple of hours, Will and I had what we needed, and young Paul was designated to walk us back to the car. I was sure I could find it and told Paul we’d be good, but he insisted.

As it turned out, without marked trails and any bearings, I was completely wrong about which way to go. And thankful for Paul as our guide. He saw us off by asking if we knew about the Welch Point Overlook. Nope.

Then he told us how to find it—drive a bit further into the wilderness preserve, look for the sign at a small parking area, then walk about 500 yards.

I would have had no idea, and it was a stunning end to a great morning. The walk from the car was maybe the shortest hike I’ve ever made and probably Will’s first. The clouds had begun clearing, and the view was spectacular. We agreed it would have been a tragedy to have missed it.

I’d say that was true of the entire day.

With my colleague, Will, at Welch Point Overlook