Stump Jumpin’: A Lesson in Limits

Some hikers have no trouble deciding, from the trail, that it’s not the day or the time or the right conditions to finish. I’m not one of those hikers.

I tend to press ahead under almost any circumstances. I’m there, I can do it. I’ll push myself, if that’s what it takes.

Last Saturday, I made the rare-for-me decision to find a shortcut, take it and bail on the original planned route. I also found myself thinking I needed to get out with the Chattanooga Hiking Club at first opportunity because I’d had about enough of trial-and-error trails.

I really miss the benefit of hikes organized by people who know routes, distance and conditions well. I often had that within a hiking squad I was part of before moving to Chattanooga. Still relatively new to the hiking options in the area, I’ve done a fair number of hikes for the first time that all my information about came from online research or conversations with other hikers. That’s worked out well many times, but it’s also left me underwhelmed a few times and just a tad overwhelmed last Saturday.

Which brings us to the “Rock Creek Stump Jumper” hike.

The “Rock Creek Stump Jump” actually is the name of what has become one of the premier trail running races in the Southeast. Organized by Chattanooga’s own Rock Creek Company, the race is presented in September or October every year as either a 50K or a 10-mile trail run.

I’ve seen it referred to as “the Beast of the Southeast.” A 50K, by the way, is 30 miles. And 30 miles is four more than a marathon. On mountain trails. Those people are tougher than I will ever be.

I’m grateful to them, though. The event raises tens of thousands of dollars every year for work on hiking trails around Chattanooga.

While looking for a place to hike without necessarily having to drive far to find it, I happened upon the roughly 10-mile route the Stump Jump event uses. I found it on the All Trails app by searching for hikes in the Signal Mountain area. “The Rock Creek Stump Jumper” is rated as moderate for hiking–for trail running, it would be a moderate beast.

It began where the trail running event does every fall, right next to Signal Mountain High School.

The top of Signal Mountain has more than its share of hiking trails. The Town of Signal Mountain owns the small “Rainbow Lake Wilderness Area” developed for outdoor recreation and popular for its own hiking trails. Passing through it is Tennessee’s Cumberland Trail.

The Cumberland Trail is a 300-mile network of hiking trails that stretch from the northeastern corner of the state south to end on Signal Mountain at Signal Point Park, part of the federal Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park areas.

Then there’s Prentice Cooper State Forest, 6,000 acres of protected land with 35 miles of hiking trails. Prentice Cooper is almost entirely in Marion County, but it reaches east into Hamilton County where it crosses Suck Creek and goes up to the popular and picturesque overlook Edwards Point. That’s why so many Prentice Cooper trails are accessible from Signal Mountain.

The 10-mile Stump Jumper route overlaps trails within two of the three trail systems on Signal Mountain. It’s a designated loop that begins and ends at a well-marked access point just below Signal Mountain High School.  

Both the 50K trail-running route and the 10 mile route I chose begin on gravel trails in another local park on Signal Mountain. Within a mile or so, I was heading south, clockwise on the loop, and into an arboretum.

And I was solo. Bill wasn’t up for double-digit mileage, so he began with me but soon took a detour for a 3-mile route. He would plan to kill some time otherwise exploring and wait for me back at the trailhead since I was making a loop to return there.

Saturday was plenty hot–a forecast high of about 95. I wanted to hike on Signal Mountain in hopes its slightly higher elevation might offer slightly lower temperatures. The rule of thumb that you see a drop of about five degrees for about every 1,000 feet of elevation gained meant that I might expect a fresh 88-90 degrees on Signal Mountain, at best.

Regardless, it was hot. And humid–I’m talking soupy air. Have I mentioned I really dislike hot weather?

Within another mile or so, I was out of the arboretum and into the woods. Just regular woods. Just me on a pretty, peaceful and textbook woodland hike over gently rolling terrain for about three miles or so.

Other than Bill until we split up, the only other hikers I’d seen so far were a couple finishing as we started. They warned us that the insects were aggressive and out in force. Oh, yay. I wouldn’t hike in the woods without bug spray any more than I would hike without shoes.

The hiking couple may have understated the presence of the insects, though. I fumigated myself top to bottom–especially on the visor and top of my cap–with a can of bug spray at the car. I put the can in my pack. About 90 minutes into the hike, I had to re-fumigate. Never mind how much my cap already reeked of bug spray, within 30 minutes or so, I had mosquitoes darting at my face and whining in my ears.

About that time, I got my first indication that this was a multipurpose trail, indeed. Temporarily blinded by a bug spray fog, I heard what I thought might be a chainsaw. The fog cleared just in time for me to see that the engine sound was coming from a dirt bike, coming right past me. Ah, the sounds of nature.

Mountain biker navigates sandy soil.

Not to be outdone, mountain bikers also showed themselves on the trail.

In making the loop clockwise, I was going against the trail reviews. The reviewers’ consensus was that counter-clockwise is preferable so that you’d begin with a descent and finish out with gently rolling terrain.

My reasoning for clockwise was based on more than one hiker also reporting the route was easy to lose in parts of the last half of a counter-clockwise direction. To me, getting lost is a much bigger deal than having to climb, so I intentionally began my loop with the trickier half of the route where some of the trail markings aren’t as prominent.

Little shed in the woods.

The All Trails app on my phone makes it possible to basically check my location in real time, and that came in handy several times in the tricky half of the route when it was, in fact, difficult on more than one occasion to clearly identify the path.

Doesn’t that assume you’re hiking with your cell phone on you and have wifi, you ask?

Why, yes, it does. And wifi on a hike is more the exception than the rule, in my experience. In this experience, it was what kept me from going down the wrong trail several times.

Oh, and the availability of wifi also made it possible to check the weather conditions, which I did because conditions I was experiencing were so unpleasant. The combination of heat and humidity made for a heat index of 99 degrees. Until the sky darkened and a good breeze began blowing–and making the trees deep in the woods groan against each other.

I welcomed the fresher air and remembered I had not brought a rain jacket or poncho. Back at home, it was so ungodly hot and humid–and sunny–I couldn’t imagine needing rain gear or being able to tolerate putting it on.

Turned out, that breeze and darkened skies were short-lived, along with the respite from swarming mosquitoes. And the heavy dependence on the cell phone to track my location was heavily draining the phone’s battery. Fortunately, praise be, I was soon in some familiar territory I’ve hiked in the past to some scenic vistas. I shut off the phone and began looking for a good place to eat lunch. Then the sky darkened again. Less breeze, that time. The weather cut straight to thunderstorm before I had the chance to find either a place to eat or shelter from the rain.

Bill also was experiencing the thunderstorm from where he sat snug and dry inside our car. Concerned about me, he called my cell phone to ask if I was being rained on and had a jacket. Walking with my head down to try keeping the phone dry, I assured him I was being rained on and seeking a spot to get out of the rain since I didn’t have a jacket for that purpose.

I found a small thicket of rhododendron and rock outcropping and took a seat. The rainfall had lightened up and the foliage was doing a fair job of blocking some of the rain. As I ate a sandwich and watched two different couples of hikers walk by and do a double take–both times–when they spotted me, I thought about how this outing hadn’t been my favorite, so far.

The rain ended about the time my food did, so I started back up again and realized, oh yeah, there it is, the up. I was into the latter half of the loop now and the climb I’d opted for over the risk of getting lost when tired and near the end of a 10-mile hike.

The sun popped out, turning all the recent rain into steam. I reached one beautiful overlook, Signal Point; then another, Edwards Point. My bandanna was soaked from mopping my brow.

Between the rain and my sweat, in fact, I was damp-to-wet all over. My weather app said it was 99F in Chattanooga. It was about 3:30 p.m. and I was a bit more than halfway around my 10-mile loop. I had only just in the last mile or two emerged from the jungle to some scenic views and would be now heading back into the jungle–and up.

Smiling through the sweat at Signal Point

I decided I’d had about all the fun I could stand.

I consulted my map and decided to take a detour, definitely uncharacteristic of me, but I decided this time was warranted by the circumstances. Plus, I still had cell signal and about 25 percent battery, so I could reach Bill and give him an update on where to pick me up. Without that, I wouldn’t have had the option to change plans.

A Prentice Cooper trail on my map would make an almost diagonal retreat to almost the start of my loop, but it would not climb, not involve stepping up large rocks and would keep me from going back into the jungle. All without losing more than a couple of miles from the total–which mattered only from the standpoint of the day’s hike turning into pretty much just a good exercise opportunity.

All in all, I still got in about 10 miles and I’m confident I made a prudent decision about where those miles were.

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The Cable Trail: A Humbling Tale

I grew up about 45 minutes away from the most-visited of Tennessee’s 56 state parks, but I never got to experience it until a couple of days ago. We didn’t go to state parks except for the occasional family reunion when I was growing up.

On Saturday, I went to Fall Creek Falls State Park–only about an hour and 15 minutes from where I live now–and saw for myself why it’s so popular.

The park is well-maintained and has exceptional facilities. The Betty Dunn Nature Center, named for the incomparably sweet wife of former Gov. Winfield Dunn, is top-notch, with well-done exhibits on native plants and animals. There are picnic sites, campgrounds, hiking trails, a lake, a golf course, and an on-site inn and restaurant–though the latter two are currently closed for renovation.

Then there is the spectacular topography: massive gorges, streams, cascades, waterfalls and large swaths of hardwood forest.

After a happenstance mention by a colleague on Friday of the “Cable Trail” being her family’s favorite hike in their favorite park–Fall Creek Falls, I knew that was something Bill and I needed to try. Well, to be more specific, the colleague said the Cable Trail is “a bit treacherous,” which was like a neon sign blinking “Must try this, Gina.

The drive from Chattanooga came with the standard, jaw-dropping view as we traversed the Sequatchie Valley and ascended the Cumberland Plateau. The park is in Bledsoe and Van Buren counties, which between them both, have about 20,000 residents. As of this year, the park has been bringing money and tourists to this very rural area for 75 years.

Things were hopping when we arrived about 10 a.m. Saturday in a parking area central to multiple picnic pavilions, gorge overlooks and the Nature Center. Parking spaces were scarce and a large group making use of one of the picnic pavilions was organizing into three smaller groups. Adults tied string to themselves and the wrists of multiple children to form single-file lines for walking and not getting separated on the journey.

After a couple of false starts, Bill and I finally found our way to the Cable Trail. It’s barely more than a quarter of a mile–or just over a half-mile, roundtrip–so we didn’t bring backpacks. Foolishly, we did bring hiking poles. It’s the cable, not hiking poles, that you have to use to navigate that dramatic little drop of 90 feet in elevation within 3/10 of a mile.

For those of you who may not know, Bill is actually pretty fearless and agile when it comes to tricky terrain. The one-inch thick cable that hung about shoulder height banished hesitance about his balance, so he started first and fast.

Truth be told, I was in usual, picture-taking mode when a petite, dimunitive woman asked me–in somewhat broken English–what I thought was something about whether I was taking pictures. When I said, “yes,” she suddenly handed me her cell phone, grabbed the cable and began a quick descent. I decided I must have misunderstood and that her question was if I would take a picture of her.

I kept waiting for her to turn and look back for a photo, but as she got nearly out of sight, confused, I began my descent. With her phone and mine in my pocket and my hiking poles dangling from an elbow and clackety-clacking the whole way down.

Heavy cable about an inch diameter is securely attached to a steel-and-concrete anchor at the high point. You hold on as you need it down the angular rock trench. In one or two places, some exposed, well-worn tree roots serve perfectly as grab handles. At the bottom, the cable encircles and is attached to a boulder the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. Go around the boulder, and you’re staring 256 feet up at Fall Creek Falls from the surface of the water it spills onto.

It’s a real stunner of a sight.

I was jolted from my reverie by the small woman–in her skirt and flats–calling to me from the rocky shoreline to come and take her photo. I picked my way over the rocks and took out her phone as she began to pose and make sure I knew she wanted the waterfall in the background. I kinda figured that was the point.

Then I figured out she also wanted me to record video of her, also with the waterfall in the background. Well, of course. Why not, I thought.

I gave her the signal, and she began a soliloquy in Spanish. I tapped an ear and raised my hand in the air, and she immediately understood I wanted her to talk louder–to overcome the roar of the waterfall. Her speech ended, I ended the video recording, and that seemed to end my service to her. She approached, smiling and head nodding, reaching for her phone and thanking me over and over.

With Miguela, also of Chattanooga

Different choices in hiking footwear

I handed my phone to Bill and asked her name–it’s Miguela, and she had also come from Chattanooga that morning–to pose with me. I asked her to put her foot next to mine so that I could photograph the two kinds of footwear that had gotten both of us safely and securely down the rock scramble.

So much for REI gear, I thought.

She took her phone and her leave, telling us she had to get back to her family. She was gone before I thought to ask if she would carry our hiking poles back up with her.

Bill and I took some selfies, then he took off. I got a couple of video clips, and then started back–90 feet up in about 3/10 of a mile. You use the cable to help hoist yourself until a section in the middle, where the roots-as-grab-handles are critical.

Then there’s a rock wall section much easier slid down than it is climbed up. It’s nothing like actual rock climbing but probably as close as I’ll ever come. Just in that section, one of my hiking poles–attached to a belt loop by a bandanna–got trapped in something and pulled back as I was doing kind of a pull-up. No, I am not kidding. So I wiggled and jiggled and tried not to fall backward as I also tried to dislodge the hiking pole without taking my hands from the rock hold I clenched. Finally–success!

I climbed on up to the top and got a high-five from Bill, who was already there and waiting. Before we finished congratulating each other and headed off, I reached behind myself to untie the hiking poles from my waist. Except there was just the one hiking pole. No, I am not kidding.

Apparently, I freed myself from the snag by freeing one of my poles from the bandanna. Oh well, hiking poles aren’t cheap, so nothing to do but go back and get it. At least, I thought, it couldn’t be too far back down the descent. No, it wasn’t. Not if you consider two-thirds of the way back down and on the other side of that miniature climbing wall not too far. I left a pole with Bill and scrambled back for the other. I put my elbow through the handle of the wayward pole–gonna have my eyes on you this time–climbed the roots ladder, scaled the miniature climbing wall, grabbed onto the cable and hoisted myself the rest of the way up.

Last Cable Trail AscentAnother high-five from Bill, two hiking poles firmly in hand, off we go.

As we emerge from the wooded thicket, the bright sunshine and trailhead sign I can’t read makes me reach for my sunglasses. My prescription sunglasses. Which weren’t on my head. No, I am not kidding.

They had been on my head. The last time I could remember was when I had pushed them onto my cap while Bill and I took selfies, at the base of the waterfall. So guess what. Go ahead, guess.

Yep, I got to do the Cable Trail–down and back up again–yet one more time. My third descent in about a half hour, I turned backward and practically rappelled down to the miniature climbing wall. I slid off of it, down the grab handle roots and was back at the VW Beetle-sized boulder anchoring the cable at the bottom in no time. But not so fast that I wasn’t looking carefully for a pair of prescription Ray-Bans among the rocks and roots along the way.

No luck. I picked my way back over to the rocky shoreline, went back and forth over it, retraced my steps as best I could remember and I spent a good few minutes staring down where we had taken the selfies. I was scouring the rocks, disgusted that I had been careless enough not to realize my glasses had fallen from my head, when I heard a voice say to me, “Do you see it over there?”

I looked up and a man in swim trunks walking out of the water said, “That snake–did you see it?”

“What snake?” I asked. Then the man pointed toward a couple of rocks inches from his feet, which are in ankle-deep water, and said, “Oh, there it is. If I’d seen that before I went in the water, I might not have gone swimming.”

I looked where he pointed just in time to see a dark and fast-moving couple of S-curves, a tiny splash of water, then–gone.

OK, I thought, here’s where I accept defeat and leave before I add snake bite to the misfortune of lost prescription sunglasses.

You know the drill by now–climb, up, steep. For the record, I did keep my eyes out for the sunglasses the entire way back. But, you know, these are eyes that require vision correction, so perhaps not the best odds of spotting a small dark object in the woods while trying not to fall backward.

Once again, a hiking trail claimed a pair of prescription sunglasses. Cable Trail is in good company with the Alum Cave Trail in the Smokies. That’s the last spot to claim a pair. Heck, these were even four or five years old–pretty good life span for me.

They were getting a little hard to read with–maybe it’s time for an updated prescription, anyway.

And Fall Creek Falls, I’ll be back for you.

Maybe for a kayaking tour of the lake. Or an autumn color hike on your lower or upper loop trails. But definitely not while wearing sunglasses.

 

 

 

 

 

Face to Face with the Fiery Gizzard

The name is colorful, the reputation is intimidating, and the location is way off the beaten path.

And, as of Saturday, I can say I hiked the Fiery Gizzard Trail–and lived to tell the tale.

All Trails app topo trail map.

The Fiery Gizzard is a 12.6-mile gash down the middle of the South Cumberland State Park. The park is made up of 40,000 acres that lie within four different Tennessee counties: Grundy, Franklin, Marion and Sequatchie. At its southernmost tip, the point-to-point trail ends at the Foster Falls area owned by TVA.

The hike I did is a 9.6-mile loop that begins in Grundy County, at the Grundy Forest State Natural Area picnic shelter. Raise your hand if you’ve ever been to Tracy City. Driving from Chattanooga, it took only about an hour to get there.

As for that name, there are a few stories, but one that comes up a lot involves Davy Crockett. He’s like the George Washington of Tennessee, you know. “Davy Crockett slept here, Davy Crockett fought here, Davy Crockett ate here.”

No surprise that one of the most popular stories about the trail name says Davy Crockett had made camp along the creek and was eating turkey being roasted on an open flame. He bit into a gizzard that was so hot it burned his tongue. The story goes that he spit it out and into the gorge saying, “Curse you, fiery gizzard!”

Kind of a “Davy Crockett spit here” claim to fame.

In the hiking community–and I mean nationally–the trail has achieved its own fame, beyond the memorable moniker.

Raven’s Point

The Fiery Gizzard Trail is ranked by Backpacker magazine, Outside magazine and the outdoor-centric Roots Rated website as one of the top 25 hiking trails in the United States. Right there in Grundy County.

Why? It offers a diverse combination of scenery, waterfalls, massive rock formations, bluff overlooks and steep, technical climbing or descents.

People have told me about the Fiery Gizzard for years, usually in the context of: Be sure to leave word of your planned route so that search-and-rescue can find you. No kidding.

I’m not sure it could have been as hard as I’d been told it was. Anybody I know who’s been always insisted the Fiery Gizzard was the hardest, ever. It chewed hikers up and spit them out. Kinda like Davy and his turkey gizzard.

I went in there prepared to run into the Loch Ness Monster, a Yeti or the Kaiser Sose.

All the dire warnings led me to think about and prepare for worst-case scenarios.

For my solo hike, I had three liters of water, two apples, a banana, a sandwich, a tube of Clif block energy chews, five trail bars and some Chex mix. I packed a headlamp, a handheld LED light, bug spray, a first aid kit, gaiters, a printed map, a compass, a whistle, a rain poncho, two extra pairs of hiking socks and a pair of water shoes. The last hike I did carrying that much stuff was about 18 miles.

My pack weighed about 15 or 20 pounds. I wore my sturdiest high-topped hiking boots, laced up tight.

If you’re one of the three hikers left who still hasn’t downloaded the All Trails hiking app, you’re missing out. The app has topo maps for hiking trails around the world. It rates trails based on “average” hiker ability, and it rates the Fiery Gizzard loop I did as “hard.” I must be average, because I found it, in fact, hard. Not impossible, but definitely a challenge.

Because, who needs a footpath?

Way more than half of the almost 10-mile loop I did is very rocky and has a lot of roots and similar stuff to trip over. And when I say rocky, I mean picking your way over fields of small boulders, from  bowling ball to small car-size. Fortunately, the trail is exceptionally well-marked by blazes on trees. Which is critical for those long stretches with no obvious footpath and you’re depending on looking from one blaze to the next to know where to proceed.

 

The trail descends into the gorge, which has a “Land That Time Forgot” quality. You’re routed along the Fiery Gizzard Creek, past a big swimming hole, giant cantilevered rock formations, a collection of Hemlock trees more than 200 years old and an extra side trip to the pretty Sycamore Falls.

Sycamore Falls

I got my view of that waterfall from above, on the descent.

Then it ascends on the other side of the creek.

That’s where things get really extreme. Total elevation gain on the loop trail is 1,243 feet, but that climb out of the gorge to its rim is the steepest part, gaining 400 feet within four-tenths of a mile. The grade ranges from 25 percent to almost 50 percent. That’s a lot.

My foot and me…taking a break at Raven’s Point.

Up on the rim, I was grateful to be walking on relatively smooth ground–not wobbly boulders or a dry creek bed. I did opt for the half-mile side leg out to an overlook called Raven’s Point. The view is like looking out on a green Grand Canyon. I took a long break there, then I got back on the trail and completed the rest of the loop without any trouble.

Yes, after starting at 9 a.m., I emerged uninjured, still daylight out, about 4 p.m. After recent–let’s call them “setbacks”–unsuccessful attempts to complete a hike up Cold Mountain in North Carolina and my survivalist expedition in the North Chickamauga Creek Gorge, I was on a mission in the Gizzard. I enjoyed the scenery, I shot photos, and I took food and water breaks, but I was single-minded about making good time. I may have muttered to myself more than once, “You are not going to beat me. I am going to finish this trail.”

So, after hiking it once, would I go back? Yep. I’d like to try the full, 12.5-mile, one-way trail coming out at Foster Falls. That’s a 60-foot high waterfall spilling into a one-acre swimming hole that’s 27 feet deep.

I’d like to go back this fall. The leaf color will make it a totally different experience. Don’t tell our friends up the road at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but Backpacker also rates South Cumberland State Park as 6th-best in the country for fall color—behind leaders such as Acadia National Park in Maine, Yosemite in California and Glacier in Montana, and three spots ahead of the Smokies.

I’ve gotta go check that for myself this year.

Cold Mountain

“Cold Mountain is an extraordinary novel about a soldier’s perilous journey back to his beloved at the end of the Civil War. At once a magnificent love story and a harrowing account of one man’s long walk home…”

That’s from a review of the 1997 book that was made into a popular movie with Nicole Kidman and Jude Law in the lead roles. That’s not the Cold Mountain Bill and I experienced.

It’s understood that the aforementioned novel is a work of historical fiction, a story told with accurate period details of people who were not real in a place that was real. Still is. The real Cold Mountain is a 6,000-foot peak in the Appalachians of western North Carolina. Today, many a hiker takes it on and, I can now tell you from experience, ascending Cold Mountain makes for a long walk, no matter the distance.

What drew us there, originally, was a planned outing by the Chattanooga Hiking Club. We are now dues-paying members, and the group has a website with a schedule of group hikes for the next three months or so. Small numbers of mostly retired members go on short, local hikes around Chattanooga two or three times a week. Saturday and weekend excursions are more ambitious, both in travel to reach them and in trail difficulty.

Cold Mountain

Cold Mountain on Saturday, July 13 had been on the calendar for weeks. I’ll admit when I first saw it, I didn’t actually know it was a real place—I’d just assumed it was also a fictional setting for the book. I was intrigued by the idea of experiencing the real place, and it promised to give your money’s worth for effort. Ten miles round trip, with a 3,000-foot elevation gain. Almost exactly the same as hiking Alum Cave trail to Mount LeConte in the Smokies—which I’ve done at least 20 times over the years—so I figured I was capable.

I spoke with the Chattanooga Hiking Club member who was to lead the Cold Mountain hike, booked a room in the hotel where the group was staying and looked forward to the new adventure. Then, about two weeks earlier, word was sent that Cold Mountain was off for the time being. A group outing to do a section of the Benton-MacKaye trail had experienced such brutal heat combined with trail difficulty that the decision was made not to attempt Cold Mountain in July, but to put it off until cooler weather.

Naturally, I wanted to press ahead, so Bill and I kept our hotel reservations and our plans to visit Waynesville, NC and Cold Mountain over July 12-13.

Out of a very healthy respect for a daunting elevation gain and challenging trail, I began working on challenging hikes closer to home—see “Kicked by the North Chick” posted here earlier—and I took inventory of what we had and what we might need to hike Cold Mountain. A trip to REI resulted in some new water sandals and a synthetic, tech-fabric pair of shorts and a shirt for Bill; and an amazing waterproof plastic holder for my phone that would allow the phone to function even inside the plastic and with a neck cord to keep it from getting lost.

Just as the hiking club had intended, we went to dinner in Waynesville at the Sweet Onion. We allowed ourselves to carb load, munched on small, pre-meal biscuits; Bill had mashed potatoes with his salmon; and I had rice noodles with Thai peanut sauce and what unfortunately turned out to be unchewable sliced chicken breast.

We found a Mast General Store just around the corner from the restaurant, and I bought a brand-new, waterproof, rip-proof trail map showing Cold Mountain in the Pisgah National Forest.

Also just as the hiking club had intended, we had breakfast—and a few more carbs—at the hotel Saturday morning. Fifteen miles later, we were at the Art Loeb trailhead to Cold Mountain in the Shining Rock Wilderness area of North Carolina. The temperature was comfortable, birdsong echoed all over the woods, and sounds of kids having fun rose up from the adjacent Boy Scout Camp Daniel Boone. “Good job, North Carolina,” I thought, “paying homage to a legendary Tennessean.”

Don’t come at me about Daniel Boone being born in Pennsylvania. He got out of there, didn’t he?

But I digress…

About 9 a.m., we shoved off, and about 9:04 a.m., we were navigating the first switchbacks. When a trail starts with switchbacks, you know it’s going to be a serious climb. Which you would have expected from a 3,000’ start to a 6,000’ summit in about five miles.

Swinging over blowdown: Nothin’ to it but to do it.

We were sweaty and had to stop to catch our breath at mile 1, which climbed 800 feet up and took us 59 minutes to complete.

Mile two leveled out considerably, gaining only 200 feet and taking us 28 minutes to complete.

Mile three angled up again, with a 400-foot climb and took me 31 minutes to complete. I say me because Bill clocked out around the 2.5-mile point. The humidity and steep stepping ended his run—though he’d never expected nor intended to go the whole way, and he’d done a great, big chunk of difficult.

We had begun encountering increasing piles of blow-down on the trail approaching the halfway point and, in general, the trail became rougher and more overgrown as it climbed.

I don’t do blow-down as athletically as Bill can.

I reached mile 4 in about 40 minutes, slowed down by climbing another 400 feet and stopping to put gaiters on over my boots because of the overgrown conditions and sprinkling rain that had begun. Of course, Mother Nature also had begun clearing her throat—rolling out some impressive thunder—by then, too.

Mile 5 was back down to a one-hour pace, owing to a 550-foot elevation gain and the start of an actual thunderstorm. I was hiking through heavy forest canopy, which kept the rain off for some time, and I’d gotten into my heavy-duty poncho before the real rain reached me. Not that it mattered. I was so hot and sweaty when I put on the poncho I don’t know how much wetter I could have felt if the rain had drenched me.

But here is where I ran into a couple more serious considerations:

First, this hike was described as 10 miles, round-trip, five up, five down. Yet, while FitBit showed I had traveled five miles, there was sign of the summit. So, I’ve got to check the stride length FitBit is showing for me and tinker to get it more accurate.

Second, I was getting pretty hungry and the plan of holding out to eat when I got to the summit was seeming less likely. Not to mention it was well past noon and, distance aside, I knew I still had about 800 more feet of climb, regardless. That takes a lot out of you, and Bill was again waiting for my return back at the car.

I decided to press on for a little longer, until FitBit told me I was at six miles. If I wasn’t at the summit by then, I didn’t plan to continue.

At 2 p.m., I hit the FitBit-measured six-mile mark. The skies were pouring. Thunder was rumbling in every direction. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast and was getting very hungry. A nice log aside the trail practically said, “Sit here, eat your lunch, watch if the rain stops, then see what time it is.”

The log seemed to read my mind. I spent about 20 minutes eating and resting, with no let-up in the rain. There are people who don’t believe I’m capable of this, but I actually decided to bail on the summit.

It was practically 2:30 p.m., I had something like six miles to do if I turned back right where I was and, even if I reached the summit in just another 30 minutes—not likely with another 500 feet of elevation to climb, according to my altitude gizmo—chances were good of being able to see nothing except the raincloud I’d be standing in.

Yes, we had come for the weekend for the purpose of ascending Cold Mountain. Yes, it was hard as #$%& just reaching the point where I sat. And believe it or not, I’ve never yet ended up in a bind on a hike that I saw coming. Continuing to climb in foul weather at 2:30 p.m. and leaving my husband, with no means of communication, waiting at the trailhead well into dark wasn’t necessary and easily avoidable this time.

Besides, I just might try again with the hiking club, and I left myself the best part still to see.

I made pretty good time descending, though with everything wet or rain-slick, there was a bit of treachery here and there.

What’s waiting for you if you’re willing to go look.

Here I have to say that rumors of all young people falling short of one’s own generation are greatly exaggerated. Even at my best pace, which wasn’t bad at averaging 20-minute miles in those conditions, I was overtaken by a group of about five 20-something boys. For a long way they were behind me where the trail was a single-file only tunnel of rhododendron.

I waited for a wider spot where I could step aside and let them pass. When it came, every one of them greeted me or said “Thank you,” and the last of the bunch said, “Ma’am, would you like someone to hike with you?” I told him I was just fine and to head on.

After an hour or so, another male hiker who also appeared to be in his 20s caught up with me. I stepped aside at the first opportunity, and he made polite conversation about the rude weather, thanked me, then asked if I would like for him to stay back with me. No, no, I told him I was fine. Though I’ve never felt so old as having two separate young hikers offer to escort me—I must be slower and older-looking than I realize. As the solo young hiker with what could have been a mini-fridge on his back almost as big as he was moved easily and disappeared quickly around a turn, I also felt old.

Filthy gaiters, muddy boots, a good day still

By 5:30 p.m., I was back at our SUV, it was no longer raining and the sun was out. Nice ending a long hike before dark. Bill was pleasantly surprised, too, and really surprised when I told him I’d made the decision to turn back.

He told me I must have been motoring down the mountain. I didn’t understand and asked what made him say that.

“This group of five young guys just finished here about 5 o’clock, and I asked if they had seen my wife who was hiking solo,” Bill said. “ ‘Oh, yes sir, she was heading down the mountain at a good pace when we caught up with her. She’s probably about 30 minutes behind us.’ And they were right on the money. Here you are.”

Finally, about the relationship between Cold Mountain the place and Cold Mountain the book. The author, Charles Frazier, reportedly based the novel on local history and family stories passed down by his great-great-grandfather. The story is about a wounded Confederate soldier who walks away from the war and back home to his sweetheart. I’ve seen the movie and read the book specifically in anticipation of the hike, hoping for the possibility of interesting detail about the setting.

Truth be told, there was a lot of detail, and much of it bleak, heavy and, after a while, repetitious. As someone who’s logged hundreds of miles through the Appalachians, I recognized and could picture most every type of scenery, forestation, plant and weather Frazier described. But by the end of the book, I’d had enough of grim gore and devastating disease.

So, let me say that, even though I didn’t make it to my destination on Cold Mountain, it was a wonderful experience that has washed the dark taste of the book from my mouth.

Given the chance to be part of a group outing, I’ll go back.

Kicked by the North Chick

North Chickamauga Creek State Natural Area is a wild patch of public land surrounding a deep gorge that dives down and across the boundary between Sequatchie and Hamilton counties.

It features a rugged hike over about a 10-mile section of the Cumberland Trail, so named becuse it runs along the eastern escarpment of the Cumberland Plateau. The trail–a public park being developed by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation–currently spans more than 200 miles of its planned 300-mile length.

On the first Saturday in July, I was looking for a bit of a challenge in preparation for a big challenge upcoming in a hike I’ve planned to do on the second Saturday in July. The 10-mile North Chickamauga Creek Gorge hike promised a challenge. It delivered, and then some.

The Hamilton County end of the trail segment is in Soddy-Daisy, just about 15 minutes from my house. The other end is in Dunlap, in the central time zone and four-wheel drive zone.

Another reason I chose the location was that I had heard about “blue holes,” or natural swimming pools along that part of Chickamauga Creek. I was curious to see them, and the whole area would be new territory.

Last time I’d be clean on this hike.

It was hot the day I went. I don’t just mean summer hot, I mean 90-degree heat and humidity that seemed just as high. I broke a sweat putting on my hiking boots in the trailhead parking lot. I had completely filled the three-liter water reservoir in my backpack, brought along bottled drinks for afterward in a cooler, and I had plenty of food, trail bars and Clif shots. The great majority of people I saw at the trailhead were there to find the blue holes. I think I was the only person heading onto the trail in something other than flip flops and swimming attire.

Bill was there to drop me off, venture up the trail a ways himself, and then pick me up at the other end in Dunlap.

Within the first half-mile of the trail, I saw a couple of concrete picnic tables and multiple paths worn down to the water at big rocks already decorated with beach towels and lawn chairs.

The trail is rated “difficult.” That may be an understatement.

Some combination of steepness of climb, roughness of trail, elevation change and water crossings is typically involved assessing degree of difficulty. In this case, all those elements were present at challenging levels.

The trail gains and loses 500 feet of elevation, twice. You climb up to the peak elevation, then descend into the gorge and the water. Then you climb back out again. There are steep slopes, and a lot of rugged rock scrambles. In a couple of places that would be virtually impassable otherwise, there are wooden stairs and a wooden ladder—built by hardworking trail volunteers. I went at a time when rain hadn’t been overly plentiful, and the creek crossing still was a handful.

More to come about that in a minute.

Red-faced and sweaty at the first climb.

The trail passes remnants of former coal mines. It goes through the foundations of an old coal tipple, where mined coal once was hauled to that point, separated by size in the tipple, and then hauled away. I saw old concrete pillars, and they stood in what almost looked like black sand with the appearance of very small chips of coal.

Shortly after that, I found myself at the entrance to an abandoned mine in the face of an escarpment. It looks like a deep cave, but it’s an almost perfectly square opening maybe 30 feet high by 30 feet wide, right at ground level. Reportedly, it’s only about 35 feet deep, but I can’t tell you from experience. I stood there and looked at my reflection in the black, standing water, and that was plenty close enough. Not to mention entry is prohibited both for human safety concerns and for concerns about white-nose syndrome, a disease decimating native bat populations.

As I climbed, I got amazing aerial views of the gorge. Since it’s summer, the area also is heavily forested. By my guess, it’s also not heavily traveled. Where it plateaued, it’s covered in knee- to waist-high growth and grasses. I used my hiking poles to prod ahead of my feet to identify critters before stepping on them. Fortunately, I’m not aware of any that I disturbed.

The trail is marked with white blazes, but there was a fair amount of blow-down and, in a couple or so places where I had to look hard to find the blazes, I discovered them on fallen trees.

As if that wasn’t enough, there was also some really rocky terrain. The very rocky water crossing, I’m guessing, could be treacherous, if not impossible, in rainy weather.

Which brings me to that awful moment when I said to myself, “Oh, no. Not again.”

As in, “Oh no, not again have I climbed and descended a killer trail only to arrive at a water crossing where I cannot find where to pick up the trail on the other side of the water!”

Yeah, I got to have that experience on a rainy hike almost five years to the day in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Yeah, I was hiking solo then, too, and I went five miles down a gash in the mountains to a roiling creek that I managed to cross and then couldn’t find the trail. Yeah, I finally resigned myself to my only option being to back track up the steep slope to where I’d started. Yeah, my husband was waiting for me where I was supposed to emerge, a few miles away, and yeah, there was no cell signal so I had no way to let him know I’d had to change plan.

So. Much. Sweating.

And yeah, as 6 p.m. was approaching and sunlight was beginning to depart, there I was at the bottom of the North Chick with no other option but to retrace my steps. All five miles of them. Oh well, the elevation gain was going to be no more than I would have had if I’d been able to finish the trail on the Dunlap end. Where Bill was waiting. At least–at the very least–I had discovered, cell signal was still present up to about two miles from the trail head. I should be able to call Bill when I was about 40-50 minutes from finishing, so he might have enough time to drive BACK FROM DUNLAP to be at the place where I’d started about noon.

Yes, I had a trail map on my phone. Yes, I had a written description of the turns and landmarks. Yes, I had a compass that I used to try to orient myself at the creek bed to figure out which way was south to the junction with another creek, and which way was east, to proceed past that junction and then go upstream where the trail continued, where I was supposed to see a waterfall adjacent to an “exceptional campsite.” But no, after almost an hour of walking and compassing and looking, I could not find where to pick up the trail across the water.

If you’re ever there, you might find it surprisingly free of insects. That might be from the contribution of my almost-full bottle of Deep Woods Off with Ebola Protector to the River Gods. It fell from my pack as I bent down to survey the width of a gap between boulders and wondered if I could jump across them without breaking my hiking poles or my legs. I went a different way, after saying aloud, “Well, I guess I’ve held the vampires off as long as I can. Gonna be a fun five miles straight up outta here in the woods as dark comes and I have nothing on my skin but sweat.”

Was I lost? No, I was not lost.

Lost is when you don’t know where you are. I just couldn’t figure out how to get where I’d planned to go.

Between the heat and the elevation gain I’d already climbed, it was sheer will, an apple and a packet of Clif gel that got me back out of there. Just as I reached the plateau–seeing spots from either low blood sugar or mosquito-induced blood loss–my phone rang. It rang before I could finish texting Bill that I’d had to turn back and he needed to pick me up where he’d dropped me off. It was Bill calling and the first words out of his mouth where, “Where are you?!” Because, you know, by then it was about 8 p.m.

That’s probably not the kindest, most tender conversation we’ve ever had, but Bill was on his way from Dunlap after we finished. I fumbled in my pack for another energy snack, and I noticed the water I drank from the tube to wash it down was getting toward the end of my supply. But I couldn’t stand still long and ponder that, lest the twin-engine bloodsuckers pick me up and haul me away.

I pushed myself to move as fast as I could, but dark was coming just as fast. So were all those chunky rocks and roots I’d crossed earlier in the day when I was fresh. If not for high-top hiking boots, I’d have rolled my ankles at least seven times.

Yes, I had a light. Yes, I was using it.

Then, I noticed more light. The kind made by cars driving on the twisting road uphill from me–which told me I was within reach of the paved road that led to the trailhead where Bill would have been parked. I called him and told him–at 9 pm and near-complete darkness–I was bailing on the ankle-buster and scrambling up the embankment leading to the road to the trail. He was going to get in the car and start driving my way. I planned to be walking on asphalt and waiting for him.

Ditching the trail to climb through brush and bramble to reach the road shoulder, I was very glad to have my handy-dandy little super-duper light. It worked great–I know, because of how perfectly it illuminated the poison ivy I was splitting wide open. Oh, well, I’ve never been allergic before, and I was willing to take my chances.

Bill, of course, had intended on being helpful and had actually walked a good bit up the trail hoping to meet me and help me if I needed carrying or shooting by the time he found me. Which meant that I actually reached the car before he did, but not by much. Maybe only 100 yards.

I was bleeding from a shin (briers), sooty-bottomed (old coal mine country, remember) and limping a little from getting a foot trapped in rocks at the water crossing. Bill was bleeding from both knees and a forearm–his short jaunt up the trail intending to meet me, without a light to carry, had already cost him a tumble at a root/stump/rock. Seems we’d both gotten kicked by the North Chick.

I had worn 100 percent synthetic, tech fabric clothing, and it was still 100 percent drenched in sweat.

FitBit said I logged 13 miles and burned 3,500 calories.

After our 15-minute drive home and a shower at least that long, I emerged dressed and Bill commented on the “sunburn” I must have gotten on my face. I went back to look in the mirror.

Nope, I told him, my rosy jaws were just evidence of red-faced exertion. I still hadn’t cooled off. But I caught a lucky break on the poison ivy.

Still not allergic. So you didn’t completely beat me, North Chick.

 

Fire(works) on the Water

Last week, we put our hiking boots aside and climbed into kayaks.

Since I recently began offering short, 10-minute or so pieces on getting outside in Chattanooga via the local NPR station, WUTC-FM, I’ve had reason to look even more than I naturally would for fun, accessible outdoor activities here. In Chattanooga, there are almost too many great choices. But when I saw an item in the Chattanooga Times Free Press‘ weekly “Fresh Air Calendar” about an REI-led, July 3 guided kayak outing five miles down the Tennessee River to where the city’s “Pops On The River” fireworks show would happen at dark, I knew that was for us.

Did I mention we would be watching the fireworks from the water, sitting in our kayaks? Yeah, baby!

The 12 available spots sold out–but not before Bill and I got ours.

REI shuttled our group, kayaks and gear from a downtown parking lot across the street from Ross’s Landing. That’s where we would eventually end our paddling adventure, after putting in few miles away, on the downstream side of Chickamauga Dam.

We got several minutes of instruction on how to fit our life jackets, adjust our seats and foot placement in the kayaks, how to paddle properly, and about how the guides would signal for us to stop, to gather up or to pull over to shore.

Then we began carrying the kayaks to the water to push off.

Since it was it was about 6 pm on July 3 and big doin’s were happening downtown at dark, a lot of ski boats and recreational boaters already were on the river. Several fishing and ski boats were launching and coming out of the river, in fact, at the ramp we were using. I’ll admit I was a little tentative as we got started. All the commotion had a good bit of waves rolling around and my kayak bobbing along with me in it. I just wanted to ease out without incident. And maybe even more, I was hoping that for Bill, since the adventure he’d agreed to go on was my idea.

Nary a stray splash. We both relaxed and realized these “touring kayaks” we were in–see, we’d already learned about the differences between ours, whitewater and sea kayaks–were made for stability.

Everybody who’s ever seen anything about kayaking has seen how they can be rolled over, how expert whitewater kayakers can even raise themselves and their kayaks upright after overturning. I want no part of that. My adrenaline meter doesn’t go high enough to navigate whitewater. Flatwater kayakers, that’s what we are.

Our five-mile distance was very do-able. We went at a leisurely pace and, from Chickamauga Dam to downtown, you’re riding downstream, which makes it even easier.

We pulled onto shore a couple of times and took short breaks. Once we got downtown, we circled Maclellan Island—a wooded strip of land that rises up to one of the landmark bridges—and we pulled up beside the island just floating a bit and taking in the scene.

We could look up and see people were standing shoulder to shoulder on the large Walnut Street pedestrian bridge overhead. People appeared to be tailgating in a few places on the shore. Other people were out on their balconies and decks—everybody was queing up for the fireworks, and it was a magical scene.

The show ended about 10 p.m., and we began paddling the rest of the way to Ross’s Landing. In about five more minutes, we were there. The fantastic REI guides took care of everything–hauling the kayaks and gear back to their trailer. All we had to do was mosey back to our car a few hundred yards away.

We were so fortunate. A perfect maiden voyage, good exercise, great weather and watching fireworks from the most unique and very best seats on the water.

I can’t believe it took me so long to give kayaking a try. I’ll be trying it again soon, and often.

 

Chatta-versary

Time flies.

On this date in 2018, Bill, I, three cats and all our worldly belongings headed for our new life in Chattanooga. Our stressful, action-packed, 28-day sprint through the worlds of home-buying and home-selling would come to a close by sunset. Not a minute too soon.

We began the day in 2018 with one last stop by the Knoxville house we’d lived in for 24 years. To collect the cats, who’d spent their last night in Knoxville there while we stayed with Bill’s niece and nephew in Farragut.

We had a 10 a.m. closing at a title company a short distance away. The cats had to wait inside the car. Inside the building, we held our breath–fingers crossed no last-minute snag would pop up. This title company, selected by our buyer, had already dropped a ball that caused the original closing date to have to be postponed a few days. The movers who had already collected our furniture graciously agreed to hold it for no extra charge.

Thankfully, everything proceeded as planned. Until the end. When the Knoxville title agent presented us with a check for the purchase price of our house. Only they were supposed to have wired that amount to the title company in Chattanooga, where it would be applied to the purchase of a house we would complete in another three hours.

Woopsie. We’re sorry, they said. They promised to get the wire transfer going right away. Never mind that Bill and I already had been told that a bank typically has to be asked to do such about 24 hours before it is requested to happen. We reminded the title agent that had to be squared away in time for closing on our Chattanooga house in another three hours.

Outside, before we headed out, we thanked and hugged our realtor, Marcia Bartlett. We couldn’t have had a realtor more capable or better suited to us. As glad as I was to have the sale of our house finished, at last, I was sorry to say goodbye to Marcia.

Peach doesn’t enjoy car rides-or anything else unfamiliar and not routine.

As soon as we unlocked our car doors, three confused cats began to cry periodically. My front seat had a little more room left than Bill’s, so I put the most high-maintenance of the cats, Peach, in my front passenger seat and aimed an AC vent into his crate. He settled down pretty quickly

About halfway to Chattanooga, and about an hour down the road, I began calling to follow up on the money wire. The title company in Chattanooga had no sign of it. The title company in Knoxville said the person who handles that for them was out to lunch. But they would make her aware as soon as she returned. No kidding.

Temporary cat pad.

The weather was already hot and forecast to stay that way. I knew we couldn’t park outside the title company in the middle of downtown Chattanooga without windows and doors locked shut. And I knew the heat build-up would be dangerous to the cats, so I came up with a plan. We would carry them, crated, into my on-campus apartment at UTC, and let them stay there in that cool, quiet place while we went to Closing No. 2 for the day. Don’t tell anybody. Pets aren’t allowed in those apartments.

I couldn’t handle any more money wire drama, so Bill started making the calls. Finally, with 45 minutes until our close, he was assured all was in order, at last.

 We headed to Chicken Salad Chick downtown, ate fast, then went to become official Hamilton County homeowners. Neither of us–nor any of our cats–had ever moved into a brand-new house, but that was what worked out for us and we were excited. Our builder was the seller, and their local honcho sent us away from closing with some useful swag–a picnic blanket, large tote and some very effective thermal coffee mugs.

We swung back by my campus apartment, picked up the cat brothers, re-loaded them into our cars, punched our home address into the GPS and headed north to Hixson. As long and stressful as the day had been for us, I think it was also pretty tough on my kitties. They were hanging in there, but really starting to fade. The only way I could keep Peach from squalling was to poke my fingers through the grate on his crate and scratch his chin or the top of his head. Soon as I stopped, he resumed yodeling.

When we unlocked our front door for the first time, at last, we were both excited and really relieved. What a day–but we made it. Furniture wouldn’t come until the next day, but that was alright.

We had debated whether to spend that night in my campus apartment–and sleep in an actual bed–or to stay put with the cats and sleep on the floor. Movers were showing up at 9 the next morning, and Hixson is about a half-hour from campus at that time of day. We opted to tough it out on the carpeted floor of an upstairs bedroom, since its windows had blinds and the master downstairs did not. At least we’d remembered to bring bed pillows and a throw. Even with carpet, though, I can tell you that a floor is pretty unforgiving.

So, with nothing on hand to eat or drink except the bottle of Pinot Grigio that Marcia had given us to celebrate the big move, and no TV, wi-fi or working phone line, we did the only thing there was to do. We googled the closest Papa John’s; punched its address into the GPS; picked up our large, thin-crust, veggies-and-pepperoni; drove back to the house; walked in; opened the wine; poured it into the clear plastic cups Marcia had also supplied; and we stood at the kitchen island and raised a glass to our new chapter.

One year ago, today.

 

Silver Celebration

Twenty-five years of marriage isn’t just a milestone, it’s a cause for celebration. And on our 25th anniversary last month, we celebrated in the most perfect way possible–for us. Not a party. Not a cruise. Not expensive gifts or travel to an exotic location. You might say we went “ranching.”

Hemphill Bald

Over the last four or five years, we discovered a new favorite hiking trail–on the Cataloochee Divide, it’s called–in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We would follow Cataloochee Divide from the trailhead on the Blue Ridge Parkway on the North Carolina side of the park as it wound through the woods and past open meadows up to a point called Hemphill Bald. A barbed-wire fence marks the boundary with private property along the last mile or so of the trail. The fence keeps cattle off park property and, at the bald, a stile in the fence enables hikers to easily access the private property and rest in the stunning beauty of Hemphill Bald. I think only heaven could have a better vantage point for taking in that part of the Smoky Mountains.

There is one tree, broad and tall, that provides shade and the music of breezes dancing in its leaves. A few half-exposed boulders give hikers something to sit on while they take a lunch break. A massive stone slab on a stone base and surrounded by well-worn concrete benches form a rustic picnic table. It’s what I saw years ago–a peak-finder set into the top of that table–that led us to celebrate our 25th anniversary where we did.

Peak-finder in picnic table

In addition to pointing out the visible mountaintops on the horizon, it points out “Cataloochee Ranch” sitting in the valley you gaze upon from your perch.

I’d never heard of Cataloochee Ranch before reading the name on that placard, and I made a mental note to look it up. When I did, I learned that it’s a collection of private cabins of varying size, a “ranch house” with varying overnight accommodations and a collection of horses, hiking trails and other soothing pursuits all set on an 850-acre paradise at 5,500 feet elevation. I also learned that the room and cabin rates meant we would have to wait for a very special occasion.

I couldn’t imagine a more special occasion than waking up in that place on our 25th anniversary.

From Chattanooga, we had a scenic, roughly four-hour drive along back roads, including a long stretch on the banks of the Ocoee River. We passed through Murphy, North Carolina, stopped for lunch in Bryson City and reached Maggie Valley about 3 p.m. The last turn was onto a twisting, five-mile ascent of 1,000 feet by the time it put us at the driveway to Cataloochee Ranch.

We checked in, picked up the key to our cabin for two and were told dinner was at 7–but we could come as early 6 for a cocktail. Our cabin was rustic and adorable. We sat back in the solid wood rocking chairs on its porch, took in rhododendron blossoms everywhere you looked, the rope swing under a huge oak tree next to the ranch house and a tractor parked with a flatbed wagon attached–that I would bet has gone on a few hayrides.

Our cabin

 

 

 

 

 

Occupancy was low as we were there the week before Memorial Day, and we were the only guests that night for dinner. Plus, meals are an optional add-on, and not everyone who stays there chooses to have all meals there. The server also was the cook, so I was able to directly thank the person responsible for mashed potatoes on our very first meal. Before the potatoes, she brought a fresh-tossed salad with just-made dressing. There was also oven-roasted broccoli, fresh-baked yeast rolls, fried chicken and baked cod. Then came “pecan pie cobbler.” I recommend it. In talking with our server-cook, we mentioned that blackberry cobbler–our favorite–was more common but no more delicious.

Dining table in ranch house

Come sit a spell before dinner

Next morning, we were joined at breakfast by three interesting and friendly couples and Judy, a granddaughter of Tom Alexander, the man who established the ranch in 1933.

Judy’s aunt, a daughter of the founder, had been our dinner hostess the night before.

Judy is a serious horse woman, with weathered hands that have held on to their share of rope, reins and saddle horns.

Actual view through great room window

She was clearly in charge of the horse stables and barn, but she also was friendly, unassuming and engaging. She asked where we were from and how we’d heard of the ranch. When I told her about the peak-finder, she said her late mother would have been thoroughly pleased, as it was her idea, partly in hopes it would bring some hikers as travelers to the ranch. A couple of Judy’s stable hands came along shortly and joined us for breakfast, a variety of meats, breads, biscuits, gravy, jams, jellies and fruits.

We were fully carb-loaded for the hike up to the bald. Because they will come looking if you go missing, the ranch staff asks you to tell them your plans before you set out and to let them know when you’re back. Hemphill Bald is only about 2.5 miles UP from the ranch, so I couldn’t imagine getting lost, but it was a nice feeling that they wanted to ensure your safety.

The weather that morning had to have been God’s gift for our anniversary: sunshine, low humidity, a light breeze and the most comfortable of temperatures. No traffic to drive through, ringing phones, email to answer–just peace and quiet, interrupted at just the right times by birdsong or the swoosh of a breeze through the tall grass.

Heaven, as it appears on earth

Once at the bald, we were joined by a couple of people in the role that had always found me there previously–hikers who’d come through the park. When they found out we had come from the ranch, they asked how we knew about it and we pointed out the peak-finder in the picnic table.

Back at the ranch house for dinner that night, our breakfast companions joined us again. When the server-cook brought dessert–individual dishes of fresh-baked blackberry cobbler–she winked at us and the rest of the dinner table oohed and aahed. I gave her a hug when she came back to clear the dishes.

That night, same as the previous, we put on long sleeves to take in the cool breezes on our cabin porch and the starry sky overhead. We sat back in the rocking chairs and listened to a frog chorus coming from the fishing pond about 1,000 yards away. The cabin has no air conditioner, and we slept soundly under a comforter.

The next morning after check out, off to our next adventure, we had an unexpected encounter with some of the ranch’s beautiful horses. A group occupying the gravel drive made it necessary for Bill to stop the car. Their representative approached and spent a few minutes poking his head in the windows and–I am serious–licking the hood of the car.

As we headed for the road back down the mountain, that place is so perfect that I wouldn’t have been surprised to turn back and see a horn on that horse’s forehead. It had been just that kind of a unicorn-magical way to celebrate our 25th anniversary.

Looking Back at 25

Bill and I met in 1993, when we both worked at the Knoxville News-Sentinel. He in circulation, me in the newsroom. About 18 months later, we were married. I don’t know if–in the swirl of finding and buying a house, planning a wedding and a honeymoon–lots of marrying people imagine a future when that marriage will be decades old, but I didn’t.

In our case, it seems 25 years later came a lot sooner than I could have imagined.

Just like all married couples, we got busy working our jobs, handling family matters and living our lives. The “busy” part–I think that’s the key to the years slipping up on you. On our anniversary this year, May 22, 2019, we counted 25 years gone by.

Bill taught me to appreciate baseball. I taught him to appreciate hiking. We both really love to travel, and we have thoroughly enjoyed doing a lot of that, often in pursuit of another of Major League Baseball’s 30 parks or another of the National Park Service’s 59 national parks.

While he plugged away at one employer throughout his life–the News Sentinel–until retiring in 2008, I pursued another opportunity in healthcare public relations, then another in higher ed communication, and the latest, where I am now at UT Chattanooga. Meantime, I also entered grad school and finished a master’s degree while working full time.

Karie (left), Kasie and I graduated in 2007. They from high school, me from UT.

That was one of the most-demanding goals I ever set, but I made it in 2007.

There have been births, weddings and funerals. Both of Bill’s parents, his brother and two of his three sisters have passed away since we’ve been married, and I have lost both of my beloved grandmothers.

Hiking with members of our beloved Knoxville church family.

We were part of an absolutely beloved church family for more than 20 years. Denominational policy changes led a majority of that group to form a new church that we were part of until we moved from Knoxville to Chattanooga in 2018.

Looky who made the Jumbotron for my UT System going-away party!

Oh yeah, and after living in the same house for the “first 24” years of our marriage, we sold it and bought one in the Chattanooga suburb of Hixson.

Bill’s had three major surgeries and I’ve had two. Otherwise, we’ve been fortunate to have enjoyed good health. To help people survive leukemia–after we came to know friends who lost a baby girl to leukemia at 18 months old–we both got heavily involved for several years as bicyclists and fundraisers for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Training, fundraising and long-distance bicycling in honor of leukemia patients still stand in my mind as the best and most important things I’ll ever do.

All in all, we’ve been fortunate to walk through life and the milestones it brings together, happily and within a cherished circle of family and friends.

Forty-four states, 22 MLB ballparks, 21 national parks, 18 foreign countries, thousands of miles on bicycles and hundreds of miles in hiking boots–we packed a lot into our first 25 years. They haven’t all been perfect, but mostly, they’ve been really good.

I Know That My Redeemer Lives

I haven’t posted in a while, I know. Today was Easter Sunday, and it was exceptional, one to remember for multiple reasons, so here I am.

The exceptional and memorable part wasn’t all good. About 8 a.m. today, Bill got the call that his older sister, Mary, had passed away. She was about 16 years older than he is and, after daytime in-home care for the last seven years, she transitioned to a local nursing home not far from her house in Dandridge, Tennessee about three weeks ago. On Thursday night, Mary had what her doctors called “a mini stroke.” Between that and developing pneumonia in a lung, she never really recovered.

A short while later, we left the house for church with Mary on our minds. I’ll always remember this Easter for it being the day she departed this life.

As close friends know, we have struggled to find a church fit in Chattanooga. The exceptional group of people we’d known and worshiped with in Knoxville for more than 20 years, and the special chemistry and shared outlook we enjoyed as part of Grace Presbyterian, have proved a tough act to follow.

Let me caution that the jury is still out, but the church we visited this morning felt more like home to us than any of the several we’ve been to previously in Chattanooga. Most churches are fuller than usual on Easter morning and the order and program of worship tends to be not just Easter-centric, but kind of all about Easter. As it should be, since Easter Sunday is the most important day of the Christian calendar.

All of which is to say that we walked into the third of three services at Northshore Fellowship this morning busily managing our expectations, given the past lacks of connection where we’ve tried going to church. When I tell you the sanctuary (an older, reclaimed, medium-sized building very typical of a new church plant) was standing room only, believe it. We had to wait to go inside for all the people leaving the service just ended to come outside.

The church meets in a still very up-and-coming, but already trendy part of downtown Chattanooga. Its website points out that “parking is in short supply,” and cautions about some next-door businesses: “Do not park at Walgreens or the Post Office. They will tow.” Depending on your age group, Bible study and other gatherings happen in an adjacent coffee shop, pizzeria, architectural firm or donut stand.

We were glad to find a parking spot on church property 10 minutes before services. That 10 minutes was used up as the last worship group before us made their way out in the morning’s beautiful sunshine.

People were dressed variously–overwhelmingly casual and informal, just like the introductions and passing of the peace.

Bill and I have been accustomed to a mix of standard hymns and contemporary songs at church for years. In my heart, though, I do tend to light up at a hymn. There’s a familiarity with both the lyrics and the melody that lets me sing as fully as I feel like. As I’ve become more practiced at contemporary praise songs, they’ve also become more familiar, but singing a hymn is like catching up with a long-lost loved one for me.

Well, let me just tell you, when Northshore Fellowship began the 10:45 a.m. service with its 30-person choir (all ages, both genders, no choir robes) knocking me backward with its rich harmony on “I Know That My Redeemer Lives,” I was already getting to my feet before the song leader turned at the end of the first verse and gestured for the congregation to stand.

You don’t know how long I’ve waited to have that feeling in worship.

So long, in fact, that I quickly pulled out my phone to record the audio of the hymn. It was so great, I knew I’d want to listen again. I replayed it for Bill in the car after church, and we both talked about the good experience we’d just had. A timely, animated and impactful sermon, too. We will be back next week.

Meantime, I felt like I ought to do something with the audio. Among the many reasons I love hiking, including the times we’ve traveled specifically to do some hiking in new, celebrated territory, is that spending hours in majestic scenery is for me like spending communion with the Creator. Climbing mountains, overlooking a pristine lake or tromping in the “cathedral of the woods”–the hand of God is everywhere I turn.

Not to mention, as John Muir said and it’s so often true for me: “The mountains are calling, and I must go.”

So I put my recording of the opening worship song from Northshore Fellowship to use as the soundtrack of a slide show of some images from some of the most beautiful and inspiring places I’ve gotten to visit–checking out the Master’s handiwork, that is. I hope you like it.

And remember what Henry David Thoreau said, too: “Not all who wander are lost.”

I suggest those who are might find God if they go outside.

The Top 18 of 2018

‘Tis the season: As a year winds down, lists pile up.

Top-grossing movies: Topped in 2018 by “Black Panther” (Haven’t seen it).

Biggest food fads: Avocado gelato, anyone? (I’ll pass)

Best moments in sports: Way too subjective–forget that.

2018 has been a game-changer for me with a list of blessings way longer than I deserve, but I took ’em all and I’m still grateful for every day of every one. Besides the tendency to take stock as a year comes to an end, one of the reasons I find myself trying to count my blessings is one of my new year’s resolutions for 2019: Be grateful.

Grateful.

It’s a thought you may recognize,”In every thing give thanks…” from 1 Thessalonians 5:18. I have found it’s also a fact that gratitude can change your attitude, your perspective, your outlook.

I encourage you to join me in a renewed focus on gratitude for all things, those you may have hoped for and those you didn’t. Because one thing I’m grateful to have learned anew in the last few years is that there are lessons in every experience, good and bad, and I’m working on trying to be better at learning from all of them.

Gratitude also helps me with patience–never one of my strong suits. Such as, being grateful even in disappointment for whatever the plan is that made the disappointing outcome the right one…at that time.

To kick off a 2019 of gratitude, without further ado, here are the (roughly) 18 top moments of 2018 for which I’m most grateful. They’re also in no particular order because it would be impossible to rank them–all being so special and important to me.

New job, new opportunity, new work friends

UTC Day 1Bill and I moved from Knoxville to Chattanooga in June, when I began serving as the UTC assistant vice chancellor for marketing and communications. It’s been a great opportunity for me and I’ve joined a team that is talented but doesn’t take itself too seriously, that works hard but has fun doing it.

 

Sweet sendoffs

Before Bill and I left Knoxville, the nicest friends from my job and the nicest friends from everywhere else celebrated with us, made us feel cared about and sent us away with a lifetime’s worth of the warm fuzzies.

Sold a house, bought a house

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After months of hard work getting our Knoxville home of 24 years ready to go on the market, it sold the first day it was listed for sale.

With closing set for 30 days later, we had to find a place in Chattanooga that we could also close on in 30 days and get our belongings moved into by roughly the same time. That was the single-most stressful 30 days of my adult life, but it ended with us finding and moving into a new house that we love.

IMG_9974U2 in Nashville

Did I mention that during the most stressful 30 days of my life, we went ahead with longstanding plans to spend two nights in Nashville and sit in the two great seats we had to U2’s May concert in Bridgestone Arena?

We did. And it was the second time we got to see U2 in less than a year–in 2017 we saw them in June in Louisville for the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree album. In 2018, they had a whole new album of songs to perform in Nashville and as incredible a show to put on as they did in Louisville.

Dylan in Chattanooga: Just a Wink Away

DylanAs long as he keeps touring and I can afford the tickets, I’ll be smiling down front whenever Bob Dylan is playing. I’ve seen him several times and in multiple cities but, after moving to Chattanooga, 2018 brought my first date with him at the Tivoli Theatre.

I was on the second row and he was at the piano turning “Like A Rolling Stone” inside out when we made eye contact and he winked at me. Yes, it happened: Bob Dylan felt like winking, and he winked at me.

 

Met nice people, rode the Choo Choo

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Shortly after I began the new job at UTC, the single-largest private gift in the University’s history–$40 million–was made official and was to the College of Business by one of its obviously most-successful alumni, Gary Rollins, and his wife, Kathleen. In September, they were the guests of honor for a day of festivities to thank and celebrate them for their generosity. Busy people like that always have tight schedules, but they were willing to sit with me for an interview that would make a feature in the UTC magazine, online and in video. They were kind, gracious and unassuming, and talking with them will always be a career highlight for me.

ChooChooYou don’t think UTC would be a university in the heart of Chattanooga and not have its own Choo Choo, do you? It does, and throughout football season, the Choo Choo rolls up and down parking lots and tailgating areas around the stadium, tunes (including the one for which it’s named) wafting from loudspeakers on the “train engine” and people in school colors handing out swag. Turns out, my new office is responsible for driving the train and sharing the swag. Which Bill and I got to do one Saturday in October as my colleague, Shawn Ryan, drove us between the cars and, unfortunately, over a “corn hole” game set. Can’t be playing when the train’s coming, kids–but no injuries were sustained in the destruction of the game set, which has since been replaced with its owner, by the way. Once Bill came out of his shell, he enjoyed the opportunity to socialize.

Celebrated Joe DiPietro’s retirement

I was there from “Day 1” on Jan. 3, 2011 for now-retired former UT President Joe DiPietro. Even though I had moved on by the time he announced his November 2018 retirement, I got to reunite with former co-workers, old friends and with Joe and his incomparable wife, Deb, at a really nice party to celebrate him and their move to be closer to children and grandchildren in Illinois. Bittersweet to see him step down, but the evening of catching up and seeing people I hadn’t seen in months but used to see every day was a highlight of the year.

My new friend on the Tennessee Supreme Court

IMG_7280Speaking of my old job, almost every year in January when the governor gives his State of the State address, I would join the UT president in traveling to Nashville for the speech. In 2018, riding along with us was–no kidding–Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Sharon Lee, who lives in Madisonville. She and I hadn’t met before that evening, and the travel time gave us opportunity to become acquainted. Justice Lee is remarkably gracious and a very interesting person to get to chat with. We have since found each other on social media, and it makes my day every time I get one of her thoughtful and kind acknowledgments there. I’m also looking forward to the next opportunity I have to spend time with her and hope to make that possible by engaging her in something she generously commits her time to: encouraging and enabling effective young people, especially young women students.

Knoxville News Sentinel Ladies Night

LadiesNightThe Knoxville News Sentinel is what brought me to Knoxville in 1992. It’s the place where I cut my teeth, professionally, when my career began as a reporter there. It’s also where I made some of my oldest and best friends, a sorority of  journalists. Today, 1992 is a long time ago in more ways than one–not least of which is what has happened to the print news business since then. Last January though, it was time for News Sentinel Ladies Night to bring us back together. I loved, loved, loved catching up with so many special women friends–part of what I always describe as the best people, “newspaper people.” My first editor, Jan Event; Margaret Bentlage, the photographer who covered and captured and traveled with me to Sweden and back on what was voted by AP the biggest story in Tennessee in 1997 (the Lillelid murders); Idonna Bryson, our office manager; Vivian Vega, the expert copy editor; the incomparable Georgiana Vines, who hosted us in her home; and a dozen or more other good, old friends. I’ll be back in Knoxville the next time there’s a Ladies Night.

My brother got married, y’all!

JackMost people who know us both know that my brother Jack is at least as much a favorite friend of mine as he is my younger brother. He’s been single virtually all of his adult life and, until he started dating Ms. Carrie Thompson about six years ago, he may have intended to stay single. This fall, though, he proposed to Carrie, so then the question was only one of how long the engagement might be. They answered that in one of the most-successful surprise weddings ever, on Dec. 1, when Bill and I were asked to come up for a party “to see their Christmas decorations.” Only my (and Jack’s) parents and hers were on hand for the civil ceremony in Jack’s living room. When Bill and I, among the first to arrive, walked in, Jack said they had a surprise to tell us about. Understatement of the year. Welcome to the family, Carrie!

Kasie’s pregnant

KasieSpeaking of family news, one of Bill’s twin granddaughters–both of whom I’ve known and been fortunate to have spent extensive time with since they were 4–is now expecting her first child. A boy, due May 31st.

We were there for her wedding to Donovan Lankford in March 2017, and they have been nothing but two peas in their happy little pod ever since they got married. Now, the pod is about to get a little bigger when Baby Boy Lankford arrives.

Foothills Parkway: Missing Link no more

One of the biggest news stories in East Tennessee for decades, in November the unfinished segment of the scenic Foothills Parkway through the Great Smoky Mountains was finally completed and opened to the public. This is a federally funded road project that, literally, has been on again, off again for decades. As a reporter in 1995, I even covered a press conference with Tennessee’s U.S. Sen. Jim Sasser and Transportation Secretary Federico Peña in which both said the “missing link” would be built. They didn’t say it would take 23 years, but better late than never, I guess.

Bill and I took in the stunning drive over Thanksgiving weekend. If you’re ever in the area (near Walland, Tennessee), you should, too.

More from the Mountains

Much as I love me some Great Smoky Mountains, it’s no surprise that multiple of my best 2018 moments originated there.

43642991800_5169cf350e_oOvernight on LeConte: In October, we had the rare and exceptional experience that is hiking to and staying overnight on LeConte. The fact it doubled as a reunion with eight friends from where we attended church in Knoxville for many years made it even more special.

SnowWhite Christmas: OK, so it was December 22, but there was snow on the trail and it got deeper as we got higher when Hank and Margaret Dye and I hiked the Anthony Creek Trail from near Cades Cove. Snow is always iffy in Tennessee and there’s no guarantee of it showing up at Christmastime, but it was there that day, and so were we.

NY2018_18Kicked off 2018 the right way: If you know me well, you know my story of my beloved, late Granny who always held that “Whatever you do on New Year’s Day, you’ll do all year long.” Though I know it’s just superstition, I can’t not try to follow her thinking on New Year’s Day, which is to try to have the best day possible to get the year off right.

On Jan. 1, my friend, Hank, rounded up a whole posse of folks to try to set up 2018 as a good year for hiking by leading us on brutally cold (highs in the teens) New Year’s Day 2018. I wouldn’t have had it any other way and, in fact, I’ll be doing the same New Year’s Day ritual again for Jan. 1, 2019.

With gratitude,

Happy New Year!

 

100 Years Ago Today

 

Allie Johnson was born 100 years ago today in a very rural part of Middle Tennessee. Her birthplace was near Center Hill Lake, only the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wouldn’t build Center Hill Dam and create that lake until 1948, 30 years after she was born in 1918.

15464990177_7e2b73b6ef_oWhile Allie was her name, she was always Granny to me. She married Layron Hudson and they had three children–one of whom is my mother, a middle child, just like me.

When Granny died in October 2014, just three months shy of turning 96, the honor of eulogizing her was mine. And in honor of today being the 100th anniversary of her birth, I will share with you here some of what I shared on the occasion of her death.

Granny was one of eight children in her family. She played basketball in high school, but that’s as far as her education went. She did what her peers did: married young and became a mother early. She had a toddler son, a baby girl and was expecting her third child when her husband was killed in a traffic crash near Nashville, where they lived at the time.

She moved back where she grew up, into a house on her father’s farm, had her last child–my aunt, and shortly thereafter began looking for work so she could repay her parents for her house and land. Which she did. With no husband and three small children, she became a working single mother before the term was invented.

Until her babies were a little older, Granny earned money cooking for workmen building Center Hill Dam. They ate well, I assure you.

Eventually, she found a factory job where her sister-in-law worked. Because she had no car and her brother and sister-in-law also lived next door, she rode to work with them every day, and she paid her brother a little something every week for her transportation.

She operated a steam press in the factory all day, then came home to cook and care for her children at night.

For all the tough breaks life gave her, my first and last memories of her–and all of those in-between–are of as sweet, gentle and kindly a grandmother as a Hallmark movie could portray.

Years later, she was able to retire from the factory and I got to spend good bits of time with her in the summer and on weekends. She always made me feel she was proud of me, including as the entertainment when she, her parents–my great-grandparents–and other family sat in a circle of lawn chairs to solve the world’s problems while watching cars go by on the Smithville Highway.

I was an early reader, and she loved to hand the day’s junk mail to me, a 6- or 7-year-old, and have me read aloud from Encyclopedia Brittanica or Burpee Seed mailers. If nothing impressive came in the mail, she’d ask me to sing for her and the grownups. Which I did. “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” was a crowd favorite.

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Granny is the reason I love fried chicken, fried sweet potatoes and fried green tomatoes. There are none better than she cooked.

I was in high school when she stunned me with her insight into boys. She would ask about my romantic life and offer her advice. I appreciated her kindness but thought she couldn’t possibly know about how boys “are now,” so long since she had dated. Until once when I took her advice and saw that she was exactly right.

And when it came to very important, super-secret stuff, Granny was more than a confidant. She was a vault. I talked with her about things I couldn’t talk about with anyone else, and she never, ever mentioned a word to others.

She was just as discreet when it came to lending money.

The summer after I graduated high school and was to go to college in the fall, I took a job as a shipping clerk in the same factory where she once worked. I had to pay my way through college, and I believed I had to start with a college-level wardrobe upgrade. Friends and I would drive 75 miles to Nashville to shop, but the timing of my paycheck didn’t always coincide with our shopping trips. I asked Granny for an extra $100 here and there, promising to pay her back out of my next check. She cheerfully lent me the money, and I cheerfully repaid her. And only she and I knew of the transactions.

Granny re-married late in life, so late that the marriage was abbreviated by her second husband’s death in his 80s.

She could have a funny way with words. As in, she sometimes used words that sounded enough like the intended that you knew what she meant, but you had to smile to yourself. Like “ointments” when she was talking about ornaments. Or “chimley” for chimney. “Ball rings” for earrings. “The mainest thing.” And with her accent, she could get more syllables out of words “than Carter’s got liver pills.” My favorite was her expression for shock and awe: “They Great I Ay-um!”

Granny also was known for a lack of filter–not mean or even unpleasant, just for expressing what was on her mind in a guileless way. She once said to a friend of my mother’s who had lost some weight, “I’ll tell you what: You’re just not as big as you used to be.”

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Three generations: me, Granny and my mother

I got my turn, too.

In the five or so last years of her life that were spent in a nursing home, she had increasing trouble recalling names and sometimes even recognizing faces.

Bill and I were visiting once, when he pressed her about who I was. She studied my face and said, “Why, that’s Gina!” I had only a moment to bask in the glow of being recognized when Granny patted my arm, looked me sweetly in the eyes and said, “You know, you’ve gotten just fleshy enough to be pretty.”

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She wasn’t educated, famous or important to the world.

But when time came for her last ride down the Smithville Highway to her final resting place, the cemetery at Johnson Chapel Baptist Church–founded by her ancestors near Center Hill Lake–she was honored by people who didn’t know her. The old-school custom of stopping or pulling onto the shoulder of the road for a passing funeral procession is still observed in my hometown of Sparta. Following the hearse through town and down the highway, I smiled through tears at the sight of cars stopping for my sweet Granny, and I thought of how humbled she would have been by that paying of respect.

On Tuesday, I’ll remember her the way I do every year on January 1, about which one of her many superstitions caused her to say, “Whatever you do on New Year’s Day, you’ll do all year long.”

Toward a healthy, happy and prosperous new year, she never wanted to be sick, sad, angry or hungry on the first day of the year. I know it’s just superstition, but because of her, I always seek to have a good time and be with people I care about on New Year’s Day.

That’s what Granny would want me to do all year long.