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.

 

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.

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.

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.

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.

 

Sometimes You Meet the Nicest People

Throughout my career, my line of work–in one setting or another–has steadily called for writing professionally. Often, the storytelling variety, which is my favorite writing to do.

If you don’t know what it’s like to have writing be part of your job, I’ll let you in on a secret: It’s a great way to meet all kinds of interesting people you otherwise wouldn’t.

The best part? You can meet the nicest people and, sometimes, just how nice they are can come as a great surprise.

Enter: Gary and Kathleen Rollins.

He’s a 1967 alumnus of UT Chattanooga. She is his wife.

Mr. Rollins is a UTC business grad, in fact, and earlier this year, he decided to make a gift of $40 million dollars to his alma mater.

Forty. Million. Dollars.

Not only is that a lot of money, it’s the most money ever in a single gift to  UTC. A history-making amount. A game changer.

To commemorate the gift, UTC leadership sought to formally name the College of Business the Gary W. Rollins College of Business. Once that was approved by the UT Board of Trustees in June, the wheels got in motion for a day of major celebrations–three, in fact, all in sequence.

Sitting in on about two months of weekly planning sessions was a great opportunity to get better-acquainted with my UTC colleagues after beginning a new job in June. From a campus-wide celebration–complete with marching band, cheerleaders, hot dogs and speeches–to an evening reception to a formal dinner, you couldn’t count all the moving parts. Those of us planning and managing some of those parts were rightfully serious about making sure everything was buttoned up.

After all, Mr. Rollins is vice chairman and CEO of Rollins, Inc., a New York Stock Exchange corporation with many holdings including Orkin, the world’s largest pest control company. He moves in some elite circles. I followed the lead of my new colleagues in the College of Business and the Office of Development (fundraising), because they had done the work that brought us to this unprecedented moment. My job was to see that the word got out.

The Rollinses would have a jam-packed schedule of celebrations on what came to be known as “Rollins Day” on campus–Sept. 13–yet they agreed to add to their schedule an interview with me. I would ask questions off-camera, and our crack videographers and still photographer would get the visuals; then I would produce content for the news media, our website and our alumni magazine.

From talking to Mr. Rollins, I learned that he was born in Chattanooga, graduated from high school in Delaware and chose UTC for college, in part, because of close proximity to family in Chattanooga and North Georgia. He also said with a laugh, “I could get in.”

From meeting him and his wife, Kathleen, I learned they are unassuming, friendly and gracious.

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That’s me you can’t see here, sitting across the table from Kathleen and Gary Rollins.

He was self-deprecating in his remarks. She wanted the moment to be about him.

After virtually the entire 15-minute interview had been spent asking Mr. Rollins questions that he answered, I asked Mrs. Rollins if there was anything she’d like to say or add.

“No, thank you,” she said, smiling and patting him on the shoulder. “This is his day.”

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Kathleen and Gary Rollins at UTC’s public celebration of their unprecedented gift of $40 million.

I wrote a press release distributed that day and a magazine feature that publishes later this month. My colleagues who shot the photos (all of those above are by Angela Foster) and who shot the video and edited it (Mike Andrews and Jacob Cagle) perfectly captured the anticipation and excitement on campus for the celebrations, and the warmth and approachability of the Rollinses. I encourage you to check that out for yourself in the video below.

It’s three minutes that I bet you can’t watch without a smile on your face by the end.

Because, I discovered, they really are just the nicest people.

Welcome to the Neighborhood

It’s been about six weeks since Bill and I moved to Chattanooga and our house in the suburb of Hixson, but it seems longer.

I expect anyone who’s ever moved their entire, long-established household to another city to take a new job in that city understands. I don’t mean it seems long in a bad way. It’s just that–given the stress of two closings 100 miles apart on the same day, movers arriving the next day, and having to use GPS to get back to work a couple of days later–the six weeks feel like dog years. A whirlwind of change has blown almost nonstop.

The good news: We’re finally getting our nest made.

As I’ve written here before, we were fortunate to have sold our Knoxville home of 24 years within the first 24 hours it was on the market. Which was the last Thursday in May. We were set to close a month later in June. All we had to do was find a place to live in Chattanooga, get a mortgage approved, get our stuff set to move, and close on the same day–in about 26 days. Oh, and I would be working full-time at the new job as of June 1. Piece of cake. What would we do with all our spare time?

It was a huge help that my new employer, UT Chattanooga, made it possible for me to rent a furnished, on-campus apartment for the month of June.

So we only had to move my office stuff once and most of my clothes and a few of our household items twice. I’m not complaining. There’s no way I could have found and rented a furnished apartment for just 30 days–utilities included–otherwise. And the commute for the month of June was pretty sweet. Two blocks, and I never even had to start my car.

My new colleagues at UTC couldn’t have made me feel more welcome from the first day, June 4. IMG_0227

I mean, how do you beat your own, personalized welcome banner created by the creative services director? Thanks again, Steve. You’re the best.

Then Steve and our boss, George, and our division’s business manager, Megan, and I all went to lunch on my first day at one of the countless trendy spots in downtown Chattanooga: Jalisco Taquería.

Those three are a fun bunch to grab lunch with, and the tacos were great. Still, I managed to make the trip even more memorable by going for an accidental dive on the brick plaza as we carried our takeout to an outdoor table.

In my dress and heels.27760701767_d171a851a0_o

Yep, that’s how I roll on the first day of the new job.

I couldn’t get the name of that location to come to mind later in talking about the restaurant with some other work colleagues. Steve helped: “It’s that place where you fell.”

Which is what it will forever be known as at the office, I guess.

A month of staying in Chattanooga five nights a week and driving back to Knoxville every weekend to pack stuff and clean the house was about all the fun I could stand. 40714150080_aaed6e9d8a_oThen came June 26, when we officially sold a house in Knoxville in the morning, drove for two hours with three squalling cats, bought a house in Chattanooga in the afternoon, then headed to the new digs.

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We couldn’t ask for a nicer neighborhood.

But the first night, we could have asked for furniture. It came the next day.

We slept on the floor–to keep the traumatized cats company–instead of driving back to my on-campus apartment where there was an actual bed with a mattress.

No biggie. We learned it’s possible to sleep on a floor and get up the next morning and spend the entire day carrying stuff inside and showing the movers where the heavy stuff goes. Not saying you’d want to do it, just saying that you can do it.

We were thrilled to have all of our stuff back in one place again. And lordy, there was a lot of it. One thing I learned from finally having a closet big enough to keep my clothes all in one place: I don’t need another shoe, dress or pair of pants.

All the change and strange was pretty stressful for our cats. We put them inside their individual crates and put them in a closet while the movers were working. They made not a sound nor a mess in their crates all day. They felt hid and that made them feel better.

It was kinda fun when the movers had gone and the time finally came to let the cats roam the house.

They skulked and sniffed and jumped at everything.

They’d never had a staircase to play on before, and they seemed to enjoy that.

A couple days later, it was Saturday, June 28, the last weekend before July 4. We were sweaty and tired and unpacking boxes when first one then, a couple of hours later, another knock came at the door from new neighbors to make sure we knew about the Pre-July 4 Neighborhood Block Party that evening.

No, it didn’t matter what we wore (since I wasn’t sure how quickly I’d be able to find my clothes). No, we didn’t have to bring anything–there would be plenty of food.

Tired, but showered and fully dressed in actual clothing, we eventually made our way to the Block Party. That’s when we found out what nice neighbors we really do have. And that they turn out in big numbers for the Block Party. If you look closely, you might be able to spot Bill and me in the photo:

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We’re grateful to be living in a place with such nice, friendly people.

And we’re almost as grateful that the inside of our house is finally, slowly coming together.

Come see us. We’ll make you feel welcome to the neighborhood, too!

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Thanks for the Memories

Ever spent 24 consecutive years in the same house?

My husband and I just did–the house we moved into when we came home from our honeymoon. We sold it in June and moved to Chattanooga, which we are loving, by the way.

Moving forces you to purge. The prospect of hauling stuff to a new place makes you evaluate its necessity, and not everything–no matter how useful it once seemed–makes the cut. With 24 years’ worth of stuff accumulated in the basement, the attic, the garage and the closets, I knew we had a big purge coming.

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Perhaps the single-best decision my husband made in prepping our house for sale was to rent a “dumpster” into which we could chuck the stuff that wasn’t going along to Chattanooga.

Considering the volume of stuff we tossed into the dumpster–parked in our driveway for a week, which our neighbors must have loved–we saved a lot of time and countless trips to Knox County trash dumps.

Some stuff was obvious dumpster material. Why did we have a hula hoop in the basement, for example? You got me.

Some stuff took a little longer to reach its inevitable dumpster status. IMG_0347

Such as the majorette uniform I wore as a 9-year-old in the local hometown Christmas parade and in a “halftime show” at a high school basketball game.

 

 

That little body suit has been all over the state with me, but I finally decided to hang up my sequins for good.

I can’t tell you where the baton ended up.

Time, itself, had made some stuff no longer useful.42094839861_74455b95d8_o

Do you still have a VCR? Neither do I. Fifty or 60 VHS tapes with recorded movies: To the dumpster you go.

And there was stuff I couldn’t believe had ever seemed like a good idea.

Twenty years ago, I wore my hair long. Really long. Below my waist long. Contrary to what people often think, one-length, waist-length hair is in many ways lower-maintenance for a woman than almost any other option. My hair was long because I found it easier to maintain–except when it came to bicycling, aerobics classes and some other fitness activities. If you spend hours on a bicycle–as I frequently have–long hair can turn into a massive hair ball if it’s not tightly restrained.

42094839921_489183d148_oWhich brings us to the Braidini. As seen on TV.

Magically–like Houdini, get it?–this contraption was supposed to help you braid your own hair. I could braid my hair into a ponytail. That’s easy. What I could never manage though, was the French braid, an advanced technique of braiding from the scalp downward. A hurricane couldn’t mess up hair in a tight French braid.

Even with the included demonstration video–on a VHS tape–I never figured out how to use the Braidini. But for whatever reason, I must have held out hope because I kept the thing. At least I didn’t fall for the whole Hairdini collection.

Deciding the fate of 24 years of accumulated detritus also led to some happy discoveries, recoveries of valued items with especially great sentimental value. Great memories.

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Such as the section of my hometown newspaper that carried on its cover a feature on Bill and me and my 100-mile bicycle ride in honor of leukemia patient Alison McFerrin, the 11-year-old daughter of a former high school classmate of mine, to benefit the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society in 2000.

I’m very happy to report that Alison had a successful stem cell transplant and went on to be valedictorian of her high school class, attended Auburn University on a full scholarship, earned a journalism degree and is now happily married–and I got to attend the wedding!

42049896882_afb49b9bf1_o.jpgThen there was the newspaper “rack card,” the name for the promotional signs on vending machines for printed papers. Remember those? Printed newspapers, I mean.

I saved the rack card because it referenced a weeklong series of stories I, as a Knoxville News-Sentinel reporter, along with my colleague News Sentinel photographer Margaret Bentlage, filed daily from Stockholm, Sweden for a week in August 1997. We were on assignment following up on the lone survivor–a toddler–of a horrendous shooting earlier that year.

And here’s the company newsletter noting that fact.

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Here’s a photo of Margaret and me today:

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Margaret and I got to do some very cool stuff as a team for the News Sentinel. I’d forgotten about this picture she took when we traveled with the Tennessee Air National Guard to cover its work on U.S. Defense Department outreach via rebuilding a hospital in Bulgaria. In the photo, I’m on the wing of the KC-135 Stratotanker we flew on with the Guard. The picture was made in Seville, Spain–a stopover on our flight to the Bulgarian capital, Sofia. What a fun assignment.

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I was extra glad to find this photo with friends and News Sentinel co-workers after we’d run the Knoxville Expo 10K/5K together. “Together,” isn’t exactly accurate, since I was slow and Bill was slower and he only participated under duress.

And we ran the 5K.

And our colleagues ran the 10K.

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L-R: John Stiles, Randy Kenner, Bill, Gina, John North, and in front: Kasie and Karie Phelps.

Sadly, John Stiles, passed away a few years ago following a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. Randy Kenner now works for Knox County Courts. John North is an editor at WBIR-TV. The newspaper used to sponsor the Knoxville Track Club, so employees didn’t have to pay entry fees. Can you believe that persuaded me–and Bill–to run 5Ks? His twin granddaughters, just 7 years old at the time, ran the 1-mile “fun” run. Now grown up, they don’t think running is fun anymore.

The picture, along with the rest of the stuff–kept and discarded–brought back a lot of long-forgotten memories.

40194185170_7798eba2ae_oAnd despite how big and cavernous the dumpster seemed at first, when it was time for the rental company to come and haul it away a week later, it was heaping full.

Topped by old lawn furniture, at least a couple of pairs of crutches (why?), a rusted bicycle, a broken lamp, dusty boxes and–oh yeah, a hula hoop.

Twenty-four years in the same house makes for the accumulation of a lot of…well, junk.

But now it’s gone.

Including the Braidini.

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Moving Right Along

Knoxville, Tennessee stopped being my home on June 1, almost 26 years to the day since I moved there.

Leaving was a little bit scary, a whole lot stressful, and very exciting. My entire professional working life had been spent in Knoxville, but a fantastic new opportunity that I am immensely grateful for was waiting in Chattanooga.

So, I wasn’t moving too far away–about 100 miles–to keep in close touch with close friends. And I wasn’t moving any farther away–also about 100 miles–than I already was from family in my Middle Tennessee hometown.

I ended up in Knoxville in the first place, straight out of college, very coincidentally.

I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English-Journalism from Tennessee Tech University in Cookeville in 1992. Those of voting age in May 1992 will remember the economy was terrible then, when Bill Clinton eventually was elected president on a campaign focused on: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

For all the obstacles I had cleared and all my persistence in completing college, employment prospects were slim. I graduated cum laude with a 3.6 GPA and had a decent resume for a new college grad: managing editor of my college newspaper, section editor of the yearbook, internships, honor societies and one of three “Derryberry Award” nominees for most outstanding graduate in my class.

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With my hero and inspiration, Helen Thomas, dean of the White House press corps until her death in 2013.

I’d even won campus funding for a distinguished journalists lecture series I put together that brought print and broadcast news leaders, even the iconic White House correspondent Helen Thomas, to campus.

In Cookeville.

Following commencement, I spent May driving from Cookeville to Nashville or Knoxville or Chattanooga pounding the pavement.

Quite by accident while in Knoxville, I happened upon the Knoxville News Sentinel building and went inside to the Human Resources department. Brad Riley popped my starry-eyed bubble: the newsroom there did not hire people as reporters without prior professional journalism experience; and they had a file cabinet full of resumes of working reporters who wanted to be there. The opening they did have, however, was in the circulation department: an hourly job in the call center, taking subscription orders, delivery complaints, temporary delivery stop requests and so on. It paid minimum wage. Not exactly what I thought hard work in college was supposed to bring. Tennessee Tech is a fantastic university–especially if you want to be an engineer. For those of us not good at math or numbers, engineering isn’t an option, no matter where we went to college.

At Brad’s suggestion, I went ahead and completed a job application–hedging my bets in case that opening went unfilled while I kept looking for a little while longer.

Back in Cookeville, I heard the local daily newspaper serving that town of about 40,000 had an opening for a reporter. I got an interview with the editor. It went well, but he told me he was interviewing three other people and would make a decision in about a week. He also told me it paid about minimum wage to start.

So, the money was the same, but the two scenarios were very different. I could hope to get the reporter job at a small daily and build a clip file that I would seek to parlay into a job at a larger paper, eventually. Or, I could hope the job as a customer service representative for the Knoxville News Sentinel would, by putting me down the hall from the newsroom there, lead to an opportunity work as a reporter. Never mind the long odds, since the paper had never hired a reporter without prior professional experience.

I was just naive enough to believe I could will myself into the newsroom at the News Sentinel, so without waiting to hear back from the Cookeville paper, I went to Knoxville, interviewed for and accepted the offer of a job as a customer service representative.

I had split days off: Saturday and Wednesday. Daily start time was 7 a.m., except for Sundays, when I worked 5 a.m. to 1 p.m. I started in June. On Halloween, I used the employee costume contest to lobby for a reporter job. I wore my college graduation garb–plus a cardboard sign around my neck that read, “Will Write For Food”–when I stopped in to see the editor, the incomparable Harry Moskos. I also handed him a list of the “Top 10 Reasons to Hire Gina” in the newsroom. He laughed and made sure his managing editor, Vince Vawter, saw me, too. I was pretty hard to miss, traipsing around in a mortar board and flapping graduation gown.

By January, still putting on a customer service headset at work every day, I decided my big gamble was turning out to be a big bust. I was going to look for a reporter job, no matter how small the newspaper, and start over.

In February, I actually saw a job ad in the paper where I worked for a reporter opening at the small daily in Middlesboro, Kentucky, about an hour north of Knoxville. I sent a resume and cover letter, got an interview and was offered the job. By then, I had met my future husband–workplace romance, since he was a manager in the News Sentinel’s circulation department–so the only downside I saw to Middlesboro, Kentucky was that we might not be able to see each other as easily.

I gave two weeks’ notice to my customer service supervisor. Then, wouldn’t you know it, the managing editor approached me in my headset about three days later and asked if I might still be interested in coming to the newsroom. Yes, of course, I told him. He said he had heard I had accepted a reporter job in Kentucky, and I said if there was anything he could do to expedite the possibility of hiring me onto his team, that would be appreciated. He did.

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Plucky reporter girl.

And that’s how I came to be the first reporter hired by the News Sentinel without prior professional experience.

Not everybody in the newsroom was as excited as I was. A couple were resentful. I hadn’t “paid my dues” as they had. I understood that and I was as green as grass with a lot to learn. But I did learn, and I developed a thick skin as my writing got better. I worked with some fine people, and I made a lot of great friends. If you know me, you know that I say newspaper people are the best people, and I say it because it’s true. I agreed completely with the aforementioned, and now deceased, Helen Thomas that being a reporter “is the best job in the world.”

Still, after about eight amazing years of going places, seeing things, and meeting people I never could have otherwise, I wanted to advance professionally. I saw little chance of that where I was, and I became open to new possibilities. This was long before the economic decline the print media finds itself in now–my decision to consider leaving the newspaper had nothing to do with that. In my last couple of years there, health and medicine was my beat, which meant I knew the administrator and PR people for every hospital, physician group, fitness center and nursing home in Knoxville and its surrounding counties.

Blount Memorial Hospital in Maryville, about 30 minutes from my house, recruited me to a position as PR manager with a pay raise and an opportunity where I believed I could make an impact. I felt I did from the first day and I learned a lot about a whole new career area: public relations. That’s not to say I was OK with walking away from journalism. Far from it. Being a reporter wasn’t just a job, it had been my identity. There was a big adjustment, and it took a while. And when the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 happened, I never missed being in a newsroom more.

I believe I established some relationships with the news media and created some new communication approaches for the hospital that made a difference. We also dealt with a couple of crisis situations that gave us all some helpful insights. But after a few years, I wanted new challenges. I had begun preparing for them by enrolling in graduate school–toward a master’s degree with a science communication concentration–at UT Knoxville. A couple of my professors there and a couple of PR friends told me about an opening with the University, working for the UT system president’s administration, and suggested I look into it.

I did, and I was hired for the most challenging new job by the single-best mentor I’ve had to date. The mentor was my new boss, Hank Dye, whose name was familiar across the state in my line of work. 15865974740_6092e09dc0_o

He was the Dye in Nashville agency Dye, Van Mol & Lawrence, and I could write a book about all I learned from him.

Generally, it’s accepted in PR that your job is to work to gain attention for your employer or, if you’re with an agency, your client. The first thing I realized in working for the UT president’s office is that you don’t have to seek attention for the University. It’s there 24/7, and everything happens in a fish bowl. And because our office worked with our counterparts at every UT campus and institute, statewide, Hank Dye aptly described it as like playing a game of “Whack A Mole.” Deal with one situation over here, another pops up over there. Something was always happening, and fast.

Every word said or written for public consumption mattered. I expanded my professional portfolio exponentially. I love to write–finding just the right phrasing to strike just the right chord–and the opportunities to do that, and other things I love, and to make an impact were fortunately frequent.

I loved the job, the fact I worked to advocate for higher education, and my adopted hometown of Knoxville. I had no plans to leave, until another opportunity–to advocate for higher education in a new way–arose in Chattanooga.

I was recruited to an opening there, and when I considered the long list of pluses–new and greater responsibility, leadership I already knew and liked, opportunity to work with students and faculty, continuing years of service with the University–I talked with my husband about it. I also talked with best friends and mentors. We all agreed it was the opportunity worth the big move it would require.

I don’t mean big as in far or foreign. I mean it would be a new city and the end of living in Knoxville after 26 years, for me, and for a lifetime, for my husband, Bill. But he was completely on board, and we both jumped into high gear from the time of the job offer in mid-April, until I was to start at UT Chattanooga on June 4–the day after my birthday.

UTC Day 1
UTC Day 1

I took that as another good sign that my decision to join the Office of Communications and Marketing there was the right one.

Neither Bill nor I have ever worked as hard as we did in the 30 days into which we crammed getting our Knoxville home of 24 years on the market, selling our house, finding and buying a Chattanooga house, moving me temporarily into an on-campus apartment at UTC, and then getting all of our stuff finally under one roof at our house in Chattanooga. I’m not sure we will ever be able to do that again. We don’t have it in us.

We’re still getting our new nest made, and I’ve been on the new job for a little more than a month–but everything is great on all fronts. As life flew by at 240 mph through May and June, I saw blog after blog to be written, but I had no time to write anything other than my name on real estate offers, mortgage applications and new job paperwork.

The big adventure continues, and I’ll be back here soon. For now, I’ve got to get back to moving right along…

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Downtown riverfront in Chattanooga, my scenic new hometown.