Auld Lang Syne to the Good Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The time was precious.

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

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

Chase Bradley Lankford at 2 weeks old.
Yes! She did it!

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

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

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

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

25th anniversary sky at Cataloochee Ranch

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

 

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

Good times with good people at work

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

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

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

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

You can check it out here:

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

Tucked beneath “Umbrella Rock”

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

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

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

View from Mount Cammerer, stunning in any color.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Mount Cammerer: It’s Time to Climb

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

2010: With Jack and Bill

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

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

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

 

2012: Before Jack and Carrie decided to marry
With Pat, Hank, Sarah and Dave

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

2014: Hank and Steve

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

2015: Steve and Vicky

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

Why does the fall calendar matter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Far be it from me to differ with the experts.

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

Spoiler alert: he made it.

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

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

Our Happy Hovel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First fall color beginning to show from top of Mount Cammerer
Early fall glory from another direction

 

Actual view from coffee on the back porch of our cabin

Hiker College

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

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

Away they go, with Bill setting the pace.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inside Frost Chapel

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

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

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

Frost Chapel entrance

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

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

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

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

House O’ Dreams and gardens with koi pond

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

Firetower atop Lavender Mountain

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

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

Garden archway on Lavender Mountain

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

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

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

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

The lake that Henry Ford built
Bill at The Mill

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

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

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

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

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

Call It Work

“That’s why they call it work.”

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

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

Yes, secret.

Platanthera Integrilabia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul and me

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

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

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

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

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

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

With my colleague, Will, at Welch Point Overlook

 

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.

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.

 

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.

Overnight on LeConte

It’s not for everybody.

Climbing up almost 3,000 feet of elevation gain over 5.5 miles from the Alum Cave Trailhead to the 6,593-foot summit of Mount LeConte on a damp day, only to spend the night in a primitive cabin before hiking back down the next morning.

43642977690_edcac1b3c9_o
The intrepid ten: Jim, Ann, Bill, Gina, Thomas, Danielle, Carol, Joe, Ashley and Jeremy.

Fortunately, everybody doesn’t want to do it. Just the 10 best hiking friends did on this occasion, and we had a great time talking, laughing, catching up and getting to know each other better.

I’ve made the 10-mile round-trip hike to Mount LeConte in the same day maybe 15 times–I can’t remember–but I’ve made the overnight version of the hike three times. Obviously, spending the night gives you a looong rest break in the middle of that hike. More important, it gives you time to see the sun set on the tallest mountaintop in Tennessee.

Getting an overnight cabin isn’t easy. Demand far exceeds nightly capacity of about 35-40. The Park Service basically awards the slots by lottery, which you enter by emailing your preferences for dates and hiking party on a deadline the year before your planned outing. In November, the overnight slots–all of them–for the following year are awarded.

So, I learned in November 2017 that Bill and I were chosen for a 10-person cabin slot in October 2018. I emailed a couple dozen friends who hike and, within about 24 hours, we had our party of 10.

Besides Bill and me, we would be joined by four couples who are friends from church. Of course, since November 2017, I took a new job that took Bill and me to Chattanooga in June. So we don’t go to church with these eight friends, anymore, and that made the opportunity to climb Mount LeConte and spend the night there with them even more special.

We began at 7 a.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 16 having breakfast with Ann and Jim Wallace–Jim, who found us the realtor who sold our Knoxville house within 24 hours–and Joe and Carol Ottaviano, all of whom we’d been going to church with for years but had never gone with for a hike. The six of us then met up with Thomas and Danielle Walker–Danielle, the incomparable pastor to families at Grace Presbyterian–and Jeremy and Ashley Akers. Jeremy and Ashley are friends of Thomas and Danielle and they stepped in when Ben and Megan Brooks–whose children I used to teach in Sunday school at Grace–found out about a month before the planned outing that they couldn’t go.

B462F413-9ADA-426C-BAC7-FBB3458AECC5We got all the gear and hikers into two vehicles and headed for the trail, which is more popular than usual in October, when Great Smoky Mountains National Park is teeming with tourists looking for fall color. By the time we reached the trailhead at 9 a.m., a parking lot with about 30 spaces already was full, along with a second one of the same size, and we got two of the last roadside spots filling up.

I miss seeing these special people at least once a week at church–and Jeremy and Ashley were the delightful people I knew they would have to be as friends of Thomas and Danielle. We made the requisite before-hike group photo and set off.

Since summer didn’t know when to quit this year and it takes sunny days and cool nights to set the process of autumn color in motion, there hadn’t been sufficient time for the color to bloom. But nobody can know that months or even the year before, when plans are being made for traveling from out of town or out of state to visit the national park.

43642978070_81e9c0b5e3_o
First tree at Alum Cave elevation to put on its fall colors.

So, when it’s necessary to commit well in advance, you take what you get when your time comes.

It was an especially good stroke of luck that everyone who joined Bill and me was new to the overnight experience. As much as I love it, it’s a treat to be with people as they discover the fun of sleeping on that mountaintop for the first time.

It was cool and damp and drizzly as we pushed off, and the first leaf color didn’t appear until we reached the halfway point at Alum Cave Bluff. We had gained about 1,500 feet of elevation in 2.2 miles and were sitting at 4,950 at the bluff.

It’s an impressive stone formation more than eight stories high and, thanks to the Park Service completely rehabbing the trail over two years starting in 2015, there are steps to help you navigate a short, steep slope–that I remember going up practically on all fours–as you approach the bluff.

45408754692_55f573a385_o
Alum Cave Bluff

After lunch and the requisite photos, we got back to the hike and the steeper second half of the trail.

We went over the sections that are single-file over slick rock, where you use metal cable to hang on and secure your footing.

We looked out, mostly into the fog that is the clouds you’d have seen from the road below, and tried to make out landmarks on the horizon.

The drizzle turned into a light rain, and ponchos and pack covers were pulled out to keep wet from getting wetter.

44735639714_0e6042dafd_o
Thomas and Danielle

We arrived at LeConte Lodge about 3 p.m. and got the keys to our cabin, where coffee cups were waiting for us to take to the dining hall and help ourselves to hot drinks. Before that, though, we turned on the propane space heaters in the cabin and everybody made use of the wall-mounted clothes rack to dry the wet stuff.

Error
This video doesn’t exist

Dinner was the tried-and-true beef roast, ample vegetables, cornbread wedges and gigantic chocolate chip cookies, served at 6 p.m., right as rain. Outside, rain still fell lightly. Between the cloudy skies and the hour, dark would come shortly after the meal.

44735636674_1044e5f4b0_oThe main lodge building housed a large, propane-powered heater, and it seemed everyone spending the night was gathered around the heater to swap stories, play cards, or both.

In a situation without wifi or electric power, good old-fashioned conversation and good company was the order of the day. I enjoyed my share, then decided to venture the half-mile or so out to a landmark overlook–Cliff Tops–where, ordinarily, the view pays off your climb as it feels like you’re looking down on the world from the top of it.

But it was as expected on this night: raining, blustery and getting dark fast. I wasn’t looking for a great view, or anything, really; though I was reminded strongly of a solo outing I made there more than five years ago, when I carried my troubles up the mountain and was met at Cliff Tops by a raven who it seemed had come there to take some of those troubles off my mind.

Error
This video doesn’t exist

The next morning, the weather was much-improved. The rain was gone and the sun was trying to shine. Over a mountain of pancakes and protein, everybody shared how they had passed the night.

Danielle, who doesn’t like a hard bed, said the one she and Thomas slept on caused her to toss or turn every few minutes all night. “Like a rotisserie chicken,” she said, “and I’m like crispy, this morning.”

Carol decided to try climbing down the ladder of her bunk bed facing outward, and when she missed the last step and crashed to the floor, I, apparently, was the only one who didn’t hear it.

In fact, Bill and I slept in twin beds in the “parlor” of the cabin, which was a high-traffic area all night as folks walked outside and the 100 yards away to the only flush toilets on the compound. I apparently also slept through Jim being forced to knock on the cabin door after getting locked out on his nocturnal trip down the path.

Ann, who said she “really missed” a hot shower, said the trip crossed an item off her bucket list. For good.

On our way back down the mountain, we detoured out to Cliff Tops. A layer of clouds rested in the valley below, but the clear skies we stood under promised a good-weather descent. And it was.

Landmarks and scenery obscured the day before were on beautiful display.44545798125_ab5251ab8f_o

We’d looked forward to the outing for almost a year, and everything about it was worth the wait.

43642985000_e24c4aff26_o