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.

 

 

 

 

Hiker College

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

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

Away they go, with Bill setting the pace.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inside Frost Chapel

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

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

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

Frost Chapel entrance

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

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

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

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

House O’ Dreams and gardens with koi pond

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

Firetower atop Lavender Mountain

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

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

Garden archway on Lavender Mountain

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

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

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

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

The lake that Henry Ford built

Bill at The Mill

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

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

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

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

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

The Party With Purpose

Hand-held high heels for party hiking

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

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

Point Park entry: Replica of Army Corps of Engineers insignia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Umbrella Rock

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

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

It’s next to the Ochs Observatory and Museum.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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