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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

The Communicators Go to Washington

I recently spent half a week in Washington, D.C.

For this student of history, consumer of headlines, and higher ed mouthpiece, it was like summer camp for grownups.

IMG_8889I was in town to attend the annual conference for senior communication professionals of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. I’ve been to Washington a few times, but this was my first AASCU conference, and I really enjoyed getting to know some of my colleagues from public universities across the country.

People who don’t work in higher ed may be unaware of the social, political and funding concerns universities face. Those of us who communicate and manage crises for universities are all too aware of the seemingly endless concerns. That’s the best part of gathering to share ideas with peers and experts. Who doesn’t love talking shop with people they’ve just met, yet who are so familiar with their unique challenges that conversation can go straight to shorthand, right from the beginning?

We shared stories of campus free speech concerns, sexual assault controversies, slashed budgets and university mergers–and that was just Tuesday. The next day began with a look at what current and future generations of college students think about the cost and necessity of higher ed. The insight came from one of the most highly regarded public opinion experts in the country, John Zogby of Zogby Research. If you recognize the name, it’s probably from hearing national network news anchors cite his company’s polling data.

Among his fascinating insights: Many of the country’s most-familiar establishments, institutions and agencies that have provided security, comfort and familiarity are undergoing a process of devaluation. Institutions once counted on to nurture our opportunities may be falling short and devalued to the point they’re no longer seen as requirements but impediments to growth.

He had a great example to illustrate perception gaps:

“To my generation, Mickey Mantle was the greatest. To my kids, he was a drunk.”

I can relate. As long as we’re talking baseball, my husband and I have an equally wide gap in our perceptions of Pete Rose. My husband is a fan, by the way, and I’ll leave it at that.

What’s important–if not alarming–is whether those of us in higher ed, along with churches, governmental and non-governmental institutions can maintain relevance as the social sands shift beneath our feet. As Zogby said, millennials have grown up in a world they can hold in their hands, accessible 24/7 via smart phones and connectivity. The challenge for higher ed and other longstanding, bureaucratic institutions is “running to catch up with empowered individuals.”

Later that day, we heard from Scott Jaschik, a founder and the editor of Inside Higher Ed, and Jennifer Ruark, an editor with The Chronicle of Higher Education, on how to succeed at submitting an opinion piece to their publications. News flash–your piece must express an opinion, not merely extol your university’s virtues. They represent the two most-prestigious national publications devoted strictly to higher ed. And for useful editorials, both suggested a few of the kinds of topics about which anyone in higher ed administration would have an opinion but could–very likely–be reluctant to express in public. Examples: Do gen ed and liberal arts survive at regional universities? Or, how college deepens inequality.

See? Life’s not easy up in The Ivory Tower. Probably because the Tower is under threat on multiple fronts. As Zogby also said, “Today’s elite is tomorrow’s irrelevant.”

I enjoyed meeting Jaschik on a visit to Inside Higher Ed during a 2007 conference, so between a visit there or to The Chronicle that AASCU set up for us as our last activity before leaving town, I opted to stop by The Chronicle.

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Liz McMillen, center, editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

It was great finally meeting Eric Kelderman, a reporter I’ve worked with a few times, along with reporter Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz, and editor Liz McMillen, who made time out of what I’m sure is none. They invited the 10 of us from universities across the country to share “what keeps you up at night.” No one had to think too long to come up with a list.

It also was great walking through an actual, staffed newsroom, and seeing evidence of a process of designing, approving and printing actual pages on paper.

But it wasn’t all work and no play to make Gina a dull girl.

I made the most of a few fleeting moments the afternoon I got to town and in the evenings after our conference adjourned for the day. AASCU hosted the conference in its offices, about three blocks from my hotel, and both are in the heart of Washington. I walk a few miles every day, anyway, and it was great to have all of walkable, “monumental” Washington at my doorstep for three days.

img_88591.jpgAnyone who’s ever spent time there knows it’s impossible not to know you’re in the seat of our national government. Every kind of interest group–including AASCU–has a full-time presence.

Picketers, demonstrators and advocators are everywhere. Which I find kind of invigorating.

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In the space of three blocks, I passed AFL-CIO headquarters, the offices of the National Postal Workers Union, encountered a couple of panhandlers, was invited to join Amnesty International, and asked if I could contribute money to help Syrian refugees.

I took long walks from my hotel and back to see the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the relatively new World War II Memorial and the old, abiding national treasures that are the Smithsonian museums.

The Washington Post was on my block and the White House was only a half-mile away.

On past visits, I’ve been to the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

This time, I wanted to see the Hope Diamond. It’s in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

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I also took the first chance I had to see the recently completed portrait of former President Barack Obama–and all of his predecessors, in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.

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Quite by accident, I ended up in an extremely posh neighborhood on my way home one evening.

Full of “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it” retail such as Dior, Gucci and Prada–even a Tesla dealership in the heart of the city. I snapped my photos and hoped there wouldn’t somehow be a charge for that.

For my money, Washington’s best treasures are the national kind–the ones behind glass, or a velvet rope, for which the only cost to experience them is your time. I made the most of mine this trip, including time with AASCU member colleagues I look forward to keeping in touch with. It was fun doing both in a city that has so many interesting things to see, there are always more and new ones for next time.

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Turning The Calendar

I’m going to be blogging in 2018, starting with a 2017 Year in Review.

PUBLISHED: Dec. 31, 2017

It’s just a new page on the calendar, but the transition from one year to another also is a moment full of possibility.

If the year ending was disappointing, it feels good to put it in the books. If the year was rewarding, pausing to remember the high points also feels good. I’ve heard of a tradition of writing the year’s disappointments on small pieces of paper and then, literally, setting fire to your burdens in a celebratory New Year’s Eve blaze. I haven’t yet done that, but I like the idea.

Standing on the threshold of a brand-new year, the 12 months ahead are as full of promise as they will ever be. The slate is clean. Goals can be set. And tackled fresh. Even so, this post is more of a year in review as we put 2017 to bed.

As years go, the one that just wrapped gave me some great memories to hang on to.

Starting with a couple of special weddings.

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Bride and groom take the floor for their first dance.

On March 18, one half of the best twins I know married a fine young man in Donovan Lankford and became Kasie Phelps Lankford.

The wedding was more than a milestone.

It also was beautiful.

And fabulous. Perfect.

In every way.

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Maid of Honor and twin sister of the bride, Karie, shares a secret with Bill.

 

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With freshly married Austin and Melissa Hendrick.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then, almost exactly seven months later, the twins’ cousin, Austin Hendrick, married the lovely Melissa Bradley on October 15.

Another beautiful family wedding.

Another lakeside outdoor ceremony.

Another happy time to see a happy couple officially begin their lives together.

In the case of both weddings, the vows were being said by special people I’ve known since they were babies–or little more than babies.

You don’t often get two such happy occasions in one year.

 

We also got to catch up with some of our oldest and dearest friends, Rich and Lisa Richardson, when we met in Cincinnati in June for a Reds game (it was a forgettable game in another forgettable season).

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It tells you something about the state of the Reds that we chose to visit the local art museum rather than go to a second game. We enjoyed clowning around more than usual.

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Meeting in Cincinnati came the day after a night in Louisville for our latest experience at a U2 concert: the 2017 tour for the 30th Anniversary of The Joshua Tree.

 

 

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Excitement builds along with the opening chords to “Where the Streets Have No Name.”

We also got to see the great Tom Petty again in Nashville in April. He was touring to mark his band’s 40th anniversary and, sadly, it turned out to be his final tour. Tom died too soon in October.

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“Don’t Come Around Here No More”

There were a few — much fewer than usual — local hiking outings with the usual suspects, but the ones that happened were high in quality if not quantity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

My single most-memorable day in the Great Smoky Mountains in 2017, though, may have been the Solar Eclipse of Aug. 21. Bill and I were joined by new friends and fellow hikers, Jennifer, Hannah and William, and we all learned the astronomical meaning of “totality” as we watched Cades Cove go dark at 2 in the afternoon.

 

 

Time-lapse of daylight to dark and back again:

 

 

At the end of Solar Eclipse week, Bill and I headed off to vacation in Colorado. Our latest national park excursion was to Rocky Mountain National Park, by way of Breckenridge for a few days at first, followed by Great Sand Dunes after, and a Colorado Rockies game in between.

Breckenridge is at 10,000′ elevation, and Bill came down with altitude sickness our first night there. After a midnight trip to the local E.R. which sent us away with an oxygen tank, we were good to go for the rest of our time there and in Colorado (we didn’t need the oxygen after Breck).

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View from almost 13,000′ looking down on a beautiful day and on beautiful Breckenridge.

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Quandary Peak on the horizon. My first-ever 14’er hike.
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Looking down on the ascent to Quandary Peak at 14,000’+

 

 

 

 

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RMNP and Estes Park were perfect. Now, for a palate-cleansing visit to Coors Field.

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Day trip to Great Sand Dunes.

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37104461671_359e83f34e_o21366928_10212609938236218_7736569729650008100_o21273510_10212609951596552_1244116288114855846_oFinal Colorado stunner: Garden of the Gods

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Back at work, October brought the 100th anniversary of continuous publication of Tennessee Alumnus magazine. One of those times you feel lucky to be one of the caretakers of the moment.

 

 

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Fireworks to cap off the celebration.

In November, the Vols hosted LSU on Rocky Top, and that turned out to be a great excuse for us to host my dear cousin, Karen, and her sweet husband, Matt, and two of their three boys, Morgan and Dustin, all up from just outside New Orleans to go to the game.

We had a blast sharing a mountain cabin, watching the sun set at Clingmans Dome, and endured a literal storm blast at Neyland Stadium. The time we got to spend with them is definitely one of my 2017 highlights, and I’m hoping we’ll find opportunity to do so again soon.

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Sunset at Clingman’s Dome

 

 

Work did not go into the typical year-end slowdown in 2017, but that would be another entire blog post. Thanksgiving and Christmas finally came, and I savored every minute of down time, friends and family gatherings, extra sleep, and celebrations of the season.

Children of Grace Christmas Eve Program

I’m thankful for a good team on the job. I’m excited about what we’ll get to tackle in 2018. And about where Bill and I may get to go on our travels. I’ll keep you posted. 😉