Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Roan Mountain's Chestnut Ridge Trail, In the Rain

Still feeling kinda crummy after Tuesday's salt overdose recovery, I decided not to go for a hike on the 12th. So when Friday dawned cloudy and damp, I felt I didn't dare skip two hikes in a row, and headed out toward Roan Mountain. I had decided that my next hike would be Roan Mountain State Park's Chestnut Ridge trail, and no little bit of rain was going to stop me! I packed up my lighter Gore-Tex, pulled the raincoat out and over my backpack, and hit the road.

Here, once again, is my photo of the Roan Mountain trails map. What you can't see is the reverse side, which, it just so happens, describes the Chestnut Ridge Trail as "the most challenging trail in the park" (emphasis theirs).

They. Were. Not. Kidding.

In fact, I'd say it was the most challenging trail I've hiked to date. But more on that later. I was heartened, after parking my car and suiting up in my waterproof duds, to find someone else was crazy enough to be out playing in the rain; As I crossed the road to enter the woods, a soaking wet cyclist whizzed by me and waved.

After crossing the road I traveled uphill a bit on a segment of the Forst Road Trail that had me worried -- it was nearly overgrown with underbrush -- and I reached the point where the Chestnut Ridge Trail departed. By that point the trail had become easily passable, and I read the sign saying "for experienced hikers only" with glee. Of course, I quickly warmed up and had to pull down the hood on my Gore-Tex for ventilation. And pull up the sleeves. And zip the front down a bit. Yup, this was uphill all the way, and pretty long, too -- 2.3 miles just to reach the homestead, and then I had the trip back via road yet to make. Actually, the trail does eventually level out and follow a ridgeline for a while. Of course by this point I'm soaked all the way through to my socks, and have to zip and cover everything up in order to stay warm, since my speed along the muddy trail isn't exactly hasty. But prior to reaching that pleasant little stretch, it climbs (assuming the topo lines on the park-provided map are correct) roughly 600 feet in the first half mile or so.

After bumping along the ridgeline for a while, we do some more climbing, albeit in slightly shorter bursts. Still, the overall effect keeps my level of exertion plenty high. In fact, some of the climbs near or just past the halfway point were absurdly steep. Had I been wearing proper boots, I would likely have had to dig in to manage them. Since I was wearing flexy shoes that didn't restrict my ankles, I instead subjected my muscles and tendons to some pretty extreme flexion. Probably not especially good, but I came out of it unscathed. I think.

Also somewhere near the halfway point was an absolutely huge downed tree that completely blocked the trail. I finally found a way around it on the uphill side (I would've had to go faaaar to get around it on the downhill side, a prospect which did not thrill me, especially given the slippery aspect imparted by the rain), thinking that the only other way would have been to essentially throw myself over. That is, sort of lay down hugging the tree's huge bole, and hope that I could push myself over the apex without falling in the mud on the other side. An unappealing idea, to say the least.

As I approached the Miller Homestead, I had the rare experience of spotting a group of deer -- three does and a fawn -- before they spotted me. I stopped dead in my tracks, hoping that they would stay longer that way. They did see me, though, shortly after I saw them, and eyed me warily. So long as I stayed still, they stayed put. This didn't work for very long, however, since I soon became aware of my body temperature plummeting (it was probably 55 out at most, and when you're soaked and immobile...that's not very warm). Resignedly I began moving again, and they predictably made their frightened deer noise and took off into the woods.

Coming in from the trail, I approached the Miller Homestead from above. Unsurprisingly for a cold, rainy day, there were no cars in this upper parking lot, nor did I see any activity down below at the farmhouse and outbuildings. Undeterred, I headed down the hill to the farmhouse. Not only did the sign at the upper parking area say "The farmhouse is open, come on down!" but I also had seen the signs along the roadway indicating that the Miller Homestead was open 9am-5pm Wednesday through Sunday. This being Friday, I should be in luck.

Wrong answer. Apparently their hours change to weekends only at some point around the end of summer, and they're just really slow at changing their signs. Or perhaps they don't even bother with the signs. Whatever the case, the entire homestead was utterly deserted, leaving me on my own for toilet facilities (I was sorely tempted to put the "old" outhouse to its "intended" use, but decided that might be unwise. My one act of revenge was to swipe a leaf of one of the ornamental mint plants lining the road in to the homestead, and munch on it as I hiked back down the road.

And a long hike that was, given that I'm used to less, ah, refined surroundings. But it made for an easy-on-the-legs descent (there was no way in the world that I was going to try to go down that trail, and that went double in the slippery rain), and I believe it was actually a little shorter than the trail as well.

Seeing the gate that barred the road up to the Miller Homestead at the bottom, my suspicions about it being closed for more reasons than just rain were confirmed. From there I turned left and made my way back to my car, where a nice heater kept me warm all the way home.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Buffalo Mountain? Again? *whine*

Nah, it wasn't really all that bad. I hit the Buffalo trail again because it was close by and, on a Monday, timing is important. I usually have many packages to ship (all my eBay auctions end on Sunday nights), so being home in time to make it to the post office before it closes will likely often keep me close to home. Since I had already covered most of this park, and didn't mind a little extra workout since I had so little travel time, I took a bit longer path this time. Before I go into details, you might want to have another peek at the trail map; here's the link.

In truth, my intent had been to do an out-and-back to Tip Top, via the Fork Knob Trail. I got cocky, though, and did not carry my handy printout of the abovementioned map, so instead I missed my turn and wound up taking the longer way around via the Cascade Trail. Once I realized this, I laughed at myself. So many times before on trails I had found myself stressing out over the possibility of missing a turn. Often so much so that it actually ate into my enjoyment of my hike. Now that I finally had missed a turn, although I knew it meant I was in for a longer time out than I had planned, I realized just how silly it had been to stress. Put simply, no matter whether or not I miss a turn, I'm going to get a nice hike either way. And it's not as if I could get lost in this place. Truly, you'd be hard pressed to lose me anywhere, because I do so much pre-work before heading out, and also because I always carry some sort of map or guide the first time (or two) over a given trail. So I laughed at myself both for my previous stress experiences, and for being so silly as to miss a turn on a trail I knew.

The extra steps were by no means wasted, either. As I approached the cascade, I saw many pretty little yellow-breasted birds. There were probably close to a dozen of them sitting drinking from the cascade itself as I approached, but my footfalls frightened them all off into the surrounding bushes, and it seemed no matter how long I stood stock-still waiting for them to return, they would not be fooled into coming back to pose for my photos. So instead I settled for photos of a pretty plant I noticed at several places along the trail. The name of this plant, I would later learn, was Rattlesnake Plantain. How I learned that is a story unto itself, however, so I shall save it for another entry.

After taking the long way around and reaching the side trail up to Tip Top, I still wanted to follow through with my plan to make it up there; after all, what fun would the hike be if I didn't at least cover some new ground? Besides, it would only add another four tenths of a mile to my hike; certainly not enough to prevent me from making it home in a timely manner. So I headed up the side trail, and began to feel the familiar pains of hunger as I did. When I reached the top, appropriately enough, there was this picnic area.

There were also some pretty nice views, although they were somewhat obscured by foliage, especially from the point of view of my camera lens, so I won't bore you with my photos. What I will bore you with is the story of how I think I poisoned myself with salt. You see, I have a tendency, when on the trail, to obey my hunger and thirst. Just seems like a bright idea, really, when working out, to do so. So as I began my descent from Tip Top, I pulled out my bag of trail mix. Now, this was a big bag of el-cheapo Wal-Mart grade trail mix, and while tasty, is very heavy on the salt content to begin with. And this particular bag was very nearly empty when I pulled it out of my pack; I really should have re-loaded or added something more. But, woulda, coulda, shoulda, right? So I eat through all the peanut-sized and larger pieces, and am left with the dregs of the bag, which are really salty. Having been raised by depression-era parents, I am decidedly loath to waste food of any sort, even the unhealthy kind (sometimes especially the unhealthy kind). So I munch on the dregs for quite some time. Thirst of course sets in, and I drink, figuring that, if anything, the salt will help me retain water, thus aiding me in avoiding a trailside pee on the way back to the car (yes, I can, yes, I do, and yes, I pack it all out. So there). Eventually I realize that this salt load is too much for even me to finish (and I'm actually a pretty big fan of the ol' NaCl), and put the trail mix bag away, still with an ounce or two of dregs in the bottom. No worry, though, the damage had already been done.

I should mention that, along the way I ran across the above shelf fungi. They were beautiful and flower-like from a distance, though a bit gritty and sandy in appearance when you got too close. I didn't recall having seen them on my previous trip past (this was back on the Fork Ridge Trail segment between the side trail to Tip Top and Fork Knob), yet couldn't believe that they might have grown so quickly (it had only been a couple of weeks since I'd last been by). Whatever the case, though, I stopped to photograph them, so here they are.

I returned to my car, and proceeded happily home to pack up and mail all of my shipments. As the day wore on I felt less and less like myself, and at first attributed it to the slightly longer-than-usual hike. Eventually I developed a pounding headache, and had to lay down for a very long nap. The nap didn't cure the headache (even though I took two Tylenol before laying down), so I followed the nap with a couple of ibuprofen for good measure. Even the next morning I felt crummy, and the headache followed me well into Tuesday. Looking it up online, I learned that apparently it is possible to kill yourself with salt, although you'd have to consume far more than I did. Much more common (because of the lower dosage necessary) is the pounding headache to which I'd treated myself. I threw away the remaining trail mix dregs. Sometimes food really is trash. Lesson learned.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Butterflies, Butterflies, and more...

SPIDERS!!! That pretty much sums up my hike at Warrior's Path State Park on September 7th.

I had wanted to go back to Roan Mountain as soon as possible, but I was also aware that there was a big naturalist gathering going on the 7th through the 9th. Fearing a lack of solitude on the trails there, I fled north to explore Warrior's Path instead. Lucky for me, Warrior's Path does offer an online trail map, and with it I was able to decide in advance that I wanted to check out the Sinking Waters Trail. This is actually a series of loop trails that supposedly totals about 3 miles in length. Perhaps these trails were just too easy for me, or perhaps I'm getting used to walking more and more, but I would swear that these trails amounted to far less than three miles. And I even walked a little more than what is shown on the map, as I'll explain later!

Of course, my misunderestimation of the trail length could also be due to the level of my distraction along much of it. It seemed as though as soon as I would put my camera away, more photo-worthy moments would present themselves. So much so that I resorted to carrying my camera (my heavy DSLR, even) in hand for long stretches at a time; not a practice to which I am usually given, as it tends to throw off my gait, having 2.5 extra pounds swinging about out there at the end of my arm.

Actually, the first leg or so of the hike was somewhat uneventful. In order to ensure that I didn't miss any nooks or crannies of the trails, I systematically worked my way around them, taking every right turn that presented itself to me. The first thing this took me to was a little shelter over a rocky, wet area that looked like a spring, but there didn't seem to be much water flowing from it, and I haven't checked my maps yet to be sure. It was quaint, but it was also a dead end, so I retraced my path and continued on to the next right, which turned out to be the beginning of the first loop on the map.

This was probably the most challenging loop of the trail, and not only because of the, ahem, local wildlife. Shortly after making my right onto the loop, I began encountering spiders webs, and plenty of them. Most of the spiders I saw in/on them were of the smaller variety, though there was one quarter-sized one that I stopped to watch for some time; he was in the process of taking up his web, I guess getting ready to re-build it. I lamented at the time that I had to break his web and disrupt him from the process. Now I'm lamenting that I didn't dig out my camera and take a bunch of photos.

The other challenge of this loop lay in its terrain; it ascended to a ridgeline, followed it for a bit, and then dropped back down. There was also an informative sign along the ridge, about how it serves as a dividing line between types of habitat. Actually, I think this would make a great family hike, as there are several very informative interpretive signs, and they're all written in easy-to-understand language and leave the reader with questions to think about as they walk through the area. In addition, although there is some climbing to be done, it is moderate, and of course could be taken slowly if need be. Just make sure one of the big people walks in front and swings a big stick. This is what I eventually had to resort to, similar to my escapades in Winged Deer Park, in order to avoid being covered in sticky webs.

Just out of curiosity, is there any skin or other health benefit to be derived from the proteins and other compounds in spider silk?

But I digress. As I emerged from the first loop, and made my way into the second one, the hike got a bit more claustrophobic, but in a good way. Instead of open, tree-canopied trail, I was hemmed in on both sides by tall-growing flowering plants, which of course attracted many, many butterflies (and had a pleasant aroma, as well). The trail itself was often carpeted in grass, and as seen here, butterflies:

The flowers also attracted various buzzing insects, but these were of little bother to me. Perhaps I was just too busy paying attention to (and taking photographs of) the butterflies. Or maybe this is a moth.

One of the interpretive signs, I believe, made mention of how this trail had once been a major highway through the region. Although there was nothing that I noticed to specifically explain this little marker, judging by what I've seen in other countries and regions, I'm guessing it's an approximation of what the original "King's Highway" distance markers looked like.

Just for your edification, this is what most of the spiders I encountered looked like. My apologies for the blurriness, but this little guy was moving fast, and he's barely as big as my fingernail. Kudos for my camera for getting anything in focus, the way I was swinging this stick around.

After polishing off the first and second loops, the trail descends into a marshy wetland area, but the park service has thoughtfully built a boardwalk through it so that a. we humans needn't get our feet muddy and b. the animal inhabitants needn't have their habitat destroyed by our tromping feet. This "boardwalk" is actually made of plastic. A combination of plastic lumber made out of recycled bottles, and a gridwork walking path that looks (and feels) considerably more brittle (though I hope I'm wrong). Somehow the presence of plastics didn't spoil the effect of the nature walk, though.

The boardwalk had its fair share of spideriffic inhabitants as well, so there was no opportunity to stop swinging my stick. It also had a few other inhabitants, most of them looking like this furry fellow:

According to the map, the boardwalk makes a loop that ends the trail. In reality, however, there is yet another connector trail. This was broad and flat and tree-lined, and for a very short distance reminded me of the sections of the Ice Age Trail I had hiked near the Dells of Eau Claire in Wisconsin. I should've known it was landscaped. Yes, literally, mowed. You see, at the other end of this little connector trail was the park's golf course. The saving graces of this let down were the wildflowers that lined the course edge, and of course the butterflies that inhabited them (though I couldn't seem to get any "on film").

I saw the golfers, but I doubt they noticed me, as I was on the far side of one of the course's bumps. Or whatever they're called. After taking in the, ahem, scenery, I retreated, and continuing to take the right-hand options, covered the remainder of the trail system in what seemed like record time.

In addition to encountering this thistle-loving butterfly, there was also some farmland off to the right of the trail. Interestingly I noted that they appeared to be growing grapes there. I'm guessing there might be wineries hereabouts, but not being much of a connoisseur myself, I probably won't be doing any research on the matter. I ambled back to my car, and the day had warmed rapidly, so emerging from the cool shelter of the woods into my portable blue oven was a bit of a shock, but there was a cool shower awaiting me at home.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Roan Mountain, At last

I finally made it to Roan Mountain on September 5th, a lovely day. Unfortunately, it was also a day that the Visitor's Center was slated to be closed. So I at first worried that I would not be able to get a good hike in. You see, although the State Park web site mentions that there are roughly 12 miles of hiking trails, they made no trail map available online. And since my copy of Hiking Tennessee only mentions the park, and doesn't go into detail about any of its trails, I had planned to make my decision on the fly once I arrived. Fortunately, the park Headquarters was open, and was well stocked with trail maps. I decided to try the Fred Behrend Trail, because, according to the trail map, it is 2.3-mile loop trail that "climbs and descends steeply in places." Right up my alley!

Since there is no map of Roan Mountain State Park's hiking trails published online, at least none that I could find on their web site, I have photographed my own, already well-worn hard copy. Note that you can click on it, and even download it, to obtain a full-resolution version (this is also true of any of my other photos, in case you are just so enamored of them that you want to use them as your wallpaper :).

The first section of the trail, along the Doe River, doesn't do much climbing or descending, at least not until you eventually hit a switchback that takes you up, away from the river. The foliage on this side was heavy on the rhododendrons, and they all looked healthy and happy. Eventually the trail pulls away from the river, and heads up over a hilltop, and then makes an occasionally steep descent down the back side. For some reason the rhododendron and other plant life on the back side of the hill did not look like it was doing very well. I'm not sure if perhaps less rain falls on this side or what (or perhaps there are just some amazing tap roots on the other side that run to the river?), but the leaves were limp and curled and just generally looking unloved.

At the bottom of this descent is a little creek that is unnamed on the map. Here's what the creek looked like:

What I really wish I could convey to you about this creek, though, were the sounds I heard. The gentle burbling of the water, the light breeze through the leaves over my head, and yes, even the omnipresent buzzing of insects. This was the symphony of the forest, and rare were the intrusions of outside noises, such as big rigs moving around the campground. This despite the fact that a connector trail to the campground essentially followed this creekbed (in the direction opposite this photo) no more than .3 miles to the camping loops. Gotta love the acoustics of the forest!

After a wistful pause at this creek, I continued along the trail, crossed another, even less well fed creek (and its accompanying connector trail), and continued on up to the high point of the trail (about 3200 feet above sea level). Somewhere around that point, or a little before, if I remember correctly, I actually stopped in my tracks and gasped at the beauty of these shelf fungi when I came up on them. They were just so brilliant, and so perfect in their soft fuzziness, I had to take a ton of photos (of course I will only subject you to the cream of the crop here).

After topping out, the trail again descended to follow along the Doe River, at which point it was also directly across the river from part of the camping area. I almost felt sorry for the people I saw on the opposite bank, as they had only asphalt to walk on (unless they were occupying a riverside camp site). For some reason, my own feet, legs and knees vastly prefer pounding uneven trail to flat, hard pavement. They seemed blissfully unaware, though, walking their dogs or just themselves, and, like me, occasionally came down to visit the riverbank. I paid special attention as I walked, trying to determine which campsite would be best, should I decide to make a weekend retreat here some time. When I came upon this little cascade, I knew I had found it. There was a camp site right next to it, and though I walked back up the pavement once I crossed the river and noted its number, I have now forgotten it. :( I would have no trouble locating it, though, so no worries. The rushing sound of the cascades just below would offer excellent white noise, so if you happen to be planning to stop in this area, and camp in a tent like I do, you just might want to look for the site nearest this spot.

Alas, from another angle, it's not quite so pretty. A harsh reminder to me of why I actually prefer NOT to have natural beauty so accessible. If people can drive their cars to it, they're all too often the sort of people who don't mind throwing their trash any old where as well. And what a shame that is.

After my little hike and my small detour through the campground, I returned to the Visitor's Center, since, despite the fact that it was closed, I had noticed that two trails left from there, and my legs still had a good bit left in them. Also promising was the interpretational signage at the center. I LOVE old mines, and anything else ghost-town-esque, so this trail to a mine was just my kind of thing.

The trail was mostly wide and clear of debris, and surprisingly cool and shady considering it was, by now, after noon. I even startled a deer, which made its unhappy-deer-noise and bolted off into the brush. Of course, when I got to the actual mine, it was a little less than inspiring.

Essentially, it was an old hole in the ground. :) It was also a bit drippy inside, as I learned when my flash revealed what my eyes could not see in the dimness. I was a bit surprised by how abruptly it ended, but it is entirely possible that the parks department filled it in to comply with insurance guidelines.

This trail, though essentially an out-and-back, does have a tiny loop at the far end. As you return from the mine, make sure you take the high route out, rather than retracing your steps, as there is a raised viewing platform off to the left, offering you an even more commanding view of the surrounding area.

Once I returned to the visitor's center, I had another look at their diagram of what the site had looked like back when it was an operating mine. I noticed a clearing across the road, about where the drawing indicated the smeltry had been, so I took a little wander over there, too, just to see what I could see. Which was essentially nothing. So, don't waste your own tracks on it, unless you're especially fond of taking in views of tractor-tracked clay and grass bald spots.

Next up: Butterflies, Butterflies and more...

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Finishing Off Buffalo Mountain

On Monday I revisited Buffalo Mountain once more, to try to cover what I hadn't already. I'm still missing a couple of little stretches of trail, but, everything in time... Once again, here's a link to the map, so you can see what I'm talking about.

I had intended to depart from the trailhead (as opposed to the alternate trailhead), but since I arrived shortly after 7am, the gate was not yet open. Although I have seen no posted opening hours for this park, I'm guessing it doesn't open until 8am, like some others owned by the city. So I instead parked at the alternate trailhead, and hoofed it up to the original, via the roadway. Given that my legs and feet do not especially appreciate pounding pavement, this was a bit of a bummer, but it was definitely a good workout, as there was a steep grade most of the way. Funny how we're less likely to notice these things when driving a car!

After reaching the trailhead, I took the white blazed route toward Huckleberry Knob, and then bore left onto the Fork Knob Trail. You may recall that this is the route by which I returned a week or so ago, and found it to be rather a steep descent in some places. Oddly, when reversing the route and climbing, I didn't find it as strenuous as I expected. But the fact that uphills are easier on my knees than downhills is well known to me at this point.

About halfway up, I heard a gentle rain approaching, and really enjoyed listening to it falling on the canopy. It lasted quite a while, but as before, I felt almost no raindrops making it down to my skin. Eventually, the rain got a bit harder, and I began debating about putting my backpack's raincoat on to protect my beloved camera (for which, sadly, I had no use during this visit). Right as I stopped to put the raincoat on, in a very well protected area, I heard the rain became considerably harder -- perfect timing! As I left my shelter I finally began to get wet, and felt very fortunate to have chosen that exact time to cover my pack. The rain felt wonderful, and had a fantastic cooling effect. It did eventually slacken, of course, but the cooling remained, to say nothing of the amazing scents it left behind. Truly, every forest has its own unique blend of smells, and a light soaking of rain has the amazing effect of bringing them all out in all their delicious pungency!

I continued on up the hill, delighting in the new scents and the light breezes the rain had effected, and eventually reached the bench at Fork Knob. There I turned left, and explored the Fork Ridge Trail. Since I had already been to the south end of the Tower Ridge trail, and I knew that it was pretty high, I expected to climb to get there from Fork Knob. Climb I did, though not before descending a considerable way. I'm not sure if there was any net gain, but no matter, it was a pretty walk nonetheless, and with my freshly dampened skin and clothing, quite a refreshing one as well.

Upon reaching the blue-blazed connector trail, I hunted my way through to the service road. I had determined that I was going to make my descent via this road because I expected it to have a gentle, even grade, rather than some of the steeper ones I've been encountering on the trails. Although this surmisal was correct, it had a downside. A gentler grade meant a steadier one as well, which turned out to be just as hard on my knees, if not harder, than the steep downhills punctuated by relative flats that were found in the trail system.

I also determined that this would be a good uphill climb, especially if I were to make it at a slightly higher speed than that to which I generally push myself over uneven trails. So, my learning curve continues.

I only encountered two other humans on this trip, a couple of ladies walking their somewhat overweight daschunds up the service road. The ladies didn't look like they were in grave need of the exercise, but the poor little wiener dogs sure did! So now, the only trails in Buffalo Mountain I haven't covered are the Hartsell Hollow trail and the High Ridge trail to Tip Top. Both of these being dead-end trails (and you probably already have a feel for how much I hate covering the same ground twice!), it may be a while before I muster the gumption to traverse them.

As previously noted, I didn't encounter any things that were so spectacular that I felt the need to whip out my camera on this trip, but stay tuned, as on Wednesday I FINALLY made it to Roan Mountain, and there I found some stuff that was really worth photographing!

And now for something completely different...

What the heck is happening to me? After running across a copy of The China Study at a garage sale a couple of weeks ago (and buying it, and compulsively reading it, of course), I decided to make the switch to a vegan diet. And today, as I was browsing through The Accidental Vegan, I was looking for a new and exciting main dish to try. The very first recipe offered in the Main Dishes chapter was Pasta Primavera. It sounded pretty standard, so I almost flipped past it. But just to make sure Ms. Gartenstein hadn't added some new twist, I skimmed down the ingredient onion...garlic...fresh bell pepper...snap peas...waitaminit...this was sounding delicious! I'm not sure what it is about having adopted this way of eating for such a short time that has changed my tastes (and my taste buds! -- I made a tofu-based version of mousse today (recipe here) that I found quite tasty, but my mom tasted it and pronounced it inedible because it wasn't sweet enough) so drastically, but it truly is an amazing transformation! Whatever the case, though, I'm exceedingly thankful that I decided to make this healthy switch now, rather than waiting until something drastic such as diabetes came along and forced the healthy lifestyle upon me. I realize that evangelizing the vegan diet is probably pointless, but, like most new converts to any drastic life change, I feel compelled to pass along my own excitement to anyone who will listen. So, thanks for "listening!" :)

Monday, September 3, 2007

Whaddaya Mean, "Born Explorer?"

or, "Why did I start this blog, anyway?"

One of my earliest wishes was to live in a house that reconfigured itself every night as I slept, so that I would have a whole new home to explore every single morning. Despite the fact that I, even then, realized this to be an impossible dream, it is a memory that has stuck with me to this day. Though I led something of a sheltered life, as I grew up, I managed to find ways to feed my hunger for exploring. Not allowed to snoop around in houses into which I was invited (for reasons of propriety), I contented myself with nosing around houses in the process of being built. A little later in life I would explore the small hummocks and wooded areas remaining in my neighborhood, although I would sometimes get in trouble for this, as such areas were considered unsafe; full of frightening and deadly prospects like rattlesnakes and alligators.

I was limited in those days to the areas I could reach on foot or via bicycle, and I always had to be home in time for dinner (the sheltered life isn't all bad :). So I explored and re-explored the same places, while deep inside me grew a longing to continually expand my range. It was always a little exciting to discover that someone else had been operating in an area; finding dirt freshly churned by bike tires, or the wood and nails indicative of a nascent tree fort. Still, I knew there was a much wider world out there to be discovered, and I longed for the day it would be within reach.

When I got a little older, I had a friend who lived across the highway. Her neighborhood was unexplored territory for me, and I ached to walk or bike it and get myself lost among the unfamiliar twists and turns. Given the size of the subdivision, I realized it would be nigh impossible to truly get lost, but that did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for exploration. Alas, my friend was not similarly inclined, and so those many roads remained closed to me.

More than almost anything, though, I wanted to be a Girl Scout. They, it seemed, had all sorts of adventures: camping, hiking, picnicking, and all sorts of learning. Many reasons were given for why I was never allowed; mostly relating to my allergies (for which I was in constant treatment) and money. It wasn’t until much later in life that I discovered the real reason: my mother was terrified that I might be molested while out on a camping trip. Nevertheless, I checked the Junior and Cadet Girl Scout handbooks out of the library repeatedly, practicing knot tying and lashing things together, reading up on the numerous other skills required to be a good camper, and endlessly poring over the requirements for various badges, daydreaming about someday being able to fulfill them.

Needless to say, that day never came. Thus I am now in a permanent second childhood; one where I grab every available chance to explore. Regardless of whether it’s a friend who’s bought a new house giving me the nickel tour, a two-week camping trip planned around the ghost towns of a given area, the hiking trails of a nearby state park, or the urban exploration of a deserted old building down the block, I am constantly looking for, and finding, new ways to discover the world around me.

During my explorations, and especially during my long hikes alone in the woods, I make many discoveries about life, the universe and everything. Most importantly, though, it is then that I learn the most about myself. I have come to many epiphanies, including the realization that I am a die-hard fan of novelty. Exploring the same place twice holds little appeal for me, unless it has been long enough for the place to have changed. This desire for the new and unusual is a consistent thread throughout my non-exploring life as well. I'm always looking for new flavors, new music, new scents, and new scrapbook supplies. :)

It also has a somewhat darker side; this desire for constant change and newness does not lend itself well to anything of permanence. It is to this trait that, among other things, I attribute the fact that I had already bought and sold a house and begun and ended a marriage before the age of 30. If I had given myself the opportunity to realize my deep-seated need for novelty, I hope that I would never have made the mistakes I did. The reality, however, is that I did make them, and that the best I can now do is learn from them. Learn from them, and also share them here, in the hopes that someone else may be so enlightened, hopefully before they make similar errors. We must make an important choice in life; either play the hand we are dealt, or fold (spend our lives wishing we were, had, or did something we didn't). I've chosen to do the best I can with what I've got. Rather than fight my innermost nature, I now embrace it, and accept that it likely means I will never have a life that most consider normal. It can be difficult, but thus far I have found it very rewarding; much more rewarding than trying to fit in, keep up with the Joneses, and otherwise conform to a norm with which I was never truly comfortable.

This, then, is the place where you can vicariously join me on my journeys, and enjoy the amazing wonders that might be found halfway down the street, or halfway around the world. And if you happen to learn something about yourself or someone you know in the process, well, don't blame me. :)

More Buffalo Mountain

Friday, I had intended to head down to Roan Mountain State Park to do my hiking. Various responsibilities, however (as well as a sale at the local scrapbook store :), conspired to keep me in town. So I decided to head back over to my new favorite spot, Buffalo Mountain. This time, I explored the eastern side of the park, and was not disappointed. Here's another link to the park map, so you can follow along.

I parked at the alternate trail head. I arrived and got to hiking around 7:10 am, as I wanted to be at the scrapbook store shortly after it opened at 10. I hiked the .15 mile trail segment in to the "crossroads," and then took a sharp left to follow the outer loop trail over to the blue-blazed Tower Ridge trail. It appears as though the trail has been re-routed, however, as in my attempt to not miss the point where the white trail intersects a very short blue trail, I wound up heading up a trail that (rather quickly) became impassable. I am almost of a mind to take some red paint back to that spot, and paint over the faded white blazes, but I imagine that would be illegal, so I guess I'll just report it to you here, and hope that my own mistakes can help others.After deciding I was no longer on the trail, I doubled back, and did eventually find the Tower Ridge trail, and also successfully avoided taking the left-hand blue trail.

Here I must pause and make an observation; generally speaking, when I've encountered trails with names like "so-and-so ridge," they usually travel up to the top of a ridge, follow the ridge for a while, and then drop back down. Not so the ridge-named trails in this park. As I mentioned in a previous entry, Stair-Step Ridge appears to cover the cross-section of a ridge, and Friday I found that Tower Ridge would probably more aptly be named Tower Hill or Tower Knob. You see, the Tower Ridge trail goes up. And then it goes up some more. And some more. And so on. Seemingly ad infinitum. Every time I would level out and look around, noting that there appeared to be no more elevation to be gained, I would turn a corner and find another considerable rise in the trail. I guess all those hours I spent pounding treadmills and ellipticals on the "interval" or "hill" setting were not in vain!

Eventually, of course, the trail did top out, and at this, a most unattractive point. But then I had suspected that the "tower" referred to would be of the antenna sort, and not the fire type.

After reaching this point, I had to wonder whether or not I had hit the summit. The only elevation, other than the trailhead, on this side of the map, was at White Rock, along whose trail I intended to return. I figured that I had a bit of climbing left to do before I got there, since surely the highest points would be marked...wrong again! I actually descended a couple hundred feet or so before reaching White Rock. Not such a bad thing, just a little odd. Actually, I had a wee bit of trouble determining when I had reached White Rock, as there were several side trails leading to rocky outcrops along the way. One was comprised of rock a bit more pale than the others, so I'm guessing that was it.

Regardless, each outcrop afforded me with panoramic views of the railroad tracks, fields, streets, and town below, although, as you can see from these pictures, it was once again a misty day. I'll grant you, the fact that I was shooting into the early morning sun didn't help matters, but I can assure you that only a very little more was visible to the naked eye.

As I made my return descent, I noted mostly rocky terrain, and only a handful of short segments that my knees considered intolerable. It probably helps that the return track was a bit longer than the trail I had taken up the hill. I had actually considered returning via the service road, when I was standing on it next to the antenna, because I figured that, being designed to be passable by vehicles, it would likely have a kinder, gentler grade (as far as my knees were concerned). In the end, however, I am glad that I chose to continue my route as planned. The sun-dappling along this easternmost trail was warm and soothing, without being unpleasant, thanks to the still-cool air. It also provided some neat lighting effects, which I completely failed to capture with my camera. :(

What I did notice, and subsequently capture, were some of the many leaves that were beginning to change color and fall. I am a bit surprised that they are turning so early in the season. It has always been my understanding that these color changes are triggered by sugars in the leaves being transformed by cold temperatures, yet we have not had much in the way of a cold snap yet. So maybe there are other factors at work, or perhaps it just gets considerably colder up here atop the mountain than down in the valley where I make my home.

I completed my trek via the white-blazed outer loop, re-crossing the service road, and making my way back along the same segments with which I had begun. A relatively uneventful hike, and I managed to make it to the scrapbook store on time :)