Thursday, October 18, 2007

A bit of a rest, and then a fumble

After determining that the huge, bruised-feeling area on the side of my foot was more than just, well, a bruise, I took a couple of days off. By October 1st, I was feeling ready to test my (foot's) mettle again, but not comfortable doing so at an AT workday, since I had no idea what that might entail. So instead I made an effort to hike a little section of AT down near Erwin. From what my Tennessee Atlas & Gazetteer showed, there appeared to be an old forest road that intersected with the AT. This was also confirmed by my (admittedly out-of-date) AT guide. When I got there, however, I was to learn that this would be no easy intersection to find.

I braved a narrow, winding, unpaved Forest Road 230, and had to yield to a convoy of dumptrucks before I found its intersection with the older Forest Road. The older Forest Road (235, if you're curious) was, as I expected, gated near its intersection with 230. There was ample room to park a car or two there, so I pulled off and gathered up my gear. There was a cute, tinkly little stream running along 230 here, which I had to cross to walk up 235. Nothing worth going out of your way for, but I suppose if you're in the neighborhood...nah, don't bother, even then.

After one or two tenths of a mile, the graveled and graded portion of 235 peters out into a little open field. Beyond that point, the old roadtrack continues, but as one might expect of such a disused thoroughfare, gets progressively more difficult to follow as it goes. At one point I found myself in what looked to be someone's back 40, where an old, old barn or shed stored some very modern-looking building supplies. Deciding that I had somehow managed to leave the road I was trying to follow, I backtracked a bit, and sure enough saw, from this different angle, the roadway I sought. So I continued along it until I finally ran up against a large rockslide that had covered it, probably many, many years ago, judging by the moss growth over the rocks. Feeling discouraged, and not having seen any sign of the AT's friendly white blazes, I decided to give up rather than attempt to cross the rocky, slippery obstacle. I had probably covered roughly five or six tenths of a mile at that point (I had not yet started using a GPS on my hikes), and my foot was still not entirely pleased with me, so I turned around and hacked my way back to the car.

When I got home I looked to the interweb to try to find out what had gone wrong. Via a combination of Google Maps' satellite photos and a slightly closer measurement of my Atlas's depiction, I determined that I likely gave up just one or two tenths of a mile too soon. On the upside, even if I had been able to safely cross the rock fall, it probably would not have made my foot any happier to then continue on and hike the AT section I originally had planned.

So it was back to the drawing board, trying to find more easily accessible segments, and also another day off to let my injury heal.

Date: 10/1/07
AT Miles covered: 0 :(
Other miles covered: 1-ish
Altitude gain: unknown feet
Time: too long, due to bushwhacking and such
Other notes: don't bother trying to retrace this route.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

AT, Carver's Gap to Cloudland Hotel Site

After my last two victories over short segments of the AT, I had to make sure I finished out the entire segment, which, in my AT book was called Carvers Gap to Hughes Gap. Piecing together the three short segments that comprised this one longer section made me realize that it just may be possible to cover the entire AT via a combination of short day hikes and weekend-length backpacking outings. So began my obsession with hiking the AT. Twice. You see, since I don't have anyone with whom to hike, I also lack anyone with whom to arrange a shuttle. So I not only have to break down the AT into bite-size pieces; I must also always return to the point from which I started (if I want to drive my car home, anyway, an activity of which I'm rather fond). The good news is that the cost of my new "collection" is limited to gas, maps, and incidentals, and storage space is almost entirely unnecessary. Unless you count the hard drive space it's going to cost me to keep all of the photos I take along the way. Which I don't. So there.

It was along this stretch that I began to notice just how different each of the AT segments I had hiked actually were. The first one I had experienced was just a little jaunt I took out of Nolichucky Gorge Campground, back when I was staying there and trying to find a place to live in this area. It was narrow, almost all rock, and with a steep dropoff to one side and a steep incline on the other. I later came to learn that it had actually been carved from the mountainside by jackhammers.

The next section I tackled was right after I arrived, while my friend Jeff (who so incredibly kindly helped us move) was still in town, and wanted to see a waterfall. We found one called Laurel Fork, and it just so happened that to reach it we needed to traverse a bit of AT through the Pond Mountain Wilderness. That section was partly rhododendron-filled forest, and partly rocky gorge, with some interesting geologic features.

The following two segments are the ones I've just posted about (here and here), and they definitely had different characteristics. Then I reach this next segment, and it is, once again, totally different. I mean, sure, they've all involved trees, ferns, rocks and fungi, but that's pretty much where the similarities end.

This segment took me back to my favored uphill-then-down pattern, although honestly, I could probably have done this one either way, happily, as the grades are almost all very gentle. The primary exception was the side trail up to the shelter, but even that was blessedly short, and so quite tolerable.

It started out in a sparsely wooded area, which struck me as being surprisingly level. Sure enough, someone else, long ago, had thought it a nicely level area as well, because I soon happened upon this fallen chimney right beside the trail:

I traveled a little further on through these sparse woods, and then began my ascent of Roan Mountain via an old carriage road. As mentioned, this made for a very gentle ascent, although switchbacks are sometimes a bit maddening to me. Back and forth, back and forth, it seems like I'm covering the same ground over and over, doing something that would be much more expediently accomplished by a more direct route. Of course, that would also make for a hellacious climb in this case, so I just settled in for a nice, calm walk through the woods. And what woods they were! This section was very heavy on the evergreens, and on many occasions the piney scents that filled the air took me back to a time when I would wander through densely-packed Christmas tree lots in Chicago, just to smell the wonderful aroma.

I knew I was nearing the top when I encountered this still-standing fireplace and chimney, labeled in my AT book as "old cabin site." Actually, when stood in front of this thing and turned in a 360, I could hardly believe there had ever been room for an entire cabin here. Of course, cabins were often quite small in those days, and the surrounding flora has probably had something close to 140 years to recuperate.

After finding myself once again at the Cloudland Hotel Site (and NOT having to pay the $3 parking fee! See what being willing to walk a bit can do for the wallet?), I availed myself of the facilities, and then began my return trek. Interestingly, on my way back, I noticed something I had not seen on the way up; this bunch of old cans and bottles:

It was probably 20 feet or so below the trail, and I did not want to leave the trail in order to investigate further. Still, for some reason, finding things like this excites me more than almost anything else I do when exploring. Signs of previous human habitation, especially ones which may be decades or even century-plus old, are among my favorite finds. Judging by the design of the bottle (since I'm as yet unfamiliar with the decay rates for cans), I'd say this is a genuinely old collection. The bottle didn't look like anything you'd find on modern store shelves (the glass was much too thick, for one thing). Of course, I had to wander off wanting for the details about my find, but perhaps someday I'll be the one examining them and explaining them to others. All part of my master plan...

But for now, back to the details of the hike! On my way up, I had passed by the side trail to the Roan High Knob shelter. I had made the mistake of wasting energy on the side trail to a spring on my last hike, so I decided that in the future I would do side trails on my return trip, just to make sure that I feel completely up to them. Since I still had plenty of energy (and had only downward to travel) this time, I went ahead and scrambled up to this shelter. The story here is that this is the highest shelter on the entire AT (6,285 feet), and was originally built as a fire warden's cabin back in 1933. It was built by the CCC, and used by the warden who manned a nearby tower (which was dismantled in 1940). It was abandoned for at least 20 years before being renovated in 1980 (by the Cherokee National Forest and a Boy Scout Troop) for use as an AT shelter. It was renovated again in 2003 by TEHC. Visiting this shelter was special not only because it was the highest on the AT, but also because it was my first AT shelter ever! I know, not too many people can get excited about such petty things, but humour me, OK?

After my little side jaunt, most of the rest of my hike was easy, gentle downhill. There are a few sections of the old road grade that have gotten narrow, rocky, or otherwise difficult, but for the most part it's some of the easiest uphill/downhill I've encountered on the AT. Near the bottom of the switchbacks I noticed this colorful arrangement of moss and other little plants growing on a rocky outcrop, and couldn't resist the urge to snap a photo of it. I really like the variety, as well as the artful way in which nature has arranged them all. :)

Date: 9/24/07
AT Miles covered: 1.9 (x2; out-and-back = 3.8)
Altitude gain:773 feet (including side trail)
Time: no clue
Other notes: Started out the day with pain in left foot believed to be a cramp. Pain did not abate, and later self-diagnosed with peroneal insertional tendonitis. Ouch.

Land of Clouds

My next hike was the aforementioned out and back from the Cloudland Hotel Site to the summit of Bear Mountain, where I had ended my previous trek. When I started out it was quite chilly at the top of Roan Mountain, where the Cloudland site lies. And as you can see from the photo below, there is no question as to how the site came by its name.

This wasn't "just" fog. As I was driving to the site it was very evident that I was ascending into the clouds. Watching them roll past never ceases to fascinate me, but I knew I had to get on with my hike before my energy ebbed, as I was going to have a nasty descent, followed by an even nastier ascent.

The top part of the trail was beautiful, and much of it looked similar to this. Rocky trail, with either trees like these, or bushy evergreens all around. Moss was everywhere, and on this particular day, everything was drippy. It wasn't really raining, it was just a matter of condensation from the clouds gathering on every limb and leaf. I actually recall thinking how, closer to dark, or on the right day (such as Halloween) this scene might even appear spooky. So, if you're looking for a creepy place to go come the end of the month, keep this one in mind. Of course, you can't park here after the parking area closes (and there is a $3 fee to park here when it's open), but there are other ways to reach this place, as you'll learn in an upcoming post.

The photo below is just a really neat-looking moss-mottled exposed tree root. I imagine it might look even cooler in black and white, but I haven't gotten around to converting it yet. The splash of red at the top left is undoubtedly better in color, though.

So, about the hike itself...essentially, it is down, down, down, and then a wee bit of up to come back up to the summit of Beartown Mountain. There is one very wide, pine needle-carpeted area at Ash Gap that is clearly used by AT backpackers for camping. There is also a blue-blazed trail there that leads to a spring, but the spring wasn't all that exciting to look at, so I'll spare you the photo. What was exciting to look at, for me, was a huge bird of prey I rousted on my way down to the spring. It was so silent about gliding from limb to limb that I never heard it at all. It was by sheer luck that I happened to glimpse its movement out of the corner of my eye. I never got close enough that I could actually identify it, but my guess, from what I could see of the pattern on its wings, was that it was a hawk of some sort. Perhaps red-tailed.

After visiting the spring I returned to the trail and continued on to Beartown Mountain. Right near the summit I encountered a fellow dayhiker and his faithful companion, a cute fuzzy puppy. Probably a German Shepherd mix of some sort, very alert and energetic. We passed with a friendly hello, and shortly thereafter I saw that I'd passed that way before, so I could turn around, happy that I had completed another tiny segment of AT.

Then the real work began. Or at least, it began once I re-crossed Ash Gap. The ascent from there back up to the top of Roan Mountain was steep, and I had run myself very nearly out of metaphorical gas. So, I did what I always do when I wind up with my energy ebbing and a hard climb ahead of me: put one foot in front of the other as fast as I could. Which is to say, not very fast. Still, as long as I'm moving forward, I know I'll eventually reach my goal, and sure enough, I eventually re-emerged from the woods, which had grown slightly less spooky as the sun warmed the clouds away. Back at the actual grassy knob where the Cloudland Hotel had been, I photographed the board that told about that fascinating venue.

Since it was located on the Tennessee/North Carolina state line, and since, during its years of operation, North Carolina had been a dry state while Tennessee was not, there was a line painted down the center of the dining hall. On the Tennessee side of the line, drinking was of course permitted. On the North Carolina side, it is rumoured that certain members of the North Carolina constabulary liked to hang out, just waiting for an inebriated patron to cross the line with a drink in his hand. Ah, the good old days. Here's an excerpt from the informational board at the hotel site, showing an advertisement for the venerated inn. I found it interesting, and hopefully you will too. Remember that you can click on it to view a larger version. Some of the claims seem a bit of a stretch...but that's all part of it's charm. ;)

Date: 9/21/07
AT Miles covered: 1.2 (x2; out-and-back = 2.4)
Altitude gain: 810 feet
Time: no clue
Other notes: $3 parking fee

Friday, October 12, 2007

Trying Out Trekking Poles

One of the things the Old Timers finished talking me into that day that I met them, was a pair of trekking poles. I had long been considering them, although when I first learned of them, they were exorbitantly expensive. They have since come down considerably in price, and because my broke ass couldn't afford anything better, I bought a pair at Walmoo.

Yes, I'm still "just" a dayhiker, carrying a light little pack. And yes, I'm really only 32 years old, so my knees aren't shot yet. But man, have they made a difference! Essentially, they are 4wd for my hiking. At first I couldn't stand to use them on the uphills, so I just strapped them onto my pack for long climbs. But oh, what a change they made in my downhills! I feel as swift and sure-footed as a billygoat. OK, make that a nanny goat. Some stubborn, cloven-hooved critter, anyway.

In truth, I probably look far more like a truncated giraffe as I make my way down the trail, as my "forelegs," being my arms equipped with the poles, are twice as long as my "hind" legs. Appearances be damned, though, as I've long had the motto, "if it works, do it!" This goes double out on the trail, where I hardly see anyone anyway, and anyone I do see has likely seen far more bizarre things than I can muster.

On my last couple of hikes, I've worked up to using them on the majority of my uphills as well. Now I can feel not only the muscles in my shoulder and neck having growing pains, but also my forearms, wrists and biceps. Woohoo! After a recent near-blister incident, I've also repurposed my cycling gloves into hiking gloves, and they work beautifully. The gel padding on the heel of my hand is just what I needed for the downhills, where I turn the poles around and lean on them, instead of trying to use them at the more awkward angle of a pistol grip. This, too, undoubtedly looks weird, but, see motto above.

The first time I took these out for a spin was on the section of the AT between Hughes Gap and the summit of Beartown Mountain. As mentioned, I quickly tired of hassling with them when climbing up the steep ascent. Near the summit was a side trail to an overlook, with some absolutely stunning views. This is only a tiny slice of the vista, but hopefully the seemingly endless layers of mountains in the distance will help you understand just how thrilling a place this was to be.

I met three other hikers this day, and all were backpacking. Didn't stop to query whether or not they were genuine thru-hikers, though they didn't look quite scruffy enough to be such. This was a very challenging climb. In fact, one source, which may be viewed here (search for "possibly the"), believes it to be the most strenuous climb in the entire AT, with the trail climbing over 800 feet per mile. Truthfully, the citation in that link covers the AT all the way up to the Cloudland Hotel site, and I think the segment between where I stopped this day and the Cloudland site is even more steep. I later did that remaining section, from Bear Mountain on up to Cloudland, in reverse; down first, then up. A very bad plan for someone like me, who has most of their energy early in the day. However, to hike the entire AT, I'm sure I will run into this more than just this once, so I suppose I'd better get used to it (or at least resign myself to it) sooner rather than later. But more on that hike later (hopefully).

On the way back down I collected quite a few buckeyes. I'm not sure why, as I was pretty sure about what they were, having eaten the eponymous candy many times. And of course, having had Ohioan parentage, I already knew that buckeyes were "just useless nuts." :) I guess I hoped they were something more useful, like chestnuts. If there's one thing of which I cannot be accused, it is being a botanist. Not even an amateur one. I can tell the difference between a pine tree and a birch, but that's about the extent of my knowledge. Although if I ever manage to drag myself out of bed in time to go hiking with the Old Timers again, that may change a little, as Bill was quite instructive about trailside plants (it was via his tutelage that I came to identify the rattlesnake plantain in this earlier entry).

Date: 9/19/07
Miles covered: 1.4 (x2; out-and-back = 2.8)
Altitude gain:1,441 feet
Time: no clue
Other notes: Filled up with gas on the way home for $2.50 per gallon

It's like he's making a point of making a point

Found recently in an Amazon book review:

"This book is very repititive [sic]. If you like books in which things are repeated, this is the book for you because things are repeated in it. This book says the same thing in different ways. Similar ideas are stated in different ways many times in the book. Although stated differently, many times, a sentence states the same idea that was stated previously. This happens many times. Many many ideas are repeated many many times. It gets redundant."

The original context may be found here.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


I've been kinda quiet these past couple of weeks, and there's more than one reason for it.

For one thing, I injured my left peroneal tendon a couple of weeks ago. It irked me, because I had intended to go join the Old Timers for their AT workday on October 1st, but wasn't sure it would be a good idea on an injury, since I really have no clue what a workday entails. It also irked me because it kept me off the trail for several days, and this right after I had developed an obsession with day- and section-hiking the AT. Twice. More on that in a bit, though.

The other reason is that, well, writing long, detailed posts about every hike I took became a bit...boring. And I figure if it's boring for me to write, it has to be at least a little boring for y'all to read, right? Probably even more boring, considering I get to relive it while I write, and you just, well, read.

I'm still trying to decide what to do to liven things up around here. For one thing, I don't think I'll be writing such long posts about each and every hike I take. Probably more likely I'll do brief entries unless for some reason I get excited and have a lot to say about a particular route. Also, I'm going to start keeping track of, and posting, my miles hiked. I've begun using a GPS, which makes this much easier. I may even keep a running tally of pounds lost, since I now seem to once again be headed in that direction (finally!). It's as if I've had a standoff with my weight for about a year now, and it has been very annoying. I know, hardcore dieters call this a "plateau." I just call it irritating. Especially that it lasted so long, and was so resistant to weight training, which I didn't expect. I suspect that the weight training simply traded fat for muscle, and given the reaction of Jeff's Aunt Jannie when she saw me after about 7 months of weight training, ("You've lost weight!"), I think I'm probably right. I'll probably also start tossing in a bit more about my non-hiking life as well, just to keep you on your toes.

So, what would you like to see? Blogs are supposed to be at least somewhat interactive, so I'd love your input!

Monday, October 8, 2007

Rock Creek Falls Trail

This hike began with an unexpected surprise: a fee. Generally speaking, I don't like to pay just to go wander around on public lands (I tend to feel my wandering rights are secured by my tax dollars. I'd rather believe that than face the idea that they're funding this godforsaken war). However, since I had driven quite a distance to reach this place, and had not brought the necessary guidebooks with me to decide upon another trail, I paid up. It was only two bucks, and for once in my life I actually had cash on me. Yay!

I decided to do a waterfall hike because I had not seen a fall since the week I moved up here. This one sounded mostly easy, and it was. This was actually a refreshing change. The first segment of the trail was actually wide, level, and graveled, allowing me to take in my surroundings instead of focusing 90% of my attention on the trail. Even after the gravelling ended, the trail followed an old road bed, and remained wide and fairly flat for some time. Eventually it got rocky and I had to begin paying more attention to where I placed my feet, but I had looked around so much during the first portion of the hike that my neck actually started to ache!

There wasn't much of an incline to the trail, so I was fairly sprinting along when I came across this spot:

It doesn't look like much in this photo, I realize, but when I first happened across it it was hosting a couple of gentlemen who went by the names of Bill and "Mump." We got to talking, and it turns out they are members of the Johnson City Old Timers Hiking Club. Once we got done jawing, we continued on together, and I got to be an honorary Old Timer for the day. :) The trail increased in steepness just a bit as it continued, and after a couple more rest stops, and a pause to chat with some other Old Timers who had already made the falls and were on their way back, we ended up there ourselves. Here's a shot of Mump (left), Bill (middle) and CB (right, who we "picked up" close to the falls) taking in the well-earned view.

And here's my blurry shot of the falls themselves. I had recently taken to carrying only my small camera as it was much less heavy, but after reviewing my photos from several hikes, I was unimpressed with the quality. I hate using flash on outdoor shots, so I turn it off. The little camera, however, doesn't do so well with compensating for that fact (much smaller lens aperture, lets in less light, yada yada yada), so then I almost invariably wind up with blurry pictures. I've since broken down and started carrying my heavy DSLR again. *sigh* Oh well, I bought the thing for a reason, didn't I?

The Old Timers tell me that this falls is much more spectacular at certain times of the year, especially after we've had some considerable rain. They also said that it is beautiful in the wintertime when it freezes.

After meandering around near the base of the falls for a while, and nibbling on a granola bar, I took my leave of these amiable gentlemen. It was, after all, a Monday, and I had many packages yet to prepare and ship. And quite a drive home to boot.

On my way back I was able to hustle quite effectively, although once I hit the flatter, easier portion of the trail again I slowed down to look around me some more. It was then that I noticed a squirming, buzzing mass on the ground just ahead of me. Upon closer inspection, it seemed several yellowjackets were fighting intently over something. Or killing it. Or eating it. Or something. Aw, here's the photo; decide for yourselves:

I honestly couldn't see what it was that they were clustered around, and I wasn't about to disturb them to try and find out. I contented myself with a few quick (flash) pictures, and scooted out of their field of vision as quickly as possible. I've never been stung by anything but one bee, and I don't plan on changing that record any sooner than necessary!

Finishing up the hike, I noted that they were revamping one of the park's structures. I'd guess it's a visitor center or something of that ilk, although there were no signs around identifying it. If nothing else it contained a bathroom or bath house, as I heard the workmen discussing ADA grab bar requirements as I packed myself and my stuff into the car. I guess that's where my tax dollars really go. Or was it paid for by my fee? Meh, whatever. It was an enjoyable hike, and I even met my first hiking friends!