Wednesday, July 30, 2008

In Memory

"Don't cry because it's over. Smile because it happened." - Dr. Seuss

My dad passed away on Tuesday, July 29, at 3:40 a.m. I had the privilege of being with him and holding his hand, as I had with my mom. Most people do not get that opportunity and I got it twice. He was a funny guy, a true optimist, and in the short time he had been at his assisted living facility the residents and staff had grown very attached to him. The man who transported him from there to the funeral home told the director that it was the first time he had ever been to a nursing home facility to get someone where the staff were all upset.

Some of you know that my idea of this hiking project originated partially in response to losing my mom in January 2007. At that time I began to think, as most people probably do at the loss of a parent, about how I was spending my time, what God wanted me to do, and what I wanted to see when I someday look back. Now my quest is renewed. I will be taking the next several weeks to enjoy my daughter Laura and her preparations for college but I may slip away for a couple of days on the trails. For all of you out there, thanks for your attention and caring. Take some time out to think about your life and your family and time.

Monday, July 28, 2008


I went hiking in three different areas of the Park this past weekend but was based out of the Cosby Campground area. With the help of old and new hiking friends I completed 40.2 miles. As on every trip, there was much to learn, lots of weather changes, some wildlife and some ah-hah moments. I will get them written up here when I can. My dad has taken the final turn for the worse and I am going to be with him for his last days. I would appreciate it if you would pause as you read this and offer up a prayer for comfort for him and for my brother and me.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Make Me Happy

The plan is to head back to the Smokies on Friday for another round of hiking with a new cast of characters, this time from the Carolina Berg Wanderers. I am truly blessed with the variety of people that are willing to walk in the woods with me and help me complete my challenge.

But...while my hiking plan is proceeding nicely, the donations portion is stalling. I have chosen the worst economic climate of my lifetime in which to begin this venture and I know that everyone is facing financial challenges and cutting back...and so are the families of girls who want to go to camp. My husband said recently that aside from his own personal life worries, his main concerns are the big E's - the economy and the environment. I believe that in hard economic times we see what is really important to people as they choose more carefully where their money goes. And I believe that in order to save the environment we need to do more than conserve, we need to teach young people an appreciation for the wonders (and limits) of the natural world.

Give a kid the opportunity to have an awesome outdoor experience for a week, a weekend or even a day, and that can spark her curiosity and her desire to explore further. At the very least she can become a good steward of the world. And maybe she will go on to study and choose a profession in environmental science, the natural sciences, conservation...who knows? Yes, it CAN begin with just that one outdoor experience.

So please, if you are new to this blog or if you check here regularly to see what I'm up to, consider making a donation for girls. We will gladly accept thousands of dollars, but donating a penny a mile is $10 and just as important. (And $20 per mile gets me to my goal of $20,000!) I will walk the 1,000 miles regardless of how much money comes in...but knowing that I am also helping the girls will make the walk even more wonderful.

And now back to our regular program...

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Pips on

Some of you may be familiar with the website It is a journaling site for good people dreaming of, aspiring to, planning for and actually hiking long distance trails, most notably the Appalachian Trail. For the past couple of Januarys I have scrolled through the current year's list to see who is hitting the AT that year, read through some of the preparation entries to see who is detailed and faithful about journaling, and chosen one or two hikers' journals to follow through their adventures. In 2007 I chose two young women, one from Tennessee and one from Oregon (they did not know each other) who were hiking the AT from north to south, or SOBO, beginning in Maine. They began on different dates, but they both completed their hikes, joining the Class of 2007 AT thru-hikers. And guess what: they met each other during their hike. What fun to check in on their journals and see them mention each other's names! It was like a suspenseful TV movie. This year I am following a young woman hiking NOBO whose trail name is Pips. I am cheering for her as she works out foot problems, hiking partner issues and personal joys and discoveries. Check out Pips and all the other great stuff going on at

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Plan B

Balsam Mountain Trip – Day Two – 7/10/08 - Flat Creek Trail and Oconaluftee River Trail – 4.1 Miles

Back at camp we assessed our gear and our physical status. For the first time I had no aches and pains from hiking. A breakthrough! Carol, however, had blisters on her heels that said, “No more boots for us, thanks.” Aside from the blisters and a little stiffness, Carol was in great shape for a gal who had hiked nearly 18 miles. But it was time to pull out the map and figure out a Plan B.

For Day Two I chose 3 short trails where Carol could drop me off at one end and pick me up at the other and still work in a stop for her at the Visitors Center. First was the Flat Creek Trail which begins at the Heintooga Ridge picnic area, goes for 2.6 miles and pops out again on Heintooga Ridge Road. As I walked along I realized with dismay that this was a great trail, hitting all the highlights of a long trek in the Smokies in a little bit of mileage…why dismay? Because it would have been a great “last trail” for friends and family to join me on as I complete my hiking adventure. Ah well…I still plan to revisit this trail, perhaps in the fall, because it has it all, some ups, some downs, a creek, several footlog crossings, some flat area, beautiful flowers (fly poison everywhere). And of course…I forgot Carol’s camera, so you’ll have to take my word for it all.

One down side to my solo walk here – I got that creepy feeling again as I walked through a level area by the creek that was grown over with blueberry bushes. If I were a bear I would have had a summer home here. I knew that Carol was only 30 minutes away and we had set our watches for her to come looking for me at a certain time, but I still felt apprehensive. Perhaps it was the dampness, perhaps it was all that vegetation making it hard to see. The feeling went away as I began the last climb back up to the road. After this hike the plan was for Carol to drop me off for a 5-mile hike with begin and end points along Newfound Gap Road, but I decided to save that for another day.

From the Balsam Mountain area we headed toward the little town of Cherokee and the Oconaluftee River Trail. Now, this is a trail I could do anytime on my own, as it is a 1.5-mile river walk from the town out to the Oconaluftee Visitors Center. But we devised a plan for Carol to drop me off in town, I would walk to meet her at the VC, and then she would shoulder my pack and do the walk back into town and I would pick her up. She was wearing her trusty Crocs but it was a flat walk. She wanted to test drive my pack as part of her AT thru-hike research. What a great plan! So we felt like we got a lot accomplished.

To round out the day we stopped in Arden NC (near Asheville) at Diamond Brand Outdoors to check out all the cool backpacking/camping gear and get some demos for stuff Carol is going to need. For safekeeping I placed my car key on the front seat and carefully locked the door. After a nice lunch the AAA guy came and unlocked my car. Moral of story: always give an extra car key to your hiking buddy…or at least have a hiking buddy as patient as Carol!

  Backcountry Campsite #39 near Pretty Hollow and Palmer Creek Trails has a campfire waiting for you.

A lovely field of red bee Balm on Pretty Hollow

 Stones on the Oconaluftee River’s edge


Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Balsam Mountain Loop

Balsam Mountain Trip – Day One – Balsam Mountain Trail/Mount Sterling Ridge Trail/Pretty Hollow Gap Trail/Palmer Creek Trail – 17.7 Miles

On our first night on the ridge at Balsam Mountain a thunderstorm swept through that aged me a few years. At least twice the lightning and thunder were simultaneous. As I waited for the trees to flatten us, I thanked the good Lord for my life and looked forward to shaking hands with Saint Peter. If I had picked up the camera we would have evidence of my terror-stricken self. I am happy to report that my little tent kept us safe and dry…until we stepped out into the fog the next morning.

We ate, packed up and headed off to the end of the paved Heintooga Ridge Road (passing a small village of wild turkeys, 4 adults and at least 15 little ones) and onto the one-lane 14-mile wonder that is Balsam Mountain Road, which is closed in winter. Like a couple of the Cades Cove ventures, my time for completion of today’s hike is limited to the summer and early fall months, so I was happy to be here. I challenge anyone to exceed the 15 MPH speed limit on Balsam Mountain Road. The road is extremely well maintained but very twisty. Seven miles in we parked at the trailhead for Palmer Creek Trail (where we would be coming out) and walked the road .6 miles (.7 by some sources but I’m being conservative) to the Balsam Mountain Trail trailhead. We figured we would like to see the car as soon as we came out of the woods (foreshadowing: boy, were we right!)

Our 4.3-mile section of the Balsam Mountain Trail is a nice climb up where cattle were once driven from Cataloochee to graze. We were walking in and out of fog so there was no views, though. At Beech Gap the trail meets Beech Gap Trail and we could imagine Native Americans meeting at this natural intersection to pause and rest. We stayed on Balsam Mountain Trail to Laurel Gap Shelter, a stone shelter that sleeps 14. This is one of a few shelters in the park that still has the chain link bearproof fence over the opening, making it, in my humble opinion, a dismal place to stay. These fences were placed to keep the bears out and the hikers in with their food, but the Park is gradually renovating all the shelters to be open. The theory is that hikers were careless with their food because they felt protected by the fencing, but now they must be more proactive by hanging their food properly via the cable systems provided.

We next approached a four-way intersection for our right turn onto Mount Sterling Ridge Trail. Here the trail is quite overgrown in places and nearing this junction it was downright ridiculous (see Carol – she is on the trail). I could have passed two feet from a buffalo and never noticed him. This is where you make lots of noise so as not to surprise snakes, bears, buffalos and elephants.

Mount Sterling Trail was a great 3.9-mile ridge walk. Carol is a strong hiker with long legs and we moved along at a good clip. Almost before we know it we came to our next right turn onto Pretty Hollow Gap Trail – and found ourselves again thrashing through overgrown vegetation AND going downhill in mud. The rain the previous day was soaking through my zipoff pants and I was glad that I had opted not to zip off the legs. Carol looked very attractive in her shorts and mud-decorated calves. Just as we were steeling ourselves for a 4-mile slip-and-slide, the trail view opened up to a…well, a pretty hollow! I would love to see this trail in dry weather. Much of it follows Pretty Hollow Creek and rhododendrons were blooming profusely. Past the junction with Palmer Creek Trail I had to continue on for .8 miles to tag up with Little Cataloochee Trail and come back to Palmer Creek. At this point Carol stopped to doctor her heels, as the wet conditions were making her boots rub. And it would get worse…

Palmer Creek Trail began with a picturesque footlog crossing of Pretty Holly Creek, the rhodies in abundance. More mud and a steady uphill, but hey, we were strong hikers and already filthy, right? And at the end of 3.3 miles would be our car! In the mud we saw several tracks that were either a barefoot hiker with a toenail problem or…a bear? The prints were huge, very recent and pointing toward us. We spent a moment feeling creepy and then…what is that SOUND? It’s…rain…pouring! We could hear it coming through the trees. We had already put on pack covers, but there was no chance to get on rain jackets before we were drenched, and it was warm enough and strenuous enough uphill to make rain gear unnecessary. Halfway up the trail the thunder began to boom and I began to think about crouching on a rock. We agreed that there was no other choice than to keep going. At each bend in the trail I expected to see the car and each time I didn’t I muttered, “Crap!” I must have said this 300 times.

Finally back at the car, we changed shoes and clothes as best we could and headed the rest of the way down the still one-way Balsam Mountain Road. At the end we were near the main entrance to the Park, so we stopped at the Occonaluftee Visitor Center but missed its closing by 20 minutes…oh well…back to camp. But at least it had stopped raining. We used the inside of the car as a clothes drying rack. They never did get dry.

Balsam Mountain Campground

My camera battery was truly dead – I guess when I thought I was charging it, I wasn’t. But Carol had her trusty digital camera so we were still able to record our adventures. Be sure to click on pictures to see full screen.

Balsam Mountain Campground is reached via the Blue Ridge Parkway and Heintooga Ridge Road. It is the highest campground within the GSMNP system and the cooler temperatures attest to that. It rained on us the latter part of the drive and when we arrived at the campground there was a chill and dampness that would stay with us the entire visit. If you’ve never seen a registration board for a GSMNP campground or a backcountry campsite reservation board, this is it. Balsam Mountain is no reservations, first come, first served. The place was maybe half full.

The GSMNP campgrounds are staffed by rangers and also by campground hosts, who you want to meet as your new best friend. Chuck has been hosting at Balsam Mountain for the past 4 years. Although originally from Tennessee, he will tell you that the NC side of the Smokies is prettier. Chuck moved away to…Wisconsin? Minnesota? When asked why, he’ll tell you about a “blue-eyed, blonde-haired woman.” They both come back in the summers to host at Balsam Mountain. Chuck is an absolute gem, funny stories, good information, interested in what you’re doing, a great ambassador for the Park.

Chuck gave us the scoop on the Heintooga Ridge Overlook and the sunset show every evening. After we got camp set up, Carol and I walked the mile to the picnic area originally built by the CCC, including the incredible stone slab tables. The area is quite large, including restrooms, and it is easy to picture a church congregation or family reunion spending a beautiful cool summer afternoon there.

The Heintooga Ridge Overlook is a short walk down the Flat Creek Trail. A couple of front row benches are there for you to sit back and enjoy the show, which was awesome. Chuck is there to watch it most nights so he can then lock the gate, and he says he doesn’t leave until the very end “because sometimes wonderful things happen.”

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Tragedy on the Trail

I recently went for some mid-week hiking in the Smokies with an old Girl Scout leader friend, Carol. Carol is beginning research for an Appalachian Trail thru-hike in 2011 and I was thrilled at the opportunity for a new hiking partner. We had camped and backpacked a bit as troop leaders with other people's children and the idea of being responsible only for ourselves was very appealing. Carol is very active and fit and was ready to put in some trail miles. We headed up to Balsam Mountain Campground, the highest campground within the Park, leaving behind the humid temps of Charlotte for some downright chilly mountain air. On the drive I mentally inventoried all the things I had forgotten: contacts, microfleece jacket, sole inserts for my boots. But the biggest gasp of all came after we set up our tent on the ridge in this small campground and headed to an overlook to take in the sunset... My camera did not work.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Where Am I?

For the past week I have been on a family vacation with my husband and kids, my husband's mom, my husband's brothers, sisters-in-law, nieces and nephews, a mom of a sister-in-law and a friend-of-a-niece...well, you can imagine. It was a fabulous trip, not a drop of rain, great meals, lots of play time, bike riding and water fun. Hiking? Well, this was my favorite trail.
Can you guess where I was? Hints: While there I rode my bike to write a note to my kindred spirit. Each night I saw a sight that this place is famous for. And we saw something beginning that by next year will change this place forever.