Friday, June 26, 2009

All Good Things...

BRP Trip – 5/23/09 - Day Nine

Why is it so hard to write up the last day of this phenomenal trip? No more procrastinating, let’s get to it.

The “&B” part of our accommodations was a superb breakfast and delicious coffee – and very little time to linger with our fellow guests, a couple from Germany. Dennis, our host, is originally from the UK, well traveled and multilingual, and he easily switched between English and German as we all attempted to have one conversation. Once again I felt my inadequacy in knowing only one language. Jim and I decided that our next joint venture will be to learn German.

The weather was unbelievably wonderful yet again, just the right cool temps – has this ever happened before, so many perfect days in a row? We met the Charlotte crew back at Courthouse Valley Overlook and Jim “officially” called out Lance Armstrong to a cycling challenge. (Lance did not respond.) So the road warriors departed and I quickly passed them on the way to my final day’s adventures.

 In researching today’s options I wanted to conquer two more SB6K peaks (not that I’m officially working on that challenge) – Richland Balsam Mountain and Waterrock Knob. Both have short trails to their summits from parking areas, but I needed to meet that little five-mile minimum requirement. After reading up, looking at the SB6K site, poring over maps and consulting my SB6K guru (Jeff), I decided it wasn’t wise to attempt these hikes alone. Still, I could hike the short trails and enjoy the summit views and then be on familiar ground when (if?) I choose to come back for the real deals.

The 1.4-mile loop trail up to Richland Balsam is self-guided – the guide sheets are in a box at the trailhead. They are laminated but nevertheless were rather waterlogged so I went without. (You can get a dry copy at the Waterrockk Knob Visitor Center if you pass by there first.) This trail’s claim to fame is that it is the highest elevation reached by a Parkway trail. I climbed a soft needle carpet trail up through the fir forest, noting that even here the balsams are dying. A chill in the air convinced me to put long sleeves on. This is the only flower I bothered to photograph so that I could identify it later. From what I can tell, it’s a bush honeysuckle. If anyone begs to differ, I’d love to hear other guesses. Around a bend I was startled to see two young women with a big cone-shaped device. Upon inquiring politely, “What the heck is that thing?” they told me they were recording bird calls. Gee, I hope I didn’t mess it up…

The summit has no view except of the dense balsam forest, but it was a peaceful spot to pause and listen to the wind’s distinctive whoosh. As I continued around the loop, the sounds were replaced by the noise of motorcycles and voices as I passed directly over the Parkway and the Richland Balsam Overlook, the highest point on the entire BRP and a necessary photo op for everyone on earth.

Back to the car and a few miles down the Parkway, the views just kept getting better. My next stop was at the Waterrock Knob VC (Open! Of course it was now Memorial Day weekend so everything was open.) Interesting, though, there are only composting toilets and no running water here, and the VC sells bottled water. The staff person told me that budget cuts made it too expensive to pump the water up that far. Don’t you love this guy at the Waterrock Knob sign? I waited a little bit for him to move, but he was quite comfortable, so I tapped him on the shoulder and asked if he minded if I took a picture of the sign he was leaning on (sarcasm too subtle). He said go right ahead – so I did.

Waterrock Knob Trail is 1.2 miles roundtrip, is heavily traveled and well worth the trip. Be prepared to meet lots of people and try not to shake your head at the lack of preparedness of most of them. I’m sure I looked like an overzealous show-off with my boots, pack and trekking poles. At the summit there is a nice bench and then many side trails to get a better view of the ribbon of Parkway far below and the universe of mountains beyond. I especially love this photo - the young spring leaves mimic autumn colors. I perched on a rock outcropping, had a snack, and just enjoyed my good fortune to be alive and healthy that day.

As I was heading down, I met two older couples and they asked about my trekking poles. From there the conversation meandered and I learned that they were from Knoxville and they have even been through the Great Smoky Mountains a couple of times. It is difficult to comprehend living so close to the Park and not having it be a major part of one’s recreational life – what if I lived at the coast and never went to the beach? I told them a little bit about my Smokies hiking and they concluded that maybe they should go check out the Park, maybe even take a walk there. Yay, four more converts!

So ended my last hike on the BRP adventure. I still had some miles to drive to wait for the cyclists at Milepost 469. As I crossed Soco Gap I felt a shiver of familiarity. How many times had I driven this road last summer and fall? I especially enjoyed driving home from the Smokies this way, bypassing Cherokee and continuing the peaceful feeling just a little bit longer. Today I felt like I was going home. The only flaw was evidence of the fire that had raged here a few weeks earlier, but even that seemed to be quickly healing. Soon after the burned section I had to stop to see the mountain laurel blooming like crazy.

 What is the first thing I did when the Parkway ended? Why, I drove directly through Cherokee and to my favorite coffee shop, Tribal Grounds, where my café mocha was served to me with a lovely flare. This was a ritual I had looked forward to for weeks. What I had not figured on was the holiday weekend crowds, since I was used to driving through in the dead of winter with nothing to impede my progress but the breeze. After my coffee I joined the parade back to the Park and Occonaluftee VC – also quite crowded with part of the parking lot closed for construction. What to do? I had an hour or two and wanted to quietly reflect.

I drove a few miles on Newfound Gap Road, past Mingus Mill (lots more cars) and eventually stopped at a small pull-off beside the river. I walked down to the banks, took a seat, and watched the water flow for about half an hour. Peace at last! Why, hello, Mr. Ranger, how are you? No, I’m not fishing, just reflecting, you see. Keep up the good work doing your rangering.

I stationed my car at the “Entering the Blue Ridge Parkway” sign and walked back to sit on the bridge by Milepost 469. I waved to cars coming and going, the official greeter of the Smokies. Ellen soon arrived, a few minutes ahead of the cyclists, and the papparazzi (me) were ready for Jim’s big finish. He was going so fast, I am amazed that I got the shot. My heart was filled with pride and joy for him – Jim is a good man, a good husband, a good father, a good friend, and he works very hard for everyone else. I could not have accomplished my Smokies quest without his unlimited support. It was wonderful to see him fulfill a dream just for himself.

Jim’s friends came rolling in a couple of minutes behind him, all exhilarated at the final downhill plunge. There were many more photos, including the traditional victory pose with bicycles hoisted overhead.

And here’s Jim in a bookend photo to the one taken on the first day of his big adventure. Nine days is a long time for a bike trip – why did it suddenly seem so short? And behind the nine days was more than six months of planning, scheming, map studying, not to mention training, training, training. A full-time obsession was now ended. I knew a little bit of letdown would follow in the first few days after we got home, so I had planned for one more night’s stay at our B&B in Waynesville and dinner with the Bernsteins, whom we could regale with tales of our trip. And what luck – Waynesville was having a block party! Jim did not believe my insistence that it was in his honor.

 So Jim and Sharon have both indulged their midlife crises – we highly recommend it to everyone! Hey, don’t wait for midlife! Now that we have tasted the sweetness of accomplishment and the freedom of the trail/road, we are looking forward to whatever is next. The wheels are already turning (pun intended) about the next adventure!  

"We don't stop hiking because we grow old, we grow old because we stop hiking." ~Finis Mitchell 

Jim’s Day Nine 

Where did the time go?? I felt like I was at Rock Fish Gap yesterday. Jim’sBig Adventure ends today but what a finish it would be. From Beech Gap to Cherokee the elevation profile for the BRP looks like a rollercoaster: a slight climb to Richland Balsam, down to Balsam Gap, up to Waterrock Knob, down to Soco Gap, up to Balsam Mountain and down to Cherokee. My feelings about this section had changed drastically from when I first started thinking about a full BRP trip. Then I thought it would be beautiful but probably exhausting. Now I thought it would be beautiful and a fun challenge. 

SS and I met Beth, Don, Tom and Ellen right on time at 8:30 AM on the BRP. The weather was a little overcast and probably somewhere in the low 60s. After the usual air pumping, spandex snapping and photo taking we were on the road. I had now logged well over 400 miles. I was pleasantly surprised that my rear end was still in good shape. People think that the saddles on road bikes are very uncomfortable because they are so small. This is not true. You want to eliminate any rubbing between your body and the saddle but also support your rear. The key is to put the support only where you need it (and get a good pair of cycling shorts). Anything extra will create a rub. The actual contact points are not that big thus the saddle can be fairly narrow. You might have to try a few before finding the right fit. The Selle Italia SLC saddle I have fits my posterior great. With all that said I did come across one rough butt on the ride today. (Take a look at the picture.) 

After giggling like school kids at the Rough Butt Overlook we made our way to Richland Balsam, the highest point on the BRP at elev 6053 ft. The view was good but a little hazy. I had ridden here once before on a very clear day and the view took my breath away (along with the climb from Balsam Gap). A classic BRP trip picture is in front of this sign. A group of vets riding motorcycles took this picture for us and we returned the favor. Afterwards we all realized that we thanked them for the picture but not for their service and sacrifice. This was doubly disturbing as it was Memorial Day weekend. For all you veterans reading, please accept our apology and let me say “Thank You.” You do not get nearly enough credit or respect. 

From here we started on our first big descent of the day, about 12 miles and 2500 ft to Balsam Gap. We did not really ride together downhill as we all were hitting different terminal velocities. I slammed on the brakes once in a while to snap a good picture. There is a particular spot on this descent that I like where the road curves around a large cove and you have a large view to your right and you see the BRP curving around the mountain in front of you. I purchased a beautiful fall photo of this scene a few years ago. I meant to get a similar picture but I sped right through that spot before I realized where I was. 

We all regrouped at Balsam Gap and started the climb up to Waterrock Knob. It was getting warmer. On the way up we met Ellen at an overlook and stopped for lunch. I had bought a sub at Subway last night and pulled it from my handle bar bag. SS can attest that my favorite lunch for hiking is a Subway sub. All the other folks had Subway today also except Don and he openly wished he had the same. Maybe I can get them to sponsor a Subway Cycling Team?? From where we ate there was a waterfall that you could see and hear way in the distance. Unfortunately I don’t have a good picture. 
   Now it was up to Waterrock Knob. On the way up Beth snapped this picture which is one of the few of me actually riding as well as this one at the summit. The summit picture is interesting in that you can see the BRP in the background and the spring colors are still emerging. 

Okay, now time for another descent. We took off for Soco Gap. Again we went at different speeds. This time I did not stop for pictures. I got to Soco Gap first and Don arrived shortly after. We were talking while waiting for Beth and Tom. A minute went by, then another, then another. Both Don and I were concerned that somebody had a fall which would be serious at these speeds. Beth and Tom soon popped into view though. Beth’s hands had cramped up from squeezing the brakes to control her speed and she took a brief stop. 

It was now the last climb (or so I thought) up to the peak of Balsam Mountain. We regrouped at the summit. I had a goal on this trip of reaching 50 mph since I am 50 years old. No stopping for pictures, just tuck and go, 15 miles or so of pure downhill to finish the ride. I did have one small surprise when we hit a brief section of uphill. It is never all downhill on the BRP, I guess. Other than that and slowing for a few tunnels it was a screamer into Cherokee. I got into a tuck and stayed there most of the way. I was tailing a minivan and kept up with it all the way down. It pulled ahead in the long straightaways and I closed the gap on the curves. This sign does make you think about what you are doing though. Part of the descent was through a section that recently experienced a fire. You could smell it before you saw it. 

Descents might not be quite as demanding as climbs but they still are tiring in a different way. By the time I got to mile marker 469 my back and arms were pretty bushed. I shouted out the miles to go as I sped past the last 5 mile markers. Unless I wrecked I was going to make it. SS was waiting for me at the finish as I sped past and she snapped a photo. What a rush! As I stopped a few hundred feet beyond the 469 marker a car pulled beside me. The driver rolled down window and said he had been behind me for the last 8 miles or so and enjoyed watching my descent. To be honest, I did not hit 50 mph. I made it to 43.4 mph. I should have taken off my wind vest and the handle bar bag. Too much drag. 

Beth, Don and Tom followed. SS had champagne ready and we toasted our accomplishment. Jeez, it felt good, but again I was not wanting it to be over. SS has always had a saying that you should leave a party at its peak and I guess that applies to bike trips.

After saying our goodbyes, SS and I headed off to Waynesville. We met Danny and Lenny (as readers of this blog I am sure you know who they are) for dinner. They are great people and very interesting to talk with. I will always be grateful for the help and encouragement they provided SS on her Smokies Challenge. We then went back to Waynesville where a street festival was happening downtown. I love street festivals, so this was a great ending. We listened to some bluegrass, did some people-watching and I celebrated with a humongous piece of coconut cake. Well, this is a long post. I want to share a few last thoughts but I will save them for another day. 

Stats for the day: 

Mile marker start: 423.3 
Mile marker finish: 469.1 
Total day miles: 48.1 
Day climbing: Still need to get this 
Avg speed: 12.9 mph 
Max speed: 43.4 mph  

“It’s not about the bike” ~Lance Armstrong

Friday, June 19, 2009

Group Ride

BRP Trip – 5/22/09 - Day Eight 

  A postscript from Day Seven that we both forgot to disclose: The camera industry will always be alive and well with the McCarthys to support it. Late in the evening, as we were making notes and preparing for the next day, Jim connected his (new) camera into his computer to look at his photos of the day. Then he carefully deleted them from the camera – without saving them to the laptop. There commenced an agony of moaning that rivaled me during childbirth. But take heart – there are programs on the internet for retrieving deleted pictures! But until Jim could run the program at the end of Day Eight, he needed a camera…so I hiked cameraless today. After all, it’s all about Jim...

Today three of Jim’s cycling buddies from Charlotte were scheduled to meet him at the Folk Art Center to join him for the last two days of his big adventure. Beth, Don, Tom and Tom’s wife Ellen (who would be a support vehicle for them) arrived right on time and there was much air-pumping and bike-checking and Spandex-donning before they started off. Jim was grinning from ear to ear. He and I are cut from the same cloth – biking or hiking alone is okay once in a while, but it’s way more fun to be able to turn to someone else and say, “Wow, would you look at THAT?!?!” Our single regret for this whole trip was sharing only the stories of the day, not the actual experiences.

Today’s miles took us past Asheville and into the more exotic wilds of the Parkway. There are fewer roads intersecting and those roads twist and wind down into the valleys in search of civilization. You won’t find a convenient convenience store past Asheville all the way to the terminus at Mile 469. What you will find is those awesome mountains I have come to love. In his book, “Hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway,” author Randy Johnson says, “This is where the Blue Ridge meets the jumble of mountain ranges that make up the vast heart of the Southern Appalachians. On your way to Cherokee, NC, and a memorable meeting with the massive wall of the Great Smokies, the mountaintop route surveys a mountain empire unmatched in eastern America.” Got chills?

Once again presented with many hiking options, I applied my yardstick of short hikes with big payoffs. Since I was now in familiar territory, I had done some of these, such as Mount Pisgah, Graveyard Fields, and Devil’s Courthouse. (I had also gotten lost once in the Shining Rock Wilderness, but we’ll save that story for another day.) In looking through Danny Bernstein’s book, “Hiking North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Heritage,” I decided to go off-road again and check out the Pink Beds. Passing the Pisgah Inn, I turned left onto Highway 276 and roller-coasted down to the picnic area. I’ve heard of the Pink Beds Loop many times and was hoping for lots of blooms – too bad, I was a week or two early for the mountain laurel, which was budding every which way but loose.

This 5.4-mile loop was a relaxing stroll with an elevation gain of maybe 20 feet. The trail alternates from a wide road bed to a narrow track, passing through small open meadows and closed-in forest occasionally crossing creeks on footbridges. Most notable are beaver dams and a right-angle bridge with one side of the L-shape extending from a fallen tree trunk – what a great use of resources! At first I thought I would be bored on this non-strenuous hike, but I mentally slowed down and enjoyed the walk. No solitude here, as Pink Beds is a popular place for daily walkers and their dogs. Remember, we’re not in a national park! I had a moment of adrenaline when two large animals were crashing around in the brush (off-leash) and their owner appeared and said, “Don’t worry, they belong to me, they have often been mistaken for bears.” Then two of the biggest dogs in all of creation came loping up, grinning with tongues dangling. Once they passed I was able to put my heart back in my chest and make it back to my car.

So the curiosity about Pink Beds had been satisfied and I drove back up the roller-coaster to the Parkway to check out the Pisgah Inn restaurant and see if Jim’s traveling band had arrived for lunch. No bicycles outside, and after a quick glance in the dining room, I picked up the Buck Springs Trail for my second hike of the day. This trail leaves from the Pisgah Inn parking lot and travels gently eastward (northward paralleling the Parkway). My destination was one mile ahead at the site of George Vanderbilt’s hunting lodge. Click here for a great history of the Pisgah Inn area and Buck Springs Lodge.

This walk turned out to be a wildflower test. I didn’t have a camera to take photos and ID flowers later so my powers of memory were strained. I recognized violets, lousewort, bluets, Canada mayflower, and there were other yellows and pinks. (BTW, lousewort, also known as wood-betony, is a very cool flower. I can’t find a good photo on the internet, so look for it in a flower book the next time you’re at a bookstore.) The view from the site of the hunting lodge is astounding – imagine being in a hunting party with the Vanderbilts at the turn of the century, traveling by horse to “rough” accommodations. I wouldn’t hunt for anything except a rocking chair on the front porch so I could look down into the valley.

Back at the Pisgah Inn restaurant, the road warriors were enjoying lunch and comparing notes. Biking on the Parkway was a first for Beth and Tom and Don – in fact, it was Tom’s first day on the Parkway in his life. What a way to begin! The weather was glorious and they all were captivated.

No more hikes for me today, just a couple of hours to drive to our prearranged meeting place at Courthouse Valley Overlook near the intersection with Highway 215. Tom’s wife, Beth, who had been connecting on and off with the cyclists all day, arrived at the Overlook when I did, and we chatted and waited. Beth and Tom had brought along their new dog, Ginger, who kept Beth busy walking and exploring and greeting everyone who stopped at the overlook. We noticed that the crew was overdue and I backtracked to check up on them. They were just a few miles away but in the middle of a long slow climb, and when I offered a ride, Beth took me up on it – a wise woman. She wanted to conserve her energy for the big finish the next day and fortunately did not have testosterone levels to drive her past the point of pain.

Once everyone arrived and congratulated each other and set a start time for the next morning, Jim and I went into Waynesville to Prospect Hill Inn, our B&B for the next two nights. We chatted with our hosts, Dennis and Judith, and then unpacked, got cleaned up and went in search of large amounts of pizza. We found it at Angelo’s where they cut their round pizza into squares. Afterwards we stopped in at Blue Ridge Books for a latte (too late, they were closing down) and then crashed in our old-fashioned room up on the hill.

Tomorrow is the grand finale! So soon?...

 Jim’s Day Eight 

 I was particularly looking forward to D8. Three of my cycling friends were going to join me for today and tomorrow. I enjoy riding solo but riding with other folks is even better. Riding is just as much social as it is physical. Plus with multiple riders you can draft and spread the work around. Today was going to be a lot of climbing, though, so there would not be much drafting. Actually, there would be no drafting. From here on out the BRP is either up or down. Flat or even close to flat runs are minimal. 

Joining me were Don, Beth and Tom. I had worked with them during my time with Duke Energy. Beth, Tom and I had ridden together in the past including a few MS150 rides. Tom’s spouse Ellen and their new dog Ginger would be our sag today. SS and I met them at the Folk Art Center at 8:30 sharp and we were quickly on our way. 

We were down in the valley so the temperature starting out was cool but not cold. We warmed up pretty quick. The ride around Asheville was busier than the ride around Roanoke. It was a Friday morning rather than a rainy Sunday. The traffic was heavy enough for the first 10 miles or so that I am sure Beth, Don and Tom were wondering if this was really a great idea or not. Once we went over the I-26 overpass the traffic thinned and the climbing started. 

 I had done the ride from the Folk Art Center to the Mt Pisgah Inn and back as a shakedown ride in early April. It includes a 15-mile, 2900-ft climb. For the shakedown ride I added some miles past the Folk Art Center on the way down to make it an even 60 miles. Then the next day I rode in the Tour de Lure, an organized charity ride starting and ending in Marion NC. It was about 70 miles and 6000 ft of climbing. It is a very scenic ride that includes riding around Lake Lure. Riding around a lake in the mountains is about as picturesque as it gets. Those two back-to-back days in the mountains were my reality check for the BRP ride. Back to today’s ride...  

Before we started the ride Beth, Don and Tom had mentioned that it was early in the season and they had not been riding much, but everybody did fine on the climb up to Mt Pisgah except for this possum. He just was not fast enough. (or is he just playing...never mind.)  

There was a little more haze than the past few days but the views were still good. I was glad that my friends had joined me, not just for the company, but this was the first time they had ridden on the BRP so it was fun to share that experience with them. Tunnels become more numerous on this part of the BRP and that was also a first for Beth, Don and Tom. 

We did have a reward waiting for us at the top of Mt Pisgah…..lunch at the Mt Pisgah Inn. The restaurant is perched on the edge of the mountain. It has large windows that provide an expansive view of the mountains. The food is good and it is a popular stop. I learned from my shakedown ride not to linger too long for lunch, though. You cool down, your muscles get stiff and it is hard to get moving again.  

After eating we snapped a few pictures and were on our way. The Inn was at the top of the climb so we were now riding the ridge line. Shortly after leaving the Inn there is a neat stretch of road that hugs the mountain with a wide open view to the left. When we came to this section we all let out an exclamation at about the same time. It is another section on the BRP where you feel like you are flying rather than riding. 

Our destination for the day was Beech Gap. From Pisgah it was a short 15-mile ride with one climb of about 1200 ft or so. This is another remote part of the BRP. For much of the ride you can see Looking Glass Rock in the distance. This is a large rock formation that would appear like a magnifying glass if you looked down on it from above.

 Along this section of the ride we came across an overlook describing the Cradle of Forestry. When George Vanderbilt bought his huge tract of land in the Pisgah Forest he hired foresters to maintain and study it. These folks developed modern conservation techniques. It is now a historic site known as the Cradle of Forestry. Beth’s grandfather was instrumental in its formation, thus we thought it appropriate to take her picture here.

 One of the things that fascinates me about the mountains is the various names of the mountains, gaps, coves, ridges, tunnels, etc. This section of the BRP includes some of the most colorful including Devil’s Courthouse, Graveyard Fields, Cold Mountain and Frying Pan Tunnel. Devils Courthouse is a sinister-looking rock formation. Within the mountain is a cave where, legend claims, the devil holds court. 

SS, Ellen and Ginger were all waiting for us at the Courthouse Valley Overlook. All in all a very successful day. SS and I were headed to a B&B in Waynesville while the rest of the group was headed to Canton. SS and I took route 215 to Waynesville. Wow, what a road!! It is a narrow twisty two lanes that curves in and out of coves and is fairly steep. It is downhill all the way to Waynesville (about 15 miles). It goes through dense forest and around a lake. Next time I am riding it on my bike. I actually started to head down the mountain from the Courthouse Valley Overlook without a road when my brakes failed. SS got this shot. (Very funny, Jim...)  

Our B&B was right on the main street in Waynesville. I know I sound like a broken record….Waynesville is a neat little town, lots of stores, restaurants, pubs, etc. and plenty of local color. SS and I both had a craving for pizza and found a local pizza place that was just what we had in mind. We followed our mantra for the whole trip….eat local, eat cheap, tip big. After dinner we hit the local bookstore for a while and then headed to the B&B. The ride would be over tomorrow. There was no sense of relief - just the opposite. I was fully enjoying it and did not want to end it yet. 

Stats for the day: 

Mile marker start: 382.0 
Mile marker finish: 423.3 
Total day miles: 43.6 
Day climbing: Still need to get this 
Avg speed: 10.2 mph (spent a lot of time talking!!) 
Max speed: 32.2 mph  

It never gets easier, you just go faster. ~Greg Lemond

Monday, June 15, 2009

King & Queen of the Mountains - Craggy Dome & Mount Mitchell

BRP Trip – 5/21/09 - Day Seven 

This was another adventure-filled day that did not go as planned. I’m getting better at finding hike alternatives on the fly. Even so, I am very aware of hiking alone and so whenever I changed plans, I always left a note in my car for Jim in case he had to look for me.

Today I was anticipating conquering a SB6K peak. This is a hiking challenge designed by the Carolina Mountain Club and Tennessee Eastman Hiking Club to hike to the summit of the 40 mountaintops in the Southern Appalachians that are higher than 6,000 feet – and driving to the top does not count as a “challenge.” The hike must be a minimum of 5 miles with a minimum of 500 feet of elevation gain. Today I would be in the neighborhood of Craggy Dome, one of the SB6K peaks – a miracle in itself because the BRP around Craggy Dome and Craggy Gardens has been closed for a couple of years for road repairs and had only reopened on May 15 (last week!).

Mind you, as of this date I was not “officially” working on the SB6K challenge – I just happened to have climbed a few of them while on my Smokies quest. And did I mention that, like many of the SB6K’s, Craggy Dome has no maintained trail to its summit? To get the five miles in I planned to start from Graybeard Mountain Overlook at MP 363.4, hike down to Douglas Falls, retrace my steps and cross the Parkway and march (scramble?) triumph- antly up Craggy Dome.
I had plenty of time for this scenario, so I wistfully bade goodbye to the Switzerland Inn and hot tub (oh, yeah, and Jim too) and drove at a leisurely pace down the Parkway on this spectacular morning, stopping often at overlooks. The clouds were gathering and dissipating with the breeze, and the sun shone brilliantly through whenever possible. I especially enjoyed the cloud that was trying to cross the road, but the wind was not pushing it hard enough. I’ve seen this trick before while standing on the office porch at Mt LeConte in the Smokies, when the NC side of the mountain was a clear blue sky and the TN side was totally whited out.

Just by chance I saw the Green Knob fire tower in my rearview mirror and recalled a description that this was a short but steep hike to it from the Green Knob Overlook. I U-turned, parked at the Overlook and with my sketchy memory I looked for the trail, but after a few false starts I gave it up. Onward to Craggy Dome.

And the Graybeard Overlook was…closed. Heavy equipment was parked in several of the overlooks in the vicinity of Craggy Gardens Visitor Center where road repairs were still underway. There goes my entire plan! What to do, what to do? I was too far past Mount Mitchell to backtrack and hike any trails in that area. I continued on to Craggy Pinnacle Overlook, a larger parking area still open to vehicles (but also a staging area for construc- tion) and decided to walk my grumpy self up the .7-mile trail to the lookout point. On the way up I passed this gnarly tree, so maybe it would be worth it…The wind was strong, blowing the clouds up and over the summit, hard to keep the camera still.

Well, great, the view from Craggy Pinnacle looks straight at Craggy Dome, where I apparently was NOT going to be today…

Walking back down, considering other options for the day, I met a fellow carrying a mattock – not your usual hiking gear. We struck up a conversa- tion and I learned that he was Piet Bodenhorst, a volunteer with Carolina Mountain Club preparing to do trail mainte- nance on the water bars. Hey, Piet, what do you know about the SB6K? How can I conquer Craggy Dome? He looked at me kindly and said, “Well, why don’t you just walk there from here?”

And so I walked back up the Parkway to the Graybeard Mountain Overlook and hunted for the turnoff point from the Mountains-to-Sea Trail that crosses there. After going a while in the wrong direction (a clue – I was heading downhill away from Craggy Dome) I retraced my steps and picked up a faint trail. I did not have a compass, and my plan was to leave small piles of rocks every so often to help find my way back down, but I struggled to find any semblance of a trail and chickened out, disappointed once again on this day of dead ends. And then…there was a plastic pink ribbon tied onto a tree. I knew of the practice of flagging a route when hiking off-trail and then removing the flags as the hiker retraces steps. Maybe somebody was going up to the summit of Craggy Dome today? I saw another pink flag, then another, and soon I was confident that they would take me all the way to the top.

The higher I climbed, the denser the vegetation became. Craggy Dome is, after all, a heath bald. I could feel the trail beneath my feet but couldn’t really see it, just kept my eyes on the pink flags. The sand myrtle and bushes were so tight that I walked Egyptian style, with one arm holding a hiking pole in front and one arm holding the other pole behind me. Brambles pulled at my hair and my clothes and I was most worried about protecting my eyes. It crossed my mind that if I encountered an animal I could not even turn around to get away. Doesn’t this sound like the most fun EVER?

The reward at the summit is this rusted pole with the last pink flag. Was this really the tip-top? The trail still continued, so I followed it until I was again descending, and then turned around. The view from the top was just of bushes that were a foot taller than me. And there was no one else there, so the pink flags apparently had been left in place by a kind SB6K-er before me.

The return hike quickly brought me back to the Parkway. A self-portrait to mark the occasion was called for – the conqueror of Craggy Dome! I added up my mileage, including the hike up and down Craggy Pinnacle, the walk on the Parkway, the wrong direction on the MST, up and down Craggy Dome and back to my car at the Craggy Pinnacle parking lot, and it was about 5 miles and a yard.

Now that my goal for the day was accomplished and the clock said I had more time, I stopped at the Craggy Gardens VC (open!) and from there took a quick stroll on the Craggy Gardens Trail that leads to Craggy Flats, the largest single grassy bald on the entire Parkway. The long grasses rippled in the wind and looked like waves on water. Near the summit is a large rustic picnic shelter built by the CCC in the 1930’s. The trail continued on past Bearpen Knob, but I turned back.

My destination now was the Folk Art Center near Asheville and my rendezvous with Jim. He planned to climb Mount Mitchell on his bike today and I was anxious to hear how he did. I waited and waited and waited, finally spreading a blanket out on the grassy median in the parking lot and dozing until the warrior appeared.  

You don't have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great! ~Zig Ziglar  

Jim's Day Seven 

The start of the day was different than the past several. Yes it was cool but also damp and cloudy. Plus SS had left ahead of me so I was on my own for getting started. Not a big deal since I was leaving directly from the Switzerland Inn. I had a cup of coffee in the lobby by myself before I clicked in. Caffeine can really help a cyclist to a point, at least for me. I don’t make a habit of it though. 

If you recall my previous posting I had to climb to get to the Switzerland Inn. That climb did not end there. It continued so the ride today started with a climb. My preference to start a ride is a flat road. A downhill does not get you warmed up and an uphill gets you working hard before you are stretched out and have your joints loose and muscles primed. 

This part of the BRP is in a dense forest and there was virtually no traffic. I was able to sing out loud when I needed to take my mind off the climbing. Actually by this point in the trip I did not even think about the climbs much. I don’t mean that in an “I am superior” way but rather in an acceptance way. I did not even pay much attention to the climbing charts I put together. Any climb would end sooner or later. In the meantime I just took in the scenery. There are also a lot of tunnels along this stretch. Some of them are “unfinished” on the inside. By “unfinished” I mean that the rough rock face was left as it was after the blasting. There was no concrete liner applied. I tried taking a picture but could not get a good one. Staying stopped in a tunnel more than a few seconds is a bad idea.

 About 30 minutes after I left Little Switzerland SS sent me a text that she had passed Ben and Jack along with the mile marker where she saw them. They were about 2 – 3 miles ahead of me. It would be cool to ride with them again but I also planned to ride up to the top of Mt Mitchell today. If I wanted to catch them it had to be before Mt Mitchell. The entrance to Mt Mitchell was about 15 miles away. I estimated the number of miles of climbing between here and Mt Mitchell (I did use my chart for this). I ran the numbers in my head and figured I might be able to catch them in time if I kept my climbing speed in the 8 – 10 mph range. They were loaded down with gear and were probably more in the 5 – 6 mph range. Going faster on the flats and downhills would make some difference but not as much as the climbing. I could also not stop to take pictures but I knew that I could not pass up a good view or interesting sight. 

 I stuck closely to my plan but I was also careful to not push too hard. Remember, it is all about energy management. I needed to have legs left for the rest of the day which included the climb up Mt Mitchell. When I stopped at an overlook to snap a picture I asked northbound folks if they had seen two guys on loaded bikes. The answer was always “Yep, they are about a mile or so ahead of you”. To cut to the chase (pun intended) I caught up with them about 500 yards from the Mt Mitchell entrance. It wasn’t really my cycling ability that did it but rather the math, estimating skills and luck. For all the kids reading….pay attention in those math classes. You really do need that stuff. I have always liked math and figuring things out. Back to the ride… 

 It was good to see Ben and Jack again. Since we were so close to the Mt Mitchell entrance I just kept riding with them for 5 minutes or so to exchange email and phone numbers. We made plans to get together in Asheville for dinner tonight and a few cold ones. 

 I turned back and headed towards Mt Mitchell. When planning my BRP ride I was indecisive about climbing Mt Mitchell. Yes it would be cool to do it but it also added at least another hour to the trip. Once I started the BRP it seemed like such a silly item to be wishy-washy about. Mt Mitchell is a Mecca for cyclists on the east coast. It is the highest elevation east of the Mississippi (elev 6684) with a road that goes within 100 yards or so of the summit. It is a 5-mile ride from the BRP to the top with 1390 ft of elevation gain with some sections greater than 8% grade. OF COURSE I AM GOING TO DO IT!!!!! 

For a different perspective from my normal writing, how about a stream of consciousness approach to describe the Mt Mitchell excursion starting at base of the road: 

Ok, le's use the granny gear and lock in at about 8 – 9 mph…..hmm this is not so bad, it is steep but not outrageous, people do it all the time right?…slow and steady works….along with accepting some pain….starting to get a burn in my legs, lets stand….come on up for the rising, come on up and lay your hand in mine….hmm, the view is interesting but not pretty… lots of clouds and fog swirling across the road…. actually it looks kind of sinister… mile down…..I think I will get lunch at the restaurant on the mountain… ok now lets sit and spin…..its cool and windy but I am starting to sweat….not many cars…..jeez this wind and fog are something….climb, climb, climb…..lets stand….come on up for the rising, come on up and lay your hand in mine….I think I’ll get a cheese burger….look at all the dead trees… is not spring here yet…..finally, here is the official entrance to the park…..still 2 miles to go but not as steep…jeez, this wind!!!!.....there is the restaurant….I’ll get it on the way down…..climb, climb, climb….yea, I can see the observation tower in the distance….adrenaline kicking in now… come on up for the rising, come on up and lay your hand in mine….I am so grateful to be here….made it!!....need to walk the last 100 yards in my cycling shoes, that’s tricky….I am going to get blown off this mountain… jeez I am now officially very cold and sweaty…..a view only when there are gaps in the fog….lets head down….still cold… for the downhill….not too fast, I am cold….there’s the restaurant….lets sit at the counter….uh oh, a large group got here just before me….I am getting colder while I wait….I am shivering…my hands are tingling….coffee please, quick….hey here are some hand dryers in the bathroom…use them to warm up…dang, broken…lets put on all my clothes including rain jacket….cheeseburger finally…why did I order iced tea??....done eating and still cold but the food should help….this downhill should be more fun but my shivering is making me hold back….hmm 38 mph and shivering is a little scary…sun is peaking through…that is helping….back at the BRP….ok work a little and get really warm….I am glad I made the climb…what a neat place.” 

Now on to Craggy Gardens. This stretch of landscape seemed very rugged and remote to me. The road is carved from rock and hugs the side of the mountains. The trees are dwarfed and scrubby due to the elevation. The views went on as far as I could see with no sign of civilization. I liked this section a lot but soon hit reality. There is repair work going on close to the Craggy Gardens visitor center. Believe it or not there was a traffic light there to regulate the flow of traffic since only one lane was open. 

The descent from Craggy Gardens to Asheville is a screamer. About 15 miles or so long and beautiful views (of course). The sun came out. I elected to simply enjoy the ride though and not take many pictures. The only thing that slowed me down was the condition of the road. It was pretty rough and beat up in a few places. All in all, this was the only bad stretch of road on the BRP I can recall. I met SS at the Folk Art Center which is right on the BRP in Asheville. 

We went to the chain hotel (nothing special this time) and met Ben and Jack in downtown Asheville for dinner. We went to Jack of the Wood, a great Irish pub with local brews. It was a fun dinner with lots of conversation. Ben and Jack are interesting guys. Ben is a very recently retired oncologist from Bristol TN. He started this trip the day after his retirement. Jack is also retired (I think) and lives on 60 acres in Floyd VA. He was in labor relations. Both of them have lots of experience with long distance cycling. Turns out both Ben and I have a mutual interest in beer making as a hobby. SS felt right at home as Ben hikes a lot too. I wanted to stay and have a few more but I knew that was not smart considering I was climbing up to Mt Pisgah tomorrow. SS and I said our goodbyes, went to hotel and prepped for tomorrow. All in all an eventful day. 

 Stats for the day:  

Mile marker start: 334.0 
Mile marker finish: 382.0 
Total day miles: 60.7
 Day climbing: Still need to get this 
Avg speed: 11.9 mph 
Max speed: 38.0 mph  

I don’t care what they say at the beginning of a ride. If you have two guys riding bikes together it turns into a race. ~Gary Blevins

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Hiking, Biking and Hot Tubbing

BRP Trip – 5/20/09 - Day Six

We did a little backtracking this morning to get Jim as close to the detour spot as possible where he left off the day before, and then I sailed on my way down the Parkway, passing over the famous Linn Cove Viaduct. The end point of the day was in Little Switzerland and there were hard choices to be made for hiking. Price Park? The Tanawah Trail? Grandfather Mountain trails? Linville Falls? Ultimately my criteria was short hikes with big payoffs that I may not choose to drive all the way from Charlotte to visit at another time, so all of the above areas were off the list since they are worthy all-day or even weekend destina- tions. What’s left? Beacon Heights, of course.

 Beacon Heights is considered a leg- stretcher stop on the BRP, a round trip excursion of .7 miles to two exfoliated rock domes. The Mountains-to-Sea Trail rubs up against this trail so it is possible to do a loop or shuttle hike for more miles. However, I was here for the view and was not disappointed. As on most of my hikes during this adventure, I had the place to myself. The view to the southeast - the two pointy peaks that look like cat’s ears are Table Rock on the left and Hawksbill on the right.

And my second destination – Hawksbill Mountain. Using both of my guide books, “Hiking North Carolinas' Blue Ridge Heritage" and “Hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway”, I detoured nearly nine miles off of the Parkway in search of this intriguing landmark, through a lovely mountainside community and onto a gravel road for a bit, until I finally found the parking area. There were two young women there with backpacking gear strewn all around, sorting things for an overnight trip. I left them and started climbing the well-worn trench. The first part of the trail is rough and eroded, with water bars that are quad- busters, but it eventually becomes gentler. Both guidebooks give good instructions for navigating in this unsigned wilderness, but there was a little help for the most important left turn.

At the end of the trail the world opened up and – WOW! As Danny Bernstein says in her book, “For a less-than-two-mile walk, this hike has to be the ‘best value for your walking buck.’” Hawksbill is a large expanse of exposed granite, occasionally interrupted with low pines and sand myrtle growth, and featuring a panoramic view into Linville Gorge. I've heard the Gorge described as the Yosemite of the East and it was easy to see why. Here is a close-up of Table Rock Mountain and the Linville Gorge. Alone as usual, I sat and ate my lunch on this flawless day, although I could barely chew because my mouth hung open at all that was spread out below me.

Here’s the “duh” moment for you all who have been to Hawksbill before – as I turned to leave, I noticed a distinct path (actually a few paths that all led in the same direction) through the sand myrtle and followed it…up to the REAL summit of Hawksbill! I had just spent a half hour marveling at the previews and here was the main attraction! Linville Gorge was up close and personal and Grandfather Mountain lay snoozing in profile to the north. I met two very nice gentlemen there (names are gone with the wind), one a local and the other his visiting cousin from Seattle. The local fellow (Charlie?) offered to take my picture in just the right spot. Good choice, dontcha think? That’s Grandfather Mountain in the center of the ridgeline. Hawksbill is just awesome, a place that I will return to. What a perfect day to be there!

With these two short hikes under my belt, I still had time for one more hike and a different type of highlight – Crabtree Falls, the jewel of Crabtree Meadows Recreation Area, a few miles past our home for the night in Little Switzerland. Near Milepost 339, this area includes a Visitor Center (open!), a gift shop, a snack bar and a campground. The campground was pretty deserted, but there were other people on the trail, although not the crowds that I suspect splash around in the pool at the bottom of the falls during the summer. The down side of Crabtree Meadows (for me) is that there are no other trails. But the 2.5-mile loop trail to the falls was a pleasant walk, going down, down, down, and this is the payoff:

On the return half of the loop, Jim called and was at our meeting point, the Mineral Museum (a rarity for him to finish ahead of me), so we agreed to meet at our hotel located directly on the Parkway, the Switzerland Inn. And what a pleasant surprise it was! I had no complaints about our accommodations up to this point, but this was high living. Our room was enormous, enough space for Jim to have his own staging area (have I mentioned that he brought his bike into the room every night?). The hotel lobby was one of those grand old spaces with groupings of leather sofas around fireplaces and chairs facing the wall of windows overlooking the patio and the mountain view beyond. And…hold on a minute…what’s that beyond the patio??? I’m trembling…it’s a HOT TUB!

With a chill in the air (the best time for a hot tub) we soaked and drowsed until it was time to think about cleaning up for dinner. Our meal at the hotel restaurant was five-star. Now, what could possibly make this place better? Well, wireless, of course! The connections were a little sketchy in our room, but out in that luxurious lobby we stretched our feet out on the coffee table and wasted some time online and then reading good books.

Yep, we could get used to this hiking and biking life…uhh, I think we already have…

 Jim’s Day Six
Well, it is sounding like a broken record….the day started out cool, sunny and clear. Another gorgeous day to ride. I was so fortunate with the weather on this trip. SS dropped me off on the southside of the detour around the Goshen Bridge somewhere around mile 288 or so. She met me on the north side yesterday at the end of day. In order to get as many miles on the BRP as possible I rode from the detour gates north to the bridge itself this morning. It was 3 or 4 miles one way. This was the only time on the whole trip that I traveled any appreciable distance heading north. Of course, since I was headed towards a bridge it was all downhill and then uphill when I turned around. Whenever a bike rider sees a “Bridge Freezes Before Road” sign on a country road he knows he will soon be heading downhill to a stream, brook, etc. and then back uphill. And yes, the bridge was out when I got there.  

After retracing my ride back to the starting point for the day I was headed for my first stop at Moses Cone Park. I made it quick. I took a picture of mother and her young son outside the mansion and they returned the favor. I did that a lot on the trip. If I saw a group of people together I asked them if they would like a picture of them together and then they would take a picture of me. Otherwise I would not have many pictures of me. A win – win. These cows weren’t interested though. 

I then headed to Julian Price Park and the Linn Cove Viaduct. I had done the ride from Moses Cone to the Viaduct and back about 2 ½ years ago. It was humbling to me then. It is a challenging ride and includes a climb of over 1000 feet among other smaller ones. I was interested in how it would feel now after training a lot more. I did make a quick sweep through the Price Park campground looking for Ben and Jack. I knew that was their destination yesterday. No luck though. I’m sure they had already hit the road. The ride to the Viaduct was great, challenging for sure but much easier than last time. I crushed it. (That is my term for doing well on a ride.) The views were spectacular.  

The Viaduct itself is suspended on the side of Grandfather Mountain and makes for a great picture on a clear day. I did a quick ride through the overlook just before the Viaduct to take a look at a small waterfall. It was nice but even more interesting was a group of 7 brothers and sisters ranging in age from about 3 to about 10, all with red hair and freckles. They were on a classic family road trip vacation. I thought it was real cool and told them so. They reminded me of SS and her dad.

 After the Viaduct there is a long gradual downhill to Linville Falls. I kept thinking that it would end soon but it went for well over 15 miles. I got into a tuck on some of the steeper and straight parts to see how fast I could get. I topped 40 mph but not by much. I had a quick lunch at the Linville Falls picnic area. I was surprised that it was deserted. Just me and my bike. 

Views, views and more views on the stretch from the picnic area to the Alta Pass. There is just not a bad view on the BRP. There is a famous orchard and store at the Alta Pass. I was hoping to visit it and get a snack (apple pie ala mode maybe?) but the road leading to it was long, steep, downhill and gravel. Dang, my bike could not handle it nor would my hard soled cycling shoes be any good. So much for that. I got on my way and headed for my rendezvous point with SS, the NC Minerals Museum at about mile marker 331. I made it there well ahead of schedule for a change. I called SS and she told me that she was late so we decided I would just head on up to the Switzerland Inn located in Little Switzerland, our place for the night. It was a quick 2-mile climb and no problem. I felt pretty strong all day. 

The inn itself was great. Beautiful views in an Alpine atmosphere. This was our splurge accommodations for the trip. The grounds included a large swimming pool and dual hot tubs. SS and I lounged in the hot tub and around the pool for an hour or so in the afternoon. Dinner was at the accompanying restaurant and was our fanciest meal of the trip. Although rooms have TV, internet, etc. we spent most of the evening in the large lobby area. This is one of those lobbies meant to be a gathering place. It has two fireplaces, sofas, lots of tables for board games and a large wall of windows for looking at the mountains. It was chilly enough that the staff had a fire in one of the fireplaces. I had washed a load of cycling gear in the tub and hung it by the fireplace to dry. It was kind of tacky but also funny and practical.

 Stats for day: 

Mile marker start: 288 or so 
Mile marker finish: 334 
Total day miles: 53.6 
Climbing for day: Still need to get this 
Avg speed: 12.7 mph 
Max speed: 41.1 mph  

The sound of a car door opening in front of you is similar to the sound of a gun being cocked. ~Amy Webster