Monday, August 29, 2011

Lightly Toasted Hikers

Chimney Rock & Bearwallow Mountain Fire Tower – 7-4-11 – 7 Miles?

For as long as I can remember my mother’s family has held a reunion on July 4, no matter what day of the week it fell on.  My mother was one of 16 children and 4 are still living today (I have dozens of first cousins).  At 1:00 p.m. the lids come off the casserole dishes and we feast on childhood memories of fried chicken, country ham, yeast rolls, meatballs, squash casseroles, tomatoes and cucumbers in vinegar, green beans, butter beans, baked beans, mac and cheese, congealed salads, tossed salads, broccoli salads, seven-layer salads, coconut cake, chocolate pie, pecan pie, sweet tea and lemonade.  After we eat, the families of each sibling stand and introduce themselves and we take photos like the papparazi.  Some years there are more than 150 people.  From my age 10 to age 45 this reunion happened at my parents’ house in Virginia.  When my mother died, my aunts stepped in and carried on at the church fellowship hall.

This year the reunion date was changed to Saturday, July 2, a bold move.  Good news, it increased attendance.  Also, the torch was passed from the aunts to my cousin Libby, who will do an excellent job of keeping the tradition alive.  But why am I telling you this?

On July 4th I was free to go hiking.

Where to go on a hot, hot national holiday?  There will be crowds everywhere.  Jim and I decided on Chimney Rock State Park at Lake Lure.  We hadn’t been there since our kids were elementary school age. Danny Bernstein includes a Chimney Rock hike in her book, Hiking North Carolina's Blue RidgeHeritage.  We left home at 7:30 a.m. to beat the crowds.

Chimney Rock Park was privately owned for decades but in 2007 was purchased by the state and is now a North Carolina State Park.  NC state parks are usually free, but Chimney Rock SP has many improvements and charges a fee to offset its additional costs.  There are two parking areas, one right after the fee station and a second one farther up the mountain where it’s just a short walk to the elevator (yes, elevator) that takes visitors even closer to the summit.  There are also shuttle buses that run from the lower parking lot to the second lot. 

Jim and I were the first people in the lower lot and we were hiking up.  Ha!

The Four Seasons Trail started out as a stroll and we flushed out a bunch of wild turkeys.    Then the trail began to climb.  And what’s with the stairs?  Hundreds of wooden steps.  A lot has changed in 15 years, I guess.  The heat was rising and I was panting a little harder than I wanted to let on.  Jim, Mr. Cyclist with the enormous calf muscles, was chillin’. 

At the Hickory Nut Falls Trail we turned right and walked a half mile to the falls.  Not much water but an awesome rock face.

Rainbow effect at the bottom of the falls.  Please note, I am not a fan of climbing on waterfalls.  It’s easy to walk over and stand at the base of this one as it falls into a large pool.

From the falls we backtracked to the beginning of the stairs and started going up, up, up – I stopped counting after a while.  I thought to myself, “This is not hiking.”  At the top of this set of steps the crowd swirled around us and we became part of the flow up to Chimney Rock.  Side trails to features like Pulpit Rock, the Grotto and the Subway were closed so we could not follow Danny’s hike as written.  And guess what???  The elevator was closed too!  There were a lot of people that don’t normally climb that many stairs and I was gasping right along with them.  Why was this kicking my butt so hard?  The heat and humidity were a killer combination and I had to stop more than once. 

Jim and I stood on Chimney Rock with the 4th of July revelers, but the best photos were from the Opera Box feature.

Town of Chimney Rock

Chimney Rock with the American flag – a great place to be on Independence Day

Chimney Rock with the town and Lake Lure in the background

We continued upward on the Skyline Trail towards the summit called Exclamation Point (hundreds more steps).  We came across a teenage couple, the boy’s iPhone in his hip pocket playing tunes, the girl complaining.  She lay down on a wooden bridge and proclaimed that she would only walk seven more minutes and the top had better be there.  As we passed them we wondered what the boy thought he was owed for putting up with her whining.
At Exclamation Point, a magnificent view of Hickory Nut Gorge and westward toward Bearwallow Mountain, our next hike of the day.  We took a long break to eat and cool off.

The teenage couple made it to the summit, the girl panting loudly and the boy rolling his eyes.  I sweetly told the girl to sit down, drink something, eat something, and in ten minutes she would feel great and very proud to have made such an achievement when she could have been sitting lazily beside a pool.  Sure enough, soon she was all smiles and Jim took their photo to show their triumph.  She said, “I climbed a mountain today.” 

Park employees were everywhere, including one hanging out beside a stone step where a juvenile copperhead snake had taken up residence.  At various points on the stairs employees were stationed with 5-gallon coolers of water and visitors were sitting everywhere, trying to cool off.  

On the way back down we checked out Devil’s Head

Going back down was much easier than going up.  By now people were standing in line to go up the steps, lots of children, dogs being carried.  It was great to see folks being active and enjoying their public lands…but we were glad to be leaving.

In the town of Chimney Rock we searched for soft drinks, found Nehi Orange and Sun Drop in 12-oz glass bottles – a real treat!

Ready for another hike?  How about the Bearwallow Fire Tower?

Jim and I continued west on Hwy 64 past the town of Bat Cave, searching for Bearwallow Mountain Road, easily found using directions from Peter Barr’s book Hiking North Carolina’s Lookout Towers.  At the trailhead we grabbed our packs and felt drops of rain, which we ignored.  Past the gate on the gravel road we saw a sign for a trail to the right with a white diamond blaze.  It looked brand new, but we were not sure…so we stuck with the gravel road.  It’s just a mile walk up to Bearwallow Fire Tower.  

After two minutes the rain started in earnest and thunder rumbled – what to do?  We decided to continue to the edge of the bald and then wait to see if the storm got worse or blew on over.

At the bald, the rain had ceased and the sky lightened so we kept walking.  The gravel road curved widely around a large antenna field and the fire tower, passing a white diamond blaze and a freshly dug trail on the right that went into the trees.  We made a note to go back that way and I left my hiking poles at the intersection. 

The fire tower was fenced off and the gate was seriously padlocked, plus a no trespassing sign, so no climbing today.  This is technically private land so visitors must not screw it up for everybody else.  We didn’t hang around.

When I took this photo of Jim I was focusing on the rows of mountains to the left; meanwhile, on the right the sky was darkening again.  Suddenly behind us I sensed a flash, followed immediately by a tremendous crack of thunder – and there we are standing in the middle of an open bald.  My heart nearly stopped.

Jim grabbed my hand to run but I yelled for us to separate – the only good sense thing I remember.  We sprinted for the woods when we probably should have crouched down in the ditch.  No more loud thunderclaps after that, but the wind whipped up and some rain came down.  Yikes, I felt like such an irresponsible hiker.  We had not left any hike plans with anyone, so if our butts had been toasted up there on Bearwallow Mountain it would have been a while before anyone knew it.

The white blaze trail led us back to the car, several switchbacks and not really shorter, but a really great trail, and of course we felt protected from the weather.  I was glad to see the car and change into dry clothes.  Like I always say, even the simplest hike can be quite an adventure!

“Thunder is good, thunder is impressive, but it is lightning that does the work.”  ~Mark Twain

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Hump Mountain Sherpa Hike

Hump Mountain – Appalachian Trail – 6-25-11 ~ 18.3 miles 

An intriguing post on my local hiking group’s meetup page: 

Hike: 19.2 miles (+/-) and 4,600 ft. elevation gain

Difficulty rating:  very difficult

Ok, sherpas…this is THE mega hike of the year!  We will start at Carvers Gap... our destination:  Hump Mtn.  This is an out & back with a 2.2 mile "side trip" to Big Yellow Mtn (bald with beautiful views) so luv muffin  can bag another peak. We will also stop at Overmountain Shelter... very cool barn & a great place to snack.  Your effort will be rewarded with beautiful views on many balds along the way... one of my favorite hikes!
As always, we will stop to snarf dinner on the way back to Charlotte.
Bring LOTS of water & LOTS of snacks... this hike will burn LOTS of calories.  And please bring a headlamp/flashlight just in case.

Impossible to resist!  I had not hiked with the sherpas since January’s Yellow Mountain fire tower hike (different one) and the MST was no longer challenging elevationwise, so I signed up for this very long day.  Remember, the AT is not close to Charlotte.  We met at 7:00 a.m., drove 2+ hours to Carver's Gap, and we were on the trail by 10:00 a.m.  After all our years of hiking I don’t know why we were surprised when we got out of the car and it was freezing.  Don’t ever unpack your fleece, gloves and hat.

Sherpa hikers ready to move
The Carver’s Gap sign has taken a few bullets

Didn’t take long to warm up – first climb, Round Bald

If you want to impress somebody with the AT in North Carolina, this is the section to do that.  Wide open balds, 6,000-foot peaks, twirling Julie Andrews style hiking.  And our timing was good for some stunning wildflowers.

Flame azaleas

Made more stunning by Carolyn and me standing beside them

Gray’s lilies

Mountain ash

Bee balm



Jeff and Carolyn taking flower photos

The trail passed over Round Bald and Jane Bald, skirted past Grassy Ridge Bald (a short side trip for another day) and then dipped back into the trees for a few miles.  We paused at Stan Murray Shelter and then quickly pressed on.  The sherpas were in high gear today.  

Another couple of miles brought us to Overmountain Shelter, by trail standards a luxurious hiker haven.  The name derives from the Overmountain Victory Trail that intersects the AT here, the path followed by the Overmountain Men who traveled over the Appalachians to join the Patriot forces and marched down to Kings Mountain, NC to fight the Loyalists in 1780.  The Battle of Kings Mountain is considered a turning point in the Revolutionary War.  Danny and I intersected the Overmountain Victory Trail a couple of times during our MST hiking.

Sleeping loft of Overmountain Shelter

Covered area for cooking

Lunch break

As we were packing up to leave I took out my camera for some scenic shots.  When I turned it on I heard a gritty grinding noise that made my stomach fall.  Standing beside me, Jeff heard it too.  The lens wouldn’t move and I held a useless (new) camera in my hands.  And right then Matt took this photo.

We messed around with the camera but couldn’t budge the lens, so I put it away.  The rest of the photos from the hike are Jeff’s (well, and a couple of Matt’s and Cathy’s…stolen from their FB pages.)  
Overmountain Shelter from the AT (tiny dot in the center)

The trail climbed up from Overmountain Shelter…and up and up over Little Hump Mountain.  Little Hump did not seem so little.  And at the top of it we could see the real destination – Hump Mountain (center of photo).

  I was beginning to question whether my legs would make it the full distance of this hike.  It wasn’t particularly technical but the up-and-down was making me tired…and we weren’t even halfway done yet.  This was also a “comeback” hike for Matt and he was working it hard.  And Matt had done this hike before so he knew what was coming.  On the back side of Little Hump Mountain the trail switchbacked down into the trees again, then back out into the open down to Bradley Gap.  

These jaw-dropping views kept us going – Grand- father Mountain

Hawksbill and Table Rock (cat's ears formations slightly to the left of center)

Roan High Knob on the far right

Matt warned me that Hump Mountain has a false summit – you’re hiking towards a point, and when you reach it you see beyond it to the real summit, still a long way to go.  This stile was a signal that we were “getting closer.” 

At the summit of Hump Mountain we took a long, long break.  Not every day on the trail is this clear and we soaked it up.  Thanks be to God for the good health and good friends and appreciation for the outdoors that brought us here today!  I had consumed a lot of water and it wasn’t doing the trick.  Steven offered me a giant Gatorade that tasted sweeter than anything on earth and I drank most of it right on the spot.  At last we stood up, shouldered our packs and turned around. 

Going down Hump Mountain was much faster and I flattered myself in taking the lead for this short bit.  Then we climbed Little Hump Mountain in reverse, most of the group in front of me and Jeff.  As we came out of the trees we looked across the bald and saw the trail, realizing that we could cut across the bald and bypass the switchbacks to the summit.  Now, this is something we would not normally do and I can’t say what came over me…but I followed Jeff.

When everyone caught up we reached an unmaintained side trail to Big Yellow Mountain that Jeff intended to summit (Jeff is a peakbagger extraordinaire).  I had already decided to bypass this since I was skeptical of my legs holding out.  Matt opted to continue back with me while the remainder of the group succumbed to the challenge and went with Jeff, adding another 2 miles to their hike.  I regret nothing.

So Matt and I had a great getting-to-know you chat for the hike back, making the miles go faster as we jumped from topic to topic, mostly hiking and then child-rearing.  We stopped at Stan Murray Shelter for a good break, but by now we were pretty wiped out and ready to end.  Still a couple of miles to go and we toughed it out.  Mike, David and Cathy caught up to us before we reached the parking lot.  

In total the hike took 10 hours – we finished at 8:00 p.m.  Matt and I did 18.3 miles, 4,700 feet elevation gain.  The rest did 20.7 miles, 4,900 feet total elevation gain.  

And our biggest challenge was finding a place to eat!  The mountain towns shut down by 9:00 p.m. on a Saturday.  Cathy gave up and fell asleep in the back seat while we searched for food.  That Hardee’s turkey burger in Marion sure was good.  Eighteen hours after I left, I returned home to my soft bed.

One may go a long way after one is tired.  ~French Proverb

Friday, August 26, 2011


MST - Day 65 - 6/11/11 – Tailrace/Falls Lake to Strickland Road - 40 Miles

The Mountains-to-Sea Trail is always present in the back of my mind.  Since leaving the mountains it has gotten farther away from my house and more difficult to schedule.  The arrival of the summer heat makes it less appealing too.  Jim asks, “Why do you even want to finish it?”  The answer lies somewhere between completion syndrome (I have to finish what I start even if it stops making sense) and the awareness that any day on the bike or the trail is an adventure waiting to happen.

So here I am again.  This time I’ve squeezed in a bike day on the MST after a trip to Virginia to visit family and attend the Glee Live concert (I am a woman of diverse interests.)  The ever-patient Jim met me in Wake Forest, NC on a Friday night to set up our shuttle.  (Jim and I are still not the planning duo that Danny and I were and we struggle with leaving the right things in the right cars.  This time around Jim did not leave any shoes in the end car and had to drive barefoot the next day.)

Early Saturday morning we started from the Tailrace area of Falls Lake, where I ended my birthday hike in April.  I remembered well how busy Falls of the Neuse Road was and I was anxious to get on out into the countryside.  Turned out the traffic was very light, but there is an immediate and moderately steep hill and I had to walk my bike.  Not a good mental start to the day.  

We were still relying on Scot Ward’s guidebook but roads change quickly in suburbia.  We found a bit of a reroute – a new road cut off an old one and we had to carry our bikes up over a dead end dirt pile to get back on track.  We passed Keith’s BBQ (in Scot’s book) and were very excited to go back to it after the ride (but they had closed for the day – ran out of BBQ, I guess?)

We cruised through the little town of Youngsville, posed with the beautiful mural on a downtown building.  I’ve really enjoyed biking through the small towns in the Piedmont and further east.  Each one has a bit of a Mayberry feeling.  (FYI, if you’ve never visited Mount Airy, NC, on which the fictional Mayberry is based, put it on your to-do list.)  Some have more empty storefronts than others, like my hometown, and I wonder how they make it.

Share the road - main intersection in Youngsville  

Still early in the morning we passed Hill Ridge Farms, excited for a snack break, but they were not open yet.  This seems to be the theme for us:  too early or too late.  Hill Ridge Farms looked like a great place for family fun.

The temperature climbed to 90 degrees and as the day progressed I felt myself slowing down.  Drafting behind Jim was a big help, getting me up to 15-16 mph rather than a measly 12 mph.  Flat is flat – you never stop pedaling.  

One thing can speed me up very quickly.  A huge dog, sensing that I was the weakest antelope in the herd, came out of nowhere to chase me.  I stood up on the bike and pumped furiously, calling weakly for Jim, who circled back to put himself between me and the beast.  In less than half a minute it was all over but it left me a little rattled.  

Turtle friend on the side of the road

What is the story behind these little roadside cemeteries?  They are often very close to the road, no sign of a church and usually no homesite.  Scot’s book notes most of them.   We don’t stop at every one but I try to check out at least one in the course of the day.

This is a typical scene on a country road – an isolated farmhouse with old outbuildings and big shade trees and fields of crops.

About 30 miles into the ride the now-familiar ache crept into my thighs and I looked forward to the end.  As I often say about hiking, the only thing better than the beginning of a bike ride is the end of a bike ride.   We picked up our second car and began the long drive back to Charlotte, detouring a bit for BBQ in Lexington, NC.  

And since I was driving alone, I sang along to my Glee CD’s all the way home.

Don’t stop believin’, hold onto that feeling. ~Journey

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Cataloochee Wild Women - Part 4 - The Woody House

Cataloochee Wild Women Weekend Part 4 – 5/23/11 – Rough Fork Trail to the Woody House

The sun rose for another spectacular day in Cataloochee and the wild women opted for leftovers for breakfast rather than the time-consuming process of making pancakes.  (Women always plan for more food than needed.)  Seemed like we had only just arrived, but it was already time to break camp and pack all that stuff back into the cars, maybe a little less carefully this time.  

Today I planned a shorter, easier hike on the Rough Fork Trail to visit the Woody House.  The total length of Rough Fork is 6.4 miles with a bit over 2,000 feet of elevation gain, but we were only hiking in the first mile over a very rocky road bed.  The excitement was in crossing Rough Fork several times on footbridges.  

Crossing a footbridge

Suzi and me modeling the latest hiker attire

As we walked the women constantly regrouped to chat with each other.  No one in this group knew everyone else before the weekend (except myself, of course) and I enjoyed so much seeing the interaction and new friendships forming.  A unique experience outdoors forms great bonds.  I must figure out a way to do this for a living.  

Joan, Ellen and Leida and lovely mountain laurel

Sometimes the trail is a creek

We explored the Woody House and its spring house, the only buildings remaining from an extensive farm.  The house began as a one-room cabin in the 1800’s and it grew as Steve Woody’s family grew, adding bedrooms, porches and a kitchen between 1901 and 1910.  Rough Fork flows past the front yard about 50 yards away.  I have visited this house numerous times and can never resist sitting on the front porch listening to that water bubbling, closing my eyes to imagine living there. 

We backtracked to our cars, and before leaving the valley we stopped to look at the Beech Grove School.  I had hoped to investigate a couple of cemeteries in the valley but time was against us.  I know I will be returning!  

Too soon we had to head for home, with stories and photos proving what wild women we were.  What made the weekend so successful?  One, perfect weather!  Two, women filled with eagerness and flexibility and open-mindedness.  Three, the Smokies magic that cannot be explained, only felt and treasured.

I have been so very fortunate to spend many nights with friends camping and hiking, and this will be forever one of my favorite trips.  The joy of watching someone experience the outdoors in a new way is inspirational to me and I want to do it again and again and again.

A good friend is a connection to life - a tie to the past, a road to the future, the key to sanity in a totally insane world.  ~Lois Wyse