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

Iconic view of Chimney Rock with the American flag – a great place to be on Indepen- dence 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 Excla- mation Point, a magni- ficent 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

Devil’s head close-up

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

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