In Lieu of Backpacking

We are trying to get a hike in at least once a weekend.  Since it’s a big reason we chose to move to Chattanooga, we figured we ought to take advantage.  However, the hot and humid August weather has made hiking slightly less enticing.

I did a little research to pick a place to hike that wasn’t too far away.  I learned about South Cumberland State Park and the Savage Gulf State Natural Area, located inside the park.

There was a 17 mile hike that sounded intriguing, but 17 miles for us means spending the night.  Since I had a lot going on this past week, we didn’t have time to prepare for backpacking.  Plus, we weren’t quite sure where Tisen would sleep given that our 2 person tent is really only big enough for a person and a half.

So, we opted to do two short day hikes instead.

We headed out Saturday morning loaded down like we were spending the night after all (the joys of too much photography equipment).

When we arrived at the Stone Door ranger station, we saw a sign that said Laurel Falls was only 250ish yards from the parking lot.  So, of course, we had to walk there first.  What they didn’t mention was that it was 250 yards down a bunch of stairs and 250 yards back up those stairs.  But, still, who wouldn’t go 250 yards to see a waterfall?

I’m not sure how excited Tisen was about the waterfall after the stairs, but he made it and I was happy I had my tripod so I could shoot with long exposures, creating smooth water.

We headed back up the steps and on towards Stone Door from there.

The walk to Stone Door started on a paved path.  Paved as in asphalt.  We noticed blazes on the trees marking the trail and Pat commented that he was glad they’d marked the trail because otherwise we might have gotten lost.  It did seem a bit odd to hang metal trail blazes on the trees along a trail that was paved, but I guess they haven’t lost anyone yet.

The first overlook was the end of the asphalt, thankfully.  Although, we passed a woman coming back the other way with only one leg.  I don’t know if she was able to walk on the unpaved portion of the trail or not, but it did make me appreciate the asphalt.

From the overlook, we not only got a nice panoramic view of the mountains, but we spotted a rocky outcropping in the general direction we were headed.  We suspected it was our destination.

Tisen was not any more excited by me setting up my tripod at the overlook than when I pulled it out at Laurel Falls, but he waited fairly patiently once Pat took him off the asphalt and into the shade.

If there was one thing that would have made the day nicer, it would have been cooler temperatures and less humidity.



Late Sunday afternoon, I got the urge to hike.  Pat, however, did not.  He was in the middle of a project.  I started to settle back into the couch, but then thought, “I didn’t move to Chattanooga so I could sit on the couch.”

With a little surfing, I discovered there was a section of the Cumberland Trail on Signal mountain and it sounded awesome.

Based on the map scale and the “pinky measurement” technique I’ve developed (patent pending), I guestimated it was between 2 and 2.5 miles one way.

As we started down the trail, we passed a sign that said Edward’s Point Overlook was 2.9 miles away (there goes my patent!).  I resigned myself to the reality that we were not going to make it to Edward’s Point today.

We made our way down some treacherous steps and then some even more treacherous steps.  After about 20 minutes of walking, we made it to another overlook.  Black Vultures soared on a thermal, rising up over the mountain and disappearing on the other side.  I tried to get a shot, but they disappeared before I could even get my lens cap off.  I shot a boat down on the river below instead.

We kept on going, which might have been a mistake.  I had trouble getting Tisen to drink water.  He wouldn’t drink out of my hand and he shied away from a water stream.  I paused to find a depression in a rock he could drink from.

As we continued, we heard a waterfall.  I thought maybe water would be nearby, but each stream was just a damp mark on the side of the mountain.

I watched Tisen plow through poison ivy.  As much as I knew I should avoid touching him, I couldn’t help myself.  I suspect even my camera is now covered in poison ivy oil.

We’d made it about 200 yards past a frightening bridge when our time ran out.  With no photo ops since noticing a cluster of mushrooms high above us,  I was cursing every ounce I was carrying.

When we stopped again at the rock with the depression for more water, Tisen laid flat out on his side, head down, sides heaving.  I wasn’t sure he was going to get up again.  But, when I stood up, he popped up like he’d just been teasing me and even led the way up the steepest parts of the trail.  I was really impressed when he hopped up those scary steps full of energy.

We stopped at the overlook in the park one last time to shoot the Eastern sky.  The light was better, although the sun was still too high for shooting towards the West.

Hot, tired, and hungry, we headed back down the mountain to return home.  Unfortunately, we couldn’t relax right away–both Tisen and I required poison ivy detoxification.  Tisen does not much like baths, but he seemed to feel pretty good afterwards.  Or maybe it was after dinner?

Scenic View

One of the more sedate things I enjoy is riding in trains.  Whether it’s as transportation or a scenic route (or, better yet, both), I really enjoy knowing that no one (who isn’t getting paid to be there) gets stuck doing the driving.

When we saw a PBS documentary on scenic train rides with steam engines, I made note of the Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad.  I had yet to make it to Mt. Rainier and taking a train ride there sounded like the perfect way to enjoy seeing Mt. Rainier with my father and his wife on our next visit to Portland.

Many weeks later when Pat and I were out on our annual visit, the four of us headed out of Portland towards Elbe, Washington early in the morning.

A little too early, in fact.

When we arrived in the “town” of Elbe, no one seemed to be up yet.  Fortunately, one of the 3 businesses at the only intersection was a quiet restaurant where we got a good, down-home breakfast.

After filling our bellies, we headed out and discovered the volunteers who run the train had arrived.  I guess if you are excited by steam engines, this would be a great event.  However, once we were on the train, we discovered two things:  first, you really can’t see the engine when you’re in the train; second, you really can’t see much of anything when you’re in the train.

There were 2 moments totally 18 seconds during the ride where we could see beyond the immediate vegetation surrounding the tracks.  During 11 of those seconds, we saw Mt. Rainier off in the distance (2nd photo).  The rest of the time, we saw scenery like the dense trees and ferns in the 3rd photo or an occasional flower-covered slope like the 4th photo.

While I enjoy hiking in the woods, they’re tough to appreciate from a train.  Besides, this was supposed to be the “Mt. Rainier Scenic Railway.”  Call me crazy, but I expected to see Mt. Rainier for more than 11 seconds.

I suppose it’s all about expectations.  Had it been called “Get-a-Glimpse-of-Mt.-Rainier-During-an-Hour-and-a-Half-Train-Ride-Through-Dense-Woods Railway,” I probably would have been thrilled.

Fortunately, we were returned to the station with plenty of time to drive to Mt. Rainier National Park.  We got spectacular views just driving up to the visitor’s center and made plenty of stops so our driver (aka, Dad) could also enjoy the view.  Photos 5-13 were all taken from within the park.  It wasn’t the best time of day for good light, but the area was so beautiful, I didn’t really care.

The final image is of Tisen, taken with my iPhone using the Hipstomatic app.  I love the irony of having an app on a smart phone so you can take pictures that look like you took them with a cheap camera from the 1960’s.  It’s awesome.

Waiting on the Wind


Saturday afternoon, we returned to the mountain launch  at the Lookout Mountain Flight Park.  We called first and learned there was about a 50-50 chance that the wind would quiet down as the sun got lower.

We stood at the top of the launch for the second time that day.  I stood on the steeply sloping concrete ramp and imagined the steps I would take to launch.  I even took the first few steps, pretending I was holding a glider on my shoulders.  I managed to get almost up to the “fall line” without getting gelatin knees.  Normally, being close to the edge of a precipice makes me feel faint.  Today, with my eyes on the horizon and the imaginary glider on my shoulders, I barely notice how close I am to the edge.

I feel invincible.

I hear my husband in the background, “Careful–don’t forget you don’t have a glider!” He knows exactly what is going through my mind, having stood here himself more than once.

The windsock doesn’t turn my way.  It continues to blow “over-the-back,” as they say.  In other words, a tailwind.  Launching in a tailwind is not an option.   We hang out on top of the mountain for an hour, walking Tisen in the woods and watching the sun get lower in the sky.  But, the wind only gets stronger.

We return home.   I’ve been cleared to launch from the mountain 3 times now, but this is the first time I’m disappointed the weather kept me grounded.

The next morning, we get up early and head on over to the mountain again.  Now that I’m ready to launch, I want to launch.

On the way, I do a calculation.  I have done approximately 150 training hill flights of 7-12 seconds each, or about 1500 seconds of total flight time.  So, in exchange for 150 landings (the part that’s hard on my body), I have gotten 25 minutes in the air.  By comparison, I should get at least 5 minutes in the air in a fledgling flight off the mountain launch.  That means I only have to land 5 times to get the same amount of air time I’ve had to land 150 times for in the past.  My knees are also excited about the mountain launch now!

But, alas.  The wind is no more cooperative Sunday morning.  I stand poised once again on the ramp, visualizing my flight plan.  We even go so far as to assemble a glider and have it ready to go just in case the wind turns around.  But, by the time of the morning where the valley is in the sun (an event that can make the wind change direction), the wind is still blowing the wrong way and far too strong.  Even the tandem flights that are towed up are grounded.

We return home disappointed for the third time in a row.  But I retain the feeling of excitement anticipating that first launch.

Tisen wags his tail listlessly on the drive home as he cuddles Minnie Teddy.

Ready for the Mountain

I hop out of bed Saturday morning looking forward to hang gliding.  The weather is supposed to be perfect.  Even more exciting, I had an epiphany on Thursday that I am ready to go off the mountain.  Oddly, I don’t remember why.

We arrive at the training hills and get up on the big hill as quickly as possible.  There is a gentle headwind that makes launching an absolute breeze (I know, bad pun).

I have 3 fantastic flights.  I launch strong, control the glider well, and land on my feet like I have been doing this for a long time.  Since I”m on about my 150th launch, maybe I have?

Then, the wind that is supposed to be calm today starts to misbehave.  It picks up speed and strength and starts to cross.  When it’s my turn, the instructor has decided we will wait for a calm cycle so we can fly back down to the setup area, but no more flying today.

I wait and wait.  Then, the wind calms slightly and stops crossing.  I call, “clear” and start the approach.  I’m 3 steps into the approach when a crosswind grabs my glider.  I run to my target and try to straighten it out on the ground, but the wind carries me off the hill–I am airborne and headed for the trees.

I attempt to turn, but the glider doesn’t respond to my inputs.  For a split second, the thought, “I could actually die doing this” pops into my head.  Then I say to myself, “DON’T PANIC!” (yes, this is an exact quote from “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”).  Instantly, the magical words that have been drilled into my head follow: “Pull in for Speed.”  And this, my friends, was the moment when I knew I was going to be OK.

Not only today, but on the mountain.  Because in a moment when my brain might have completely frozen, I gained control and was able to turn the glider away from the trees.

But my ride wasn’t quite over.  As I approached for landing, the wind picked me up again, lifting the entire glider.  I was a bit torn on whether to pull the nose down again this time since I was awfully close to the ground to try to pick up speed.  I compromised by pulling in the nose slightly and then pushing out just a little as I got close to the ground, managing a nice gentle landing on the wheels.

Ironically, I came out with fewer bumps than when I walk from the bedroom to the bathroom.  Maybe I should just do dangerous things all the time?

Tisen came running down the hill to greet me a few minutes after I’d started carrying the glider to the break down area.  I’m not sure if he was afraid he was about to lose his new mommy, but he certainly seemed happy to see me in one piece.

No photos or video from today, so I’m afraid this is a re-run:

Here’s a new one of Tisen doing Yin and Yang with Pat:

Not 25

Today was a hang gliding day. I didn’t take the helmet cam this week. This is mainly because I got to the car without it and going back up 4 floors to get it when we were already running late was just too much for my “don’t go backwards” approach to life.

I hand my iPhone to Pat when we arrive in the hope that he might take a useful video from the Kubota, but he was too busy driving to do any filming. I did take one still shot from the hill of the gliders lined up on the small hill in the distance.

I have a really good day flying. My first flight is just plain fun. Even though I flared too late and didn’t land on my feet, it felt good to be in the air. It’s flights like these that make me think maybe I really do want to fly off the mountain–after all, wouldn’t it be nice to have 8 minutes in the air instead of 8-12 seconds?

All the landings on the training hills–all 150+ of them–have taken their toll. My knees and hips feel like they’ve aged 20 years. While I joke about getting old, I’ve usually had a hard time remembering I’m not 25 anymore. My knees and hips scream “YOU’RE NOT 25!” at me every time I stand now. I’m sure walking dogs in heels all winter hasn’t helped. I’ve started wearing my fivefingers shoes again now that it’s warming up. It’s helping, but it does look pretty silly.

I wish it was warm enough to wear them on the training hills today, but it was only in the 20’s when we first arrived. Fortunately, it warmed up quickly. After getting in about about 10 fantastic flights, 8 of which I totally stick the landing, it’s time to head up top.

The wind isn’t acceptable for a novice rated pilot, so I am relieved I don’t have to decide if I’m really ready to launch from the mountain. Instead, we do some paper work–I am now an officially rated pilot with a membership in the USHPA and Pat and I are official members of the Lookout Mountain Flight Park. Since it doesn’t look like the weather is going to be good enough for a tandem training flight either, I cancel my tandem flight and we head to the Longhorn (not to be confused with the chain steakhouse) to gorge on eggs and bacon.

Apparently Tisen is not the dog-years equivalent of 25 anymore either–his walk mimics mine after running free all morning.

At sunset, I continue my HDR experiments with some high-contrast photos. This time, I find the info button so I can make sure I get the exposures I need to maximize the effectiveness of this technique. I figure this will be a better test.

In the end, I still like the lighting effects achieved this way in the black and white shot, but generally prefer the manually adjusted photos over the multi-exposure combined images. Which do you like?

Accidental Goal

I achieved a goal today I’ve been moving towards almost by accident.   I earned my Novice hang gliding pilot rating and am allowed to do my first mountain launch.  The funny thing is I’m almost disappointed. It seems improbable if not impossible that I am now licensed to fly a hang glider off a 1600 foot mountain launch.  How did that even happen?  I am reminded of a quote that we have all probably heard that goes something like “half the battle is showing up.”  I guess I kept showing up.

The good news is, now that I have purchased unlimited training hill flights, I can return to the training hills as many time as I want before I go off that mountain.  It’s comforting that I don’t have to choose between going off the mountain and giving up hang gliding all together.

While I had a good day on the training hill and came away with little damage, I still had a few rough patches.  One of the tests required is a speed test.  On my first speed run, I had a great time.  It all went well except when I realized it was time to flare, I discovered I was already so low to the ground that the belly of my harness was dragging the ground and I was so horizontal that my legs were still up in the air.  In this position, raising my arms over my head to flare the glider did absolutely nothing.  The surprise of discovering myself on the ground made me burst out laughing (3rd flight in video).

This little boo boo turned out to be far preferable to my next flight.  I did a repeat speed run and, over compensating for the previous flight, flared too soon.  When I pushed up my arms, the glider ballooned upwards for what felt like a good 20 feet.  I panicked.  And then I was in a state of confusion–I did the worst thing, which is let the nose back down.  It was just a split second and then I pushed upwards again, but it sent me and the glider back down to earth a lot faster than either of us would like.  Be sure to listen for my scream in the video–it’s a little hard to tell what’s happening because of the fisheye effect of the lens.  Fortunately for me and my already sore knees, I landed flat out on my stomach.  (I love the part in the video after I land and I’m under the glider and crawl out making all kinds of ridiculous noises.)  Fortunately for the glider, it’s a training glider built to take a lot of abuse.  Both of us walked/rolled away uninjured.

I finished on one last, perfect flight, turning 90 degrees and landing near the breakdown area.  At this point, most students would be rushing off to the mountain launch.  For me, it was a good time to call it a day.

Winter After All

Apparently I am all-powerful.  I wished for winter, and winter was delivered.  Is it too late to un-wish?

I passed a clump of blooming daffodils yesterday, I suppose they are not happy with me and my wish for winter, either.  The temperature started dropping yesterday, but today it was in the “bitterly cold” range.  Or, at least compared to the near 70 degree temperatures we had last week it felt bitterly cold.  There was a lot of snow in the air, although none on the ground.  For a while, the flakes were large and fluffy looking.

It was cold enough I was glad we decided not to go hang gliding today.  That is the offshoot of me wishing for winter and having my wish granted–we will not hang glide this weekend.

Today, it was probably a good thing.  I agreed to shoot the hand-carved plague S.O.A.R uses for its logo so they could have a high quality image of it to use for printing.  Since it was easier to shoot at our place with my lighting and equipment, Dale came to me.

This was a milestone occasion for me (although I didn’t tell her).  Dale was our first in-town guest since we moved to Chattanooga.  I spend the morning cleaning and rearranging, although only partly because she was coming.  We needed to rearrange anyway and when I rearrange, I have to clean because I always uncover something icky in the process.

About a half an hour before I expect Dale, I realize I have absolutely nothing edible to offer her.  As I contemplated trying to fancy up the two handfuls of raw almonds left in the cupboard or heating up some tomato soup,  I get a text from Pat telling me he is on his way with snacks for us.  No wonder I married this man!

I set up my tripod and diffused light in the middle of the living room.  I have my long lens on the camera, but I wait until Dale arrives to choose a lens.  I end up using my wide angle lens because the plague is large.  For whatever reason, autofocus is confused into believing the image is in focus when it isn’t.  My first set of shots are all a big blur.  I switch to manual focus and get much sharper images.

Another milestone, I use the feature on my tripod that allows spreading the legs wide to get the camera closer to the ground for the first time.  The images turn out pretty good.  I do some cropping and cut out the yoga blanket background just to see if it looks better on white.

After doing some photo editing, I discover I’ve left the diffused light on.  It must be generating heat because Tisen decides to lay on the floor under the light.  I can’t resist moving in and shooting him from above just like the logo.  Tisen really wasn’t meant to be shot from above, however.

Finding Joy

Shifting gears from focusing on the things I want to do to the things I must do on a Monday causes me to think about joy.  Joy is one of those feelings that took me a long time to distinguish.  I finally decided the main symptom of joy versus run-of-the-mill happiness, amusement, infatuation, or any other emotion that might camouflage itself as joy is that my eyes well up just a little.

My chest also feels like it’s filling with something.  My throat constricts slightly.  The physical symptoms are the same as if I’m about to have a good cry.  But I don’t feel like crying–I’m too busy grinning.

The thing about joy is that it always surprises me.  It’s always the tiny things I so often overlook that suddenly create this overwhelming sense of, well, joy.  There really isn’t a synonym.

When I take Tisen out, his tail wags in time with his foot steps as he prances along like a tiny horse.  The joy of this wag overwhelms me.

When Tisen wiggles his way closer to me just before falling asleep, I smile until I ache.  When Tisen eats his food like he really enjoys it, I nearly do cry.

But it’s not all about Tisen.  The other day, I was walking in the park and saw a small bird perched on top of a light post.  It was back-lit and I couldn’t make it out until I got to the other side of the pole with the sun behind me.  It suddenly burst into the full color of an Eastern Bluebird.  I felt like I’d been let in on a joyful secret.

Sometimes, all it takes is noticing the arrangement of stray branches casting a shadow over a pool of water.  Or a puff of clouds forming a smiley face.  Or a stranger walking by and saying hello with a twinkle in their eyes.

Joy seems to create its own momentum.  After I notice one joyful thing, I suddenly start noticing more.  It’s like getting a glimpse causes me to look for more.  I am reminded of the filter that decides what information to process versus what to ignore.  If you’ve ever bought a new car and suddenly noticed every one on the road, joy is like that.

At the top of the big hang gliding hill yesterday, I stood for just a moment and looked all around.  The grass, the trees, the sky, the mountains.  All there just for the price of noticing.  This is what people mean when they talk about smelling the roses.

Ironically, when I need joy in my life the most, it’s the hardest to find.  I get wrapped up in suffering and suddenly the sunrise isn’t worth noticing, the trees are just trees, and a wagging tail is just a wagging tail.  I wonder what it would be like to be able to see the things that make me smile when I feel the least like smiling?

High Flying

For today’s triple play, let’s start with hang gliding. On the big training hill, there are 7 tests to “clear,” which means you get your Novice license and you can fly off the mountain launch.  But, if you don’t fly off the mountain for 4 days straight, you have to “re-clear.”

Today, Pat will re-clear and I will continue my endless quest of clearing for the first time.  Yesterday, I learned they mis-counted my total training hill flights:  they missed a page.  At the rate I’m going, I will have about 160 flights by the time I clear for the first time!  They don’t give you a trophy for that; they just charge extra.

After successfully completing one more test today, I’m pretty much spent.  Pat re-cleared and left for the mountain early on, but the wind prevents him from flying.  He picks me up and then we head over to the landing zone where we each get a tandem flight.

For the second time, I hook in with an instructor and we are towed above 2000 feet, literally into the clouds.  But this time, I’m not as mentally paralyzed.  The instructor gives me control and I fly us all the way to the landing (except for those moments when it appears I’m going to kill us both).

Flying a tandem glider with an extra person in it is completely different from flying solo.  It’s good to experience the altitude though–and to have 12 minutes instead of 12 seconds to practice.

Next, let’s talk about Tisen.

Two new things happen at the training hill today.  First, while Tisen has stopped chasing wheels, when I carry my glider he dives at my legs, grabbing at my pants and pinching my skin.  When I set the glider down, he stops.  When I pick it up, he starts again.  He doesn’t seem to be able to associate my legs with my body when I have the glider on my shoulders.

Second, when Pat leaves, he calls Tisen down from the big hill by squeaking his favorite ball.  He was at least 100 yards away and he ran down the hill to get that ball.  The power of a squeaky toy!

In the car later, Tisen starts carrying his squeaky toys up onto the seat in the min-van.  I cannot help but snap a shot with my iPhone.

This leads us to our final subject, Photography.

The pictures from the tandem flight were taken by a small Olympus point and shoot positioned on a mount on the wing.  The camera was set to take a shot every 10 seconds.  This was not my camera, but an add-on service the flight school offers.  Frankly, I can’t tell much from the photos and they all start to look the same after a while, but it is kind of cool.  I am definitely going to wear sunglasses so I don’t have to wear the school’s protective eyewear next time, though!