The Musings of a Passenger

It’s our final day in the Smokies.  Checkout time is at 11:00AM and I have a massage scheduled at 11:00AM.  As it turns out, it’s the last day the lodge will be open for the season.  Having fed us all breakfast, packed us all one last lunch for the road, and checked us all out, they are closing down the lodge for the winter.  I feel a little bad about the timing of my massage, but since I didn’t pick the time, I decide not to worry about it.

Pat takes another walk out to sunrise point while I head off to the massage room with the massage therapist.  After he walks, he will sit in the lodge lobby, in front of the giant fire place, reading something from the large library accumulated there.

The massage is wonderful.  I feel like jelly afterwards, oozing back into my clothes, out into the cold, and into the car.  It’s a nice state to go for a ride in, actually.  I try to sit so I’m not hunching up my shoulders, maintaing the state of relaxation I’ve obtained.  I look out the windows and absorb the limited view with little going on in my head (for once) besides the occasional reminder to relax a muscle that’s tightened up again.  After several minutes, Pat asks me if I’m sleeping.  I laugh at this–like I must be asleep if I am this relaxed.

I rouse myself a little.  Enough to engage in conversation with Pat.  I try to keep part of my mind checking in to make sure I’m staying relaxed periodically.  This gets a little tricky as we wind our way along the Cherahola Skyway where a storm apparently went through last night.  Fallen trees and other debris surprise us around many curves.  Fortunately, any of the trees that were all the way across the road have been cut and hauled away by now.  I find myself wondering if Snowbird Mountain was not hit by the storm or if we just slept through it.

The thick fog makes the views limited today.  I’m grateful that we had a couple of days of great visibility to see the spectacular views.  While I’ve never been one to go for scenic drives unless it was on the way to somewhere else, on a clear day, this drive is one that would be well worth going out of the way for.  Even from the car, it makes you feel connected to the world around you in a spectacular way.

One of the things that has caught both Pat and me by surprise since moving to Chattanooga is how beautiful this part of the country really is.  Even though we have both been to this region many times earlier in our lives, we both sort of dismissed it.  Perhaps it’s like the way we tend to mind our manners less with people we know will continue to love us anyway–the Smokies were accessible.  You would think this would make them more desirable, but we both tended to prefer trips out West when we started planning vacations.  The Rockies and Sierra Nevadas seemed far more appealing than the Smokies.

Now, discovering another incredibly beautiful place nearly every time we turn a corner, I feel dismayed that we missed earlier opportunities to more fully explore this area of the country.  Like I’ve been a bad friend, taking the Smokies for granted, thinking they would be there waiting for me to find time for them.  As it turns out, they did.  But, to use a photography analogy, I previously saw “the Smokies” through a wide angle lens–a single scene to take in one shot.  I now see “the Smokies” through a macro lens–an infinite collection of possibilities, each with their own virtues.  I don’t have enough life left to see the things I now want to see just in this area.  Then again, I suppose even a full lifetime wouldn’t be enough time anyway.

This causes me to ponder the whole concept of being nomadic.  If the purpose is to see and experience new things, can’t that be achieved while standing in one place?  After all, when I get out my macro lens, I discover the closer I get to a subject, the more of its details that are revealed, the more magnificent my subject seems.  Each time I experience this, I am awed by the things I never noticed before.

Here is an example of a Katydid (I think), which I normally would just see as a large, green bug, but its beauty is revealed in its intricate details and varying colors when viewed up close:

I am reminded of an experience I had back in Columbus that I may have mentioned before.  I used to ride my bike to work regularly.  My favorite part of the ride was the short stretch along the Olentangy multi-use trail.  I would enter a section of the trail that was in thick woods.  Then, the woods fell away abruptly to an open field that had been turned into a prairie habitat, full of wild flowers.  I could hear the birds all around me and I felt certain there were birds all over the flowers in that field, but I could never see any.

Then, on a Sunday, I went roller blading on the same trail.  At that speed, I was able to see some song sparrows and goldfinches popping in and out among the flowers.  I was surprised I didn’t see more birds, though.

One day, on a weekend, I went for a walk and ended up strolling through the prairie.  I spotted motion and stopped and stood still to better see.  When I stopped moving, it was like a curtain lifted.  For the first time, I saw that the prairie was buzzing (literally) with life–bees, hummingbirds, several types of sparrows, chipmunks, mosquitos, so many forms of life moving all around me that I couldn’t begin to count them all.  But I had to stand still to notice they were there.

I suppose, as is true of virtually everything in life, it’s all about balance.  A balance between seeing the forest and seeing the trees means a balance between moving and standing still.  A balance between seeking and finding means a balance between dreaming and realizing.  I wonder how you know when you’ve found the balance point?

Sassafras Falls

It’s our third day in the Smokies for the long holiday.  We take the same approach that we took yesterday–wake up slowly, lay around until hunger kicks in, throw something on and go to breakfast.  Then, we return to our room to choose today’s hike.  It’s a little cooler today and overcast.  Visibility is supposed to be poor.  The weather calls for clouds, but no rain.  We get out the guide in our room and I ask Pat if he’s up for a 9 mile hike.  There is a trail to a waterfalls nearby that’s supposed to be a nice easy walk. Neither one of us is up for a big physical challenge this weekend, still recovering from pulled muscles on the hang gliding training hills.

Much of the drive is alongside a stream that rolls and tumbles over rocks, creating white water.  There is trout fishing in this stream, a good sign that the water is clean.  I am too busy watching the scenery to be a lot of help navigating, but I interrupt gazing out the side window long enough to check the directions when Pat gets confused about a turn.  We manage to make it back to the trailhead with only one wrong turn.

We start up the trail as a light rain blows in, misting my face gently as we walk into the wind.  The trail used to be a railroad track, but was converted to a trail long before “rails-to-trails” meant bike trails.  As we start out, the climb is gradual, the trail is wide and flat, and we have no troubles finding our way.  We take our time.  We have 6 hours of daylight and emergency flashlights in our day packs.  If we need 6 hours to go 9 miles, we can take 6 hours.

After a short distance, we enter what feels like a maze of Rhododendron.  The enormous shrubs on either side of the trail loom large, daring us to go off the path.  Pat and I both have flashbacks to our first backpacking trip together at Otter Creek Wilderness in Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia.  It was early in the spring–so early, it snowed our first night.  When it wasn’t snowing it was raining.  When we started out, the trail looked more like a stream than a trail.  Unfortunately, it rained so hard that after a while, there were hundreds of mini-streams all around us and we couldn’t tell which one was the trail.  We ended up bushwacking our way through giant Rhododendrons.  Each shrub was like a giant octopus, its twisting arms grabbing hold of our backpacks as we tried to belly crawl underneath.  I had visions of us being found weeks later, captured in the arms of giant greenery, suspended above the ground and frozen in postures of horror.  I’ve never felt quite the same about Rhododenrons ever since.

Thankfully, today they remain on the side of the trail, clearly demarcating where we are and are not supposed to be.  As a side benefit, because they keep their giant waxy leaves, they provide good hiding places when nature calls.  That doesn’t make me feel significantly better about them, however.

After about 3 miles of enjoying the view of the stream through the Rhododendrons, which has gotten steadily further below us, we arrive at a stream crossing in front of us.  We contemplate the best place to cross.  The water is high and moving fast.  These are dangerous circumstances for a water crossing; we want to find a safe route to ensure we don’t end up washed downstream.

I pick a route and make my way across.  In my hiking boots, I’m nervous about sticking to the wet rocks covered in moss.  It’s easy to lose footing and get caught in the current.  I make it OK with only one scary moment when I teeter on a rock waving my arms until I leap for the next rock and manage to land with firm footing.  Pat follows the route I took, probably figuring that if I can make it safely across, anyone can.

As we finish up our crossing, two dogs suddenly appear on the side of the creek we just left.  They are followed shortly by a family with a young daughter and teenage son.  They shout across the stream to us asking if this is the way to the falls, wanting to make sure they really needed to cross the stream before they decide whether or not to risk it.  As they contemplate, one of their dogs jumps in and is soon headed downstream in the rapids.  I run along the stream until I find a place that has an opening in the trees with an easy launch in and out of the water.  The dog hears me calling him and is able to swim over to the shore, climbing out and shaking every drop of water in his fur onto me.  My face and pants are dripping wet, but the dog is safe.  He runs back to his family who is now starting to cross.  As Pat and I walk away, we see the dog poised on the bank, about to jump back into the water and the family calling to him frantically to keep him from heading downstream a second time.  I imagine him thinking body surfing is great fun.

The next part of the trail gets steeper, narrower, rockier, and more overgrown.  We spot a faded sign after about 500 yards and make the turn to Sassafras Falls.  It’s supposed to go to the bottom of the falls, so we are surprised that it climbs even more sharply.

Now, the trail is on the edge of a drop off.  I do not have such a good track record when it comes to walking alongside cliffs.  Pat warns me that he’s not going to be able to catch me today (having grabbed me by the back of the pants in time to prevent me from falling to my death on more than one occasion).  Fortunately, this is not really a cliff and, when I look at it, if I were to fall, I would probably break a bone at worst.  Having broken quite a few bones and healed eventually, this thought is oddly reassuring.  Not worrying about falling helps me stay on the trail and I avoid any incidents.

We make it to the falls and spend some time looking at the water crashing over the rocks with surprising force for a relatively small mountain stream.  It’s a beautiful falls, although I’d like to be able to back off from it so I can take in as a whole a little better.  We are so on top of it that I almost feel like I need the glasses I wear when I’m at the computer to fully appreciate it.

After I attempt to get some shots, we find a nice grouping of rocks to sit on and eat our lunch.  The rocks are moss covered, which makes them padded if slightly damp.  We sit facing the falls, enjoying our private table as we unwrap our sandwiches provided by the lodge.

We move at a much faster pace on the way back with most of the trail being downhill.  We do lose time trying to find a different place to cross the stream than the way we came over.  Our first route looks much more difficult from this direction.  It’s hard to explain how that happens–maybe it’s just an optical illusion–or maybe it a matter of stepping up vs stepping down depending on which direction you’re going.  In any case, we revisit our buschwacking-through-rhododendrons skills as we make our way along the stream, looking for a safe crossing point.

Pat finds a fallen tree and decides we should cross there.  I follow after he makes it safely, but have trouble not worrying about the camera around my neck.  If I fall in here, it’s deep and it won’t just be my feet that get wet.  I end up sitting on the log about halfway across and scooting forward until there is a branch sticking up that I can hold onto for balance.

We make it across the stream, back to the car, and even back to the lodge safely.  When we get out of the car, I stand and wait while Pat gathers some additional gear that he needs to bring into the hotel.  As I stand there, I hear the loud call of the Pileated Woodpecker.  My camera is around my neck still, although I have only my wide-angle lens with me, having opted to leave my other choices back in our room.  I spot the bird on a tree not too far away.  I decide to try to sneak up on him in the hope of getting a decent shot.  I do manage to sneak up closer, but not close enough to get a good shot before I make him too nervous and he flies away.  The brilliant red crest on his head practically looks neon in the light of dusk.

When the woodpeck flies away, he makes a giant arch around the parking lot and then flies over a deck where another guest is sitting.  We walk over and ask if she saw where he landed.  It turned out she never saw the bird that flew right over her and directly into her line of sight.  Given the size of a Pileated woodpecker, we are both (silently) amazed that someone could miss something like that.  She, however, seems nonplussed.  It makes me wonder how many birds have flown over my head that I never saw.

The sun setting behind the mountains tells us it’s time to go inside, clean up, and go to dinner.  We head on in, although we are in no hurry.  We have all evening.

Sunny Black Friday

It’s the day after Thanksgiving.  For some people, going to the malls before dawn and waiting in lines is the best way to spend this day.  Our agenda is the extreme opposite.  We start by sleeping in.  Well, maybe not exactly sleeping.  I wake up earlier than I’d like, but I simply lay in bed and refuse to get up.  I’m not sure exactly what is so wonderful about being able to just lay in bed knowing you don’t have to go anywhere, but it is.

Of course, I eventually get hungry and start thinking about breakfast.  Pat is also awake and lounging.  We clean up enough to be presentable and then head to the dining room.  After a leisurely breakfast, we return to our room to change and pack for hiking.  We have no grand plans today.  I get out the notebook in the room provided by the lodge that has a section on nearby trails.

We overheard the innkeepers parents talking about Huckleberry Knob as a short hike with a spectacular view.  Today promises to be a clear and sunny day, so this seems like a good choice.  The hike is listed in the notebook.  Since it’s only 2 miles round trip, I select a second hike that’s 4 miles round trip that also goes to a high spot with a great view.

As we leave, we pick up our brown bag lunches from the cooler next to the lodge door.  They don’t serve lunch in their restaurant, but they pack everyone a lunch in either a brown bag or a backpack to take with them.

I decide to try my fivefingers trekking shoes on the first trail since it is short.  I want to test whether my feet will be warm enough to wear them on a longer hike or not.  If a trail isn’t very rocky, is dry, and the ground isn’t too cold, I prefer my trekking shoes.  But it is late November and my feet can get painfully cold.  I decide the first trail is a good test because it’s long enough that my feet will have time to warm up and short enough that I won’t be miserable for long if they don’t.

The trail is actually a forestry access road that’s wide and flat with ruts in it.  In many places, it’s still puddled and muddy from recent rains.  I do my best to walk around the mud, but the tiniest bit of moisture seeps into my shoes, soaking my feet.  Each time my feet get wet, they get very cold.  With movement, they warm up until I get to the next puddle.  I’m glad that I choose a short trail to try them on.

While the walk to the first “knob” is not particularly interesting, or if it is, I was so busy watching for mud that I missed it, the view from the knob is amazing.  If the mountains had snow covered peaks in the distance, I would feel like we were on the set of The Sound of Music.

The first knob has a view of the second knob, which appears far away.  A huge cross looms up on the hill and we wonder what’s up there.  We enjoy the view a bit longer and then continue up to Huckleberry Knob.  We are upon it in no time–the distance is far less than what we thought from down below.  Oddly, the giant cross turns out to be a rather small.  So much so that we walk around the knob looking for the giant cross we saw from below.  I just recently relearned that looking up at something makes it appear larger, but this seems ridiculous.  Neither one of us can believe the 3’ cross that marks the grave of a man that died by getting drunk on the mountain and dying of exposure is the same cross we saw from below, but it has to be.

We run into a couple of women we saw at breakfast who are also enjoying the view.  We take turns taking pictures of each other.  It’s an incredibly beautiful day, but it’s noon and the lighting is not good for taking pictures.

Pat and I sit on the side of the knob for a while, looking at the sky and the mountains below.  It’s nice to just relax here for a bit.  After a while, we decide to walk back and go on to our next hiking destination, Mud Gap.

While Pat drives us to the next trail head, I slip out of my shoes and prop my feet up near the defrost vents so they can dry before I switch to my socks and boots for the next hike.  We eat our brown bag lunch while we drive and finish it in the parking lot at the trailhead.  Two other vehicles are in the parking lot.  One is a small pickup truck with Sierra Club stickers on it.  The other is a big pickup truck with an older man in an orange vest in it.  He is hunting.  It’s a little nerve wracking to realize we’re out hiking in a national forest the first official day of deer season.  It occurs to me we really should be wearing orange.  Fortunately, the trail is another well known trail that’s easily identified, so hopefully that will reduce our chances of being mistaken for deer.

We pause at the sign in the parking lot before heading up the trail.  I learn that this is actually part of the Benton-MacKaye trail.  This will be the second time I’ve hiked on part of this 275-mile trail that starts at the same point as the Appalachian trail, loops around, and then reconnects with the Appalachian trail in Smoky Mountain National Park.

As we study the sign, the hunter calls out to us.  He tells us about the hike, the view, and an alternate route that allows you to drive almost to the knob.  As we thank him and start walking, he calls out loudly, “I’m 77 years old; if I can walk up there, y’all sure can!”  We laugh and agree as we continue on our way.

As we make our way up the wet and rocky first 100 yards or so of the trail, I decide switching to my waterproof hiking boots was a good idea.  Pat interrupts my thoughts with, “How would that guy get a deer out of here if he shot one?”  We continue to contemplate that question as the trail gets steeper, rockier, and wetter.  I finally say, “Maybe he’s one of those guys that really just wants an excuse to go hiking.”

As we continue, we pause every once in a while to listen.  Sometimes we hear birds or squirrels, but more often, what we hear is the wind.  It starts like a far away swell, gathering in the distance.  Then it rolls its way up the side of the mountain, rising towards us as it gradually gets louder and louder.  Finally, it crashes over us and lifts my hair off my face.  The experience is like standing on the beach as the tide rolls in without getting wet.  I could stand and listen to the rise and fall of the wind all day, but we start moving again after the current wave starts to recede.

When we arrive at the knob, we are startled to see that it is littered with trash.  Then, two piles of trash jump up and start running towards us with wagging tails and a third assimilates itself into a man sitting up suddenly after having been caught in a nap.  As it turns out, it’s a couple with two dogs who have blankets and picnic gear with them.  We assume they are the owners of the Sierra Club pick up truck.

The dogs greet us and we pet them as the owners try to call them away.  I never know what to do in these circumstances.  The owners want the dogs to listen, but we want to pet the dogs.  Since these don’t seem like people who will abuse their dogs for being friendly, we go with petting them.

After being welcomed to the knob, we settle down on the side of it, slightly downhill from the Sierra Club couple and their dogs.  I work my way around the circumference, shooting the panoramic views even though the light isn’t any better than it was at Huckleberry knob.  I’m so happy to have finally gone somewhere with a spectacular view on a day when it’s clear.  Usually we only go to high spots on cloudy or foggy days.  I guess it pays to check the weather before you pick a hiking trail.

After shooting the view, we lay in the short, dormant grass on the knob and stare at the blue sky.  It’s so blue that I have a hard time focusing on it.  Not a single trace of cloud gives my eyes something to tell what an edge is.  I feel like the lens of my camera when I point it at a solid-colored surface.  I can’t say I’ve ever experienced that before.

As we lay there, Harry the dog suddenly appears standing over Pat’s head.  Apparently he was worried about us when he saw us lay down.  Pat pets him and he wags his tail.  Convinced we’re OK, he returns to his owners.

We get up and attempt to brush the dead grass off our shirts, but it really wants to stick to us.  We make our way back to the car, pausing to see a downy woodpecker, a grasshopper, and a squirrel.  By the time we get back down to the parking lot, my knees are starting to ache and I’m wondering if I should have worn my trekking shoes after all.  My feet are warm and dry, though, so I won’t be able to decide which was better until I know how long my knees will hurt.

We return to the van, hot inside from the sun.  We strip off some of our extra layers, extraneous in this sunshine.  We climb into the warm van and I am transported to the feeling of getting into a hot car after spending a summer day at the local swimming pool.  I love that feeling.  Any part of my skin that feels chilled suddenly feels like it’s been wrapped in a blanket.

We return to the lodge before sunset–enough time to shower, change, and sit and relax before dinner.  This has been a perfect day.  No crowds.  No traffic.  Just beautiful weather and a great view.  Sometimes I think that’s all I really need.

A Little Gratitude

It’s Thanksgiving Day.  And today, I am full of thanks.  I remember reading once that it’s easy to be grateful when things are going well, but the trick is to be grateful when they’re not.  Fortunately or unfortunately, as the case may be, this is an easy year to be grateful.  I count my blessings as we make our way from Chattanooga to the Smokies, where we will spend the long weekend.

We arrive at the lodge right around 1PM.  The Thanksgiving buffet has just started.  We get checked in, drop a few things off in our room, and then head to the dining room.  We walk down the buffet table checking out each dish, trying to decide what to leave room for and what to skip.  The inn keeper tells us there’s a menu printed on the table that lists all the dishes.  I laugh and tell him that would be great if I’d brought my reading glasses.  He laughs and we continue to peek at the food.  In the end, the preview was a wasted effort on my part.  The only dish I skip is the salad.  I take at least a small spoonful of everything else.  I will try it all and be grateful for the chance to try something new.

At least, that was my intention.  My swelling gratitude trips a little when I take a mouthful of whipped sweet potatoes and discover pieces of celery hiding in the mix.  A personal favorite complicated by an unexpected flavor.  I have to pause and figure out what I’m eating.  When I realize there is celery in my potatoes, I am both shocked and relieved. After all, celery is edible and I like it, but it is a surprising ingredient in sweet potatoes.  I return to gratitude and enjoy selecting the next bite of food.

In the background, a large family eating their Thanksgiving dinner together joins hands and one of the men at the table says a long and loud prayer.  I suddenly feel like an eavesdropper overhearing a private conversation.  It somehow feels wrong to me to hear this family sharing their form of gratitude.

My own sense of gratitude is a bit strained.  I refocus on the food, which is wonderful if different.  I think about the fact that I didn’t have to cook, we didn’t have to drive very far, we have a comfortable place to stay, and, best of all, we’re in the middle of the Smokies with a spectacular view.  If we had family or friends with us now, that would be the only thing that would make it more perfect.  But part of me feels like we’re missing the most important thing.  Then, I decide that instead of missing them, I will think of each of them.  I hold each family member and each friend in my mind for a moment, feeling gratitude for their presence in my life.  It’s a centering experience, reminding me of what’s important to me and how much I have to be grateful for.

When we finish eating, we go outside to take in the view.  We take a slow stroll in our city clothes along a short path to the Sunrise Viewpoint.  We pause to sit in a porch swing hung along the way.  We sit and talk over a leaf blower, a workman approaches, clearing all the leaves off the path.  He turns off the blower when he sees us, but we tell him to go ahead and finish his work.  He removes the leaves from the entire length of this short trail.  Given that this is a dirt path through the woods, I’m a little surprised that they blow the leaves off of it.  I am wearing my favorite new boots and would prefer that they didn’t since the leaves would prevent my boots from getting muddy.  When we continue our walk, I step carefully, trying not to let my boots sink into the dirt.  I am reminded of someone recently commenting that they had a hard time imagining me roughing it.  This comment surprised me at the time, but as I imagine what I look like in my urban clothes gingerly stepping around the mud, I think to myself, “Oh what a difference a change of clothes can make!”

At the sunset point, there is a deck with adirondak chairs to sit and watch the sun come up.  There’s a lovely view of the lake and mountains below.  Even better, there’s a bell hanging from a post with a mallet to strike it with.  When I give the bell a tap, it rings out with a sound that makes you think, “Ahhh.”  If peace were a sound, this is what it would sound like.  It rings on and on in a growing sort of sigh.  I am amazed at how long it continues from one gentle tap.

We sit for a bit, but then head the opposite direction towards the sunset point.  The view is less open from the sunset point and I want to get back to the lodge so I can capture some of the end of sunset, so we hurry back, me still trying to keep my boots from getting muddy.  After shooting, we find a spot to sit and relax where there is still some sunlight that keeps us warm.  As we sit and absorb the last rays of light, a group gathers  on a deck above and starts singing hymns.  Unfortunately, while some individuals seem to have good voices, as a group, they are painful to listen to.  We decide to head inside.  We enter the warm lobby and, after dropping off my camera, head to the bar.  With a glass of wine, we sit in front of the fire and relax until it’s time for dinner.

As we sit and unwind, I think again of friends and family and how much fun it would be to have them all here now.  Well, maybe not all at once.  I have the overwhelming urge to tell them all I love them.  I end up posting on Facebook instead.  I’m sure there’s an expression for posting on Facebook when you are overly emotional and possibly a little tipsy.

After sandwiches and dessert, we retire to our room and decide we might as well go to bed.  It’s been an amazingly relaxing day.  In fact, I can’t recall having ever had such a low stress day.  Another thing to be grateful for.

But I lay in bed awake, feeling a little guilty for having this day.  I decide to call my parents, but discover I have no phone signal.  Since the lodge does have WiFi, I send them an email instead.  It’s still early enough where they are that they are probably just now eating Thanksgiving dinner anyway.  Pat sends his mom an email while I write to my dad.  I feel a little better now that we’ve at least made some contact.  Then I check my Facebook page and feel like I’ve stayed in touch with my friends all day.  i decide Facebook is another thing to be grateful for.  Then, I set aside my mobile devices, roll over, and do my best to fall asleep, feeling grateful for a warm bed.