Taking Stock

It’s officially been 2 months since my leave of absence began. I thought it would be a good time to enumerate both the new lessons I’ve learned and the old lessons that have  resurfaced as particularly relevant to this major shift in my life.

  1. Your time will fill. No matter how much you have to do or how long you think you have to do it, time will pass more quickly than you expected and you will get less done than you planned.
  2. It doesn’t matter how much of an out-of-the-box thinker you are; if there is no box, you can’t think outside of it.
  3. When you have a mile-long list of things to do and believe you have only a fraction of the time you need to get them done, you manage your time far more judiciously than when you have a short list of things to do and believe you have all day. (See #1.)
  4. There is always more opportunity than capacity.
  5. When one thing has been your biggest time investment for a long time, when you pull it out of your schedule, everything that surrounded it collapses on top of each other and you have to scratch and claw your way through the crap to shove in something new and get all the little stuff safely held at bay.
  6. Staying busy is not the hard part. It’s staying busy doing the important things instead of the distracting things that’s hard. (See #1.)
  7. Just because something must be done urgently doesn’t mean it should be done at all.
  8. I really mind a dirty house less than I mind cleaning it.
  9. We treat people we have an intimate personal relationship with like someone we have an intimate personal relationship with even when the topics are professional–it takes effort not to hear “I don’t love you” when you disagree.
  10. Working with your spouse is an opportunity to better your overall relationship. Creating artificial lines between your personal and professional relationship is only lying to yourself. The two roles are inseparable and must feed one another, driving both a closer, more intimate relationship and more creative energy from the feeling of being on the same team working towards the same goals.
  11. Sleep helps. This is theoretical. I used reverse logic: lack of sleep makes everything harder. Therefore, I believe that if I someday get enough sleep, it will make everything easier.
  12. Every day we have the opportunity to be more focused, more productive, more playful, more creative, more effective, more attuned to our health, and to get more sleep. We probably won’t do all of these things in the same day, however.
  13. At the end of the day, it’s you. There is only you and what you did and didn’t get done, whether what you did made a difference, and whether that difference is the difference you intended. Ultimately, there is not, and really never has been, anyone else to blame.

Ascending Stone Door

Having descended as far as we were willing to climb and absorbed the scenery, we decided to start back up to the top of Stone Door.  We started our way back up the steep ascent.

Scrambling back up the fallen outcropping proved easier in terms of keeping our footing, but more difficult when it came to heart rate and breathing.  I was quickly reminded that I haven’t been spending much time on my bike of late.

Truthfully, there is not much that seems to prepare my body for steep climbs other than, well, steep climbs.  Every time I take the steps, I am reminded that riding a bike, rowing a sculling boat, doing yoga, and walking are not really comparable exercises.

This day, I was reminded that only stair climbing is good preparation for ascending steep slopes.  I am not fond of stair climbing.  I’d much rather climb a steep hill out of breath than spend hours going up indoor stairs in preparation.

When we reached the first plateau, we stopped.  I pretended to want to take more shots of the cliffside above us.  I really just wanted to catch my breath.  But, the cliffside was fascinating.  The volume of rock that had fallen next to the volume of rock still standing made my knees feel a little weak contemplating what it would be like to be standing on top of the overlook when it suddenly caved away.  I hope no one was there the day the rocks fell.

A chunk of the cliff fell in what must have been the same position it was in at the top

A chunk of the cliff fell in what must have been the same position it was in at the top

This chunk of cliff must have fallen long ago to have been reshaped into a smooth mound

This chunk of cliff must have fallen long ago to have been reshaped into a smooth mound

The natural overlook at the top of Stone Door framed between the trees

The natural overlook at the top of Stone Door framed between the trees

We continued slowly up the rest of the ascent.  I’ve learned that racing up steps doesn’t pay.  Racing leads to having to stop for long recovery times.  A slow steady pace allows the heart and lungs to keep up so the turtle passes the hare.  I learned this when hiking in the Rockies.  In my twenties, my friends and I sped past a woman who was probably the age I am now only to be passed by her when we were all sucking wind later.  We repeated our folly, passing her and being passed again 3x before reaching the end of our hike.  She finished well ahead of us.  That’s when the lesson sunk in.

We made it back up the wooden stairs and slowly made our way up the slippery, dripping stone steps through the stone door.  I paused at the top to take a shot of the pitcher-handle tree at the entrance.

This crazy tree marks the entrance to the Stone Door

This crazy tree marks the entrance to the Stone Door

Having worked up a sweat, we decided it was a good time to find a flat rock to sit on and have our picnic lunch.  We stayed much further back from the edge of the overlook this time–the image of that overhang was still fresh in my mind.  While we feasted on our wild-caught smoked salmon, carrot sticks, and apples, the dogs chewed happily on pigs ears.  Tisen had to be convinced it was edible.  But once he got a good grip on it, he was sold.  Good thing–he’s allergic to salmon.

Tisen enjoys a tasty treat at the top of Stone Door

Tisen enjoys a tasty treat at the top of Stone Door

Descent Below Stone Door

Once we reached the bottom of the Stone Door, we continued downward beyond both sets of manmade stairs.  If we’d been feeling more in shape, we might have gone all the way to the bottom of the valley.  However, it was Christmas Day and we weren’t prepared to make the return climb back up, so we limited our descent to a distance we could comfortably climb back up.

The path went through fallen outcroppings of rocks.  Rough natural steps were formed (or maybe occasionally placed) from the fallen limestone.  But the steps were uneven with cracks and slippery spots.  I nearly fell on more than one occasion while working my way down one of the larger rocks.  All I could think was “protect the camera.”

When we reached the point we decided would be the end of our descent, we stopped and looked back.  The outcropping we’d been standing on earlier looked a little more frightening in the context of the enormous chunk of fallen rock we’d just scrambled down–particularly when we saw just how much that overlook juts out from the cliffside.

An example of a rock shelf that looks like it will slide off down the hill at any time

An example of a rock shelf that looks like it will slide off down the hill at any time

Looking back at the overlook we'd been standing on, we realize how much of an overhang their is

Looking back at the overlook we’d been standing on, we realize how much of an overhang their is

So much of the stone looked like it was precariously perched, just waiting for the wind to pick up enough speed or water to pour down hard enough or lightening to strike or a few too many hikers to jump up and down on the overlook to break free and find its way down to the valley below.

Tisen and Twiggy were unimpressed by the scene.  They were busy searching through the leaves for interesting new scents.  Did they find evidence of a bear?  Perhaps just a deer.  Whatever smells they found, they buried their noses in them and wagged their tails feverishly.

Thankfully, Pat had them back on leashes and was able to keep them from running off on down the valley tracking whatever scent they’d picked up.  To be honest, Twiggy probably knew exactly what scent she’d found–she’s a true hunter.  Tisen was more likely to just be imitating Twiggy, going through the motions, trusting that Twiggy had found something really good.

We stood gazing at the fallen rocks with trees growing out of them and tried to guess how long those rocks have been lying there.  I have no idea how to guess how old the trees decorating them are–they could be 20 years or 100 years old.  The rock no longer looks like a disaster scene but rather like it’s settled into the earth it met with some time ago.  The sharp edges have softened and fissures have opened in the rock, allowing for more trees to grow.

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I like this metaphor.  A big crash that seems like total destruction creates a place for new life to flourish. Lichens cover the rocks.  Leaves decompose on and around the stone, creating rich new soil.  The rock collects and redirects water into the fissures, watering the seeds the have fallen in the cracks.  Life reclaims the fallen and uses them anew.

Through the Stone Door

When we went to Stone Door for our Christmas hike, we decided to go a bit further than the last time we visited.  On our previous trip, we had a second hike scheduled and didn’t have a lot of time to spend at Stone Door.

This time, having no other destination and not having worked up an appetite for lunch yet, we decided to take the steps down through Stone Door to see what it was like from below.

The steps, I’m sure, have been improved since ancient civilizations used them long ago.  The rocks look to have been cut and placed for easier access.  This does not, however, make them an easy descent.  Especially not with two dogs on leashes.  Fortunately for me, Pat took the dogs ahead and carefully made his way down the steps while I took some shots from above.

Twiggy takes the lead down the Stone Door steps

Twiggy takes the lead down the Stone Door steps

Pat holds on to the Stone Door frame while working his way down with the dogs

Pat holds on to the Stone Door frame while working his way down with the dogs

The way down was made more treacherous by the water dripping on the rocks.  Slippery in places, steep, and uneven, I had trouble making it safely while protecting my camera from dripping water.  Good thing Pat had the dogs.

At the bottom of the stone steps, I paused to take a shot back up the crevice.  The “pitcher handle” at the top of the steps is a misshapen tree that looks like it might have been one of the forces that originally pried apart the rocks (not really, but its shape is pretty mysterious).

A tree forms a pitcher handle at the top of the Stone Door steps

A tree forms a pitcher handle at the top of the Stone Door steps

The stone steps only took us down about 50 feet or so.  The river at the bottom of the valley was still well below and out of sight.  We continued down a bit further, curious to see if we would have a view of the river.

Once through the Stone Door, a big chunk the rock face has slid down the mountain, leaving a flat spot.  The park added wooden stairs for the next section of the descent.

At the bottom of the Stone Door, wooden steps make for easier access

At the bottom of the Stone Door, wooden steps make for easier access

We had a bit of a dog logistics issue at this point.  About half way down the stone steps, Pat had let the dogs off their leashes, feeling it was safer for all.  They decided to go around the wooden stairs and headed off on a rock that came to a dead end over a big drop.  I got a little frantic that they were getting close to the edge and in calling them, caused Tisen to panic and, instead of meeting us at the bottom of the stairs, which would have been easiest, he decided to leap up the 4-foot retaining wall to get back to my side as quickly as possible.  He did a belly flop into the wall on the first attempt.  He made it the second time and showed no signs of injury, so we allowed ourselves to snicker a little.

Tisen flopped into the retaining wall trying to jump back up to get to the top of the steps

Tisen flopped into the retaining wall trying to jump back up to get to the top of the steps

We all made it to the bottom of the stairs together safely.  We stood for a few minutes looking back at the rock face we had just come through.  I imagine the stories if it could talk!

Straight, even, and not slippery, the second section of the descent went much more smoothly

Straight, even, and not slippery, the second section of the descent went much more smoothly

Stone Door Christmas

What does one do for Christmas when one is far from family?  Well, we decided to go hiking.  This is not so far removed from what we normally do on Christmas.  Although we were without my brother, sister-in-law, and nephews, we normally at least go for a walk on Christmas if not an out-and-out hike.

This year, we decided to undertake a slightly more strenuous outing.  Not a lot more strenuous, mind you.  We opted for a relatively easy and short hike given we’re a bit out of shape these days.  Plus, with Twiggy staying with us over the holiday, we weren’t sure what she would be like on the trail.

Wanting a low-stress outing, we decided to revisit Stone Door in the South Cumberland State Park.  The walk from the parking lot to the main overlook is only about a mile and the first portion of the trail is paved and wheelchair accessible.

We layered up although it was in the low 50’s here on Christmas day–the wind was strong enough to make it feel cooler.  We’d actually planned ahead for once and had provisions for a special Christmas picnic with wild caught smoked salmon, deli rolls, and cream cheese.

Twiggy’s mom had also provided a care package for the dogs for Christmas, so we packed pigs ears and lamb sausages for them to snack on.  The care package also included two new toys–a white fluffy ball for Twiggy and a squeaky green reindeer for Tisen.

Tisen claimed the white fluffy ball instead and wouldn’t let Twiggy near it.  Notice the ball next to Tisen’s head while riding in the car.

Tisen uses Twiggy's new toy as a pillow while Twiggy snuggles with Tisen's Big Dog

Tisen uses Twiggy’s new toy as a pillow while Twiggy snuggles with Tisen’s Big Dog

Stone Door is one of the more surprising places near us–at least to us.  The drive from Chattanooga to Stone Door is beautiful in and of itself.  The highway winds its way through the tree-covered mountains and through Nick-a-Jack lake, making the hour plus drive enjoyable in and of itself.  Then, the first overlook on the Stone Door trail is a breath-taking experience, even though you don’t have to leave asphalt to get to it.  It’s the kind of scenery that I grew up thinking you had to travel a long way to see.

An easy-access spectacular view

An easy-access spectacular view

From the easy-access overlook, you can see the rock outcropping where the Stone Door overlook starts

From the easy-access overlook, you can see the rock outcropping where the Stone Door overlook starts

Further down the trail, the top of the Stone Door (which is really a crevice that has provided a path down to the valley below for thousands of years) affords even more breath-taking views.

Cliff-side trees always impress me--good thing they're not afraid of heights

Cliff-side trees always impress me–good thing they’re not afraid of heights

This tree seems to have given up the ghost, but it still clings cliffside

This tree seems to have given up the ghost, but it still clings cliffside

I sometimes get a little closer to the edge than I'm really comfortable with--unlike the trees, I am afraid of heights

I sometimes get a little closer to the edge than I’m really comfortable with–unlike the trees, I am afraid of heights

Between the rocks, a huge hole provides a window to the valley below

Between the rocks, a huge hole provides a window to the valley below

This is the kind of rock that makes me suspect the ledge I'm standing on is really jutting out over the cliff--makes my knees weak

This is the kind of rock that makes me suspect the ledge I’m standing on is really jutting out over the cliff–makes my knees weak

The "gulf" seems to go on forever

The “gulf” seems to go on forever

The mostly limestone geography creates spectacular outcroppings

The mostly limestone geography creates spectacular outcroppings

What I love the most about the Stone Door overlook is the sound.  We sat on the stones at the top of the cliff and just listened for a while.  The only sounds we could hear were the wind blowing through the needles of many evergreens and the river tumbling down the valley far below, out of sight.  It’s a magical experience to close your eyes and feel like you are air and water and know that life is good.  Seems pretty appropriate for Christmas.

Even Tisen and Twiggy seem impressed by the view

Even Tisen and Twiggy seem impressed by the view

Looking back at the mountain from the overlook provides this view

Looking back at the mountain from the overlook provides this view

Tisen freezes for me for just a moment

Tisen freezes for me for just a moment

Stone Door

Continuing our weekend adventure, having made it from the asphalt to the “unimproved” part of the trail (does anyone actually think asphalt is an improvement?), we continued on our journey to the Stone Door.

I don’t know exactly what image “Stone Door” conjures in your mind, but in my mind, when I read the description that said:

Stone Door, a 10 ft. wide by 100 ft. deep crack, forming from the top of the escarpment into the gorge below. It looks like a giant door left ajar and was once used by Indians as a passageway.

What I envisioned was a giant slab of rock standing straight up in the middle of two cliffs and standing ajar so that one can walk between the “door” part and the cliff part.  I guess I skipped over the “deep crack” part.

When we arrived at Stone Door, the view of the valley was fantastic.  Plus, the top of the cliffs provides some really interesting scenery in and of itself.  The only part I didn’t like was being anywhere near the edge.  The drop off was terrifying.

Pat and Tisen sat patiently while I worked my way around the top of the cliff, shooting everything I dared to shoot.  I really wanted to get a great shot looking down on the crack in the cliff, but it was tough to get a good angle without rock climbing gear.  I always knew I should have become a rock climber.

I have to pause here for a moment to do a mental double take on whether those words actually came out of my fingers.  Me . . . a rock climber?  Well, maybe not.

In any case, I couldn’t get the shot I wanted mainly out of pure fear.  Or perhaps fear in this case was good sense?  I was pretty determined not to fall into the crevasse never to be found again.

We worked our way back down with me stopping to shoot straight on to the crack.  There was a large tree in the opening that created a key hole sort of image for me.  I played with that for a while and contemplated walking down the steps a bit to see what kind of interesting views I could get, but Pat was concerned about time and we needed to drive to the other side of the park to see the next part of our adventure:  Savage Gulf Day Loop.

So, I packed it in without getting a great shot of the crack.  As we walked away, Pat said to me, “I wonder where the Stone door is?”  I wasn’t the only one who didn’t picture a big crack!

Tisen seemed nonplussed by the whole stone door thing.  I imagine there are certain advantages to being a dog.  One of them is probably no expectations.  Don’t get me wrong, Stone Door is really cool and definitely worth the effort to get there.  Just don’t expect something that looks like a door.