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Blue jeans on Cannon Creek February 21, 2009

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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The summit of LeConte.  This is not why we climbed it.

The summit of LeConte. I guess we may have touched this point on our Cannon Creek hike.

From my notes after the hike, July 11, 1988.  The climb was 4400 vertical feet from the Porters Creek trailhead, going off-trail up Cannon Creek on the Greenbrier side of LeConte.  We came down via the Trillium Gap trail.

As we rockhop our way steadily up the very long watercourse of Cannon Creek, the group has divided into two parts.  One hiker was stung by yellow jackets early on, and the front leader accompanied him back to Knoxville because of a possible need for medical attention.  Charlie Klabunde is the substitute front leader with a group of 6, and Ray Payne is shepherding a group of 4 somewhere behind us.  It isn’t raining, but all of us are pretty much soaking wet because of damp brush, humidity, splashing into the stream, and sweat.  At one point Al Watson deliberately splashes water on me with a triumphant laugh.  Who cares at this point?

In the flux of people floundering their way up the creek, I find myself with Brian Worley and Tom, a friend of his.  The friend has never been on one of these rock-hops before.  He is holding up remarkably well, considering.  But he has made one serious error—in dressing for the hike, he chose to wear tight blue jeans.  The jeans have become wet, and they are clinging to his knees, imprisoning him.   It is time for emergency surgery.

The three of us sit down on a large boulder.  I take out my Swiss Army knife, open out the scissor attachment, and hand it to Tom.  He cuts off the pants legs just above the knees.  It takes a while, but he is finally a free man.  He stows the amputated legs in his pack, and we continue onward.  I notice that Brian is laughing, which is not unusual.  He propels himself up these creeks by force of mirth.

We should come to the waterfall before long.  We have put in hours of serious rockhopping, ticking off sections of stream foot by vertical foot.  This is the “working” section of climbing a stream, when you are chipping away at the vertical dimension at a workmanlike pace.  Higher up, the amount of effort is so high in proportion to the distance climbed that it seems haphazard and creative, accomplished by inspiration rather than technique.

We move through the gloom of the woods, under the canopy of dark, giant trees.  Now, at 4250′, I see a sudden contrast: the water is flowing down from high above us.  We gaze up at a dark, massive bluff perhaps 100 feet high.  The water cascades down about half the distance until it reaches a ledge, then slides over the ledge and tumbles down in a ghostly spray.   The living, moving stream is beautiful, but it also poses a problem: how do we get up around it?  The fall is hemmed in with the usual snarly, tangled rhododendron.  We decide to go for the left side, and begin to haul ourselves up.  It is the usual ridiculous kind of place.  The dirt is so rich, and dark, and soft, that it showers down when the toe of a boot is stuck into it.  You interweave your arms and legs with the rhododendron and crawl under, climb over, crawl under.  The plant seems to have been designed by a diabolical mind.  It’s an extra touch of genius that its flowers are actually beautiful during the one week each year that they bloom.

So we pull, slither, and tug our way up.  Eventually we reach the level of the middle ledge of the waterfall.  It is not strictly necessary to walk across it, but we’ve heard that others have done so.  Jean Bangham once told me she even sat down on the ledge and ate lunch—it must have been a drier year.  The ledge looks a bit treacherous, but we carefully make our way across water that’s about an inch deep.  At the very middle, I pause.  I feel that I’ve gone into the heart of the stream.

When we reach the far side we have more rhodo-pulling to do.  I watch as the person in front of me feeds himself into an aggressive rhodo bush.  I follow as best as I can and emerge with dirt on my hands and leaves down the back of my neck.  Not much further up, we encounter Charlie, sitting on a rock and eating lunch.  We tell him about crossing the ledge, and somehow it seems that he certifies the accomplishment by hearing about it—he is the best qualified to appreciate it.  Although Charlie is a stickler for doing things properly, sometimes that means taking a deliberate risk.  He is disappointed if a valuable experience is avoided.  He would say of some interesting obstacle, “You mean you went around that instead of over it?  But all you have to do is go right up the middle!”

It is mid-afternoon before we cross the geological divide between Thunderhead sandstone and Anakeesta slate.  Our pace slows as we negotiate steep, mossy slabs of streambed up into the balsam zone.  There’s one difficult pitch of steep rubble where I watch Charlie churning up through the rock shards, but he keeps swimming upward and then muscles his way into the thick ferns and blackberries above.  We are almost at the top—must be about 6300′—and one enormous blowdown stands in our way.  There’s a steep drop to the left, a huge complication of sharp branches to the right, and the massive trunk is head-high and impossible to climb over.  So we worm our way underneath.  As I pull myself out the other side, I see a cluster of pink turtleheads blooming.  “Places like this are great!” I say, and the others just start laughing.

pink-turtlehead

Ulysses S. Grant and his love of maps February 19, 2009

Posted by Jenny in Civil War, history.
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Cover of Harper's Weekly, July 1863

Cover of Harper's Weekly, July 25, 1863

I might as well confess to my friends in the South that I am a great fan of General Ulysses S. Grant.  If I had been living during the Civil War, I would have gazed with admiration upon the engraved portrait of him that appeared in Harper’s Illustrated Weekly after the surrender of Vicksburg.  Such a campaign it was, dealing with the adversity of the terrain, the swampy land carved into intricate coils by the river, the failed attempts to clear routes for the troops by connecting bayous and creeks and hand-dug canals in one combination or another.

The run past the Vicksburg blockade

The run past the Vicksburg blockade

The run past the batteries—that was the turning point.  Admiral Porter’s gunboats had to get downstream past Vicksburg, and that feat occurred on the night of April 16, 1863.  I study the Harper’s illustration: the ironclads are steaming through dark glossy water past the starburst shellfire of the Vicksburg artillery.  The illustrator has carefully placed in the foreground a half-submerged stump that stands in for all the snags and obstructions that the federals had faced in the moss-festooned swamps.  The boats themselves are black shadows moving in a purposeful line, and the sooty clouds billow from the gunboat smokestacks in answer to white puffs of artillery smoke.  Each ironclad slices through myriad tiny sparkling ripples that decorate the river.

It was Admiral Porter who described Grant’s attitude about maps.  “The General’s great delight was to pore over maps, and he seemed to take in all the roads, fields and rivers as if they were good to eat and drink….  He had a very correct knowledge of the topography of all places he had operated in or was about to operate in.  He never forgot a house, a road, or a bayou…”

I like the way Grant had seemed like a failure in the years before the war and then went from being an obscure colonel to winning the command of all Union armies.  He remained modest while performing his increasingly impressive feats of strategy, his reticence forming a little protective screen that surrounded him at all times like the blue cloud of cigar smoke that never seemed to leave his vicinity.  Grant’s story seems yet more enjoyable to me when I think of the personalities that in effect became foils to his competence: in particular, John McClernand and George McClellan.  The latter liked to look at maps, too.  At the very beginning of the war, freshly appointed to his command, he studied maps of the whole Confederacy.  McClellan proposed to the War Department an all-embracing plan that called for massive movements of troops without particular regard for transport or terrain.  On the other hand, Grant was the man for topographic detail.

At one point in 1862, after Grant’s victories at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, McClellan ordered Grant to be relieved from duty because of some missed communications, and even authorized his arrest.  But by this time in the war, large invisible currents were propelling Grant forward, and his progress couldn’t be stopped, even after the horrors of Shiloh.  It is somehow comforting to know that in a long war with many battles, the strengths and weaknesses of the leading players cannot be disguised.  Their true worth has to come out.



In which I climb a mountain in Indonesia February 15, 2009

Posted by Jenny in hiking, travel, Uncategorized.
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Shadow of Agung at sunrise from summit

Shadow of Agung at sunrise from summit

It all started with the international coal market conference in Bali.

How could I fly halfway around the world without spending more than a few days there?  My boss, Gerard McCloskey, understood this and arranged things so that I could take a week of vacation after the conference.  This was in June 1995, and I was the U.S. editor of a Financial Times newsletter that covered the prices, the tonnages, and the ocean freights of people buying and selling coal around the world.

Through an small advertisement in the back of an outdoor magazine, I found an “adventure tour” group that specialized in Indonesia.  I talked on the phone to a very personable guy named Jim, based on the West Coast.  My first idea, of climbing Rindjani on the island of Lombok, didn’t turn out to be practical, but we decided that I could hook up with a group he was leading in Bali, and that I could climb Gunung Agung, the highest mountain on the island.  He might even climb it with me—he had never actually done that.

So I flew to Bali on one of those trans-Pacific flights in which you leave on a Thursday and get there on a Saturday, what with going against the grain of the time zones.  One of my biggest adventures occurred not long after I arrived, during a cocktail reception around the swimming pool of the luxurious conference hotel.  It is the only time in my life when I have nearly fainted.  I was standing in the hot humid dusk, holding a large gin-and-tonic in a damp paper napkin and feeling somewhat jet-lagged, when little black squares started marching across my field of vision and I had to sit down suddenly underneath a palm tree.  Fortunately, I didn’t completely pass out, and some friendly Australian coal producers hovered over me until I was able to stand up again.

After the three-day conference, I joined up with the adventure tour group at an interesting village not far from Denpasar.  I seem to remember that the buildings were all on stilts in a rice paddy.  Our group spent a few days walking across the countryside through the intricate greenness of rice paddy and jungle, and the whole group climbed an extinct volcano called Batur (5,633′), which has a large lake inside its cone.  We were led up to the crater rim by guides wearing rubber flip-flops and smoking cigarettes, but that doesn’t mean that it was easy, it only means that those guys were really amazing.  We stayed in a hotel that was pleasant except for the rats that galloped back and forth across the corrugated tin roof.

A couple of days after that, we came made our closest approach to the base of Gunung Agung.  It is now measured as 10,308 feet high, the elevation it settled at after a major eruption in 1963-64.  Jim, a graduate of Dartmouth who looked a lot like Daniel Day-Lewis in “There Will Be Blood,” decided he was not going to climb it with me, but he assigned a guide named Wayan Sukerta to lead me up the mountain.  We started from our hotel at 2:30 in the morning and drove to the trailhead at Besakih in impressively dense darkness.  The trail was easy to follow—each of us had a flashlight—and we made good progress for a few hours until we reached somewhere around the 7,000 or 8,000 foot elevation mark, when Wayan was overcome with an intense drowsiness and had to lie down to take a nap.  I didn’t hold it against him, as I knew from the past days that he was a responsible and likeable fellow.  But I didn’t feel sleepy myself, and I didn’t want to sit around waiting, so I continued up the lava slopes of the volcano by myself.

Our guides on Bali.  Wayan is at right.

Our guides on Bali. Wayan is at right.

At around the 9500 foot level, the sun started to rise, and I could now see clearly that I was on a surface that had once been entirely molten and now consisted of black fluid shapes that had frozen in time.  I was not far below the crater rim when Wayan rushed up from below, embarrassed that he had fallen victim to sleep.  We used hands and feet to climb up the last Class 3 section of hardened lava and reach the rim.  I think we may have been a little off-route.  The whole top smelled like sulfur.  We had come up the western side of the mountain, and as the sun rose, I saw the perfect triangular shadow of the mountain thrown across a thick fluffy undercast of cloud.  The sky’s blackness magically dissolved into the warm pinks and oranges that you see only in tropical air.

The lava flow seems frozen in time

The lava flow seems frozen in time

We got back down with no difficulty, and I took a long nap when I got back to the hotel.  I exchanged postcards with Wayan a couple of times after I got back home, and I still have his information in my address book.

The trip back from Bali was the longest airplane journey I have ever taken.  I left Denpasar midday, flew to Jakarta, missed a connection, got another flight to L.A. early the next morning, watched the sun rise, set, and rise again before I reached L.A. at what the clock said was a time before I had departed (due to the Alice-in-Wonderland workings of the international date line), flew from L.A. to Detroit and then to Boston.  It was a week before I recovered.

Gunung Agung

Gunung Agung