jump to navigation

Woolly Tops April 10, 2009

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
Tags: , , , ,
1 comment so far

Andy Zenick on left with grimy t-shirt, Matt Kelleher with sodden jeans, Charlie Klabune as usual looking at map

Andy Zenick on left with grimy t-shirt, Matt Kelleher with sodden jeans, Charlie Klabunde as usual looking at map

“Thank goodness rhododendron doesn’t have thorns!”

(Quote from someone who went on the Woolly Tops hike)

I just love that name.  Don’t you?  It is the name of the most ridiculous mountain in the Smokies, a mountain that is visited only by people who are weird enough to love off-trail hiking for its own sake, not because of any views or any nice pathways or any other reason.  (Actually, there is one important exception.  People have been strange enough to climb it because it is a 5000-footer.  Sorry, Peter and Brian.)

Jenny with stringy hair on Woolly Tops

Jenny wins stringy hair award on Woolly Tops

I have only climbed it once, in August 1986 with the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club.  (Note from Jenny:  I’ve since been back and had a great adventure.) It is an eight-mile hike in which you climb 3400+ vertical feet, and it takes about ten or eleven hours if you go up Little Laurel Branch and come down Eagle Rocks Prong.

It had of course rained heavily the night before our outing, and more drizzle and fog engulfed us as we maneuvered our way up Little Laurel Branch.  It seemed we were climbing into the color green, a living emerald gloom.  The rainwater jumped from the brush onto our clothes.  Somewhere above the dense Smokies Rain Forest lurked a sulky sky that threatened us all day.  We climbed up the magic staircase of the stream, stepping off the boulders, pushing off the armlike roots that twined them.  It was a world of water.woolly-tops-2

Someone thought there might be a more direct route than the one scouted by leaders Charlie Klabunde and Andy Zenick.  Silly idea!  If the distance is shorter, that means the rhodo is thicker.

After our chilly lunch, we dropped down into the Eagle Rocks Prong watershed via a tributary that is labelled as Shirttail Branch on some old maps.  The powerful orb that we call the sun finally managed to penetrate through the gray as we reached Eagle Rocks and started our rockhop down to the Middle Prong.  We were able to identify the large boulder known as Elephant Rock.

Use the zoom, and you can make out the trunk of the elephant

Use the zoom, and you can make out the trunk of the elephant

Below that point, we encountered the section of Eagle Rocks Prong that had been completely scoured by one of the famous raging flash floods that are a regular occurrence in the Greenbrier.  All of the rocks had been scrubbed clean, and Charlie took a brief rest on a log that crossed the stream.


There was a difficult stream crossing down at the end to get over to the Ramsay Cascade trail.  Half of the group managed to get across without falling in.  I won’t say which half I belonged to.

Beware, oh beware, of Woolly Tops, casual hiker!  It is not for you!

Note:  I benefited from photos taken by Al Watson (seen in this post) and the “For the Record” report written by Charlie Klabunde.  These brought back into focus what had become in my memory only a blur of tangled rhodo and flowing streams.

The grave of Louis Leipoldt April 7, 2009

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, literature.
Tags: , , , ,

After visiting  “The Englishman’s Grave,” I continued along the dirt road that steadily uncurled and unscrolled toward Clanwilliam.  I was in the Cederberg region of South Africa, investigating about the Boer War.

The road between Calvinia and Clanwilliam

The road between Calvinia and Clanwilliam

I stopped several times to take pictures of the interesting rock formations.  None of the pictures turned out.  They are small and dull, while the actual places are huge and luminous.  That always seems to happen with my pictures.  As I drove along in my tiny car that had no air conditioning, on a day when the temperature was 42 degrees Celsius, or about 107 degrees Fahrenheit, I noticed another small sign along the way. This was something peculiar about my whole trip: I did not seem to read about things in advance—they just loomed up unexpectedly and caught my attention, like things encountered along the winding path of a dream.

This sign said, “The Grave of Louis Leipoldt.”  I had no clue who Louis Leipoldt was, and my ignorance remained perfect the day I stopped at his grave, for there was no explanatory marker.  But when I think back on it, I am glad that there were no words to disturb the ineffability of the place.

A metal gate stood at the beginning of a short path that led toward a rock overhang on the side of a bluff.  The gate seemed old-fashioned, like something one would find on a farm.  It was a clangy, swinging-on-the-wind kind of gate, and it displayed within a tidy metal square a name in block letters, on two lines:



The lettering style was different in some subtle way from any styles familiar to me as an American: the gate and the sign as a whole had a mysterious and talismanic appearance.

I walked to the overhang, passing close to some of the inventively shaped sandstone boulders that I had been admiring along the road.  The rock had a warm color, like living flesh.  I approached the grave.  It stood on a level rock floor beneath the overhang, which seemed like a cave when I reached it, a distinct space to be entered across a threshold.  Above the grave, on the wall of the cave, I made out faded paintings of animals: created by the San, the bushmen.  I knew that to be the case even though there was no label.

San art at Louis Leipoldt's grave

San art at Louis Leipoldt's grave

Now that I have finally learned a little bit about Louis Leipoldt, I can think of several reasons why it is a good thing that his grave at Pakhuis Pass has no explanatory marker.  It is a grave, not an exhibit in a museum; explanatory words would intrude on the perfect silence of the place: it would be hard to find the right words to describe such a complex person.

You can read a little about him here.  He has some things to say about the Boer War, as a person caught in the vicious crossfire of loyalties in the Cape Colony around 1901 and 1902, and I will write about his haunting poem “Oom Gert’s Story” in another post.

Gideon Pillow goes into combat April 4, 2009

Posted by Jenny in history, military history.
Tags: , , , ,
add a comment

Pillow first experienced combat at the Battle of Cerro Gordo

The Battle of Cerro Gordo

This continues the inspirational story of General Pillow from our earlier post.

Our hero, Brigadier General Gideon J. Pillow, arrived in Mexico in the summer of 1846 to offer his services to  Zachary Taylor.  But the Mexican war had a story line of two sturdy competing commanders with equally impressive competing epithets. Taylor, or “Old Rough and Ready,”  operated in northeastern Mexico, while Winfield Scott, “Old Fuss and Feathers,” was the commander of operations that started in Veracruz and advanced toward Mexico City.  Taylor took an immediate personal dislike to Pillow, regarding him (correctly) as a political appointee, and he invented an excuse to separate Pillow from his 1st Tennessee regiment and keep him from participating in the battle of Monterrey.

Within a few months, Pillow was transferred to Scott’s army,  along with a whole batch of other officers, when the strategic focus shifted to central Mexico.  You can take your pick of which image of Scott you prefer, the one on the left from Veracruz (1847), or the one on the right taken shortly before the start of the Civil War (1860) :



Pillow’s first taste of battle came at the siege of Veracruz, and his performance  seems to have  been satisfactory, as he headed a brigade that attacked a small Mexican cavalry unit guarding the city’s water supply.  Lumping him together with three other generals in his official report, Scott said, “Four more able or judicious officers could not have been desired.”  On the basis of this sweeping but somewhat vague statement, Pillow’s ally, President Polk, had him promoted to the rank of major general.

So far, so good.  Scott’s army marched west and again met the forces of Santa Anna at the hamlet of Cerro Gordo, about halfway to Mexico City.  On the eve of battle, Scott summoned Pillow to his tent to give him his orders, only to hear Pillow loudly protesting the dangerousness of his mission.  Yet, despite this mortal danger, Pillow proclaimed, his sense of duty demanded he obey, “even if he left his bones on the battlefield.”  One might expect that he would then turn on his heel and march decisively off into the night.  But on the contrary, according to Scott’s recollection, Pillow lingered in the tent.  He seemed to be waiting for something…it was almost as if he was hoping Scott would change his mind…

The next morning, Pillow took charge of his troops, ordering them to march along a route that happened to expose them to direct fire from Mexican artillery, rather than around the back of a ridge as planned.  The topography was complex, and Pillow had perhaps not studied it very carefully.  The orders triggered loud quarreling between Pillow and his lieutenant, who understood the consequences of ignoring the lay of the land.

Pillow’s voice carried through the air to the ears of Mexican artillerists, who promptly launched a flurry of grapeshot, now that they knew the precise location of the enemy.  It was one of the few positive events of the battle for the Mexican side, which by the end of the day was forced into an ignominious surrender. (In fact, Santa Anna was forced to ride off in such a hurry that he left behind his artificial leg, which was captured by the Illinois Volunteer Infantry.)  In the confusion of the artillery fire, Pillow received a slight wound to his arm and was seen disappearing down a hill to the rear, not to be seen again during the conflict.  A later account from sympathetic sources would say that our hero’s “impetuous courage” had led to his being wounded.

Captain Robert E. Lee played an important role at Cerro Gordo in scouting an attack route over the steep, broken terrain.  Other familiar names who served in Scott’s army: George McClellan, Joseph Johnston, P.G.T. Beauregard, George Meade, Thomas Jackson (later known as “Stonewall”), and Ulysses S. Grant.

(The series continues here)