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Hickory Knob December 22, 2009

Posted by Jenny in hiking, nature, Southern Appalachians.
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Looking from Hickory Knob toward Black Mountain

This was a short snowshoe outing in Pisgah National Forest.  It had the advantage that the trailhead is not far up Hwy. 276, close to the ranger station.  The road today was still in pretty bad shape after the weekend’s snowstorm, and I scraped bottom a few times on the snow hump in the middle.

Looking down 276 from the ranger station

From the trailhead, it is 1400 vertical feet and 2.5 miles up the Black Mountain trail to Hickory Knob, which is a bump on a long ridge.  I’d ventured a short distance up it last week and discovered that it is a huge mountain biking trail, billed as one of the gnarliest in Pisgah.  I had to dodge a few bikes as I climbed.  Maybe I’ll get a mountain bike myself—looks like fun!  A lot of great mountain biking places around here—had a similar experience in Dupont State Forest a while back.

But mountain bikes are out of the picture as long as this snow is on the ground.  I brought my heavy-duty 30-inch snowshoes for this hike, which was overkill, but…they are the only snowshoes I have.  In the lower section of the trail, I could have done without snowshoes entirely, because there had been enough foot traffic to pack it down.  After the Thrift Cove trail turned off, there were a lot of blowdowns.  Or maybe I should call them bend-downs.  In many cases they were rhodies or hemlocks whose tops had bent down under the icy snow and created a kind of arch, and I hope they will spring back eventually.

There were a lot of these obstructions in the lower elevations

After I passed the upper end of the Thrift Cove trail, the foot traffic tailed off quite a bit.  It looked like maybe one group of people barebooting it and one person with snowshoes.

The trail switchbacks around some stream valleys.  I was struck by the shapes of these laurels in the brilliant sun.

Jenny has a thing about laurels!

I think I will start a second career and become a laurel scientist.  There is something about their shapes, the texture of their bark, the way they glisten in the sunlight, that seems to fascinate me.  My main question:  how old are these plants?

I trudged up the slopes of Hickory Knob, for there is really no other way to describe upward progress on snowshoes.  Each footstep makes a loud smacking noise, then you pick up that foot, put the other one down, and so on.  The whole way, it was kind of a toss-up whether the snowshoes were worthwhile on this icy compacted snow that was starting to turn into slush.  I certainly could have done it without them, but they stabilized me on the uneven pathway, and after all, I would have had to carry them if I’d taken them off.

I finally reached the majestic summit of Hickory Knob, which is 3540′, according to my USGS quad.  I’m sure that in summer it’s just a high point among multitudes of green leaves, but in winter you get a sense of vast distances and high peaks all around—through a screen of bare branches.  I took a picture down toward the French Broad River valley.

The valley is a kind of white shimmer in the distance

What I really liked up there was that it was bright, still, and absolutely silent.

The blue sky seemed to glow through the branches as I wended my way back down.

Glowing sky. Of course it's a laurel in the foreground.

The way back down was uneventful.  Not exactly an exciting mountain conquest, but a nice way to spend a few hours in the winter mountains and get a bit of exercise.

“The odors of blossoms and aromatic wood” December 17, 2009

Posted by Jenny in literature, travel.
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Joseph Conrad’s tale “Youth” is about the intersection of two forces: the mesmerizing power of the East and the careless strength that comes from being young.  A power multiplied by a strength.  That creates the kind of intensity that you never forget, that might possibly haunt you for the rest of your life.

After an ill-fated journey on a decrepit collier that finally sinks west of Australia, the character Marlow and his shipmates row on small boats all the way to Java.  For months, Marlow has been thinking of the ship’s mysterious destination of Bangkok, a place that needs only to be a name, that needs no description.  It is a name that has a peculiar magnetic pull.  Java is not Bangkok, but that doesn’t matter.

We drag at the oars with aching arms, and suddenly a puff of wind, a puff faint and tepid and laden with strange odors of blossoms, of aromatic wood, comes out of the still night—the first sigh of the East on my face.  That I can never forget.  It was impalpable and enslaving, like a charm, like a whispered promise of mysterious delight.

After a run-in at night with the irascible captain of a vessel anchored on the shore, Marlow and his companions row their small open boat to a jetty and tie it there, then sink into an exhausted sleep, slumped over their oars.   But Marlow awakes at sunrise:

I was lying in a flood of light, and the sky had never looked so far, so high, before.

He is young, and he feels invincible.  He has

the feeling that will never come back any more—the feeling that I could last forever, outlast the sea, the earth, and all men…

He looks, sees a crowd looking back at him.

And then I saw the men of the East—they were looking at me…. I saw brown, bronze, yellow faces, the black eyes, the glitter, the color of an Eastern crowd….  The fronds of palms stood still against the sky.  Not a branch stirred along the shore, and the brown roofs of hidden houses peeped through the green foliage, through the big leaves that hung shining and still like leaves forged of heavy metal.

He sees

the wide sweep of the bay, the glittering sands, the wealth of green infinite and varied, the sea blue like the sea of a dream…

His shipmates in the three boats are still sleeping,

unconscious of the land and the people and of the violence of sunshine.

That experience of the East will stay with him the rest of his life.

I came upon it from a tussle with the sea—and I was young—and I saw it looking at me.

Marlow tells the story twenty years later to colleagues in London, all sitting and reminiscing at a mahogany table, drinking innumerable bottles of claret.  They have succeeded in their ambitions: they are a director of companies, a lawyer, an accountant—all with experience of the sea, years in the merchant service, years with the Peninsular & Orient.

Their youth is long gone.  Their lives will never again have such moments.

Does it have to be so?  Do we really have to give up that dreamlike sea, that trading in mystery, that conviction that we will last forever?  Does it really have to be so?

Old Butt Knob trail December 11, 2009

Posted by Jenny in hiking, nature, Southern Appalachians.
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View of East Fork valley from Blue Ridge Parkway. Photo by Tsimmons.

This was hardly even a hike, and I don’t even have any pictures of my own.  (The photos at beginning and end are from Wikimedia Commons.)  But this short climb gave me the kind of moments that you don’t want to trade in for anything else.

I do have to say something about that name.  How could anyone not want to go up something as ridiculous as Old Butt Knob?  Good…Ole…Butt…Knob!  But the name is outweighed by the designation that enfolds it, the Shining Rock Wilderness.

I was coming back from Waynesville, midafternoon, on a day when bad weather was stealthily moving in.  I drove east on 276, following the glinting, racing, tumbling waters of the East Fork of the Pigeon River.  I’ve been trying to decide where I want to live in western North Carolina, and I suddenly felt that I would like to live on the bank of that big rushing stream.  Probably will never happen.

I drove into the national forest and started to climb the winding road to the crest of the Blue Ridge.  Then I noticed the “Big East Fork” parking area and abruptly pulled in.  (There might even have been a squealing of tires.)  I’d read in a hiking guide about the trails that start here.  You could go up to Shining Rock itself and even Cold Mountain, up into the realm of the 6000 footers.  I remembered that you had a couple of options to get up to the major ridge, and one of them was up the good old undignified Old Butt Knob trail.  But it was described as extremely steep.

Well, that was actually just what I wanted.  I wasn’t going to climb all the way up to the Shining Rock ridge.  I just wanted to do some serious climbing for a short distance, then turn back around.  I didn’t have my hiking boots with me or even my running shoes, just my pair of leather street shoes.

So I set off along the East Fork and climbed gradually until I reached an unmarked junction and then turned off to the right and started the steep climb.  I worked my way up steadily among the laurel and rhododendron, going as fast as I could for the exercise.

I probably climbed about 1000 vertical feet before I reached an overlook of boulders embraced by the roots of pines.  Coming from New England, I thought they looked like pitch pines, but I think they are actually their southern Appalachian cousins, the Table Mountain pines.  Not white pines.  Shorter, stubby needles, bending and twisting, bristling.  I like them.

I was looking down into the long, deep, shadowy valley of Shining Creek.  Across it was a ridge with a granite-nosed stub end, Raven Cliff.  The towering slopes of gray and brown December hardwoods rose up thousands of feet.  At the top, cold gray clouds silently shifted, erasing the lines of the mountains.  I sat for a while and looked at the clouds as they flowed quietly across the mountains.

And then I ran all the way back to my car, just because I felt like it.

Shining Rock Wilderness. Photo by Jan van der Crabben.