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In South Africa: Remember Us. November 23, 2010

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, memoir, military history.
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Some of the graves did not even have markers

This is the most important thing about my trip to South Africa. And this is my final report about the trip. This was more important than my wildlife sightings, and more important than my experiences of the battlefields. We visited the sites of many people who died, and thanks to the Anglo-Boer War Museum, we placed a commemorative flower at each site. It was an artificial flower—which lasts a long time—and a statement about our honoring of the dead.

I think everyone who went on our tour of the Natal battlefields placed one of these flowers at an appropriate site. And for me, the wonderful thing was the connection between the person of the present and the person (or people) of the past.

Here we had the flag of the Orange Free State.

Here we all are.

I was very honored to be asked to place the flower at Surprise Hill.

Grave of an unknown soldier (at Spionkop). Many, many died without being known.

This actually turned out to be funny. He had a fleece jacket that said "Oxford Union Crew." When the Boer descendants objected to this Anglo attire, he removed the jacket only to have a T-shirt that said "Tommie personnel" (though it only referred to the Thomas School, not to the "Tommies" who were the foe in the war).

He still had Anglo-oriented attire, much to everyone's amusement!

This grave made me weep, even though it was an English journalist rather than a Boer fighter.

The memorial reads, “George Warrington Steevens: War Correspondent of the Daily Mail. He died of enteric fever during the siege of Ladysmith 1900 aged 31 years. This cross is sent from his broken-hearted wife from the country he loved so well, her hearth is left unto her desolate.”

He wrote brilliant and insightful dispatches from the besieged town of Ladysmith. I cried when I saw this.

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Visions of Sugar Cove danced through our heads November 22, 2010

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, Smoky Mountains.
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Crossing Tiptons Sugar Cove Branch

This outing of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club was supposed to be a moderate off-trail hike featuring an old road and pleasant open ridges: up Pine Ridge and down Sugar Cove Ridge. However, due to a navigational error, we ended up descending a nameless greenbrier-infested ridge that led into a dense rhododendron thicket along Bower Creek.  I didn’t really mind the rhodo that much. But some people didn’t like it at all—no, no, not one bit.

In spite of the rhodo episode, I think most of us would agree that it was a great outing overall.

The navigational error was a very easy one to make in amorphous, deceptive terrain. Even though a surprisingly large number of our group were experienced enough to have led SMHC off-trail hikes over the years—I believe seven of our group of eleven had been either leaders or co-leaders on those kinds of outings, or a startling 63%—we failed to notice that as we departed the flat area below High Point, we were heading east rather than northeast, and getting onto the divide between two forks of Bower Creek rather than Sugar Cove Ridge.

We started our hike at the Gregory Ridge trailhead. This was the first time I have done a hike in the Cades Cove area since I moved to Asheville. I’ll probably do hikes there again—but not very often. I started driving at 4:45 a.m., thinking to allow plenty of time, as I’m a chronically early person. I blame my parents for instilling in me the idea that keeping anyone else waiting is the ultimate sin.

Driving at 5:00 in the morning has its advantages. I passed exactly one vehicle on I-40 in the 46 miles between Asheville and the Tennessee state line. Patches of dense woolly fog hung over the highway as I wended my way through the Pigeon River Gorge, but each time as I reached the far side of a fog bank, I noticed a lovely silvery tint to the fog as the bright moonlight started to burn through. Fleecy silver clouds dotted the dark blue sky higher up, decorating the space above the shadowy ridges. It reminded me of the packaging for Gitanes, a French brand of cigarettes that I sometimes smoked during my evil teen years.

Gitanes cigarette pack

Okay, enough of these irrelevant autobiographical musings. I made good time going through Cosby and Gatlinburg and along the Little River Road. But as soon as I reached the Cades Cove loop, everything changed. I got stuck in a clump of about 12 vehicles following a very slow pickup truck. I know what the driver of the pickup was thinking: “Hey everybody, just slow down and enjoy it. That’s what we’re here for.” If I had been closer to the offending vehicle, I would have explained to the driver that some of us have visited Cades Cove many times and were simply trying to reach the starting point of a hike.

So, after traveling at 5 mph around the loop (I am not exaggerating), I arrived at the trailhead exactly at 8:15, the time I was in fact supposed to be there. But being who I am (okay, here comes another irrelevant autobiographical musing), I would have preferred to make my own decision about my timing rather than having it controlled by someone else. I had fantasized getting in a 30-minute nap at the trailhead.

But I was instantly invigorated by the hearty good cheer of our group as soon as the others arrived, and we walked briskly up the Gregory Ridge trail a short distance to where we left it for an old road that goes up past the foundations of some settlers’ houses. Ed Fleming had a map of the house locations, marked with the residents’ names—some of them were kind of funny, like a guy with the nickname of “Chicken Eater.”

We made the creek crossing shown at top and found some of the foundations.

This foundation had part of an old stove sitting on the remains of the chimney

This particular house also featured part of some old bedsprings hanging from a tree.

Bedsprings hanging from tree trunk

Where the streambed and old road started to get brushier, we headed up to the west to top out on Pine Ridge. It was a moderately steep climb through open woods, very pleasant. After a break for something to eat, we continued climbing the ridge, reaching a relatively flat area at about 4000 feet, north of High Point. It was when we started descending from there that we made our navigational mistake. The greenbrier was a bit annoying, and then we came down to a rhodo-infested creek, where our mistake became obvious.

But we recovered, after a short stretch of rhodo-thrashing (and rhodo-trashing, as well).

Claudia fights the rhodo

We got through the worst of it and climbed up a side ridge of Sugar Cove Ridge. (When we reached the top, I thought we were on main Sugar Cove Ridge. I was wrong, as I was able to see with the help of a compass.) We continued up and did some steep sidehilling until we did in fact top out on the main ridge. We had been forced to re-climb about 400 vertical feet and to do some serious backtracking, but it was the best way to recover from the mistake. And it really wasn’t that bad. So we descended the ridge that was pleasant and open, just as described in the hike writeup.

Descending Sugar Cove Ridge

I liked the way the surrounding mountainsides were glowing in the late afternoon light.

Glowing mountainsides through the trees

From a gap at 2400 feet, we dropped back down to the old road on the branch. We made the lower creek crossing, noticing some interesting marks on a dead hemlock. Some hemlocks in the park have been marked with spots of blue paint to indicate that they should be treated for the hemlock woolly adelgid. But this one had been painted in a slightly different way.

Grumpy hemlock

We got back to the trailhead just as it was starting to get dark. I’d hoped to take the one-way Parsons Branch Road to get over to the NC side of the park, but it was gated, so I got to experience another stint of 5-mph driving as I exited Cades Cove. But after that it was fine, as I gambled that the Newfound Gap Road and the Blue Ridge Parkway to Soco Gap would be virtually empty of traffic on a Sunday evening in November, and I turned out to be right about that.

The lure of Eagle Rocks November 18, 2010

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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A tributary of Eagle Rocks Prong

For years I have been intrigued by the idea of following Eagle Rocks Prong all the way up to the A.T.—up the Eagle Rocks cliffs themselves. A year ago, a group of five attempted to go over the top of Woolly Tops, down into a tributary of Eagle Rocks Prong, and then up to the cliffs. After spending a night on Woolly Tops, we had to abort our plans because of high water conditions. The rhodo was too thick on the streambanks, the water on our minor side stream too fast and too high to wade.

This was taken on last year's trip

Now there are rumblings of another attempt to be made next spring. It remains to be seen whether we will actually be able to coordinate schedules for what now looks like could be a three-day trip, going up the Prong, camping at the base of the cliffs, going up the cliffs and back down for a second night, then going back out the Prong with a possible side trip to Rock Den on Chapman Prong.

The Smoky Mountains Hiking Club did this trip back in the 30s and 40s, following an old footpath along the stream that was already hard to find back then. We’ll assume that above Buck Fork or so, there is no trace at all of any path. Here is a description of a 1942 trip from Harvey Broome in Out Under the Sky of the Great Smokies:

The next day we walked up Eagle Rocks Prong along the old trail which is so far gone that we were off it as often as we were on it… At the Laurel Top fork we took to the creek, and skirted great pools as we moved readily along the dry rocks at the edges. We climbed gradually through comparative flats and open woods until the Stateline loomed ahead of us, appallingly steep. At the first great cliff, lying close to its base, we found snow—a drift 40 feet long and two feet thick. There was momentarily a wintry sting to the air. We climbed the spikes of a leaning spruce and surmounted the first falls. Once we pushed over a loose rock which dropped with sickening momentum, hit with a splintering crunch and bounded on, gaining speed as it fell. It was frightening even to think of falling in such places. Then we saw the Black Cliff—a dry, warm, gnarled, lichen-covered surface with the water trickling in a fissure at the side. The cliff opened out over a gulf so steep we could look into the tops of trees, and on across a wide-flung blue world of mountains.

You can see Dutch Roth’s photo of hikers, probably SMHC members, climbing a cliff in the area here. It’s fun to read about these trips from the middle decades of the last century. One of the people who plans to do the trip next spring stumbled across an article about a trip done up the Prong in 1956 using equipment that sounds outlandish to us now, such as a “Trapper Nelson packboard.” Reading that whets the appetite to explore what could be considered the wildest, most rugged area of the park. And so, as I go through the winter months ahead, I will have this wonderful place to think about.

Resting on a log on lower Eagle Rocks Prong, SMHC trip 1986