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Departure from Cythera May 15, 2011

Posted by Jenny in art.
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"Departure from the Island of Cythera" by Jean-Antoine Watteau. Click twice for full zoom.

I’ve never studied art history, but I love art. I have looked at paintings and I have thought about them as best I can. It took me a long time to warm up to rococo art. It seemed precious and artificial: cupids fluttering about in the air (you would practically have to swat them away like gnats), gentlemen and ladies dressed in foppish finery, the standard topics of the classics and of religion treated in a fussy sort of way. But some years back I did a little reading on the subject and realized that I really like Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721).

He specializes in the mood of a solitary soul amid festivities and in the circumstance that celebrations, however happy, don’t last forever. He is a distinctly melancholy sort, but the sadness is all right with me because I very much enjoy looking at the details of his paintings and visiting his world for a little while.

Portrait of Jean-Antoine Watteau by Rosalba Carriera

The Island of Cythera is the mythological place where Venus was born, or to say it in a simpler way, it is the island of love. For a long time people thought this painting by Watteau was “Departure to the Island of Cythera” (that was the way it was recorded in the minutes of the French Academy). But the consensus now is that these people are leaving, not arriving. If you look at the painting from right to left, you see three dominant couples. The first are lost in their private world. He has his arms around her, and she is listening to his endearments. The second couple are preparing to go; he is helping her to her feet. The third are nearly ready to board the boat, but she is looking back regretfully—while he has already stopped thinking about their passing experience. (Perhaps they will quarrel on the return boat ride.)

Far to the right, you see a piece of statuary with a garland of roses draped around it. Perhaps it is a statue of Venus. You see statues like that in many of Watteau’s paintings. They carry the mood of an abandoned formal garden, a haunted sort of place with flower petals blowing across the ground in a restless breeze. Then, as you scan across the painting, you see the greenery of a primeval forest and something that looks almost like a glacier in the background—and there is even a severe-looking cliff to the left, for this is a place where everything is lofty. The requisite cupids are disappearing over the water, having completed their assignment. They have done all they can. The scene is all made out of the same murky material that dreams are made out of. It looks like there is something like a distant castle underneath the departing cupids—it’s hard to tell. This is not meant to be an ordinary place.

And so a day on the magical island has come to an end, never to return again.

"Gilles" (or "Pierrot") by Watteau. It features another variety of melancholy.

Scouting the Chimneys May 8, 2011

Posted by Jenny in Civil War, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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North Chimney as seen from "Tourist Chimney"

It took two tries to come up with a route that Chris Sass and I felt would be fun for the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club outing we are going to lead in June. Club members would have survived the first route, but it might have caused some folks to swear they’d never go hiking again…

The first route called for starting at the site of Fort Harry, the idea being to do something related to the Civil War in honor of the war’s 150th anniversary. Fort Harry was built in 1862 by Colonel William Thomas’ Legion of Confederate Cherokees. Nothing remains of it—and surprisingly, there is not even a historical marker, even though a parking lot now stands at the spot—but my plan was to tell the group about the history of the fort and walk the same ground where the wooden stockade had been located. The fort served to defend the Alum Cave mines against Union raiders and generally to prevent Union forces from crossing the Smokies along the newly built road to Indian Gap. Union raiders under Col. George Kirk did get across the Smokies by way of Mt. Sterling Gap and victimized the residents of Cataloochee, but the Thomas Legion was able to protect some western NC residents against Kirk’s bushwhackers in late stages of the war.

When Chris and I arrived at Fort Harry, we found that the West Prong was running so high that crossing it would not only be difficult, it would be dangerous. So we went back to the Chimneys trailhead, where we had left a car for a shuttle, and crossed the West Prong on the trail bridge, then walked along the bank of the Prong until we approached the ridge we’d been planning to take. We started climbing fairly steeply and ran into some thick rhodo. After we reached the ridgecrest, we started encountering bluffs. We were able to get up the bluffs by holding onto roots and branches and pulling ourselves up, but it was sketchy.

Two friends who’ve been up that way found a good way to get around the bluffs by traversing to the east. We made the mistake of getting to a point that couldn’t be downclimbed without having first explored around the bottom for a better approach. I consider myself, and not Chris, responsible for this mistake.

Now came a very rewarding moment: at the top of the highest bluff was a beautiful open ledge with a large cairn. All of the off-trail routes to the Chimneys, including the officially banned Essary Route, seem to converge at this spot.

Cairn on Chimney ridge. We came up directly below this.

Above the cairn, we crossed the geological divide between sandstone and Anakeesta. There were a few more bluffs, but each time it was possible to traverse to the left (east).  We got into the really fun part, coming out onto open rock and scrambling up the wonderful Anakeesta formations that have such beautiful handholds and footholds.

Chris makes his way up the ridge

We came out on the north Chimney and paused to enjoy it before heading over the rocky exposed ridge to the tourist Chimney. From there we descended via the trail, stopping along the way to look for the Confederate Cherokee Burial Ground I’d read about. I had heard it was a short distance up the Road Prong trail. We hunted around for it but didn’t find it.

We knew we’d have to scout our hike again. Should we make another try at the Fort Harry route, looking for a better way up the cliffs? We had only one particular weekend to work with for a second scouting trip—we were running up against the deadline for getting a writeup to Charlie Klabunde for the SMHC newsletter—and we decided to be conservative and scout another route we knew would be easier: starting at the Chimneys picnic area and following the left fork of the West Prong tributary that flows through there. This time, Ben Bacot joined us for the fun. I did not take any pictures on this hike.

I arrived to meet Chris and Ben suffering from a severe sleep deficit caused by staying out late the night before celebrating the acceptance of my book for publication. My brain was having a lot of trouble getting in gear, which was soon evident when I became confused about which car(s) needed to be taken down to the picnic area and which one(s) needed to be left at the Chimneys trailhead. Fortunately, the confusion didn’t lead to the ultimate car shuttle fiasco, in which the driver of the end-point car fails to carry the car key along on the hike. (It’s happened.) Further brain fuzz became evident when I was attempting to use my compass and had the needle lined up with South instead of North. I do actually (most of the time) know how to use a compass.

But the route was not complicated, and we walked through beautiful open woods filled with tall white violets. The only annoyance was the ample quantity of nettles. Although Ben was wearing shorts, he was very stoical about the constant stinging of his legs. We ran into a belt of thick rhodo right below the ridge, but worked through it and came out at the same cairn. The upper part of the ridge featured cushions of sand myrtle in bloom, arranged artfully against masses of reindeer moss.

We had a great time. A gallery of viewers was watching us from the tourist Chimney as we approached the north Chimney, but they were disappointed when we sat down to have lunch and they couldn’t pepper us with questions.

I had obtained new information that said the Confederate Cherokee Burial Ground was not up the Road Prong trail but to the right (west) of the Chimneys trail just below the Road Prong junction. We looked. We didn’t find it, although we did spot a very interesting rock with thin, straight white bands running across it. Maybe I’ll just tell the group that the banded rock is the grave marker.

News flash: “Murder at the Jumpoff” accepted for publication May 6, 2011

Posted by Jenny in fiction, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Approach to the Jumpoff. Photo by Seneca Pressley.

Some of you know that I spent a big part of last year writing a murder mystery centered around off-trail hiking in the Smokies, Murder at the Jumpoff. I was delighted to learn today that my novel has been accepted for publication by Canterbury House, a regional publisher based near Boone, NC. If everything goes according to plan, it will be ready for publication next spring.

Here is a blurb about the book:

When a risk-taking off-trail hiker plummets to his death at the Jumpoff—a spectacular viewpoint in the Smokies— it soon becomes apparent that someone must have pushed him over the edge. The investigators’ paths lead them in a surprising direction involving a long-smoldering love affair as they close in on the murderer, who embarks on a bizarre journey of escape in a vintage 1968 GTO convertible.

“Murder at the Jumpoff” tells of the fate that befalls Donald MacIntyre, an adventurous man who is killed at the treacherous headwaters of a wild mountain stream. His death brings terrible grief to Hatsy O’Brien, a woman with an interesting past who had been secretly in love with the younger, married MacIntyre. The murder is investigated by the genial Hector Jones, a backcountry ranger who knows even the remotest sections of the national park inside and out, and by the attractive detective Sally Connolly, who finds romance blossoming with Jones. After pursuing intriguing leads involving a bitter academic feud and the illegal digging of rare native plants, Connolly and Jones home in on the unlikely suspect of Tim Strauss, a pillar of the community, whose long-buried passion for O’Brien might shed some light on the case—and who turns out to have some unexpected and humorous quirks in his personality.

Canterbury House makes a point of working with authors who are “passionate about their stories and their craft,” and it specializes in these genres:  Inspirational, Mystery, Nonfiction, Romance, Southern Fiction, and Suspense. Probably the best-known author on the Canterbury list is Rose Senehi, author of In the Shadows of Chimney Rock and other mystery/suspense works with a strong regional flavor.

Followers of this blog know that my favorite area for off-trail exploration is the upper watershed of Lester Prong and Porters Creek. These are the mysterious and challenging valleys that lead to such popular destinations as the Jumpoff and Charlies Bunion from directions that very few people attempt. A trip I did last August to the Jumpoff with Brian Reed and Seneca Pressley reminded me once again of the peculiar intensity of this area, which I first visited in 1984. When you read the book, you will find many bits of hiking knowledge from my personal experiences of bushwhacking in the Smokies. But don’t be fooled into thinking the whole thing is autobiographical—when it comes to the plot line, there are lots of things that I, well, just plain made up off the top of my head, just for the sheer enjoyment of telling a story!

Brian on cascade approaching the Jumpoff