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Panther Stairs January 28, 2012

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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One of the "stairs" that has to be negotiated.

Today I did a solo bushwhack up Rich Butt to Cammerer. Rich Butt is labeled as a mountain on the USGS Hartford quad, and it does kind of look like a mountain if you view it from the Toms Creek valley, but it is actually a ridge that hits the 5000′ high point on the Cammerer side trail (a point that is higher than the point where the lookout tower is located). People often call it the Panther Stairs—bigger stairs than the Cat Stairs over on Greenbrier Pinnacle.

I climbed it once before, in 1997 on a visit to the Smokies from my then-home of Massachusetts. That was a Smoky Mountains Hiking Club outing led by Fred Kitts and Charlie Klabunde in October when the colors were blazing. Nothing was blazing today, but I found that I enjoyed the eerie fog that shrouded the upper ridge.

The fog came in on panther feet.

When I arrived at the Cosby parking area, I discovered that I had left something at home on my kitchen counter next to the door—my map! Details, details! But since I had been studying it the evening before, I felt that I remembered it well enough. The crucial thing was identifying the point to leave the Lower Cammerer trail and head up the left fork of Toms Creek. But I remembered that Toms Creek was the first creek encountered along the trail that had two branches very close together. I figured that as long as I trended east, the very worst that could happen was that I’d hit the stateline ridge at some other point along the upper bowl of Toms Creek.

Toms Creek

Toms Creek was running high after all the rain of the past week, but I didn’t need to rockhop it. I found a faintly visible old road along it that worked out great.

I hit Rich Butt just fine, following the side ridge that parallels Panther Branch. The next time I do this hike, I will stay longer with the branch and hit the top ridge further along (but still below the “stairs”). The main problem along the ridge was greenbrier.


A minor annoyance, but nothing compared with the briers of Huggins Hell.

The ridge stays almost level for a while, then starts climbing more and more steeply, and that is where you encounter the “stairs.”

The first major stair.

I had thought I might encounter some old ice from last week’s cold temps, but there was none. I had brought my ice axe, my microspikes, and my crampons. I needed none of these. The ice axe ended up seriously getting in my way—it was an experiment for me, the first time I’ve used it in the Smokies. (I used it fairly often in northern New England.) I have a leash on it to prevent it from sliding away down a steep slope, and I found myself dragging it behind me in places I needed to use both hands. Of course it kept getting snagged on the brush.

My ice axe.

It’s a long mountaineering axe (30″) rather than an ice climber’s axe, so attaching it to my pack wasn’t an option, as the spike would stick up and constantly get hung up in the brush.

The fog closed in as I climbed. I could see that it was brighter down in the valley.

Looking into the Toms Creek valley and beyond.

I liked the view down the ridge.

Down the ridge.

The laurel near the top was denser than I’d remembered, but finally I popped out on the Cammerer side trail. I didn’t even bother going over to the lookout tower, because I knew it was completely socked in—the fog had thickened beyond what’s pictured above and erased any visibility.

I’d thought of dropping down off-trail into Panther Branch, but I decided not to because at that moment I was tired of dealing with the laurel. So I headed out to the A.T. to go to Low Gap and then down to Cosby campground. Not far along the A.T., I encountered two park rangers.

They asked me if I’d seen any other people and where I had been—I got the impression they were looking for a missing person. I told them I’d come up Rich Butt, and they didn’t know where that was. I don’t hold it against them—they said they were both new to the park. “Please educate us about that,” one of them said. They were very pleasant and didn’t get on my case about bushwhacking solo.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I must have looked kind of scary. I had a big brier scratch on my face, and my right earlobe was completely bloody. Plus I had the ice axe! Reminds me of the time I was in L.A. for a business conference and did some winter hiking on Mt. Cucamonga. On my way back from the hike I had to return my rental car and get a cab into town for some logistical reason I don’t recall. I was standing next to palm trees near the L.A. airport, waiting for a cab, and none of them would stop—no doubt because I was standing there with the axe!

My trip back via trail was uneventful. Below 4000′, I left the fog behind. A good outing. And my bum knee held up really well.

The hallways of the Fog King.

Lincoln Highway: Illinois January 25, 2012

Posted by Jenny in history, railroads, travel.
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War Memorial Arch over Lincoln Highway in Dixon, IL

In this series of posts, we journey on the Lincoln Highway from New York City to San Francisco, taking it state by state. Go here for an introduction.

Illinois proclaims on its license plates that it is the “Land of Lincoln.” It is therefore fitting that the national headquarters of the Lincoln Highway Association are located in Franklin Grove, IL, a small town smack in the middle of the state’s Lincoln Highway miles.

Westward all the way from Philadelphia, it’s been possible to follow the route of the Highway most of the time by driving US 30. It gets more complicated in Illinois. Entering the state from Schererville, IN, we follow Route 30 as far as Aurora, but then veer north on IL 31 to Geneva. There, we turn west on IL 38 and journey through De Kalb, Rochelle, and Dixon. At Sterling, the Highway rejoins US 30 and departs the state at Fulton to cross the Mississippi River into Iowa.

Soon after entering Illinois, we pass through Chicago Heights, which the city proudly proclaims is “The Crossroads of the Nation.” At first glance, it doesn’t seem all that obvious why the city deserves this description. Shouldn’t the crossroads be closer to the geographic center of the United States, which is Lebanon, Kansas—much further south and west?

The reason is more historic than geographic: Chicago Heights is where the Lincoln Highway crosses the Dixie Highway, a highway that was inspired by the Lincoln—the Dixie project was organized in 1914, just a year after the Lincoln Highway was conceived. It, too, was promoted by Carl G. Fisher. Both were part of the National Auto Trail system.

Fountain erected by Arche Women's Club in 1916 at Lincoln-Dixie intersection

As you see from the map below, the Dixie Highway was not a single route but rather a set of interconnected highways. It had a major split between an Eastern Division and a Western Division (the Western is what passed through Chicago Heights), with various connecting links.

Map of the Dixie Highway

Looked at from one point of view—the large number of divergences and splits in the route—the Dixie Highway disappoints. But from another point of view, it’s wonderful: you can follow it from Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, to Miami. I was even more intrigued when I suddenly realized that I live just a block away from its Carolina Division, which uses what’s now US 25 to go from Knoxville to Waynesboro. Yes, that’s Weaverville Road in Asheville!

Chicago Heights had to fight for the Lincoln Highway to be routed through its downtown area. Back in 1914, the Chicago Heights Automobile Association learned that the Lincoln Highway was to bypass it to the south, going through Frankfort. This was not to be! The citizens of Chicago Heights marshaled their forces. On the quickly designated Illinois Good Roads Day (April 15, 1914), residents of the city went out to spread100 loads of stone on what would become the Highway’s route south of downtown. The Lincoln Highway Association, impressed by the dedication and the sweat, decided to route the highway through downtown Chicago Heights, thus giving travelers the benefit of the city’s hotels, restaurants, and garages, and the city the benefit of all that extra business.

Driving west of Chicago Heights, we arrive at Geneva, which boasts the Fabyan Windmill, dating to the 1850s. Oddly enough, we will encounter another windmill along the route of the Lincoln Highway in Illinois.

Windmill in Geneva, IL

In De Kalb, it’s possible to visit the Barbed Wire History Museum, which commemorates the inventions of city resident Joseph Glidden.

Glidden's four-point triangular line (top) and military concertina wire (bottom)

Continuing across the state, we arrive at Rochelle, known as “Hub City.” As in the case of Chicago Heights, the reason for the designation isn’t all that obvious from a glance at the map, but here the explanation lies in railroads as much as highways: it is located at the crossroads of two major rail lines, the Union Pacific and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe. What’s really great is that the city has created a park where railfans (English equivalent: trainspotters) can watch trains pass through this junction.

Diamond junction of UP and BNSF

As something of a railroad buff myself, I was enthralled when I learned the story of the Rochelle Railroad Park. Apparently, railfans were parking very close to the interchange siding to watch the trains go by, creating a safety hazard. Rather than banning viewers from the area, the city decided to create a park where railfans could safely watch the trains. It created an elevated viewing platform with picnic tables and added a museum, complete with a re-created hobo jungle as well as a historic locomotive, a display of tracks, and a model railroad shop.

The city even included a scanner in the picnic area so that railfans can hear radio traffic on the two railroads. Fantastic! I hope to go there myself some day.

At Franklin Grove, travelers can visit the national headquarters of the Lincoln Highway Association. That is another place I would like to visit.

Downtown Franklin Grove

Further along, the town of Dixon is known not only for its War Memorial Arch (see at top) but for its Petunia Festival. In the early 1960s, after Dixon’s elms were decimated by Dutch elm disease, the town decided to beautify its streets by planting thousands of pink petunias. The petunias continue to be planted, watered, and maintained every year, and in July, Dixon puts on a parade, carnival, concert, and fireworks show.

At the western border of the state in Fulton, travelers can view another windmill. The interesting thing is that this is a recent construction. The city of Fulton contracted with a Dutch company to build the structure. The parts were fabricated in Holland and shipped to Illinois, where they were assembled in 1999. Today, the mill grinds wheat, buckwheat, rye, and cornmeal atop a flood control dike on the Mississippi.

De Immigrant Windmill, Fulton, IL

And now we cross the mightiest river and enter the West.

Lincoln Highway in De Kalb

Only in Asheville January 19, 2012

Posted by Jenny in hiking, memoir.
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Today I went on a short hike on the Mountains-to-Sea trail. I’ve been recovering from flu and needed something to get back into gear. I started at Ox Creek Road, went to Rattlesnake Lodge, then took the steep route up to the upper spring and looped back down. This is a very popular hike with Ashevilleans, at least as far as Rattlesnake Lodge. It offers all the basic ingredients: views, historic interest (remains of the old lodge buildings from the early 1900s), distance suitable for a stretch-your-legs sort of outing.

It becomes even more heavily used when the Blue Ridge Parkway is closed north of Bull Gap, because that cuts off several other good hiking options close to town. Right now the BRP is closed all the way from Bull Gap to NC 80 because that section goes through a 5000’+ elevation zone from the Craggies to Mt. Mitchell. I wouldn’t guess there’s much ice on it at the moment, but we’ve gotten to the time of year when it just stays shut so that the Park Service doesn’t have to bother with it.

Blue Ridge Parkway sign

I’ve discovered with this MST section that a lot of people like to hit it in the early afternoon, after they’ve gotten some work done (like me) or gone to classes and just need a break. This time I got there before peak hiking traffic hit, and I made it all the way up to the spring before I started seeing people—lots of people—all kinds of people. Today it seemed that the variety of humanity was particularly entertaining.

My first encounter was startling for both of us. I was pushing up to the spring and emerged abruptly onto the upper trail, only to find myself practically on top of a refined-looking man with a silver beard who’d been peacefully eating his sandwich. He looked at me as if I’d come from outer space, but in a moment recovered himself enough to greet me politely.

Next I encountered two women with a large dog, a configuration frequently encountered in Asheville. They were not dressed like the women in the Wikimedia photo below, but it’s such a great photo that I include it just for fun.

Note the guy on the park bench

Next I encountered a playful young couple. He was picking her up and carrying her down the trail—her legs were around his hips and her arms encircled his neck. Not flustered at all by my appearance on the scene, they had just reached a large grapevine hanging from a tree, and it looked like he was going to try to swing on the vine with her hanging onto him!

Next, a mismatched pair: a short middle-aged woman in a pink parka, carrying no pack, with a young man carrying a very large overnight backpack. She looked like she might be his mother. I greeted them, and the young man spontaneously explained that he was training for doing some hiking on the Appalachian Trail. Whether or not it was his mother, I thought it was wonderful that this unathletic-looking woman was giving him companionship and support!

Map of A.T.

Next, a 50-ish woman who looked like a practitioner of yoga (at any rate, there was a car in the trailhead parking area with a bumper sticker for a yoga studio, and she seemed like the most likely match).

Next, father and daughter who looked maybe six. She was explaining to him, “Daddy, water is good for you. Can I have some water?”

Finally—best of all—two guys carrying skateboards. It took me a moment to figure it out. “You’re going on the Parkway!” I exclaimed. They laughed at my momentary confusion. What a great idea: with the section of Parkway closed that runs very close to and parallel to the trail, they were hiking up to the Tanbark tunnel connector, where they’d head down to the BRP and have a beautiful cruise down several miles of empty pavement!