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Bent Arm Manway on a showery day April 27, 2015

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, nature, Smoky Mountains.
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8 comments
Snowy fields of fringed phacelia along the manway.

Snowy fields of fringed phacelia along the manway.

The forecast kept changing. Showers all day—rain in the morning followed by clearing—low probability of precipitation, or high—at any rate, I suspect the uncertainty kept some folks from joining our outing.

We had nine in our group, and it was a wonderful hike. We shared an enthusiasm for the remarkable plant life that thrived all along our route, and for the bird songs, the trees, and the history of this part of the Smokies.

As it turned out, we had intermittent showers throughout the day, but the temperature remained comfortable. And what is better on an April day than to observe swarms of wildflowers gleaming with shimmering raindrops?

As I drove over to Elkmont from the North Carolina side of the mountains, I enjoyed dramatic changes in the skies. Sometimes I drove through dense fog, and other times I observed a spotlight effect of sunlight coming through the clouds.

On my drive over---dramatic sky near Newfound Gap.

On my drive over—dramatic sky near Newfound Gap.

Beams of sunlight near Anakeesta Ridge.

Beams of sunlight near Anakeesta Ridge.

As soon as we started on our way up the Jakes Creek trail, we were luxuriating in the lush cushions of wildflowers all around us.

Dwarf iris.

Dwarf iris.

Showy orchis.

Showy orchis.

Painted trillium.

Painted trillium.

When we reached the Miry Ridge trail and climbed up to the distinctive open heath area, we debated whether to make that our lunch spot. It is an interesting place, full of laurel and galax and reindeer moss, but the fog had closed in and we had no views. We opted to continue to the backcountry campsite. Just as we stopped for lunch, it started to rain fairly heavily. I took a few photos that were blurred by the dampness.

Jim and Ken talk things over in the rain.

Jim and Ken talk things over in the rain.

Hiram and Jean in their rain gear.

Hiram and Jean in their rain gear.

Michael Ray had a more sensible way of dealing with the rain.

Michael Ray had a more sensible way of dealing with the rain.

We continued along, and I started looking for the manway where the trail reaches the crest of the ridge. But Michael, who has been on the manway six times, spotted the junction before I did. I had a momentary thought: “They’re going to think I don’t know how to follow the manway.” In reality, it all worked out perfectly. There are places where you can either stay on the ridgecrest or contour along the side. At times some of us went one way and some another, but our routes were always within sight or at most calling distance of each other. The general direction remained clear.

I found that the pathway was easier to follow at this time of year than when Ken and I scouted it. At that time, the forest floor was uniformly brown, covered with fallen leaves. But yesterday, the path was often clearly marked by the relative absence of vegetation on the path. Well, at least that was true in the grassy areas, where the grass does not grow in the path. When we came to the fringed phacelia, it grew exuberantly all across the footway.

Once you reach the sharp turn to the left where you see some CCC rockwork, the old trail becomes very clear and nearly impossible to lose. It’s just that you encounter considerable rhodo and doghobble in this section.

Eventually we reached a notable spot where a quartz rock is embedded in a tree. Members of the group had different theories about this. Some thought it was a boundary marker, while others thought it was the doing of the CCC folks.

Quartz embedded in tree.

Quartz embedded in tree.

It was a truly enjoyable outing with a great group of hikers who are all seriously interested in the marvelous natural offerings of the Smokies. I will soon have to leave this area, but I will be back for visits as often as I can.

We saw this somewhere along our journey---I won't say when or where.

We saw this somewhere along our journey—I won’t say when or where.

 

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Thoughts about the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club April 4, 2015

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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4 comments
This was taken on a trip to LeConte Oct. 18-19, 1924, when these hikers agreed to establish the SMHC. Click for zoom.

This was taken on a trip to LeConte Oct. 18-19, 1924, when these hikers agreed to establish the SMHC. Click for zoom.

Those wonderful hats! What a difference from today! The Smoky Mountains Hiking Club has changed so much over the 91 years since it was organized. And those changes reflect deeper developments in society. But are those changes in the club good ones? And can we do anything about it, if society at large is moving in a certain direction?

I first joined the club in 1983. I’d recently moved to Knoxville with my former husband, Chris Hebb, who was entering the graduate program at U.T. in clinical psychology. Browsing in a bookstore, I found Harvey Broome’s classic, Out Under the Skies of the Great Smokies. All of a sudden, through Broome’s words, I plunged into a world of rockhopping up remote streams, scrambling up rocky slopes, and exploring deep into the wild inner recesses of the Smokies. Broome often mentioned the SMHC, and I decided I had to join this adventurous group. Soon thereafter, Chris and I had completed the three hikes then required for membership, and we were in.

I was very fortunate in those days to have certain wise and knowledgeable folks to guide me as I learned the technique of off-trail hiking in the Smokies. These included O.K. Sargeant, Bruce Ketelle and his son Dick, Bill Neal, Charlie Klabunde, Ray Payne, Paul Threlkeld, and Al Watson. In their company I felt secure and happy—even when the hike leaders were pondering maps and disagreeing about the routes. Since I showed such enthusiasm, I was asked to join the club’s board of directors as newsletter editor. Eventually I became the vice president, which usually leads to becoming the president. But in 1989 I moved away for personal and professional reasons, and I didn’t come back to the area until 2009. Missing those 20 years made the changes in the club stand out to me more, as I hadn’t experienced them as a gradual evolution. Over those years, the following things happened:

  • Family time became more strictly programmed, as the two-income family had to plan its leisure-time activities. These activities were no longer spontaneous, and free time became more limited. Result for SMHC: less time for people to lead hikes; more trouble in recruiting hike leaders.
  • People felt less able to commit themselves for an event a year away, as is needed for the annual printing of the SMHC handbook. The idea of saying, “Yes, I’ll lead a hike next September,” seemed unfamiliar and difficult. Result: more problems in recruiting hike leaders.
  • Our society became more conscious of liability. Result: people were less willing to lead risky hikes. The number of challenging hikes on the program steadily declined.
  • Our society evolved toward the concept of ease and convenience for everybody, never a moment of discomfort or difficulty. Result: more easy hikes, fewer of the old experiences of people cheerfully backpacking in the rain. In fact, we never do off-trail backpacks any more.

As I go over these points, I begin to understand better. The changes for the Hiking Club are parallel to other changes in society. Take education as an example. In my opinion, the big problem with education is that kids growing up no longer have an idea that learning is something valuable—that they might actually need to measure up to something outside their immediate wants and concerns, or that they might honor and respect the body of knowledge of our culture. In the same way, folks engaging in any leisure kind of activity, such as hiking, are more inclined to ask, “What’s in it for me?” as opposed to “How can I learn more and follow the example of these inspiring pioneers?”

The changes in the club go beyond the hikes themselves, to peripheral matters such as the mechanics of carpooling and the way the hikes are presented in the newsletter. For example:

  • Carpooling times. If we say “meet at 8:00,” does that mean we actually leave at 8:00? In my opinion, yes, it does. People should show up on time. If they arrive late, too bad! It used to be that people automatically noted the times of appointments and figured out how to get there on time. But nowadays, people don’t impose that kind of discipline on themselves. Doctors’ offices have to call to remind people of their appointments. That was not necessary in the past.
  • Newsletter presentation. Should our “Short, Easy” hikes be put in chronological order in the newsletter so that no one could possibly miss them? Or should they be listed as a separate item, together with the Wednesday hikes, as they are not part of the regular program? I feel that the regular program hikes go first. If people can’t trouble to turn the page and see these short-notice hikes, too bad.
  • Carpool meeting place addresses. It was requested that the street address be listed so that people could plug it into their car GPS units. I reluctantly agreed to this, thinking, “They can’t follow the directions? Or maybe even look at a map?” But maps are becoming a thing of the past. I am one of those oddballs who enjoys maps.

I want to say that the current members of the SMHC board are hard-working folks who generously donate their time and efforts for the good of the club. But I feel that we are gradually being beaten down by something pernicious in our culture, a demand for life to be convenient at all moments.

I know that I must be coming across as pretty harsh. But I would like to invite any readers of this blog, especially SMHC directors, to imagine the more positive side of what I am talking about. Imagine that a club exists that has its own traditions and its own history full of interesting incidents. This club is open to new members, but it does not feel the need to make everything easy for them. You hear about the club’s past, and you think,”I want to be part of this. I will do whatever it takes to go on these adventures.” In short, the idea of the club inspires you.

SMHC - Checking the map

A “perfect storm” of life events March 31, 2015

Posted by Jenny in hiking, Life experience, Lifestyle, memoir, White Mountains.
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29 comments
View from my deck.

View from my deck.

Within the past 10 days, these things happened:

1. My landlord told me he is going to sell the house. He’d mentioned the possibility a while back, but now I need to be out in June.

2. A short way into a hike to the Lester Prong headwaters to commemorate my mentor, Charlie Klabunde, my knee gave out (again) and I had to turn back.

3. I had a serious disagreement with a director of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club and resigned my position as newsletter editor.

4. My sister in Massachusetts, who is battling mental illness, had a crisis and went into a group home for a “respite,” as they call it.

The upshot: I have decided to return to New England, where I can be closer to my sister and try to help her out.

My living room.

My living room.

Last week was pretty terrible, the nights worse than the days: insomniac hours, waking up with a sudden jolt of anxiety. But I have come through the worst of it, and now I have moved into a new phase of this transition. My insomnia now takes the form of sudden bouts of feverish planning at 3:00 in the morning.

Last night, in the middle of the night, I decided I will move to St. Johnsbury, Vermont. But let’s back up for a moment.

1.  The house. This is a beautiful place that overlooks the Tuckasegee River in Sylva, NC. The person who built it, back in the 70s, was a carpenter with a creative spirit. It has all kinds of nice touches, like the real Portuguese tiles in the kitchen and the railings upstairs fashioned from twisting branches. It does have its problems, such as the steep narrow driveway. And after all those years, it needs repairs. But I am fond of it.

It’s not easy to find good house rentals in the Sylva area—this house is kind of a fluke. I’m renting rather than buying because I’ve always had it in the back of my mind that I might need to move back to New England on short notice. Sylva’s a small town, and most of the rentals are mobile homes. Well, I could move to Waynesville or Asheville. Nope, don’t want to do that. As far as Asheville’s concerned, “been there, done that.”

House as seen from the driveway.

House as seen from the driveway.

2.  The knee. I’ve had this problem of a dislocation of the joint for quite a while now. It flared up three years ago, got better for a while, and then went down the tubes this year. Looks like surgery is needed. I will need someone to help me in the recovery period. The treatment consists of placing a pin in the joint, and the leg is immobilized for several weeks in a cast. I have an old friend in Vermont who can help me.

3. The SMHC dispute. Ever since I took over the newsletter editor duty (after Charlie became too ill to do it), I’ve also been the resident curmudgeon (Charlie had played that role as well). I’ve advocated for preserving the traditional ways of the club—especially maintaining a program of challenging off-trail hikes. But the trend has been toward making everything easier, more accessible. The issue extends beyond the hikes themselves to things like whether we wait for latecomers at the carpool spot.  My opinion is, we never used to. Why should we now?

I need more space to explain my seemingly unfriendly position. I’ll follow up in my next blog post.

4. I would truly like to give my sister more support.

She lives in Northampton, Mass. Nice town. People in western North Carolina could think of it as “the Asheville of central Massachusetts.” It’s one of those places known for its tolerant attitudes, its restaurants of locally-sourced produce and happy free-range chickens. Inhabited by health-minded, environmentally correct souls. (Note: I more or less agree with most of those ideas, but that won’t stop me from making fun of them.)

But I don’t want to live in Northampton. It’s cluttered, it’s busy. I’ve gotten used to listening to the sound of the river running over the rapids. Noho’s too urban for me. Also probably too expensive for me to buy a house, which I want to do when I’m back in the area.

I thought of the I-91 corridor, which hits the Connecticut River Valley in Hartford, Connecticut, and follows it on up through Springfield Mass., Northampton Mass., Brattleboro Vermont, and up as far as St. Johnsbury Vermont, not all that far from the river’s  headwaters. There the highway diverges and runs toward Sherbrook, Quebec.

First I considered moving to Brattleboro, or possibly west of there in the Mount Snow area, located on an interesting high plateau of central southern Vermont (A.T. hikers know it for Glastonbury and Stratton Bald). But that area can get pretty expensive, too, and nothing about it pulls me there.

Then I started homing in on St. Johnsbury. It’s the biggest town in what’s known as Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. That consists of Caledonia, Essex, and Orleans Counties.

Location of St. Johnsbury.

Location of St. Johnsbury.

It has odd parallels with Sylva. Populations in both run only around 7,000, but both are the largest town in their county. And both are located near major mountain ranges. Sylva is close to the Smokies. St. Johnsbury is not all that far from the White Mountains, in particular the Presidential Range that includes Mt. Washington.

You may be thinking, “But Vermont means Green Mountains, not White Mountains.” Bear in mind that St. Johnsbury is in the eastern part of the state, just across the Connecticut River from New Hampshire. Within Vermont, it is close to the incredible Lake Willoughby, a narrow glacial lake 320′ deep that is framed by the dramatic slopes of Mt. Pisgah and Mt. Hor. I’ve been there many times.

Yesterday, gripped by the idea of St. Johnsbury, I researched the cost of housing. Looks like the area is in something of a real estate slump. The average price has been dropping, and houses have been on the market for long periods. Good news for buyers! I could purchase a nice little well-kept up Cape on a 0.76 acre lot for $70,000.

St. Johnsbury is too far north to be part of the trendy, touristy parts of Vermont invaded by leaf-peepers wanting to stay in quaint B & Bs, buy maple syrup, and look at covered bridges. Oh, it does get tourists, but nothing like the numbers that seasonally migrate to Manchester or Bennington.

Plus, it has the Athenaeum and the historic St. Johns Academy. The Athenaeum contains major paintings of the Hudson River School, a legacy of the local Fairbanks family. They made their money from inventing and manufacturing the world’s first platform scale in the mid-1800s.

The Athenaeum.

The Athenaeum.

It will be a straight shot down I-91 to visit my sister, a drive of 2.5 hours. North of White River Junction, the drive is on nearly empty highway. I could easily get to Northampton and back in a day, or go down for a weekend. I could stay there for an extended period.

I know some people might think, “Two and a half hours? That’s too far.” I can only say that this is the place that inspires me, and I badly need inspiration. I am giving up the Smokies. I can’t even afford to dwell on the loss these days.

Instead, I will have the Presidential Range and Mt. Washington. And big forests full of moose, and ponds with loons, and glacial ravines.

Tuckerman Ravine as seen from Boott Spur Link.

Tuckerman Ravine as seen from Boott Spur Link.