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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.

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I am grateful for the Plott Balsams December 23, 2013

Posted by Jenny in hiking, Life experience, plants, Southern Appalachians.
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2 comments
Looking toward Pinnacle Bald from the Fox Hunters Camp.

Looking toward Pinnacle Bald from the Fox Hunters Camp.

I am so glad to live close to the Plott Balsams, a range that includes several 6000-foot peaks, located just southeast of the Smokies and north of Sylva, North Carolina. It takes me just fifteen minutes from my house to reach a major trailhead at 3000′ on Fisher Creek.

I was going to say I am lucky to have the Plott Balsams so near, but that isn’t quite the right word. That suggests that I ended up here by chance, when actually I am here because I made certain choices in my life. Years ago I opted for self-employment, which gave me the freedom to work from home and therefore the freedom to choose where I live.

I paid a price of uneven income and financial uncertainty for a while, but now I am in a more secure situation thanks to good financial advice and good investments.

Not everyone would want to live in a town of just 7,000 people that is also the largest town in its county—a pretty unpopulated area. And some probably scratched their heads when a couple of years ago I opted to move away from Asheville, such a fun place to live with so many interesting things to do. It’s just an hour away from here, and it’s nice to know it’s there, but I don’t go there all that often.

My life is very quiet. My main activities are writing, reading, and hiking. That would be too quiet for most people!

I head up to the Plotts two or three times a week, usually to go up the East Fork trail. It’s good exercise—quite a steep trail—but also I go because there’s something deeply restorative about it.

Today I headed out to get in a last hike before I leave town tomorrow to be with my sister in Massachusetts. After yesterday’s heavy rain, the mountains were shrugging the water off their backs. I made the short bushwhack from the trail to get over to the big waterfall.

Waterfall on East Fork of Fisher Creek.

Waterfall on East Fork of Fisher Creek.

Looking the other direction.

Looking the other direction.

The falls keep plunging down and down in stages, and you can’t get a picture of the whole thing at once.

I hiked up to the Fox Hunters Camp, a flat area at close to 5000′. Last winter the Jackson County rescue squad cleared out some brush there and opened up the view. The rescue squad does trail work each year before the infamous “Assault on Blackrock” trail race in March.

Even though the main area of the Fox Hunters Camp is bare, it has an incredible variety of plant and bird life. I saw hummingbirds there several times last summer. A couple of tall spruces grow down at the end.

Looking down the West Fork valley toward the Tuckasegee valley.

Looking down the West Fork valley toward the Tuckasegee valley.

Interesting mosses grow there, including this one that sends out long runners.

Moss and laurel.

Moss and laurel.

There are carpets of wintergreen.

There are carpets of wintergreen.

A shrub there is full of buds for next year. The buds remind me of leucothoe (dog hobble), but it’s a deciduous shrub.

All set to bloom next year.

All set to bloom next year.

There is a grove of red spruce not far below the camp where I like to stop and look at the dark, somber shapes of the trees.

A gathering of spruce.

A gathering of spruce.

Spruce are probably my favorite tree.

Grow and flourish, baby spruce!

Grow and flourish, baby spruce!

The streams in the Plotts take a different form than in the Smokies. Rather than scouring out U-shaped basins, they flow over the jumbled surface as if they were just temporary flows—even down in the zone of permanent water flow.

Left fork of the East Fork.

Left fork of the East Fork.

A magical place.

Lower East Fork as seen from trail.

Lower East Fork as seen from trail.

Blackrock hike August 27, 2012

Posted by Jenny in hiking, nature, Southern Appalachians.
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2 comments

Butterfly on Filmy Angelica at 5000 feet

Two or three times a week, I hike in the nearby Plott Balsam range for exercise—and for more intangible reasons. I feel very fortunate that, living in Sylva NC, I have these mountains so close. The Plotts represent the divide between the Tuckasegee River (I live with the Tuck right on my doorstep) and the Oconaluftee, over by Cherokee. They lie just southeast of the Smokies.

The Plotts boast five summits higher than 6000′. As suggested by the name, fragrant balsams flourish all along their crest. The other part of the name, “Plott,” comes from a prominent family of German descent that settled in the area and also gave their name to a breed of hounds.

The town of Sylva has created a park out of what used to be property developed for the municipal water supply on Fisher Creek. The lowest part of the park lies at 3000′. From there you have a choice of going up the West Fork or the East Fork of Fisher. Either way can lead to Blackrock Mountain (5810′) and, if you are ambitious, on along the crest to Waterrock Knob on the Blue Ridge Parkway. You might want a car shuttle for that.

There are many variations, but I much prefer the East Fork to the West, which follows an old rubbly road. The East Fork is an overgrown footpath that climbs steeply (800′ vertical in a little more than a half mile) along a beautiful stream. My most frequent exercise options are to climb 1000′ vertical, 1400′, or 1700′ along the East Fork and descend the same way. Now, in late summer, I have to bushwhack a short distance to avoid a thriving patch of knee-high poison ivy, since I’m so allergic that even if I wear long pants, the toxic juice on the fabric would attack me.

A couple days ago I made the 2800′ vertical, 8-mile round trip hike to Blackrock, which I don’t do all that often. It’s a fairly strenuous hike whose last section climbs 800′ in less  than half a mile. You feel impressed with yourself for doing it until you hear about the “Assault on Blackrock” trailrunning race in which people have done the whole thing, round trip, in 1 hour 30 minutes. That boggles my mind. It takes me about two hours longer. Oh well, that must be because of the time I spend lingering on the summit!

Going up to Blackrock via the East Fork, you climb steadily to around the 5000′ level, and then head east 0.7 miles along an old roadway that contours around. That is your breather. You then exit the easy stuff and climb up a rough footway over boulders to the ridge of the balsams. From this point on, the trails are just old manways not laid out by anyone aiming at systematic trail construction. You top out on the ridge, catch your breath, and continue past a rock crag that is not the true summit, though you can climb it either by making creative use of a dead tree leaning against the rock or going around to the other side and scrambling up a crack.

Toward the true summit, a multitude of rough paths veer in various directions. The one I chose the other day led to a vertical outcrop that I traversed while clinging to laurel branches. That was not the easiest way. There is a fairly simple way over toward the northeast side of the crag.

I will return to this subject and post more photos, but for now here are a few pictures.

From Blackrock summit looking toward Yellowface and Waterrock.

The side ridges plunge thousands of vertical feet.

At the moment, Filmy Angelica is the ascendant wildflower above 4500′. But the Plotts are just loaded with wildflowers—and with mushrooms of all shapes, sizes, and colors (I’ve found morels there earlier in the season). For the season of flaming azalea and laurel, I’ve written about it on my other blog, here.

Glade of Filmy Angelica.

Peculiar rock near Blackrock summit. Lots of peculiar rocks reside up there.

The same butterfly as at top, entranced by its flower.