Friday, February 23, 2007

The Brown Geyser.

Me, the South Mountains, and a Virus.

As usual when I go hiking on my own, I got a late start. Carole wanted to use my truck to drive to work last night (she works nights in the maternity ward), so I had to wait until she got home at 8:00 am. Even though she got home at eight, sharp, I was still not ready and didn’t get underway until almost 9:00 pm. I had nothing to blame but my own dilapidated sense of punctuality. On the way out the door, she didn’t mention anything more about the nasty stomach virus that was going around at the hospital.

I drove uneventfully to South Mountains State Park, which is one of the closest mountain areas to my house. I was hiking by 11:00 am and had decided to first take the Chestnut Knob Trail to the peak to get some photos. The last time I’d been there it was rainy and I wasn’t able to get any good photographs. The first thing that I noted as I entered the park was that the new visitors center and office was not only completed, but open. So I pulled into the brand new parking lot and went inside where I grabbed a park map and asked a few questions of the ranger behind the big, huge, shiny, new counter. Yes, the new visitors center had been open for over a month. Yes, I could bring my travel trailer to the campground as long as the trailer was less than twenty-six feet in length. Yes, the Sawtooth Trail was closed, but only for those on horseback—hiking on foot was fine.

Sometime around the third question I realized that there was a rumbling deep down in my guts and that it wasn’t hunger and felt that I should visit the restroom facilities. Pretty darned quick.
Yes, the restrooms are open they’re down that hallway on your…I didn’t hear her say “right”, because I was moving pretty briskly down the hallway and the door was closing behind me before she could finish, I’m sure.

With suspicions that I was witnessing the nasty virus that was going around the hospital where my wife works, I evacuated my bowels quite noisily and with not a small amount of fragrance. I wiped and flushed and washed and feeling much better I left to drive to the trailhead for Chestnut Knob.

If you’ve never hiked that trail, it’s moderately steep with a gain in elevation of about 600 or 700 feet in about two miles. Not bad, but I know some people have a tough time with the climb. There’s a nice spot to stop along the way where you have a great view of the Jacob Fork Gorge in which High Shoals Falls is located. Today the sky was mildly overcast and the air was very clear so I had the best views from there that I’d ever seen. Strangely, in spite of the cold weather we’ve enjoyed the past two weeks, today had turned out extremely warm and I soon realized I could have easily worn shorts.

I stopped at the overlook for a while and took some shots. After a couple of photos, my stomach started rumbling again and with no small amount of pain I realized that I would have to once more clear the contents of my gut. I opened my daypack and found a roll of toilet paper (never leave home without backpacking toilet paper!) and cast about for a private spot in the woods where I would be least likely to shock anyone who might happen along.

Walking down slope slightly and behind some low pines, I decided that this was as good a place as any and dropped my trousers. Barely in time.

The bug-infested contents of my bowels exited at pretty much light speed I have to say. The mass hit the forest floor and drilled right through it and into the bedrock beneath and kept going. I’m sure if I check the website for the US Geological Survey, I will see that they recorded a mild tremor centered near Chestnut Knob at about noon on February 21. Roughly as that mass was passing through the molten iron core of the Earth, some neutrinos caught up with it and they all passed through the mantle together and appeared through the crust of the Himalayan plate at roughly the same time. The stuff didn’t quite have enough oomph left to reach escape velocity and fell back, and I suspect a Tibetan monk is now puzzling over the frozen, yellowish-brown mass that plummeted into his village.

Here in North Carolina I cleaned myself up and covered the small hole I’d drilled into Chestnut Knob with some leaves and dirt.

I had expected to encounter some other hikers, but all the day long I seemed to have the park pretty much to myself. After spending a few minutes at the overlook I pushed on to Chestnut Knob. Happily, the weather had completely cleared by the time I reach the Knob, and the views were spectacular. I ended up taking about 100 photos from this spot alone. It was a little after noon by this point and I was feeling much, much better, so I took out a sandwich and some water. After about half the sandwich, I realized Mr. Stomach Virus had not run its course and that I would once more have to find a private spot in which to squat. With great impetus I had to scramble down from the peak, discovering as I did so a great view of the rock tower on which I’d just been standing. This virus was serious business. The runs. The squirts. The brown geyser. I was one sick puppy and found myself merely relieved that no one else seemed to be interested in hiking the South Mountains on this unseasonably warm February weekday. There was that, at least, I pondered as I groaned and smelled up the World.

(If you ever stand at this point, you're on top of my toxic waste.)
Finally, though, I seemed to be rid of whatever it was that was ailing my innards. I’d only had a cup of coffee and two pieces of dry toast for breakfast, which I assumed was what had ended up in Tibet. And the partial sandwich had merely been the boost for this round. Yes, I was certain I was feeling much better and once I’d cleaned up, I went to my pack and drank some bottle water. It stayed inside me.

From there, I decided to take the Sawtooth Trail down to the Little River Trail and catch the Jacob Fork Trail and then the Short Trail back to the parking lot. I was totally unfamiliar with this section of the park so this was all new territory for me. Sadly, most of the terrain I traveled after leaving Chestnut Knob was pretty boring. The trails are mainly the old CCC roads from the 1930s, so they’re very wide and are basically auto roads that are open to horseback, bike, and foot travel. I didn’t see anyone else, though. I did walk through the Sawtooth Campground and it’s pretty much nothing but a wide grassy field with three metal fire pits and fire grates and a privy (which I happily did not have to use, thank Jove).

The trails were turning out to be very boring with the forest cover composed mainly of relatively young scrub oak and pines—not very pretty to look at. Soon after descending several hundred feet I came to a river crossing. Looking to my right, I could see that the stream went down a very long sliding rock. For some reason, the park service has chosen this point in the trail to dump brush and debris, and I had to push through this dried stuff to whack my way down below the sliding rock where I could take a nice photo. Once I’d done that, I made my way back to the trail and continued on.

Soon I was on the Little River Trail. As I was hiking along, I could hear rushing water. Looking to my left I saw a fence with a sign indicating that this was a dangerous spot and to stay on the trail. Of course this is an invitation to explore, and I soon discovered a waterfall that I hadn’t known existed:

Little River Falls.

(Translation: "Come Explore, Little Boy")

I had to very carefully climb down what amounts to a cliff face to get to the base of the waterfall. I used some old logs to maneuver my way down and so spent the next forty-five minutes taking photos of the falls and looking downstream to where there was another two sets of waterfalls that didn’t look to me that they were worth the trouble to photograph. A log had recently lodged itself below Little River Falls and I was able to use it as a kind of brace to take one really nice shot of the waterfall. Most of my other shots contain a lot of debris and vegetation that prevented me from getting a very clear photo of this waterfall. However, that said, it’s not a bad waterfall and I’d recommend finding it if you’re in the park.

After that I went back down to the Jacob Fork Parking lot and sat down at the picnic area and looked at my map. It was getting late—about 4:30 pm, and I decided to head up to High Shoals Falls and get a few photos there before heading back to Charlotte. As I set up my camera tripod for shots, three different groups arrived and left, all of them with dogs. I’m not a fan of taking dogs into our parks, so I’m always nervous when hikers bring their dogs along. These didn’t bother me, except for a moment when I was stuck between a boxer and a German shepherd who looked like they were about to start fighting (with me in between). Ugh.

Leave your dogs at home, people.

Packing up my tripod, I headed back down to my truck, pausing along the way to take a few dozen more photographs. Within two hours I was back home. It was a nice trip, and I really need to take my trailer to the park campground and set up shop for a few days and take my time hiking the few trails there that I haven’t seen.

And, hopefully, next time I’ll arrive at the park without my visitor, Mr. Stomach Virus.

(And, no, before you ask, it was not the pickled green tomatoes.)

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Pickled Green Tomatoes!

Pickled green tomatoes!

Oh, hail yes!

My wife has an uncle, an old-timer who grows most of his own vegetables. Every year he has quite a crop of tomatoes, and every year he ends up canning a whole butt-load of green tomatoes.

Now, if you’ve never had any pickled green tomatoes made with good brine and packed with hot, homegrown peppers, then you don’t know what you’re missing. Each season her uncle gifts us with two or three jars of these babies, and I carefully portion them out to myself until the following year. It ain’t easy.

I figure that pickled green tomatoes might actually be an acquired taste. I don’t know. I’ve loved the muthas since the first time I tried them. Now, I have to say that the hot ones are the best. Tomatoes in dill just don’t do it for me. It’s got to be the hot stuff. An amazing jumble of sweet, and tart, and sour, and hot fit for a Mexican table—that’s the way it must be.

(Oooooooooh, BAY-bee!)

Since you guys don’t have an Uncle Joe who knows how to pickle and can his own home-grown ‘maters, then go out to the nearest farmer’s market and try to hustle you up a few jars of these babies.

If you’re a real man, you’ll like ‘em.


If you don’t like ‘em…well to Hell with you, then.

Monday, February 19, 2007

A New Modest Proposal.

A New Modest Proposal.
James Robert Smith

Removing roads from some of our Southern wild areas.

Currently, this nation’s conservationists are in a serious struggle to save what remains of our roadless areas from development and exploitation by those who wish to ruin these lands and thus turn a handsome profit from such destruction.

For years, those who wish to protect what remains of our natural heritage have been struggling constantly just to fall back at a slower pace and are generally losing ground at an alarming rate. This constant and unending defensive posture is exhausting and barely profitable for the various and many groups waging the fight.

And it has occurred to me on many occasions that the progressives engaged in this struggle of slow and inexorable defeat are not in the correct type of battle. Instead of this never-ending contrition that results in bite-sized victories underscored by massive losses, they would be far better served to go on the offensive in a big and spectacular way.

As most of us who have followed the history of conservation know, one great story of preservation is that of the example set by Governor Percival Baxter of Maine. Frustrated at every turn, legislatively, to preserve Maine’s greatest peak and the lands around it, he had to wait until he’d retired from politics and slowly begin to buy up the townships of and around Katahdin. Unbelievably, he was able to do this, and donated this fantastic wild land to his native state of Maine.

All of this was done in a time and place wherein a man of some wealth was able to achieve these goals, despite the fact of the enormity of the project. Today, land has reached such a level of monetary value that to repeat this achievement would be pretty much impossible save for a handful of the very wealthiest individuals on Earth. And none of these folk seem to be so inclined.

In the absence of a few foresighted multi-billionaires, the task is left to the coffers of the government of the United States of America. Our government. Of the People, For the People, and By the People. There is no other single entity that can win out in a struggle with the vast corporations who pull the strings and which are so adept in exploiting our natural resources for the benefit of so few and to the sad disadvantage of the majority.

Unfortunately, most folk feel that what is good for those who are raping the Earth is also good for them. Nothing could be farther from the truth, and so there is the need for a solid political struggle of education and counter-propaganda against the machinations and lies espoused by corporate America. Additionally, a massive campaign of either electing or turning current legislative bodies has to be pursued and achieved. Votes must be either won or coerced.

Since there is so little remaining of our eastern roadless wildlands, I propose that new roadless areas be created. This should be the first and most powerful thrust of a new movement created to promote and encourage a new modern conservation. There must be a new Restoration.

Looking at a map, there are several obvious areas here in my native South that would benefit from the destruction of some major roads. First and foremost, and serving as an excellent test run, would be the Tran mountain highway connecting Gatlinburg Tennessee to Cherokee North Carolina. The first step in this process would be the removal of the auto road to Clingman’s Dome. At 6,643 feet above sea level, this is both the highest point in the state of Tennessee, and the highest peak in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Removing the auto road from this extremely beautiful and fragile environment would be a boon to the park and the life that exists on these lands. Because of the elevation and the weather and the vegetation, removing the roadbed and restoring the slopes to the most natural state possible would aid greatly in the learning curve that would hopefully result in the removal of many other great stretches of unneeded roads across the Southeast.

There would be, I predict, great benefit economically to such a massive public works program. Tens of thousands of workers would be needed, perhaps millions. The private sector, in association with a strictly regulated and heavily funded Corps, similar to our old Civilian Conservation Corps, would work in concert to restore our most fragile and ecologically precious areas. As soon as the Clingman’s Dome Auto Road is removed, the next step would be to completely eliminate the highway connecting Cherokee and Gatlinburg.

To be sure, there would be mass opposition from some areas of the private sector against this project. Buying off other wings of the private sector via the enormous government paychecks necessary to achieve this objective should more than offset the voices of opposition. Basically, enable one segment of the very rich to squash another segment of the very rich.

If this particular project seems like too much of a burden to initiate the restoration of these new, vast segments of roadless areas, then the Cherohala Skyway connecting Robbinsville NC and Tellico Plains TN would be a fallback project to get the system under way. This road lies completely on Federal property and has proven to be a massive waste of taxpayer money at the expense of having destroyed what had been a pristine and stunning roadless area in western NC and eastern TN. Removing this road would likely prove to be politically easy and more economically viable, since the Cherohala Skyway has proven to be of almost no benefit to the economies of the two very small villages at either end of this monstrous project. Removing the roadbed and restoring the contours of the peaks and ridges would be a mighty undertaking resulting in the employment of many and the education of countless engineers and ecologists.

After these initial roads were removed from our maps and our ecosystems, we could next tackle two more motor roads that have blighted our Southern highlands for many decades. I propose that the next targets for removal should be the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive. Instead a narrow strips of land preserved on either side of a two-lane pavement; Skyline Drive would become a substantial parcel of fragile high country straddling the Blue Ridge escarpment. Nothing but good would come of this, and access to the peaks and coves could still be had via foot and (highly regulated) horseback.

To remove the Blue Ridge Parkway would be to restore the greatest piece of the South’s natural heritage. This awful road tears through the very highest and most scenic lands along its length. Almost any chance of solitude has been lost due to the existence of this long parkway. It should be removed at the earliest opportunity and the peaks and gaps along the length of it allowed to return to their natural state. All access to these high elevation areas should thereafter be only via foot travel and by (heavily regulated) horseback paths.

After these first projects have been achieved, then other such similar areas can be studied and examined for a return to roadless status. There are probably hundreds of likely candidates for roadless restoration. The entire area between Highlands NC and Brevard NC could be made wild and roadless via the use of road removal, dam removal, and the judicious and liberal use of eminent domain and condemnation. A fair market value can be paid for the estates of the elite and removal of structures, power lines, septic tanks, and waste sites. Again, the prospects for employment and the profit by private companies engaged in these projects are enormous. The profits to our water tables, forests, and ecosystems are inestimable. The value of restoring these areas to a wild state and giving back lands in which true isolation can be found and enjoyed are also invaluable.

This is, in total, merely a new modest proposal for our modern times. The sooner we get busy to see it done, the better.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Bagging some peaks in Hickory Nut Gorge.

Hickory Nut Gorge, located in North Carolina just south of the city of Asheville, is a classis southern Appalachian gorge. It’s relatively deep, ranging from just a few hundred to well over one thousand feet in depth, and moderately narrow. It is cut by one major tributary, the Broad River.

The lower section of the gorge was dammed many years ago to form Lake Lure, widely considered to be one of the prettiest man-made lakes in North America. Since the lake is almost cupped by the escarpment walls of solid granite that form the tail of the gorge, it is undeniably a strikingly scenic location. The real estate around the lake is some of the most expensive in the state, and hardly a square foot of it remains undeveloped. Houses stand in close proximity to one another, and there is almost no public access to the lake itself. And no slope, no matter how steep, seems to be free of a house of some type as long as that land is waterfront. It is both a horrifying and humorous sight.

The gorge itself is also heavily developed, with two communities lying deep within it: Lake Lure, and Bat Cave. All along the gorge are inns, shops, two post offices, restaurants, private campgrounds, one amusement park (Chimney Rock Park), and uncounted thousands of vacation homes with accompanying driveways and roads being endlessly cut through the forests and gouged into the slopes of the gorge and onto the ridgelines.

However…all is not lost.

There is something like a wilderness aspect of the land still to be found in a couple of places within Hickory Nut Gorge. With the help of the Nature Conservancy, the State of North Carolina has managed to procure the ownership and/or conservation easements of just under 3,000 acres of land on either side of the gorge just above Lake Lure. Chimney Rock Park has been purchased by the state, and a good portion of both Rumbling Bald Mountain and Shumont Mountain are now in the hands of the state and will all be a part of the new park, due to be open to the public in 2008.

Currently, there are no facilities at all within the lands to be incorporated into the park boundaries, but one is allowed to hike there, and Rumbling Bald has become the single most popular rock climbing location in the entire state (if not the entire Southeast). On any given day of nice weather, be prepared to share the climbing routes on Rumbling Bald with dozens of other rock climbers.

The forests of Hickory Nut Gorge are typical of the southern Appalachians. Mainly cove hardwoods, there are some patches of hemlock groves here and there. None of the trees seem to be of exceptional size, since the forests are almost all second and third growth. I have encountered a few old trees, though.

The gorge is best known outside the area as the location of the last scenes in the popular film, Last of the Mohicans. Most of these scenes were shot within what is now Chimney Rock Park, and which contain the “Chimney Rock” itself, a vast number of high granite walls, and Hickory Nut Falls, one of the tallest in the Southeast (at 404 feet).