Monday, March 30, 2009

Inside the Mountain

I don't really like caving. I've been inside a few caves, but it's just not for me. And I certainly don't want to ever put myself into some of the more claustrophobic situations that seem to thrill a lot of the folk who get their jollies crawling deep beneath the earth.

Jack Thyen, at the cave entrance.

However, sometimes I'll do some very moderate caving. Once was after hitting a major rock climbing summit on Rumbling Bald Mountain. Rumbling Bald is a huge, cliff-faced mass that rises above Lake Lure (not far from Asheville). It was named for a series of earthquakes that hit the peak in the late 1800s. The tremors were so powerful that "smoke" was seen rising from the mountain and it was assumed that the peak had become volcanic and was about to blow. In fact, it was just granitic dust clouds blowing into the air from vast slabs of stone snapping off and shifting within its honeycombed interior.

Inside one of the large interior rooms. Keep in mind that it was pitch dark in there. My camera flash creates the illusion of illumination. We were, of course, wearing headlamps.

One of my hiking pals, Jack Thyen, suggested that we visit a cave in the side of the peak after we'd climbed down from the summit. This was about as adventuresome as I'm ever likely to get when it comes to caving. We crawled through a small entrance into the cave (there's a well-marked trail to the location) and found ourselves in an almost cathedral-like room. From there, we made our way around the cave, finally climbing up to a spot called "the Attic Window", a perforation in the cliff face that allows you to look down on the forest through which you'd climbed to find the cave entrance. If you get a kick out of climbing a mountain from within the mountain, it's a unique experience.

One of the views from the Attic Window.

Finally, though, the idea of being inside Rumbling Bald Mountain began to get to me. What if it starts rumbling again? I kept thinking. Maybe it's overdue for a great huge round of rumbling. Maybe all of these uncountable tons of granite will want to shift toward the earth again! Maybe we'll get squished like bugs!

Jack, in a lower chamber, on our way out of that damned place.

It was quite good to get out of there, I have to say.

This little guy was on the ceiling of one of the first rooms we came to. He seemed quite oblivious of us.

Sunday, March 29, 2009


Question: Why?

Horse Rock, Black Mountains, North Carolina.

Little Green Mountain, Panthertown Valley, North Carolina.

Burgess Falls, Cumberland Plateau, Tennessee.

Bed & Breakfast, Freeport Maine.

Key West, Florida.

Apple Orchard Falls, Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia.

Potato Knob, Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina.

Douglas Falls, Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina.

Wiseman's View, Linville Gorge, North Carolina.

Answer: Because Life is Just Way Too Short to Sit Still.

"We are here on Earth to fart around. Don't let anybody tell you any different."
Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Finalizing Plans


Lying in the bed in my Casita trailer and looking at a map. Just a few more days until we head off to go camping and canoeing for two weeks. I got the roof rack added to the camper shell on the truck so that we can carry the canoe along. We're thinking of leaving the bikes this trip. There's only so much you can pack into a trip in the way of physical activities. Looks like the bikes will be left behind. I'm thinking that I should buy either an underwater digital camera or one of those waterproofing cases that are on the markets now. I want to get some good shots in case we encounter manatees as we did last year, and those disposable underwater cameras limit you to a few shots.

Look out! He's comin' right at ya!
Touching the flipper as it passes by.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Parting Shots

Beginning of the hike.

Blue Jay Falls: The trail runs along the base of this little waterfall.

This video indicates the extreme damage done to the forests of the gorge by the fires of 2007.

Roughly, this was the route of our hike. The blue line was the hike down into the gorge along the Pinch In Trail. The red line indicates the retracing of the route back up Pinch In then a cross country bushwhack to where we picked up the Rock Jock Trail to where it intersected with the Conley Cove Trail and then to the parking lot where we picked up Jack's truck and drove back to my truck at the Pinch In parking lot. (Whew! What a hike!)

Where we ended the hike.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

End of the Hike

Toward the End of a Long Day.

Jack took this shot of Boone, me, and Andy Kunkle at our last stop along the Rock Jock Trail. I, particularly, had to make a rest stop. My thighs were cramping from being out of shape for all of the extreme climbing we'd been doing. Also, my body had sweated out a lot of minerals and this always exacerbates the cramping in my thighs, sometimes even when I'm in good physical condition. I was eating a peanut butter bagel to get some salts and such back into my system. Jack ended up giving me a caffein-loaded aspirin pain killer that finally did the trick and got me feeling normal again.

The Critter Philosopher

Accepting an apology is like offering your back to a very sharp blade.

Wrestling the Charcoal Bastard

Wrestling the Charcoal Bastard

Well, I don’t really recommend the hike I took on Saturday, March 21, if you haven’t been hiking in many months. Don’t get me wrong—it’s a fantastic hike packed with so much scenery that one finds it difficult to look where your feet are going. Instead, all you want to do is gape at the surrounding peaks, the steep walls of the gorge, the soaring cliff faces, the tumbling river, the blooming flowers…well, you see what I mean.

But it had been far too long since I’d hit the trails. My legs were out of shape and my lungs were still scarred from the pneumonia I had in January. And I was going to have to try to keep up with two much younger hikers, my friends Jack Thyen and Andy Kunkle.

But, like I said, it had been far too long since I’d hit the trails. You see? I didn’t really care how tough the hike was going to be. I was more concerned with getting back to my hobby and seeing a little bit of what the wild world has to offer. I can only live so long without walking through wilderness, and then I begin to lose focus. I have to have that contact with Mother Nature. There’s nothing else that does it for me, but hiking in the wild places.

I met up with Andy and his dog, Boone at a Wal-Mart parking lot in Gastonia. This is where we generally join forces to hit the mountains. This time, Andy and Boone hopped into my new truck and we left his car in the parking lot and headed to the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area where Jack Thyen was going to join us at the Pinch In Trailhead. We had a good time gabbing as we drove along and when we got to the trailhead, Jack soon found us.

We drove to the edge of the wilderness area via the Kistler Memorial Highway. Anyone reading the title on a map could actually confuse this with a real highway. It’s nothing like that. Kistler is a gravel one-lane road that hugs the eastern heights of the gorge and is a pretty rough Forest Service roadway. Currently, it’s in good repair and an auto can handle the terrain, but sometimes this is not the case, and in times like that I would suggest tackling it with a high clearance vehicle and four-wheel drive.

Once we’d met up with Jack I followed him in his Toyota Tacoma as we deposited his vehicle at the Conley Cove Trailhead a few miles down Kistler. Due to the nature of the hike, we needed a shuttle
to get back to my truck where we’d all embark. In short order we dropped off his vehicle and had returned to the Pinch In.

The Pinch In Trail is a very tough hike. It drops directly down into the gorge without benefit of switchbacks. It just follows the contours of a ridge and plummets right down toward the Linville River. The fires of 2007 hit this area really hard. These fires were particularly fierce. Sometimes a fire will just consume the dry underbrush and merely scorch a few leaves and darken some trunks. Not this fire. It came on the heels of a hideous drought that itself came on the heels of two other droughts. All of North Carolina was bone dry and the Linville Wilderness was a conflagration waiting for a spark.

Generally, some vegetation will survive even a strong fire. But not with this one. It even charred the rhododendron and mountain laurel. It swept down into coves. It turned the pines and oaks and poplars into jutting black sticks. This fire even burned up the soil! It burned all the way down to the carbonless mineral dirt. It was a really bad fire.

However…there is always something good that comes from such a disaster. In this case—and I mention this in complete selfishness as a human—it opened up the views and vistas of the gorge like nothing else. Where once you had hiked through obscuring vegetation, now you have unimpeded views of the peaks and canyons. The whole place has become geological eye candy.

It was cold, so we were bundled well in jackets, caps, gloves et cetera. And we headed down the Pinch In Trail, stopping often to take photos. The sky was overcast, in contrast to the reports all of us had read of clear skies and mild temperatures. We could only hope the various weathermen had been right and that the cloud cover would soon break.

In very short order, the trail dropped us a full two thousand feet down into the bottom of Linville Gorge. Fortunately, the fire had faded as it approached the river and so most of the tree cover down along the banks of the Linville is still green and vigorous. The hemlocks, of course, are all dying due to the adelgid infestation, but the rest of the trees seem to be in decent health.

Our first goal of the day was a place called Daffodil Flats. Only one family ever lived in the depths of the gorge and while almost all trace of their presence is long gone, there is still one thing to show that they once lived there:

Each Spring, thousands of yellow daffodils rise up to bloom in the flats where their little farm once stood. It seems a small thing as a destination, but somehow pleasing. All around you are forests and river and mountain ridges looming thousands of feet. And yet, here you hike to see a big patch of pretty flowers that lie so small and close to the earth.

We took photos here and then hiked back the way we’d come to a small beach and a very nice swimming hole on the Linville River. There, we had lunch. Boone, the eight-month-old dog had a blast kicking up the sand, and so we had to move back to eat our sandwiches and such as he filled the air with quartzite particles.

From there, we started back to the Pinch In Trail and began pushing up those same, steep slopes. We had to regain most of those two thousand feet we’d lost heading down and it was rough. I knew that it would be—especially as I’d had no real exercise over the past few months. Soon, my thighs and calves were screaming for mercy, but Dogback Mountain and Mr. Gravity were having none of that. I had to lag back and let my young companions blaze ahead while I huffed and puffed my way to the broken and burnt heights we’d left that morning.

Soon, though, we were back at around the 3,000-foot level on the rim of the gorge. Andy wanted to bushwhack cross country until we would hit the Rock Jock Trail. That trail had originally been blazed by rock climbers and scramblers, but the 2007 fire and disuse had mainly obliterated it. So the Forest Service had constructed a new Rock Jock route and that was where we were headed.

Trusting Andy’s route-finding skills, I followed him into the burnt and broken forest. The place was all dry and dead, and most of what was left of the trees and brush were carbonized. Everything I touched and everything that bumped against my legs and arms left charcoal smears. But Andy knew where he was going and after about half a mile we found ourselves on the Rock Jock Trail.

From there, we pushed on. This is easily the most scenic trail I’ve hiked in the gorge. Every few feet you have to stop and stare at the mountains. Far below lies the river, which you can hear crashing against boulders and flowing over vast rapids even from 2,000 feet above. The trail takes you to the very edge of high cliff faces where you can look down at hundreds of feet of empty air.

Coming to a place called Balanced Rock, I handed my camera to Jack and asked him to take some shots of me. As I stepped out onto the narrow top of the boulder, which seemed to hover over a vast drop off, I told him to snap three shots. That’s all that I felt I had the nerve for. However, by the time he took the second one, I yelled out, “Never mind the third! I’m getting the hell off of here!”

The Rock Jock Trail moves through a number of coves and over small creeks and cascades that tumble down into what was, before the fires, lush forests of hemlock and cove hardwoods. Now there is mainly just the tangle of dead underbrush and shattered rock making its way slide by slide to the river bottom. But it’s still all somehow beautiful. At one point, the trail hugs a rock overhang that serves as a strange little waterfall.

After some time of hiking at a good clip, we came to a great spot on the trail where the mountain fell away from us and the opposite side of the gorge was revealed in spectacular fashion. The air was clear and mild and so we stopped to take more photos. By this time my thighs were actually cramping. I had been afraid that I was actually going to run out of water, but as I dug through my pack for some salty food, I found another full bottle. Jack gave me some caffeine/aspirin concoction not unlike a tablet form of BC Powder which I chewed up and chased with a slug of water. The stuff worked well and the pain in my thighs and calves quickly eased off. Soon we were underway again.

At around 4:30 pm or so, we found that we’d come to the intersection with the Conley Cove Trail which we took to the parking lot and Jack’s truck. We had to pass a couple of sights toward the end of the hike. But that gives me ample reason to go back to seek them out. In the meantime, I’ve added Daffodil Flats and the Rock Jock Trail to the things that I’ve now seen in Linville Gorge Wilderness Area.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Lilly Says...

Lilly says...

The friends of my enemy are my enemies.
(Wait a minute! I'm just a cute kitten. I'm too cuddly to have enemies!)

While this has been a lousy year for me as far as hiking and peak-bagging go, it's been a really good one for writing. In the past few months I completed a horror novel (THE LIVING END), and I'm within a few thousand words of wrapping up a second novel (VERY STRANGE), one on which I'd been working, off and on, for an extremely long time. The big difference in my novel writing has been my purchase last year, after the first of the movie money came in, of a laptop computer. This has enabled me to work on my fiction whenever I take my lunch breaks. It might not seem like much, but just the addition of a few hundred to a couple of thousand words per day has meant that I can really make a lot of headway on my various fiction projects.

Giving the Casita a much-needed pressure washing. Got to clean her up for our first big trip of the camping season!

On the leisure time front, my hobby has always been hiking and backpacking, and the loss for a few months of the use of my travel trailer really put a dent in that aspect of my life. Since 2005, I've depended on the use of the Casita as a base camp from which I've been able to tackle various trails around the southeast. When the leak developed in the onboard water system, this prevented us from being able to take the trailer out. Now that it's fixed I can begin to use it as a base camp again. I'm really looking forward to getting back that part of my leisure time.

Looking over the trailer as we get ready to pre-pack for our long trip.

It's always fun getting ready to start the vacation season!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Random Scenes

Random scenes along the Pinch In Trail and Rock Jock Trail.

This little pine was growing out of the top of a rock tower on the Pinch In Trail. I think it's a Table Mountain Pine.

Also taken on the Pinch In Trail, early in the morning when we first started the hike. The sky was overcast and it was quite chilly. Almost cold enough so that I was thinking of digging my gloves out of my backpack. This is a rock formation popular with rock climbers--might be one that they call "the Sphinx". Not sure.

The Sphinx, from Pinch In, but after the skies cleared and we were on our way up from the visit to Daffodil Flats.

Along the Rock Jock Trail you come to coves and side gorges with small streams and waterfalls. These were perfect habitat for hemlock groves before the adelgid started wiping them out. These areas were moist enough so that the fires in 2007 couldn't quite wipe out the vegetation in these spots. However, the hemlocks still died, but from aphid infestation.

The infested and dying hemlocks are beginning to fall over all around the gorge.

This little hemlock had succumbed, but is still holding on, dead though it is, to the rock atop which it had found purchase.

I never get tired of looking at the views of Table Rock and Hawksbill.

Telephoto shot of the summit of Table Rock Mountain.

This video was taken from the Rock Jock Trail not far from where it intersects with the Conley Cove Trail. Just wonderful views all along this section of that trail.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Me and the Boys

Me and the Boys.

Jack Thyen on the left. Me and Boone the dog in the middle, Andy Kunkle on the right with his back turned. This was a great little beach and swimming hole along the Linville River. Just over the bank up in the trees is the best campsite I've yet seen in the gorge. I'll have to go back there in the summer and camp.

I took this one along the Rock Jock Trail. A lot of the trail travels through forests totally ravaged by the fires in 2007. These fires were so intense that they were able to even burn the rhododendron and consumed the peaty soil. It's going to take decades for the forest to recover from those fires.

Andy Kunkle and his dog, Boone in Split Rock along the Rock Jock Trail.

Remember the old saying about not looking down? I kept looking down and it freaked me out so much that I hauled ass off the balanced rock. It was just too scary. I'd asked Jack to take three photos of me on the overhang, but I chickened out as he took the third one.

Sometimes I can scarcely believe that I'm lucky enough to live in a state that has this kind of scenery. This is Table Rock Mountain as seen from Dogback Mountain. Believe it or not, you can actually walk to the summit of Table Rock. Doesn't look like it can be safely done, but the trail's not too bad, from what I've heard. I've yet to hike it.

This strange little waterfall was right beside the Rock Jock Trail. I was very thirsty at this point and feared running out of water (which always results in me getting severe leg cramps). I was tempted to drink deep here and save my bottled water, but one is always fearful of giardia and other microbes. So I passed. Alas!

Andy and I discuss camera batteries as I take a video of part of Daffodil Flats.

More tomorrow...

The Critter Philosopher

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Try it again and I swear on the very fabric of reality that I'll end you.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Linville Gorge

Today I went for a very long hike into the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area with two friends, Andy Kunkle and Jack Thyen. I'll post more about the trip later. For now, here are a few photographs with brief descriptions.

One of our hiking goals was this place: Daffodil Flats. Only one family ever lived within Linville Gorge. This was where they lived. The single thing that remains to indicate that a family ever resided way down there in the bottom of the wildest gorge in eastern North America are the daffodils that rise up every early Spring to show that, once upon a time, there was a woman here who planted daffodils around her homestead.

Maybe the queasiest thing I've ever done on a hike. I know it doesn't look like it, but I was standing on a rock overhanging a vast vertical plane of empty space. If I'd slipped off, I would be very dead now. I told Jack to take three quick photos before my nerve ran out. The third one is of me retreating from the spot before I got too goddamned dizzy to stand still.

If there's a more rugged place in eastern North America, I've yet to either see it or hike in it.