Friday, January 31, 2014

Next Up!

Our next mini-vacation has been booked. We're going to Gatlinburg for a few days next month. It's one of the few tourist towns that I can tolerate, mainly because it's one of the gateways to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. If the town begins to get on my nerves I can escape quickly to the Park and lose myself in the forests.

The last time we visited we took our travel trailer and stayed at the Elkmont Campground in the Park. This time we've booked a nice room in town and I'll be taking day-hikes to see some places that are still on my list. I never get tired of the Smokies, and I have very nice memories of visiting Gatlinburg when I was a kid, and in the days of my early 20s. I think that's why I have a soft spot for the town, even though it's very much like tourist destinations that I generally avoid.

Downtown Gatlinburg. It was pre-Christmas...early November. The Christmas decorations were up. We had a great time cruising the main drag.
Autumn was still creating vast colors on the mountains.
Then...on a ride up to Newfound Gap, Mr. Winter smashes in! The Gap ended up getting about five inches of snow in just a few hours. They had to close the highway!
The next day I escaped into the back country, climbing to the top of Dripping Spring Mountain where I found this view.
This was our campsite. Carole, Andy, and I stayed at this spot. We took our bikes and used those to ride around the vast Elkmont Campground.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014


Here in the South the mountains are as high as they get in the eastern half of the nation. None of our peaks is high enough to have a snowline (where snow never melts) or even a treeline (where arctic tundra prevails). But we do have mountains that are tall enough to exhibit a great degree of environmental changes between the base and summit. Nowhere is this more on display than in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and no mountain shows this better than Mount LeConte.

LeConte looms above the city of Gatlinburg. It dominates the skyline in a way no other summit can in the eastern USA. For it is the only place here that rises so abruptly above its base to such heights. A person can begin hiking at the city limits of Gatlinburg, walk into the Park and end the hike one vertical mile higher on the very top of the peak. LeConte, rising as it does to 6,593 feet above sea level, is one of the highest peaks in the eastern USA. And it is certainly the "tallest", marking probably the only mile-high wall on this half of the country.

When you start your hike at the base of LeConte, you are traveling in typical southern hardwood and pine forests. It gets about as hot in Gatlinburg as it does anywhere else in the South with summer temperatures routinely hitting the 90s. But by the time you reach the summit of that tallest of eastern peaks, the forests are the same as one encounters in southern Canada, and the temperatures never top 80 degrees on even the hottest of days in the valleys below.

LeConte: the mile-high wall above Gatlinburg.

Just a thousand feet or so above Gatlinburg I moved into a dusting of snow and a different forest type (then dominated by hemlocks seen here, but which are pretty much all dead now from hwa infestation).

About 2/3 of the way up the forests become dominated by spruce trees and the snow is getting deeper with every foot I climbed.

At over 5,000 feet the snow was getting seriously deep.

Just before the top of the mountain. It was still snowing as I got there.

Yours truly, on the snow-covered summit of Mount LeConte, March of 2005.

And then it was time to head down, slogging through 17 inches of fresh snowfall until the mountain's varying climates slowly took it all away from me.

Oversight Comic.

I kept missing this issue on my want list. Why would I keep forgetting to buy this issue? There's nothing special about it (other than that it was written and illustrated by Jack Kirby). But every time I filled in gaps in my Fantastic Four collection I would miss this issue.

And then I remembered.

Back when I was a comic book retailer I ended up with two unopened cases of three comics. One was The Amazing Spider-Man #35. One was Flash Gordon #12. And the other was Fantastic Four #83. I had so many of them that what I would do is give one away (your choice) for any purchase over $20. The Spider-Man issues ran out first. Then the FF. Finally the Flash Gordon.

I think I was subconsciously forgetting the issue because I used to have so damned many of them in near mint to mint condition. Wish I'd kept those cases of Amazing Spider-Man #35. All of them near mint to mint! Alas...

My recently acquired copy of FANTASTIC FOUR #83, written and illustrated by Jack Kirby.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014


Well, no hiking for me today. Sad, really, since I would have driven up into a snowstorm in the area I wanted to hike.

The problem is, I'm just getting old. Didn't sleep well and was just too exhausted to get up at 5 a.m. to begin a five-hour round trip of driving to be able to hike for five hours.

The old man was just too whipped for the task at hand.


The last time I went waterfall wandering around Wilson Creek.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Day Hike?

I don't have to work tomorrow. So I think I'm going to head up to the mountains very early in the morning and hike to a waterfall I've wanted to see for some time. The last time I went up there to see it, there had been a windstorm and the road to the trail head was blocked by a large fallen tree. I'm hoping I'll have better luck tomorrow, but the weather service says that there's going to be an extreme change in the weather between the time I leave and roughly the time I'll arrive. We'll see.

Here are some shots from the same general area from a couple years back.

A wonderful, well engineered Forest Service trail. I suspect it was originally created by the CCC from a rail bed when some timber company moved through the gorge raping the forests.

One of the great waterfalls on Harper Creek.

I keep threatening to use this campsite located just below the waterfall. I'd want to avoid it on weekends or during a holiday, as it would undoubtedly be crowded in such times.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

And Another Excerpt.

One more taste of undead action. From THE COALITION, Part III. (Copyright 2014 by James Robert Smith.)

All it took was a single glance to know what they were.

Cutter stopped in his tracks and looked down the avenue, counting silently. Automatically he did a mental accounting of what he was wearing and which of his weapons he’d brought along. Unlike so many others he had not given up his makeshift armor, nor had he given way to moving around the city without his guns. And he had seen others walking the streets without even a bludgeon to protect them. So many had grown complacent that they were beginning to think the danger was past, that the dead were no longer a grave threat to the city.

All they had to do was to see what he was seeing and whatever that sense of security they had all felt would have been proven to be nothing more than a bad idea.

The dead were there.

He didn’t bother to count, but knew at a glance that there were scores of them. And when you could see that many, there was good reason to conclude that hundreds were around.

“They’re coming from the countryside,” Ron said.

A few other people had been going about their ways on the street and their gazes, too, had been drawn to the irregular movement of the things that were heading their way. Apparently there had been no other people closer to the edge of town to see them approaching, and so no warning had been given. Or, quite possibly, the people who had first encountered them had been taken out before they could sound an alarm of any type. If there had been screams, they had been snuffed out before others could hear them.

.45 pistol. Hammer. 30.06. 100 rounds, all told. These were the terms foremost in Ron’s mind. Next, he tried to recall where Jean and Oliver said they would be. They had all decided to go scrounging for supplies that morning and each had gone in separate directions with specific goals in mind. If the others had made the same progress Ron had made, then each of them were more than two miles from home. There was almost no possibility he could find either of them and get back before this herd of the dead came staggering into city center.

Maybe it wasn’t as bad as it looked. The hope came to him as he watched the figures advancing stiffly, implacably. It had been so long since he’d seen more than one or two of the damned things that he realized that the sight had shocked him. Something like nausea scratched at his gut.

He began counting the ones directly in front of him, and as he got to twenty-five he not only realized the situation was a bad one, but that it might be worse than he could imagine. His hand going for his rifle, he took it from his shoulder and peered down the barrel, using the scope to take a look northward. As soon as his eye met the lenspiece he saw a dozen new deaders rounding the nearest corner, their pale eyes staring hatred, lips drawn back to reveal teeth prepared for ripping. They were hungry.

As he stood, deciding his next move, someone came running down the street, a young man of no more than twenty years, his black hair streaming behind him in the cold air. The guy raced right past Ron and did not stop, did not even pause as he went dashing madly down the street, headed for city center. At least there was nothing to block the fellow’s way. The street had been completely cleared of the wrecks and debris that had cluttered it. The Colonel and his men had bulldozed the stuff away, hauled it all onto empty lots or dumped it at the ends of streets they weren’t planning to use. Now the roads were almost the way they’d been that last time civilization had been intact and things like road maintenance was something other than fantasy.

Turning to watch the other person, Ron was staggered to see that there were dead coming from that direction, too!

“Watch out,” he yelled. His warning was heard and the man skidded to a halt just as a pair of zombies crept out from a darkened alley, their hands clawing at the youth who was well out of reach because of Ron’s call.

At first Ron was relieved to see that the man was armed, a 9mm pistol suddenly in his bare right hand. But he knew what would happen should the guy start firing. The shamblers would come from everywhere, and they’d move at a much faster pace, aroused by the sound of gunfire. To one of the dead, the report of a discharged firearm was almost like a dinner bell. They would come from everywhere at once, zeroing in on the thing they wanted most of all.

And, of course, before he could ask the young man to hold his fire, the gun went off.

Two shots pierced the relative silence, precisely. A Glock, Ron thought, recognizing the sound. At least the man could shoot, the tops of the skulls of the nearest pair of deaders turning into bloody fragments. The duo went down in a heap of dessicated flesh and tattered fabric. But, as always, there were more moving up to take their places.

They were new dead, Ron saw. These were zombies from the wilderness. The creatures had not been witness to the constant withering fire of the citizens of Charlotte. Colonel Dale and his army had never  blasted these things, teaching the survivors that they were the ones who would be going down for the count, seeing their fellow monsters cease to exist in explosions of lead and brain matter. All they knew was that urge to gnaw living flesh. If there was fear in their rot-eaten brains at all, that fear was vague and forgotten and had never been rekindled in them.

Most of his attention drawn by the escaping man, Cutter almost failed to see that three zombies had staggered to within a dozen feet of his position, coming out into the sunlight from a dark and bare walkway that he had thought led only to a loading dock. Now, though, he surmised that the concrete path between the buildings either went all the way through the block to the next street, or that the zombies had been filtering into the city for many hours and had already found places to wait in hiding.

One of the things groaned, its voice the dead’s equivalent of a curse. He hated the sound and it brought back the loathing he had felt for the damned things before the Colonel’s plans had given them all a sense of security and normalcy. “To Hell with it,” he said, his jaw set and his teeth grinding.

The .45 bucked in his gloved hand. The zombie that had uttered the sound went away in a shower of atomized flesh, its already ruined face vanishing as a vast flower opened gory petals across the space that had been its skull.

Another of the deaders was right behind it, filling the space almost instantly. This was like the worst of times, a return to the days when the living corpses had filled the city and made it their own, when the simplest task of moving and scouting was a dangerous undertaking. Ron’s thoughts kept going to Jean and Oliver, then back to his own situation. He had to keep telling himself that if he didn’t concentrate on the here and now then the welfare of his family wouldn’t matter at all. Because if he didn’t worry about himself, he’d die.
Ron heard someone screaming for help. He risked a glance in that direction and saw the man who had passed him earlier was in a bad situation, surrounded by the lurking mass of hungry monsters that now poured out of one of the partially blocked alleys.  “Damn,” he said, knowing that he had to try to save the guy.

There were two zombies directly between himself and the trapped stranger, so there was nothing to do but go through them. Ron fired the .45 and the bullet plowed through the head of the nearest of the pair. But he knew that he couldn’t just shoot his way through the mass; there were far too many of them to take out that way. Eventually he’d run out of ammunition and that was a situation he didn’t want to face; not ever.
Rushing toward the second of the two he brought his boot down on the side of its bare leg, aiming for the outside of the knee. There was a snapping sound and the leg bent inward, toppling the semi-naked thing. It fell to the left and sprawled on the street, scrabbling for some way to right itself. They couldn’t feel pain, but with a shattered leg there was no way it was going to stand upright again. Cutter left it clawing at the asphalt as he pushed forward.

“This way,” he screamed at the man with the Glock. “Don’t try to go north,” he yelled. “This way!”

There was just a second’s hesitation as the man paused, trying to decide whether or not to heed Ron’s advice.

But that was all the time the zombies needed to close the small gap behind the man. Ron was not able to close his eyes as the mob descended on the unfortunate soul and bore him to the ground.

“Just like old times,” Ron whispered. There was a hint of panic in his mind and he fought hard to contain it as the monsters around him suddenly lost interest in him and concentrated on the meal that screamed in the boiling center of the mass of killers in the street.
Turning his back on the action of tearing arms and bloody mass, he trotted easily away. He could make it back to his home with no trouble, he figured. And if something truly did rise up to block his way, there were any number of good places where he could retreat if he had to find refuge. Or the Colonel’s people would certainly emerge from their fortresses to kill back this resurgent plague. As he dodged from point to point along the recently cleared thoroughfare, he kept expecting to hear the approaching march of Dale’s cadre or the orchestrated precision of their rifles. But there was only the sound of his footsteps and the occasional groan of the living dead.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Long Delayed...

I'm closing in on completing the long-delayed third and final chapter of THE COALITION zombie yarn. I'll speak at some later date why it's been such a chore to complete, but the end is in sight.

Here's a very brief view of what's to come:

As he’d figured, the rumble of the jet engines had meant that the monsters who stalked out of sight in the wilderness beyond had come calling. The first place they’d been drawn had been the airport, of course. But the staccato rattle of automatic gunfire had erupted from that quarter, followed by the growl of other engines that soon joined the spitting of lead.

Ron had ordered Jean and Oliver to remain indoors while he viewed the action that was, for now, confined to the newly cleared and operational Charlotte-Douglas Airport. Through the powerful lenses of his finest binoculars he was watching the forming battle from the secure perch of their rooftop redoubt.

The first thing he’d noticed in the morning light was that the enormous C5 transport was painted a dull flat green. All markings of the US armed forces—from any of the branches—had either been removed, or had never been present. From what he did know, the only versions of that jet that were operational were all property of one or the other of the branches of the US military. So this one had either been taken from one of those branches, or had been in private hands. Or perhaps it belonged to one of the civilian arms of the government—either the CIA or DIA. Ron pulled the binoculars from his face and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. Hell, the ideas and suspicions made it all too bothersome to ponder.

What he needed to do was pay attention to what was going on.

During the night, while men had obviously worked through the dark hours, guided by generated lamps that he could see standing on tripods all over the tarmac, the newly arrived forces had been quite busy. There were armored personnel carriers—three of them—and two giant vehicles that he realized were Abrams tanks. Even those were absent any markings that labeled them as property of the Army or Marines. They were all just painted that same flat desert camouflage. There weren’t even any identifying numerals or letters to differentiate one from the other.

Off to the east of the C5 transport there was a house-sized oblong of what appeared to be something made wholly of steel. Using the figures that he could see scurrying around the thing, it was roughly fifty or sixty feet long and twenty feet wide, perhaps fifteen feet tall. It was on a trailer with stout wheels. Ron could even see a large semi sitting idle nearby, and he didn’t need a rocket scientist to tell him that the heavy truck was going to soon be pulling whatever was on that trailer.

While the men had worked in the temporary electric lamps, the deaders had come filtering out of the wilderness as Ron had known they would. But they’d been prepared for that. Whoever these jokers were, the Colonel had told them what to expect and they had come loaded for bear.

The airport was all but smothered by an army of rot on its north side. And a mindless pincer movement had gone into motion; the classic flanking maneuvers of the dead. Of course there were no tactics involved on behalf of the zombies—they were merely like a river of stinking water that pushed until it met resistance and then parted to flow around the blockage until that poisonous stream met again at some further point. It wasn’t measured and it wasn’t considered, but it was surely effective against the living. Riggs had long since lost count of the number of times he’d seen people overtaken by the mindless simplicity of it.

As he put the lenses back to his face, Ron was glad that he’d talked Jean and Oliver into remaining inside. He wasn’t sure what was going to happen, but he didn’t like what he was witnessing and he didn’t want to them to watch what was going on if it went against those people who were now holding the airport against the dead hordes that had assembled there. Seeing the inexorable tide flow around the major block of buildings to converge on the makeshift strongpoint of the big jet and its disgorged cargo, Ron felt that he could all but hear and smell the stalking mass that heaved itself toward the pristine lines of the winged vehicle.

He feared the worst.
Realizing that the initial reactions had been just preliminary movements by what he now saw were soldiers, Ron went to one of the chairs he kept at his reloading station and pulled it close to the wall that surrounded the roof. Seated, he leaned forward until his elbows were on the concrete parapet and settled in for the show.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Tired and...

I'm physically exhausted. For the first time in a long while I am also suffering from writers block. I know that I need a long camping/backpacking trip to relax and recharge.

I'm hoping for a really good year in the back country for 2014. Planning continues...(and, yes, I'd take a campsite anywhere near one of these spots).

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Confederate Furnace

One thing that I like about just driving around an area with no real destination in mind is that you can stumble upon some pretty cool stuff. Since Virginia was the heart of the Confederacy, there are all kinds of historic sites important to the CSA all over the state. As we were on our way to take a look at a National Forest campground (for possible future use), we noticed an old structure beside the road, along with a historical marker.

So, we quickly backtracked and pulled over to have a good look. It turned out to be a furnace that the Confederate Army used to smelt iron, mainly for the production of cannonballs. It finally ceased operation in early 1865 as the Union forces were kicking Confederate ass at will.

The National Forest sign that stopped us.

It's in wonderful shape. I'd seen another of these near Sherando Lake Recreation Area that's basically a vast pile of loose rubble.

Carole at the front of the forge.

The bars that protect the interior.

Inside the furnace.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Flat Top Mountain Trail (Part Two).

As I said earlier, I had hiked half this trail once before, some years back. That had been on one of our first visits to the Peaks of Otter. The day I had hiked to the summit the weather had not cooperated, at all. Mother Nature had thrown rain and thick clouds at me all the way to the top of the mountain and back down. This time, though, the air was about as clear as it gets. It was plenty cold, but the views were spot-on perfect.

Cross Rock had been one of the points I had missed on the first hike because I had just hit the summit, clambered about on the exposed rocks, and headed back down. From there I pushed on to the summit which was a half-mile away, hitting a shallow gap and then heading upslope to the very top of the mountain.

As with the first part of the trail, the grade was easy. To repeat: this has to be one of the most well-engineered hiking trails I have ever hiked. I didn't get winded at all, despite climbing about 1600 feet from the Parkway in a little less than two and a half miles.

The summit was as I recalled it, a vast area of patchy hardwoods and vast jumbles of tremendous boulders and steep cliffs. I found the same spot I had used to climb atop the rocks before and walked out onto the exposed stone to see the views. They were even better at the very top than I'd seen at Cross Rock. To my left was Apple Orchard Mountain and to my right was Sharp Top (which I'd been unable to see from Cross Rock).

I set up my tripod and remote control to get some self-portraits, but the wind knocked it all over and I almost lost everything to the cliffs. I was just damned lucky not to have been hiking down the mountain without my camera--or with a pile of shattered junk that had once been my camera. Because of the gusting winds I didn't feel safe setting up the tripod anymore and just decided to take photos of the scenery and forgot about self-portraits with the high country as a background.

After about a half hour at the top I decided against having lunch on the mountain and instead pushed on to return to the Lodge. I had now seen the half of the trail that I'd missed that first time some years back--everything else was relatively familiar to me as I made my way down the mountain.

Sign at Cross Rock.

Heading up!

Again...just a wonderfully engineered trail.

Just below the very summit!

Looking to my left, toward Apple Orchard Mountain.
And, finally, a view toward Sharp Top!
It didn't take long to locate the USGS benchmark.

I took a photo of this jumble of boulders last time.

As I got to the base of the mountain the terrain got a lot less rocky.

This is where the trail the picnic area.

But I had another half mile to go, passing "Big Spring".

It does have a tremendous flow of fresh water, and once supplied the drinking water for the town of Bedford.

This place was an actual lodge once upon a time. A primitive bed and breakfast in its day.

And then I crossed the dam to Abbott Lake and it was just a short walk to the Lodge.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Flat Top Mountain Trail (Part One)

The best trail I hiked while we were at the Lodge was the Flat Top Mountain Trail. It's a National Trail of some note. It passes over Flat Top Mountain which is one of the more impressive peaks in the area and the tallest of the three Peaks of Otter (and the only one of the three that's over 4,000 feet in elevation). There are spectacular views from the summit and at several points along the roughly five-mile trail.

I had Carole take me to the northern terminus of the trail on the Blue Ridge Parkway where she dropped me off and drove back to the Lodge. By hiking over the mountain and back down to Abbott Lake I could end my hike at our room at the Peaks of Otter Lodge. Simple. Years ago I had hiked half the trail by starting at the lake and then hitting the summit and backtracking to the lake. But that had been on a very rainy day with no views at all. Plus, I'd missed out on hiking a little more than half the trail between the summit and the Parkway. This way I'd see everything I'd missed before, plus retracing my hike of several years back--this time in optimal scenery weather.

Carole dropped me off at about 9:30 after we'd had breakfast. It was pretty cool--about 20 degrees--with stiff winds blowing through the forest. After I began my hike and as I gained elevation on the peak, one thing that very much impressed me was how well engineered the trail is. The route follows the easier contours of the peak and does not tackle the slopes head on. Neither does it use very many switchbacks, instead moving easily over the slopes and meandering easily without any extremely steep climbs. It was almost like following a railroad bed and this very well may be the case--I couldn't say. But it was one of the easiest and most pleasant climbs of that height that I can recall. I'm pretty sure that I gained about 1600 feet between the Parkway and the summit, but I hardly felt it.

Also, I seemed to have the entire mountain to myself. I didn't encounter any other hikers on the entire trek. I had complete solitude and quiet for the entire duration. It was just me and the wind.

This is one of the easiest trails I've ever hiked. I hardly broke a sweat.

I guess they just decided to let this snag lay as it fell across the trail. It was easy to step over. You can see that the terrain was getting rockier at this point.

Climbing the slopes. This moss was about the only green in the forest.

The closer I got to the top, the more rugged the slopes.

I was getting even with some of the higher surrounding peaks.

This big patch of ice was actually a pain in the ass. I had a hard time getting around it without slipping.

This was at one of the first great views: Cross Rock. About half a mile from the true summit.