Monday, May 29, 2017

Heintooga Overlook Picnic Area.

Today, just a video and some photos of what has to be the most quiet National Park picnic area I have ever visited. And on a Memorial Day weekend, no less!

The picnic area has an older upper section and a lower more modern area. The top section has the funkiest, coolest picnic tables I have ever seen, constructed of tabletops that are solid sections of rock and built on rock and cement pillars. I would assume they were constructed by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) back in the 1930s.

The lower section has more modern tables.

But both were devoid of people while I was there. None of the grills looked to have been used lately. There was an upper bathroom on top of the mountain that was closed, but the Park Service has built a nice new one at the bottom beside the parking lot.

I enjoyed the unexpected silence and solitude.

View from the picnic area's overlook.

The CCC had to have built these. Too cool to be otherwise.

The old bathroom at the top of the mountain. Closed tight, but it looks like it's still in good shape.

Gnarly old trees. Two different species here. The large tree is a hardwood (a birch?), the one on the left is a spruce.

The new bathroom.

Enjoying the unexpected solitude.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Naughty Bear.

Today I drove over to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I had a great time, but did not see quite the wildlife I wanted to spot. For the first time since the elk reintroduction to the Smokies, I saw not a single elk in Cataloochee. But I did get to see a ranger release a naughty bear that had been darted and temporarily caged for lurking around a campground.

I also found the coolest picnic area I have seen in the park, so far. It looked like the Flintstones made it.

View driving in to Cataloochee.

The Park ranger invited us to watch him release the naughty bear.

Did the Flintstones build these?! Coolest picnic area. Ever.

Heintooga Overlook Picnic Area.

Waiting. Waiting. ACTION!

Friday, May 26, 2017


When I'm not hiking and kayaking and camping and backpacking and generally enjoying the outdoors, you can find me working on my short stories and novels.

Here, then, are my current published works of fiction.

First up, WORKING CLASS HERO: The Autobiography of Billy B., A Hyper Human.

First chapter in what is slated to be a trilogy all nicely bound and wrapped up by the end of the third novel. Hopefully, I'd like to even continue writing WORKING CLASS HERO novels for years. I could, quite actually, keep the series going for a long time.

What are you waiting for? Read it now! Pure fun for cool people! Available in paperback, ebook, and audio! Woo-HOO!

WORKING CLASS HERO by James Robert Smith.

Next up is FOUR FROM MANGROVE. When Hippocampus Press published my short story collection, A CONFEDERACY OF HORRORS, they excised the four "Mangrove" stories for being too fantasy oriented. These stories are set in the mythical world of the city-state called Mangrove. The stories range over a period of hundreds of years, during which Mangrove might be a might continent-spanning empire, or a busy trading port controlled by outside forces. But it's always Mangrove and its citizens are always busy about the task of commerce and mischief.

Influenced by my love of the works of Karl Edward Wagner and Robert Ervin Howard, here are four fantasy tales of swords and sorcery, of humanity. FOUR FROM MANGROVE.

FOUR FROM MANGROVE by James Robert Smith.

Next up is LOVECRAFT'S COMIC. This horror novella concerns itself with some extreme Lovecraftian creepiness. Two old comic artist friends, one flush with success in the comics industry, the other left behind to live in poverty and failure, are taken on a ride straight to living Hell by the accidental discovery of something evil. One decides to translate the evil to comics format, and the other is caught between friendship and pure horror.

Available in print and ebook. (Warning: this ain't a pleasant fireside ghost yarn.)

LOVECRAFT'S COMIC by James Robert Smith.

And, last, some folk were clamoring for the next chapter of WORKING CLASS HERO (and it's not quite ready), so I offered up this short story of superhumans Billy B. and SHYLOCK HOLMES as they do battle with a particularly creepy outlaw.

Here, then, is TURN OF EVENTS. Available only in ebook format. (Alas.)

"Turn of Events" by James Robert Smith.


Sunday, May 21, 2017

My Campsite on Cattail Peak.

When I planned to do my first overnight backpacking trip of 2017 I was supposed to leave on Thursday night. But some household chores came up and I promised Carole that I would stay and do them if she would wake me up on Friday morning at 4:30 am (when she gets home) so that I could haul ass for Mount Mitchell State Park. That would put me at the trailhead at around 7:30 am and give me plenty of time to get to Horse Rock, or to Deep Gap if anything else came up to delay me or slow me down.

As it turned out, she forgot to wake me up. So I slept until 8:30 am and didn't get out of Charlotte until 9:00. That had me at the trailhead after 11:00 am, so thoughts of making it all the way to Horse Rock were right out. So as I set out I figured I'd erect my tent in Deep Gap.

However, for years I have wanted to camp on the summit of Cattail Peak. Right at 6,600 feet above sea level, it is one of the highest mountaintops where you can legally camp. Since I had gotten such a late start on my backpacking trip I didn't even feel like heading to my secondary choice for overnight (Deep Gap) and opted to just drop my pack and pitch my tent on the top of Cattail.

And so, that's where I camped. I had brought lots of water. Because one thing I had learned after five previous hikes on the Black Mountain Crest Trail is that you can't bring too much water. Since the trail follows the absolute crest of the Black Mountains, you don't pass any springs or creeks since the route is always far above any access to the aquifer. The only reliable water source on the whole trail is at Deep Gap, and even there you have to drop off the slope somewhat to locate the spring.

I have to say, the quiet and solitude were striking. Only two small groups of people passed me after I got to the peak. A couple of guys heading to Mitchell, and a group of four young women who had hiked to Deep Gap and were also going back to Mount Mitchell. Other than that no other person passed by. I had the mountain to myself.

While I'm glad that I camped there, I later read in a news article that 2,000 additional acres had been added to Mount Mitchell State Park and it indicated that the summit of Cattail Peak was now within the park borders. Which means that I may have camped illegally. I'm not sure. The park map still shows the park boundaries ending before you reach Cattail Peak. So I'm not sure.

The most level and protected area that I found on the summit. Some enterprising camper had even erected these windbreaks there.

Grarly old spruce trees. I suspect these are true old folk of the mountain.

At my campsite looking out at all of the dark spruce forest.

Relaxing in the tent as the last rays of the sun paint the summit.

Finding my campsite, setting up, and enjoying the solitude.

Saturday, May 20, 2017


When I go hiking and backpacking I am usually slow. Very. Freaking. Slow. On many hikes I will average about one mile per hour.

This is because of two things that have nothing to do with whether or not I am out of shape. One reason for my slow pace is that I like to take lots of photos. On a day-long hike I might take three hundred to five hundred photos. A blessing upon us from the digital camera gods. I love digital cameras and have pretty much figured that they are one of the finest benefits of the computer age.

The other reason I move so slowly is that I stop very darned often to meditate. As soon as I see something that I feel is beautiful or noteworthy or peaceful, I will halt in my tracks and contemplate it. Some people refer to this type of thing as "Zen" or "meditation" or "transcendence" or something of that type. It's not a religious experience for me, so I prefer to think of it as, and refer to it as, simple meditation.

It's probably the main reason that I go out into the wilds to find solitude.

One of my pals likes to visit Yellowstone National Park where he will plop himself down in Hayden Valley just to watch the bison for hour after hour. He finds it soothing, peaceful, restful. Similarly I can find such feelings in almost any wild, quiet spot where I go to separate myself from the drone of modern society and its never-ending swell of machine blather.

And are a few images of things that stopped me in my tracks. Call it zen. Transcendence. Meditation. I don't care what term you use.

Moments of thoughtful peace.

A testament to a struggle of life in a hard place.

A dab of alien color amidst the chlorophyll mass.

A path, bordered by native grass, two thousand meters high.

Mother Nature unfurls her flags of green.

I lived, I died, my corpse lingers.
Escape the cities. Venture out. Sit and listen. Watch.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Secret Panorama.

As I was hiking from Mount Mitchell to Cattail Peak, I noticed what appeared to be a small paper sign tacked to a tree to the left of the trail. So I decided to go look at it to see what it was all about. Apparently the state park folk thought that it was a good spot to tell backpackers that it is illegal to camp inside Mount Mitchell State Park except at the official campground.

But as I stood there looking at the sign, I noticed that there was a crude side trail continuing on past the sign to what appeared to be an overlook. So I pushed on through some limbs to see what it was. And what I discovered is the most striking and beautiful view I have so far stumbled upon in my six hikes on the Black Mountain Crest Trail (also known as the Deep Gap Trail).

Across the gulf of space between the cliff on which I now found myself was a deep gap and the looming summits of Balsam Cone and Cattail Peak. I have seen both of these summits rom numerous points along the trail, but none of them so impressive as this one.

This is one reason why I keep going back to the Black Mountain Crest Trail. While it always punishes me physically, I continue to get a jolt of pure beauty whenever I hike it.

As for the sign, I can see why someone would want to camp there, but I saw absolutely no way for them to do so. There was no room to pitch even the smallest of tents. And it would even have been difficult to string up a hammock anywhere around the view. But you never know. There are always people willing to break the rules and abuse a park space.

The Secret Panorama.

A gulf of space looming between me and the summits of Balsam Cone and Cattail Peak. (Click to embiggen.)

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Thank You, Locke Craig!

I'm just home from a two-day overnight backpacking trip to the Black Mountains. Once again (sixth time) I tackled the infamous Black Mountain Crest Trail. I didn't end up doing the hike I had planned, but I'll leave those details for tomorrow.

However, here are some images and video I took on my trek across the eastern USA's second highest summit on my way to the parking lot where my truck was waiting (on the highest summit in the eastern USA).

Hikers are not supposed to step beyond the wooden trail borders. In order to protect rare plants.

Typical view from the top of Mount Craig.

Mount Mitchell from Mount Craig (with Clingman's Peak in the distance--with radio and microwave towers).
Hiking over the second highest peak and headed toward the HIGHEST peak.

Monday, May 15, 2017

CCC Infrastructure is Everywhere.

Since Carole and I spend so much time in all sorts of parks and forests, we've seen all kinds of work done by the old Civilian Conservation Corp. I've covered the CCC before. If you don't know about the organization, look it up here.

What's amazing about the work they did is that so much of it is still in use today. They created most of the trails that I hike. Engineers who couldn't find work during the Great Depression were tasked with routing those trails and deciding what slopes they should tackle and how much earth and rock needed to be moved to create them. And the unskilled workers who were similarly sidelined during those very bad economic times did the hard labor.

Every time we set up camp and explore we find ourselves enjoying the buildings these men constructed and the lakes they impounded and the roads and trailways they built. Once you have realized how many places they improved and how much of that work still matters today you cannot help but be impressed.

So it was when we toured the state parks we visited on this trip. CCC buildings made from local timber and limestone. Impressive structures still being utilized in 2017, even if some things have been re-purposed.

National Parks. National Forests. State Parks. County parks. Almost everywhere you turn in our nation's system of parks and recreation areas you will see the handiwork of the CCC. There are monuments to these hard working individuals, but not enough of them, in my opinion.

The following are photos I took at Florida Caverns State Park. This park was mostly opened up and built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Government work at its finest.

This big spring in the park reminded me of the freshwater springs we saw in Missouri in 2008. A lot of the springs there are like this one, with the water appearing milky blue from limestone suspended in solution.

The land around this big spring was graded and cleared by the CCC.

This is the park's visitor's center and museum. While it has been altered over the years, it was originally built by the CCC.

The entrance to the caverns. You must be part of a guided tour ($8) to enter. All the trails were graded by the CCC Boys.

One does not expect to encounter rocky terrain and steep hills in Florida, but they're here.

A good shot of the visitor's center/museum. The CCC enginners constructed it of timber and limestone harvested on site. It is a very impressive building.

We see these little monuments to the men of the CCC and their accomplishments all around the country.

Infrastructure courtesy of the CCC. Thanks!

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Fragility of Wilderness Designation.

Everyone thinks that if an area can just become a National Monument or a National Wilderness Area or even a National Park that it will be protected. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
Did you know National Parks can lose their status and be abolished as a National Park? One of these is high on my list to visit one of these days: It was once called Platt National Park, but lost that status and ended up being rolled up into a larger entity called Chickasaw National Recreation Area.
CCC-improved area at the former Platt National Park.
The second National Park ever established in the US (Mackinack National Park) was de-listed and handed over to the state of Michigan.
One National Park site was not only delisted as a National Historic Park site but was completely sold off to a private investor. It's now called Mar-A-Lago. Owned by you-know-who.
Keep in mind that National Park status does not necessarily mean safety for those Parks. It is all a matter of the whims of successive governments.
You can read about all of our de-listed National Parks at this website.
And keep in mind that this problem is ongoing. The pressure to dismantle our system of National Parks and Monuments and wilderness areas is never ending. Not many years ago a piece of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was given over to the Cherokee Reservation in exchange for a similar parcel of land near the Blue Ridge Parkway. Park status is not a complete protection, at all. It should be, but it is not.
Over the course of my life I have seen the nation go through periods of economic blight. During the worst such times the first things on the chopping block are generally state parks. Governments will complain that there is not enough revenue to support the parks and they begin shutting them down. I have even seen some states seriously consider selling off established state parks to get them off the books and to do favors for wealthy prospective real estate investors.
On our recent trip to Florida my wife and I did some research on the state park system in Alabama. Because there is some gorgeous scenery in that state and a few parks there were on our radar to visit.
One of these parks is called Buck's Pocket. I never got to visit it when I was a kid and passed it a number of times, but I have always wanted to go there and hike, camp, and kayak. It had a reputation for natural beauty and wilderness. So Carole and I began to do our research for visiting it for a few days to camp and hike. Always first on our to-do is check on campground details, including rates and amenities.
Imagine my horror when we learned that the campground has been permanently closed. They don't even want campers there. And why? Because the Alabama legislature decided that the best use for that park was to slap miles of All Terrain Vehicle routes all over it. Think of that: the wild place is now going to be home to noisy ATVs and their equally vile operators. You can kiss the idea of wilderness, silence, and solitude a permanent goodbye.
Read it and weep.
It has been a long time since a significant National Park was created in the US. Despite the fact that there are places in the country that deserve National Park status and protection (shaky though that protection might be). Every year I see Wilderness Study Areas passed by because we have legislatures who are completely unfriendly to preservation and only open to the direct economic exploitation of our natural resources. We're in a sick situation.
In the past some Presidents have been able to bypass unfriendly legislators and create National Monuments in place of National Parks. (Thanks, Theodore Roosevelt!) This would give worthy places increased protected status and some amount of infrastructure, even if only managerial. But now even this is under attack.
The way things are currently headed, it would not surprise me to soon see mining, timber, and gas extractions going on in our National Parks.
It's a sad and dangerous situation for all of us.
View at Buck's Pocket State Park. The Alabama government thought the park would be improved by closing the campground and restrooms and instead slap miles of ATV trails through the forest. Thanks, assholes!

Saturday, May 13, 2017


I started reading at a very early age. Not crazy-early like some precocious people, but pretty darned early. I was reading before I entered the first grade. I picked it up from the occasional comic books my mom or dad would buy for me (specifically very early issues of the FANTASTIC FOUR), along with some how-to-read picture books they had also given me.

Generally when I would encounter a word I didn't know I would ask my dad or my mom what it meant. Later, after I got to public school, I would look words up in a dictionary instead of asking.

However, somewhere along the way I got lazy. Not every time, but often I would just intuit from the use what the word meant. This could sometimes lead to some embarrassing moments, such as the year or so I pronounced the world 'misled' as MY-zilled. I had correctly assumed the definition, but because I had never looked it up I did not realize it was MISS-led. Yeah, that was uncomfortable when I used it in conversation with another high school student who was not about to let that one pass without duly humiliating me. (No, I did not beat the guy to a pulp. I was too embarrassed to even consider punching him in the face.)

After that I tended to not be quite so arrogant and would look up words that mystified me, or which I grudgingly suspected I might have misinterpreted.

All except one word:


I think I first encountered it when I started reading fantasy and horror around the time I was nine or ten years old. Perhaps I first saw it in a book dealing with creepy undead or some Lovecraftian critters. Maybe even Bradbury, whose work I started reading when I was eight years old. But wherever it was, I found the word so strange that I wasn't even going to bother looking for the definition. I went back to trying to discern the meaning from the context. This went on--quite actually--for about five decades.

That's right. I bumped into the word now and again from about the time of my eighth or ninth birthday (let's say) until this past week, only a month or so from my sixtieth birthday. And now I know what it means. And the only reason I know what it means is that the word was used on an educational sign in the Fort Pickens Museum at Gulf Shores National Seashore. It was informing visitors how to deal with biting insects, and later describing mosquitoes and such vermin as 'crepuscular', going on to define the word as 'things that are most active at dusk, or twilight '. I turned to my wife who was also looking at the sign and said, "Damn! I finally know what that fucking word means!"

Well, I'll be dipped in dogshit.

There it was.

And I'd never gotten it right, having always interpreted it as to mean, somehow, that something or someone was corrupt in some manner.

Five decades of stubborn arrogance.

Well, at least I was always pronouncing it correctly in my mind, even if I never used the word in conversation or in my prose.

Thank Jove for that, at least.

There is also the use of the word referring to fading sunlight. It could be that I first encountered it in that context. (But I couldn't resist being a lout over the word by producing a smartass meme.)

Friday, May 12, 2017

Holmes Creek Paddle to Cypress Springs.

One of the places we wanted to kayak was Holmes Creek. It was conveniently located near the first campground we used at Falling Waters State Park.

One thing that all of the literature we had read indicated was that Cypress Springs is extremely popular with the locals and to expect crowds if you go on the weekend. Of course we wanted to avoid going on a Saturday or Sunday, but because of our traveling schedule we had to do it on a Saturday, or not at all.


As the literature had warned, we encountered a huge crowd by the time we arrived. We left early, but the multitudes had set out even earlier. I knew we were in for a troublesome visit when I saw one guy in a kayak paddling toward the head spring with a 20-lb propane tank on his kayak.


Most of the land around Cypress Spring is privately owned. It used to be almost impossible to disembark there, but either the state or the local government must have reached some kind of accommodation with the landowner(s) because now there is a strip of land where you can beach your kayaks/canoes. Of course that beach was packed to capacity as we got there so we settled on nesting our kayaks among tree roots and climbing out to go swimming and snorkeling.

Cypress Springs itself is pretty damned impressive. It has one of the most obvious and powerful spring boils I have encountered in Florida. The water was extremely clear, even with all of those scores of cigarette-smoking, music-blaring morons surrounding the water's edge.

I had a pretty good time swimming and diving and observing the aquatic critters. We were there for about an hour before the negative vibes got to us and we headed back down the waterway.

Another thing about Holmes Creek is that as you get to the spring the water becomes more and more clear and beautiful. And the land along the creek becomes more and more privately owned. Dozens were the "KEEP OUT" signs on dry land. Don't get out there. Seriously. As we passed one of these sections a land owner was sitting in his fancy ATV along the banks watching us. I will guarantee you the guy was armed and ready to brandish a gun if you dared to try to beach along his property boundary. These are the same people from whom my father came. When you see a 'Keep Out' sign or a Private Property boundary you'd better, by God, stay off. I'm serious. These things were drilled into my psyche by my late father. Don't test these folk. I'm just warning you guys who do not hail from such stock or from places where a man's property rights are guarded on a level that is extreme and insane.

I always try to inform my Yankee and Midwest pals about this. Usually they ignore me, thinking that I'm kidding or exaggerating (I am not). Hopefully they won't have to find out the hard way to obey those signs when they encounter them.

Just at the put-in point at a county park.

About a half mile before you get to the spring the water becomes crystal clear.

Carole's kayak has a keel and slices through the water. I can't keep up with her because my kayak has no keel.

The main spring. The folk across the way were, I assume, on a dab of public (or at least un-posted) property. They had a tent set up and had obviously been camping there for a day or so.

Gnarly old trees on one side of the creek.

I imagined dinosaurs creeping through this forest.

A quiet, uncrowded spot about 100 yards down from the head spring.

Getting close to our take out point. Big bluffs above the creek.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Kingdom of the Osprey.

I have never seen more ospreys in a more compact area than I did at the Gulf Shores National Seashore. There were enormous osprey nests all around, and each nest was inhabited by an osprey couple. Since they were stationary taking care of newly laid eggs (I never saw any hatchlings, but I suppose they could already have emerged), it was easy to photograph mated pairs of the birds.

Nothing hit home to me more that I need a better camera and finer lenses than when I got back to my Casita travel trailer to look at the photos I had taken. Only to find that hours exploring around the freshwater marsh and lurking near osprey nests had netted me about 50 ruined photos. The filter I had used for my telephoto lens obviously was not a good match and the photos were all ruined. Slightly blurred. I lost dozens of wonderful action shots.

I remedied this by removing and disposing of the faulty filter, but the damage was done. Wasted moments lost to sub-standard camera equipment. Alas.

I went back out on subsequent days, but I never did get those kinds of photos again. I got some decent ones, but not the shots of action and interaction between the mated ospreys. As soon as I can afford the budget for a camera/lens upgrade I will do that. For now, I'll have to be extremely careful of what I am doing with the equipment that I do have and to make sure that the images are as clear as possible.

Because of the ecosystem where we camped, I got to see ospreys actively hunting. Carole and I actually saw an osprey descend to catch and kill a Hispid rat. To that point I had only seen them bringing in fish. But we sat and watched as a big osprey suddenly altered his flight and hit the ground to grab the small rodent and return to the air. An opportunistic moment and I didn't even have my camera ready.

I only post this as a cautionary lesson. This would have been a kickass photo if only I'd realized the filter I had applied does not work with this lens. I screwed up well over fifty otherwise wonderful photographs because of this. Damn.
There was a specific nest I visited a lot because there was easy access through the sawgrass. The male seemed okay with it, but the mama osprey finally had enough of my shit. This is the photo I took just before she took wing to give me an earful and--I am convinced--looked for an opportunity to dive-bomb or claw my ass. I beat feet and gave her some solitude.
Nice trail and boardwalk through the sawgrass.
Damn it! Not you again?!!
Their nests are often enormous. I've heard they keep adding to them year after year.

The sawgrass ecosystem in which most of the nests are located.

I am pretty sure that at this precise second, she was altering her flightpath and considering diving down and taking a piece of me back up with her. I think she was carefully gauging the distance and my capacity to do more than scream in terror. Sorry for the blurry photo, but...well...there you are.