Sunday, November 14, 2010

In training...

Not nearly as exciting as the hiking itself, but I guess just as Twice this week I've gone on bike rides. The first one, last Sunday, was my first real ride since the surgeries. Well, except for the primarily downhill leg of the Virginia Creeper Trail. I was ecstatic to see at the end of that 7 mile ride that I really had more trouble out of the knee that hasn't had surgery than the one that did. I rode the Ten Mile Greenway here in town with Lynn. It's really a very nice greenway that is nicely paved and has two underpasses to traverse the busiest roads. Only two other street crossings are required and those are not a problem. The trail is well used (enough to feel safe), but not so greatly used that you are continually dodging other people. It goes from Cedar Bluff/North Peters Road to the elementary school on Vanosdale Road. Round trip, the trail is 7 miles.

I rode the trail again yesterday, Saturday, because I couldn't find anyone who wanted to hike and I knew it was going to be a gorgeous fall day. This time I did the trail and then repeated part of it for an approximate 9 mile trip. I want to work my way back up to where 20 miles is fairly easy, which is what I was doing before the knee went out a couple years ago. I LOVE the endorphin rush I can get on my bike. Same one I used to get when I ran in my younger days. I can't really get that rush just walking neighborhood streets or greenways, but I can get it on my bike.

In between the two bike rides, I did a 4 mile walk of the Turkey Creek Greenway on Tuesday. I've got to start keeping track of my time, but I think I'm walking it pretty fast. I was more stiff and sore from the walk than I was from the bike ride. Go figure!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

I have been to the mountaintop!

This hike will stand as one of the personal highlights of my life. On Sunday, October 31, 2010, I hiked to the very top of the Chimney Tops, willed myself to rock climb the last 30 feet, and raised my head up over the final rock ledge to experience a view unlike any other I have ever experienced. What an adrenaline rush that was! I have ridden that rush for almost a week now and it still seems almost as vivid as it did last Sunday. The views from that uppermost rock ledge are absolutely indescribable, but the personal satisfaction of having achieved it after two knee surgeries and at the age of 51 is just as incredible to me. I am so very glad that I didn't stop at the base of the rock outcroppings and convince myself that I had gone as far as I needed to.

This hike isn't rated "strenuous" for nothing! It is only a two mile hike in, but it takes a good bit of effort on the hiker's part. There are, however, several nice places to stop and rest along the way. My husband and I sat on one log that had been worn totally smooth by, I'm sure, other hikers just like us who were "whooped" and wondering if we would actually make it. I would like to have a dollar for every hiker who has stopped to rest on that one log. After climbing steeply for two miles, ascending at a rate of 700 feet per mile, you reach what some people consider the top. But really, the Anakeesta rock outcroppings that form the pinnacle are challenging you to experience the real mountaintop. Having come this far, I did not want to go back down without at least trying. Many hikers stop right here and convince themselves that these views are just as good as those from the pinnacle. As I watched some twenty-somethings trying to scale the face of the outcroppings, I almost made that argument to myself.

However, other hikers who had just come down from the top, riding their own adrenaline rush, I now know, encouraged us to try it. They also encouraged us to take the trail to the right of the pinnacle which led us to a more perpendicular rise, but that spot provided more handholds and footholds and at least a little more security in my mind. So, I put my hiking stick's wrist loop around my wrist, letting the stick travel along behind me, and started up. Slowly, but steadily, we found places to hang onto and eased our way up the rock face. About 20 feet up, I took one look down and almost froze. It was terrifying, to say the least. But at that point a nice young couple who was at the very top encouraged me not to look down and that we were almost there. I will forever thank them for that encouragement. Looking only to the top now, I inched my way up. I will never forget the feeling as my eyes cleared that last rock and the 360 degree view of my favorite place in the world became apparent. I gasped for breath, not from being tired, but from the sheer awesomeness of what was before me. I realized right then that this was one of those crowning moments of one's life that you will never forget. It made you want to cry out, to jump up and down, to celebrate life and your own accomplishment for having made it. Words, nor pictures, can do it justice. But I can say it has given new meaning to the phrase, "I have been to the mountaintop!"

To view my pictures from this hike, click on this link: Chimney Tops Photo Album

Alum Cave Bluff

The stresses of life's challenges as you work yourself through middle-age can play havoc with a marriage, even one as old and strong as ours. My husband and I have found ourselves bickering and disagreeing on more things than usual of late. However, we both love the outdoors and so decided to return to the sanctity of nature to hang on to each other during this difficult time. Our hike to Alum Cave Bluffs was the first of what I hope will be many more.

I absolutely loved this hike! The first part of the trail runs alongside Alum Cave Creek and offers many beautiful scenes where you can stand, hold hands, and just listen to the creek music. We were again blessed with gorgeous weather and were dressed in just light hiking apparel--long, zip-off legged pants and t-shirts. I did feel kind of bad for my husband who didn't have a pair of hiking boots to wear today, but he managed ok.

A little over a mile up this hike, you come to Arch Rock. It is an awesome thing to see, knowing that at some point in history, it began as just a crack and has been weathered over time into the arch that you walk through to get to the bluff. Thankfully, the Park Service has provided a set of rock stairs and a cable to use as a handrail as you climb up through Arch Rock. This is not too tough though. I saw many young children on this hike and they made it just fine, so don't be afraid of this section. Once you pass Arch Rock, you continue to climb until you reach the namesake of this hike. The bluff isn't really a cave at all, but a large, slate rock that is concave in shape. We climbed right up into that concavity and sat to rest, admiring awe-inspiring views of high peaks and beautiful fall colors.

We also had a little snack at the edge of the woods right before you go up into the bluff and were joined by a scampering little visitor the likes of which I had never seen before. He was looking for us to drop a crumb or two I'm sure. He was a red squirrel, which the locals call "boomers," and he was too skiddish for me to capture on my camera phone, but it was quite interesting to watch him playing on the rocks and trees as we sat to rest.

As we sat there, we were passed by folks on their way on up to Mt. Leconte to spend the night. I want to do that--it's definitely on my bucket list. Maybe next summer I will take that one on. After we returned down the path of this gorgeous trail, we made our way into Gatlinburg where we stopped at the Outpost and bought my hubby a pair of Keen hiking boots so he wouldn't have to do this in tennis shoes anymore and as a kind of commitment to continue hiking together. After that purchase we went next door into a restaurant and enjoyed a wonderful dinner and glass of wine. Now that was a nice ending to a glorious day!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Virginia Creeper Bike Trail

My second major jaunt after my daughter went off to college was not a hike, but a biking trip. However, since she is a student at ETSU which is practically on the way, I talked her into going with me and another friend. I drove up early on a Saturday morning in September. We arrived at the bike shop, Adventure Damascus, which would ferry us up to the top of the mountain, loaded our bikes, purchased a lightweight jacket since it was much cooler up there than I had expected, and loaded into the van. After about a 30 minute drive to the head of the Creeper trail, we disembarked from the van, unloaded the bikes, and mounted up. What a terrific trip! The Creeper is an old railroad bed which has been converted to a bike trail as a part of the Rails to Trails initiative. The soft gravel surface of the trail is wide enough to ride side-by-side, but there are many places where this probably is not a good idea. You also need to be careful if you need to stop quickly since this surface will make you skid easily in a situation like that.
We spent most of our time single file to safely enjoy the beautiful scenery.

The scenery on the Virginia Creeper Trail is breathtaking in many places and serene pretty much all the way through. My favorite parts were probably the old trestles that crossed over the river and some fairly deep gorges in a couple places. Our 10 a.m. departure from the bike shop meant that we were ahead of much of the traffic that would find it's way to the trail later in the day. We were able to stop for lunch along the trail at a little restaurant that caters to bikers, the Creeper Trail Cafe. They do a really nice job providing food for all those hungry folks riding or walking the trail. The chocolate cake was delicious and I highly recommend you don't miss it! Toward the end of the first section, about 13 miles into the trip, the otherwise downhill path levels out and you have to do some pedaling. However, even this part of the trail is not strenuous. It was an enjoyable ride that I will certainly repeat!

One more recommendation I will make. After you have ridden the trail, plan to see a theatrical performance at the Barter Theater in Abingdon, Virginia. We saw "The Full Monty" that night, and it was quite well done and a delightful performance. I will definitely see another performance there again.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Hiking Sticks

I know the current rage is the fancy walking sticks that are light weight and machine made, but my husband made me a walking stick years ago, and I use that instead. It is made from a young tree that had a vine wrapped around it, so it is contorted and twisted. It is only partially sanded, with bark still exposed on a good bit of this stick but with a beautiful, high gloss finish. It's absolutely beautiful and it suits me just fine. Every time we hike, I get comments on how beautiful this stick is. It was crafted especially for me by my companion of over 24 years, and I wouldn't trade it for all of those new "pointy" sticks out there. Thanks, dear, for the great hiking stick!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Andrews Bald

I'm going to backtrack just a little bit to the beginning of this journey. My daughter left for college on August 26, 2010. We moved her into her dorm room complete with so many accouterments that I'm not sure how it all went in that tiny little space! The biggest thing she kept with her in that dorm room, though, was a large piece of my heart. On the following Sunday, August 29, a friend of mine, Lynn, rescued me from the depths and accompanied me on my first hike in a long time, well since my knee surgeries began back in 2008.

We chose a relatively easy hike to break me back in--Andrews Bald. The beginning point of this hike was located at the Clingman's Dome parking area. The weather was beautiful with fairly clear skies and temps around 65 degrees.

I forgot my hiking stick, so I was a little worried about the knee for a while, but it cooperated nicely. The path was rocky and had some relatively short steep inclines and declines, but I never really even got winded on this hike. The round trip is 3.6 miles and we completed it, along with a good bit of time on the bald taking pictures and catching a snack, in less than 3 hours. The real treat for this hike was the wild blueberries that grow on 7-8 ft tall bushes on the bald and wild blackberries that grow sporadically along the path through the woods. They were delicious, but I must admit, I kept a keen eye out for bear. I was ready to give them all the berries they wanted and lots of room to eat them in! We did see some bear scat on the trail, maybe a day or two old, but never had to share the blueberry bushes on that day. The views from the bald could have been quite nice, but when we arrived, there was a light fog veiling the distant peaks and a good bit of cloud cover in the distance as well. Still, it was a nice view.

There were lots of wildflowers still in bloom on that late August day. My daughter's favorite wildflower, Jewelweed, otherwise known as "Touch Me Not," were fairly common near the 2 or 3 springs along the trail. Monarda was blooming near the trailhead along with some Queen Anne's Lace, but Curtis' Aster was the most prolific wildflower in bloom. It is a tall, purple aster with bright yellow centers that I found particularly attractive. There was also a white, non-photosynthetic plant in a few patches along this trail that I haven't identified yet. It reminded me of Squaw root, but it was albino-like white and was more delicate and branching than Squaw root.

We were the only hikers on the Andrews Bald trail that morning until we were almost back to the trailhead. We did run into a couple who had just made their way up from Campsite 68 where they had camped the previous two evenings. It was located 2.0 miles below our trail and they had traveled the Forney Creek Trail to the point where it intersected with our trail. They were going on out to the bald from there. They made me begin to think about the possibility of doing a little backcountry hiking. Hmmm...

The woman behind the hiking stick.

Now that I find my knees both work well enough to resume two of my favorite pastimes, hiking and bike riding, I feel compelled to use these pursuits to ease myself through some tough transitions in my life. My youngest child just went off to college in August and has left me wondering what to do with the time we once spent together. I've just finished an advanced degree at the University of Tennessee which has taken up a tremendous amount of my time over the last two and a half years. I no longer have to get up at 5 a.m. just to write research papers or read in professional journals before going to my teaching job. I find myself doing some soul-searching, and that is leading me back to my mountains--the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. Hopefully this journey will take me to new heights--different, decidedly, from other peaks in my life--but heights, nonetheless.