Into the Woods: Rocky Top

Plenty of folks will tolerate walking a few miles over rough terrain for exercise, camping, to see a view, or to enjoy a particularly nice day, but not many of us enjoy the walking itself.

Owen, a good friend of ours going back to college days, now lives “over the mountains” from us in Waynesville, North Carolina. He’s an avid hiker and backpacker (since moving to NC, he has logged some serious miles), and it dawned on both of us a few years ago that we were each other’s only friend who enjoyed hiking on its own merits.  That being the case, we’ve tried to get together at least once a year for a good stretch of the legs somewhere more or less equidistant from each of us.

In 2013, when the idea first came to fruition, I was staying at my parents’ home for a week in July, so we met to tackle Linville Gorge in North Carolina. We took two cars, parking one on the west side of the gorge and starting the hike from the east rim. We climbed up Hawksbill, and then promptly lost the trail on our way to the canyon floor (USFS Wilderness areas are [in]famous for non-existent trail maintenance and sparse signage). After a long scramble down the mountainside (you can only ever get so lost in a steep river valley), we picked up another trail and found the one footbridge across the river washed out. Not to be thwarted, we swam it, snakes and all. My friend went first; I tossed across our packs, and then dove in myself. We managed to dry off on the hot climb up the west rim, making it back to the other car minutes before a huge hail storm hit. Year 1: success.

In May of 2014, we conned another of our college buddies to join us for a 12-mile round trip in my neck of the woods: climbing Big Frog on the Benton MacKaye Trail. This time we got together the night before for some “comfort camping” out of the back of the car with good food and campfire conversations. We hit the trail in the morning, and had gotten about 200 yards into the woods when it started raining. Hard. No matter, though; it only lasted until we made it to the summit. We laughed, dried off as we made the long descent, and cured the misery with a burger on the way home. Year 2: comically good memories.

This month, ever gluttons for punishment, we chose to Thunderhead Mountain - Google Mapstry our hand at Rocky Top in the Northwest Quadrant of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s a grueling climb by Eastern U.S. standards, with the shortest route (Lead Cove Trail > Bote Mountain Trail > Appalachian Trail) gaining 3,500+ feet in altitude over less than 6 miles.

We camped on a Friday at Cades Cove (word to the wise, if you want a weekend campsite there, book it well in advance). A sunset drive around the loop did not disappoint, with deer and coyotes showing off like they were on the NPS payroll. It was quite hot, but a small price to pay for a 0% chance of rain for hike day.

We woke with the sun, got packed and set to work on breakfast over the fire. It only took half of my first cup of coffee to call the weatherman’s bluff. It poured rain for about 10 minutes. Then the sun came out. As we were washing up the dishes and dousing the fire the same cycle happened again. Not a good sign.

We got to the trailhead, and the ground was dry, so we struck out. The humidity made for a sweaty and foggy ascent, but it did not rain. We passed some incredible trees (the north face of the Smokies is renowned for its old-growth tulip poplars and raIMG_3919inforest-like climate), a few wild hog “wallers”, an enormous tom turkey, and a hundred different kinds of flowers I planned to photograph on the more leisurely hike back. When we finally made it to the summit, the promised view was obscured by 50′ visibility in a bright cloud. We rested for a few minutes in hopes it would break, but gave up pretty quickly.

Not a quarter mile down the return trail, it began to rain steadily. We put on  our rain gear and trudged on. The farther we went, the harder it came down, thunder reverberating through the hollows. By the time we started the steepest part of the descent, the trail was nearly ankle deep in fast-moving runoff. At this point, you have to either laugh or cry; you don’t have a choice but to keep going.

Once we were within striking distance of our cars, the sun broke through. When we were almost dry, another storm came up with incredible speed, thoroughly re-soaking us for the last mile. All the planned photography was scrapped, so I have little to show from the hike but a good story to tell. A towel, dry shirt, and some tourist-priced (though happily not tourist-quality) smoked chicken at a riverside BBQ joint in Townsend offered just enough relief to recognize this insanity for the fun it is.

Year 3: If at first you get rained out, maybe summer hikes are not for you. How about fall or winter next time?


For when Words Fail

I have spent plenty of time criticizing, lamenting for, and preaching to my country and countrymen. This is not one of those times. Any chastisement offered comes from the same love that produces admiration, and admiration is often due to America. Reflecting on what passed in my hometown last week (the photos below were taken this morning, a mile from my office), and how the people of Chattanooga and Tennessee have responded (with a grace and peace seldom similarly represented by the news media), the Lord has reminded me of the joy and privilege it is to live here in spite of it all.

I am blessed to be called a citizen of the United States.





Peeling Back the Clock: Adventures in DIY-land

With tongue firmly planted in cheek, I share this update on life in our home.

Few experiences can shake your faith in life’s “settledness” than repair work. Tinkering with everyday items taken for granted is a trip down a rabbit-hole of complexity, confusion, and the shoddy work of handymen past.

It’s always this way. When have you ever started fixing something on your car and finished without at least two trips back to AutoZone? When have you attempted a plumbing tweak that resulted in something other than a flood or a week of “doing without” that faucet? I rest my case.

I’ve heard it said that homeownership is the best teacher of basic craftsmanship. This is incomplete, on two levels. First, only homeownership in the absence of disposable income accomplishes this. If I could easily afford to pay someone to waste their time battling corroded pipes and shoring up the remains of last month’s termite buffet, you think I’d do this myself? Second, owning and desiring to repair something are not the complete set needed to learn new skills; making your own mistakes is a must. I can watch YouTube videos all day long, but until I break it myself, I don’t really understand how far in over my head I am.

I am not Mr. Fix-it...well maybe this one.

I am not Mr. Fix-it…well maybe this one.

The car is somewhat a different matter, if for no other reason than that tomorrow morning’s commute to work always imposes a strict deadline to put it all back together. Even then, I’m embarrassed to tell how long it’s taken me to break down and buy the basic tools needed to make simple repairs as simple as they should be. The same two principles apply to learning in this realm: Lack of funds and lack of expertise must converge before you can reach a sufficient level of despair to actually internalize the lesson.

All this is floating to the surface because my wife and I recently looked around our house (ca. 1960) to realize how little we’ve done to keep the place up since moving in in 2007. Sure, we had the windows replaced, but that was when we had the spendthrift ways of a young couple with two decent jobs. We did the roof too, but that was a DIY debacle in its own way (racing to dry in before the rain, spending all Thanksgiving picking nails out of the driveway, and still dealing with one persistent drip years later). The inside is unchanged since our flurry of painting just before we occupied.

We started with what we knew. Drawing on my past life as a landscaper, we took out an ugly shrub (read: rangy 15′ tree) and put in a small retaining wall to liven up the front entrance. So far so good.

Then, we got the bright idea to take out all the clunky light switches and put in the flat-panel “decorator” models. Halfway through that project, the garbage disposal is no longer connected to a live circuit, we broke some tiles in the bathroom, disabled the dual switching to the hall light, and uncovered enough bad wiring to (hopefully not literally) make one’s hair stand on end. So that’s going well.

Next on the list, touching up the bathrooms, examining the plumbing, redoing some insulation and sheetrock in the garage, and more. At least the planned yard sale should go off without a hitch (“He said, black clouds filling the sky behind him”).

As an exercise in irony, a look back makes it clear to Rachel & me that we overpaid for this house–precisely because we did not want a “fixer-upper” to deal with. Of course all houses eventually become fixer-uppers. Time and nature play no favorites, and it positively astonishes to see how small children and entropy work together so well on so many things. To an outsider, it probably seems like cheap farce (Oh, who are we kidding? No one ever notices), but I doubt this is a very different tune from whatever most of you are playing.

There is wisdom to be had in knowing your limits. Nobody is good at everything. I’d spend more money eating out if I didn’t enjoy the savings and control of cooking at home. Someday, perhaps, I’ll figure out that I should stop whipping up burned biscuits in the home repair department and pay someone who enjoys doing it right. In all, value is what you make of it. There are some things I’d shell out for if we lived in a different part of town, but for our neighborhood, clean and functional is luxury in itself. Life goes on, and we’ll certainly be much the wiser next time we buy a place to live, but what the heck, it’s home.

To paraphrase a rather “earthy” quip from a friend, there’s not a thing wrong with us that a good night’s sleep, a hot shower, and a half-million dollars won’t fix.

Of Generations and False Categories

Sometimes, we write original, thought provoking pieces. This is not one of those times.

In spite of the relatively fluid categories of, well, everything, these days, grouping people by when they were born has been surprisingly resilient. These rough-sketched batches of birthdates get treated as hard and fast strata permitting no social mobility. It makes some demographic sense, but complex people must be grossly simplified to fit on such tidy columns. Common ground comes in many parcels–an 80 year-old and 30 year-old from the same town probably share more than two 50 year-olds from different countries (or different corners of the same country). This is to say nothing of temperament, beliefs, education, income, and dozens of other facts that unite and divide us.

So, who cares? I’ve always been a bit sensitive to the “generational” thing, consistently being called a Millennial when I see so little of myself (or my wife, or our close friends) in popular characterization of these up and comers. Some of the brushstrokes fit, some don’t. We have kids, we own a home (or at least “share” one with the bank), we put family before career but still show up on time and work hard at jobs we’re very glad to have in tough economic times, we use technology readily but prefer unplugged time, we put politics on the back burner and following God (in belief and in practice) up front, etc.

Apparently, I’m not alone in this assessment, as one wit has dubbed us early-80s kids the “Oregon Trail Generation” in an attempt to push back against the (mostly) negative picture of Millennials pumped in the wider culture. Even that, though, categorizes people across too broad a spectrum, assuming a great deal about a great many to grasp a shared recognition.

The flaws and gaps in facile generational clusters expose problems with group identities across the board. Calling people Millennials, Gen-Xers, Boomers, etc. doesn’t help you know them, it gives you an epithet to write off their needs or their contributions to your life. Race works in much the same way, as does political affiliation, and a number of other assumed postures. On paper, autonomous individualism is expanding its cultural and legal purchase, yet humans can’t resist the countless tiny nationalisms that allow us to form community power structures and wage war on other groups.

Next time you feel your back bristle at being pinned according to some label or other, let it spur you to resist the same temptation. At the end of the day, there is one distinction that matters: sheep or goat. If you forgo relationships and conversations with people you’ve stamped with other names (or whose own chosen tribal tattoos show with undue pride), you’ll never be able to know how much the Lord loves you both and wants you both to be with Him among the saints.