Into the Woods: Smith Springs Loop

Every hike has a story. Usually it’s fairly short: “I needed some rest and exercise, so I went for a hike.” Simple.

This is not one of those stories.

It started last fall, right after we found out that that we were expecting our fourth child (arriving in June). Taking a “babymoon” is harder when one has three older kids to arrange care for, so we came up with a wild idea. A crazy idea. What if we took a trip out west, all five of us?

After some research, we pieced it together. We’d go in February, before Rachel’s pregnancy was so far along she couldn’t sleep well. We’d stay south to avoid winter weather as much as possible. We’d keep driving days under 6-7 hours for the sake of everyone’s endurance. We’d camp some, and cash in hotel points from a credit card for other nights. It seemed within reach. Possible. Delightful even.

When the big day came to leave, we packed our minivan within an inch of its life and pulled toward the setting sun. Each of these stops entailed a lot of activities, and could be given a fine travelogue post in its own right, but for the purposes of this story, you’ll get the flyover view. Day 1: Memphis. Day 2: Oklahoma City. Day 3: Palo Duro Canyon. Day 4: Santa Fe.

All well and good, until one of the kids got sick on the way to Palo Duro. Spending 30 minutes cleaning mint-chocolate-chip ice cream vomit from the back of the car on the side of a dark Texas highway is fun. Realizing that the bathroom next to your camping cabin is out of order while your child continues to vomit is more so. Having raccoons pilfer the vomit-covered paper towels from a double-bagged, sealed trashcan and scatter them around the park is positively thrilling.

This still isn’t really a story about that, though. Because this was no ordinary stomach bug, our daughter continued throwing up for nearly a week. Our time in Santa Fe involved a visit to a very nice urgent care clinic and a joyful spell of throwing up on a hotel elevator (not to mention one of the other kids coming down with strep throat), but also some fine artarchitecture, and scenery. After a while, we realized it would be foolish to take the planned next leg of the trip to Big Bend (which is, to put it mildly, a good long drive from civilization and medical attention), so we stayed an extra day in Santa Fe and began to rework the rest of the trip.

Day 7: Brantley Lake State Park. Chosen because of the ridiculous price of hotels in Carlsbad; remembered because of the way our tent was ripped out of the ground by whimsical high-plains winds forcing us to fold it up and sleep in the van at 3 a.m.

Day 8: Breakfast at a McDonalds in Carlsbad, including the joy of being the only out-of-towners at the mayor’s campaign rally. Carlsbad Caverns is truly mind-blowing, a national treasure. Everyone should visit.

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Seriously. Go here.

At last we come to the hike in the subject of this post. Having been forced to scrap Big Bend, we veered southwestward from Carlsbad to Guadalupe Mountains National Park in far West Texas to try to catch a glimpse of a similar ecosystem.

You see Guadalupe coming for a while, as soon as you walk out of the visitor’s center at Carlsbad, for that matter. For someone used to the tangled woodlands of East Tennessee, having a line of sight to your destination from 50+ miles out is terrific anticipation (trees are a non-entity in the high Chihuahuan Desert). The limestone ridge of the Guadalupes shoots up, a wall in the desert, marking the space and creating its own weather.

GMNP has several entrances, short roads leading to a small parking areas with trailheads to explore the park on foot. It’s one of the least visited parks in the NPS system, and the great balance of its land is wilderness. We chose to enter at Frijole Ranch on the eastern side of the Park and take what little time we had to try the Smith Spring loop trail. After a quick picnic lunch (in the van again, because wind), the older two girls and I set out, letting the others rest.

Going around the loop clockwise from the ranch house, the trail starts by traversing the grasslands in the shadow of the ridge. The day we went, the scouring south wind was only broken by the trail’s periodic dips into gravelly arroyos waiting to catch and funnel away whatever rain might fall. As you drift closer to the mountains themselves, the trail winds to keep the ascent gentle, slowly gaining about 400 feet.

Rounding the last bend, a swath of green leaps to meet you in striking contrast to the yucca, agave, cacti, and scrub juniper. Even the wind stops, blocked by an arm of the ridge. Here are pines, maples, oaks, and madrones, and underbrush practically shouting, “water!”

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In the center of this micro-environment is the spring itself, a burbling hope in a forlorn land. Again, for someone so used to the thick forests and abundant rainfall of the East, it’s hard to fathom the volume of life one little trickle of water can call forth.

The downhill return side of the loop hugs the runoff from the spring to stay in the shade for a while. It seemed a bit better traveled; my hunch is that most people go to the spring this way and then retrace their steps. We spotted a couple of mule deer and several birds along this stretch before passing another water source (Manzanita Spring) and making it back to the ranch.

For a short hike in the middle of nowhere that I’ll likely never revisit (and that most readers will never see) it’s captured my imagination as the focal point of our whole family trip (Days 9-13 of which, for the record, included more sickness, but also many activities on the way back east through San Antonio, Galveston, and New Orleans).

This trip tested my patience in many ways, and reminded me multiple times of my selfishness, pride, and inability to control things. More than one outburst of anger at the comedy-of-errors series of disappointments shocked me with its intensity. I hope that in time, the kids will remember the good, and that the bad will fade to gut-busting bits of family lore. For me, it will always be tempered by a twinge of regret at the ways I held my family’s joy hostage to my own vision of a good vacation.

Smith Spring was a turning point, though; a moment to refresh my soul and attitude and relax my grip on the rest of our itinerary. It was a slice of the trip where things went more or less according to plan—where we richly enjoyed the scenery and activities we crossed rivers and plains for—and gave the turn back east an air of accomplishment instead of defeat. You never know how much can flow from springs in a desert place.

“When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue faileth for thirst, I the LORD will hear them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them. I will open rivers in high places, and fountains in the midst of the valleys: I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water. I will plant in the wilderness the cedar, the shittah tree, and the myrtle, and the oil tree; I will set in the desert the fir tree, and the pine, and the box tree together. That they may see, and know, and consider, and understand together, that the hand of the LORD hath done this, and the Holy One of Israel hath created it” (Isa. 41:17-20).

Into the Woods: Observation Point

This trail log is a bit of throwback (not too far, only to early October). Not every hike makes it into a blog post, but leaving this one off would be a titanic omission.

Zion National Park, taken as a whole, I couldn’t describe without waxing poetic. The hike to Observation Point, however, merits a fuller description. This path hewn from the cliffsides covers every major landform of Zion Canyon. From the banks of the Virgin River, it climbs over 2,000 feet in four miles, up through one of the many slot canyons of the area to crest the plateau and offer what may be the most incredible view in Utah. Many more visitors attempt the iconic Angel’s Landing, but this trail lets you literally look down on the crowds clinging to the chains on that approach.

For us lifelong Easterners, everything out West is photogenic. Arid expanses unblocked by vegetation and “civilization” shock the senses. It’s hard enough to stop snapping when you’re driving down the Interstate, so let me apologize in advance for the preponderance of images in this post.

Rugged and remote as it is, getting to Zion is not that hard. It’s a pleasant 35 minute ride from I-15 to the park’s south entrance. Floor of the Valley Road, running up into the canyon (Zion’s most prominent feature, but only a small corner of the whole park), was once crowded with traffic, but since 2000, visitors are required to park at the visitor center and ride a free shuttle to access most of the canyon.

A journey to Observation Point starts at shuttle stop #7, at about 4,300′ above sea level. From the pullout there, the trail begins with a, shall we say, rather abrupt ascent. After a brief but steep straight pull, a series of massive switchbacks carry you up a sparsely treed near-vertical slope to 5,200′.

Though this is a desert, the shade of the canyon walls and relatively high altitude allow for quite an array of small plants (scrub oaks, canyon maples, prickly pears, asters and other wildflowers) to cling to the nearly soil-less hillside. Zigzagging up the trail, views of the valley floor slowly expand to the west, quickly rewarding your exertion. Continue reading

Into the Woods: Mount Jefferson

A good walk in the woods, like a good book, always calls you back for another look. Much as I’m always looking for a new trail and a higher mountain, a short hike on a favorite trail feels as warm and familiar as an old sweater.

Whenever I have a chance to go home to the NC High Country, a hike is in order. Since my family moved to that part of the world in 1998 (and even though I’ve been a Chattanooga resident since 2006), there’s hardly a trail in the area that I haven’t hoofed at least once.

One that I come back to again and again, though, is the short (<2 mi.) loop across the summit of Mount Jefferson in Ashe County. This modest summit (4665′) cuts an imposing prominence above the surrounding farmland, and has been preserved as a small state park. It has a much more unassuming beauty than many more famous peaks in the area like Grandfather Mountain, but it is a special place when you look a bit closer.

The metamorphic rock (amphibolite) underlaying the mountain gives it a sharper profile than many of the more rounded sandstone & quartzite peaks nearby. The rock also weathers less readily, giving the outcrops a dark, jagged look. Ravens and falcons nest in the protected crags. The sheltered north face of the mountain is home to many interesting plants, including a small stand of Bigtooth aspen, which normally occur much farther north.

Perhaps the best blessing of Mount Jefferson, though is the ease of the path. A road leads nearly to the summit, and there are bathrooms (NB – though these are closed in winter. The kids, er, learned the hard way). The gentle climb makes it a great place for young legs to get out and see the mountaintop ecosystem without complaining or wearing out. A few days after Christmas, our whole family (my parents, my two sisters, Rachel, our three kids, and I) did the full loop without breaking a sweat.

If you’re ever in the area without a lot of time to see the high Appalachian environment, stop in and check this one out. In the winter, access is dependent on weather, spring & fall are lovely, and the summer breezes are a world-class heat-beater.

If you’ve got a little longer window, be sure to visit the wonderful little towns at the base of the mountain – Jefferson & West Jefferson. They’re well-provisioned with the requisite charm of shops, restaurants, and murals, not to mention a legit cheese factory.

Percy’s Love in the Ruins: A Dystopia for Our Time

Note: This piece was originally written in September 2016, in the run-up to that year’s U.S. national election.

The 1970s have a curious aura, especially to those of us born in the early 1980s. Not quite far enough before our time to feel like “history,” Vietnam, Watergate, stagflation, and all the associated malaise were so much a part of our parents’ formative experience that they taste to us rather of a half-remembered bad dream—especially given the relative peace and prosperity we enjoyed throughout childhood. Perhaps it is only natural, then, to associate that 70s vibe with our own grave misgivings about the present.

Facing as we do a national election between a habitual liar under investigation by the FBI (is anyone more Nixonian than Mrs. Clinton?) and a much-married misogynist, racist, and paragon of petty machismo, we see a strong political overlap between the two eras. The nausea goes much deeper too—into sex, race, religion, and society itself. All around, our souls give way, yet no solution presents itself. The exhaustion is palpable, even papered over as it continues to be by our blithe consumption and entertainment.

Into such troubled times, the prophets of old spoke even greater trouble. “On account of you, Zion will be plowed as a field, Jerusalem will become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the temple will become high places of a forest.”[1] This indicts us just as much as it happens to us. Perhaps the prophet we need to hear thunder today is the unlikeliest of anointed men—nearly three decades dead and always unassuming in his own time.

Walker Percy, Louisiana novelist and essayist, keenly felt the dislocation of man in the modern age, and set his face toward exploring and explaining that pain in nearly everything he wrote. In Percy’s own telling, a serious novelist (one as much concerned with plumbing the depths of existence as with telling a good story) is by nature a sort of prophet:

“Since true prophets, i.e., men called by God to communicate something urgent to other men, are currently in short supply, the novelist may perform a quasi-prophetic function. Like the prophet, his news is generally bad. Unlike the prophet, whose mouth has been purified by a burning coal, the novelist’s art is often bad, too…. Like the prophet, he may find himself in radical disagreement with his fellow countrymen. Unlike the prophet, he does not generally get killed. More often, he is ignored.”[2]

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