Riverwalking

A walk by oneself is never lonely

Silence

Miscanthus whispers in the wind

Flutter

A maple applauds

Mumbling

“…I love you, too!” and the beep of a hung up phone

Footfalls

Two joggers: “…I mean, she wasn’t even breathing…”

Honking

A child: “It’s the flying V!”

Splash

Another: “That’s the biggest rock, dad”           

Whirring

A biker: “On your left”

Silence

Fellow daydreamer: A barely perceptible wave at waist level

Crunching

Squirrel: a pinecone disemboweled

Silence

Silence

Silence

A smile of recognition.

Into the Woods: Snake Mountain

When my family moved to North Carolina, in the summer of 1998, I was fourteen with an endless imagination for the adventures these hazy blue mountains would hold for an erstwhile Georgia flatlander. I moved away after a short while (to Dayton, Tenn., for college in 2002, and I’ve lived in Chattanooga since 2006), but these hills have always felt like home. Fortunately, my parents still live in the same county, so I get to come back and stay often.

Of all the mountains, perhaps none captured my fancy quite like Snake Mountain. It was due north from the back deck of the house we first lived in up there, its silent, volcano-like visage staring at me every morning. Unlike many other peaks around the area, it was also inaccessible—private property with no marked trail or easy access to its 5,555′ rock-strewn summit.

Some years ago, the property owner allowed for a hiking easement, but I’ve not found the time to check it out. Most hikes with family opt for more easily obtained objectives. This Christmas break, though, my sister, my brother-in-law, and I decided to give it a go. As a bonus, we even talked my dear wife and our oldest two girls into tagging along. Were we ever in for some fun.

The trailhead, such as it is, is a metal farm gate on the southbound side of Meat Camp Road, across from a gravel pull-off just big enough for three or four cars. It’s about 1/2 mile past the entrance to Elk Knob State Park (which is a worthwhile hike in its own right). There are several gates on the same side of the road, so look for the one with the “Practice Leave-No-Trace Hiking” sign on a telephone pole next to it. A quick hop of the gate (if it’s closed) and you’re off.

The first mile or so is a wide (if quite steep) unpaved road—whether for logging or access to utilities. The steady ascent moves between woods and fields, and opens up some fine views of nearby peaks.

After nearly 700 feet of elevation gain, the trail splits off the road and becomes excruciatingly vertical, navigating a narrow way through grass, rocks, and mud. Passing some impressive cliffs, the sweeping view to the north and east begins to take shape—taking in much of Ashe County and on up to Mount Rogers and Whitetop in Virginia.

The ascent slows at a sub peak, with a semi-level stretch along a narrowing rock-ledged ridge. At this point, off to the right, you might notice a road and parking lot, which is part of a failed housing development accessed through Tennessee (at this point, the ridgeline—and trail—follows the state line). I think you can access the trail from there, making a shorter approach. The easygoing stops abruptly when the trail appears to dead-end into a small cliff. We made the mistake of following some trodden ground to the right, but the trail actually goes straight up in a tough scramble (because it is private property without an “official” or maintained trail, the whole route is unblazed).

Because of the error, we ended up sidehill in thick woods as the false trail petered out. Rather than going back, we made a tree-to-tree sprint back to the top of the ridge to re-find the trail and made it to the north sub-summit for lunch. The view west and south (encompassing the Holston Valley, Grandfather Mountain, the Roan Mountain massif, and the Black Mountains) opens up. On this well warmer than average day, the wind was low, and ravens were circling the cliffs (likely eying my kids’ cheetos).

After a knee-busting descent down a stair-step of amphibolite outcroppings, a look back shows the difficulty of what you’ve accomplished.

The rest of the descent back to the road portion is a nice mix of deft, ACL-preserving maneuvers through leaves and mud and step-downs with some good, old-fashioned butt-busting slides. Once you hit the walkable section it’s a quick hustle back to the car. The whole descent from the summit barely took 30 minutes (covering nearly 2 miles). An afternoon well spent, with views as good as I’ve seen anywhere. My oldest daughter said the rock climbing work was harder than what we did at Joshua Tree this summer, which did my Carolina heart proud.

Morning

A sweetgum is silhouetted
        against the east cream-sky, leaves like
                star-shaped kids’ cereal sogging
In forgotten milk.

Weathered, brittle plastic toys lie
        scattered in the backyard glowing
                in faint beatific rose light
For a little while.

The house sits quiet and languid
        as the summer air outside feels
                like a held breath, waiting to burst
Out, then in again.

When the kids wake, the spell will be
        broken, but for the time being,
                the world itself seems possible,
Open, blank, watching.

Maybe today’s news won’t happen,
        and all is cream and roses and
                God is standing back of it all
                        Breathing, “It is good.”

Image: Appalachian Sunrise, Watauga County, N.C., July 2018.

On the Side: Takin’ Care of Business

Marginally profitable side businesses are the stock-in-trade of young families.

The ongoing race between month and money always comes down to a nose, so we cheat, dressing the one up like a halloween witch and hoping the judges don’t notice.

At different times this has taken the form of landscape design (me), editing college papers, resumes, and sundry writings of others (me, though usually quid pro quo), summer daycare (Rachel), non-profit office temporary help (Rachel), tutoring in a homeschool co-up (Rachel, also quid pro quo so our kids can attend), selling insurance (Rachel), and selling books (Rachel, currently). Whatever it takes to pad the bottom line so the bills don’t outpace the savings.

My latest venture came to me by a friend’s suggestion. He found a service that does (for a small feFlower Checkere) what I can’t seem to stop doing everywhere I go–telling people just what kind of plant they happen to be looking at. A few e-mails later, and I found myself working ad hoc on the back end of a Czech web business: FlowerChecker.

The basic premise involves a purchased app (there is also a free version now) in which users buy credits to redeem for positive ID from uploaded images of plants they’ve encountered. The fun comes in from the fact that there is no sophisticated, algorithmic database analysis running the show. Rather, FlowerChecker is a good old-fashioned mechanical Turk, with dozens of botany nerds (like myself) on the back end debating IDs and resolving requests. Each of us gets a small cut of the company’s earnings for completed requests weekly. Seriously, try it out sometime.

Beyond that, through a friend of a friend, I’ve been engaged in editing a medical text for missionary/rural doctors in the developing world. Freelancing will land you in all kinds of projects. This one has plenty of long words, grotesque illustrations, and helpful information, but it’s a privilege to help out with ministry in this way. Getting
paid a little for my time and effort is nice as well.

The blogging and other writing work are footing the bill for all this fun, sacrificing their Dollartime for the good of the group, but balance and routine will return in their season.

So the march goes on, and every little bit helps. Momma dollar and Poppa dollar are hard at work on the multiplication process as we speak.