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.

Image: Sunset on Tennessee Riverwalk, Hamilton County, Tenn., August 2019.

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.

Into the Woods: Rock Creek Gorge

We’ve had a fine stretch of weather in the Tennessee Valley of late. Between soaking rains from the remnants of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, it was much cooler than normal for late summer. Like all good Southerners, whenever the calendar says, “hot,” and the thermometer says, “not,” I’m overcome with a weight of guilt for every moment spent indoors.

With that in mind, I took the opportunity to get out for a hike on Labor Day. Wanting to spend more time in the woods than in the car, I opted for a section of the Cumberland Trail in the northern part of our county. I’ve done short stretches of the CT before (Edwards’ Point, North Chick, Laurel-Snow), but never really explored it much. I’d heard good things about the Leggett Road access of the Rock Creek Gorge segment, so headed to check it out. It was easy enough to find (though parking is very limited), and only about a 40 minute drive from home.

The still-under-construction CT is known for being a rigorous hiking challenge, steep and rocky, with minimal funding from government agencies (and correspondingly minimal maintenance done by volunteers). You don’t go to the CT expecting wide, manicured pathways. What I found at Leggett, however, left some maintenance to be desired. I had intended to do a 5.6 mile out-and-back to the Rock Creek bridge, but scaled back to the Rock Creek Loop (with a 0.6 mile round-trip spur to Rock Creek overlook) for reasons described below.

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Into the Woods: Arkaquah Trail

Walking up and down hills is the cost of doing business in hiking. In essence, that is hiking; the exercise, the views, the solitude, and the experience all flow from it. If it was easy to get to where a hiking trail goes, there would be a road, right?

Sometimes, the particularly dedicated (or disturbed) among us thumb our noses at perfectly good roads in favor of the hike. For instance, in the eastern U.S., many high mountains are accessible by car for the tourist value. Such is the case with Georgia’s Brasstown Bald. At 4,784′, it’s nowhere close to the tallest peak in Appalachia, but it is the tallest in its state. It is also fairly disconnected from other nearby peaks, with a prominence of nearly 2,200, making for unobstructed long-range views.

The way most people enjoy Brasstown is by a drive up GA 180 Spur and then a quick shuttle ride to the summit. You can pay the USFS $5 a pop for the privilege, and then enjoy the cool breezes in a rocking chair under the observation deck. I’ve driven up at least a few times myself. Then, there’s the other way….

A good friend from Pennsylvania has taken up highpointing, and he wanted to tackle Brasstown during a visit to the Atlanta area, so I headed over to meet him Saturday in Blairsville (just shy of 2 hours’ drive from Chattanooga). Part of the joy of his project is a refusal to do things the easy way, so driving to the summit is out. After doing our research, we decided on the Arkaquah Trail, which begins at almost exactly 2,200′ above sea level at Track Rock Gap.

This 5.5 mile trail (at least that’s what the sign says, we measured it at just over 5.2) traverses a large roadless area in Chattahoochee National Forest’s Brasstown Wilderness before spitting you out at the main parking area just below the top of Brasstown Bald. If you do the math, that’s a 2,784′ gain over the distance, or about 500′ per mile; not too harsh. The kicker is that the first 1.2 miles pack in 1,400′ of that gain. That’s a 22% grade, folks; by comparison, a steep highway descent with runaway truck ramps might be 7-8%.

Going up, we muscled through the climb, knocking out the first two miles in just under an hour through no small amount of huffing and puffing. After that, the second two-thirds of the trail made for a nice walk to enjoy the scenery, replete with Southern Appalachian standards (blue mountain vistas, rock outcrops, rhododendron tunnels, wildflowers, wildlife, etc.). We even saw a bear (on the way back down), which is less fun than it sounds when you’re three miles from your car. The only hiccup was a very large tree across the entire trail that required some, shall we say, “wrestling” to get past.

The last 0.6 mile is almost as steep as the first bit, but it’s the paved walk-up to the summit from the parking lot. Finishing strong is easy when you’re being goaded on by grannies and toddlers with fresh legs.

And then there was the descent.

You would think that the uphill leg is the more difficult, but my knees and hips now beg to differ. By the time we got into the car, walking was painful. Even standing was slowly becoming difficult. Driving home took just long enough for complete rigor mortis to set in. Teaching Sunday school the next morning was only facilitated by shameless leaning on the podium. The blisters on my heels are only just now healed. The stuffed mushrooms, beer, and burgers at trail’s end would’ve gone down even better with a little ibuprofen.

Looking back, the most remarkable thing about the whole experience was that we stayed dry. I have almost never been on a long hike in the summer that didn’t involve an abject downpour. To be fair, it tried to sprinkle a bit here and there, but this summer’s drought won the round.

Crazy? Sure. But once you’re around the bend, you may as well keep at it. Voluntary pain & suffering notwithstanding, a trip like this is always a rich and fruitful therapy for my soul.