On the evening September 14, 2015, I fished alone. The silence was broken only by the sound of the running water. Looking upstream, the water reflected the sunlight shining off the mountainside, above the small gorge through which the creek runs.
I was able to recite the most famous fly fishing passage:
In the . . . half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the . . . river and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.
Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. . . .
This month marks the 75th anniversary of the completion of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. (To be precise, it was finished on August 14, 1937.) The trail is 2,180 miles long, has over 250 three-sided “shelters,” and links innumerable other trails through 14 states.
For three-quarters of a century people from all over the United States–indeed, from all over the world–have been trekking up and down the Appalachian Trail, or A.T., as most folks in the know refer to it. In commemoration of this milestone, this weekend I hiked a section of the A.T. between Mount Rogers and Whitetop Mountain.
Founded by a small group of hikers, particularly one forester named Benton Mckaye, who envisioned an East Coast “super trail”, the Appalachian Trail Conference started work on the A.T. in the 1920s. By 1930 the trail began to take form as small groups of volunteers worked up and down the mountains of the East. According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, this was not a government project but the accomplishment of private, local clubs who mapped and routed sections of the trail, negotiated with private landowners and governmental agencies, and did the physical labor to build it in their respective areas.
To this day, although the A.T. is now owned by the governnment, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the many volunteer organizations are critical to the maintenance of the trail.
After World War II, volunteers renewed development of the A.T. In 1948, Earl V. Shaffer, an Army veteran who served in the Pacific Theater, completed the first “thru hike,” or continuous hike of the entire A.T., reportedly in order to “walk off” the stress of the war. In the years since, the A.T. has become a cultural phenomenon in addition to being an outdoor experience. Every year hundreds of individuals from all walks of life attempt to thru hike or section hike part of the A.T., seeking solace, self-exploration, or temporary escape from urbanity on the trail.
In 1968, the United States Congress passed the National Trails System Act, and the A.T. was the first completed national trail designated a National Scenic Trail. This added the A.T. to the system of national parks. The A.T. links two national parks (the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and Shenandoah National Park), and includes Abingdon Outdoors’ own Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. While the A.T. has always crossed the MRNA, the trail used to traverse the Iron Mountains to the north of Mount Rogers and Whitetop Mountain. It was re-routed over Mount Rogers and Whitetop due to scenic beauty of these highest mountains in Virginia. The old shelters on Iron Mountain are still maintained as part of the Iron Mountain Trail.
Most folks—like myself—have no intention (at least no immediate intention) of hiking the entire length of the A.T. Most folks hike part of the trail in a day, or at most over the course of a weekend or for a week or two. The trail is also frequently utilized by the Boy Scouts and by church and civic groups for hiking and camping trips.
The trail is designed not to be easy: It randomly meanders and seldom takes the easiest path from point “A” to point “B”. At points it certainly appears as if the A.T.’s designers purposely placed obstacles such as rocks and roots in the way. This keeps the trail challenging.
The A.T. is different things for different people: A place for solitude and meditation; a place for a communal outdoor experience; a training ground for other pursuits; a naturalist’s place to study flora and fauna. Perhaps Benton MacKaye best answered the question, “What’s the ultimate purpose of the Appalachian Trail?”
He said, “To walk. To see. And to see what you see.”
Last month we loaded the family van and drove across the United States for an adventure in the great outdoors of the American Southwest. I planned a circuitous route with our ultimate destination being the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.
All told, we spent 15 days together and drove 5000 +/- miles.
With apprehension-inducing thoughts of National Lampoon’s Vacation running through our minds, one 4:30 AM morning we bravely set off with our three children, a 50-quart cooler, travel provisions and enough outdoor gear to outfit a field battalion. We drove across Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, and Colorado to reach our first High Southwest “basecamp”—a motel room—in Durango.
We experienced some seriously fun times, some true adventure, some not-unexpected “meltdowns,” and all of it through tons and tons of incredible scenery. Then, abruptly, we turned around and trucked back to Virginia via a southern route across Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Tennessee.
Safely back home, we were a bit worn out, but have indelible memories.
In due time, as work and other commitments allow, I am going to write a series of articles about the trip for Abingdon Outdoors.
To get started, I’ve put up a first gallery of photos from the trip.
In my last fishing essay, I described solitary fishing in winter on small streams. In that article I referenced a book published in 1938 that my mother gave last year me titled Upstream and Down by Howard T. Walden II. Mr. Walden’s book descriptions are as appropriate today as they were in the 1930s. His commentary shows an amazing prescience about many matters related to the outdoors in general and fly fishing in particular.
One of the themes of Mr. Walden is that in the 1920s and 1930s the small streams of the East were becoming more accessible, and that there were fewer and fewer secret streams left anymore.
Some trout streams are important for their trout, almost all for their beauty, a few for their associations and memories. In the last category are the secret streams of the past. Every angler who has been at his sport a score of years or more can remember whispered directions, the pledges of secrecy, the long and tortuous journeys to those segments of Paradise hidden in the back country. Such prospecting and discovery once constituted the most glamorous aspect of trout fishing. But that is gone in the world, now, except in the remote semi-wilderness counties. Most young anglers, casting over their first pools in the nineteen forties [1940s], will not know the high adventure of finding a secret stream. The automobile has accomplished this special destruction along with general spoliation of virgin countrysides. The motoring hordes have found all the streams there are. . . . The State has charted all the likely water, filled it with foreign trout and invited the public to come and get ’em.
And the public comes. Paths have been beaten by many booted feet along both banks of the farm boy’s secret brook and the wild shy native beauties of that little watercourse are disappearing, dying in the hostile company of rainbows and browns.
Upstream and Down, at 170-171 (1938). Mr. Walden was generally speaking about streams in the Northeast, in New Jersey and Connecticut. Many of his prognostications, however, are equally applicable in Virginia and throughout the Southeast.
If you read modern fishing magazines and browse outdoor websites, the Twenty-First Century equivalent of the automobile is the advent of the information age: the Internet and GPS technology have amplified the problem (from the perspective of the solitude-seeking angler) of the “motoring hordes.” One man armed with a GPS can post all the location information about a “honey hole” on a web forum page, and you can be sure that within a month or two dozens of anglers will have found the “secret pool.”
And yet, even now, such places do exist in our region:
Lovely native trout continue to exist in Southwest Virginia, too. Here is a young brook trout from the Mount Rogers area I caught in June 2012:
In the most rural sections of Southwest Virginia, there are still secret pools (if not completely secret streams) holding the same native brookies that have lived here for a thousand years.
While our brook trout are no doubt still under pressure, as the map below (and this even more detailed Virginia map) shows, there is good news lately about brookies in Virginia. In the Summer 2012 issue of Trout, Trout Unlimited’s “Journal of Coldwater Fisheries Conservation,” there is an article indicating that Virginia brook trout streams are healthier than they have been in decades. One of the main fisheries referenced is St. Mary’s River in Augusta County (which I visited and wrote about last year, here). According to the article, acid rain deposits, which negatively affect stream quality, have decreased 18 percent between 1987 and 2010, and “acid neutralizing capacity” of the Virginia streams studied have increased 82 percent during this same period.
My own anecdotal experience is consistent with Mr. Walden’s observations 80 years ago: Much of the pressure that can be expected to continue on our native trout streams will still come from the “motoring hordes,” especially those individuals who trample on these treasured resources, leaving their garbage behind while taking their full bag limit (or more) of trout, which can quickly eviscerate these sensitive fisheries.
On one point, however, I must disagree with the esteemed Mr. Walden. While we may no longer be able to readily find entire secret streams unknown to most of mankind, there is still much “high adventure” to be had in our mountain streams (and beyond). We just may have to search a little harder these days for a secret pool and be willing to enjoy the more modest adventure of rediscovery of off-the-beaten-track places that are still, after all these years, quite beautiful. In the future we will continue to know streams most important for their associations and memories, recalling those days of yore when we found that secret pool, or caught that lunker fish, or shared that special trip with a relative or friend, as glamorous in our recollection as were those memories of the fishermen of the past. Because those nostalgic fishing memories—just like the proverbial fish story itself—always seem to grow, and never diminish, with time.
Whether it was due to family travels in my early years, the Rand McNally World Atlas my brother gave me for my ninth birthday (back in the days when the world was not a mouse click away), or the historical maps we used in high school and college, I’ve always enjoyed peering over and studying maps.
There is still something to be said for a paper map, even a plain old USGS quadrangle. As an outdoorsman, my favorite maps currently are the hard copy National Geographic Adventure/Trails Illustrated maps. The tactile experience of taking a paper map into the outdoors and comparing notations and contour lines to landmarks and the land itself with the assistance of only a compass and the naked eye is still the essence of orienteering. It’s hard to imagine Lewis and Clark, Daniel Boone or Jim Bridger using a hand-held GPS. The accomplishment and romance of their legendary explorations into the vast unknown American frontier would just not be the same thing if they had had the assistance–the crutch, if you will–of modern mapping and satellite technology.
Not that GPS or other electronic maps aren’t awesome in their own ways. Which brings me to the maps in this essay. Several months ago I came across an article in the London Telegraph that contained a link to these Twitter and Flickr maps. Eric Fischer created these unique maps from Twitter and Flickr metadata. Twitter is of course the ubiquitous microblogging website, and Flickr is the premier photo sharing application/website in the world.
Mr. Fischer was able to collect where people geotagged their tweets and uploaded Flickr photos over a period of time in 2011. The tweets are in blue and the Flickr photos are red (overlapping areas appear white). Presuming his sample size was large enough, the maps are probably accurate today. They certainly would appear to correlate with my own idea of where people would be more likely to take geotagged photographs.
The white areas are the most populous areas, and probably where there is more economic activity. So if you are interested in living in areas of high levels of microblogging (and most likely, more economic activity), the white areas on the maps would be the place for you.
If, on the other hand, you are more interested in the most photographed areas where there is less human activity, the red areas would be of interest. In the map below, I have noted some of the significant national parks, recreation areas, and wilderness areas in the United States. These areas correlate closely with high levels of Flickr geotagged activity.
For example, the Rockies generally but Glacier, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon national parks specifically are among the “hottest” geotagged areas of the country. Other out-of-the-way places, like the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, also stand out. (You really have to click on this photo to see the enlargement and appreciate the Flickr data.)
A closer look at Abingdon Outdoors country shows how our region is practically an island of red along the East Coast. The red spine of the Blue Ridge is clearly visible in the enlargement below, and in the Southeast, the mountainous area of Southwest Virginia, Western North Carolina, and Great Smoky Mountain National Park are the most photographed areas south of New England.
Our region is also unusual in that we are a “red zone” surrounded by white–a relatively less populated, highly photographed area surrounded on all sides by the major population centers of the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast (Washington, Richmond, Charlotte, Atlanta).
Human activity can be very telling about where it is beautiful. In these maps, the red shows what are likely the most photographed, less populated areas of our country. On the United States map above, our region looks similar to the Cascades area of Washington and Oregon, and the Sierra Nevada region to the east of San Francisco.
Lots of people apparently agree that Abingdon Outdoors country is pretty country indeed.
Southwest Virginia, Upper East Tennessee, and Western North Carolina have lots of small creeks that are usually more fishable in winter. In winter the water levels may be higher than the summer or fall, there’s no foliage and less brush to block access to the water, and the creeks are no longer clogged with the fallen leaves. It’s a great time of year to hit these creeks, especially during breaks of mild weather.
You’re not likely to catch lunkers in these waters, but the trout are more likely to be wild and more beautiful than the stockers in the rivers and lakes. They may also be willing to hit dry flies even when there’s no hatch coming off the water. These small creek trout don’t have the luxury of waiting for a full-blown hatch. They’re often stuck within the confines of small pools; this requires them to be particularly opportunistic feeders; and insects on the surface are opportunities to them regardless of season.
There is something especially rewarding about the adventure of hiking where few fishermen have been, where the trout may not have seen men or their fishing gear for a long time before you, and where you have a genuine belief that you are exploring the natural world.
In the Eastern United States, there are not many places that instill these feelings anymore. It has been this way for almost a century:
Most of the truly secret streams were small. The larger streams had names, a public sort of character, commercial importance, perhaps. They were accessible: if they held trout it became known and they were visited regularly throughout the open season. Without restocking they became at last depleted of fish.
But the little back-country feeder brooks were nameless, and inaccessible save by long tramping over the ridges and upland meadows which lay deep beyond the infrequent roads. In such remote rills, known only to ourselves and our most intimate partners, the brook trout swam and lurked to meet his chilly destinies much as he had in the first days of the world. Some of these streams are still where they used to be. . . .
Howard T. Walden, II, Upstream & Down, at 171-72 (First Edition 1938).
In Upstream & Down, Mr. Walden explained that in the East, except for in the “remote semi-wilderness counties,” most small streams were under increasing pressure from development and anglers in the early Twentieth Century. He lamented “the loss of the virgin stream of olden time.”
These days, even in the “remote semi-wilderness counties” of the East (acknowledging that the definition of Eastern “remote semi-wilderness” is probably different today than in the 1930s), there are very few, if any, “nameless” small streams. Nonetheless, the essence of what Mr. Walden wrote back in the 1930s is still true: Remote small streams are still the most likely places to find unspoiled trout waters.
In the reality of our increased population and the informational resources of modern times, there is not just a geographical dimension to being adventurous in the outdoors—whether fishing for trout, or otherwise (hiking, backpacking, etc.). There is also a seasonal dimension. Most fishermen hang up their rods and reels come late fall, and many do not take the sport up again until the traditional opening days of April. Thus the ardent angler is far more likely to have a solitary and adventurous experience in winter than in spring, summer, or fall. This is not to say that small creek fishing is not rewarding in the fairer seasons, just to point out the undeniable fact that it is more likely to hold an excitement that comes from undisturbed exploration in the wintertime.
So I will continue to fly fish in wintertime, even if I catch less trout during this season. For while catching trout is the “point of the whole exercise” (as fellow small stream enthusiast and Trout Underground author Tom Chandler has stated), it is not the sole—or perhaps even driving—reason that we engage in this sport.
P.S. — I will write more about Upstream & Down, a fascinating book, and Mr. Walden’s thoughts about trout fishing in subsequent articles.
It is 3:30 AM. We are parked on a rural hilltop next to a gas station that closed for the night five hours ago.
The gas station is several miles outside the little town of Bakersville, North Carolina. We’re less than 10 miles from the Tennessee state line. Dozens of other passenger vans are lined up on the hill next to us, here, in a place that can only be described as the middle of nowhere.
Wincing, I slowly extend my right leg in order to begin to exit the cramped van. My teammates and I have just traveled 100+ miles over winding, mostly secondary mountain roads in North Carolina since leaving Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia at 10:30 AM yesterday morning. At least one of us has run every single mile of this journey. And we’re only a little over half way to our destination.
After 15 miles of hard running yesterday and no sleep this night, my legs are sore and my eyes are bleary. This is the third time I’m doing this running drill.
I don my headlamp and a reflective vest with blinky lights in that cool, slightly foggy air so typical of the wee morning hours in Southern Appalachia. I gingerly walk over to the “exchange zone,” an area consisting of orange cones with race officials carrying clip boards and stop watches. I inform them of my race number, 314, and the race number of our team captain, Jasen, who is currently on the course and who will shortly hand off to me the large, blue wristband stamped “BLUE RIDGE RELAY” that we are carrying by foot to Asheville.
Many of our competitors are wandering around the same area, several like me trying to loosen up their knotted muscles before the exchange. Some of my own teammates are awake, too, perhaps ingesting a nutrition bar or banana or drinking water to get much needed calories or fluids. (“Ingesting” is a better description than eating, for there is little pleasure in forcing the food down at this hour after the latest gut-wrenching ride). Others on the team are in the van trying to get at least a few moments of uncomfortable shut-eye before their next run.
Those of us who are awake peer into the blackness where the road disappears. We are waiting. After a while, a few headlamps and blinky lights begin to appear at the base of the hill. Human shapes emerge slowly as we begin to recognize the runners who approach.
“DIRTBAGGERS!, DIRTBAGGERS!,” one of the runners exclaims. It’s Jasen. He is letting us know he’s coming and for me to get ready to start the next leg. Lumbering up the long hill, panting hard, he hands me the wristband. I turn back to salute his effort, but he’s yelling at me and pointing down the road. “GO! GO! GO! GO! GO!”
So motivated, I run off into the darkness, continuing the race. Within a few minutes, I am once again all alone. It’s just me and another long stretch of asphalt, though I can only clearly see about thirty feet ahead by the illumination of my headlamp. Although running alone, I’m not lonely. That’s near impossible when your legs are windmilling downhill and your heart rate is pushing past your aerobic threshold.
The Dirtbaggers’ passenger van whizzes by, leapfrogging me to the next exchange zone. My teammates in the van hoot and holler and shout encouragement as they roll past. I acknowledge them with a raised right arm. Geez, I can’t let these guys down by cracking on this leg of the race.
My first, foremost thought at this ungodly hour is that I must get to the next exchange zone as quickly as possible and hand the wristband to Aaron, who will carry it through Bakersville and another stretch of darkness until the next teammates—Keith, Sean, Scott, Mike, Cam, Bruce, Jim and Byrum—do the same thing as we travel the remaining miles of our meandering route (and then three of us will run yet a fourth time to reach the finish line in Asheville).
My second, intermittent thought is, “What the hell am I doing here?”
My third thought—organically evolving from the second, contemplating the totality of this event—causes an almost imperceptible sideways head nod of virtual disbelief and a slight grin: “This is so totally and utterly insane, it’s awesome!”
Then there’s no further deliberative thought. There is only movement. Movement, and the will to keep pushing through this run.
The Blue Ridge Relay, or BRR, is a 208 mile running relay race that traverses back and forth across the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains with a cumulative elevation gain of 27,000 vertical feet. It’s arguably the toughest relay road race in the nation. The tagline for the race is “Consider All Others a Warm Up.”
BRR has 27,000 vertical feet of climbing. That’s like climbing Mount Everest more than twice (remember Everest climbers start at 17,000 feet). No, it’s not a truly analogous comparison, but it gives you an idea of the vertical climbing in this monster race.
On September 9th and 10th, 2011, our team, named “The Dirtbaggers,” ran the 208 miles in just under 27 hours at a 7:47 minute per mile average pace. We came in 20th place out of the 120 teams that started the race (several teams DNF’d). Amazingly, the winning team, the Asheville Running Collective, ran 208 miles in a little over 20 hours with a scorching 5:53 minute per mile average pace.
36 Individual Races
The BRR is one of the oldest road relay races in the Eastern United States. The concept of super long relay races goes back a couple decades or so, with several of the first ones out West, most notably the Hood to Coast 200 mile relay race in Oregon. They have picked up much greater interest in the last decade on the heels of the big running boom the United States is currently experiencing (marathon running is up 37% percent since 2000; this year was the first year that even those runners who qualified for the Boston Marathon had to be chosen by a lottery in order to get a place on the starting line). While most runners still consider ultra-running and other mega running events like the Blue Ridge Relay as extreme, these kinds of races are enjoying a concomitant growth and increased interest for those looking for the next challenge after the marathon.
The relay has 36 sections, each of which is between 3 and 11 miles in length. Starting at Grayson Highlands State Park at over 5000’ elevation in Virginia, the race includes some of the most scenic and highest mountains in North Carolina, including a climb up the ramparts of iconic Grandfather Mountain (5900’) and around Mount Mitchell (6600’), the highest mountain in the East. Several legs are on or adjacent to the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Generally, the race bounces between 1500’ and 4000’ vertical feet practically every three or four legs. The map of the entire course shows it generally travels south. The race officials generated topographical maps (which do not do the course justice and don’t show all of the hills) for each of the 36 legs. I ran legs 2, 13, 24, and the brutal, penultimate 35 (containing a 7-11% gradient climb up to the Blue Ridge Parkway).
Each leg is rated easy, moderate, hard, very hard, or “mountain goat hard.” As we ran this race, we realized, however, that easy, moderate, and hard are relative terms.
Even the so-called easy runs usually had hills that, in their own right, would be called hard by anyone other than the organizer of a 208-mile race in the mountains. The longest leg was 10 mile all-uphill run on Route 220 that essentially paralleled the Blue Ridge Parkway as it climbed the bottom half of Grandfather Mountain.
There were two mountain goat legs, each of which had climbs that exceeded 13% gradient in places. There were also long, unrelenting downhill runs that would punish the hamstrings and knees. One all-downhill run was nine miles in length!
A Group Effort
I love individual races; they provide their own reward. There’s no hiding in an individual race. You wholly own the result, for better or worse. The Blue Ridge Relay was not necessarily a “better” race than a solo race, but it was definitely different.
The beauty of the relay race concept is that while only one member of the team is racing against the clock at a time, there is a collective team effort that in some ways elevates the event beyond an event of comparable or greater individual effort such as a solo marathon. At the same time, because the BRR is a mountainous course, no leg is exactly like any other leg in length or topography, and direct comparisons between the runners is difficult. Each team member just has to run the best they can on their unique segments of the course.
Running for a team puts a different sort of pressure on you; for me, this different motivation was refreshing. The camaraderie and fellowship of doing the relay together with my teammates was more “fun” than a purely individual race. Obviously, how much “fun” a race like this is depends on who your teammates are—you need to think about with whom you want to spend a sleep-deprived night in a van in the mountains when you put together your crew. Although every single one us had not been on a team with every other one of us before this race, most of us had a connection to several others on the team. We were fortunate, too, in that the guys on the team were cool, got along, and jelled well.
The Blue Ridge Relay is as much about the non-running aspects as the runs themselves. The whole thing was a great experience that is very different than an ordinary race. On top of this, not knowing exactly what to expect (none of us had done the BRR before) and the grand scale of the race made it a true adventure.
A Logistical Nightmare
The race organizers did a good job putting this race together. When I first learned about this race, it seemed to me to be a logistical nightmare. In addition to organizing a start and a finish as in a traditional race, there were 35 “exchange zones,” or finish lines to the individual legs and staging areas for the teams who were starting the next legs. The various exchange zones were post offices, volunteer fire rescue stations, church parking lots, the Penland School of Crafts, and the odd gas station.
Since a lot of these were in very rural areas and were used in the middle of the night, there obviously was a lot of planning done before the race. In addition, there was a lot of local support from the communities through which we ran, including police support (most notably when a red Trans Am type vehicle zoomed through one of the late-night exchange zones and had to be chased down by a local police officer). Literally 100s of portable toilets were at the exchange zones throughout the race. The courses for the most part were well-marked, with signage at almost all of the turns.
A Laid-Back Race
While there definitely was some nervous energy at the beginning, this race was informal from the get-go. Most of the passenger vans were decorated in some fashion or, like ours, at least had some race-related graffiti written on the windows. For example, before the 10:30 start of our wave of runners, one of the teams huddled its members together and loudly, publically proclaimed that it was time for “The Prayer.” I was not sure what to expect. The team then opened their passenger van to reveal a jacked up speaker system, and blasted the audio of the Prayer from Talladega Nights for everyone. Some of the runners were dressed up in costumes for the intial leg of the race.
As far as any nutrition, the teams were pretty much on their own. You had to bring all of your own water, food, etc. that your team would need. There were very few places during most of the race where you could re-supply; in addition, since the race is through the night, most of the few stores that were on the course were closed when we passed them.
The finish line was at Battery Park in Asheville. While the location was good, there was no significant designated area for racers or their friends or family after the race. This may have been because the teams necessarily come into town in waves throughout the day.
There was not as much “swag” as I expected for such a large race (actually, there was none); the finish line reward was a refrigerator magnet (not a medal, trophy, or anything to memorialize actually finishing the race); there was no congregating area or water or food at the finish. You just sort of went through the finishing chute, got your magnet, and were told you did a good job. The thought may be that finishing in Asheville, you have tons of eating and drinking options within a couple of blocks from the finish line. In any event, these are minor criticisms to what was an overall fantastic experience.
After the race and after some rest, our team went out for refreshments at Asheville’s local watering hole, Barley’s Tap Room (while aging a little bit, it’s ambiance still equals that of the Barley’s in Knoxville, see my story about that one here). The winning team, the Asheville Running Collective, was there, too. One of their members came over and talked to us about the race. He had run the Hood to Coast relay previously, and he told us that BRR blows it away in terms of vertical climbing and overall difficulty.
Finishing the Blue Ridge Relay was a tour de force for our team. If you have a group of 6 to 12 individuals who want to punish themselves and have fun doing so, this is a great race. Bring your A-game, though, and save some for the middle. Because at 3:30 AM, this race is a beast.
Tropical Storm Lee has been slowly moving towards Southwest Virginia. Its precursor precipitation bands arrived Sunday afternoon, and it rained most of Sunday night. The Doppler radar weather map Monday morning looked like it was painted green, with just a small area around Washington County not showing rain. It was a small decent-weather window in which to labor through one last long run on the Virginia Creeper Trail before the Blue Ridge Relay race later this week.
With the rainy weather, it is surprising that the color that is in forefront of my mind today is red. Running through the matte lighting on the misty trail this morning, I saw more red in the outdoors than anytime this summer:
The falling and fallen leaves that are finally turning red (in addition to yellow), signaling the onset of autumn and the fantastic color changes we will be witnessing once again across the mountains very soon;
The beautiful orange-red color pattern of an Eastern box turtle that was slowly crossing the trail. Its brilliantly-colored head was raised high as it scouted the area; and
The long, lithesome body and outstretched tail of an auburn-colored red fox darting over the trail only 100 feet in front of me.
All of this was on a four-mile stretch of the trail from the Abingdon trailhead.
On this website, I usually don’t cover too much about the Virginia Creeper Trail, in part because it’s covered extensively on other sites, and on this site I seek to provide information about some of the less-known outdoor activities near Abingdon. That said, it is true that sometimes we take for granted that which is closest to us. The Virginia Creeper Trail is really something quite special; a solitary trip at an unusual time is sometimes the best way to reawaken awareness of how fortunate we are to have this awesome natural resource literally in our backyard.
Have you ever been to a brush burnin’ and rat-stompin’ party? Have you ever even heard of such a thing?
Let me introduce you to an Appalachian mountain tradition: Spring and fall land clearing and cleaning, gathering the debris into a huge pile over a period of weeks or months, and then torching the whole thing one evening. Some folks do this in conjunction with a neighborly get together—thus the party.
The allure of fire has attracted men and women for ages. In modern times, those who spend time in the outdoors know the enjoyment of a campfire in the woods or a bonfire on the beach. Most everyone enjoys a crackling fire in a fireplace. I always get nostalgic about my own youth when around a fire: Sharing a spot in front of the fireplace at my parents’ home with my brother when we came back inside after playing in the winter weather; drinking hot chocolate in front of a roaring fireplace at a lodge or cabin when our family vacationed during colder times of the year; or the old-fashioned campfires we had when car camping across the Midwest. Generations of Americans have enjoyed the huge fireplaces of the grand lodges in our national parks in the West or in famous hotels like the Grove Park Inn in the East.
Sitting around a fire makes us feel warm, relaxed and mellows our mood. We are softened and reminiscent when we stare into the fire, thinking about our lives and talking with friends and family. The so-called “fireside chat” is the informal discussion about serious issues in a relaxed manner, made famous by FDR’s radio addresses in the 1940s. During an evening meal, the simple lighting of a candle can transform the environment and make it warmer and romantic. There is something about socializing in front of the fire to which people are drawn.
In this day and age, there has been a renaissance of the outdoor fire, usually now burned in a fire pit, fire kettle or chiminaya in the backyard of someone’s house. Some could argue that the modern versions of the campfire have become too sanitized: Newer backyards have elaborately constructed fire pits with built-in seating such that they are virtual living rooms outside. Some patios even have fireplaces with chimneys, replete with outdoor kitchens and all other manner of niceties. Many don’t even use real wood. You can just push a button or use a remote control to start the ignition and crank up a gas fire that is supposed to mimic the real thing.
While such controlled and comfortable environments may be desired, there is something to be said for the old-fashioned campfire, just a bunch of brush and twigs on the ground inside of small, hand-arranged stone ring, with flickering coals, true ashes, and the smell of wood smoke. The primitive simplicity of it is what makes it aesthetically as enjoyable as the most expensive, fancy backyard patio.
This is the beauty of brush burning: It’s nothing more than a campfire on steroids. It’s the real deal, and it’s huger than huge.
This month we went to my wife’s parents’ brush burnin’ party. Built with their neighbors, the accumulated brush pile reaches over ten feet in height and about 20 feet in width before it is burned. When torched, the flames lick up high and the amount of heat thrown off is incredible. It’s a sight to see. As the flames grow, the lawn chairs are pulled back and the people retreat to a safe distance. The fire is watched as its flames reach their zenith and then shrink back to a manageable size. Embers form beneath the fire, and the coals are red hot.
The folks all bring their chairs in closer, and the meal begins. Long tables are set up, and prepared food—good country food and fixings—are all laid out. Everyone has brought something: casseroles, beans, cole slaw, chips, dips, buns, etc. (and of course, several desserts like pies and red velvet cake).
Hot dogs are roasted just like they are over a campfire. The main difference here is the device used to roast the wieners. Two-pronged large forks that hold the wieners are attached to poles between 8 and 15 feet in length so that the hot dogs can be thrust into the fire without the holder of the roasting device getting burned. These contraptions are lined up against a nearby tree, ready for battle like knights’ jousting poles in a medieval stadium. Folks roast the wieners while one person minds the fire, making sure the embers stay within the designated area and redistributing the burning material to maintain the brush pile’s heat. As the hot dogs come off the fire, people eat, socialize, and enjoy the flickering flames.
Our brush burnin’ parties these days are just family affairs, but I have attended some in Southwest Virginia that are much larger and are major gatherings for people from all over the county where they’re held. These larger parties are a great time. In some rural communities lots of local “movers and shakers” from the area come out, and county and community business is discussed. It’s a social phenomenon that many people don’t realize occurs. If you are fortunate to get invited to a good old-fashioned brush burnin’ party, you definitely should attend and personally experience this regional outdoor activity.
If you want to start your own brush burnin’ party, remember there are rules in most areas regarding burning. Most of the radio and television news programs broadcast the ubiquitous burning regulations that the state forestry departments announce every spring and occasionally at other times of the year. In Virginia, for example, there is a burn ban in the spring until after 4 pm. There is also a requirement that burning is done carefully, i.e., in a big pile with a cleared area around it. Legally stated,
It shall be unlawful for any owner or lessee of land to set fire to, or to procure another to set fire to, any woods, brush, logs, leaves, grass, debris, or other inflammable material upon such land unless he previously has taken all reasonable care and precaution, by having cut and piled the same or carefully cleared around the same, to prevent the spread of such fire to lands other than those owned or leased by him.
Va. Code § 10.1-1142. Of course, if there is an outright burn ban due to dry conditions, don’t burn anything outside.
Oh yes, and what about the “rat stompin’” part of the party? Supposedly, when the brush pile starts burning, all the rats and other vermin come scrambling out from it. The idea is that you should stomp them as they come out. I have never actually seen vermin come scrambling out, and I certainly have never seen anyone actually successfully stomp on them as they did so.
I will keep looking out for them, though, as I plan to attend many more of these parties in the future. And next time you are driving on a country road or down the interstate and see a bunch of people all hanging out around a big brush fire, you’ll know what they’re doing.
This week perhaps the worst set of tornadoes in history hit the South. In Washington County, Virginia, where I live, we experienced tornadoes unlike anything in the last 60 years. This tragic event prompted me to recall some of my own personal experiences with extreme weather, and to contemplate the fierce, uncontrollable power of nature from the perspective of those who love the outdoors.
Ignorant of the Danger
On Wednesday, April 27, 2011, I came home for dinner and went back to work at my office in Abingdon, unaware of severity of the impending storm. My wife called me around 8:00 PM, telling me we were in a tornado watch area, and that a neighbor who was coming back from Knoxville had his vehicle pelted with hail while driving up Interstate 81. I told her to call back “when it got closer.”
She called me again at 10:30 PM, and told me in a raised, nervous voice, “Get home. It’s here!”
“What’s here?” I asked.
“Where the #%^* have you been? What do you think? The Tornado!”
I quickly closed down the office and drove home. As I drove home, there was lightning and thunder all around in the sky.
Our family spent the night in our unfinished basement. My wife and I sat in lawn chairs, watching the weather reporters who broke into the regular TV evening programming, while our children lay in sleeping bags on the basement floor. We experienced some anxiety and fear, but I also was curious and strangely fascinated in what was happening. Having grown up in the Midwest, I had experienced tornado watches and had done innumerable tornado “drills” in school, but I did not recall ever previously being in the direct projected path of one.
Actually, there was some disconnect between my view outside of our house and the weathermen’s Doppler radar graphics showing the super cells and tracking them in real-time. I periodically opened our basement door, looked outside, and never did I hear the locomotive engine roar that was associated with tornadoes. There was no incredible wind or horrible hail as was being reported on TV. The closest we got to the action were the sounds of hail pounding the television station studio coming through the TV, thunder in the distance, and the shrill call of Abingdon’s fire engines and ambulances through the night. The worst thing that we physically experienced that night was lack of sleep.
I had to awake and leave early for work Thursday. Our cable TV went out in the early morning, so I did not know the state of affairs until my wife called me and told me the news that a tornado directly hit the small community of Glade Spring. Later that day, my office manager, who lives near Glade Spring (and who thankfully was alright), explained what she saw on her drive to work. “It would make you cry,” she said.
I would later appreciate how bad it was: Glade Spring looked like a war zone, and individuals with whom my family has connections were killed. Numerous students whom my wife teaches at Patrick Henry High School in Emory, Virginia suffered damage to their homes. Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell declared a state of emergency that morning, and as of this writing the roads are still closed in Glade Spring and a curfew is still being imposed there.
Glade Spring is just a few miles from my house in Abingdon. The tornado that hit there would have come right through the middle of Abingdon if it had been on a trajectory just a mile or so to the north. We were fortunate that it did not come through our neighborhood, like the tornado did in 1944.
The storm spawned a series of tornadoes that traveled northeast at high speeds, some as fast as 100 miles per hour. Their glide path essentially paralleled I-81. This may have been what allowed them to maintain themselves. In our region, tornadoes coming from the Tennessee and Ohio valleys usually peter out by the time they come across the Appalachian Mountains. Not this time.
On Thursday afternoon I was sent a photo of Virginia Creeper Trail Trestle No. 7. This is one of the longest and most beautiful trestles on the trail. It spans (or spanned) a large dry creek bed on the Smith Farm between Watauga Road and Alvarado, and is the only trestle wholly located in open pastureland, allowing the intricacy of its curved design to be viewed from an approach from either direction on the trail.
The photo was jaw dropping, not only because it showed the trestle completely demolished, but because my son and I had traveled over it and had stopped to take pictures of it barely a month earlier. I could remember the feeling of the cool March breeze across the trestle, the sound of the trestle while running over it (running on the trestles creates a unique, woody, slightly dampened thud with each footstep), and the smell of its aged railroad ties and wooden planks as if we had just completed our workout a few minutes ago. Now I was looking at a photograph of it utterly obliterated.
We often forget—or take for granted—the danger of extreme weather and how paltry human frailty is in comparison. It takes an event like the one on Wednesday to humble us and renew our respect for nature’s power.
“So Fast, So Sudden” read the newspaper headline in the print edition of the Bristol-Herald Courier print edition on Friday morning. Seeing the photos of the devastation in Glade Spring, I was chastened to realize how cavalier I had been on Wednesday evening about the power of the storm and the seriousness of the situation.
Those drawn to the outdoors know that there is some element of danger in every adventure, and we cannot go outside without accepting some risk. Driving on the highway to and from the trailhead remains the most risky element of most adventures most of the time. Yet the longer it is since we have personally experienced nature’s power, the less conscious and less respectful of it we usually become.
Similarly, those who come away from first-hand encounters with extreme weather completely unscathed also may develop a hubris that leads to being less cautious when the weather may turn poor. We misinterpret our good fortune and consciously or unconsciously convince ourselves that it was not but for the Grace of God that we were spared, but that we have acquired some kind of mastery over nature. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. It takes something dramatic to shock us into recognition of that which we should know without a reminder.
In the mountains, the weather can change in a heartbeat, and those who go unprepared or ignore the reality of our frailty sometimes suffer serious, even deadly, consequences. The harrowing tale of the storm on Mount Everest in 1996 may be the most held out example of this phenomenon. As reported in Into Thin Air, in 1996 a number of climbing teams, whose leaders were trained and experienced with protocols concerning safety and “turnaround” times lost sight of these rules in their aspiration to get their clients and themselves to the summit of Everest. The teams’ leaders ignored the warning signs and their own protocols when the weather turned bad. As a consequence eight climbers perished and a number of others were permanently injured.
“Summit fever,” as it is known in mountain climbing, manifests whenever people outdoors lose respect for nature’s power, become consumed with themselves and their own personal objectives, and as a result make poor choices that may end in dire consequences. The storm on Everest in 1996 was not predicted and came upon the climbers suddenly. While the climbers could not have avoided all adversity related to the storm, the previous years’ relative safety may have lulled the climbers into apathy or lack of appropriate concern regarding the ever-present danger of extreme weather.
I personally experienced an unpredicted and uncanny swift change of weather while on a mountain climbing expedition last year on Mt. Shasta in California. Mt. Shasta, 14,000+ feet above sea level, is the southernmost intact volcano in the Cascade Range (Mt. Lassen, 70 miles away, is technically the southernmost volcano, however Mt. Lassen is not fully intact due its eruption in 1915 that blew most of the top cone off of it).
The main climbing route up Mt. Shasta, known as the Avalanche Gulch route, is easier than the main climbing routes up Mt. Rainer in Washington. We were climbing with several folks who had successfully summited Mt. Rainer the previous year. Therefore, in planning this trip we decided to climb Mt. Shasta via the Hotlum-Bolam Ridge route, a much more difficult, less taken, and semi-technical route with some 45 degree pitches that ascended a ridge between two glaciers on the on the northeast side of the mountain.
We had planned and coordinated the Mt. Shasta climb for months—actually for almost a year. We carefully chose to do the climb during the best “weather window” based upon studies of previous years. We chose the last week of June/first week of July, based upon the fact that the snowpack would still be good but the weather and chances of storms would be minimal.
The weather forecasted for the climb was perfect. No rain or snow was predicted. The first day of the climb, we had great conditions, a blue sky and warm temperatures. At base camp at 10,000’, we were ready for the final ascent the next day and were awoken by the guides at 2 am. We got ready quickly and started climbing in the dark for the summit push.
We were surprised, however, that it was colder than expected—mainly because of the wind chill. None of us remembered seeing anything on the weather reports before the trip about the wind chill. With the wind chill, the temperatures were below freezing. At one rest stop at about 12,000’, I began to shiver uncontrollably. The guide told me to take some ibuprofen, that the altitude may have caused some swelling in my blood vessels that could be affecting my circulation. As we continued to climb, I would warm up while moving, but the wind chill was making our rest stops, which were a necessity at the altitude, difficult because we were cooling down so fast every time our movement stopped. And with each stop higher on the mountain, the wind’s intensity increased and made it still yet colder.
The route required us to climb more or less straight up the northeast side of the mountain until we were almost at the summit. About 200 yards from the summit our route required us to traverse around the north side of the mountain to the western side, where we would walk across a flat section near the top about the size of a football field and then climb just a few feet to the true summit on the southwestern peak.
As we began the traverse, the wind velocity continued to increase with each step. The wind was blowing 40+ miles per hour in our faces. Walking forward with crampons became difficult. With two groups of five climbers roped together, our purchase on the rocks and snow during the traverse was becoming increasingly more treacherous due to the winds. As we continued to travel around the mountain, gusts began literally blowing us backwards. Each of us looked like a news reporter getting blown by hurricane force winds on the beach. Except unlike at the beach, if one of our groups fell, the plunge was 1500 vertical feet down a steep ice and rock covered slope.
As we came around towards the west side, several of us slipped and almost fell. The guides huddled us together, each of us lying down so that we would not get blown away. We conferenced about whether it was safe to continue. We had to scrunch our heads close together to hear each other in raised voices over the howling of the winds. Several of the members of the group pleaded to continue. The guides explained we were still in a protected position on the lee side of the mountain. They told us that when we went around the mountain—only about another 100 feet or so—the wind speeds would pick up to 70+ miles per hour based upon how they were ripping around the mountain to where were currently located. We were told the summit was a no-go: “When you go around the corner, it will be like sticking your head straight into a hurricane. We cannot cross the flat area. You will get blown off.”
We could see where we had to go. It was just behind those rocks above us . . . you could almost reach out and touch it . . . it was so close. You could smell it, too—the sulphurous odor coming from the top of the volcano was detectable notwithstanding the ripping winds. After eight bleary-eyed hours of climbing in the wind, after tramping up to base camp with fully loaded packs the previous day, after assembling the whole group in California, after many of us individually traveling across the United States from Virginia, after all the anticipation, planning, and effort . . . it was so damn close. There was a strong temptation just to ignore the safety concerns and continue onward.
We agreed to a compromise: We would try to attain the north summit, only about 100 vertical feet up the mountain. One group would proceed about 40 feet in front of the other. Being in the second group, I followed the first group climb up the final section of the mountain. After about thirty steps, each of which seemed to be in slow motion, I glanced up and saw more spindrift than usual swirl up around the corner of the mountain, exactly where we were headed. An instant later, a huge gust of wind hit us. It blew the group in front of us down. In unison, just as we had been taught, each member of the fallen group self-arrested. (Self-arrest is the alpine technique to drop and plunge your ice axe into the snow to stop, or arrest, a fall down the slope of the mountain). All of the members of the first group were chest down on the snow, but they were not sliding and were secure in their place. The group’s lead man, one of our guides, turned his head and squarely looked back at us. He raised his hand to the front of his neck and very deliberately moved it back and forth in a chopping motion. Although he spoke no words, the message was clear: “We’re done.”
We were less than a hundred vertical feet from the summit, and yet nature had turned us back. That afternoon, back at base camp, we knew we had done the right thing. The conditions had been too dangerous to proceed. The guides suggested we should count the climb as a success, since it was not lack of physical conditioning or human error that caused the summit to elude us. We were practically there. Practically. Sometimes, reflecting back on the trip, it continues to gnaw on me to this day that we were so close yet had to turn around right at the summit. On the other hand, the weather added an epic perspective to the trip and provided an up close glimpse of the physical and psychological conditions world-class mountain climbers experience when confronted with extreme weather.
While the Southern Appalachians and the Blue Ridge may not have the altitude of the higher mountain ranges, there are similar dangers in our region that are inherent in outdoor activities in relatively remote locations. A good friend and I went on a winter backpacking trip once in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, and we almost got stuck in a two foot snowstorm. That snowstorm was totally unpredicted.
Late season snow can hit higher elevations even in the South. We once were caught in a huge snowstorm in the Smoky Mountain National Park and were forced to stay in an overcrowded shelter. When we got back home, we saw that the freak storm had caused an unheard of snow delay during the spring race at the Bristol Motor Speedway. While on both of these occasions we were prepared with equipment and clothing, the weather took us by surprise and changed the scope of the trips.
I am sure there were backpackers and campers in the Cherokee and Jefferson National Forests when the tornadoes came through our region. Some were probably shocked by the change in the weather even if they were on the periphery of the tornadic activity.
Summer storms can be the most dangerous type of weather in the mountains. Perhaps the scariest weather phenomenon I have experienced was in Rocky Mountain National Park in July 2002. My wife, young son Karl, and I went to Colorado for a vacation. We camped in the national park, and one of the days I went for a day hike with my son in a Kelty child carrier. This is a carrier that has a child seat built into an external aluminum frame that the adult wears like a backpack. My son and I were traveling up one of the lower approaches to the Keyhole Route, the famous hike that climbs Longs Peak, the highest mountain in the park. My idea was to hike up the trail for a few hours, and then head back to the parking lot.
We left the parking lot in the middle afternoon on a beautiful, warm summer day. The sky was cloudless and cobalt blue. After about an hour of hiking, during which we passed other hikers, a single, low-lying cloud became visible as it skirted across the mountains we were approaching. The cloud hugged the mountains, snaking over them and towards us, expanding as it approached. At first it was innocuous but became ominous as it got closer. The sky above us started to turn from blue to grey, even though the sky was blue everywhere else. The dark, grey mass came right at us. We turned around and started back down the trail. I walked as quickly as I could with Karl in the backpack carrier.
Then I could feel the electricity in the air. The hair on my neck literally started to stand on end. My three-year old son, sensing the danger, started to cry uncontrollably. Lightning flashed everywhere, in the heavens and with crystal-clear sharp, white bolts striking the foot of the mountains immediately behind us. The thunder reverberated in the amphitheater of peaks surrounding us, amplifying the already deafening sound. The dark cloud with wispy white tendrils swirled around us, seemingly inescapable, as if we were being drawn into a grey whirlpool above.
I had experienced this kind of weather before in the East and Midwest, but with less intensity. I had also read about what was happening to us. Anyone who has researched hiking out West has read about the quick developing, high altitude summer lightning storms prevalent in the Rockies. I knew I was about to be in the middle of one, and I knew they could be deadly. And I was acutely aware that I had my helpless toddler son strapped on my back in what amounted to a high-tech version of a lightning rod.
Telling Karl everything would be alright in the most soothing voice I could manage in the middle of a full-on lightning storm and saying a silent prayer for both of us, I walked still faster to get below the treeline. Then, just as quickly as it developed, the storm cloud dissipated. “So fast, so sudden,” it was gone. In fact, by the time we made it back to the trailhead, the sun was shining again. Nature had been merciful on this day.
While I have not had an experience quite as scary as the one in Rocky Mountain National Park with my son, I have been in several situations that are comparable while hiking and running, and I have been caught out on the road cycling numerous times and subject to unpredicted torrential downpours. Indeed, afternoon lightening and thunderstorms are practically de rigueur during the summertime in the Southern Appalachians.
As we have known since time immemorial, as Robert Burns wrote in 1785, nature may cause men’s best laid plans to go awry. Sometimes the effect of nature’s power cannot be avoided—the devastation in Glade Spring is an example of this. From our perspective as outdoorsmen and women, such incidents serve as reminders that we should always respect nature’s power, be humble, and not allow our vanity and hubris to ever lead us to underestimate the dangers when we go outdoors.