Sunday, July 21, 2019

Hunting For A Hike

I had one weekend to get away in July, and I cut this one close. Friday night I had no idea where I would go Saturday morning, but I knew I was going somewhere. A quick search of day trips and I landed on Natchez Trace State Park, part of the Tennessee State Parks system. Less than two hours away. Trails to hike. Done.

Saturday morning I packed a lunch, filled a couple of water bottles an anticipation of the 90+ degree heat, threw the camera in the car and hit the road.

The park is literally right off the interstate, so getting there was no problem. First stop, a snap of the welcome sign at the entrance, then on to park headquarters. I knew there was a museum in there filled with the history of the Natchez Trace, so I confess, I pulled into the parking lot, assessed my map, and kept going. I'll stop by on my way out, I thought.

But further down the road the confusion began.  I had done the research, found the trails I wanted to check out and even downloaded the map. But despite my best efforts, I absolutely could not find any trailheads. Not one!

Finally, frustrated and about to give up, I turned off the main road on what I assumed would be another proverbial dead end in my hunt for hiking trails, and there it was. The only signage I'd seen all day indicating anything other than campgrounds and a shooting range.

Not what I was expecting, but I'll take it.

A few steps into the woods, and that familiar feeling pushed my frustration aside. I don't know what it is about being ten feet into nature, but all the sounds of kids at the nearby pool, cars driving by, campers on generators... all of it gone. I was left with nothing but silence. I stopped to take a deep breath, then kept my eye on the tree roots jutting up through the dirt path.

Eventually, the path meanders into a fork in the road. To the left is the Pin Oak Trail that takes you toward the Pin Oak Lodge along Pin Oak Lake. To the right is the Oak Ridge Trail which promises to be somewhat of a "nature trail." I turned right.

Oak Ridge put my basic skills to the test. The trail often disappeared beneath leaves, pine needles and other debris so I had to keep my eyes peeled for the white blazes, which is asking a lot because my head is on a swivel in places like this. I get distracted by every bird song, every snap of a twig or rustle of leaves nearby, hoping to spot a critter, or maybe something I've never seen before.

But it wasn't birds or other animals that caught my attention this time. It was something a little more  unexpected...

Mushrooms! Some of the coolest, kookiest, most colorful 'shrooms this rookie hiker/city girl has ever seen! Now maybe to the trained eye, these guys are old hat and nothing to get all worked up about. But I was sort of stunned. Every hundred feet was a different fungus to photograph, one I had never laid eyes on before, in all sorts of fun colors just begging for a closeup!

I couldn't identify any of the mushrooms without help from Google, but I didn't need a search engine to tell me who was serenading my hike. Summer tanagers seemed to laugh at me every time I bent down for another shot of what they see every day.

As for the Oak Ridge Trail itself, it was hilly, serene, beautiful, peaceful, and worth the hunt. Once I got back to the car, sweaty and hungry, I sucked down a bottle of water and walked down to Pin Oak Lake. I found a bench to enjoy my brown bag lunch and watched families come and go from the dock, out for a day of boating in the sunshine. My heart was full.

When it was time to go, I drove back toward the park entrance to stop at the museum and check things out. The facility reminded me of a natural history museum I once visited in elementary school in the 1980s. I loved the quaintness of it and was so involved in reading the history that I forgot to take a picture. And of course I was drawn to the giant picture window overlooking a garden filled with active bird feeders.

On my way out of the parking lot, I looked to my left and saw a sign I had not noticed before, pointing toward the trailhead for the Red Leaves Trail. The one I had been looking for.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

This Is What We're Doing

Gasping for air, I stopped for the third time. The old me would have been embarrassed, ashamed of my inability to climb a steep hill not even one mile up. But not this day. Instead, I paused, checked my heart rate, and watched small children run up the path and back down to their mother's call. Then with an energy only found in single-digit youth, up they sprinted once again as I looked on from the rocky shoulder. The strength in their legs and lungs was epic. I felt envy for their seemingly endless stamina as I glanced upward to the foggy sky and back down at my patient party, their words and kind eyes willing me to take my time. The summit isn't going anywhere. The word of the day is "conquer."

Onward we walked toward the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Clingmans Dome is also the highest point in Tennessee at 6,643 feet. Only a half-mile from parking lot to peak, the thin air and steep slope made it feel much longer. Then suddenly, the final stretch. A narrow winding bridge leads to a platform high above the treetops, but not above the clouds. On this day, dense fog limited the viewing distance, but not the scope of beauty. The evergreens played hide-and-seek through the soupy air. It was a heavenly sight. As panting hikers began to find the rhythm of comfortable breath, serenity took hold and gave way to oohs and ahhs at the scene stretching as far as the early summer mist would allow. We took our time at the top, finding good angles for selfies, chatting with strangers, and trying to wow the youngest of our group with facts that were awe-inspiring to the grown-ups.

Then it was time to go. Time to make way for other arriving climbers to experience the peace that comes with being above it all, but still touching the clouds.

Not at the top, but not at the bottom, there is a landing to sit and soak it all in. A park ranger greets visitors with anecdotes and advice. His words to me were golden when he pointed to a path leading into the thick forest and said "Appalachian Trail."

Without hesitation, we all looked at each other and instinctively knew, "this is what we're doing."

With one-track minds for Clingmans Dome, none of us realized the A.T. was a stone's throw away!

It seemed unreal to hike even a small portion of such a legendary trail, where novices and experts cross paths on the same rugged land. The A.T. is such a romantic and storied route that represents a life goal for many, a pipe dream for others. And on this day, a paltry mile of it was ours. We were elated and humbled at the unexpected opportunity.

Five steps off the trailhead and into the woods, the sounds of the busy, steep road to Clingmans Dome faded. The section of trail started off in that way that makes me feel hugged by the forest. Trees hung low, the sky only appearing in slivers here and there, the ground mossy and smelling of damp earth. And with every breeze that found its way through the trees, the smell of piney Christmas filled our senses. We were quiet as we left footprints in the mud on this highest stretch of the entire A.T.

Dirt soon gave way to rocks as we headed south, a few slippery due to lack of sunlight. A glimpse back at the landscape we had just covered did not do justice to the sense of accomplishment and the wonder at what was still to come.

We worked as a team to navigate areas of flowing water and potentially dangerous drop-offs. There was no fear of danger, only the concentration on footing and steady breathing as we kept our eyes open for incredible vistas and secretly hoped for a bear sighting (from a safe distance of course!).
At points, the trees became so dense to our left or right that it seemed impossible that anyone was ever able to carve a path. Water, breezes and bees were the only things able to fight their way through the impenetrable thicket.

And with every gust of wind came the indescribable combined scent of pine, fir and spruce.

As we reached the end of our journey, the left turn that would take us out of the canopy of trees and back to reality, hunger set in and we knew that for today this was enough. We had hiked one small slice of the Appalachian Trail in all its splendor. And we did it well. Conquered indeed!

I could have hiked the A.T. all day, high on the romanticism and scent of pine. The majesty in just one mile made me a lover for life.

Nearly four years ago I wrote about an inexplicable need to explore the outdoors and find a better harmony with nature. Five days in the Great Smoky Mountains helped renew that passion.

I am extremely proud of that one day and all the other days that my friends and I set out to see more of the park's abundant beauty. We embraced days of quiet living away from our responsibilities, we learned from park rangers, and we celebrated our surroundings, from the bright lights of Gatlinburg to the stillness of a summer morning sipping coffee in the Smokies.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Apples to Apples

Have you ever set out to find inspiration in one place, only to find it hiding in another? Or worse, you don't find it at all? I've been feeling pretty uninspired the past few weeks, as you may recall from my previous post. I'm working on getting my life together and the days are already hitting 90 degrees. It's not even summer yet.

So I've been on the hunt for something to stir me out of my funk...

I've been waiting for "The Biggest Little Farm" to open in Memphis theaters for a few weeks, and let me tell you, this film is stunning.

I knew I was going to love it even before I saw it. I love documentaries and nothing is more inspiring to me than a story of starting over. I swoon for fresh starts! "The Biggest Little Farm" is the story of a couple with a dream and a dog. And how they reinvent their lives is both back-breaking and beautiful. How do two people leave the lives they know to start a farm on land that is desolate and dead? Very carefully. And with some film equipment so they can tell people like me all about it.

There are hardships, successes, failures, love, loss, stone fruits and snails. And throughout the journey (without giving anything away), there is growth. Literally and figuratively.

To me, their journey toward the dream is inspiring. Farming is hard, hot, sweaty, smelly labor and requires a patience for outside forces beyond your control.

Not unlike running toward any other goal, really. The variables may be different, but the commitment and patience are universal. Apples to apples.

As I sat in the theater (I adore going to movies by myself), I teared up thinking about my own journeys. Because that's what we do, right? These cinematic masterpieces speak to us on levels we don't always tap into. So, I'm sitting there trying not to weep as I examine my own dreams and goals. The ones I made for myself this year. The ones that have gone dormant after years of neglect. The new ones I am silently making for the future. And I think, am I doing enough? Am I giving these plans I've made my all?

Earlier in the day I laced up, put on a sleeveless shirt that's out of my comfort zone and headed out to Shelby Farms, one of my two favorite parks.

I love the Chickasaw Trail. It's about 2.75 miles of trail that ranges from shady to zero cover, flat terrain to decent hills to get my heart rate going. There are three lakes along the path, tree lines that harbor all kinds of birds, and of course, the buffalo range. There's a new baby in the herd this spring.

As for the heat and sun beating down? I ate it up! Taking deep breaths, I tilted my head back and faced the sky more than once, just saying hello to the few puffy clouds that did nothing to block the rays. The park was packed, but it was just me out there. Me, heavy breathing, sweat dripping, soaking up the vitamin D. I felt so good at the end of the hike that the feeling is still with me.

And no:
I never feel like I've done as much as I can do for any of my goals. I stray from the plan, get thrown off course, even watch my efforts die on the vine sometimes. I don't do enough tending to the intentions.

But like on "The Biggest Little Farm", there is redemption. Figuring things out as we go is a part of life, whether you're on a farm, in a big city, living that suburban life, or just trying to carve out some quiet space for yourself. I learn something new every time I challenge myself. I learn that I am strong enough to climb mountains. I learn that I can endure the heat. I learn that overindulgence only makes me feel bad. I learn that my days are what I make them, though I struggle not to be influenced by the attitudes of others.

And as the movie so eloquently reminds me: if I ask for help, it will be given to me.

Apples to apples.