“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Friday, July 29, 2011

Gorgeous Gorge: Kentucky's Red River Gorge

Winter is making its last call in the Red River Gorge in eastern Kentucky. A late March snowfall provides the last salvo of a dying season, a desperate parting shot that can’t deny the already evident imminence of Spring. I awake to a one-inch frosting of brilliant white snow, the warm morning sun caroming shards of sunlight through millions of refracting snow flakes. The mountain laurel and rhododendron, enticed by the warm Spring afternoons, have already shed their drab gray-green winter color for the vibrant waxy green of reborn leaves. Champagne snow teeters delicately atop the vibrant waxy green leaves. The contrast between the dazzling white sparkle of the covering snow and the showy green is dramatic. I am on the trail quickly--these early spring snowfalls disappear in an ephemeral mist with the rising sun.

I love the unpredictability of Red River Gorge. An isolated natural hideaway awash with sandstone arches, cascading waterfalls, and sparkling mountain streams, the beauty of the area is courtesy of the frequent rains, snows, and winds of the southeastern climate. Over 25,000 acres of rugged valleys, streams, and mountains nestled in the foothills of the eastern Kentucky Appalachians, the Red River Gorge Geological Area (RRGGA) is a long drive from any interstate highways and a good day’s drive from a major city. Because of this, it is lightly used. Which is why I have this whole spectacular day in the gorge to myself.

I stop at a wide spot on Swift Camp Creek Trail, which accompanies its namesake waterway through one of the most inaccessible areas of the gorge. Alternately descending to the creek’s edge only to abruptly reverse its slope and head back up the mountainside, the trail here provides a grand vista of Swift Camp Creek bending around on itself. Halfway up the gorge’s near vertical walls, the trail sandwiches me in a blanket of shimmering, blinding snow. Below I can see the creek bubbling clean and clear over gentle riffles. The sun-speckled snow draws me on down the trail. I feel I could follow it for days; not an impossibility since this trail is only a small portion of the hiking trails in the gorge, a network that ties in with the 257-mile long Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail, eventually ending in Tennessee.

This is a land of snow and water, which have combined with erosive effects to sculpt spectacular natural rock formations, including the largest concentration of natural arches east of the Rockies. My favorites are Sky Bridge, offering an expansive view from the trail on top of the span; Rock Bridge straddling Swift Camp Creek; and Grays Arch. Pristine mountain streams splash down the walls and stairs of the gorge into the Red River, part of the state's wild river system. I watch a tumbling rivulet undercut a snowy crust, the fragile edges turning from white to crystal, for a second reflecting the colors of the rainbow, then breaking into the rushing water and bobbing away. The snow is disappearing, Spring recovering from this last skirmish with Winter.

Despite its isolated location in the remote mountainous region of eastern Kentucky, in the early years of this century the gorge was occupied by an army of loggers who cut and shipped the area’s timber. Sawmills and narrow gauge railroads cut and transported the abundant hardwood to eastern markets. Logging camps housed hundreds of loggers and their families. Thousands upon thousands of magnificent oak, hickory, and poplar trees were felled and shipped out of the area and, by the end of World War I, the steep valleys and hillsides of the gorge were left shorn and abandoned. Period photographs show steep, clear cut hillsides with a few forlorn saplings and endless killing fields of ragged stumps.

In the ensuing eight decades, things have changed dramatically. The area became part of what is now the Daniel Boone National Forest in 1937 and the gorge slowly reverted to its natural state, its steep ridges and hollows again teeming with rhododendron, hemlock, wild holly, oak, hickory, and white pine. The sorry impact of the loggers is now hard to see. Their abandoned railroads, sawmills, and houses were overgrown or simply rotted away. The only evidence that remains of the gorge's former role as a logging center is the narrow Nada tunnel near the western entrance to the RRGGA. Carved out of the side of a mountain in 1912 to provide railroad access to the gorge, it now provides hikers, kayakers, and bikers access to the area.

The Red River Gorge now stands out as one of the most spectacular undeveloped mountainous areas of the eastern United States, something I savor on this cool spring morning as winter slowly loses its grasp on Kentucky. The sun rises to its midday zenith, extending its warming fingers into the bottom of the narrow gorge. The forest undergoes a rapid metamorphosis from blinding crystalline white to dripping verdant green and in a matter of minutes, I am transported into another world. As quickly as it appeared, Winter is gone.

(This article originally appeared in Backpacker Magazine)

LeConte Lodge: Sleeping Above the Smokies

The chilly September mountain air is creeping around my jacket collar, hot chocolate is steaming in my mug. I’m leaning back in a rocking chair on the deck of LeConte Lodge, near the top of the Smoky Mountains. Down in the valley below---way down in the valley, a good fifteen miles away--I can see the twinkling lights of the bustling town of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. But up here near the very pinnacle of Mt. LeConte, in the middle of a half-million acres of the pristine wilderness of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the stars in the inky black sky overhead far outshine any manmade lighting. All around me is total darkness, only the occasional warm yellow glow of a kerosene lantern dimly shining through a cabin window to break the velvety night.

LeConte Lodge is not your typical pool-and-a-fancy-restaurant hotel. The accommodations are classy and clean, but simple. There is no electricity, no telephone, no traffic noise, and no television. The lodge is actually a tiny village of cabins and sleeping lodges, striking in a rough-hewn sort of way, perched amid the pine trees and mountain laurel of the Smokies. The only way to reach the lodge is by foot—even food and supplies are transported up the mountain on the backs of llamas--so we had made the four-hour hike earlier in the day. We took the six-mile Rainbow Falls Trail up but four more trails, ranging from five to eight miles, lead to LeConte Lodge.

As soon as we walked onto the lodge grounds we knew we were in a very special place. We found ourselves standing in the midst of a small huddle of rustic cabins, arrayed around an equally rustic central dining lodge. This collection of lodge buildings and cabins is the only permanent lodging available inside the boundaries of the national park. Narrow rocky paths connect each cabin, and the entire lodge area is perched on the side of the mountain in a patch about the size of a football field. Sitting practically at the peak of Mt. LeConte, at 6593 feet above sea level, the lodge is the highest resort east of the Mississippi.

We checked into the main cabin and were assigned to one of the sleeping lodges. Our lodge consisted of a central common area with a large stone fireplace, chairs and a table. Four separate private sleeping rooms faced this central area. We unpacked in our room and found it simple but comfortable, sparsely furnished with a double bunk bed covered with fleecy virgin wool blankets, a small side table and a chair. Modern flush toilets are nearby but there are no showers and bathing consists of cold water sponge baths over a basin. But this high up in the mountains where the temperature has never reached 80 degrees even in the summer, we are not too anxious to get wet anyway. Before the night is over, we will be glad for the wool blankets on the beds.

We had barely had time to check out our room when some hikers spied a black bear wandering near the cabins. The camp was immediately abuzz with bear sightings. We decided to head out and see if we could find the intruder. What we found instead was that we were in the middle of one of the most remote and scenic areas of the Smokies. Panoramic views of gentle valleys, sweeping vistas of broad mountains, and encroaching emerald forests met us at every turn.

We were hot on the trail of the bear, spotted snacking in the middle of a large blackberry patch, when the clanging of the dinner bell summoned us to the dining lodge. The staff had prepared a sumptuous meal of roast beef and gravy, fried apples, mashed potatoes, and veggies all served family-style, with hot chocolate to warm us up. A dessert of hot peach cobbler topped the dining. In the middle of the feast, we glanced out the dining room windows and saw two whitetail deer staring back in at us.

One attraction of LeConte Lodge is that it offers probably the best place in the eastern United States to see a sunset. Cliff Top is a rocky western-facing outcropping on the brow of Mt. LeConte. After dinner, we joined our lodge-mates and strolled the half-mile up to Cliff Top to watch one of the most spectacular sunsets we have ever witnessed. We looked out over hundreds of miles of the long low valleys of Tennessee and North Carolina, over thousands of acres of virgin forests and mountains, the setting sun etching molten orange in the meandering rivers miles below.

After a full day of hiking, a delicious meal, and a stunning sunset, we close out the day rocking on the porch, gloating over those poor unfortunate souls caught in the traffic jams and whirl of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge down below.

The next morning we are up at dawn with our flashlights to make a ¾ mile trek to Myrtle Point. You want to see a spectacular sunrise over the mountains? Myrtle Point is the place. Same deal as Cliff Top, only eastern-facing to catch the early show. We watch as the black sky almost imperceptibly turns gray, blue, yellow, and finally a brilliant ginger as the tiny arc of the sun grows larger as it emerges from the horizon. The hillsides blush, the morning mist in the valley floors turns pink.

Tough to leave? You know it, but we have reservations for only one night so we load our backpacks and head down the mountains, six miles back into civilization and the modern world.

(This article originally appeared in The Nashville Tennessean)