Christmases Past and Present…

Several nights ago I spent a few hours lost in a blog I kept between 2004-2013. My goal was to find a poem I jotted down during the hustle-bustle of a Christmas season in a year whose date I could not remember. But it was the Christmas stories of years gone by that stole my attention and distracted me.

I scrolled through posts from the days leading up to Leslie’s wedding, to Christmases celebrated at my childhood home to Christmases with my mother in assisted living through Christmases at the nursing home, and finally Christmases without my mother. So much emotion. I realized how special the recording of pictures and words are to me.

Me, unwrapping a gift. I was 52… (2005)
My father and mother opening presents. My younger sister Leslie sits on the couch. This is the home where I grew up. (2005)

A year later (after the above pictures) my sweet mother had moved into assisted living and my father into a retirement complex. The move signaled the beginning of some very beautiful and very difficult years. Photos help me remember and smile. My parents have both passed away now, Mother in 2011 and Daddy in 2016. But for the memories…

December 25, 2006. From this Christmas and for the next 10, we cooked and transported Christmas dinner from our homes to theirs.

Which brings me to Christmas 2021, a Christmas which has come and gone too quickly. Many things were left undone, but it seems not to matter, so many memories were made. I took few people pictures this year and my family did not complain. I will miss the visual reminders in future years as the visuality transports me to the recesses of my memory. Instead of family pictures, I have recorded a few other thoughts and memories from Christmas 2021 to jog my mind in 2031.

Around Thanksgiving I purchased a small container of sourdough starter from King Arthur Flour. While I have never had much luck with starter, I had ambitious dreams of sourdough bread and other Christmas goodies dancing through my head. As it turns out the starter is a prolific producer. Unfortunately, I am more fascinated with the process of feed and discard and less interested in the act of baking. So, I continue to feed and discard and maybe 2022 will inspire baking.

Sourdough starter is ever demanding of one’s time. I finally put it to sleep in the refrigerator before Christmas, now feeding the starter only once every week or so. Baking is one of those tasks left undone.

Early December I stumbled across “Christmas Chronicles” by Nigel Slater. Nigel is a long time English food writer, journalist and broadcaster in the UK, someone with whom I was previously unfamiliar. It is not the recipes that caught my attention (I am not much of a cook) but the almost lyrical writing that takes readers through crisp winter days, brief histories of Christmas traditions and the smell and taste of hearty, winter fare bubbling on the stove. I completed the 450-page book before Christmas and purchased a copy to give Leslie for Christmas.

Magical! I will read passages from this book year after year.

In “Christmas Chronicles”, Nigel wrote about his love for panettone. I think I tried it years ago and was not a fan. But the description of a slice of toasted panettone slathered in butter and served with coffee had me scrambling to an area market in search of one.

At 1st bite, John and I became big fans! The bread is heady with the smell of vanilla and toasts quickly.

Christmas cards are a tradition I love and hate! The number of Christmas cards I receive each year has been steadily dwindling such that this year I seriously considered giving up the tradition. I love receiving cards, especially cards that are filled with thoughtful, personal messages. The surest way to receive no cards is to stop sending cards, so I sent cards. I was mostly rewarded for my effort.

I did not enclose my usual newsy letter and hope to get back to that favorite tradition next year. It’s a nice way to think back through the memorable moments of the year. Some folks dislike the ubiquitous Christmas letter but I am not among their ranks..

Christmas card 2021

I am happy to report that Christmas flowers bloomed on cue this year…

Amaryllis blooms brightened the Christmas laden dining room. There, in the left middle of the photo are candles hand made by my grandmother, probably dating back to the late 60’s, very early 70’s.
Paperwhite blooms to be anticipated in mid-winter.
A pink cactus that was a gift from my sister several years ago.
This red cactus, purchased from Kroger about 5 years ago, was just a little sprout. It is healthy and growing!
My oldest cactus was purchased in 2010 at a nursery near my mother’s nursing home. The plant sat in her room during that Christmas of 2010, her last. The cactus has had better years but is still blooming and bringing cheer.

One of the pleasures John and I experience each year when decorating the tree is unwrapping our ever expanding collection of Christmas decorations from travels near and far. We nostalgically talk about our favorite trips and possible trips to come.

Vernazza, Italy (Cinque Terre)
Fairmont Chateau Frontenac, Quebec City
Fairbanks, Alaska
Yule Lads of Iceland, Reykjavik
Wengen, Switzerland
Salzburg, Austria from the shop “Christmas in Salzburg” or as we call it “the egg shop.”
Grand Tetons and the Snake River
Firenze, Italy (Florence)

Our Christmas tree came from a tree farm in Maggie Valley, NC. We usually drive “over the mountain” for tree hunting a day or so after Thanksgiving. The day is as much about the journey to Maggie Valley as selecting just the right tree for the corner of our living room. The years we travel in December, the tree is artificial.

Our tree at Mchaffey Tree Farm
Christmas tree 2021 with it’s delicious fragrance.

Oh and this little Christmas face, my only “people picture for 2021, our sweet granddaughter.

Laurel, 8 months old. And yes, she stuck the bow on her forehead.

I will close out Christmas 2021 with the Christmas poem I wrote and posted in an old blog on December 19, 2004, that which started my journey and this post about Christmases Past and Present:

‘Twas the week before Christmas…

‘Twas the week before Christmas and all through the house,
Lots of dust balls were stirring cause I gave them a rouse.
The holiday goodies have been prepared with great care,
In anticipation of Christmas and fond memories to share.

And I and my father took Saturday to shop
Oh, the treasures we purchased; it was so hard to stop.
For Carol, for Leslie, I have found some good stuff,
But for Mother and Daddy, I don’t have enough.

Now the temperature on Sunday is icy and cold,
With snow flurries flying, the winds are quite bold.
But inside my home I am cozy and warm,
As I write my last card, I will ride out the storm.

So hurry up Santa, I can hardly wait,
The best Christmas of all, I am sure this will rate.
And I close with a wish to my family and friends,
To those near and those far, my best wishes I send.

This poem is over and soon out of sight,
Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!

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Tuesday Hiking-Middle Prong Trail

As I sit here typing, I am dragging through the third day of a virus, some type of stomach-intestinal thing causing very low energy. I have been mostly sleeping with a little reading but today I felt well enough to get up and move around a bit. I figure my illness is a result of something I touched versus something airborne but I will never know. I try to be conscious of my actions, taking precautions to keep my hands away from my face and hand sanitizing after public encounters. I have been vaxxed, boosted and wear a mask. Seems like John and I are some of a handful of people left in the city who still do such. This morning was my first real meal of mention, warm, comforting Cream of Wheat.

But this post is about a Tuesday hike, last Tuesday, December 14 when our little group got together for one last hike before we scattered to celebrate the holidays. This was Steve’s hike to choose, and he chose an old standby, Middle Prong Trail in the GSMNP. The trail is an old railbed, wide with a gradual climb, perfect for walking two or three abreast to share stories of Christmas coming and travels planned for the New Year. The trail follows the Middle Prong of the Little River Creek with an amazing number of cascades and small falls. If you know just the right turn off around mile 4, you can find Indian Flat Falls at the end of a short manway.

As morning light creeped over the mountain, we watched water rush down a slide on the Middle Prong. I remember conversation about kayaking this area….no, not me but several of the guys in this group are hardcore!
Rhododendron leaves on the rock face to the right are curled tight but provide a promise of glorious June blooms.
The trail had several noticeable wet areas where we walked along the shoulder if possible, to avoid wet boots. Otherwise we mucked through the middle. Some rock hopping was possible but people like me with less balance wear waterproof boots and don’t worry about it.

We passed several people on the way in and out. Of importance to most was this old car frame, about two miles into the hike. The car is described in our well-known, well-used brown book “Hiking Trails of the Smokies” as follows: “It is rusty and missing just about everything, but it must have been an elegant one. According to someone who worked at the Middle Prong Civilian Conservation Corps camp, this is an old Cadillac that belong to the supervisor. One day it quit running, and camp members just pushed it off the road and left it.” Who at that time, could have imagined the car would be a destination for hikers near and far.

Cadillac ruins from the CCC days

I love the long shadows of winter when the trees are bare, and the sun sits just so in the sky. We were only 7 days from the winter solstice on this crisp, bright winter day. We hiked mostly in the shade and the air never lost its chill but that is part of the beauty of winter hiking.

Hard to discern these people in winter gear: in front is Steve Hancock, then John, behind him is Bob Perlack, then Tom Pritchard and Bob’s wife, BJ Perlack.

I have hiked this trail a number of times over the years, most recently (maybe 15 years ago) with John where combined with several other trails we pieced together a backpack. Less recently and very dear to my heart was an out and back hike or two with my dad. But I confess I did not know about Indian Flat Falls. What a treat to find something so lovely along the same old trails. Once home, I scoured the “brown book” and found no mention of the falls in the most likely passages.

Indian Flat Falls

As I sat on a rock observering the falls and eating my lunch, I looked toward the second tier of falls and noticed Steve and Tom deep in conversation. I took this picture, my favorite of the day. Steve (left) and Tom (right) have been friends many years. I thought of the song “Old Friends” by Simon & Garfunkel. These two clearly share a bond of time and memories.

Old friends

I also took a quick (zoomed) picture of the second set of falls. I imagine the view where Steve and Tom sat was spectacular, but I didn’t get too close. The rock behind Tom was covered in algae. Tom, who has more balance than any person I know, slipped and fell in the puddle. He fell on his pack so no damage done but I might not have been so lucky.

Tier 2, Indian Flat Falls (algae visible to the left)
About 1/10 of a mile on a manway back to the main trail. So simple if you know it is there.
A bluebird day for sure. Not a cloud in the sky!

We hiked out the same way we hiked in, still engaged in conversation, probably about our upcoming group trip to St. Marks, Florida or the never-ending, never boring topic of van life. We were a little warmer on the way out but not much. I am okay with that; the winter hiking season is too short for me.

Heading back to the trailhead in Treemont and our cars.
Sunshine and cascades

Tom, John and I may hike next week but others have family plans. I love this little Tuesday hiking group that has developed. We have hiked some new (to me) and interesting places this past fall. All of us have hiked together before-Alaska, Wyoming, Idaho and so forth but until this fall, we haven’t all been retired so weekday hiking was impossible. I look forward to a continuation of these Tuesday hikes in 2022.

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Two Weeks Before Christmas…

Early this morning we took coffee out to the veranda to watch a glorious sunrise. Seems like sunrises this time of year are especially spectacular with their delicious pallet of pinks, reds and yellows. Watching sunrises (and sunsets) over the years has been a mainstay in our relationship. Whether waking deep in a southern forest or halfway across the world drinking coffee on a piazza, we take time to delight in a colorful sky.

Morning sunrise from the veranda

The relaxing morning did not last too long. For days our weather forecasters have been predicting high wind and heavy rain for today and a check on the weather radar indicated that foul weather was indeed racing across the state. We hurried outside to take Miss Katie for her morning walk taking note of the gloomy, gray sky to the west.

Walking toward downtown-trees and clouds reflected in the mirrored glass.
Dark, ominous clouds the west.

A brisk 5.25 miles was squeezed in before heading home to take down bird feeders, a metal yard ornament, wind chimes and anything else that looked like it might serve as a missile in high wind. What we had not counted on was a branch that had been precariously hanging on the trunk of a tree decided, while we were gone, to break free. We count ourselves lucky that the branch broke before the high wind hit. Had the branch been pushed forward by a gust of wind, it would have pieced our dining room window.

We were inside no more than 5 minutes before the wind began to howl and rain started falling in sheets.

Sheets of rain.

Hours later the wind is calm and the rain, a steady drizzle. Unfortunately Kentucky and other surrounding states did not fare as well. John has settled down to a movie and a bowl of popcorn while I am staring down a stack of partially written Christmas cards. All is safe and quiet at our home as we await the final weeks till Christmas.

All is Merry and Bright
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Summer gardening…

I have officially thrown in the towel and declared defeat on the Summer 2021 gardening season. After all it is almost August and the marigolds are brown stalks of dried leaves (maybe deadheading would have helped), front garden Lenten Roses have long since given up their old leaves (and new ones too) and everything else is is looking weary in the summer sun. The only plants somewhat happy with the searing heat are a few mounds of brightly colored, somewhat wilted coleus and a couple of handfuls of butterfly weed growing wildly free from previous years of scattered seed.

But with all my threats to forever give up gardening, hope remains in the recesses of my brain. I find my mind drifting to thoughts of bright yellow and white pansies hanging tough during the fall and winter, right there in the same spot the dead marigolds stand and even the pots of yellow pansies merely bowed their heads to the snow. Maybe some soil enhancements, maybe some mulch, maybe a little more attention. Maybe gardening isn’t that bad….

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GSMNP-Lower Mt. Cammerer Trail

Date: June 5, 2021, Dayhike

Total Hike: 7.57 miles, 1082′ elevation gain

Saturday we took a hike on Lower Mt. Cammerer trail, an out and back hike to Campsite 35. With six nights in the Wind Rivers looming in late summer, we ignored the desire to bicycle and decided to hike instead.

Lower Mt. Cammerer trailhead is located in the Cosby campground in the northeast corner of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Summer in the park is lush, green and very humid and this day combined with this trail was a fine example of such. Even the drive into Cosby campground is heavy with vegetation.

Lower Mt. Cammerer trail begins as a gravel road and gradually climbs uphill. Along the way the trail has several water crossings. Tom’s Creek is the first notable crossing. We discovered this “foot” just before Tom’s Creek, the product of a creative mind.

The sturdy log bridge below makes crossing Tom’s Creek a breeze. At this spot, the creek is about 1/2 mile from the campground and in the summer families frequent the chilly mountain water. Most of the other crossings along the trail are rock hops and easy to cross.

Lower Mount Cammerer passes through a several distinct “forests”, Eastern hemlock, rhododendron and deciduous woods. The clusters of trees and bushes provided protective shade from the sunny, quickly warming day.

John saw the slithering guy on the right just after I missed stepping on his tail. We believe it was a black racer but neither of us are great at snake identification. Based on the head shape, we were confident he/she was not poisonous. (Photos: left-hemlock, middle-deciduous, right-snake)

As we continued to gain elevation, the trail narrowed and became rocky. It was mostly clear of vegetation though calf level plants including stinging nettle were beginning to edge into the path. The forest smells are what I remember most about the hike, musty and earthy through the damp rhododendron clusters, dry with a hint of pine in the dry sections.

(Photos: left-shady trail with dappled sunlight, right-small, almost hidden cascade on a high rock wall)

At mile 2.25, we slipped out of the shade into the sun. Our reward for a quarter mile of hiking in the sun was an incredible stretch of blooming Mountain Laurel. On the ground below the Mountain Laurel we found glorious Galax, also in full bloom.

(Photo: Blooming Galax)

(Photos: Mountain Laurel. The close up of individual flowers reminds me of confectionary sugar)

(Photo: Quarter mile of Mountain Laurel on a dry, exposed section of the trail)

Because I had stubbed my toes several times, we were watching the rocks on the trail and did not see Campsite 35 till we were on top of it. At 2680′, the campsite has several sites and provides enough space in each site for 2, maybe 3 tents. We stopped at the first site, about 3.77 miles from the parking lot. Water is not far away.

Lunch is always an anticipated event when on the trail and Campsite 35 provided a nice place to eat our cheese and crackers.

John even took a few moments to stretch out under a tree canopy and enjoy a cool breeze but we were back on the trail within 30 minutes or so.

Campsite 35 was our turnaround point. A completed trail or specific destination was not our intent, only to get a few miles on our feet.

(Photos: left-John under the trees, right-back through the gorgeous Mountain Laurel lined trail)

Several vistas on the trail were not visible to us until we were on our way back to the car.

We detoured to Sutton Ridge Overlook spur trail on the return trip. The trail is located about 1.75 miles from the parking lot. While only 200 yards long, the yards are are steeply uphill. We were rewarded for our huffing and puffing with an overgrown, exposed flat clearing littered with lots of toilet paper.

One final vista before getting back to the car!

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Riding the Creeper, Abingdon to Damascus and Back…

May 22-23, 2021

Abingdon is a small, historic town tucked in the Blue Ridge mountains of southwest VA and a favorite destination of many. A two hour drive separates us from this charming town with a handful of trendy eats, a few cute shops (if you are into that) and a developing artsy vibe. More important to us, Abingdon is home to the historic Barter Theater and the location of mile 0 on the VA Creeper Trail.

We have bicycled the VA Creeper a number of times, usually with friends and usually combined with a weekend of eating and theater. Over the weekend of May 22-23, as public mask mandates were mostly cast aside, we thought it “safe” enough to take my new gravel bike for a weekend on the Creeper and possibly a stop or two for a “not in our kitchen” restaurant meal. It has easily been two years since our last visit.

We arrived in Abingdon at lunch time. Jack’s 128 Pecan was on John’s mind and he did not stop until we were parked in their lot. Our concern about the effects of Covid on the business were alleviated when we discovered128 Pecan was not only open but had a brisk Saturday lunch crowd. As always, we experienced good food and friendly service. Eating a light meal pre-bicycle was on our mind but we ended up sharing an order of jalapeño hushpuppies and each eating a chicken cobb salad. Too much food is what happens when you sit down at the table really hungry!

Jack’s 128 Pecan describes themselves as a “local, quirky, fun little restaurant”. They are located at 128 Pecan Street of course, in the historic district.
Inside 128 Pecan. You can see John in the mirror.
A number of names I recognized have signed plates at 128 Pecan. Yes, I am a fan of Frances Mayes who lives in Hillsborough, NC, about 3 hours from Abingdon. Speaking of authors, Barbara Kingsolver and her husband own a farm to table restaurant, Harvest Table “just down the street” from Abingdon in Meadowview, VA, Exit 24. Also a good place to eat.
Jalapeño hushpuppies were not as hot as expected but very good.
Maybe we should have split this!

Our second stop was to check-in at the hotel, a five month old Holiday Inn Express. The HIE is located in a new development on Cook Street. Included in the development is a modern, clean grocery store (you will understand this comment if you have ever shopped at the Kroger on Cummings St), a Starbucks (no, not a fan), a Pal’s (an upper East TN favorite for quick, cheap, questionable fast food), a small Italian restaurant and some other stuff. We were disappointed to learn that our room was not ready but not really surprised as we were ahead of check-in time. We scurried into the lobby bathrooms to change into bicycle clothes. The afternoon was slipping by and we had 15 or so miles to ride.

With some varying degree of success, I attached my phone to the handlebars and took photos. It is not an auto setup so I had to press the button while moving-the phone moves, the snap button doesn’t respond immediately…. I like the idea and may try to work on it. John much prefers the handlebar setup to stopping for photos, but non-moving photos are sharper and better.

We rode a mile or so beyond the Alvarado Station and turned around and headed back to Abingdon for a total of 19.28 miles, 480′ elevation. We likely could have have ridden the roundtrip to Damascus but this was John’s second time on his bike this year and most of my bike mileage has been on a trainer so we were not willing to push it. Besides, with the shaking from the limestone surface, my seat post kept sliding down. This is my (our) first carbon frame bike and the tools to make adjustments without cracking the frame are different from the tools we owned. I had to stop every 4-5 miles so John could tighten the seat as far as he was comfortable, then the process was repeated. We have since purchased the correct tool.

This bridge, which runs across the Holston River, has always been my favorite. The bridge is longer than most and runs over water versus dips in the land. Unfortunately a shiny metal dock (just out of photo view) has been added which mars the romantic feeling of the old train trestle.
Working farm! Livestock gates are located on the trail at each end of the farm property and require a cyclist to stop and dismount to open and close the gate.
Beautiful, ever changing scenery.

We arrived back at our hotel by 4:30. Along with our duffels, the bikes went to the room. The surface of the Creeper Trail is crushed limestone and cinders so what a mess for us and the bikes! Showers could not happen fast enough but the bikes had to wait. Happily the hotel did not have a problem with bikes in the room.

The Peppermill Restaurant, 967 W. Main Street, Abingdon, VA
Waiting on the porch for seating. The Peppermill was not full but the kitchen was understaffed and the owners were very careful to not overwhelm the workers. We have had a lot of good times on this porch with friends and family.
My dinner: feta, spinach and tomato quesadilla with a Caesar salad. Yum!

The night’s sleep was restless. We couldn’t get the room temperature low enough to compensate for the winter weight bedding so getting up Sunday morning was a relief. Our plan for the day: park in the Damascus City Park and ride toward Abingdon.

Damascus City Park

We rode 15.07 miles out and back with only 177′ of elevation gain, again maybe duplicating a mile or so from the previous day. By the time we completed the day’s ride, I was starving, reminding me that taking “real” food on the trail is important. We stopped at Pal’s for lunch and wish we hadn’t. All in all, we had a great weekend on the Creeper Trail!

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Sleeping Below the Bald-Backpack 85

Hello from my long neglected blog. With Covid lockdown and lack of activities, I had little motivation to write. But things are opening up in the US and the Smith-Dunlap household is stirring so it’s time to shake the off the blog dust and start recording. We have a few trips coming up and a lot of plans for the summer. I will start with our May 8-9, 2021 backpack in the Southern District of the Cherokee National Forest.

The Visitors Center in the village of Tellico Plains (located just outside the Cherokee National Forest) is a meeting place for bicyclists, motorcycle and jeep groups and our favorite spot to eat takeout from Tellico Grains Bakery.

After devouring a crispy wood fired pizza from Tellico Grains Bakery, we arrived at Beech Gap trailhead on the Cherohala Skyway around 3:00 pm. The date was May 8th and at 4200′, spring was no where in sight. Blackberry winter had blown in a day or two before leaving the weather iffy with overcast skies and a cold, brisk wind whipping through the tree tops.

Mostly barren tree branches caught us by surprise. Spring had arrived in the valley a month or so ago. But oh, the views!

We hemmed and hawed about about backpacking versus day hiking but in the end we shouldered our packs and went on. We were a group of 5, Will Skelton (friend, fellow backpacker and travel companion), our Aussie pup Katie, John, me and a friend of Will’s, Chuck who was day hiking. We learned from others on the trail that a group of eight or so 20-30 somethings were seen with backpacks headed to Bob’s Bald for the night. Lucky for us, Will had a secret spot for our camp, a little valley below the Bald, just off Cold Springs Gap. Best of all, the location was protected from the relentless wind.

Forest Service road to Cold Spring Gap.
Chuck bundled up against the wind.

The hike was easy, almost exactly 2 miles from the trailhead, mostly on a Forest Service road and mostly on a downhill grade. Although the turnoff from the gap was concealed by weeds and brush, we knew the route. We may have hesitated, mostly out of concern for ticks and chiggers but Chuck, who had started hiking first, encouraged us on. The drop into the valley was rocky and short but our little campsite below the bald was lovely and we saw our first purple trillium along the way.

Will arriving in the campsite
Our campsite, a little slice of windless heaven.

Will was anxious to show us a hidden set of cascades and a waterfall that he had discovered on previous explorations in the area, so camp setup went quickly, even for two people who haven’t backpacked in a while. The falls were a short half mile from camp on a Forest Service road that had almost returned to the wild.

Lots of room for our two tents.

We could hear the falls before we could see them. Actually the cascades were visible from the road but the rhododendron was just too dense to see the falls. Will walked back and forth on the faint road, finally stopping at a thicket that appeared to have a slight opening worn through the the branches. We followed him to the creek’s edge. While he rock hopped across the creek to overlook the falls, I stopped short knowing my balance might not allow me across without a fall. John had Katie on a leash and was going no where near the edge of the falls lest she take the two of them over.

Will crossing a creek to get to the waterfall trail.
The little creek above turns into these beautiful cascades.
The waterfall is just over the water’s edge.
Katie had to get in the water but we kept her well away from the waterfall ledge.

Back to camp, dinner and a fire. Chuck left us about 8:00 with just enough light to get him to the trailhead. We assembled quesadillas and Will heated a dehydrated meal. No doubt his pack was lighter hiking in than ours. The temperature never dropped uncomfortably low and the fire entertained us until 10:00 pm, an unusually late hour for backpackers who claim 8:00 pm on the trail is really midnight.

Lots of wood had been left by the fire pit so we did not have to “hunt and gather.” The fire lent a warm atmosphere to the evening and we sat and talked for several hours.
Steak quesadillas, backpack style.
Will

Wind gusting through the trees put us to sleep as we thought about the 8 backpackers camped on Bob’s Bald with the full force of the wind blowing through their camp. I slept well on the ground; I usually do not. Katie slept at our feet with her head propped up on my down jacket. Sleeping in the valley at 4200′ was peaceful.

My girl !

Morning arrived, blue skies, sunshine and glorious. On my mind, coffee! We tried to pack and organize as we crawled out of the tent but if we had been with others in our backpack group we would have been considered slow. With a seven person backpack multiday in our future, we need to work on efficiency but we still have time to practice before our late summer trip.

Sunny mostly clear Sunday morning.

The hike out was the reverse of the hike in, taking just under an hour to complete. We waffled about meeting in Madisonville for Mexican but decided to go for John’s first restaurant meal since the pandemic. Yum!

Our little family ready to go out to lunch

Posted in Backpacking, Cherokee National Forest, Friends, Hiking, Outside, Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

GVRAT

My race bib and number, and yeah, the race was not really 1000km but 1022km

I am not sure I was thinking clearly back on May 3rd when I first stumbled on the Great Virtual Race Across Tennessee (GVRAT). I was wrapped up the Covid crisis and certainly not thinking long term. It seemed to make a lot of sense to me, 635.7 miles between May 1 and August 31, that’s only 5.2 miles per day. I rationalized that the challenge would keep me focused during the hot, humid months of a Covid infected Tennessee and the only person I was racing against was myself. But on May 7th, the day I summoned my courage to log into the website and sign up, I did not realize how caught up in the adventure I would become.

The days started off easy, mostly three miles, five miles, even a few eight mile runs. I was excited to be part of an international group of 19,000 participants, all virtually running/walking across Tennessee and connected by one Lazarus Lake of Barkley Marathon fame and his facebook group that provided a platform for us, his “RATS” to share our successes and challenges. It was an upbeat, lighthearted group, all working toward the same goal. But beyond the excitement was a demanding race that required daily attention, no matter what. A missed day would result in a 0 and 5.2 miles that had to be made up in future days and I was already 31.2 miles behind because of my late start. It was a relentless effort, running and walking, no days to rest, no days to relax.

Running and walking during Covid with a triple folded bandana for my mask. This was good until it wasn’t which was when I discovered bandanas were more problematic than nothing at all. At that point I started carrying a mask.
The Calvary was summoned in mid June as the mileage piled up on my single pair of running shoes.
Gravel path in the Wildlife Management area near Ijams Nature Center. I walked this trail many times.
I wore my running skirts till summer heat took over and I turned to the lightest weight shorts and tops I own. Oh, and those lovely fingernails, nope not painted since the early days of the race.

During those first weeks of the race, I was constantly tired and unable to fight the urge to nap, sometimes for hours at a time. As a result John, who works full time, took over the household chores, cooking, shopping and offering encouragement and an occasional shoulder to cry on. He continued this level of support throughout the race. My life became running, walking, eating and sleeping and my body became stronger. As May slipped by, my mileage built. By the time the 31st rolled around, I was surprised to discover I had logged 49 miles walking and 123 miles running, my biggest running month in years.

The first hundred miles were completed on May 22nd for an average of 6.25 miles per day. Those were the early days of the race.
Loved hiking but as explained below, it just didn’t work for me.
I hike three times during this race. This photo is from the last hike on June 9th when John and I headed up and down Lumber Ridge Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It was not a long hike, 7 miles but we realized that we could not hike far enough to keep up with the mileage I needed for this race. I also discovered that the trail pounding on my feet hampered my mileage efforts in the following days.

In late May, early June, John reminded me that we were scheduled to leave on an expedition to the Brooks Range in the Gates of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska in mid August. I had been so focused on my mileage that I had neglected to think through that. I scrambled to redo the math and discovered that my daily mileage had to increase to a minimum of 8 miles everyday to finish the race by our departure, meaning 56 miles a week for weeks. And so it did. By late June, the bush flight service announced they were cancelling the 2020 season so our trip was cancelled. Still, I held tight to my August 12th finish date.

I would like to say I took my mileage on the road to explore new areas but I didn’t. Everyday I pretty much followed one of two routes from the house and toward the end, extended the routes to cover nearby areas for added mileage. There was comfort in this sameness. My mind could drift, I could get home to let the dog out or just have a cool place to rest for a few moments. After a while, I knew how many miles or 10ths of a mile I had to travel to get home. As the neighbors took notice, several would stop me and inquire about the race, how far I had gone and how many miles I had left. I talked with neighbors I had never met and I appreciated their comments and support.

I was on this road daily. The trees off a moment’s respite from a sunny day.
Hot summer days along the boardwalk at Ijams Nature Center.
And yet another hot summer day.

As I continued to get stronger, I started to believe anything was possible, 8-10 mile days I got that, 12 mile days, no problem, yes even 15 mile days sprinkled in. The heat and humidity reduced me to walking. I spent 4-5 hours a day in the sun carefully slathered in SPF 50 yet roasting like a coffee bean. When July 4th arrived, I had only 136 miles to go. The race was coming to an end and I wasn’t ready for it. I began to mull over the BAT (back across Tennessee) option. I knew I couldn’t get another 635.7 miles in the time I had left but maybe I could achieve the 1000 mile pin. I mentioned it to John and shrugged his shoulders. He had been counting the days too.

There were days that the miles past 500 seemed insurmountable but I found that I could dig deep and see my way through.

The Race Across Tennessee officially ended for me on July 15th. I finished 635.7 miles in 71 days. ** I was so pleased and a little stunned that I had actually done it. John bought a chocolate-chocolate chip Anything Bundt Cake to celebrate and we ate the whole thing in 3 days. Meanwhile I told him I wanted to continue on and he said he agreed that I should. On July 16th, I signed up for the Back Across Tennessee race.

Finishing certificate for the crossing of Tennessee
It’s a fabulous medal!
Chocolate, Chocolate Chip Anything Bundt Cake

I was confident I could get it done. The worry that something, such as injury would stop me began to fade from the darkness of my mind. But 12, 13 and 15 mile days, seemed to drag on indefinitely. We were in the dog days of summer in Tennessee and everyday was the same, I woke up, dressed, walked for hours, ate and slept. I was hot and tired and I just wanted to be done. Poor John, he listened to my complaints day after day. Never once did he say, “well you signed up for this.”

Then, 8 days out from my projected grand finish, I got injured. I am not really sure what happened that day, it was not dramatic or memorable. I was in a hurry to get home to beat a threatening storm (I didn’t beat it) and likely increased my step turnover beyond my ability. By the time I arrived home, I was drenched and chilled. My foot and ankle radiated pain and swelling set in.

My feet are my weakness and they had already suffered a lot including broken and black toenails, skin worn off the sides of my feet and 3 yellow jacket stings on my left foot that blistered badly.

Over the next two days, I wrapped the affected area with an ace bandage and completed 5 very painful miles each day. But I continued to worry that I may have fractured a bone and the idea of being within 100 miles and not finishing wore on me day and night. In the afternoon on the 2nd day I took a trip to the doctor to be sure nothing more sinister was going on. He diagnosed tendinitis and sent me home with a prescription for Voltaren Gel and the advice to take it easy. I didn’t.

Almost done, I knew I could get there.

The next day I slipped on my shoes and continued. I would take time to heal post race but emotionally I had to finish this race. I had made a commitment to myself that I was determined to keep. After several 12 mile days and three back to back 15 mile days I reached the virtual 1000 mile finish line. On August 18th I ended the virtual race the same way I began it, by myself. Oh there would be another Anything Bundt Cake to be eaten but the satisfaction of completing this race was enough. I hadn’t given up on myself, not once, I stuck to it and saw this race to the end. I finished 1000 miles in 105 days. Only a few short months ago would never have considered doing something like this and that pretty much sums up how much I have grown.

Words this 67 year old lives by.
Finisher’s certificate for completing 1000 miles. I also received a little pin with the above map and 1000 Miles GVRAT listed.

So, here I am, a week and a half out from the finish and reflecting back. The rough edges of the most difficult days have already smoothed out. I can hardly believe I actually travelled that far over the summer. Would I do it again? Yep, as a matter of fact I have signed on to a team of 10 to participate in the virtual Circumpolar Race Across the World (CRAW) beginning on September 1st, 30,130 miles. Lucky for me, my portion is only about 3,013 miles or 12.5 miles a day for a gold (8 month) finish or 8.5 miles daily for a silver (12 month) finish. The math has already begun……

**the certificate days are calculated from the May 1st starting day. I started on May 7th.

Posted in COVID-19, Endurance, GVRAT, Hiking, Injury, Outside, Running, Summer, Uncategorized, Walking | 1 Comment

Weekend fun and food…

Well, sorta. As I write this, Tennessee is in it’s 5th day of reopening. Hair salons, nail salons, tattoo parlors, retail, many restaurants, parks and outdoor venues are all out there with doors wide open. The weather is great and the masses are restless with pent up demand.

In this house we are resisting the urge to participate. You could say we are dragging our feet about reintegrating into “normal” life. The prevailing attitude is “wait and see”; wait 15 days and see how the pandemic is growing going. Maybe some hiking and other activities soon but meanwhile I have been keeping myself plenty active.

Over the past couple of months, I have made good strides with my running pace and VO2max. Regrettably the last seven days have been very lackluster (sigh) and I have lost a bit of my hard fought gain. The temperature is on the rise after what has been a cool, damp spring and I struggle adjusting. I know, I know, I live in Tennessee where heat and humidity are summer companions but I prefer not to accept responsibility for my performance, instead I will just blame it on a myriad of other things.

So, Saturday morning I got out for a later than usual run and it appears my heart was not in it. For some reason, I deviated from my neighborhood route and took the hilly, scenic one. I actually don’t mind this section of greenway as my legs have become noticeably stronger and I love the reward of running downhill, but today it got me. What was planned as a 4-5 mile run turned into a 3 miler at my slower March running pace. I was discouraged!

Running a section of the Will Skelton Greenway along the Tennessee River.
Heat, humidity and suntan lotion.
I seem to have my mouth open a lot when I run and hike, gasping for air most likely. As of recent, I have been working on breathing through my nose. For me it is not as easy as it sounds cause I feel like I am suffocating. But, like other things running, I am making progress.

After the run, I retired to the veranda to enjoy a cool breeze, an ice cold glass of water and to lick my wounded ego.

This is not a happy face.
This is a happy face! Watching birds and squirrels is grand.

Later in the afternoon I decided to go for a bicycle ride. After all, when the run fails, maybe the bicycle will be a success; I am a better cyclist than runner. Better that is when I cycle regularly, which I haven’t been doing.

I didn’t really want to tackle riding up the big hill we live on so I drove the bicycle down in the car and parked in a flat, shady area. My plan was to circle the main street numerous times and take a few side roads to break the boredom. My mental goal was 12 miles. Ha!! I should say here I haven’t been on my bike since early January.

My legs felt strong and the ride started out great. I wondered why I hadn’t been on my bike recently. Slowly I realized that I had picked the wrong day and time to be cycling. With great weather and shelter at home restrictions lifted, the neighborhood kids were out, lots and lots of kids. There was a gaggle of five girls on bicycles riding five across the road against traffic, a small group of three, unsteady girls riding their skate boards in the middle of the road, boys in the road with hockey sticks, little ones tagging along with older siblings. You see my problem here. The kids tended to scatter when cars appeared but could care less about a single bicycle making loops around the boulevard.

The ride became an exercise in speed up, slow down and hit the brakes. My inner Grinch came out and I knew it was time to give it up. People were rightfully enjoying this spring day and my attitude continued to deteriorate. After one last ride to the river, I loaded my bike on the car and drove the short distance home. Total miles cycled: 7.

On a bridge over a tributary of the Tennessee River.
Kayakers and paddle boarders on the above tributary of the Tennessee River. I counted over 30 people out on both sides of the bridge. Usual count, about 5….pent up demand.

Saturday night was about food. We had pizza dough thawing in the frig and I was looking forward to a good, homemade pizza. Unfortunately the dough was purchased at Fresh Market and turned out to be a do not repeat.

Prep started with rolling out the dough on a cutting board that was way too small. John, watching from the sidelines, suggested I move the dough to the granite counter top. W-e-l-l-l-l-l, even with flour, the dough stuck. Not a good beginning for the pizza.

In steps John for the rescue with a big spatula to help loosen the dough and transport it to a cookie sheet, also too small. I had in my mind that I wanted a rectangular pizza so we ended up transporting the dough again to a sheet pan with sides to contain the dough.

Toppings included hot Italian sausage, andouille sausage and low fat turkey pepperoni. We also included spinach, onions, mushrooms, Kalamata olives and mozzarella and Parmesan Reggiano cheeses. Olive oil was the pizza base.

I forgot to take a picture till we had already eaten part of the pizza.

The toppings were great but the crust was like a biscuit or, in our case, two biscuits. I am guessing I did not roll it thin enough. I wonder if the dough would have made two pizzas. Next time I will experiment with homemade crust.

With the pizza, I added a light lettuce salad with homemade white wine vinaigrette. Yum! We were stuffed.

Sunday morning I did not have the remotest motivation to run so I decided to ride my bike again but in a different location. As it turns out, this stretch of greenway was no better than riding in my neighborhood. No need to be lengthy here, miles before I threw in the towel: 7. I spent the afternoon reading.

Looks like I need to clean up my handle bars! Unused hardware and loose electrical tape need to be removed.

Sunday was another evening in the kitchen, this time sushi. John had in his mind that it would be fun to serve homemade sushi to his son and girlfriend this week. We needed a practice run. It has been a while since I made sushi at home, even longer since my sister and I took sushi making classes. I had a slight panic as I attempted to locate the rice recipe but it finally surfaced.

First step was preparing the “stuffing” for the sushi. We cut up such things as cream cheese, imitation crab, cucumbers, carrots and smoke salmon, While the rice cooked, I attempted to cover the bamboo mat in plastic wrap. The wrap did not want to adhere to itself which makes rolling the rice difficult. This was not a good start and I realized I was in a bit over my head.

With the rice cooked, we transferred it to a glass bowl and fanned (yes fanned) while adding a mixture of sugar-mirin. Now it was time to start the assembly process. Placing the rice on the nori and flipping was fine, but I couldn’t remember the placement of the ingredients on the nori sheet to make it roll correctly. Took a roll or two to get the process right.

In the end, the sushi was ok but I am not ready for sushi entertaining right now. These rolls were not as good as rolls I have made in the past and I need to do some reading, recipe adjustments and practice runs before inviting people over for sushi. That said we will have carryout pizza (good pizza) and salad with Daniel and Tess this week.

Posted in Bicycling, COVID-19, Food, Life, Outside, Running, Weekend | Leave a comment

Sheltering in Place

It has been a while since I last posted. Covid-19 has settled in to our country and like others we are “safer at home” or were until our mayor updated our status to “shelter in place.” It has been a journey.

In late February, early March I slowly began filling the freezer with meats, vegetables and our favorite coffee. John thought I was nuts but I just nodded and kept buying. Unfortunately I did not think through toilet paper and antibacterial wipes until it was too late. I had some chats with our local Publix employees and discovered the tp delivery schedule. For several weeks I set an extra early alarm on a designated delivery day to arrive before the tp and wipes were sold out. I never had to wait in line.

Beginning mid March, our neighborhood set up a series of window scavenger hunts for the kids. So far we have had banana, umbrella, W, hands and pac man days. I hung with them till the zoo animals started then burned out and dropped out. I jumped back in at Easter with hand painted paper eggs. This was not part of the neighborhood list but what I wanted to do.

Pac man day!

Many of our neighbors are outside throughout the day but scattered and no one seems to be getting too close to each other, just a friendly wave and a shouted hello. Our neighborhood book club held a zoom meeting in April and will do the same in May. We are reading “And Then There Were None,” by Agatha Christie. Restaurant deliveries have been added to the evening activities with several popular downtown restaurants/breweries parking at a designated neighborhood location on a designated day. Those who placed and paid on-line for orders, practice social distancing as the orders are handed out. This activity has been well supported by the neighborhood. John and I have participated a couple of times, a beer or two may have been included on our orders.

In mid-March the University of Tennessee closed. John continued to go in for another week or so but came home early everyday, fretting about a grad student or two that exhibited Covid symptoms (one tested positive, one negative). He finally pulled together a multi-computer – TV set up in an upstairs room where he can work with his microscopes remotely and help a few remaining grad students via phone or on line. The dog is glad he is home. We now call her the “upstairs” dog as she hangs out with him all day. I have had to do a little adjusting but am glad he is home too.

On March 24th, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park closed roads, trails and all services. The week before closing, 30,000 people from all over the country thought it was a good idea to show up EACH day in the park to hike and look at the wildflowers. While it may be an understandable decision on an individual basis, collectively not so good. Most visitors who go to the park go to the same places, Cades Cove, Laurel Falls Trail, Abrams Falls and Alum Cave. Social distancing, I don’t think so. The Park Service quickly decided that to keep their employees, not to mention the park guests safe, shuttering the park for 2 weeks was a necessity. The closure continued on, the park is now scheduled to reopen on May 9th.

Spring has pretty much come and gone in the garden even though we are going through the last of the spring series of Red Bud, Dogwood and Blackberry winters. Seems like we have had more rain than I remember in recent years and more high winds, but maybe I am just more aware this year.

Variegated Solomon Seal
Lenten Roses
Yard violets. Violets were my first and always favorite flower. I have trouble pulling them out of the garden. so usually I don’t.

As the weeks went on we slipped into a nice routine, dinner at lunch, lunch at dinner, many enjoyed al fresco on the veranda. The sun rose, the sun set and days went by quickly as we lived in a bubble. We worked in the yard, in the house and I looked forward to morning runs and sunset walks.

Sunrise through the kitchen window
Sunset from our backyard
Sunset walk with Katie
Sunset over the Tennessee River
This happened to me in early March, I have thoroughly enjoyed it!
I have spent much too much time going up and down this flight of 15 steps.
This has been my counter because I realized around 600 steps that this is incredibly boring, my mind gets distracted and I loose count. As of this week I hit 2100 steps up in a single effort (and 2100 steps down). My legs are getting noticeably stronger but this is worse than a treadmill.

My running has improved significantly. I am hitting times I could only hope for a few months ago (still very slow mind you). I ran over 74 miles in April, my highest mileage for a while. I have enjoyed the mornings out by myself. Improvement is very motivating.

Post run with a dogwood as my backdrop. The dogwoods are out of bloom now.
Running on the local greenway system
My car got washed a couple of times due to pollen but I have only filled it with gas once.

As of today, the governor has mostly reopened the state. Although Knoxville openings are regulated by the County Health Department, most things including retail, hair salons, restaurants and such have opened with distancing guidelines. My phone has been ringing with offices wanting to set up appointments-personal trainer, hair (I have decided to try a new color, my own…gray), eye doctor, massage therapist and so on and so on.

Honestly, I am not looking forward to “getting back to normal.” I have enjoyed my days uninterrupted by obligations. With uncluttered time, I focus on fitness and health. Money saved by not stopping here and there to shop has disappeared into a travel account and I have been happily planning a few adventures for 2021. While very frightening, sheltering at home against Covid-19 has offered me a glimpse into a different lifestyle, one I think I am going to try to hold onto for just a little longer.

Posted in COVID-19, Life, Uncategorized | Leave a comment