Doc Howard Trail System


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I want to write this trail system from a point of being knowledgeable. Unfortunately on this post I’m not. I may provide more information as time goes on.

The trail system I’m talking about here is a loop of trails with rough terrain around a set of cliff’s above Clear Creek. It’s popular with rock climbers who use it to reach many different climbing routes. As someone who’d need to save up for climbing equipment I know these trails on foot as a route for exploring the sandstone and shale cliffs and looking down from their bluffs.

Even if you don’t plan to climb, the route’s not for beginners. There are many steep hills, scrambles over rocks and even places where sliding may be easier than walking. But I consider the trail to be worth it, and these pictures should show you why.

The cedar in that image is possibly an ancient one according to Dad. I say possibly, because even Dad was going from a third-hand description of someone else’s study.

Since it was Father’s Day, Dad chose this hike for Mom, Jessie Yvonne and me. Yvonne struggled to walk the trail, having to figure out how to scramble across the rocks, as opposed to me and Dad who do it intuitively and prefer to avoid tripping by keeping momentum.

Dad and I, however, ended up in the back with Yvonne, however, because for Dad, an expert on plants for people new to this blog, these kinds of cliff habitats are places to scan with his hazel eyes beneath his nearly hairless eyebrows for plants.

Among them was the round leafed fire pink, so called not because it is pink (it’s really more red) but because it appears to be “pinked” by shears.

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Dad, being scientifically minded, always wants to focus on new spots and mysteries. He found himself curious about a grape vine growing close to the cliffs’ bottom.

We also discovered a small box turtle, with foot and head just slightly tucked into shell.

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We passed many climbers, hanging from these cliffs too. There are many routes. Also the trail system links to a brewery called The Lily Pad. We didn’t visit this go around, but as I get more confident with public spaces, I’ll probably review it at some point.

The heat was a bit much, especially for us wearing masks, which Jessie, my sister insisted on (I usually skip them when it’s just me and Yvonne but I understand the issues with the huge crowd of us).

By the time we were done, we were hungry and thirsty, hoping to park all three of our separate cars (don’t you love quarantine life?) down by Clear Creek Lilly Bridge. But with too few spaces there, we had to move up to the Lilly Bluff picnic area, then have some of us drive, some of us walk down to the river.

And what a river it is! It’s clear so you can see all the fish of different sizes, glimmering in the water. Our preferred spot is a slanting rock we can slide down. I’ve written about it before.

I say “our” but really it’s just me, Jessie, Mom and Yvonne that enjoy the water. Dad tends to always stay on the land, looking at plants whenever we visit. That’s where he finds the joy of discovery.

For me, discovery is broader. Anything new to me, be it a fish, a possibly old cedar or especially a new trail system is worth a new trip out. I’m ready to explore. And I hope to keep doing so.

If you have any more information about these trails or links to sites about them I’d like to see them. I may post more updates as I get more research done on this area.

Oak Ridge: Trail 456


Saturday May 30. Some trails you plan for. And others you just stumble into.

Like this one. Yvonne just wanted a picnic spot away from others given the circumstances, and we went ahead and went down to Clark Center Park. We found a spot away from the swimming area where most visitors had gathered, across from the softball field.
And yet we had a trail, marked with a sign as Trail 456 right in front of us, so we figured we’d try it.
Most of Clark Center Park’s trails are short trails leading to fishing areas with not much besides a number. This trail featured some wildflowers in late May, and climbed up a hill before climbing back down. While we had to cross some logs, I can recommend this trail for one reason: its endpoint.

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If you ever want to know the best spot to watch motorboats power by and ospreys swoop down at Melton Hill Lake, this is it.

Before people complain to me, there is some litter at this destination, and I’d prefer if someone was trying harder to keep it clean. Still, the view of the bluff across the lake from trail 456 will always be one of my favorite sites in my hometown and I plan to go back.

Sandstone splendor-Cumberland Trail State Park near Fairfield Glade


Sunday May 31

You are a grain of sand.

350 million years ago a shallow sea tossed you around. But since then you’ve hardened into a part of a cliff that towers over the heads of humans. You sparkle when the light hits you, making you noticeable at times. There are thousands of grains like you, no millions, making patterns in the cliff and forming it, all smashed together. Spiders spin webs in front of you, catching insects. Water drips across you, loosening you. Soon you join other grains at the bottom of the cliff face, becoming like beach sand once again, this time far from the ocean. Ants crawl among you and your brethren. Antlions use you as part of a funnel to catch the ants. Moonshiners step on you, hiding beneath the cliff to avoid the authorities. A world towers over you, with you powerless. And yet you just wait for what it will throw at you next and what you’ll next become.

***

I’ve missed hiking the Cumberland Plateau. The lost world of sandstone cliffs tucked away in the woods behind towering evergreens isn’t exactly like other wild areas such as the Great Smoky Mountains. The plateau holds its own charm. And most importantly for some people now, plenty of it is so not well known that you can walk there and never run into a single other human except the ones you take with you.

There are many different parks and trails here, among them the Justin P. Wilson Cumberland Trail State Park. I wrote a book with my Dad “Wildly Strolling Along”on what the trail was like in 2012.

It’s an unfinished overnight trail from Chattanooga to Cumberland Gap. But volunteers are busy building other sections of it every day. After hearing about this recently completed section, I knew Yvonne and I had to hike it.

The entrance on Peavine Road is easily miss-able, a set of stone steps with no parking area. Directions to it are available here, although much of the other information on that website about the trail is out of date.

After climbing up the stone steps we found ourselves admiring wildflowers as we headed deeper into the forest.

The flowers are a highlight depending on when you visit. On our visit we saw the white flowers on mountain laurel and the bright orange flowers of Cumberland azaleas, among others. I hope to return during rhododendron season when rhododendron “hells” (yes that’s the word) will surround the streams.

The part of the trail we traveled crosses streams in several places with bridges that look new. At one such stream we sat down to eat.

Yet it was the cliffs which the trail goes through, underneath and on top of that really held my attention.

After walking through a narrow passage between rocks, the trail goes underneath cliffs.

Yvonne enjoyed them too through her own, odd filter, focusing in on little holes in the rock as the homes and businesses of a fairy civilization.

“This is where the fairies go to drink beer,” she said pointing to one such opening.

“This is where they have sex,” she said regarding another near flowers.

Even without fantasy creatures, these cliffs work as apartment buildings for spiders and wasps. Lichens, mosses, and even rhododendrons grow from them. You can see different colors– reds, tans and grays in the stone with the occasional sparkle. Sandstone is made of sand, as I explained above. It forms ledges and shelters.

What appear to be the ruins of an oven are beneath one bluff. Dad has said it was part of an abandoned moonshining (bootleg liquor) camp at one point, as seem to be common in various places around the plateau.

Sand covers the areas below the cliffs some areas, you can see the neat little dents in the that antlions use to funnel ants into their mouths.

We stopped at a crossroad with a wider trail, about halfway down the main trail. I hope to return soon.

Luna Moth


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Actias luna Spotted May 16 in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

This green moth was just resting at a gas station in Oak Ridge, completely still.

They eat as caterpillars, but their adult life is just for sex and involves no food. Also, their long tails may help them confuse bats. For more details, check out the video below.

Some people go out to exotic destinations to see wildlife. But seemingly boring places may be hiding wonders if you just look for them.

Great Blue Herons are not Pterodactyls


Great Blue Heron
Creative Commons photo by Terry Foote. Some day I’ll get this good at wildlife photos. In the meantime, enjoy stock photos.

Spotted Melton Hill Lake, near Haw Ridge ramp, May 23, 2020
Back in my teenage days on a crew team, we’d see them along the banks. “Pterodactyl!” one of my fellow rowers cried out.

And so that was what we called them. We knew it was wrong. We knew it was very wrong in fact. But we didn’t care.*
Anyway though it was a fun word to say. And it summed up the weirdness of a big flying thing with such a long bill quite well. great blue herons are common near lakes and even smaller streams of East Tennessee and not all that shy. They fly with their snaky necks tucked in but their long legs sticking straight out behind them
They’re about the height of human children, 3.4 to 4.5 feet. But their hollow bones make them light, around 5-6 pounds.

Those long beaks of theirs have a purpose though. Great blue herons wade into the water to stalk their prey. Sometimes, they stab larger fish with their bills.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s page describes Great Blue Herons as “often shaking them (fish) to break or relax the sharp spines before gulping them down.”
* As a side note, pterodactyls and pterosaurs generally are not only extinct but a dead end. Their relatives, the dinosaurs, survived to evolve into creatures like herons which replaced pterosaurs as flying creatures.

Melton Hill Lake from Haw Ridge Park


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Me out on Melton Hill Lake May 23

April 24, 2020 No current, no rapids, no destination.
Granted I like routes with those things. But my trip with Mom and a few others at Melton Hill Lake was a refreshing chance to just leave life behind and explore coves, looking at turtles, herons, ospreys, cormorants and mallards with their little ducklings. While plenty of people were with us, they had separate boats, so social distancing wasn’t a problem at all.
There were challenges. We struggled to find a good bank for picnicking and just ended up eating in the canoe. We tried to avoid hitting fly fishers’ lines.

The banks were wild and full of thick Tennessee summer green. But the coves were also full of litter that had washed into them. In our series of good deeds for the day, Mom would push blocks of Styrofoam, a bottle full of water and an unopened can of Mountain Dew back toward me so that I could grab it and throw it in the boat. We passed on trying to do that with tires. But overall, I recommend this route. Go as far as you wish as the current’s not strong. You can always turn around.

Clinch River: River Road to fish hatchery


Swallows, often too many to count danced above the water. They seemed like a crowd of skaters at an ice rink, except they weren’t bound to staying on the water’s surface.

We were here: Mom, Yvonne and I out celebrating mother’s day on the Clinch River, May 10 2020, following our Mother’s Day tradition of a canoe trip. But even without flying like the swallows, we had a river to explore. In the cool for May 10 weather we only saw one boat the whole time.

The route starts on River Road, not far from Norris Dam, an unmarked spot but one with clear parking and a good ramp. Unlike in other places on the Clinch closer to dams, the current pushes boats along here even without any paddling. There are few rapids here though and most are avoidable. It took us about three hours, but that included a lunch break where we just floated. I imagine some people could do this route faster.

This is a river stretch that, in spite of being fairly close to Norris and mostly private land around it, feels like being in the wilderness, with forests on either side for most of the journey, already showing off a bright summer green. The route passes a few vacation cabins. But for the most part it was just us, mallards, Canada geese with their goslings, cormorants both roosting and diving, great blue herons and us. We did pass under the interstate at one point, watching the big rigs pass over us.

Unlike with certain other canoe routes, there aren’t many good picnic stop points so be prepared to eat in your boat.

The route ended at another unmarked ramp just past a fish hatchery. This is the one spot of the route that’s the hardest. Paddling against the current here snapped my paddle in half. Thankfully, I had a spare.

Alex Haley Heritage Square, Knoxville


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Haley’s monument in Knoxville.

Alex Haley sits, in bronze 13 feet tall, next to a playground, above the Morningside Park, above the disc golf course, the greenway the fitness trail, all of it. His hands hold an open book.

Built during my lifetime in 1996, the statue has little explanation about who the man it shows was, except a quotation: “Find the good and praise it.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about Haley recently, so it was a pure happy coincidence I stumbled on his statue in February (and as I have to explain, before that thing I’m not addressing in this post). I’ve been thinking about him, not just as some past historical figure but as an inspiration, a role model even.

Yes, a role model. I grew up with my library’s VHS tapes of the adaptation of his most famous work “Roots.” But I’ll admit he wasn’t perfect. I know he was probably guilty of plagiarism. I know “Roots” was largely a fictional work that didn’t match with records from primary sources. Also I haven’t read as much of his work as I’d like to have, although I plan to fix that.

But I’ve been thinking broadly, not just about “Roots” but about Haley’s other work and his times.

Haley lived at a time when the nation was in conflict, not just one side against the other side, but multiple sides, sometimes fighting, sometimes collaborating. Martin Luther King was preaching a vision of African Americans joining in and pursuing the American Dream, becoming equal with white Americans. Meanwhile Malcolm X was preaching a different, if ultimately more similar to MLK than people admit, vision: an independent black nation able to stand on its own and defend itself. Both were complex figures whose views probably can’t be summarized that easily. And then there were many others who could be whole books unto themselves.

And all the while, white America was also divided. There were those who supported these new movements. But there were also those who opposed them. Some put on a respectable front, joining White Citizen Councils. But others like George Lincoln Rockwell of the American Nazi Party did the opposite, wrapping their all-too-american prejudices in the language and flags of the US’s old enemy: the Nazis.

And where was Haley during all this? He was at Playboy, writing stuff to go in between the centerfolds.

But it was excellent stuff! Historical stuff! He was there to sit down with these now legendary figures and record their words for future generations.

He spoke to Martin Luther King Jr. (the interview’s available here) for what the magazine billed as the longest interview that leader ever granted. And it was a personal one too. In it he revealed his emotions when explaining segregation and his time in jail to his children. In the interview Haley asked how he responded to all different kinds of critics: those that said he was too moderate and those that called him an “outside agitator” alike. He explained his goals. And he made the famous statement that white moderates were more of a threat to his cause than the Klu Klux Klan.

But it wasn’t just MLK. He went on to, very famously, get through to Malcolm X, getting him, reluctantly, to share his entire life story, leading to a whole book narrated to him. A book I haven’t read but at some point aim to.  A shorter earlier interview is available here.

And then there was George Lincoln Rockwell (massive content warning ). This is the accomplishment, talking to the grandaddy of the Alt Right that really fascinates me. To run up to a neo-Nazi and punch him in the face may be flashy, but to sit down with a neo-Nazi and press him for answers, not letting him get away with any of his lying talking points, is admirably courageous. Especially the way Haley describes the lead up to it.

“Fifteen minutes later, with me and my tape recorder in the back and my two chaperones in the front, the car turned into a narrow, tree-lined road, slowed down as it passed a No Trespassing sign (stamped with a skull and crossbones) and a leashed Doberman watchdog, and finally pulled up in front of a white, 16-room farmhouse emblazoned at floor- and second-story levels with four-foot-high red swastikas. About a dozen Nazis stared icily as the guards walked me past them and up the stairs to Rockwell’s door, where a side-armed storm trooper frisked me expertly from head to toe.”

Then, of course there’s the classic moment, dramatized by James Earl Jones and Marlon Brando on PBS.

Rockwell: Good. Just so we both know where we stand, I’d like to make something else crystal clear before we begin. I’m going to be honest and direct with you. You’re here in your professional capacity; I’m here in my professional capacity. While here, you’ll be treated well—but I see you’re a black interviewer. It’s nothing personal, but I want you to understand that I don’t mix with your kind, and we call your race “niggers.”

Haley: I’ve been called “nigger” many times, Commander, but this is the first time I’m being paid for it. So you go right ahead. What have you got against us “niggers”?

There are the people who usually get statues: soldiers, activists, people who make history. But then there are the people who write history as it happens, even if it is between centerfolds. And Haley is one of those. I look at his statue with admiration for all he accomplished.

Ozone Falls


Looking at Ozone Falls I followed a single drop of water or rather set of suds as it fell. Looking at it that way you see the sheer scope of the fall and the resistance from the air slowing its fall.

Doing that messes with how your mind interprets what you’re seeing so when you look out at the rocks you see them moving upward even though the cliff is solid.

Of course, the ice comes crashing down now at this time of the year, with big icicles cracking loudly as they hit the ground. That’s what’s in motion. And so are we. The humans. Depending on which side of the falls I’m on, I see their tiny figures, couples, families at the top or walking the curvy ledge behind the falls. But the solid cliffs and rock overhangs are solid, for now anyway.

It’s got no gift shop and no restroom even, especially striking given that I’m not the only one who felt like he had to pee after looking at that falls for long enough.

The area’s main claim to fame? A 1994 film that most people have forgotten by now called Jungle Book, no, not the Disney film with the jazz music nor the other later remake. This was an earlier remake that used the spot to film a man getting kicked in the groin.

The route down to the falls’ base while very short involves scrambling over rocks and may not feel like it e

But it seems to draw in decent crowds on a Saturday. It’s not hard to see why.

Eastern bluebird


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Here in East Tennessee, winter means bluebirds (Sialia sialis). Just steps below Alex Haley’s statue at Morningside Park, I saw their bright blue feathers and orangish chests in the bare treetops.

Cornell Ornithology Lab reports they live in Tennessee all year round. But winter is when I usually see them.

Males attract their mates by choosing a hole often an old woodpecker hole, or, sometimes nowadays a bird box someone’s built. But then they show off by showing their mate all the nest materials.

According to Cornell, which remains my one-stop shop for bird trivia, the female birds do all the actual nest making though. Apparently the males’ contribution is just showing off what they can find to make the nest out of. And that “meet cute while holding grass and pine needles” is enough to keep a pair together for at least a few seasons.