Natural Bridge, Va


Its massive 215 foot stone arch looms over the path below with its rows of benches. Birds nest inside it, and crowds pass below it on Sunday, giving it a sense of scale, while trees grow above and around. The James River passes below.

Natural Bridge
Natural Bridge with a few humans for scale.

It’s $6 to get onto the small trail system and you never get the feeling you’re out in unexplored territory, but rather just at a natural wonder that happens to be well developed as a tourist hot spot, kind of like Niagara Falls only a bit less built up and a different type of natural wonder.

While you can’t jump in the river, at least not at this point, the rocky shade of the arch itself itself provides a place to cool off from, what was in late July when we visited, sweltering heat.

The Monacan Nation lived here before Europeans came, a which only got federal recognition as a “tribe” last year. At present, just past the arch some wigwams, a garden, a trading area and craft areas give a chance for interpreters to explain about how the Monacans lived in the 17th century. I spent my time there asking about details of bead-making and the sea-shell trade between coastal and inland groups (including the clams used for wampum) and a demonstration of conch-shell blowing as well as cooking, food storage and wigwam protection against bears.

I overhead another interpreter behind me was going into depth about the full-history of the siouxan-language group of which the Monacans are a part, including far more recent and sadder stories further west like Custer and even the recent Standing Rock. That’s part of the site’s appeal: the interpreters can answer any kind of questions.

Thomas Jefferson, the later third US president, owned this land at one point in 1774, with staff at the gift shop telling me that he bought it from his later enemy King George III of England. For much of its history since then, it functioned as a private tourist attraction. As a side note it strikes me how different Virginia tourist architecture looks from its East-Tennessee equivalent. Virginia rest-stops, restaurants and local hotels often try to look like Montechello with bricks and white columns compared to the log cabin architecture they have in East Tennessee. This is true of the gift-shop, restaurant and small nature exhibit area that greets visitors to the site too.

The area still has a general Gatlinburg-y quality, with a zoo, a safari park, caverns and a dinosaur attraction, none of which we had time to visit and none of which were on the main trail. The Virginia state park service actually had to remove a foam replica of Stonehenge from the land it now manages.

Instead of silly replicas of English landmarks or exotic animals, the park’s trail, after passing the arch instead goes along a stream before ending at a waterfall, passing some historical and nature related displays, including a saltpeter cave. As it was summer, we could see butterflies fluttering near the stream.

The spectacle-for-tourists heritage of the area though is still charmingly present. Signs told us of a light show called the “Drama of Creation” performed after dark and dating back to the time of Calvin Coolidge. The signs claimed the presentation isn’t affiliated with the State Park, which makes sense as it uses text from the book of Genesis and might be interpreted as going against separation of church and state.

But I for one can appreciate the grandeur of creation just fine with the natural evening light. While we did have to leave to head back to Tennessee, it was hard to leave.

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A Day at Bald Mountain


View from Bald Mountain
Mount Lafayette, as seen from Bald Mountain.

Bald Mountain’s loop trail at Franconia Notch in New Hampshire, isn’t long, at just 1.5 miles, some of which you don’t even have to do. The hike can just be done as an even shorter up and return route, which is what we did. But don’t let that fool you into thinking everyone will feel like doing it.

Visitors will find themselves scrambling up rocks for a short distance before reaching the summit and even Yvonne, shown above, who’s been with me on quite a few trails by this point, didn’t feel like making it all the way up the rocks. I left her behind and kept going. To me rock scrambling is part of the fun and takes me back to my time scrambling on rocks as a child. But I can see why not everyone might enjoy it.

Earlier that day we returned to Artist’s Bluff, the focus of a previous trip to the area and the other side of the fork that leads to Bald Mountain.

Which of the two vistas of the notch below and mountains above you prefer depends on what your preferences are in terms of what you like to see. Artist’s Bluff gives you a clearer view of Interstate 93, with its seemingly Hot Wheels style trucks and cars giving a good scale for the grandeur around it. Also from there, you get a better view of Echo Lake Beach and its kayakers.

But from Bald Mountain, the Interstate is less intrusive, as shown in the view above, although you’ve got a much wider view of Cannon Mountain’s ski slopes, which lets you know you’re still in civilization of sorts. Also more visible from Bald Mountain are some hazy mountains off in the other direction.

If going up Bald Mountain, you’ll want to leave some time to sit and enjoy the view. Also if you don’t mind cramming more stuff into one day, leave some time for the rest of Franconia Notch. I’ve covered some other highlights in other posts, including the park as a whole the oddity that is the former Old Man of The Mountain site, and The Basin. Driving or walking through the notch area is a treat in itself, looking up at the exposed rock formations on various peaks.

On stage: ‘9 to 5’ in 2019


“I’ve never met a man I didn’t like. But I’ve never met a man who I couldn’t kick his ass if he didn’t treat me with the respect he should” -Dolly Parton in an interview


The largely sold-out play “9 to 5” at Oak Ridge Playhouse, a small-town community theater is nearing its last weekend and may well have sold out by the time I run this.
I point this out because theater reviews for me aren’t so much about whether to see the play as they are about what the play makes me think of. After all, most of this blog’s readers aren’t necessarily able to seen the plays in the Knoxville area. And with this play, there’s plenty to think about.

Community theater shows tend to bank on nostalgia and recognizability. Indeed the play “9 to 5” is both nostalgic and recognizable, especially in East Tennessee where it’s lyricist Dolly Parton owns or at least has her name on, a theme park, a water park and several dinner theaters. The film it’s based on came out in 1980 and the play takes place in the late 1970s as Dolly Parton herself, who appears by projection at the play’s beginning emphasizes that time period, a time of typewriters and secretaries and when “the boss didn’t care about no women’s movement unless it was under his desk.”

See, that’s what makes this play so interesting now, as opposed to 2008 when it originated in Los Angeles. It’s something that can be popular at a community theater still, but is something typically only associated with college productions and small regional theater shows: a story with a topical message about the current world. And, perhaps, unintentionally so.

The original film was intended by Jane Fonda as a work of advocacy, even if she was trying to avoid it being too preachy by cloaking the film’s point in farcical antics. As a side note, I am happy that Oak Ridge Playhouse used the US version rather than the UK version, keeping in the fantasy dream sequences, parodying gangster films, westerns and Disney films that was one of the film’s highlights.

As another side note, Dolly is one of the few people who can enjoy a friendship with “Hanoi Jane,” openly embrace an LGBTQ fanbase and still enjoy a thriving amusement park business in the middle of a red state.

Anyway, reviews of the original musical, many years later in 2008 and later when it debuted on Broadway tended to portray it as “harmless” at best or dated at worst. And given the play’s explicit setting in the 1970s, people might consider it like they originally did “Hairspray”: a campy musical about stuff we’ve already overcome.

But then in 2017 #metoo hit, making sexual abuse a topic on people’s minds again. And this play was positioned to already be a response.

With Dolly writing music and lyrics, the character of Doralee who she originally played, naturally seems to have gotten an expanded role. And, as in the film she’s a sexual harassment survivor. The show, especially in Parton’s lyrics makes more light of sexual harassment than people probably would if it was written now. But the show gets away with it because there’s no mistaking where the play’s sympathies ultimately lie, given Hart being bound and kidnapped and the empowerment anthems the leads belt throughout the rest of the show.

And to be fair Dolly, a businesswoman who seems to have won by being at least outwardly nice to everyone, doesn’t call herself “feminist” or endorse political candidates. But there’s no mistaking where she stands.

I’m calling this focus on sexual harassment, somewhat greater than in the original, “unintentional” on the part of the creators because Doralee’s expanded role was probably just because Dolly was writing the music and lyrics, so giving her songs like her rather meta “I am” song, “Backwoods Barbie” was probably just what appealed to her. But now it reads differently.

Rugby, TN: utopia abandoned


The height of summer seems like a perfect time for visits to the Gentleman’s Swimming Hole. I’ve written about it, calling it “too perfect.” And indeed I still stand by that description. Rugby has many trails, which to me are the main attraction in town. I recently visited to look at wildflowers this April.

Church at Rugby
Rugby’s Episcopalian Church.

But I’ve realized I’ve never covered Rugby itself at length.

 

Rugby Printing Shop
Rugby Printing Shop

The town, at present, consists of a few craft stores, some homes and some historical buildings, including the old library, and a church. The architecture is an understated version of Victorian, meaning it’s not really showy in terms of color or even Victorian flourishes like towers. But some buildings have their charm. And since it doesn’t look at all like other Tennessee’s small towns it stands out.

The video at the top of this post goes through the history. A popular 19th Century author, Thomas Hughes, author of “Tom Brown’s School Days” intended the town as a utopian community for high-born sons who failed to inherit their families’ fortunes.

But these aristocrats failed at farming and the town floundered before being revived, more recently, as a sleepy, out-of-the-way town, with stores selling local crafts.

As a side note, Hughes named Rugby after a private school (or “public school”) he attended which is also the setting of his book and the origin of the game Rugby. Tom Brown’s School Days was an influential book back in its day, but nowadays is only remembered here in the US as a possible inspiration for “Harry Potter” and that probably only by people who read Wikipedia.

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My own book Wildly Strolling Along: Father Son Nature Adventures on Tennessee’s Cumberland Trail has a new home on the brick and mortar shelves of two stores there: the . While the book is not about Rugby, it is about the plants and animals of the Cumberland Plateau and you can learn quite a bit about some of the things you might see in the surrounding trails before heading out on them.

Harrow Road Cafe

Harrow Road Cafe

Rugby has exactly one restaurant: Harrow Road Café. After a rainy hike, some hot tea there was exactly what I needed.

The restaurant does have some burgers and pasta, but also, in keeping with its location, some English dishes such as fish and chips. It also riffs on English food at times, such as with its fisherman’s pie, like Shepheard’s pie but with fish.

Me? I went with the blackened catfish Salsalita salad, complete with pico, which I enjoyed.

Cincinnati: Skyline Chili, or how to enjoy a three-way


Friends at Skyline Chili
We ate at Skyline because a few friends of ours happened to be passing through Cincinnati.

“This is the story of America on your plate … And you sneer. The colors, just because they don’t occur in nature doesn’t mean they’re bad.” – The late Antony Bourdain, in his typical bitter but not directly insulting style, on Cincinnati Chili, responding to one of its critics.

Yvonne, watches more food shows than anyone else I know. And I like them too. Food, even casual food, is an art form and among the best ways to experience a place is by the tongue.

If that sounds like innuendo, then, probably most of this blog post will be even worse for you. You have been warned. I did not come up with the idea of naming spaghetti dishes “three way,” “four way” or “five way,” depending on the number of add-ons, but that’s how the generally family-friendly Skyline’s menu works and that’s what I’m sticking to.

Anyway, in the context of travel, food sums up various things about a place: Its influences, often from foreign immigrants in the U.S.; its local history, either distant or recent; and the image it wants to present for the rest of the world. I will probably talk about food more on this blog in the future.

Yvonne and I were on the outskirts Dayton for a wedding, but trying, at the last minute, to meet up with a group of friends who were passing through the area, causing us to backtrack about a half hour backward to Cincinnati. It was up to Yvonne to choose something at least fairly inexpensive, fast and convenient, but closely associated with the city we were visiting. And so we hit on Skyline Chili. Yvonne said she’d heard about it on one of her food shows, although she couldn’t remember which.

Skyline Chili is certainly NOT a local Mom and Pop deal like most of the places you see on those cable shows. Rather it’s a multi-state franchise. But it started in Cincinnati and is closely tied to that area, both in terms of style and distribution. The closest one to our Knoxville area is all the way in Lexington, Kentucky.

Chili is a subject of dispute as far as how it’s defined. Like most quintessentially “American” foods, the style varies depending on the region. My native Knoxville area has its own chili franchise: Petro’s Chili and Chips featuring a highly accessorized version that would annoy certain Texas chili purists, including the fictional Texas native Sheldon Cooper. And that’s shaped my vision of what Chili is supposed to be: a spiced beef and/or bean (sorry Sheldon) stew to be enjoyed with sour cream and Fritos corn chips. But what if the spices were different? What if the crunchy thing of choice to have with it was oyster crackers? What if something called “chili” by people eager to make a buck off of something familiar sounding, evolved in its own direction to become beloved in its own right?

Five way
In Cincinatti, I enjoyed my first “five-way.” Pictured is my plate of Skyline-style spaghetti with chili, onions and beans, a “five way” by the restaurant’s naming style. Not pictured: the huge mountain of cheese I ate through to get to it. The version without beans and onions is a “three-way.

Late at night we pulled in to a Skyline Chili in a neighborhood we didn’t know the name of, arriving in our usual fashion by missing the parking lot and having to turn around at a nearby church in spite of using a GPS.

Then, we waited while the cooks in an visible central island kitchen reminiscent of Waffle House fixed our food. Yvonne tried a “three-way,” combining Cincinatti chili with spaghetti and a Mount McKinley style pile of cheese. I tried a “five way” which added onions and beans to that.

While the menu features a few different items including salads, wraps, burritos, vegetarian bean “three ways” and more, the signature base of many of these dishes is a beef chili sauce that threw off our Tennessee expectations. While the restaurant calls its recipe “secret,” the taste is far different, with hints of what seems to be cinnamon, something I and most non-mid-westerners don’t associate with chili at all. Indeed people argue (and I don’t disagree but don’t really agree either) that the name “chili” is a misnomer. To me, all words are meaningless.

In spite of being something people put on top of hot dogs and fries, like other chili, Cincinnati chili isn’t really at all like other chili, as it’s largely the creation of Macedonian immigrants playing around and then branching out into various restaurant chains to promote the results of their experimentation. A better run-through than I can ever provide is here.

Mount Pisgah Campground and Pisgah Inn


Above is our tent. The tent I accidentally hit Dad a few times in my sleep during my time writing the book Wildly Strolling Along: Father-Son nature adventures on Tennessee’s Cumberland Trail, although he said it was only twice.

My better half or “frequent hiking companion” as I call her, Yvonne laughed the first time she entered it, on our camping trip at Mount Pisgah Campground. I must say that having her laugh at the idea of being crammed into such a small space was better than having her whining all night. She liked the tight space for the two of us, for obvious reasons, however.

We had it to ourselves, even though my Mom Judy Roitman and my Dad Larry Pounds had another tent and my sister Jessie Pounds and her boyfriend Allen had yet another. Jessie was the one who suffered, due to a failing air mattress and no sleeping bag. Somehow she slept.

We had arrived after nightfall and after dinner, and after getting lost for a few hours with me not recognizing my parents’ new SUV and going around the loop a few times, with just a few hastily picked up now cold leftover McDonalds fries to eat by the fire. The mountaintop air felt freezing cold to my summer-adjusted Tennessee skin. But Yvonne was taken in immediately by the flames of a fire my parents had started.

“I want to stay a bit longer. I don’t get to do this stuff often,” Yvonne said. And so we started the first night of our weekend-long trip.

***

Mount Pisgah Campground is, for me, an ideal spot as car camping sites go. While the site had plenty of water pumps and restrooms, it still, in spite of by no means being back country at all, gained many points for its natural beauty. The area, due to its high elevation, had an explosion of mountain laurels, purple rhododendrons and azaleas, many of them right at the campsite or near the road immediately to it. These thick bush clusters are called Hells, for obvious reasons due to the difficulty of getting out of one. But to me it was heaven. Red squirrels, instead of the grey ones common below played around us.

Just outside the campsite, out on the road, we could see an array of stars away from light pollution. The campsite, or at least the part of it we were in may not be the best for that, given its lack of open space except on the road, but the various “hell” thickets do provide some privacy between campsites that a campground in more open space would lack.

The area also boasts nearby trails, which will be the subject of two future posts, gave us a chance to see even more of this natural beauty.

The shower only had one stall, leading to quite a wait. But after sitting for a while surrounded by all of the dark thickets near the stoop of the restroom was actually exactly the experience I needed, even if it annoyed the others.

***

Apart from the trails, just exploring the campground and nearby area is fun in its own right and not just for the hells and the stream. Yvonne and I, apart from the rest of the family, did some exploring on our own, walking just outside the campground and along the Blue Ridge Parkway to the Pisgah Inn.

Throughout our trip, no one else felt like showering, as there was only one shower per gender at the campsite and a long line for each. But then I realized it was not a problem to wait outside beneath the stars, looking out into now dark rhododendron thickets, even if I was just waiting for a shower.

***

The Pisgah Inn is a place we didn’t stay with an fine-dining excellent restaurant we didn’t eat at, a craft and gift shop, featuring exquisite gifts we did not buy, and a country store at which Yvonne and I bought a single loaf of white bread before crashing on the rocking chairs. So why do I bring it up?

Observation deck at Pisgah Inn
This is the observation deck at the Mount Pisgah Inn, with the gift shop and restaurant behind it.

The main draw of Pisgah Inn, as far as I’m concerned, is the one thing we did experience fully: a deck from which you can peer out at the Blue Ridge Mountains, from the detailed green-tree carpeted closer hills to the further bluer ones.

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A view from Pisgah Inn observation deck.
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Yet another view from the Pisgah Inn area.

This is what draws people up here. And we would see the mountains from even more angles as the trip went on.

 

Red Eft at Frozen Head



Little red efts were crawling the wet forest floor at Frozen Head State Park yesterday. They’re poisonous to eat but generally won’t bite. They live on the land but they’ve just left the water and will return again.
They’re really just another phase of newts, a flashy youthful stage in which they roam the land.

As I point out in my book they never know their parents, not even as babies.

This was in contrast to me, at age 31, living on my own but still enjoying some time with my parents on a hike at Frozen Head, joined admittedly by 21 people and two other naturalists. Dad, a plant ecologist by degree entertained the crowd by naming and providing facts about the natural world around us, such as the eft and the iris shown below. While at the time our book describes, I wanted to break free of Dad, I realize now, just how good I have it hiking with a Dad who knows so much.