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.

 

 

 

 

Conopholis americana


Conopholis americana

Conopholis america is, a parasitic plant, used in herbal medicine for menstrual cramps and other issues. I am using the Latin name here because the most common name here in the South, (“squaw root”) is widely regarded as an offensive word in spite of debate about its origins).

The forest service has taken to calling it “cancer root” in spite of that name being just confusing, for reasons even they point out, due to it not curing cancer. You can read more about it at https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/plant-of-the-week/.

I saw them frequently at Mount Pisgah Campground near the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina, which is where I took this picture in June.

Looking down at Gatlinburg


The last detail, I wish to share of my Blue Ridge Parkway travels in early June (which I’ve told out of order and interrupted by other posts) didn’t take place on the Blue Ridge Parkway. It took place on the Gatlinburg bypass.

The Gatlinburg bypass is a way to avoid having to pass through Gatlinburg for people going through the Great Smoky Mountains. As such, it appeals to people who probably find all the candy stores, corn liquor and goofy Ripley’s attractions too commercialized.

But of course, you do wind up seeing Gatlinburg from above on it. And from above it looks quite different. The resorts, hardly the most eye catching part of town from the ground become what you spot first. And you really see how what from below is an oddly magical to people who know it collection of log cabin kitch, from above is far overshadowed by the folds of mountains that give it its reason for existing.

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Blue Ridge Parkway, NC into TN


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In all my time in the woods with Dad, all my time on waterfalls, at mountaintops all the flowers examined and tiny details on leaves examined. All of it.

During all that time, I never realized the woods could be romantic, even a turn-on.

But that’s what it felt like in June on the Blue Ridge Parkway with my lover, driving past purple rhododendron flowers, white mountain laurels and various yellow blossoms too small to name from a car. That’s what if felt like going through so much grandeur of arching, pointing and curving blue ridge hills at so many overlooks. You just want to pull over and grab your lover and kiss. Some overlooks may be a bit crowded but not all.

Our route was not the whole parkway, but just a North Carolina section which we traveled before returning to our own Tennessee Great Smoky Mountains.

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The Blue Ridge Parkway is a road across the Blue Ridge Mountains, joined by many trails to its sides. The active may get a chance to get out and walk at places like The Fryingpan. The inactive can ride in the car and not leave, still seeing the beauty of the natural world.

From a display on one overlook, you can learn that much of the land below was at one time private land of George Vanderbilt who helped develop scientific forestry, but also about the Cherokee who once lived here.

The Blue Ridge Parkway can be a place to enjoy views, a place to enjoy time with a lover or a place to learn. Enjoy it as you wish.

Fryingpan Trail, NC


Who am I, some kind of wimp? I have scaled other mountains, scrambled up other rocks, even climbed other metal towers. But this? Rickety-seeming, a little rusty a narrow path that any child crossing by causes a panicky heart attack from me. I’m terrified. Terrified of the view below me. Terrified of losing myself or worse, my phone, if I dare to take a photo.

The Fryingpan Trail's tower

I move slowly, letting others squeeze past me, feeling the breeze and what I perceive as the metal stairs giving a little bit with my steps. I’ve stood on mountain crags before and never felt like this. In fact, I laughed at my Dad for feeling this way. But somehow this old tower is different.

Who am I kidding? I sound like a wuss. And yet that’s just it. The fear keeps me in the moment. And when I quite being scared when the clouds of fear clear, when I’m standing out at the top, just below the structure of the fire tower itself, I see the place below me, completely focused due to the lingering adrenaline.

And what a view! Hazy mountains beyond, trees, with all their tiny needles and leaves, covering the mountains like wool. Hawks circling, cars driving down the tiny belt like road and parking lot buckles. The who thing a moment I am in, mindful, joyful even.

Blue Ridge Mountains as seen from The Fryingpan lookout tower

My mind tends to fly: movies, politics, social media. Yet somehow fear keeps me in place. So by the time I do feel safe to bring out my phone it feels like I know exactly what panoramas to take.

Climbing down, I feel like moving slowly, not out of fear, but out of not wanting that moment of revelation to leave me.

Perhaps this is just the way this planet, this life is for me. Appreciation coming only in the moments of terror and other arousal and even those I have to work for. Others are like this too. This is why roller coasters exist. This is one of the reasons why people pursue orgasms. This is why people watch horror films. This is why I express feeling in awe as feeling “small.”

Of course, letting the mind wander has its value too, however much Zen masters may deny it. Some people travel precisely for that reason: to allow their minds to wander and not have to be tied down to the obligations at home.

So yes, all that’s my emotional state and thoughts on my emotional state. But you might have come here, expecting a review of The Fryingpan Trail, near the Blue Ridge Parkway.

It’s not a walk through the forest as much as a walk on a wide non-drivable access road. For botanical experts like my dad this is a treasure trove of plants to look at, but it might not be for everyone.

Fryingpan Trail
These flowers are visible on the trail in June.

But the tower is worth the walk. In spite of being a bit scary for some people, it is still one of the best places to see the world below and completely safe.

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.

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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.

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.