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.

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.

Great Smoky Mountains: Laurel Falls Trail


I used to know a girlfriend who would panic at the possibility of crossing streams, or climbing over rocks in a way that might lead to broken bones.

She’s not the Yvonne Rogers I took with me to Laurel Falls last March.

We were sitting down below the part of the falls most people see, a bit off the main trail, but still with all the crowds above us.

Yvonne climbed over a rock, held on to a falling tree and grabbed a bottle that had fallen, held in an eddy.

“I didn’t really like being there all that much,” Yvonne tells me now. She still says she doesn’t like being in danger. But that bottle bothered her.

“Here, catch!” she shouted.

And then it tumbled down further. But, thankfully, it landed somewhere more convenient. She climbed down and grabbed it, later shoving it in my backpack.

Laurel Falls in the Great Smoky Mountains, one of many with that name in Tennessee, comes crashing down before a bridge crosses, then it crashes down further.

The path to it is paved, passing mountain views and lichen decorated-rock formations. Orange beetles gathered on them.
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The falls is, for Tennessee, very crowded. The crowds are often people of many different ages, races and even languages and to me anyway, part of the place’s charm.

Still, seekers of solitude should keep walking. At least last March, once Yvonne and I passed the falls and climbed up on the dirt trail beyond it, we were alone.
The trail continues into old growth forest full of tall wide trees untouched by any recent ax.

Also near the falls, look out for salamanders. We saw one, briefly. It was brownish and probably a dusky, meaning as stated in my book, I should probably give up on finding the precise species.

Gallaher Bend Greenway, Oak Ridge, TN


On a short winter day sometimes you just want to escape from town (Oak Ridge Tennessee) and climb a gravel path, up and down hills through woods and fields, looking down from above at Melton Hill Lake. If so, Gallaher Bend Greenway may be the one for you. At least you won’t get lost. It’s just one path the whole way and, due to study of the surrounding area, you can’t leave it. The trail is a gravel road, but closed to traffic starting at Clark Center Park. The 4.5 mile route is not flat at all though but quite hilly, making for good exercise if you’re running.

The trail’s highlight is the open field area shown above, from which you can look down at Melton Hill Lake below, bright blue on a clear day amid the gray of winter.

With big places to go like Great Smoky Mountains and the Cumberlands nearby, places like Gallaher Bend Greenway may feel too mundane for me to share, but there’s a place for simple trips as well as long ones. I look forward to a year full of enjoying many different trails: showy and understated, long and short near to me and a ways away, and you can look forward to reading about the full range of them here.

Moonshine: America’s first drug war


We romanticize it. We make shows like “Dukes of Hazard” and films and songs like “Thunder Road.” I’ve heard old timers telling campfire tales of their liquor running adventures. We also ridicule it. We show cartoon hicks running around with bottles that show off strings of xs that later generations associate more with porn.

Nowadays in places like Gatlinburg, “moonshine” just means “unaged wiskey for tourists.” They have tasting rooms for flavored ‘shines. I’m not complaining. It’s a distinctive experience and I hope it’s more than just a fad. It makes Gatlinburg different from every other Ripley’s developed collection of roadside attractions.

Old Smoky Moonshine
Still, if it’s from a legal tax paying business, that just makes it … whiskey. But nice marketing.

For more on this issue, you can read what some people in the industry have to say here.

Even in the 1950s, long after prohibition, rural sheriffs considered it a serious matter to enforce liquor taxes. And moonshiners hid in under cover of forest in the mountains.

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The ruins of what might have been a distilling operation in Prentice Cooper.

During my 2012 hikes that inspired my book “Wildly Strolling Along” I remember seeing what might have been distilling-related ruins in Prentice Cooper State Forest near Chattanooga, probably related to the black market liquor industry.

Later on in the trail’s Soddy section, a hiking companion described a rusty truck we passed as a “hoopee,” a moonshine running truck.

Hoopee
A possible hoopee or car used for running bootleg liquor.

The book includes a short sidebar on Moonshine, which actually was at the request of my grandmother.

But I’m no archaeologist. I can’t recognize an illicit whisky operation from any other truck stuck in the woods or collection of pipes and barrel ribs that could just be for water for all my suburban mind knows. And I certainly can’t sort everything out by when it was from.

Given, I even confused a coke oven for a mine entrance in the book, and that was involving the legal coal industry, I can’t think of how bad I’d bee at identifying illegal stuff.

Mariah Prescott a trail builder for the recently opened Richie Hollow Trail recently told The Chattanooga Times Free Press about her wish for signs to highlight some of Prentice Cooper State Forest’s moonshine ruins.

Is it at all worthwhile to remember mere profit-seeking criminals? Especially when there is still an unpopular war on drugs, just different drugs?

I think so. If we can get past marketing gimmicks, silly caricatures and the like and dive into actual history, we’ll have a fuller picture of the past, the present and the future. History isn’t just about battles. Sometimes it’s about booze.

Autumn in the Smokies


Fall colors on Alum Cave Trail
Fall colors on Alum Cave Trail.

My last trip to the Great Smoky Mountains was with a friend who rarely got to see the mountains or even clean wild streams. To her everything was like being on the moon would be for me: new but wondrous.

I have seen plenty of mountain streams before. But there was one thing that made this trip special: the beginning of autumn or fall as we in the U.S.A. call it. The leaves had just begun to change at a certain elevation, like here on the Alum Cave Trail, not far from parking. We hadn’t intended to get off here and wouldn’t have except for the restrooms nearby. Our goal was Newfound Gap and Clingman’s Dome. But this mountain stream beneath changing leaves was a highlight for her and for me. Enjoy it for yourself.

Stinging Fork Falls and new Cumberland Trail


Tucked away on a road closed to through traffic, the route to Stinging Fork Falls is probably quiet most of the time.

Not this time, however. Today, thanks to a ribbon cutting and the anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the parking lot was full and I saw many people coming back as I hiked forward.

I recommend the hike to the falls as a fairly short walk with excellent payoff after rain. Granted recent rain also made the trail’s rocks slippery, and the descent is somewhat steep.

The trail continues along Soak Creek in the other direction eventually rising back up. As it’s a new part of the Cumberland Trail, it’s marked by ribbons not blazes but the trail already has stone steps laid down by volunteers. The recent rain meant occasionally crossing cascades and at one point, I even saw a salamander run from underneath a rock.

I did not reach the end of this new Cumberland Trail section. It was built too recently to include in my book Wildly Strolling Along, which I promoted shamelessly to everyone who walked by. Still, I plan to return.

The entrance is on Shut in Gap Road near Spring City.

This page from the Cumberland Trail Conference is outdated, but it shows the trail head and the route to the falls. The new trail heads to the right along Soak Creek while the falls route as shown here is to the left.