Saturday, April 30, 2011

April 30, 2011 – OMNOMNOM and the Tiring Hike

      We started off the day in our traditional Tellico Plains fashion- breakfast at Tellico Grains Bakery. Esther and I each had a bacon-cheddar biscuit, Chan had a spinach ricotta, Ben a cheese croissant and Jake a cinnamon roll as big as his head.

      We grabbed a herb flat-bread and a multi-grain loaf (sliced) to go and headed out to find a couple of new trails.

      The first was a short hike of about a mile down to Conasauga Falls. The trail was mostly even and where the sun filtered through the canopy it created warm wafts of cedar-scented air. At the falls we lounged around and/or wadded through the water. 

     I snapped a quick shot with my phone so that I could post it back at the cabin where we had Wi-Fi access. As I turned around to look up the trail I felt my foot slide a little and had just enough time to look down and see that was standing on wet rock before I slipped into the creek up to my knees. I had my phone in one hand and my camera bag in the other and held them both out of the water, hoping that my car keys and wallet would stay dry. I like to think Esther shouted some words of encouragement as I crawled back onto the rock, but the roar of the waterfall drowned her out. I did a quick check of the electronics and squished up the trail. Esther was waiting for me, doing that thing with her face where she's not exactly laughing but she's not really hiding the fact that she wants to be laughing. I've seen this face before- usually after I've injured myself by some comedic circumstances.

      The second trail to the Coker Creek Falls is described in the pamphlet Esther picked up as an, “easy 2.7 mile hike along the edge of Coker Creek.” This perfectly and accurately describes the parking area and first quarter mile of the hike. The rest of the trail was a series of climbs and descents up and down the steep hills that flank the creek and a quintuple-turn switchback thrown in for good measure.

     A good part of the walk was spent a hundred feet above the creek negotiating the narrow path. To be fair, it was a beautiful stretch of woods full of wildflowers and newly budding rhododendron, just barely flowering mountain laurel and a handful of others. Although the creek was sometimes hidden in by the thick pine groves it was always there roaring in the background.

     ...but after roughly 2.2 miles into the hike and after meeting our second tree fall, this one nearly impassable we stopped briefly and turned around before seeing Coker Creek Falls. We did see several lesser falls along the way and a multitude of millipedes a large deep-orange toad and a wild monkey dancing on a log.

     Many more pictures, including several flowers whose names I'll not remember, can be found here.

Friday, April 29, 2011

April 29, 2011 – Driving North

      With no phone, internet, and spotty cell service we loaded the van up with plenty of clothes and as much of the frozen and refrigerated food as we could fit into our coolers and pointed the van north towards the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. Somewhere up there we reasoned we would be able to find an area that had not been damaged and had a cabin or a room we could stay in until the worst passed.

      Tornado damage became dramatically apparent as we entered Guntersville. A lumber yard's worth of pine trees were toppled along the highway. Many of the power and phone polls along the causeway were either snapped off, leaning, or completely submerged in the lake. We were diverted in route to Scottsboro by fallen power lines and the work being down to restore them.

      We made a quick stop on our way through Grant near the Kate Duncan Smith DAR School to admire the view.

      A young groundhog was hiding in the grass just below the overlook.

      As we continued out of Alabama and up into Tennessee it was nearly impossible to travel more than ten minutes without seeing some sign of Wednesday's storms- be it a few limbs on the ground or a tree knocked over with roots exposed. I used the app on my phone to scan for Wi-Fi networks as some indication if an area had power. With the exception of the hospital in Arab, Alabama, the first community with power was about an hour and a half later in Stevenson and the power-free zone quickly resumed after only a few intersections.

      Some time later we passed a sign pointing to Reliance, TN. Oddly enough, my father-in-law had been on his way here when the storms came through but stopped short in Cleveland (another hard-hit area).
     Cell reception had greatly improved by this point and we were able to secure a cabin at not one, but two locations. Our first choice did not have electricity but we would continue on with that in mind and an alternate location if needed.

      With a little time to kill before we had to check in we turned the van around and drove alongside the Hiawassee River to Reliance. The day had warmed up enough for a swim so we pulled over near a trail and splashed around a little. Some of us splashed around more than others.

      We made a new friend in the river!

      Our new friend encouraged us to drive across to the Webb Brothers Texaco. Webb Brothers is a general store in the traditional sense. It's part Post Office, bait shop, gas station, raft rental and grocery. We picked up some drinks and enjoyed them out back next to the river.

     A local man that had to be in his eighties (but drove a sleek little sports bike with his wife perched on the back) suggested we drive down to the dam a few miles along the river. “It's a little twisty... but you'll be alright,” he told us as he lit his cigar. While he talked a bald eagle was hovering and diving in the river behind him.

      We discovered that the trip to the dam was more about the trip than the actual dam, but it was a worthwhile diversion.

      Zephyr, our rare Mop-Headed Jack-Weasel, certainly enjoyed it.

     Many more pictures from the 29th can be found here.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

April 28, 2011 – Making Plans and Getting Gas

     We woke up with no power, phone, or internet, as expected. I was able to make a few short cell phone calls and send text messages until about 9:00 when the signal became hit or miss and often even texts would refuse to send altogether. Contact with friends and family was brief and frequently interrupted by a failing connection but we were able to get word out that we were okay and, more importantly, receive word that everybody in our network of close friends was okay and still had homes to live in. Many people across north Alabama, southern Tennessee and parts of Mississippi and Georgia were not as lucky.

      Esther and I let the kids sleep in and started talking through our options. Rumors and speculation about when the power would be back on ranged from four days to two weeks, depending on the source. We had water now, but there was also talk on the radio about rationing as much of that as you had. We had at least two days worth of food in protein bars and camping supplies on hand and could supplement that with another few days of food that we could cook on our camping stove. Thankfully we had not made our “paycheck shopping run”. (Speaking of paychecks, mine had deposited the day before; another small piece of luck.) We could stay and rough it until utilities came back on. We did not have to leave, but we wanted the option to be available.

      There was only one thing stopping us from leaving- fuel. The van only had about a quarter of gas in the tank. Esther and I would spend the next four hours driving from town to town looking for a location that had both power and fuel. We found a small station running a single pump on generator power with a $20 limit. We waited in a line of mostly patient people that were being herded by other people in the community along with employees. On our way home a second station was selling a maximum of $40 to a customer. Between the two stops we had a full tank, give or take a gallon.

      Another small bit of luck was crossing paths with Co-Worker Bill and lending him some of the cash that we had on hand and picking up a car charger for my phone. This was very fortunate as my outlet charger was at work and the only other means of charging my phone was with the USB cable that was useless without a way to power our computers. Bill had also passed along news earlier that morning that our workplace was closed at least until power could be restored to Huntsville- a date that was largely unknown at the time but estimated to be days in the future.

     While we drove around that day we didn't see much more of the damage we'd heard about on the radio. A few downed trees, but no fallen houses. We did continue to add more and more towns to the list of those that had been damaged if not practically decimated. It wasn't until we drove through our neighboring town, not five miles away, that we saw some of the worst of it. We didn't take pictures, and you won't see any in future updates, but if you've watched any of the news on our area or seen any of the photo galleries from the local reports you have some idea of what we saw.

     We decided that we would leave in the morning.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

April 27, 2011 – The Sky Shoots to Kill

     It was around lunch time and I was running an errand with Co-Worker Bill to pick up flowers for Secretary's Day at Fresh Market on Airport. The sky was already turning ugly shades of gray and dark blue and neither of us wanted to be on Airport Road longer than necessary in the coming storms due to the history of the road and tornadoes. We arrived at the flower-shop corner of the store about an hour earlier than expected but the lady behind the counter was more than understanding. It would take another 20 minutes or so for her to finish so we wandered around the store a little. That's when I saw (and tweeted) the Sausage Pig. I think this is the first example of "meta" food I've ever seen. It's both obvious and unexpected. It's crazy, man.

     Just as I really starting to enjoy the many facets of the Sausage Pig we heard some noise from the front of the store. Workers were gather around the automated sliding doors and there was some excited shouts and motion. The wind was picking up and in the parking lot little manic dust devils were rampaging through the landscaping, tossing mulch and loose leaves across the asphalt. It was only mildly alarming until the wind sent a garbage can skidding down the sidewalk and then the workers were shutting and locking the doors and pulling a few folks off the sidewalk and back into the store.

      And that's how I became acquainted with the “employees only” back room of Fresh Market. It looked pretty much like all the behind-the-scenes back areas of I've ever been in, except a little cleaner and full of bread. The manager unlocked the walk-in refrigerator and it became apparent that the ten or so other customers, just as many workers, Co-Worker Bill and I would soon be stuffed into the walk-in like so many garlic loafs. The manager herded us closer to the open door as he and a subordinate pulled more karts of baked goods out. I glanced around at the other people, weighing my options in regards to whom I would rather be pressed up against in the fridge.

     But it never came to that and we were soon released back into the world. Here's the view as we headed back to work.

     A few hours and as many calls home later and I was on the road again, racing ahead of the second cluster of angry orange and yellow patches on the Doppler radar. I made it back to the wife and kids as the rain started to bombard the house. We were out of power, the internet was down, but the phone was still working. We spent the rest of the day with the purple light from the storm clouds dimly lighting the house until the sun set and had to use candles and flashlights to dodge the furniture.

     Esther and I sat in the car with radio on to keep ourselves updated on the weather. As we listened we heard the names of the towns were people we know and love live and we hoped they were safe. It seemed like every place we had ever visited, every spot we had taken mini-vacations or had any connection to was in the direct path of trouble; our entire range of normal travel from Birmingham to Murfreesboro. Eventually the final storm cell passed, the voices on the radio gave the all clear and we went to bed entirely too early in our too-quiet house.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The adventure-light weekend

     There were no hikes, no camping, no caves, no creeks and no cliffs last weekend. There was only mowing and measuring of things to be replaced and watching of movies and trips to the grocery store. There was talk of grand hikes and there was discussion of small excursions but in the end the only walking was done behind a lawnmower and down That Aisle in the grocery store.

     Everybody knows of That Aisle but most folks don’t actually purchase the goods that wait patiently on its shelves. Sometimes, in larger grocery stores, there may actually be Those Aisles but the contents are the same: things made to resemble other foods but not containing the foods they are made to resemble. The Land of Faux-Foods. The Uncanny Valley of Culinary Delights. Foods that only match the descriptions on their packaging in the most general sense are to be found within.

     We buy these foods often more for what they do not contain more than what they do. There is a check-point at the entrance of That Aisle and the guards will confiscate your lactose, animal meat, wheat, soy, and gluten either all at once or one at a time. After passing the gates you are set free in a land of things made of other things. The cows and pigs are made of soybeans, except where they are not made of soy at all and are made of rice instead. The chickens are made of beans and the beans are made of… well, beans naturally.

     You come to That Aisle to avoid the hormone-infused, high-fructose corn syrup laden evils of all the other aisles and you stay for the chocolate almond milk.

 (Note: there was a great picture of Esther that I took of her holding up a bottle of pigs feet. Out of fear for my very life, I have chosen not to upload that picture and post it here.)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The No-Longer-Camping Consolation Trip: Scottsboro/Mentone

     The original plan for our camping trip at Cane Creek Canyon had called for two nights under the stars but when the first night turned into “sleeping under the frost” we cut the trip short. So, instead of waking up in a tent and hiking out on Monday we crawled out of our beds at home and drove to Unclaimed Baggage in Scottsboro. I didn’t take any pictures in Unclaimed Baggage because I didn’t want to be Creepy Guy with Scruffy Face Taking Pictures in the Store. If you’ve ever been there, I can tell you that it’s basically the same as it always has been but with a fresher coat of paint and Wi-Fi at the coffee shop. Also- the perpetually stinky toilets that assaulted you at the main entrance have been taken out and replaced with more modern accommodations in the up-stairs area. Esther made several successful purchases for herself and That Girl One; new stuff sacks (for camping) and various clothes. I DID NOT get to buy the $80 Tama snare drum, the $150 Really Cool Sword, the $50 Garmin GPS that isn’t exactly what I want, or the straw pimp hat. Pimp hat. Made of straw.

     Esther also scored at the thrift store down the way with several items that still had their tags on them. I managed to grab three neat-o hats for a $1 each, one with its $20 price sticker still on it and another an official Disney hat that probably sold for closer to $30. Again, no pictures because I didn’t want to be Creepy Guy with Camera.

      On to Mentone, one of our all-time favorite places to be in Alabama if not the country. First stop was a trail that Esther and I visited the first time she ever took me to Mentone back in the summer of ’92. That trip was one of the very first things that she and I did together and the trail brought back memories of wandering the dark without a flashlight right next to a sheer cliff. Good times.

     If you pay attention while on the trail you’ll see a spur trail that leads you off the side of the cliff and along a narrow path to a series of natural shelters and small caves. 

It was in these caves that we camped many years ago. There’s a room that can only be accessed one of two ways- by getting on your belly and crawling under or via a few scant inches of rocky ledge that jut out above a hundred-foot drop to your death below. I did the more dangerous of the two when I was eighteen and I’ve done the muddy/dusty safer path since then but I wasn’t dressed for the mud and didn’t care to dangle my ass over the ledge.

The main trail leads to a scenic view across the Little River Canyon of DeSoto Falls (top to bottom) that you can only get from this location.

We wrapped up the trip by driving around to DeSoto Falls itself to view it from the dam at the top and the overlook slightly below that. I climbed around the railing and sat in the concrete “U” to snag a picture of Chan-a-poo.

      Okay, there was some geocaching too… DeSoto Falls is the location of an Earthcache and I also snagged a couple of nearby physical caches too. Esther took this great picture of me making a find.

I’ll leave the exact cache locations a mystery out of fear for the local geocaching Mafioso. Again, if you don’t know what geocaching is then you either don’t know me or have never engaged me in conversation. For those of you too embarrassed to admit they haven’t retained a single word I’ve uttered in the last few years, you only need visit to learn more.

All the pictures from our quick trip can be viewed here.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Camping Trip, Day Two: Feet Still Intact

     We awoke to find our feet still very much alive and attached to our legs, to our amazement and wonder. At some point in the night, sleeping under two layers of flannel and a space blanket tarp thing I had tucked my head in as far as I could and wrapped the whole thing around my head. The tarp/silver space blanket (spblanket?) had trapped all the condensation from my breath and it was the dripping of my own mouth juices (mmm... mouth juices...) on my face that ripped me from the warm, heavy, pillowy, bosom of sleep. They should market that- an alarm clock that splashes you with your own spit. That's my Free Patent Idea for the Year. Go forth, make millions. My gift to you.

     After stuffing our faces with Power Bars we set out for a hike to the "Citadel", a formation of rock at the top of a cliff that overlooks the canyon below. As I walked in the now 80° sun (in stark contrast to the previous night) I told myself to remember the dogwood petals on the ground, Esther's smile, the way the sunlight made patterns through the overhanging leaves above the trail... ah, nature...


     What only sounded like a wild boar falling from the top of a tree (you know, all perched up there like a ninja waiting to shiv me with its tusks) was in reality a rather large turkey vulture falling over like a fifteen-year-old boy trying to walk and, well do anything. I know, because I heard this same noise later in the day as Jake came out of his tent. Naturally Esther and I ventured closer and found a great view from the scenic overlook that appears well before the actual top of the "Citadel".

     There was also a geocache at the top of the climb, but out of respect for my fellow geocachers, and no small amount of fear for my own life, I shall not speak of further to avoid spoiling the surprise for any future seekers. I will however embed a link SOMEWHERE inconspicuous to all but the well trained eye. If you don't know what geocaching is, then you either found this blog trying to hunt me down because I broke your daughter's heart twenty years ago or you just don't actually read my Facebook status updates.

     On the way down the trail and back to camp there was much taking of pictures of flowers whose names I will never remember (because I married somebody that will) and also talk about if we would risk our very toes to another possible battle royal with frostbite.

     To show the weather that we meant business and were not going to give into its terrorist demands, most of us took off large portions of our clothes and at least partially submerged our bodies into the scrotum-shrinking waters next to our campsite. By "most of us" I mean those of us that are part monkey...

...or all mop-headed Jack-weasel and in search of yummy leaves to catch and kill.

     The creek was full of salamanders! Just standing in one spot I saw more salamanders than have appeared in all of the last ten years of Disney-Pixar films combined, including the ones that nobody liked!

     There was more discussion about the weather. It was supposed to be ten whole degrees warmer on Sunday night than it had been on Saturday night. Ten entire degrees! That's the difference between your refrigerator at home and the refrigerator at the Wavaho where they keep the chicken salad! If deadly bacteria could grow and thrive in those precious extra ten degrees then, by heck, so might we!

     Then everybody else ganged up on me and made me swear to tell everybody that, and I quote, "it was decided that in the best interest of the health and happiness of our young children we called it a learning experience and gathered up our things to hike up and out of the canyon."

     Along the way there was some lazing about at Linden Meadows where the Lacefields, the owners, have set up a sort of mid-point reprieve to fill up your water bottles before making the climb up the trail and back to your car. Melted chocolate was consumed and we all sort of noticed at the same time that Jake's backpack looked somehow both larger yet lighter than all the other backpacks. Jake denies any such re-distribution of accouterments and outright refuses to acknowledge the strange shortage of bungee cords that was discovered during the grand absquatulation earlier in the day.

     There's only one way to properly sum up and tally the quality of a good camping trip. Here's the score:

Me - 7 ticks
Jake - between 14 and 20 ticks (he did sleep with the dog, after all...)
Chan - 6 ticks
Ben - 5 ticks
Esther - 0 ticks (she attributes this to a complete lack of body heat and good clean living)

All the pictures from day two of our hike can be viewed here.

Our first ever hike-to-camping trip as a family!

     As a kid I’d spent plenty of nights in a tent in the yard and a few nights in the open during summer camp. Esther was raised by wolves and probably snoozed in an eagle’s nest during her summer in Montana. As a family, with the kids, it’s been several years since we’ve collectively spent any time in a tent. There were the disastrous, snore-filled, pre-apnea diagnosis nights when the kids where really young and then a few trips in a tent with the extension cord powering the CPAP when we lived in Tennessee (the trip of my 30th birthday stands out). At some point comfort, access to electricity, and Wi-Fi became a priority and hotels and the pop-up camper our default means of bedding down for the night. While the CPAP allowed me (and more importantly Esther) to sleep through the night and actually started me down the road to losing weight, it really restricted our choices in regards to where we could camp. We’ve been restricted to either putting up a tent on sites built for campers or hauling our pop-up and plugging it in.

But recently things have changed…
     In early 2007 I had two procedures, one involving my nose (which was mildly discomforting) and the other my tonsils and throat (which was the most pain I’ve ever been in. Ice cream, my ass.) This helped me breathe better if nothing else, but did not “fix” the problem. I was still on the CPAP. I still had apnea. It would take dropping a few pounds to see the full benefits of the surgery.
     When I started using the CPAP I weighed about 240 pounds. That was around 2002. After years of false starts and semi-effective diet plans I’m just under 200 pounds. In fact, it’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve seen that first “2” roll around on the bathroom scale. The last time I remember being less than 200 pounds was two kids and about 10 years ago. Less weight means less fat on my neck, which means less apnea issues. I’ve been off the CPAP for over a month. I’m not 100% snore-free, but there’s no gasping myself awake, no acid reflux.

     So we decided to give it the real test. Camping. No power. A little over 2-miles of hiking down to the site and then setting up and sleeping in a tent. Kind of a “live without a net” situation.

     We left out Saturday morning from the house and arrived at Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve around noon. I can’t say enough kind words about Cane Creek. The Preserve is 800+ acres of woods that are wild and untamed when you want them to be and yet slightly civilized when you need them to be. Trails thread their way through the trees, alongside the creek, underneath water falls, and up to breathtaking vistas. This is the third trip we’ve taken to Cane Creek Canyon, having wandered briefly back in early February and then later the same month undertaken a longer, 7-mile trek. All five of us had at least 20 pounds on our backs, Esther closer to 35 (because she is half bear and made of awesome).

There were a few minor pauses along the trail; a few streams to be hopped over, a mud puddle to navigate, packs to be adjusted; but for the most part we and our gear made quick work of the trail and soon found ourselves at the clearing known as “Beaver Pond” (that we’re told will soon be given the more accurate name “Creekside” as there is no pond to speak of.)

     The exceptional rains from the previous day had left several mud-slicked puddles scattered among the clearing so we picked three spots at the higher rim of the creek near each other. The creek would be the sound that we heard outside our tents for the planned two following nights and that was very appealing to us all. Friday’s storms seemed to have made most of the wildlife scarce, as we didn’t see or hear much from the local fauna until closer to dusk when the whippoorwills and barred owls came out to call to each from the opposing walls and floor of the canyon. We watched the full moon rise over the top of the trees, gathered around the fire, poked at the glowing red coals and lamented both the absence of marshmallows and their regrettably sticky nature at the same time. Sure, we wanted to eat pure sugar that has been slightly browned or blackened (depending on skill or preference) over fire, but nobody wanted to be taken off like Fay Wray by thousands of ants to be sacrificed to a freakishly over-sized and ravenous queen. (Those of you under 35 may want to substitute “Fay Wray” for Jack Sparrow from the second movie with the cannibals.)

     The forecast had called for a low near 43°F for the night. The kids’ sleeping bags would be more than fine and the double helping of sleeping bags in Esther’s and my tent would get us through the night. Silly us. We were in a canyon (at least a “canyon by north Alabama standards). Cold air collects in canyon floors. Sometime around midnight Esther’s zipper pull-thermometer read between 35 and 40°F. I know because she told me this as she was adding a space blanket (not as cool looking as it sounds) between the layers of sleeping bags in an effort to keep us a little warmer; which worked for maybe an hour until the outside temps dropped below 35°F. That was the best hour that night- the brief feeling of having conquered the cold, bested nature, held back the freezing death that was gathering its coils around the tent and poking its nose through the door flap. Soon Esther was shivering vigorously and I was thinking that I’d never sleep with my feet hurting so much from the cold. I dozed off while trying to rub some heat into her back with my hands then woke up again at the sound of my own snoring. If it wasn’t the chill from the night air keeping us awake it was my snoring- either because of the cold itself or my insufficient pillow choices. I was in and out all night. Esther was mostly awake and much colder (I’ve been assured) than me. She’s made of wolf gizzards and bear teeth, but not from arctic wolves or polar bears. More like lost equatorial wolves and vacationing Floridian bears. I say this with great love.
     I should add that at one point in the night I was deeply considering some sort of strange survival-amalgam of Empire Strikes Back and Silence of the Lambs, but alas I had no lightsaber and I’m pretty sure Esther would have used it to really open up my nasal passages if we had.
     Despite all indications to the contrary, we did not succumb to hypothermia and eventually we were able to catch a nap the next morning under a very friendly sun and clear skies. Ben and Chan had been much warmer than us in their thicker sleeping bags and Jake had shoved our Shorkie, Zephyr, into the foot of his sleeping for warmth (which was where she wanted to be anyway).

     All the pictures from Saturday can be viewed here.