Thursday, April 3, 2014

Another NC Adventure

For the third year in a row I decided to explore the mountains near Asheville, NC during spring break. As usual, I kept a journal. For this blog entry I will submit parts of that journal and some of the photos I snapped during this invigorating vacation training camp.


A sunrise exit from IN allowed me to reach the TN/NC border on I-40 early in the afternoon.  An unstirred welcoming committee consisting of two elk greeted me on the gravel road near Big Creek ranger station in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. They were standing in the gravel lane. And they didn't want to move. I put the car in park and armed myself with a camera.

After being eradicated from the area in the late 1700s, elk were reintroduced to the national park in 2001 when twenty five of them were transplanted from Kentucky's Land Between the Lakes. The subsequent releases of more elk over the years plus additions from breeding have brought the herd to more than 140 animals. Sadly, several have been killed in various ways including illness, auto collisions, and poaching. This was my first up close encounter with elk in the park. I patiently waited for them to move from the lane.

A few minutes later I met up with four backpackers near the Baxter Creek trail head.

Backpacker 4: Marathoner?
Me: Excuse me?
BP4: I run marathons. What marathon did you run? (Pointing at my shirt)
Me: Oh. It was the Indy Mini - a half.
BP4: The one that goes around the track?
Me: Yessir. Did you boys just come down from the mountain?
Me: Pass anyone on their way up?
BP4: Nope. You going up tonight? You'll likely be alone.
Me: Well, I'm running up and back down. I should be back before sunset.
All four men stopped what they were doing and turned to stare at me with faces suggesting I might need an intervention.
BP4: Did you say you're running up Mt. Sterling?
Me: Yep. One of my favorite runs.
BP4: Lordy! That's more than six miles and four thousand feet of ascent! You must be fitter than me, but you're not an old man in your 40's like me.
Me: (Smiling and wondering just how dirty his glasses were) No. I'm not in my 40's.
BP4: Take care of yourself, now.
Me: I try.
The perfect 10K?
Knowing the layout of the area campsites, I realized that I would likely be the only person on Baxter Creek trail that afternoon. Though I'd been "the last one on the mountain" many times, I'd never been comfortable with it. It always required some caution, especially from a guy with a history of twisted ankles and falls. My plan for than run, to throw caution aside and set a PR on the round trip, had to change. I couldn't afford that new insurance deductible! Dang. Oh, well. I was going to have a relaxed run on one of my favorite trails. I'd just suffer through it.

Weather conditions were favorable for a day on the trail: sunny, 49F at the trail head (38F at the summit), and little wind. I started the run in a short sleeve Ultimate Fit tech tee, compression shorts, La Sportiva Anakondas, a cap, and light gloves. The Ultimate Direction AK vest was loaded with two water bottles, some VFuel kcals, a camera, and some layers for the summit.

One of four stream crossings along Baxter Creek trail
I ended up pushing the pace anyway, but only for thirty minutes before backing off to a comfortable jog. I also resisted taking pictures in order to keep moving. Though beautiful and energizing, the run was uneventful. Well, I did meet up with that one guy.

We rounded a sharp bend at the same time when I was about two miles from reaching the bottom of the mountain. We both froze about twelve feet apart. He seemed to be sizing me up, so I stood erect, inhaled to expand my chest, and pushed my shoulders out. He seemed unfazed.
"Good afternoon!" I belted out in a loud and deep voice.
He cocked his head slightly.
"How's the family? Was your porridge just right this morning?" Again, I was loud, but not yelling.
He swayed his head and shoulders a couple of times before turning to amble back down the trail. Motionless, I watched him. When he suddenly swung back around toward me I tried not to blink. Or run. Or wet myself.
"What do you want?" I called out.
He clawed the trail a couple of times.
"You don't want any of me, boy! I'll tie your ass in a knot and you'll be the shame of this park for the rest of your natural days!! Get moving!"
I took a step toward the black bear. He was probably in his second year and weighed about 125 pounds. The young and adventurous type. And I was hoping he was not too hungry. I tried to suppress fear while not appearing aggressive as we shared an eternal (10 second) stare. After he quietly bounded up a steep slope (How do they do that?!) I tried to relax. I was covered with goosebumps. Luckily, I had the presence of mind to stop my watch when I stopped. That would have really fired me up!
Polar RC3 GPS data from another jaunt up Mt. Sterling
After a hearty meal and an explorative hike in the Big Creek drainage I made my way to Asheville for the evening.


Splut . . . Fthit . . . Splat.

It was 5 a.m. The sounds of snowfall caused me to don a headlamp and hit the trail in the dark for three uplifting miles. The snowflakes were huge! Many were almost as big as my palm. I pulled the brim of my cap down low to keep them from putting an eye out :) The only other times I'd seen flakes that large were when I encountered lake effect snow along the edge of Lake Michigan. With only a 30% chance of precipitation, this was an unexpected but very welcome event.

What followed was a 5.5-hour 20.5-mile hike on the Mountain to Sea Trail (MST). It turned out to be an interesting morning as I wound my way into higher country by alternating jogging with walking - a "how much can I see?" obsession I've had since I first started exploring the Smokies years ago.
Near the apex of this walk I explored the site of Dr. Ambler's Rattlesnake Lodge. Ambler was an Asheville physician who built a summer home in 1903-04. Click the link to learn about this industrious man, his family, and a home they maintained for almost two decades. Ambler sold the property in 1920 and the wooden lodge burned down a few years later. Today the property sits alongside the Blue Ridge Parkway and the MST bisects it. Easy access, via a 1.2-mile multi-switchback section of the MST, is gained from Ox Creek Rd just off of the BRP. Or you can hike 10 miles up from the Folk Art Center like I did :)

The hike was uplifting, for sure, since the wintering forest allowed for constant views of many rows of NC Appalachian mountains. Though a strong headwind chilled me on the way down and bright sunshine alternated with blizzards that completely coated the front of my body, I was in no hurry to return to civilization. Because the BRP was closed to auto traffic, a tranquil backcountry mindset prevailed. The only people I saw all day were making the short trek up to the lodge. Admittedly, my quads were sore to the touch long before the hike ended. I'd overdone it again. Oops . . .

With a little hesitation, and lacking willpower against the forces of nature, I built Kristy and took her out for a spin on the BRP. I rode up to where the road was completely closed for repairs near Ambler's lodge remains. I then rode back to mile marker 394 near the North Carolina Arboretum, which is worth a visit if you are in the area. I finished the ride a tad tuckered and mighty hungry! It had, after all, been a 65-mile self-propelled day in the mountains with almost 10K feet of ascent. The 10K feet of descent is certainly what pulverized my thighs.

An up and down ride along the BRP
Two pesky squirrels joined me for lunch. Then I once again toured the Folk Art Center to see the current collection. It included a wide variety of items including brooms, pottery, wooden utensils, jewelry, and paintings. A display of wood furniture on the second floor was quite impressive. The well-finished pieces were created with precision. Because they came with incredible price tags that reached five figures and because this chemistry teacher has yet to Break Bad, no furniture purchases were made.

Up next was a visit to the Asheville Botanical Gardens. This collection of gardens hosts more than six hundred native southern Appalachian species. Though my short visit did not allow for mingling and studying, it did allow enough recon time to let me know that I have to return. I've always studied the plants and rock formations (and history) of the areas I visit in order more fully understand, appreciate, and feel at home in them. The ABG gave me an opportunity for a crash/refresher course in southern Appalachian flora.

A round of live music and a well crafted Green Man Porter filled the evening hours :)


The quads did not want to cooperate in the morning hours. Undeterred, I hiked slowly along trails described in the book I'd purchased at the FAC. That trail guide was written by Jennifer Pharr Davis. Davis is an entrepreneur and a writer who set the record for the fastest hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2011. Her trail guide was informative and allowed me to pick interesting hikes that I could access with large portions of the BRP closed to traffic. Thankfully, my legs had loosened up nicely before the midway point of thirteen miles of mountain walking.

The afternoon was filled with another grind-and-fly ride along the BRP south of Asheville. That ride was tough! Cold temperatures and strong winds combined with multi-mile ascents and descents to simultaneously freeze and pulverize my legs. It was awesome! And it earned me a seat at the front corner of the bar at Jack of the Wood for an evening of home grown Old Time music. The music was as invigorating as usual, but a talkative and opinionated guy put a damper on the evening. I'll pass on including parts of that conversation here . . . I was there for the music.


Ahh! Another calming hike courtesy of Davis's guide. I meandered along the 5.5-mile loop of woodland gravel roads and trails named #8 Rocky Cove in the guide. I hesitated to start this one because it included a relatively steep climb onto a ridge. The decision to go turned out to be wise - my calves needed a good stretching.

For the midday run I chose to run a relatively flat half marathonish run (13.4 miles) by completing an out and back on a section of the MST just east of Asheville. It involved only 1980 ft of both climbing and descending. That section of road was open to traffic, but I couldn't always hear the vehicles and I rarely saw them.

Though sore and enervated, my body loosened up sufficiently within minutes to allow me to experience an edifying meditative trail run. The trail passed through a variety of forests, crossed major roadways and tiny brooks, and it snaked back and forth and up and down - just the way a well designed trail should.
RC3 GPS data from the week's "long" trail run
A memorable moment from that run came just before I finished and moments after I congratulated myself for not falling all week. I was barreling downhill on a tightly winding section of trail, tiptoeing the outer edge of the path, when I caught a toe on a small stump hidden in the leaves. My flight path, tangential to the sharp curve in the trail, led to an 8-inch diameter tree. I extended my left hand. It hit the tree at an upward angle, which allowed my forearm to crash into the tree in a glancing blow. My forehead grazed the bark as I spun around the tree, pirouetting into a deep left leg squat with the right leg fully extending.

A dance in the woods
My impulsive response was to jump up and look around. Did anyone see that?! Nope. Dang. I would not have been embarrassed. Contrarily, I was amazed and proud of the fact that I had landed on my feet (foot). A quick celebratory fist pump and a victory howl sent me on my way. The watch was still running.

My third BRP ride followed another picnic lunch with the two squirrels. Because the mercury had hit 70F, this was the first day that I rode without a jacket. Several sweaty grinds were followed by exhilarating high speed descents.

That afternoon I finally made my way to Pisgah Brewing Company in nearby Black Mountain, NC. Their success is easy to understand once the beer is tasted. The size of their indoor and outdoor stages tells me that I need to put one of their music events on my schedule.

After enjoying a Vortex Stout I travelled back to Asheville, the per capita brewing capital of the USA. Once there I drove directly to a new brewery called Burial Beer Company. This nano batch warehouse brewery was packed! And it should have been. I drank a very tasty Skillet Donut Stout, which was served with a tiny donut, and then sampled their other choices for the evening. Since they make beer by the barrel, the brews sell out and change regularly. I loved this place!

The next stop - on this walking brewery tour - was at Twin Leaf Brewery, Asheville's newest brewery. This startup was created with longevity and success in mind. A 200-gallon capacity five fermenter professional system was plainly in view of the tasting room. I was lucky enough to be able to talk to the husband co-owner/co-brewer and learn about how he and his wife left industry to chase a dream of making their homebrew available to the masses. What they did was add depth to the already impressive field of brew houses in Asheville.

A healthy and spicy black bean burger at the Wicked Weed  recharged me for another visit to the same corner bar stool at Jack of the Wood for an evening of live bluegrass music. I believe that there is no better way to end a week long visit to Asheville. The music is performed by talented local musicians who just walk in and jam. I've often counted more than a dozen players on the small stage. The Old Time and Bluegrass Jams at Jack of the Wood are quintessential Appalachia.

I drove north out of Knoxville the following morning in a deluge that caused several accidents. I chose this alternative path in order to make a couple of stops along the route home. North of the rain I found myself in a gorgeous day that I found suitable for driving - and vineyard visiting:)

What follows are more of the photos I took during the week. Enjoy!
Sign at Baxter Creek TH
Sign at the other end of the trail
A view from the old scientific tower
And I do mean old!
The sleeping is good in the Mt. Sterling campsite
Baxter Creek trail - beauty abounds
MST between snow squalls
Mountain laurel

Love these - Thanks, Andy!

A wee patch of sunshine
Given this kind of product, I'm all for carving CCC funds out of Welfare
The stone "entrance" to the Ambler summer estate
The remains of the Rattlesnake Lodge . . . 
. . . which had a swimming pool!
Crossing a pasture along the MST/BRP
There were a few of these along the way
Hmmm . . .  if only they could read
Now, where's that bike?
Kentucky farmland near Acres of Land Winery
See ya later! ST