Dan and Hannah Hike to Charlie’s Bunion in the Great Smokies (Tennessee and North Carolina)

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My college roommate, Big Steve, who hailed from Virginia, always said people are friendlier (i.e., more welcoming) in the South.  I cannot disagree.  The you-alls, the yes sir’s, yes ma’am’s, and the look at you in the eyes smiles.   I love it.  Now more than ever we need that civility as a starting point for conversations rather than debates with others.  I once taught poetry to a class of sixth graders for a nun who was a student of mine at Eastern Connecticut State University.  When I came into the room, everyone stood up.  It was very cool.  As a prof of the Exploring Teaching class at the University of New England, I had my students stand when a guest speaker came into the room.  After this election season, we need to listen more and judge less.

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I do have a Big Beware for you!!  Think Jersey shore Sunday afternoon on the Garden State Parkway.   Think LA anytime.   Think the Washington Beltway whenever.  Coming from the west to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, we leave I-40 for the 22-mile gauntlet drive to Gatlinburg, Tennessee.  First on the drive in, there is Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, and then comes the shops of Gatlinburg.  Get this, on a non-holiday October Monday morning at 11A, the traffic is insane in G-Town.  There are more stores and shoppers per square inch than at the Mall of America in Minne-snow-ta.   I remind you it’s mid-morning Monday.  It takes three changes of the traffic light to get to the next traffic light!

But…later we learn there is a bypass around Gatlinburg to the Great Smokies.  Take it!  Save yourself.

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At the parking lot of Newfound Gap

While Hannah trolls for a parking spot at the west side Visitor Center, I seek out a ranger  to learn more about the Ramsey Cascades waterfall hike that we are counting on.  After our experience yesterday with a waterless waterfall in nearby Dayton, TN, I ask if there will be any water coming over the falls.  The good news is that there is water at the falls. The bad news is that the trail is closed due  a bridge out thanks to a fallen tree.

Hearing we’d like to hike for three to four hours, she suggests the Charlie’s Bunion hike beginning at Newfound Gap in the center of the park on the Tennessee/North Carolina line.

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The trail immediately grabs our attention with its steady climb, with logs placed conveniently across the trail to make the stepping up easier as well as a measure to limit the erosion.  With Hannah motoring in the lead, we are rocking westward along the Appalachian Trail on this sunny 72F afternoon.  We pass southbound thru-hikers (those hiking the entire 2180 miles of the AT from Maine to Georgia), who are now within 200 miles of their holy grail of finishing at Springer Mountain in Georgia.

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The promised rocks and roots of the trail

The first 2.7 miles of the trail to Charlie’s Bunion is almost entirely uphill.  Sweating and panting to keep up with Hannah’s pace, I am loving the physical challenge of such trails.  Though the trail is rated “moderate” by the park service, it’s a serious, no let-up eight-mile round-trip workout.

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In contrast, when I am at the gym, if I am tired, I chill and just pedal lightly on the recumbent bicycle.  In pickleball, I stop early if I get weary.  But today on a gut busting 90 minutes of steady uphill climbing, I have no choice but to put one foot ahead of the other and rock on.  That said, I know that we are living the dream – hiking in the Great Smokies.

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White blaze of the Appalachian Trail

In addition, I love the “day hiking-ness” of our hikes.  While AT thru-hikers are heading to the Ice House Shelter near Charlie’s Bunion to “sleep” with others in a three-sided shelter where mice scurry over sleeping bags and fellow hikers snore like the Chattanooga Choo Choo, Hannah and I have a humane alternative this evening.  At our motel, we will shower, have a glass of wine, and later sleep in a comfortable bed.  Ah, the good life of the day hiker.

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Sort of looks like a bunion, yes?

The final third of the trail is basically downhill.  Rocky and root-filled, the trail keeps our attention as our stride length increases and we continue to have a heckuva workout.  On this mountain ridge line, often with steep drop offs to either side, we never feel in peril as we hike through thick brush and tall trees.

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Charlie with his friends Dan and Hannah

As the AT heads to the right, we take the 100 yard spur trail to 5565’ Charlie’s Bunion.   The area beneath the Bunion allows us to rest, then climb the rock outcropping that, yes, does look like a bunion.  Later I snap the arty picture below of Hannah removing her socks and boots, which impresses the hell out of me.  Perhaps, you too from such a modest photographer?

In 1929, when two hikers, Charlie Conner and Horace Kephart, paused for a rest at this spot, Connor took off his boots and socks and exposed a bunion that reassembled the surrounding rocks.  Kephart said, Charlie I’m going to get this place put on a government map for you.  Hence the name.

With four rocky miles back over up and down terrain, we spend less than 15 minutes at Charlie’s vista with Gatlinburg to the west and the North Carolina mountains to the east.  Check out the video below as we head back to the trailhead.

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The hike to the trailhead continues to be quite the physical challenge, but with no choice but to move forward, we rock on.

As we pass a twenty-something couple, I think what a worthwhile test of a relationship it would be for those considering marriage to hike together to learn how each other deals with stress and the challenges of such a tough climb.  Marriage is so much more of a challenge than this trail!  Do I hear an Amen!

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Anyone married, even a few years, let alone the 44 that Hannah and I have been, knows that life is challenges, compromises and negotiations.  You don’t have to live too long to know that much of life is not about succeeding at Plan A, but learning to deal with Plan B on a regular basis.  I am most fortunate to share the joys and challenges of the trail and life than with Hannah Banana.

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Dan and Hannah Hike a Waterfalls Loop at Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Today’s blog begins with a money saving travel tip I teased at the end of the last blog.  Other than the first night, we don’t often arrange where we will stay on subsequent days of our hiking vacations.  We never know how long we’ll want to stay in an area; we may learn of a new hike and want to stay longer.   Weather may change our plans.

BR 1 H at GSM sign

While spending the night at a Comfort Inn in Sylva, NC near Asheville, I search the Expedia.com site for a room for the next night near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP).   Hardly believing a $64 price for a room at the Chestnut Tree Inn in Cherokee, NC with a queen bed, flat screen TV, and a hot breakfast, I am intrigued.  I especially want to understand what they mean by a “hot breakfast.”   You see, to save time on our hiking mornings and to get plenty of fuel (food), we look for motels that serve a full hot breakfast, not just a “continental” breakfast with mini-muffins from BJs and mini-boxes of cold cereal.

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Loving the price, I call the Chestnut Tree Inn directly to find out the reality behind the come on of a “hot breakfast.”  With home fries, oatmeal, an egg dish, and pancakes, the breakfast rocks and will indeed set us up for our hiking Wednesday.  But here’s the interesting part, when I ask about a room for the night, she offers us one for $105.   To which I say I saw one for $64 on the Internet.  The desk clerk at the Chestnut Tree Inn responds, We can’t touch that price and you might as well go for it.  And we do.  The Internet has its bargains.

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The next morning leaving Cherokee on US 74 Hannah and I drive to Bryson City ten miles away for some waterfall hiking.  Surrounded on all sides by mountains, Bryson City with 1400 residents is another gateway city to the GSMNP.

Deep Creek

Deep Creek

At 10A during the first week of October, the Carolina foliage hints that it is ready to burst out in oranges, reds, and yellows.  Not surprisingly this morning, we find a parking lot bustling with seniors and couples pushing strollers ready to commune with nature.  Taking the level, gravelly Deep Creek Trail, we have a riverside path ready to be enjoyed by walkers and hikers of all descriptions.   Being deep in Appalachia, the trails are not so mobbed as they have been at the base of Multnomah Falls in Oregon or yesterday at Clingman’s Dome here in the GSMNP.

Juney Whank Falls

Juney Whank Falls

Before we head into the interior along the Deep Creek we take a 0.6 mile loop to Juney Whank Falls.  It’s a steady climb on a well-maintained fire road until we jag right, down to the very modest falls themselves.  The falls are fine, just not under “spectacular” in the dictionary.

A narrow five feet deep trench is our steep egress back to the trail.  Tree-covered, the trail offers none of the Vitamin D Hannah is looking for.

Thomas Branch Falls

Thomas Branch Falls

Once back on the wide Deep Creek Trail we walk within a few feet of the river heading to the Tom Branch Falls.  In shorts and tee-shirts on a day going to 80F, we have our October paradise in North Carolina.

Indian Creek Falls

Soon there is a junction for a nearly three mile loop trail.  Before we do that, we take a brief side right turn for 200 feet to our third and final falls, the Indian Creek Falls.  The 20 second video captures the falling water of Indian Creek.

 

Deep Creek

Deep Creek

The loop trail continues along the Deep Creek for another 0.7 of a mile.  At this point we have three options.  First to our left is a trail with a sign saying “not for horses” that appears to climb steeply into the forest.  Across the river is a second choice that heads further into the interior along the Deep Creek to Wind Gap.  And third, we can cross the Deep Creek and return to the trailhead through the mountains to complete the three mile loop.

Deep Creek Fire Road Trail

Deep Creek Fire Road Trail

Since all we have been doing is walking a wide fire road with no elevation gain, I think the “not for horses” trail would be an invigorating, challenging choice.  Doubtful, Hannah reluctantly follows me up the very steep trail, unfriendly to her surgically repaired left knee and covered with wet dead leaves; a trail that it appears no one has hiked this century.  After two hundred yards, Hannah looks at me with a “Really!” look.  Bright enough to read these visual cues, I agree to turn around to see what is behind door number two.

Along Deep Creek

Along Deep Creek

Still looking for an extra mile or two of hiking we take the trail inland along the Deep Creek.  It gives us our first bit of mountain hiking into the forest now that the fog has burned off.  We stone hop over small rivulets heading into Deep Creek.  Hannah’s new hiking boots continue to give her trouble; so after bandaging her ankles once again, we head back to the trailhead for choice #3, the Deep Creek Loop Trail.

Mountain trail on Deep Creek Loop Trail

Mountain trail on Deep Creek Loop Trail

The loop trail has us steadily climbing for a half mile far above Deep Creek.  It’s a workout as we hike so far from the river that we can no longer hear the gurgling waters of this mountain stream.

BR 6 D fanny pack

Uncomfortable wearing a backpack, I prefer to hike with a fanny pack our daughter Molly gave me for hiking in Utah nearly ten years ago.  Holding two water bottles with three front pouches for energy bars, fruit, sandwiches, Band-Aids, gauze pads, and car keys, it’s a fantastic hiking choice.

BR 1A trail begins

Far from Deep Creek the trail descends for nearly a mile through the rhododendrons and pines of southwestern North Carolina.   Few are on this trail as we successfully reach our goal of three hours of hiking in the North Carolina woods, so far from home.  On a hiking vacation full of daily surprises and wondering what’s around the next corner, we have the trails of the Tarheel State as a compliment to our indeed most fortunate life in Maine.

 

 

Dan and Hannah Hike from Clingman’s Dome in the Great Smokies (North Carolina and Tennessee)

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Michael!

In May of 1994, my teaching year ended early as I had just finished my one-year appointment as the Teacher-in-Residence at the University of New Hampshire.  While my public school colleagues in Kittery, Maine had a month more of school, I had time to act on Michael Jordan’s decision to step away from basketball and play baseball.  Assigned to the Birmingham Barons, Jordan was a work-in-progress as a baseball player, but still a national icon for many of us, especially the fourth grade boy living at our house.

Birmingham Barons homefield

Birmingham Barons homefield

Hannah and I pulled Will out of York Elementary for a week so he could drive with me 1100 miles to see Michael Jordan play baseball in Alabama.  After two serious days of driving, we got seats with 4000 others (minor league games might normally draw a few hundred) to watch Michael glide in right field, cheer his every move, and even get a hit.  Who else played?  Who won?  No idea.  Will remembers the free Krystal Burgers (mini-hamburgers) we won as part of an in-game promotion.

Hannah in the Great Smokies

Hannah in the Great Smokies

On the way home Will and I hiked in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the Tennessee side near Gatlinburg.  The park is so named Smoky for the clouds that descend into the valleys and then slowly burn off.

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Cl 1A D at sign

Today in the first week of October Hannah and I enter the same park on the North Carolina side near Cherokee to hike the AT on the NC/TN border near Clingman’s Dome, the highest point on the entire AT.  (At the visitor center, the ranger tells us there are 20 mountains in North Carolina higher than the New Englander’s beloved Mt. Washington in New Hampshire.  Who knew?)

Cars trolling for parking places at Clingman's Dome

Cars trolling for parking places at Clingman’s Dome

 

Driving 15 miles from the Ocalusee Visitor Center on the Newfound Gap Road in our rented Ford Fiesta, we turn south and climb along the shoulderless 7-mile summit road to a parking lot clogged with cars trolling for spaces at 1130A on a Tuesday!  (By the way, the road to Clingman’s Dome is closed from December through March due to the weather.)  There isn’t a parking spot to be had.  What drivers can do, as we do, is drive a few hundred yards back down the mountain and park on the grassy shoulder.

At the base of the sidewalk to the Clingman's Dome Tower

At the base of the sidewalk to the Clingman’s Dome Tower

The place is swarming with people willing to take the steep half-mile paved sidewalk to the top of Clingman’s Dome.  All body types, mostly seniors, but also families with homeschoolers, choke the walkway.  There are benches along the paved sidewalk, and we always see someone resting there.  By the way, Clingman’s Dome was named after Thomas Clingman, a Confederate general during the American Civil War.

From the Clingman's Dome Tower looking to Tennessee

From the Clingman’s Dome Tower looking to Tennessee

After the half mile climb there is a curly cue concrete structure to an observation deck with a 360 degree view towards Gatlinburg, TN and back to Cherokee, Sylva, and Bryson City, NC.   We are packed together and look to escape as soon as we get there.  A park volunteer tells us that we should see this place in a week or two when prime time foliage season arrives.  We count our blessings that we will not.

Hitting the Appalachian Trail on the NC/TN border

Hitting the Appalachian Trail on the NC/TN border

Just 150 feet back down the paved sidewalk is the AT heading south along the NC/TN border through a southern pine forest.  Similar to hiking the Bright Angel Trail at the Grand Canyon, the AT from Clingman’s Dome means Hannah and I will have the easier downhill hiking for the first half of our hike.

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For the first third of a mile we descend ever so slightly into the “green tunnel” with the forest canopy covering us.  The trail is indeed easy going with its few ups and many downs.  We see that the Double Springs Gap Shelter is 2.5 miles away, a perfect turn around destination for our day hike.  Usually just wide enough for one of us, the trail is rocky and quite narrow.

Cl 3G more of trail

With the heavy rains of the past weekend and Hurricane Joaquin out to sea, the sky is sun-filled in early October.  With the occasional views to the mountains around us, I have what amounts to a perfect day of hiking – a well-marked trail, temps in the 70s, and Hannah.

 

Double Springs Gap Shelter on the AT

Double Springs Gap Shelter on the AT

After the swarms of humanity at the mountain top of Clingman’s Dome, we arrive at the Double Springs Gap Shelter in 75 minutes having not seen a single hiker.  The shelter has been recently remodeled and this video gives you some idea about our afternoon lunch venue.

Appalachian Trail on the NC/TN border

Appalachian Trail on the NC/TN border

Having hiked 75 minutes basically downhill to the gap (i.e., between two mountains) we have 2.8 miles uphill back to Clingman’s Dome.  Passing a few hikers, we have one catch our attention.  He’s a Appalachian Trail flip flopper who is within 190 miles of finishing his 2180 mile hike at Springer Mountain, Georgia.   His flip flop hike began in April at Harper’s Ferry, WV.  From there he headed north to Mt. Katahdin.  Once done with the northern part of the AT, he returned to Harper’s Ferry and headed south.  He’s six months into his thru-hike and nearing the finish line in Georgia.

 

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As we are about to leave, Hannah asks his trail name.  He says Danger Bird from the Neil Young song of the same name.  He sings for us, Danger bird, he flies alone.  And he rides the wind back to his home.  Different than most trail names, he gave it to himself.  I like that.

The incomparable Richard Harris singing the 60s Classic, MacArthur Park

The incomparable Richard Harris

I’ve always longed for a trail name; my latest thought is Jersey in reference to my birth state.  But I do like the idea of taking it from a song.  Hmmmm, what about my all-time favorite song, MacArthur Park written by Jimmy Webb and sung by Richard Harris.  Hannah does not think much of the trail name Sweet Green Icing from the song.  I’m not sure Cake from the line Someone left the cake out in the rain resonates either.  It doesn’t help that MacArthur Park is one of Hannah’s Rock Bottom worst songs ever.  I’ll not give up.

Cl 3H H on trail

The climb back to Clingman’s Dome has us sweating and not at all remembering how much downhill we had two hours ago.  Even so, we return at 3P to just as many people climbing to the top of the Clingman’s Dome Tower and just as many cars circling to find a parking spot.

We return to our night’s stay at Chestnut Tree Inn in Cherokee, NC, and what we think is an Internet bargain.   Stay tuned for the further education of Dan and Hannah.

 

For your listening pleasure click on the link below for 7:24 of the ecstacy that is MacArthur Park by Richard Harris