Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Have I ever told you the one about me getting electrocuted in a thunderstorm on a fire tower? It started out bad, persistently stayed bad, and only relented when my day ended at a Newport KFC buffet wearing what most would describe as boxers and a sweatshirt. Everything between is described in this harrowing account of one of the most miserable days in the Smokies...ever.
The start of our day, Rain and more rain, Big Creek was already pretty rowdy.
Baxter Creek Trail.
Rock formations early on the hike.

With the hike to 1000 miles in full swing and my legs feeling tough and rested from a peaceful week at work, I zeroed in on my Sunday hike in search for a challenge and some big miles. The problem was the weather forecast. 100% rain. Basically a complete guarantee but I have no faith in weather forecasters and my thoughts about what I would miss out on always outweighed my concern with the weather. Besides, I had rain gear and a hot mug of coffee, what else could I possibly need?
She marched on even though she hates being wet.
Trillium along the stream.
Yellow Trillium.

I found a list of toughest hikes in the Smokies and realized I had knocked out several and after conquering the famed off trail summits of Guyot and Old Black, my confidence was at an all time high. On the list however was one notable piece missing from my resume, the Baxter Creek Trail to Mt. Sterling. In six miles the trail rises over 4200ft to the fire tower at the summit of Mt. Sterling where wide sweeping views await those brave enough to climb the rickety old tower. I grabbed my map and looked over the trails around the summit and saw that I could complete a loop hike using Baxter Creek, Swallow Fork, and Big Creek returning to the truck after a 17 mile day of Smokies glory.
Everything was green!
Looking back into Big Creek.

I sent Amy a message about the hike fully expecting not just a no but a hell no. All those years of living on the mountain alone with cats she has developed a lot of their traits, particularly a hatred for water. She's rejected several hikes on the premise of having to get her feet wet so with a forecast like we faced that day her response of, "as long as we can get coffee" was shocking to say the least. I can't remember where we met that day other than it was raining. It wasn't that hard rain that makes you stare out the window and be thankful to be indoors but a rain that just does enough to screw things up. We hit the road with thoughts of the hot cup of coffee that awaited us at the Dandridge Dunkin Donuts. The trip down was uneventful with the exception of an incredible waded up trash throw from my drivers seat, out the passenger door, over Amy's shoulder, and landing perfectly in the bottom of the trash can on the sidewalk. You just kinda had to be there for it.
Another perfect trillium.
squirrel corn.

At the trail head in Big Creek, we pulled in next to a van where a boy and girl stood outside in the drizzle making out like they were never going to see each other again. He only paused long enough to see my shirt with the Autobots logo from Transformers and said, "Dude! Awesome shirt! That's gonna get you to the summit for sure!" He really believed in me. Along with my awesome shirt, I had on quick dry shorts, wool socks, and my trusty Yuengling hat. I put on my pack cover and rain jacket and adjusted all straps before setting my sights on the bridge over Big Creek. There on the bridge was our friends from the parking lot once again checking each other's tonsils. Big Creek was already raging and the sound of the creek led us through what would be the only easy part of the hike. The rain alternated between a drizzle and a light steady pour and it was only about a mile or so into the hike before both our rain jackets had been thoroughly breached by the onslaught. The hike however was beautiful with the forest coming alive and vibrant with everything being a bright green with a single track hiking path meandering through what was once a large logging camp.
Stone crop.
Dog hobble in bloom.

Shortly thereafter, the trail stopped meandering and started punishing. The rain made sections of it a small stream and the climbing began in earnest. Amy was in remarkably good spirits and led us up the hill on a good pace and we found plenty of plant life to photograph to sneak in an extra break here and there. In classic Smokies fashion, the trail switchbacked and dipped in and out of valleys. At one of the first views back down into Big Creek fog lifted from the valley floor while storm clouds loomed on the horizon, it was beautiful really. The elevation gain was significant already and temperatures went from comfortable to slightly chilly with the breeze and rain but as long as we were moving we stayed warm. Several miles into our day we ran into the only people we would see the rest of the day. It was two backpackers that eyeballed us up and down curious of our intent. I suppose it's not often a giant approaches wearing shorts in a downpour. We told them we were loop hiking using several trails but they told us Swallow Fork was impassable with flooding and they had to use the trail we were coming up to get back to their vehicle. I was bummed out losing four miles and new Smokies trail but 13 miles of up and back in a downpour on Mt. Sterling is still respectable.
Some downfall.
More downfall.

Amy found a tree that was hollowed out and took refuge for a few minutes of rest and we decided to break into her stash of homemade cookies for a quick break. We had already climbed over some big downfall but up ahead there was even more on the trail. We both seemed at peace as we crunched on cookies and the rain would ease every so often to give us hope of maybe seeing the sun. I even held out through slightest of hopes we would climb above the rain and see a sea of clouds from Mt. Sterling, it was going to be incredible! When we set back to hiking Amy must have been supercharged by the cookies because she tackled the biggest downfall and did some sort of gymnastic manuever resembling flipping from one log to the next and somehow sticking the landing. She claimed she meant to do it but her facial expression was one that suggested otherwise. Again, you just had to be there for it. The upper stretches of Mt. Sterling we entered an old growth forest and with it snarled giants of wind beaten trees and thick moss coated every limb and boulder, the section of trail was one or the most photogenic I had ever hiked through. I glanced at my GPS noticing we were over the 4100ft mark in elevation gain so I was fully expecting a level ridge walk at any moment and soon a break from rain inside the tower...I would be sorely disappointed.
Please stop raining!
the downfall was pretty bad on the upper stretches of  Baxter Creek.
You can do it!

The rain transitioned once again from drizzle to downpour and with it came a howling wind. I was cold but I knew we had to be close. I kept my head down and Amy had not said a word in quite some time so I knew the fuse was short. When we crossed over another false summit to see the trail continuing uphill she turned on a dime and said, "if that damn tower isn't up at that next point, I'm turning around and going down and I don't care what you do." When we topped the point of no return we were greeted with more climbing but I saw a couple of tents off the trail to the left and a wooden trail sign up ahead. Amy just shook her head and trudged on, she's a lot of things but she's not a quitter. My dreams of a sea of clouds was granted as we exited the woods in the clearing at the Mt. Sterling fire tower, the only problem was that we were inside of them! Wind gusts blasted through the clearing and the rain actually hurt as I pulled my hood tighter approaching the tower. There's a tangle of wires that ran from a small substation adjacent to the main tower and the wind shook them violently as I took hold of the first rail to climb. Amy was just ahead of me and made it to the second set of steps before looking puzzled saying the tower was shocking her. I was shaking from cold and exhaustion but hadn't noticed it, I clenched the railing harder and felt small jolts of electricity in my forearm shaking the muscle. We decided to climb down and I'm sure we looked hilarious with our arms in the air as if held at gunpoint by an unseen assailant. We determined there had to be some sort of short in one of the wires and the rain was causing it to juice the tower and any unsuspecting hiker that came along.
Starting to look interesting entering the old growth forest.
Amy up above me on a switch back.
Moss was everywhere!

*author's note: I mentioned this incident to both an online forum of 22,000 Smokies addicts as well as the park service. One idiot in particular questioned my story saying it didn't happen to him a few weeks earlier. He's lucky he did this from the comfort of a keyboard in Ohio and not to my face.
More trail from near the top.
When you reach here, it isn't much further..
At last! Mt. Sterling!

After retreating down the trail we stopped for lunch under some rocks trying our best to stay out of the rain and shield ourselves from wind. At some point, Amy had gotten in pretty rough shape. She was now so cold she couldn't get her jacket zipped or gloves on from shivering. I helped her get situated and we opened up some hot hands and our stash of coffee in hopes of warming up. We ate quickly because she was in pain from the cold and I was frozen from the waist down. Amy meanwhile had bundled up with two coats, gloves, and even a toboggan. She set off on a blistering pace down the mountain trying to warm up. Once I started moving again I was cold but it was manageable. I lingered in the moss covered old growth forest for more photos before jogging to catch up with Amy.
Just to prove I was on this hike.
At the tower. Look at that elevation gain!
Finally some warmth!

As fate would have it the sun popped out as we were about three miles down the mountain. It was short lived but we embraced the beams while they lasted. It was the only time we would see it that day. Coming down the mountain made me think how impressive the climb up had been. The trail was so steep it hurt my knees. Soon we were back within earshot of Big Creek and my attention shifted to finding the side trail to the remains of the logging camp lodge including a massive stone chimney. We found the path we missed earlier and made one final stop for pictures with Amy taking a hilarious tumble from trying to jump off the chimney ledge. Crossing the bridge over Big Creek we could see a significant increase in water level and I knew we had made the right choice by back tracking.
Amy ready to escape.
I still couldn't get over the beauty up here!

I practically ran to my truck excited to grab my dry clothes and change but there was one small problem, they were still at home in Gray. I had forgot them! I rummaged through the mess behind the seat and found some old basketball shorts and a sweatshirt, it wasn't stylish but I was going to be dry. I really regretted not having dry shoes so I drove us barefoot back to Newport where instead of the steak I had promised Amy earlier in the hike turned into chicken livers at KFC and we dined as we listened to a local couple fight loudly in the booth behind us. At first, it was entertaining but as it went on I missed being on that silent mountain in the pouring rain.
The remains of a monster tree. Perhaps an American Chestnut?
On the old Logging Lodge Chimney.

Amy was floored by the chimney.

Looking back on the day it was miserable but there's a certain satisfaction of knowing we persevered when most people wouldn't walk out the door. In perfect conditions, Mt. Sterling is a difficult hike, on the day we did it, it was downright electrifying and despite it all, I will return one day for that view I was denied.  Until next time, happy trails!
Big Creek as we crossed the bridge.

Friday, June 23, 2017

For the past four years I've been part of a fundraising effort for JDRF or Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. The idea to use hiking as a potential source of revenue for the fundraising was the brainchild of yours truly and my lifelong friend, Misty Kern. At the time, Misty was a store manager in Colonial Heights and asked me if I would be willing to do a group hike to a destination asking for a donation to join the group. We settled on a five dollar donation and picked the Sand Cave as the first trip for the JDRF hiking crew. Having success in our initial hike we continued the tradition each year with last year's trip having 57 people hike to the Sand Cave.
Some of our group at the Great Channels of Virginia. A truly unforgettable day.

This year I switched gears and locations, choosing to lead the JDRF hike to the Great Channels of Virginia and making our event link open to the public. My usual group of friends shared the link religiously and before you knew it, the potential for the largest group hike I've ever been a part of begin to take shape. Now before we go any further, I can hear the whispers from the "lifers" and "purists" who would scoff at the idea of that many people on the trail together and let me say this, get over yourself and put the interest of something bigger than you and you'll be rewarded. One of my biggest fears would be causing damage or litter to a relatively pristine location. In my event link, I cautioned everyone to be good stewards of the trail as well as what to expect once we were on the mountain. Perhaps even greater than that fear was where in the world would I park that many cars on Brumley Mountain.
Parking on Brumley Mountain.
Someone is excited to hike.
Our group heading up the mountain.

The JDRF hike is one of the few times each year that I can lure my wife away from CSI marathons and the couch so when I told her we could see as many as 80 people on the hike, she lowered a brow, and laughed, "yeah right!" Meanwhile, I hyped, shared, and answered questions that kept my messenger buzzing leading up to the day of the hike. I've always been incredibly hopeful and when I'm passionate about something, I pour my heart into it. I KNEW this hike would be special.
Old Man Winter spotting near the Great Channels of  Virginia.
Resting at the Fire Tower.
And more of the group hanging out in the Channels.
Justin and his son Darrel.

The weather even wanted the hike to be a success with perfect skies and temperatures the morning of the hike. Amber and I loaded up the truck and headed to Abingdon to meet everyone. I arrived at the Food City parking lot to find it empty with the exception of some early morning shoppers. I was thirty minutes early, more people would come...I KNEW it. I went in bought some snacks and while I was paying I noticed two other hikers walking in to do the same thing. I thought, we will at least have four people. Back in the parking lot, a nonstop stream of cars were pulling in. Some familiar faces were on the scene but a majority of people there for the hike with Jason Horton were strangers. Looking back on it, I was overwhelmed to say the least. I grabbed my envelope and a pen. I introduced myself, shook hands, and collected money. I found most people were more than willing to donate more than five dollars for a good cause. People continued to pour into the parking lot. Whole families, brothers and sisters, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, the group size was skyrocketing.  I knew I had several people waiting on us at the trail head on Brumley including my District Manager, Les McSwain. If anyone could organize a group of rowdy hikers, it would be him.
#2, Strickler, Hershel, and Shane.
Barry Cole (lime green shirt) was a surprise guest the morning of the hike from Chattanooga.
Misty and Amber have became good friends, it helps them cope with dealing with me.

I encouraged everyone to do some meet and greets of their own and even carpool if they felt comfortable. By the time we left Abingdon for the trail, our line was 20+ cars. I rode somewhere in the middle of the pack with Henry, Rebecca, Strickler, and Amber. As cars would approach our group they would pull over out of respect thinking we were a funeral procession. It was in the drive I received a text from an unfamiliar number in my new phone, it just said, "hey beautiful, I'm on Brumley Mountain, where do you want to meet?" It took a second to figure it out but it was Barry Cole all the way from Chattanooga, TN! His wife had finally ungrounded him from the infamous Sand Cave shoot and had brought a photographer friend with him to join us. I can't tell you how excited I was knowing he would be a part of our day.  The ride up the mountain was slow and I think I bit every fingernail worried about the parking but by some miracle we were able to squeeze all the cars along the road safely out of the way. I collected more funds, shook more hands, and hastily gave last minute instructions but I noticed half of the group was on the move so we were off on the fourth annual JDRF hike.
This guy could play. He was loving the audience in the Channels.
The Usual Suspects.
My new friend, Eli. He had an absolute blast exploring the Channels.

I started the hike about midpack but was soon on a march to the front in search of Barry Cole. I was excited to catch up and wanted to visit with him since he had drove over four hours to be with us, what I didn't realize at the time was that he was behind me. I started mixing and talking to different groups of people some that I knew and some of them I didn't. The Duncan brothers from Gate City had came as well as Larry Tolley and his nephew Greg Bellamy, I was really impressed with Larry being there since it was Sunday and he is the pastor of his church, but as he said, you see God everywhere in nature. Old Man Winter had dusted off his boots to support us and even Ray Hayes was in the fray. Amber had quite the impressive group as well with several friends from work and dance all there to see the Channels. I ended up hiking a good portion of the hike in with Strickler, Ray, #2 (Brent), and Steve Hill, but I tried to say at least something to everyone. I had assigned John Lane aka Jesus as a co-host of the event and he worked the crowd the entire way, and having Shane along was added support of making sure our group stayed intact. Near the summit, the trail forks to lead up to the fire tower so I waited as more and more people eased up the ridge. I was trying to count heads but it was hard with a group of our size.
Steve and Steve enjoying the interior of the Channels.
The Channels.
The special guest comedians.

Once we arrived at the fire tower about half of the group went into the Channels while others spread out to have snacks along the top beside the fire tower. I never really settled anywhere trying to stay active and make sure everyone was having fun. Inside the Channels, I met a young boy named Eli that had came from Clintwood with his mom and sister to hike with us. When I asked him why he decided to join us he said it was easy since he suffers from Type 1 diabetes! It was a great feeling to know we could be helping find a cure with our efforts for someone as nice and energetic as Eli! Two women approached me inside the Channels asking me if I was Jason Horton and after talking a few minutes made a sizeable donation for a family member thay couldn't be with us for the hike. They had drove all the way from Cosby, TN. I was in heaven, everyone was having a great time and getting along beautifully. Even hikers not with us didn't seem to mind the huge group and they even entertained us with some college kids from Emory and Henry there playing guitar.
#2 was thrilled to have a Sunday off and he even seemed to enjoy the hike.
Jakson has grown up right before my eyes. I was glad he came with us.

I emerged from the Channels to check on our hikers. Literally everywhere I looked there were people! I visited briefly with Les and his daughters before returning to the Channels and finally finding Barry. I also ran into Becky Gillilam and one of her friends while I was down there and we both were mutual friends of Barry. I knew that both Becky and Barry would have fantastic photos from inside the Channels and Rob seemed to know what he was doing with a camera as well. I know I'm sounding redundant here, but I never dreamed there would be so many people show up.
Jesus watching over his flock of hikers.
My wife is occasionally proud of me. I think this was one of those days.
What are they looking at?

When I exited the Channels I joined Amber, Misty, and her son, Jakson to have some lunch. I kept an eye on people coming out below the fire tower to try to get a total count. I ended up with 84 different people but I feel like I missed a few too. Some folks had time constraints and began the hike down once they were satisfied with sight seeing. Ray climbed the tower while everyone looked on and snacked. We tried to gather as many people as we could for a group photo and afterwards began the climb down the mountain. I felt like was near the rear of the pack so I worked my way through the group once again before hiking a good distance with Katie and Evan and then Hershel. Hershel and I have hiked together several times and I've always enjoyed talking to him, and despite being retirement age, he is one heck of a hiker! Speaking of age, we even had a two year old hiker join us! Many will remember Justin "Tennessee" Hopkins from the now infamous camping trip blog that featured bears and him falling so hard he either swallowed his tooth whole or launched it deep into the woods in Erwin, TN. Anyway, he and his son, Darrel hiked the seven miles to support a good cause and see the Channels.
On the distant rock on the ridge to the right,  I celebrated my 600th mile late last year. This year I have almost 600 miles...in June.  
The top of the hidden Channels on a beautiful Sunday morning. 

When we all started arriving back at the parking lot, the crowd didn't really disperse instead everyone kind of relaxed and talked, a true sign of a great hike. I honestly hated to see the day end. Everyone that went up the mountain eventually made their way back down. It was my most successful hike to date, 84 up and 84 down with zero injuries.
Henry always kids me about having a heart attack by hiking with me..
Cash had enough of the hiking.
Waiting on the rest of the gang back at the trail head.

On Monday, I returned to work from vacation with my envelope of money. I gathered amother manager to witness the counting and after coming up just shy of a thousand dollars, I donated the missing few bucks for a final total of $1000 ALL for Juvenile Diabetes Research! On lunch that day, I left the store and picked up a picture I had developed earlier that morning, it was the group shot of our day and it still hangs proudly in my office, AND as an added bonus for reading all of this, I will officially announce I will be hosting THREE hikes next year to help raise funds for a cure for type 1 diabetes! Until next time, happy trails!
Let's get out of here!